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“I often hear from my students — whether they go on to take more
sociology courses or not — that the intro class really opened their eyes
to a lot of aspects of society and how people act within it,” Victor Perez said.
First-year students, prospective students (and some of their parents)
wonder and worry how they will handle the academic transition from high
school to college. In a series of stories, UDaily speaks with University
of Delaware professors who teach courses commonly taken by students
during their first year on campus. In this story, Associate Professor
Victor Perez explains how he teaches sociology.
When Victor Perez looks out at a lecture hall filled with University
of Delaware students taking what is probably their first-ever sociology
course, he sees not just individuals but the social framework in which
they all exist.
His goal is to teach them how to see that as well.
“Like all of us, students are embedded in a structure, a way of life,
that they don’t think much about, that they take for granted,” said
Perez, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice,
who has taught introductory sociology courses for some 20 years,
beginning as a graduate student. “These are behaviors that are just
He can offer many examples of social expectations we follow but
probably don’t often think about: How we dress (“If you want to test
this, try teaching a class wearing a bathing suit.”), how we stand in an
elevator with strangers, how long we’ll hold a door for someone.
Perez’s introductory courses, both large lecture classes and small
Honors sections, are designed to show students the fundamental
principles of sociology and the way sociologists think. National
research shows that students rarely enter college as sociology majors
and that most eventual majors choose the field based on their first
class, he said.
“Very few high school students get a real sociology course, one that
exposes them to the conceptual, methodological framework of the
discipline,” he said. “I often hear from my students — whether they go
on to take more sociology courses or not — that the intro class really
opened their eyes to a lot of aspects of society and how people act
Perez said he’s learned that the best way for students to learn these
new concepts is not through a traditional comprehensive textbook.
Instead, the assigned readings in his class include peer-reviewed
journals, other scholarly articles and book chapters. Like his lectures
and the classroom discussions, the readings all focus on the four
concepts he defines as the pillars of sociology.
“I haven’t used a textbook in 15 years,” he said. “I realized there’s
another way to inform students about how sociologists think and the
conceptual framework of sociology. … I want to give them a toolkit they
can use to gain the basic understanding and also to take them to
upper-level courses if they decide to continue.”
He begins with the idea that society is more than the sum of its
parts. Individuals are certainly important, he tells his students, but
in the structure of society as a whole it’s social roles — as an
employee or a parent, for example — that are key.
From there, his students explore the concepts of self and identity
and the social cues that people use to portray themselves to others.
Discussions of this pillar are complicated, Perez said, but students are
generally eager to learn and talk about the related issues, including
power, history and racial and sexual identity.
“All these topics come up, and the students think deeply about them,”
he said. “We tackle the subjects because it’s crucial to think about,
not just who you think you are, but how you present yourself and have
other people think about you.”
As with other subjects, students are encouraged to speak up in class,
but Perez emphasizes that not everyone is comfortable talking about
every issue, especially one as personal as identity. He tells students
that all debates must be respectful, and no one is penalized for not
Other class sessions delve into global connections, including issues
of mass production and mass consumption. He asks students to question
whether these systems are really rational and efficient and to examine
their effects on people and the environment. Class activities might
include looking at labels to find where everyone’s clothing is made or
visiting an IKEA store for examples of globalization.
“The concepts I teach are abstract, but in a sense they’re embodied
by individuals,” Perez said. “In a class, especially with a diverse
group of students, the people sitting right there in those chairs embody
In addition to teaching introductory classes, Perez has developed and
leads two upper-level courses that deal with another of the pillars
he’s identified — what he calls the medicalization of society. He asks
students to think about when a difference becomes identified as a
One of his 300-level courses focuses on this issue. “Diagnoses aren’t
pulled out of the sky,” he said. “They’re constructions. It doesn’t
mean they’re not real or that people don’t suffer, but we need to think
about how diagnostic labels come about and how they’re applied.”
A second course, dealing with health and the environment, is based on
Perez’s research in south Wilmington, Delaware, and the environmental
and social justice issues in that community.
Both of the classes dealing with health and society are offered with
no prerequisite. Perez said he made that decision in order to include a
wide variety of students.
“The sociology department has a health concentration, but we also
have a lot of different majors in these [health-focused] classes,” he
said. “Inequality and social justice drive much of my research and much
of what I teach, and we want to invite students from across disciplines
to learn more about this and to share their perspectives.”
Biology: In the first story in the How I Teach series, Associate Professor Oyenike (Nike) Olabisi explains how she teaches an introductory course in biology.
Writing: In the second story in the How I Teach series,
Délice Williams, associate director of composition and assistant
professor of English, explains how she teaches an introductory writing
class called, "English 110 - Seminar in Composition," which is the only
course required for every UD undergraduate.
Business: In the third story in the How I Teach series,
Associate Professor Julia Belyavsky Bayuk explains how she teaches
Basics of Business, an introductory course designed to help first-year
students choose their path.
Calculus: In the fourth story in the How I Teach series,
Prof. Dawn Berk explains how she teaches a class that many students
need for their intended major but for which they may need to review
concepts taught in high school math classes.
Political science: In the fifth story in the How I Teach
series, Prof. Kassra Oskooii explains how he engages students to think
critically about the history and fundamental principles of American
Article by Ann Manser; photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase
Published Nov. 5, 2021
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