Kindergarten Sociology

There is no photographic record of my classroom talk back in 1976 (thank goodness) so I lifted this photo from the Web.

Reading about Stormy Daniels and  Erica Lust in Ann’s blog today made me wonder how they would explain to a small child what they do for a living. I doubt that it could be any more difficult than when I attempted to explain what I did for a living to a group of little children some 45 years ago.

This fateful event occurred when our daughter Sara was in kindergarten and her teacher had asked her students to see if any parents would be willing to share something about their occupations with the class. For the life of me I don’t know why I volunteered. I probably assumed that this was part of some curriculum plan on exposing young minds to the “real world” of work, an objective which at face value sounded quite reasonable.

But this was a tough call for me. I imagined parents with jobs such as nurses, fire fighters, brain surgeons, forrest rangers, or cops regaling the kids with colorful stories and heroic deeds. How could talking about being a sociology professor ignite any passion?

How could I compete with this parent?

While I was trying to figure out what to say to the kids, I couldn’t help thinking about my father who never quite understood what a I did as a sociologist. I suspect he kept asking me to explain it so he would have something concrete to share with the guys on his work crew at the Edison Company; something to convince them that I had a real job. I tried to explain about my research in symbolic interactionism and labor market inequality and about writing research papers for professional journals. It was only when I told him that I lectured to students that he seemed satisfied that I was doing something he considered noteworthy — “so, you’re a teacher!”

But what could I say to a bunch of kindergartners? I wasn’t about to try to explain what sociology is all about; I was having enough difficulty doing that with college students, as well as my father. The “teacher” angle that satisfied my dad seemed to be the best track. Surely they could identify with that; they were in school themselves after all.

But I wanted to impress on them that college level classes were different than what they were used to.  I decided to emphasize that my university students had to read books that didn’t have lots of pictures and they were required to write essay exams about them.  I even planned to bring along several of the books I assigned for the kids to look at while I spoke.

My strategy firmly in hand (along with a stack of books), I walked into the classroom at the appointed time. I wasn’t quite prepared to find a semi-circle of little 5-year-olds on the floor facing the stool that I was to sit on. I felt like a giant peering down at a bunch of little munchkins. The teacher introduced me as Sara’s father and told them that I was there to talk to them about my job as a sociology professor.  

I must say that my talk started out quite well.  I said “Good morning class” and they responded in unison, “Good morning.”   But from that point on it went downhill. 

My big mistake was passing out the books for them to look at as I was beginning my talk. The kids were paying more attention to having one of the books passed to them than to what I was saying. However, they seemed to light up at the part of my spiel about assigning books that had no pictures.  As soon as I said that, hands excitedly shot up with exclamations of “Here’s a picture!” and “I saw a picture!.”  The kids were referring to the graphs, data tables, and charts in the books, something I had not thought of as “pictures.”

After what seemed like hours of suffering through my “talk” the recess bell mercifully rang (what could be a better example of deus ex machina?). Before she let the students go the playground, the teacher asked them “Now what does Sara’s father do?” I distinctly heard a number of students blurt out “He teaches about picture books!”

I still have trouble explaining to friends and others what I did as a sociology professor.  But rest assured that I no longer use the assigning-pictureless-books angle.  If only my career could be as easily explained as that of Stormy Daniels or Erika Lust.

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