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An alternate view has been championed of late by Manny Diaz Jr., the Florida commissioner of education, who proposed in November removing introductory sociology from among the options for college students to meet one of the state’s general-education core requirements. The governing bodies of the state’s college and university systems each voted this month to remove it, swapping in an American history course.
Sociology, Diaz wrote on the social-media platform X before those votes, has been “hijacked by left-wing activists and no longer serves its intended purpose as a general knowledge course for students. Under @GovRonDeSantis, Florida’s higher education system will focus on preparing students for high-demand, high-wage jobs, not woke ideology.”
Pulling introductory sociology from the list of courses students could take to meet the state’s social-sciences requirement is just the latest in a long list of moves by Florida Republicans to reshape higher education in the Sunshine State — a push that a special committee of the American Association of University Professors has characterized as a “systematic effort to dictate and enforce conformity with a narrow and reactionary political and ideological agenda.” Like other efforts — to control the way race and gender are taught and to remake New College of Florida in the image of Hillsdale College, among others — it is likely to both cause practical problems for students trying to complete their degrees and existential ones for some of the instructors trying to teach them.
What do students learn by taking sociology? What is lost if fewer students do? It struck John Reynolds, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, that these are the kinds of questions his discipline can help answer. While the Board of Governors overseeing the state’s public universities on Wednesday voted against a proposal to pause and collect more evidence to assess the impact before taking its vote, the “budding social scientists” in his “Sociology of Education” course were learning the very skills needed to conduct such research. So he walked students through the process in class on Thursday.
Reynolds and his students examined various arguments key players had made for and against keeping sociology. Then Reynolds split the 37 students into small groups and had each propose a research study to evaluate those claims using one of the research methods they covered in the course — school ethnography, intensive interviews, social survey, and analysis of school administrative data. Reynolds plans to award a small prize to each group whose proposals “were most detailed and true to the strengths of the method they were assigned,” he told The Chronicle in an email.
By not exposing them to this course now, and to this discipline, you’ve cut off their avenues to make choices.
Not all of his students had been tuned in to the vote to remove intro sociology, Reynolds said, but those who were paying attention were upset. The classroom exercise helped them use the tools of the discipline to make sense of what was happening, and channel some of their frustration into their coursework.
Even so, he said, there was something discordant about engaging students in methods of evidence-based decision making to help them understand a decision that was based instead in “political might” and the “symbolic actions” of politicians.
Students will still be able to take introductory sociology — and it could still meet other university-specific requirements — but professors anticipate that its absence from the gen-ed menu could significantly reduce enrollment. This is partly because of exposure — a large share of students likely have found or been pointed to the course in order to fulfill the social-sciences requirement. Sociology is what one professor called a “found major,” that is, one that students might not have heard about before they get to campus, but fall in love with during their first course.
“A lot of students get to college, they don’t know what they want to major in,” said Elizabeth Aranda, a professor of sociology at the University of South Florida. “They need to be exposed to these general-education courses to see what’s out there, what connects with what I want to do in the future, what am I passionate about, what will get me into a good career. By not exposing them to this course now, and to this discipline, you’ve cut off their avenues to make choices.”
That’s not the only problem. Some degree programs (or combinations thereof) have such exhaustive requirements that students often look to meet as many of them as efficiently as possible, so they are unlikely to take other courses even if they really want to. The ability to meet a state requirement while taking introductory sociology is especially helpful, Aranda said, for students planning to attend medical school, many of whom have sought out the course since the MCAT added a section on social sciences nearly a decade ago.
Sociology “really jolts students out of an individualistic approach.”
Aranda’s department has already been discussing how to keep students in the pipeline, she said, and will continue to do so. Next week, she said, instructors will meet to brainstorm “finding creative ways to expose students and socialize them into what this course is” so that those who are interested can take it as an elective. “But,” she added, “it takes us away from what we do best, which is teaching and research, and being involved in the community. Now we have to somehow learn how to market to students, and that’s not what we do.”
If that effort isn’t successful, undergraduates aren’t the only ones who’ll lose out, Aranda said. The department’s graduate students often get their first teaching experiences as TAs or instructors in the intro course, and if those positions are not available, the department won’t be able to take on as many graduate students. That, in turn, would weaken the department’s research output.
Matthew D. Marr, an associate professor of sociology at Florida International University, anticipates that if there are fewer sections of introductory sociology on his campus, there won’t be as many opportunities for adjunct faculty or graduate students. Tenure-track faculty will probably be shifted to other courses if needed. But that’s not the only way in which they’ll be affected. While the decision to take sociology off of the menu came quickly, it’s part of a longer history with ongoing ripple effects.
Moreover, Marr said, he views his work as a professor as “more of a vocation than a job.” Given that, he said, being accused in public and by government officials of indoctrinating students is demoralizing. He’s tried to defend his field, but he finds himself thinking, “Maybe I should step back and avoid any kind of conflict. I don’t have to put my energy into fighting for this. I can just sit behind my desk and dodge the bullets until I retire.”
Offering a course as an avenue for meeting a general-education requirement signifies that the state regards it as important, said Alison C. Cares, an associate professor and the associate chair of the sociology department at the University of Central Florida. And while there’s overlap among disciplines — students have many options for developing critical-thinking skills — sociology has something unique to offer, she believes. Sociology is a discipline that “really jolts students out of an individualistic approach,” Cares said. Of course people have individual agency, she added, but at the same time, “there are predictable patterns, based on how society is organized, that make decisions and actions more or less likely.” Understanding that can enhance the way a doctor cares for a patient, or a teacher instructs a student, or a businessperson leads a company.
“But collectively,” she added, “that also means — and I think this is what outsiders who don’t like sociology know — it will get us a less civic and a less-informed populace that questions less.”