Leo White: Summer’s Sociologists

SD instructor Leo White reflects on his first year at ATDP

In a 1676 letter to a colleague, Isaac Newton famously wrote, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Indeed, Newton saw farther than most and remains one of the most renowned scientists and mathematicians of all time, but he clearly recognized that his advances were not possible without the contributions of others who had come before. As part of one of ATDP’s newest courses, “Introduction to Sociology,” students were invited this past summer to investigate the inner workings of the social world and stand on the shoulders of some of sociology’s giants—Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and W.E.B. Du Bois—by first-time instructor Leo White.

Leo White (far right) with Dr. Worrell (far left) and fellow grad students at the American Psychological Association's 2010 conference.
Leo White (far right) with Dr. Worrell (far left) and fellow grad students at the American Psychological Association's 2010 conference.

Before coming to UC Berkeley as a doctoral student in the School Psychology Program (where he works with ATDP Faculty Director Frank C. Worrell), Leo was an undergraduate at the University of Georgia double majoring in sociology and psychology. “I had so many epiphanies in my exploration of sociology,” he says. “I never feel like it leaves me. I feel like I’m always looking at things sociologically, and I wanted [my students] to have that.” Armed with the encouragement of Dr. Worrell, Leo modeled his course on the very same coursework that earned him his bachelor’s in sociology. “I covered everything that I really felt like I learned in my undergraduate degree—obviously not in the same depth—but I felt like they got way more out of that intercourse than I got out of my freshman seminar at Georgia.”

Sociology is not merely seeing and thinking about the world differently, however. Professional sociologists produce research and present their findings, which is precisely what Leo’s students had to do. These weren’t simple regurgitations: the students had to gather their own data in some form or another (whether it was through a survey, interviews, or a formal observation), and place that data in a conversation with some of the great minds they’d encountered earlier in the summer. The experience of collecting one’s own social scientific data was something that Leo especially wanted to offer his students. “I didn’t get that in high school and I didn’t get that until later in undergrad…I felt like having your own data was this very esteemed, esoteric process that you will only touch when you’re a really old person or you’re in grad school.” The class learned that they wouldn’t have to wait that long. “Data can be an interview; data can be just a four-item survey. That’s where real data are generated…I really just wanted to debunk that for them.” Leo also needed to socialize his students to the practice of presenting social scientific research. “I tried to raise the expectation that a 15 minute presentation was not a long presentation…and I tried to formalize it. I told them I was bringing in food; I was going to bring in a couple audience members.” He didn’t want his pupils to view the exercise as “just like another chat between classmates,” but as “an entity” unto itself. The students responded to the challenge of becoming young social scientists, investigating such phenomena as the motivations behind high school dropouts’ decisions to leave school and perceptions of race relations in the wake of President Obama’s election.

Arguably, though, Leo got just as much out of the summer as his students did, if not more. The former sociological novice was, after all, now a novice instructor. Leo not only drew upon his undergraduate experiences, but he utilized what he learned about student motivation since coming to Berkeley. He availed himself of Beverly Vandiver, ATDP’s Head Counselor, when a student began to struggle, and he “was able to kind of do what Beverly does on a smaller scale” when another student needed extra help. He also polled students daily on how they felt the class was going in order to see if he needed to go over anything “in a different way that is maybe more digestible.” I asked Leo what the biggest difference was between ATDP and the other places of learning of which he’s been a part. He said, “This is going to sound really hackneyed, but it was really nice to set the bar high, and just say, ‘Meet me there. I know you can do it.’ And to have students, like, do it. And I definitely had the caveat of ‘we’re going to work to get there’…I had a really ideal experience.” Still, having “a pretty diverse class” eased the task of teaching the core lesson that “people can have different perspectives” and practices whether discussing sports, crime, education, or the family. Ultimately, Leo’s students saw a little bit further not only because they stood on the shoulders of giants, but also because they were able and willing to learn from their peers and their instructor, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the pursuit of knowledge.

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