Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Writing is important in sociology!
Generally speaking, most occupations involve some element of writing. Emergency and medical professionals write accident or patient reports, government employees keep records of publicly available meetings, and managers write employee evaluations, which does not take into account professions like journalism that revolve around written work. In addition to writing for professional purposes, as people we have become accustomed to daily writing through social media sites or text messaging platforms.
As instructors we have all likely heard some trope similar to, "Students can't write complete sentences anymore" or some variation indicating that students are poor writers when they get to the college classroom. I have three notes to this point. 1. For those of us who are teaching sociology at the college level, we need to understand two things in regards to writing. First, considering we chose this path, our skillsets were likely better suited for the discipline than many of our peers. Then there is the privilege element, where maybe academic sociology is simply designed to reward the skills of certain groups of people. 2. Students are interested in communicating their ideas through written language, but we have to be better at giving them the tools and motivation to communicate, sociologically. This is our job! 3. You might be unnecessarily requiring students write research papers!
Writing for Communication
The most important element of writing that I stress to my students is that of communication. I explicitly express and grade them on the clarity of their writing. I always want to give students feedback on their ideas and their understandings of course material, but I have to first be able to understand the writing. I teach clarity and communication in writing in an untraditional manner. Rather than repeatedly stress academic voice, I regularly ask for the student's voice. Early as a T.A., I recall seeing students who would attempt to replicate writing found in journal articles by discussing abstract theoretical concepts in dense sentences, utilizing disciplinary jargon. Scientific publications are written a particular way in the name of efficiently communicating findings from scientist to a disciplinary audience. In this sense, jargon and density is alright because it serves the purpose of the writing. This begs the question, "why are we asking our students to write this way?" To me, it seems to go back to the "Ivory Tower" metaphor associated with sociology where courses become indoctrination into the academy rather than giving students practical skills to use in their own careers and lives. My solution to this problem is to require far more personalized writing. I often call this blog-style writing in my instructions and assignments. All I am really asking for is that students communicate their understandings of course material in clear and concise writing. Using blog-type assignments gives me the control to require examples or definitions and gives students the creative freedom to avoid traditional "high-school-essay-habits, which are mostly irrelevant in sociology. Finally, all writing-related lessons that apply specifically to journal writing, I teach as such. For instance, an "abstract" is not standard in all sociological writing, but some version of a review or outline makes all lengthy professional writing better, whether it is an executive summary, index, prologue, or abstract.
Teaching the Interpretation of Academic Writing One skill that I think is important is teaching students how to read academic writing. Giving young people the skills and resources to solve problems should be our mission as educators. In all of my classes I spend varying amounts of time talking to students about the components of an academic paper, particularly how to find its contribution to knowledge. The problem with assigning students to read academic journal articles in the college classroom, it that by their nature, each article is in a conversation with other articles. Teaching students how to interpret this web of knowledge is far more valuable to society than teaching them how to conduct research. Final Thoughts on Writing in Sociology Writing is important to sociology, but we should never lose sight of the student experience. I am always up front with my students that they will have to write "a lot" in my classes, but we should openly rationalize why we are asking students to write. This will help them communicate through writing.