Teaching Excellence

Promoting knowledge that changes consciousness

Lori G. Waite

Lori.jpg (1537968 bytes)Boarded-up, abandoned buildings; persistent crime; and stubborn unemployment may be the bleak and familiar face of urban blight to most people. But to students in Assistant Professor of Sociology Lori G. Waite's "Urban Sociology" class, they are consequences of complex societal forces that penalize many urban residents, prevent them from improving their lives, and compromise the economic viability of America's cities. "People aren't necessarily poor because of their own fault," Waite asserts. "There are larger processes at work that sometimes make it impossible for them to escape their situation. For example, in my classes I talk about institutional discrimination, or how institutions use biases and stereotypes to create policies or practices and the extent to which those policies and practices become embedded in the institutions' norms."

Roots in journalism
Waite focuses on the impact of urban political process on social movements and collective action. After coming to know the problems facing people and cities as a journalist (among her jobs, she was an assistant field producer for Georgia Public Television and a feature writer for the Atlanta Tribune), Waite pursued her academic credentials. A native of Tennessee, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism, master's degrees in both black studies and political science from Ohio State University, and a doctorate in sociology from Northwestern University. A faculty member at Trinity since 1998, Waite also teaches courses in African American women and social change, social problems, race and ethnicity, and qualitative research methods. She has contributed five entries to a new encyclopedic volume on the Civil Rights Movement scheduled to be published this year by Macmillan Publishing and a chapter on African American political consciousness to a book entitled Oppositional Consciousness, scheduled to be published by the University of Chicago Press this spring. She is also exploring the publication of her dissertation on the Chicago Freedom Movement.

Connecting everyday life and historical patterns
According to Associate Professor of Sociology and department chair Stephen Valocchi, "Lori brings many things to the department. There is a way of looking at the world sociologically, that we refer to as 'the sociological imagination.' Lori has one of the most creative and insightful sociological imaginations that I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. She sees connections between everyday lives and larger historical patterns and systems of inequality. She can get students to see these connections. Whether through the use of community learning, oral history and documentary, or participant observation, she insists that students 'get outside themselves' and see the world through other people's eyes. This way of teaching generates what I think of as 'deep knowledge'--a knowledge that is not only about concepts, definitions, theories, and history, but also and more importantly a knowledge that changes consciousness. That is a knowledge that is not easily forgotten." Waite says, "I have attempted to make my classes exciting and innovative places for students to learn. Because I have a strong commitment to teaching undergraduates, I try to cultivate the kind of relationship with students that conveys to them my commitment to teaching critical thinking in ways that enhance their intellectual and personal growth."

For Waite, this has meant revising existing courses and developing new ones that employ her pedagogical approach. In the first new course Waite developed last year, "Urban Sociology," she incorporated a community learning component to enhance students' understanding of race and class inequality. In a second new course she developed, "African American Women and Social Change," Waite addresses the dearth of scholarship on the participation of African American women in political movements. In her "Social Problems in America" course, she made the course material more meaningful by inviting guest speakers to class, including former drug abusers, a woman who had lived in a homeless shelter, and former gang members, who recounted the realities of their lives in vivid detail.

Intriguing classes
Alissa Sexton '00 was among the students in Waite's urban sociology class who compared urban issues in Hartford and New York by talking with activists and members of neighborhood organizations. Sexton examined community policing, focusing on the shootings of two African Americans by white police officers, Aquan Salmon in Hartford and Amadou Diallo in New York. "We learned a lot of tension exists between African Americans, Latinos, and the police," Sexton says. "I also learned about racial profiling (the alleged police practice of stopping African American or Latino drivers in hopes of finding evidence that would lead to an arrest) and discovered it's not an isolated occurrence, but a pattern." At the end of the class, the students joined with neighborhood activists from the two cities and shared their findings in a public panel discussion on campus. Ismael Ovalles '00, an economics and sociology double major who took three courses with Waite says, "Professor Waite's classes are intriguing. By studying people in an urban environment, you learn about yourself, no matter who you are, whether you live in the city, or if you're white and live in the suburbs." One of Waite's challenges as a teacher is to get her students to step outside of themselves and see the world from the perspective of groups that possess less power than they do. "As a sociologist I'm trained to analyze power relationships and the ways in which we all, to some degree, participate in and benefit from systems of oppression. I strive to teach students to question their own participation in hierarchical power relations. It's important for young people to develop the capacity for critical thinking because their understanding of the world shapes our future. I want students to become agents of positive social change."

--by Suzanne Zack

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