I am participating in a faculty Writing Associates Seminar, in which we are learning to integrate writing more intelligently and productively into our courses. For an upcoming retreat, our seminar leader asked us to write a letter to our future students about what we hope they will get out of our class. I wrote the letter below for a course I am developing — related to my new research project on American gun culture — on “Guns in American Society.” Enjoy!
11 July 2014
Dear Students –
I am excited for this opportunity to spend some time together learning about the place of guns in American society. I have very high, perhaps even unrealistic, expectations for what I hope you will take away from this course.
First of all, I hope you will cultivate a scholarly approach to understanding guns. That means you will be able to take an issue that is contentious and complex, and approach it in as objective and nuanced a manner as possible.
This is easier said than done. As sociologists, we are a part of, not apart from, the social worlds we study. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because we bring a great deal of personal experience and understanding to our studies. It is a weakness because our personal experiences and understandings can be partial, biased, uninformed.
Therefore, we need to inform our personal experiences and understandings with broader sociological theories and more rigorous sociological studies of the phenomenon of interest. In other words, we need to develop our sociological imaginations. As C. Wright Mills put it decades ago, “it is by means of the sociological imagination that [people] now hope to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as minute points of the intersections of biography and history within society.”
This passage from Mills also points to a second objective of this course. I hope you will come away from the course with a better understanding of yourself with respect to guns. This includes your personal relationship to and personal beliefs about them.
Finally, although we will cover the good, the bad, and the ugly of guns in American society, there is much more to understand than we will be able to cover in the short time we have together this semester. Therefore, I hope to encourage you to develop an attitude and the tools necessary to continue to develop your sociological imagination with respect to guns for the rest of your life.
I am looking forward to getting started on this sociological enterprise with you.
Until then, best wishes,