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The Small Classroom Advantage

The Small Classroom Advantage

April 24, 2009

David Newman.jpgProfessor of Sociology David M. Newman says that he was lucky to have a teacher who motivated him to go into sociology. As an undergraduate and again as a graduate student, he often found himself in a class with hundreds of students or in a lecture hall where professors recited from tomes of their own research. When he saw the classroom from a different perspective, he knew he would have to be different.

"In my first year in graduate school, I was a teaching assistant in a class of 800 students," Newman says. "My job was to patrol the balcony to make sure that people weren't making out or falling asleep. The professor had a microphone and put things on the overhead projector, so the students had no real contact with him. I thought, ‘This isn't the way to learn. This is a waste of money.'"

As a professor, Newman takes advantage of DePauw's 10:1 student-faculty ratio. He can encourage student-led discussions or even move an afternoon class to his living room. His teaching style is very much the antithesis of his own college education – and better for it.

"Professor Newman is truly one of my favorite – if not most favorite – professors on campus," Elizabeth A. Korb '09 says. "He's the reason I am a sociology minor here at DePauw. I took his introductory course as a freshman simply to fill a requirement. However, I remember calling my mother after two weeks to let her know of my newfound academic interest."

Newman's books on sociology have expanded his brand of teaching beyond DePauw's campus. His recent Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life is typical of them. Similar to his lectures, it's filled with examples often taken from his own life, including a story that illustrates the significance of gender identification in society:

In a culture where sex and gender are centrally important and any ambiguity is distasteful, the correct gender identification of babies maintains social order. When my elder son was an infant, I dressed him on several occasions in a pink, frilly snowsuit in order to observe the reactions of others. (Having a sociologist for a father can be rather difficult from time to time!) Inevitably, someone would approach us and start playing with the baby and some variation of the following interchange would ensue:

"Oh, she's so cute! What's your little girl's name?"
"Isn't Zachary a boy's name?"
"He's a boy."

At this point the responses would range from stunned confusion and awkward laughter to nasty looks and outright anger. Clearly people felt that I had emotionally abused my son somehow. I had purposely breached a fundamental gender norm and thereby created, in their minds, unnecessary trauma (for him) and interactional confusion (for them).

"I was underwhelmed by the kinds of sociology books on the market," Newman explains. "They tend to be written in a journalistic style, or a style that uses so much jargon that it takes an interesting concept and makes it absolutely foreign. I wanted to write these books – I don't even like to call them textbooks – in a conversational tone so that students and professors who don't have a small classroom can at least get some of that experience."

"I feel like I have a lot to learn from students," he adds. "Sometimes I do a lot of talking, but really I try to get the students to feel a sense of ownership. The way to do that is to provide them with as many opportunities to have conversations as possible, while also being able to get through the material. Teachers can tell almost instantly whether students are ‘with them' or not. It's really sort of devastating to look into a sea of blank faces, so I try to present information in as interesting a way as I can. When I bring news clippings into the classroom, it's so that students see that what they're learning is something they can apply to the world outside of DePauw."

Jessica M. Pesola '09 agrees. "Professor Newman always has his eyes and ears open, and nearly each day brings in a relevant news story to discuss at the beginning of class," she says. "It helps to remind students how important it is to be engaged with the world around them. What's the use of theory and discussion if it stays in a classroom?"