Hooking Your Class
“Good morning class. My name is Brian Atkinson.”
Though most faces were turned toward me, there was no audible response to this opening gambit.
I scanned the rows of students, all ostensibly interested in Sociology, since it was not a required course. My experience had shown me that mere curiosity was not enough to spur someone to enroll; it took at least a semblance of passion. The first six or seven rows were filled, while the remaining 13 rows were only sparsely occupied. I counted 101 bodies. It was a 200 seat auditorium.
I never could figure if there was a pattern in place with college kids regarding course choice and attendance. In two weeks, this auditorium could be filled, or I could be lecturing to 45 apathetic students twirling their Parker pens between yawns.
“I take a three-pronged approach to most subjects that I teach, especially Sociology. These three paths wander through the thought process as follows: Prong number one: Facts. I will present a good number of facts that you should approach as free candy on Christmas morning. I have done the legwork and the heavy lifting when it comes to facts. You can take on faith that when I state something to be a fact, it is the damn truth. Save yourself extra effort and simply embrace them. Write them down in you must, but each and every one I present will also be embedded in the texts that accompany this course.”
Shockingly, a first row denizen raised a hand.
“Yes? State your name first, please.”
She hesitated and stood. Most of her male classmates sat up suddenly in their chairs, alert and awake. She was worth the effort. That unspoken, age old, yet ever-present taboo all college professors encounter sat in the corner seat, looming like the elephant it was. I buried it and refocused.
“Jesse Albacore, like the tuna.” She grinned. “Just curious. Why ’especially Sociology’?” A very good question. I would remember her name.
“Let me first give you the rather dry, uninspiring dictionary definition of Sociology: the systematic study of the development, structure, interaction, and collective behavior of organized groups of human beings.”
I let that sink in as she retook her seat. There was an audible sigh from a couple of rows behind her, but I couldn’t tell from whom.
“Like I said, rather dry. It doesn’t even scratch the surface, in my opinion, of the rich possibilities and avenues of analysis available to anyone who chooses to embrace this subject. Which of course leads to the legitimate question; there are subjects that are not compelling?” I paused, noticing I had almost everyone’s attention.
“Of course there are. Try sitting in on a geometry class sometime, and wait for your head to explode off its torso. No slam intended to my math colleagues on staff, but the totally unapologetic linear nature of math I found to be almost offensive.” Several students laughed.
“Let me segue to prong number two. Theory. Abstract thought. Conjecture. All of these are significant cogs in understanding Sociology, and how it permeates virtually all pockets of society in one way or another. Let’s start with conjecture. Defined as: a conclusion deduced by surmise; a proposition before it has been proved or disproved; drawing an inference from presumptive evidence. Again, the dictionary can dry out just about anything, and those definitions are no exception. In short, cutting through the bullshit, I can distill it to one word: opinion.”
“Prong number three. You.”
Now all of the assembled were displaying quizzical looks back to me, a veritable mirror of uncertainty. Not to mention, I often found that a little profanity was usually a good attention grabber.
“You are the vessel through which all this will flow. You’ll begin with facts as your base, and then add conjecture and unprovable ideas to the concoction, stirring all the while. When finished cooking, or in your case, thoughtfully analyzing, one hopes they end up with a broth that is tasty. One that hopefully tastes like the truth.
“A very lofty goal, the truth is. Doesn’t mean it should not be fervently pursued. And the safe route, the one some of you no doubt will take, but also a direction in which I will challenge you every step of the way, would be to simply cling to the facts, and build your supposition solely around them. That’s a fancy way of calling you lazy. And I will do just that, trust me.”
More laughter, which seemed to remove the quizzical looks like a windshield wiper.
“You may have noticed my liberal use of qualifiers in my speech. That is by design. It is my intellectual tip of the hat toward ambiguity, my embrace of it even. Sure, in Sociology, there is room for concrete guidelines, areas that are limited by only a black or white conclusion, but it’s the gray areas where the true marrow of life lies. Where the real juice is, where the mind can expand.”
“I am not God, though I wouldn’t mind it if you brought some of that good San Francisco sour dough bread and excellent Sonoma wine to class once in a awhile. I will make it multiply and feed the assembled masses.” This was followed by the loudest laugh of my presentation.
“Between the texts, my vain yet persistent lecturing, and your active, curious mind, you will leave this course with probably more questions than answers. If so, I have done my job.”
Next week’s head count would provide my letter grade for the course.