Student Resistance in Sociology Classrooms: Tools for Learning and Teaching

Article excerpt

The Pennsylvania Sociological Society invited me to address the topic of Teaching in Difficult Times and challenges in teaching sociology. In our multiple roles as academics, we interact with students and their responses to our work on a variety of levels. They participate in our classrooms, they read our research and learn about the discipline of sociology through our scholarship and supervision of their student work. At all times, students evaluate us in our teaching: not just in formal summative evaluations at the closure of a semester or a student career, but also in their day-to-day responses to our classroom teaching efforts.

Academic reactions to students in the classroom, and sociologists' reactions to their students in particular, have been a dimension of our dialogue about teaching and scholarship for decades. A classic sub-topic of this discussion focuses on college students' resistance to our academic goals for the liberal arts curriculum in general, and student indifference or challenges within our individual classrooms. Perry's (1970) assessment of student stages of cognition is a useful beginning that focuses on levels of thinking and student cognitive resistance. McFarland (2001) extended sociological notions of oppositional behavior in schools to include disruptions in the classroom and Becker et al. (1985) analyzed the focus of their college students on the "grade point average perspective".

This Pennsylvania State conference recognizes that sociologists work to teach new generations of learners during a time when race, gender and class inequalities continue to be debated in social policy and in our classrooms (Hedley and Markowitz 2001, Perry et al. 2005). It is also during a time of intensified assessment of our own teaching in the college classroom. These institutionalized activities provide rich theoretical reasons to understand more about student learning in a range of social environments, and to challenge our definitions and understandings of student resistance.

In this paper I focus on two arenas of student resistance that have come under closer sociological analysis. I do this to illustrate that teaching will always be difficult, but that we have more opportunities and challenges in these interesting times. One of those challenges just might be to expand our definitions of student resistance in order to further develop our own thinking about teaching and learning. The first form of student resistance I consider to be the "classic" form in which teachers focus on classroom disruptions and why their educational messages are not absorbed by students; the second is a more contemporary consideration of student resistance as a form of building social capital for learners and teachers alike.

Classic student resistance is taken as an affront to the authority of college professors and the meaning of the liberal arts degree (Perry 1970; Becker et al, 1985). The shared assumption is that most students are either unprepared or unwilling to learn what is presented in the traditional college classroom. Forms of student resistance might reflect cognitive deficits (dualistic thinking in Perry's scheme) or a subculture of student resistance to the values of the academy (Becker et al.). Learning takes place in environments fraught with individual and group resistance, especially resistant to the dominant patterns of teaching and learning in the social structure of higher education.

The second more contemporary form of student resistance I bring to the discussion draws from critical perspectives on learning with classroom resistance serving as a form of social capital. These perspectives are often radical, critical or liberatory pedagogies that engage distinctive forms of resistance as a potential learning tool, or as a challenge to our mainstream sociological teaching strategies (Sweet 1998, Yasso 2005).

Student Resistance: Challenges to Authority and Cognition

Perry's (1970) early study of student resistance and cognition was initially motivated by his concerns that students lacked the requisite cognitive skills to accurately evaluate his classroom goals and processes on teaching evaluations. …