Don C. Sawyer III, Ph.D.

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Teaching Philosophy


Dr. Wanda Jagocki, a Psychology professor at Hartwick College handed one of her students a graded paper that was profusely marked-up in red ink and accompanied by a low grade.  The student was surprised by the colorful paper, low grade, and the invitation for a meeting after class in the professor’s office.  During the meeting, she told the student that he was charming and a joy to have in class but was not working up to his potential.  She told him he had so much to say and share, but was wasting it and not giving his all.  Upon leaving the office and reflecting on Dr. Jagocki’s words, this student took a deep look within.  This was not the first time he disappointed someone by not living up to his potential.  At this moment he vowed it would never happen again and planned to work extremely hard on the next assigned lab report.  When Dr. Jagocki returned the assignment, it came back without an abundance of red markings and the number at the top of the paper was noticeably higher than the previous grade.  The student actually received the highest grade in the class and this marked a new beginning for him.  Dr. Jagocki helped to turn his academic life around.  This once lost student is me and Dr. Jagocki’s firm, honest words and caring was the catalyst I needed to spark the unquenchable thirst for learning that slept deep within.  For me, Dr. Wanda Jagocki is a constant reminder of the impact a professor can have on the life of a student.

My Philosophy

As an educator it is my goal to create an atmosphere that engages, excites, and inspires students.  I am not the giver of knowledge, but instead I serve as a facilitator of student learning and my goal is to find ways for students to develop critical thinking skills. During the first day of a course, we verbally agree that we do not need to apologize for who we are nor where we come from, but promise to open our minds to new knowledge and the social realities of others in our classroom community.  Through lively classroom discussions, innovative assignments, readings, and student lead research, I work with students to develop a complex understanding of their social world.  For example, I assign an essay where students analyze the trajectory of their lives in light of our discussions of inequality and social stratification.  Students write about how their lives have been impacted by familial characteristics such as parental careers, education level, social capital, and access to resources. Students see how their life chances are enhanced or hindered depending on their social locations. At this point, we begin a deeper analysis of social structures, stratification, and the interconnectedness of social problems.  As a result, students realize that many things they once saw as isolated occurrences are actually intimately connected.

Popular culture is a valuable resource for education and in my classroom we engage in systemic discussions and analysis of cultural phenomena and their relationships to the social world.   I use music, movies, documentaries, Facebook, YouTube, and other pop culture outlets to complement the course content.  I also engage students in developing multiple modes of digital communication.  In addition to their final paper, students gather songs/photographs/video clips and create a video using digital software to express issues related to the themes of their research. This project serves as a “movie trailer” for their final paper. Similarly, in my upper level courses students participate in Group Professor Sessions (GPS). I randomly assign students to groups and give them the opportunity to lead a segment of class discussion based on assigned readings.  The 20-minute presentations are developed in collaboration with all group members and must reflect an understanding of key concepts proposed by the readings.  The most successful presentations include critical analysis, supporting materials, media, and examples drawn from sources outside of the class. In addition, students are required to develop at least three questions to lead the discussion. This assignment allows students to improve as public speakers and practice giving academic presentations.

I continually find alternative ways for students to connect with course content.  For example, in my Sociology of Hip-Hop course, students are divided into crews named after popular rap artists.  Once a week, students engage in a “sociological rap battle” where they go head-to-head with another crew to sociologically analyze the lyrics of their artist. Students must draw upon classic and contemporary sociological theories in order to win the battle.  Each crew presents their analysis, gets critiqued, and then has an opportunity to rebut the criticism of their opponent. The crew that presents the most theoretically sound arguments and analysis, with a clear connection to course content, is selected as the winner of the battle by their peers.  This activity improves students’ ability to engage with difficult topics and make thematic connections as critical thinkers.

I aim to continuously develop as an educator and I utilize the feedback I receive from students, colleagues, and mentors to improve my craft. Being open to feedback and constructive criticism helps me to remain effective in meeting students’ learning needs.