The Reluctant Sociologist
The first sociology class I took was awful. The professor was narrow-minded and her style was uninspiring - she lectured with overhead 'slide' transparencies and rarely entertained our questions. Most of the reading was available only on hard reserve at the library, which meant trekking to the reserve desk and getting a handful of folders with dirty, smudged, dogeared articles. Needless to say, I crammed in 7 weeks of readings in the two days prior to the first gigantic multiple-choice exam. At the end of the class, I felt guilty because she seemed to like me, and offered her expertise in survey construction for any future work I wished to pursue. Luckily it didn't matter that I hated sociology - I was already designing and pursuing my own course of study in gender, sexuality, and public health, and I didn't need sociology for anything.
My college, Hampshire (in Amherst, MA), had no formal majors, programs, or departments. We had few exams or tests and absolutely no grades of any sort. No grades. None! We were evaluated as we progressed through our own independently designed and persuasively-argued studies; my transcript is about 25 pages long, including detailed evaluations from my professors, supervisors, and mentors. Anyone looking at my transcript now would know not just how I wrote, argued, analyzed, but also how many classes I skipped, what kind of participant I was, and what kind of person I was. I really wish that every college could adopt this way of learning and assessing.
As an undergrad I worked as a peer sexuality educator and did workshops on AIDS, sexual health, sexual communication, and related topics. It was the best thing I ever could have done - before I discovered my interest in both education and gender/sexuality, I had decided that I should transfer from Hampshire and become an English major at a traditional college. Before I graduated, I did internships, created newsletters on AIDS/HIV & sexuality, hosted speakers, lived in San Francisco, taught an advanced class on sexuality, and took graduate courses in public health.
Meanwhile, I had had an epiphany - a realization that I now realize marks me as somewhat of an oddball. At 20 I realized that my goal was to become a professor. But I had no idea how to do that, or in what field. I thought that professors had to get doctorates in Education. Makes sense, right? After consulting with some professors - including that Soc prof whom I couldn't stand - I realized that it had to be sociology. I only applied to sociology programs, focusing on those with professors teaching in gender and sexuality, and I have never regretted my choice. Though my first formal exposure to the discipline was less-than-pleasant (though memorably awful), I was fortunate to realize that I am a sociologist. Sociology is a way of seeing the world, and the people within it, that speaks to me in a profound manner. Sociology requires its practitioners to see the big picture, to look at how many variables fit together, to examine how social forces influence individuals. The things I care about, the ethics I am trying to forge, and the world I want to see -- all of this is best examined via the sociological lens, or what we call the sociological imagination.
I taught my first 'real' class in 1993 (not counting the classes I got to teach as an undergrad) and have been studying gender and sexualities for over 20 years, and thus I am more aware than ever of the power of the sociological imagination.