I am passionate about facilitating seminars in the sociology of nutrition. I have already written several blogs about what I would like students to learn and to be able to do when the semester ends. Now I have to be realistic.
Nutrition is a “hot” topic. Last year a number of students were attracted to the course because they thought they would learn how to make healthier food choices for themselves and their families. They skipped over the “Sociology” in the title and a few weeks into the semester, they were lost. I would love to teach the course they were seeking. But this is not that course. This course is designed to meet the needs of graduate students in sociology especially those who have chosen the online applied option in the MS program. In order to avoid a repetition of this experience the academic goals of this course must be front and center from the very first lesson.
The overarching goals for the seminar are drawn from the stated goals of the applied option in the MS in Sociology. The goals of both the on-campus and online Applied Sociology options are to provide students with a sophisticated understanding of sociological concepts and theories, facility in the use of sociological research methods, and the ability to apply sociological methods and theory to their professional interest (http://sociology.vcu.edu/graduate/online-applied-option/). In order to be a participant in this seminar, in order to have a “social presence,” students must identify with this course of study.
I decided to establish my teaching presence by designing an introductory module during which students could read a journal article, view two short videos, then write an initial post and engage in a discussion to state and defend their current position on “structure and agency.” The students who do not identify with sociology as a course of study often have no understanding of the “social structure” concept. They can argue, right up until the last day to withdraw with a grade of “W”, that individuals are totally responsible for their food choices. But they cannot offer a theoretical or empirical defense for their position. It is rather a part of their belief system, their ideological stance, and they will not be moved by logic to consider an alternative viewpoint (I don’t think that professors in the life and physical sciences have this experience as often as those in the social sciences do. The best analogy that I can come up with is trying to teach a graduate seminar in biology with students who spend the entire semester angrily disavowing evolution because it is not congruent with their religious beliefs).
Graduate students in sociology and related disciplines (in this seminar that tends to be public health, public administration, and health policy) have some understanding of the concepts but it is possible for that understanding to become more “sophisticated.” For the purpose of these seminars I am defining more “sophisticated” in terms of higher order thinking skills (HOTS). They must move beyond remembering and understanding definitions to analyzing, evaluating, and creating.
I am piloting this module in the seminar in social inequalities. The first posts (Tell us where you stand on structure and agency) were due on 09-04-14 and half of the participants had already posted on 03-09. I am doing my “victory dance” (think NFL touchdown celebration that brings what mere mortals think of as an exorbitant fine). So far, most of the writers has discussed the relationship between structure and agency in a way that demonstrates recognition of and identification with sociology as a course of study. One of them is quoting Bourdieu and introducing the concept of habitus. Others cannot yet distinguish between a concept and a theory, providing a “teachable moment.” Only one is claiming that all social phenomena can be explained by individual agency.
For the moment, my teaching presence function is to make sure that this online classroom provides an environment in which they feel safe as they discuss the initial posts with each other and start to build a group identity through that process.
In this regard, we offer a revised definition of social presence as the ability of participants to identify with the group or course of study, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop personal and affective relationships progressively by way of projecting their individual personalities (Garrison, 2011, p.34 ).
Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.