About a Boy–On the Sociological Relevance of Calvin (and Hobbes)

Bill_WattersonOne of my favorite sociologists is Bill Watterson.  He’s not read in most sociology classrooms, but he has a sociological eye and a great talent for laying bare the structure of the world around us and the ways that we as individuals must navigate that structure—some with fewer obstacles than others.  Unlike most sociologists, Watterson does this without inventing new jargon (or much new jargon), or relying on overly dense theoretical claims.  He doesn’t call our attention to demographic trends (often) or seek to find and explain low p values.

Dad pollRather, Watterson presents the world from the perspective of a young boy who is both tremendously influenced by–and desires to have a tremendous influence on–the world around him.  The boy’s name is Calvin, and I put a picture of him (often in the company of his stuffed tiger, Hobbes) on almost every syllabus I write.  Watterson is the artist behind the iconic comic, “Calvin and Hobbes,” and he firmly believed in his art form and in the power of art to promote social consciousness and change.  I’m convinced that if you can’t find a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to put on your syllabus for a sociology course, there’s a good chance you’re not teaching sociology.

Screen shot 2013-01-30 at 3.47.47 PMThe questions and perspectives of children are significant to sociologists because children offer us an amazing presentation of how much is learned, and how we come to take what we’ve learned for granted.  In many ways, this is at the heart of the ethnographic project: to uncover both what is taken for granted and why this might matter.  Using the charm and wit of a megalomaniacal young boy, Watterson challenges us on issues of gender inequality, sexual socialization, religious identity and ideology, racism, classism, ageism, deviance, the logic of capitalism, globalization, education, academic inquiry, philosophy, postmodernism, family forms and functions, the social construction of childhood, environmentalism, and more.

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Teaching Privilege without Perpetuating Privilege

Most of the courses I teach center on contemporary issues and inequality.  It’s common practice now, I think, to talk about issues of privilege and advantage in courses on inequality.  I know when I ask undergraduate to raise their hands to see who has ever been assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Checklist,” a portion of the class always seems to have come across it in one class or another.  There are a variety of strategies for leading classroom discussions about privilege–some more successful than others.

I’ve seen a strategy put into use, however, that I think deserves more attention.  It’s not something I’ve ever done in a class; but I understand the idea behind it.*  Some teachers ask students to raise their hands to a series of questions about their social backgrounds and identity categories to get them to think about issues of privilege and inequality.  In a more extreme example, students are asked to stand against a wall and to take steps away from the wall based on their answers to a series of questions about various advantages and disadvantages associated with their identities. So, depending on how you run this activity, the end result is either a group of young, able-bodied, heterosexual, white men standing against a wall watching other non-young, non-able-bodied, non-heterosexual, non-white, non-men walk away from them or vice versa.

While this seems like it might (and I stress might here) be a really powerful experience for the young, able-bodied, heterosexual, white men, I’ve always wondered what it might be like for everyone else in class.

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