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Now, sociology classes find new vistas in Youtube & pop culture
Manjusha Madhu  24th Jun 2012

Excerpts from popular films like Fight Club are some of the video clips used as teaching tools

hat can a bunch of YouTube videos tell you about the intricacies of societal functioning? What can you learn about social stratification from a clip of the Brad Pitt starrer Fight Club? Well, plenty if you ask the people at 'the sociological cinema' — a website for sociology instructors run, by "a ragtag team of three public sociologists, hell bent on promoting video and pop culture to teach sociology".

Founded in 2010, the site is edited and published by three friends, Valerie Chepp, Paul Dean, and Lester Andrist — sociologists based out of the US. "The idea came to us over the course of several conversations in which we repeatedly found ourselves discussing our use of video clips in the classroom. While teaching in the capacity of research assistants at Maryland, in the US, we found that videos were highly effective at illustrating course concepts and theories and keeps the students more engaged," says Andrist. This desire to employ videos for effective teaching led them on a hunt for a website that tagged video clips by sociological themes. The absence of one led to the trio creating one.

Since then the site has grown — both in terms of concepts and videos. There is also provision for outsiders to upload material that they think would be relevant. The site as well as their Facebook page is a wonder house of quirky videos, cartoons and other posts — all of which have helped initiate debates around various issues. Their website is a repository of video clips demarcated and tagged around themes.

While at base we are still a site that helps busy instructors incorporate video into their classes, we have become a site that draws on insights from sociology to critically examine all sorts of media. — Paul Dean

Among the latest additions is a short new clip on social immobility in the US where journalist Fareed Zakaria discusses Occupy Wall Street's core criticism. The tags to the video read: capitalism, class, economic sociology and social mobility — meaning the video clip can be used to teach these concepts. "The site has subsequently evolved, and while at base we are still a site that helps busy instructors incorporate video into their classes, we have become a site that draws on insights from sociology to critically examine all sorts of media," Dean says.

Despite significant praise and receiving numerous accolades, the venture has come under harsh scrutiny and criticism as well. The comments on the site are a testimony to the fact that not everyone thinks this is the next best thing to have happened to sociology. Employing material from popular culture has led to many questioning and some even reject the effectiveness of such a venture.

But for the team at sociological cinema this is a lacuna that can be effectively addressed with a holistic teaching process.

"A cynical view may be that videos are just a form of entertainment and that instructors use them as a crutch to keep students happy and entertained. In the absence of effective teaching, videos can quite easily lead to a reductionist understanding. Instead, our view is that videos are merely a tool. There is still a need for sociologists to offer analyses that help viewers make connections," Chepp says.

So is this an attempt to fashion a new pedagogy? Well, in a way it is. "We support resources that are freely available, and permitted to be used for non-profit educational and research purposes. This is why we have licensed our material under a Creative Commons license. To the extent that promoting the use of open educational resources is an attempt to influence pedagogical tools, and yes, that is one important impact we hope to achieve," says Dean.

While it is common understanding that 'pedantic' academic writing alienates a significant section of the population everywhere, the importance of such a venture is massive. "A sociological perspective is useful for everyone because it helps people understand themselves and the world around them. By drawing from everyday examples, we hope to illustrate how sociological concepts can inform how we engage with the world and why this knowledge is so important," says Chepp.

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