The beginning of one end(ing)

alphaomegaClasses started this past week. I am teaching “bookend classes” – Introduction to Sociology and Senior Capstone. How fitting that now seems to me, for this is my last semester before retiring.

I met the Senior Capstone students on Monday. During introductions, each was to say how close they were to graduation and how anxious (on a scale of 1 to 10) each was about “next steps” (i.e., finding a job or applying to graduate school). They seemed a bit surprised when I introduced myself as “4 months away from something new” and my anxiety was a 7/10! We talked about how why were all feeling anxious and how we’ll learn together how to process our anxiety and use it to shape the next steps for the best.

The Intro Soc class started the next day; they were anxious too, but more about workload for this class and for their entire set of classes and what kind of a grader am I. As we began to talk about the course and our first key concepts, I reconnected with that sense of newness, that sense of excitement of seeing the world differently.

Each course we teach should demand a different kind of teaching and connection with students. For me, introductory courses are more about what I like to think of as “professor as travel guide.” The students and I are on an intellectual journey together. I don’t try to cover even most of the book (nor would I want to). What I want to do is have us stop at some of the key concepts and theories which have shaped sociology. I go in more depth about these than many others who teach the course, because I want to be sure that my students’ experience of sociology is enough for them to understand how sociologists see the world and think about social problems and social challenges. I know that most of my Intro students will likely never take another Sociology class, so I want to share with them how to think sociologically as they listen to the news, or read a story on a social media feed, or engage in conversation with friends.

But in the Capstone course, I want to empower these students to translate their sociology into a language that employers and co-workers might better understand. I want them to be able to share how sociology makes connections between the microscopic and the macroscopic instead of choosing just one of those levels of analysis. So my pedagogy is more about helping to translate what our students have learned to applied settings. They don’t have to learn or use sociological argot, such as “the sociological imagination” like Intro Soc students have to be able to do, but I want these soon-to-be undergraduate students to see how what they have been learning provides significant analytical tools they can use, no matter the job they accept. For seniors, their anxiety about what comes next often – at least temporarily – overrides their excitement about graduation, jobs, and graduate school. So the Senior Capstone course is more about helping them to see the sociological toolkit they have at their disposal and how to use it in their work careers.

But teaching these bookend classes has helped me to notice my own excitement and anxiety about retirement. What will come next? Will I never formally teach again? Will I begin a pedagogical consulting business? An editing business? Or just write when I want to? Like my students, there is also fear of the unknown and “can I manage it?” – whatever the “it” might be.

I know that, as this semester unfolds, my students and I will embark together on these two very different intellectual journeys. Come late April and early May, they will intertwine, as the semester comes to an end. We will go our separate ways, as teachers and students always do. But this time the ending will also be more personal.