By Anna Bennett
Sociology not only offers us the tools to analyse and assess the society around us but, in addition, it allows us to consider our own experiences and assumptions. Because of its wide focus on the relational dynamics within society, sociology provides the opportunity for a broad range of app roaches to understanding life, promoting inquisitiveness and innovation by integrating both “theory” and “practice”. Sociology not only studies dynamics, it is dynamic. Thus, sociology is often delivered by engaged teachers who ask their students to analyse the society around them and (re)consider their assumptions: promoting analytical thought that is creative and meaningful. The following discussion outlines the context of teaching sociology “outside” academia. It considers the benefits for both students—in terms of fostering the development of analytical skills and opportunities for achievement—and for teachers, in providing a rewarding and enriching environment. This work takes my recent experience of teaching within an enabling course as a case in point.
For me, the decision to pursue an academic career was sparked by my inspirational teachers and supervisors and the passion they had for sociology. The attraction of the academic road has been, therefore, the “classroom ” which allows for a collective analysis of experience and thoughtful discussion of the what, where, why and how—of how do things stay the same? How can things be changed? I loved teaching for providing me with the opportunity to stimulate, not only my own, but also others’ interest in sociology and to inspire students who may not have recognised their own talents and abilities.
Like many others in various professions, I had not completed my qualifications (doctoral degree) to secure a permanent position by the time I reached the parenting stage of life. Caring for young children took time away from the casual teaching, academic collegiality and research that so stimulated me whilst enrolled at University. At the same time, the changing nature of university life, including significant structural changes in the nature of employment, roles and expectations impacted on everyone involved in academia. The demands of the particular kind of economic rationalism ruling university life changed the shape and the opportunities within sociology.
The qualifications required to secure permanent academic positions are increasing and one now has to develop very specific strategies for preparing for entry into academia— it is now crucial to publish and teach extensively in order to be competitive. Angela Dwyer’s important advice to postgrad students in Nexus (March 2008) outlines ways to deal with the demands and strains on students economically, vocationally and personally. We need more analysis and formal recognition of the changes within this modern workforce, especially the kinds of experiences and challenges facing those training to join it.
Having moved cities after completing the PhD, away from the kinds of support the postgraduate role offers, I found myself in the strange territory of trying to get casual work without this status—without supervisory support, contacts and mentorship. As mentioned, meeting the demands of the increasingly competitive and rarefied field of permanent jobs in academic sociology requires early but solid publishing and research experience (itself difficult to navigate), and although I had some publications, the “gap” in my career due to childrearing was evident.
To establish a permanent position in lecturing/pure research takes most of us into our thirties (that is, if we have dedicated our study and working lives to getting a proper academic job). If you wish to have children and need to provide full-time care for them when they are young—itself a challenging occupation—the academic path is an increasingly challenging one to negotiate. Strangely, even though these issues of parenthood, gender and equity are analysed within sociology, in vocational terms it has not seen a way to address these issues in the modern academic career-track context.
Whilst navigating my way around these issues, an opportunity for teaching within an enabling course came up as away for me to “do/teach sociology” again. The experience of teaching in an enabling course has enriched my skills as a teacher for young people. The course I teach is a wonderful and important resource for 17 to 20 year olds who, for various reasons, have been adversely affected in their schooling and/or have not attained the necessary entrance score for admission to university. There are two compulsory subjects: Maths and English, and two electives, one of which is a sociology course named “Australian Culture and Society”.
The directors facilitate a teaching staff where opportunity and success for students is the main priority. The course is designed to tea ch students how to write a sociological essay, analyse sociological texts and develop beyond narrow forms of expression, to formal, informed research-based analysis. It therefore asks students to question their approach to the often restricted and restricting notions of the society and to question their acceptance of narrow ideas and ideals. This not only assists their analytical skills but also their consideration of the issues within the world and their relations with others/otherness. A broader outlook also provides them with the capacity to look beyond their specific experiences and perceived limitations to the possibility of developing other ways of empowering themselves (a transformation in their raison d’etre).
In many ways then, opportunity courses like this are an instance of “sociology at work”—in terms of sociological “theory” offering the possibility for personal transformation and, to a certain extent, to affect change on the micro level. Such courses serve an important social purpose.
I consider teaching in enabling courses an opportunity for me to engage with the needs of students and inspire their interest in sociology, their education and general sense of achievement. The students realise that they are given an opportunity to enter first year university studies with specific sociological skills and experiences on-campus that most students straight out of the HSC will not possess. In addition to anxiety, there is excitement at the prospect of attaining a university place and enjoyment of being treated as an adult without the restrictions and limitations that being a school student entails. The importance of opportunity courses is also highlighted by another of The University of Newcastle’s initiatives in providing enabling courses for Indigenous students. On the teaching side, there is nothing better than feeling you have the potential to inspire a young person’s otherwise undeveloped interests, and to help them reconsider the world around them. This is especially important when, due to difficult circumstances, this opportunity has been largely unavailable to them, given that they might be facing issues such as abuse, depression and other personal crises.
The students get exposed to illuminating theories from Marx-to-Bourdieu-to-Baudrillard without becoming overly preoccupied with the confusing background of theoretical debates and movements. They are encouraged to apply aspects of the theories to their ow n experiences. Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus”, for example, helps them understand how—in the words of one student—“views on politics and other topics are in by family beliefs and social peers”. Not only are one’s set of dispositions, specific experiences and tastes heavily influenced by one’s “habitus”, our “cultural capital” influences our opportunities and shapes our expectations, ambitions, and future. Recognition of these dynamics may enable students struggling with limitations gain insight into, and work towards challenging, elements of their histories that they believe have restricted them.
Drawing on Baudrillard, the students have found his concepts of “simulation” and “hyperreality” interesting in analysing their experiences of consumption, advertising and the media. Their experience of communicating through text and computers means they rely on technologies beyond the interpersonal bodily presence that older generations experience(d). Young people’s social worlds are mediated by technology—one student explained that she “would not have a social life” without technology and text. They have to pay for these additional “necessities” in life (computers, servers, phones) and keep them up-to-date.
Through insights gained from the readings, many students have found a way to articulate their feeling that their experiences were misrepresented by the media, which they believe “hype up” the problems of teenagers and young people. They see that media representations often form simplistic, marketable “stories” with images of “problem youth” dominating much of current affairs television and public perception. Cohen’s work on “moral panic” is particularly illuminating in this respect. Baudrillard helps them to articulate the possibility that it is not that “the real” no longer exists, but in many areas of the media and advertising, reality is simulated.
Sociology is unique in that it asks students to analyse the society and media around them—it takes examples directly from experience and culture and then asks students to analyse, question and consider the nature and implications of the “taken for granted” aspects of everyday life. This applied analysis enables the new sociology student to move beyond secondary education, developing their awareness and skills into broader fields of thinking and doing.
This experience as a sociology teacher “on the outside” has provided some space for me to rediscover my own foundational knowledge of sociology and reignite my passion and skills as teacher. Of course, the publishing component of a sociologist’s career must also be strong, and this experience has also opened up opportunities and renewed my interest in the areas of pedagogy, youth and foundation skills. Enabling courses should be considered a significant way of doing sociology outside academia, either as a valuable and rewarding way of developing one’s path to an academic career, or as an enriching alternative to teaching in the academic tradition.
Bio at the time of first publication (2008):
Anna Bennett completed her degree at The University of Newcastle and PhD at The University of NSW. She teaches in the English Languages and Foundation Studies Centre at The University of Newcastle – Newstep (17-20 year-olds) and is a course coordinator for “Social Enquiry” Open Foundation (20 years+).
 This article was first published by Nexus in June 2008. Original Citation for this article: Bennett, A. (2008), ‘Opportunities for Teaching Sociology within Enabling Courses,’ Nexus June 20(2): 21-22.