Teaching Introductory Courses: What Is the Public Face of Your Field?

Required introductory courses—that’s how most students meet our disciplines or, as John Zipp says (he’s writing specifically about sociology), they are the “public face” of the field.

Triangulating data from several sources, Zipp raises a number of questions about these first and, for most students, final encounters with his field. He estimates that between 1.5 and 2.0 million students per year take Introduction to Sociology. Between 6.4 and 8.5 percent of those students end up majoring in sociology. One in eight students who gets an undergraduate degree in sociology continues on to graduate school. “They constitute a mere .02 percent of those who take Intro.” (p. 304) Those statistics are interesting but not terribly surprising. Most students who take introductory courses don’t major in those fields. Zipp’s point is simply that what students do or don’t learn about a discipline happens in the introductory course.

In sociology (as might be expected) any number of surveys have inquired about what faculty believe is appropriately taught in the course. There is some diversity of opinion but an overall degree of consensus. “We have derived these understandings among ourselves, paying little attention to what skills or knowledge our students want and/or need.” (p. 310) Does that matter? Zipp thinks it does. He believes that these nonmajors “could benefit enormously from being able to apply sociology to their lives and the broader work around them.” (p. 308)

However, faculty rated items related to applied sociology lowest in terms of their propriety for the introductory course. Beyond finding content of the introductory course largely irrelevant, Zipp also reports on data documenting the skills sociology grads say they use daily and the skills employers have indicated colleges and universities should place more emphasis on. They are not what’s being taught in the typical intro course.

His conclusion: “Perhaps because too much emphasis is placed on Introductory Sociology to be a comprehensive introduction to what is a wide-ranging and divergent discipline, an uneasy tension exists between pressures to cover more substantive material … and the needs/interests of our Intro students.” (p. 309) In sociology, as in many disciplines, textbooks end up contributing to the coverage problem. Zipp consider three successful intro texts. The shortest is 640 pages; the longest is 800 pages, which means teachers need to cover almost two chapters a week, approximately 60 to 70 pages of material. “In many respects, this type of book is not far from an annotated bibliography of thousands of studies, ranging from classical work that perhaps all college graduates should know to some research that I dare say most sociologists would not have come across unless they used that particular Intro. book.” (p. 307)

The “public face” of sociology as seen in its introductory course is also a function of who teaches the course. Zipp starts with the type of institution where students take the course, which is mostly research universities (think supersize class sections) and community colleges. At research institutions, the bulk of the beginning courses are taught by graduate students or part-timers. Zipp thinks that many who teach at community colleges are in those two groups as well. He cites evidence that fewer than 5 percent of American Sociology Association members are from two-year institutions. He knows that much good instruction is being delivered by graduate students and part-timers, but “it is probably not a stretch to contend that proportionately these groups of instructors are less likely to be as well integrated into the profession as are many of their colleagues.” (p. 305)

The article is about the introductory course of one discipline. But the issues and analysis offered raise questions and concerns relevant to every discipline that offers nonmajors a course. The fact that these courses are the first and generally final encounters with a field is a sobering reality. Zipp’s basic point is relevant to all of us. “If Introductory Sociology really is our public face, we clearly need to spend a considerable amount of time making sure this is how we want to be seen.” (p. 310)

Reference: Zipp, J. F. (2012). 2011 Hans O. Mauksch Address: Teaching for Whom? Teaching Sociology, 40 (4), 301-311.

Reprinted from What Is the Public Face of Your Field? The Teaching Professor, 27.1 (2013): 5. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.