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Matthew Oware, Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies / Unpacking the First 18 Years of Your Life: How to Succeed in Sociology Courses

One.  Begin by asking questions.  

Question everything that you have taken for granted in the past about how the social world works. For example, if you have been taught that race is biological, determined by your genes, question that assumption.  

Your Sociology professors will push you to systematically re-examine what you take to be normal; they will ask you to rethink conventional truths, especially in the areas of gender, race, class, and sexuality.   They will ask you to read, write, and talk about how identities operate in society, and they will expect you to keep your mind open to new ways of interpreting this operation.  

Identity works at both an individual and an institutional level:  it belongs to you alone, but also to large groups of people different from and similar to yourself. You will be guided to think about the way identities inform and impact your own life, but also how identities affect the lives of others. To learn about how this works, ask questions of your instructor, your classmates, and yourself.

Two. Consider how we are impacted by factors outside of ourselves.  

We are shaped by forces we do not always recognize. For example, our particular religious upbringing might have shaped our beliefs and understanding of the world without our full  awareness about how that happened. We may not realize, until later, that not everyone shares these beliefs. 

We experience life as individuals, but individuals do not exist in a vacuum. We make decisions based on how, where, when, and by whom we have been brought up; we are enmeshed in and shaped by the social contexts in which we live.

Be prepared to rigorously examine how social contexts generate individual beliefs. To do this work well, come to class ready to engage in discussion and to engage academically with the assigned readings for your course.  Also be prepared to engage physically -- to move around the classroom, talk to others in small groups, and even play charades. Figuring out how identities work happens when you read and think, but also when you move, act, walk, and talk.  

Addendum.  My own experience with Sociology.

During my first two years at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I majored in Computer Science and Engineering.  My parents, ambitious for my success, pushed me to find a major that would lead to a well-paying job. I worked hard, but I simply couldn’t get excited about coding in the way that a good CSC should be interested.  

In my second year, I took an introductory Sociology class, and in my junior year I took a class on Race and Ethnic Relations. These classes spoke to me in a new and deeper way, so I took a risk and switched my major. One of my professors talked to me about graduate school, and explained what could be done with a graduate degree in Sociology. 

A year or two later, after I finished teaching my own first class at Indiana University, one of my students came up to me. As a novice, I was sure she was going to complain about something that had gone wrong in the class. Instead she said, “You have found your calling.”  I will always remember that moment. Yes, I had.