Happy Professors Series: How to Find Teachable Moments in Everyday Life

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“Have you ever stopped yourself in the middle of the day to question what you are doing? I often think about how invigorating it is to really think about why we, as social creatures, choose to live our lives the way we do. Why have you chosen to take the actions or engaged in the behaviors that you did so far today? Or, why you are doing it all in the specific way that you’ve chosen?

Stopping ourselves and asking why we move through life the way we do is exciting to me; not only because it allows for increased mindfulness, but also because it helps us hone the skills of deeper critical analysis.

I question my own choices every day. For example, when I present an opinion about our socio-political environment, I might ask myself why I feel the way I do. Easy enough. But there is more. I then question what role the media has played, or what deeper issues I am interested in, and what relation my upbringing or socialization has with my own outlook on life. I’ll ask why I hold certain value systems or norms and social expectations. I use this type of questioning with my students all the time.

I have bright students, but I still constantly ask them why it is that they arrived at a certain conclusion or analytical framework. Not because they weren’t clear enough in their presentation of their argument, but because questioning gives way to learning. So many times, instructors (and human beings in general) take “good” answers for granted. We applaud them, agree or disagree, and move on. Perhaps even regurgitating what we have heard at another point in time. But stopping there makes us miss out on a critical opportunity.

A much deeper level of learning emerges when you stop and pry a bit more.  Do not take your sense of reality or your opinions for granted. Ask questions, like what schema or social lens are you using to view “reality” the way you do? Why is it that you chose to focus on certain aspects of the situation, rather than others? What does this say about your relationship with your larger social group, as well as your inner cognitive functions?

Perhaps more importantly, what assumptions are you making, even at an unconscious level, to move through the issue the way you do? You see, we often operate by a mindset that is on autopilot. What do I mean by this? We quickly put bits of pieces about our world or environment together so that we effectively and efficiently get about our day. This is usually done by our minds, without our realization.

Let’s take gender roles as an example. I teach sociology and social psychology, so I often deal with teaching and learning about gender and gender roles. Very often we hear words –aggressive, dainty, mechanic or nurse—and form a gendered opinion. What this tells me is that we take femininity and masculinity for granted. However, these are social constructions that we impose on people, based on their sex—their physiology. From the moment a baby is born, we constantly reinforce the duality of gender through blue or pink. Colors, whose symbolism we have come to attach to gender.

Similarly, I teach courses on the social construction of place. This might make my point a bit clearer—we often take the labels of places or boundaries for granted and simply feel that we are somewhere very real, but what is place, but the social construction of space? What makes this city different than the next?

These moments of reflection can sometimes feel like we are spiraling down a rabbit hole, and becoming more confused, but it also allows us to step outside of our implicit biases and assumptions and critically look at why we come to view the world the way we do. Bringing this out in others has led to deeper conversations and deeper connections. Additionally, it has led to clearer understanding of our social constructions and our social expectations. By deconstructing our world, our reality and our assumptions, we are left with bits and pieces that we can put together in new, innovative ways.

If we look to all our daily actions this way, we will soon realize that all of life is a teachable moment—not just those confined within classroom boundaries.”

~Dani, Sociology Instructor, Ph.D.

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