Goodbye Germany, Hello Chico

Last year I took a break from my regular job teaching Chico State undergraduates, and taught graduate students at a private university in Germany. Classes were tiny, students hard-working, and engaged in the esoterica of social theory. I really liked it a lot. One of my students even managed to get a book review published in an important sociology journal, Sociological Review from the UK. Every essay, from all 14 students per semester, started with a concise outline, and the entire essay was carefully divided into an Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. Even though English was their second language, the essays were well-written, well-argued, and balanced in their presentation. With so few students, I always knew when someone was cutting, and to be honest few ever were interested in trying.

But now back to the real world of California State University, Chico. In my classical social theory class I routinely give lectures about the significance of 1848 in European history (quick, who was Napoleon III, and why was he important to both de Tocqueville and Marx?). American students want to know how a particular theory might help them back up their pre-conceived opinions about America’s health care problems, and political preferences of the day (sorry, but de Tocqueville would probably not have been interested in the choice between Obama and McCain). On top of it, there are at least 110 students, each with lives, and papers to hand in for grading And the conclusions in the papers they write for me are too often really short and stubby (no balance I remind them—a cat needs a tail for balance, and your essay needs a conclusion for the same reason). And I don’t even know all of their names yet, even after six weeks. And I notice, that attendance drops during midterms, or after a particularly big fraternity party.

The American students are also anxious about jobs, having heard since they started college that Sociology majors never end up with a good job. Last month , we worked through an alumni survey that said that Sociology majors do typically turn up middle class, and satisfied with their college experience. I hope that it reassures.

I even had one student who works with foster kids come back after a two or three year hiatus. He is a man with a large heart, who puts it into caring for youth who few will put up with; he views his own struggles with college level work as being important because it is an example to “his boys.” Unfortunately, his writing in the past tended to be brief outbursts of hyperbole and anecdote. But this has changed. His commentary has become more nuanced and his last paper for me even had a good conclusion (the cat’s tail is lengthening). He is still not quite ready for Sociological Review perhaps, but his letters on behalf of his foster kids will be more clearly argued. And he even mentioned once what the salutary effects on his boys of pursuing a MA degree might be! So good-by elite German graduate students, and hello again Chico!