Sociological fatigue

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I’ve been teaching sociology for over ten years now, mostly in the same place, and I think it’s okay to admit at this point that I am tired. Which is not to say that I’m quite ready to go find something else to do, but tired enough to ask, what is it exactly that I’m tired of?

When you teach at a small liberal arts college like I do, you’re supposed to be more intimate with disciplines outside your own. And I probably am. My closest friends are historians and philosophers and theologians. I serve on committees with those who teach biology and communication and business. But at least for me, it took a long time to realize that even at a small institution like mine, few of us are really doing the same thing in the classroom.

tired catWe are, of course, teaching different sized classes. I’m lucky enough to have inherited a strong sociology program; we teach a lot of students. But what makes my job so different from other disciplines is also the content of what I teach. Day after day in my classroom, I am tromping around, neck-deep, in the complicated muck of my students’ lives. I spend a lot of time metaphorically scraping it off at the end of the day. Maybe there’s a different way to teach sociology, but so far I haven’t found it.

The point of sociology, at least the way I teach it, is to systematically dismantle my students’ taken-for-granted assumptions about the world they live in. My job is to unpack all the shit they bring with them from their lives up to that point and to ask them to think again. I often tell them sociology is about asking the questions that seem really stupid, but are more complicated than you think. Who I am? How did I get here? Why are things the way they are? Why do people act the way they do? In sociology, the answers are hardly ever what they at first appear to be.

A tiny example: why is your best friend your best friend? Because you have so many things in common? Because you just hit it off? Because you chose her or him? Maybe. But also because we live in a country that’s highly segregated by race and social class. The pool of people available to become your best friend were already limited by these structural forces. You probably didn’t come into contact much with people of different races or social classes, so there was no chance for you to hit it off. We could add other variables as well. Age and geography. You’re unlikely to become best friends with an older married woman while you’re single and in college. It’s harder (though less so nowadays) to become friends with someone on the other side of the country.

So, sorry, I help them to see, but when you “chose” your best friend, it wasn’t really quite the choice it seemed to be. Life is more complex than we’ve been led to believe. This is not a particularly comforting lesson to learn.

That’s my job. To guide them through a process that in many ways tears apart some of the fundamental building blocks of their lives. Let me show you the gaping hole in what you’ve always thought was true, we say. I think it’s an important job. It’s not always fun.

Add to that the fact that, at least in my department, there is no sociology class where we don’t talk about race, ethnicity, social class, gender and sexuality. Not a day or two on these topics. Not an hour on a Monday and then you get to move on. This is our bread and butter. This is what we do. We face down, straight on and with no safety gear, the misconceptions and baggage students bring to these topics. We explain to them over and over again that families on welfare do not have more children on average than families who are not on welfare; there is no such thing as a welfare queen. We look up the statistics to demonstrate that most college scholarship money still goes to white students at a higher rate than minorities. We try to show them that social class mobility in America is the exception and not the rule. We do that semester after semester after semester.

It is such an important thing to do. It can be so rewarding. It is so, so fucking exhausting. There are days when by comparison, teaching calculus sounds like heaven.

Of course, sociology is not the only field that lends itself to this kind of intimacy. Sociology classes are not the only ones that chip away at some of the things they hold most dear. But sometimes it feels to me like it’s harder in our discipline to step away from this part of the job. Perhaps in research methods. I find myself often longing for abstraction. Let’s find something to talk about that has nothing to do with our actual lives.

And of course, this is what I chose and this is exactly why I chose it. I wanted to teach something that mattered. Something I cared about. I want my students to have a better understanding of the world. I think this is an invaluable gift to give them. I care enough to want to do this well. It matters to me, and probably that’s the source of my exhaustion. If I could just dial it in, things would be a lot more relaxing.

Maybe the fatigue is temporary, a by-product of this particular semester. Of teaching a race class and a gender class at the same time. The weight of a new prep on top of that. My every day schedule. I don’t know. I think it’s okay to be tired every now and then. I hope it’s okay to admit it.


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