Sunday, August 12, 2007


I'm winding down the final week of my summer classes. I always wax a bit nostalgic as these classes come to a close. I've enjoyed getting to know my students and sharing this time with them. Now they will move on to other things and may or may not give their SOC class a second thought. There is all together too much of intellectual bulimia going on in college....students CRAM information hand over fist into their brains to hold onto it just long enough to pass exams and then purge it all once the class ends in order to make room for the next binge. That makes me sad.

But I like to believe a few of them will have a somewhat enhanced perspective as a result of having studied with me this semester. To try to give them some framing context to take with them as they leave, I always close with the following message to my online students:

When I teach this course in a traditional classroom, on the last day I always wind up with my sailboat analogy. It involves pictures on the board, some interactive exercises, and other things I can't do very well here - but I do want to share the basic idea behind it.

Have you ever been on a sailboat? When I used to watch sailboats when I was little, I assumed that when the wind pushed the sail, the boat would go in whatever direction the wind was blowing. As I got older, I realized that made no sense. If that were true, the captain of the boat would have no control whatsoever of where he or she was going.

Later I learned that sailors use a specific technique of adjusting their sails called "tacking". By pulling on various ropes they move the sails this way and that. Based on the angle of their sails, they can move the boat in just about any direction, so long as there is sufficient wind. It works sort of like playing pool - you can make a cue ball go in different directions depending on which side of the ball and from what angle you strike it. You make the boat go in different directions by changing the angle of the sail.

What does that have to do with Sociology???

SOCIAL FORCES are the wind of our life. We have little or no control over many social conditions such as our culture's attitudes towards race, gender or age. Sometimes events or perceptions will be thrown at us, which are less than ideal. Many times other people in our lives will make choices that have a huge impact.

However, we are NOT completely at the mercy of society or other people's behavior. We are the captains of our ships, and by adjusting our sails, we decide what directions our lives will go. How you present yourself in the world in terms of the vocabulary you use, the way you dress, the way you treat people in relationships, and what attitude you choose to maintain is in YOUR control. And your life will have a very different outcome based on the choices you make.

I had friends in Michigan who sold their house and business, bought a big sailboat and went sailing around the world. They had a 10 yr old son at the time. They simply pulled him out of public school and got a good home school curriculum to take with them. They took an amazing adventure that changed all of their lives. They would write to me from various ports telling stories of how they came through storms, times when the wind stopped for days, and other challenges. Yet they were very much on track, going from land mass to land mass pretty much according to the schedule THEY had planned. The reason they were able to be successful in their journey is that they were very knowledgeable about the currents and wind patterns, and used that knowledge to their advantage.

I believe that as we become more knowledgeable about SOCIOLOGY, we become better equipped to make wise choices in how we relate to others. This expertise empowers us to move forward in the direction we most desire, regardless of some of the barriers that may occur as challenges. There are still lots of things over which we have no control. However, the better we understand the nature and power of social norms, groupthink, bystander effect, racism, sexism, ageism, and all those other things we have studied, the better equipped we become to thrive in what may at times be a very stormy world.

The whole reason I asked you to write the personal and world examples in each of your value summaries is because I honestly believe this stuff matters in your life. I want you to see how it touches you and how it touches the world in which you live. It's not just a bunch of technical terms that you need to memorize in order to gather points on a quiz, never to think of again. These concepts affect your life each and every day. I want you to see how you are a part of your own culture. I want you to see where you fit in the world through the eyes of SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION.

For me, this class is more about shifting the way you THINK and PERCEIVE than it is about filling your heads up with bits of information. I hope that at least a few of you will notice more and analyze deeper as a result of this class. Because even if you never take another SOC class, unless you become a hermit in a cave who never interacts with others, you will be living sociology for the rest of your lives.

There will be storms. There will be calm. Through it all, take care in how you trim your sails. I wish you smooth journey.

(I just noticed as I uploaded this that it is the 300th posting of Mind-Muffins. - feels like a good reason to go bake a cake!)


heather said...

This is an absolutely fantastic analogy. I love it! What a wonderful thing to teach your students.

Anonymous said...

I liked your analogy. Simple but effective. Could i quote your analogy on a seminar paper? James singapore

Belladonna said...

Hi James;

Sure you can quote it - What's the seminar about?

Anonymous said...

Hi Belladonna :) thanks, actually its about creativity and innovation in teaching. James

Belladonna said...

James -

HMMMM, I'd definitely like to hear more about this. How about taking this to my e-mail belladonnapiranha(at) for further info?

Enrich Your Word Power!

Word of the Day
Quote of the Day

This Day in History