CSL Masthead
Sept./Oct. 2010 Your Monthly Source of Community Service-Learning News VOL.8, NO. 1


Elaine Leeder, Professor of Sociology, Dean of the School of Social Sciences
Sonoma State University

Dr. Elaine Leeder, Sonoma State UniversityThe classroom is huge, abuzz with two hundred and twenty students chatting about the latest articles they have selected from the New York Times (NYT). The students discuss with a neighbor what they learned and how the article ties to a concept or theory from sociology. They are taught to ask: "Is this an issue of cultural relativity or ethnocentrism?" "Am I looking at a good example of racism, sexism, social inequality or the power differentials in a society?" These first and second year college students ponder such matters as they read the daily NYT as part of the assignment for Introduction to Sociology.

I have been using the NYT for the last twenty years as I teach a class that makes information from around the world relevant to college student's lives. By reading the hard copy paper my students have been introduced to reading an actual newspaper, often for the first time in their lives. They wonder why they cannot read USA Today or their local paper. But I assert that the NYT is the "paper of record," and when students read it, they are becoming educated and concerned citizens of the world. Did many of them care about what is happening in Darfur, or Afghanistan or in South Africa? Most did not, but when the semester is over, many of them do become involved and interested! Often what is read in the paper is tied to what they are reading in their textbook.

This may be the only semester that they read a paper, but for at least one semester they are engaged with world politics and social issues. I do not insist that they read any one section. In fact I ask that they choose a section that they find of interest and keep a journal that explains the article and ties it to sociology. Then they are asked to give their opinion on the article and ask questions related to what they have learned. Once a week, students discuss what they have read in small break-out groups. After they have read fourteen articles, they do a five minute in-class presentation on one of the articles they discuss with their peers. The discussions are lively, with students giving their personal opinions and ideas.

I have considered cutting this assignment from the course; however, each semester, my 10 teaching assistants have argued against this because the students find the exercise so important to their education. When I ask if the TAs have kept reading the paper after having taken the course themselves, I find that 7 out of 10 have done so; moreover, they urge their own families to pick up the paper too. I have asked the students if we should go to the online version, but none of them think that is a good idea because they find items of interest while scanning other sections of the paper.

Other faculty members at Sonoma State use the NYT. One professor assigns it to discuss environmental and energy management as part of the Environmental Studies and Planning major.  Another uses it in Political Science to relate to current political events nationally and internationally. Another uses it in the field of theater, asking students to read reviews, as well as other parts of the Arts Section in order to learn about contemporary performances and theater critique.

I have recently talked with other CSU professors about the use of the NYT in the classroom. Having visited CSU Chico and San Francisco State University, I found that faculty are quite creative in their incorporation of the paper into their syllabi. Unique ideas have emerged, like asking students to look at the structure of the articles for English composition classes or having Economics students read the Business section to apply contemporary economic problems to the theories of economics. There are also professors who have used the NYT in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Usually they assign the Science section which is published on Tuesdays so that students are informed about the latest STEM information.

Years ago, as an undergraduate, I was required to read the NYT for a political science class. That assignment became the basis of a lifetime commitment to the newspaper. I have long felt that if the NYT says that its motto is "All the news that's fit to print," then I have a responsibility to use it as "All the news that's fit to teach."

Introduction to Sociology 201 Syllabus- Elaine Leeder (.doc)

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