“The basis of my teaching philosophy for graduate student education is to provide students and trainees with collaborative and constructionist learning opportunities to apply their sociological imagination in both theory and practice.” – C.A. Dell
True story. When I was accepted to do an education degree at the University of Winnipeg, I did not know what a Ph.D. was; in fact, I believed university professors held the same credentials as high school teachers. As a resident of the underprivileged North End of Winnipeg, this knowledge was simply not a part of my experience. My undergraduate years culminated in a Sociology degree, and a class professor asked me if I would consider graduate school. I wasn’t sure what that entailed at the time, but for the next four years I persevered with academic guidance as I earned my Master of Arts degree from the University of Manitoba. During this time, I worked and volunteered in the social justice field where I vividly recall reflecting on how this degree might help me influence humane and equitable prison health policy and practice. Following this, I secured a Ph.D. from Carleton University while working in the Ottawa political and government realms to improve my understanding of, and be a witness to, how social change occurs. When considering my career options upon graduation, my supervisor encouraged me to enter academia because it would afford me with opportunities to advocate for social change based on evidence-informed knowledge. In June 2021, it will be 20 years since I graduated with my Ph.D. in Sociology and started mentoring graduate students as a university professor myself. My educational and life experiences have shaped and continue to influence how I approach this role, including within the context of our current COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout, I have acknowledged the privilege I was afforded by attending university, and the responsibility I believe I now hold because of it.
As a Sociologist, I am constantly asking myself, “how do I know what I know?” by applying C. Wright Mills’ (1959) concept of the sociological imagination. According to Mills, having a sociological imagination means that you are vividly aware of the relationship between personal experience and wider society; you have the ability to look beyond local environment and personality to the influence of wider social structures and the relationship between history, individual biography and social structure. Mills maintained that it is not possible to understand the individual or society in isolation from one another.
Graduate student supervision has formed a major part of my academic career. My first academic position was a joint appointment between Carleton University and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, a non-governmental organization (for 7 years) and I have held two different Research Chairs at the University of Saskatchewan since (4 years for my current Chair, and 9 years for my past Chair). My pedagogical goal is to encourage graduate students to apply their sociological imagination in both theory and practice. I foster this by providing them with collaborative and constructionist learning opportunities in three themed areas: expanding their knowledge and understanding, applying critical and creative thinking skills, and pursuing caring approaches. This equally applies to my undergraduate and post-doctoral students.
First, my approach to expanding graduate students’ knowledge and understanding is grounded in the unique varied academic and community-based opportunities that I offer them and through their roles as valued members of my team. My motto is simply, “there is no ‘I’ in team.” I believe this collaborative approach fosters individuals’ self and social awareness and confidence. This includes supporting students’ conference attendance and presentations, collaborating on manuscript reviews for journals, chairing our lab’s booth at various community events, collaborating on manuscripts, inviting students onto working groups I participate, co-developing the CGPS Student/Supervisor Agreement with them, encouraging tri-council and other student awards, and supervising practicum placements. An example is a psychology graduate student’s evaluation of our lab’s development of the What’s Your Cap? binge drinking prevention initiative on the USask campus. I am committed to offering all of my students a learning lab environment, with opportunities for collaborative enrichment from myself, other members of our team, and their community at large. I apply this same approach when I am in the classroom by offering group assignments that translate knowledge into community practice. The What’s Your Cap? campaign, for example, was the outcome of a hybrid undergraduate/graduate 307 (Studies in Addictions) class assignment.
Second, I assist graduate students with expanding their critical and creative thinking skills by encouraging self and collaborative reflection. This in turn informs their developing sense of self as self-assured academics and in ways that are sociologically informed. This necessarily includes consideration of gender, culture, and other forms of diversity and inclusivity. A key illustration is my commitment and attention to incorporating recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in my graduate students’ education. For example, in a PhD student’s dissertation on the role of resiliency amongst street youth in Jamaica, I guided her to examine related Indigenous specific scholarship on colonization and ways of knowing to develop a broadly informed understanding. By drawing on sociologist, G. H. Mead, I also encourage students to consider and challenge the role of the “generalized other” in their work and relations as collectively accepted roles, attitudes and expectations. I extend this to the role of animals in society through a One Health framework, an emerging sociological field my students are contributing to. As an example, the transition of USask’s PAWS Your Stress Therapy Dog Program to an online format (www.therapydogs.ca) has been undertaken in my lab by two post-doctoral fellows (co-PIs with myself), three graduate students, and two research assistants, and funded by a Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation COVID-19 grant. As there is no online therapy dog scholarship to draw from, we navigated this process both theoretically and methodologically for the past eight months, while ensuring the welfare of each other, our varied program participants, and the therapy dogs we work with. As a result, our team offers a unique service to the USask community and beyond and recently submitted a co-authored, peer-reviewed manuscript to share baseline knowledge about our experiences and evaluation outcomes in this emerging field of study and social practice.
Third, I am committed to expanding graduate students’ caring approaches to inform their social interactions within and outside our lab and to develop their own leadership style. I believe that as a graduate student mentor and campus community leader, I have a responsibility to respond to students with care, understanding, respect, mutual regard and dignity, and that they will reciprocally be encouraged to do the same with others. An example of my attempt to facilitate this is post-doctoral fellows facilitate monthly mentorship meetings within my learning lab (approximately 15 students). Some highlights include mock thesis presentations, honing article review skills, producing an impactful resume, and informal relationship development to support the students’ graduate studies. I have applied the same mentorship model in the classroom when teaching a hybrid graduate/undergraduate course. I believe that mentorship is an evolving, reflective process for individuals, and I have witnessed a supportive environment develop amongst the post-doctoral fellows and graduate students in my lab (which also includes undergraduate students, many of whom transition into graduate studies). This, alongside the need for caring leadership and more frequent check-ins from myself, has become even more apparent during COVID-19. This holiday season, our team is organizing the distribution of life-size therapy dog cutouts, therapy dog posters, and a dog-themed holiday card for clients of Prairie Harm Reduction and the Lighthouse, as therapy dog visits have been put on-hold because of COVID-19.
Sociologists like myself apply our sociological imagination in all that we do, both personally and professionally. My graduate student teaching philosophy – for students to apply their sociological imagination in both theory and practice – is strongly informed by my understanding of how students learn as a community and in their varied communities, and my beliefs and values regarding the importance of contributing to social change. I have been asking my students for the past 20 years to question their privilege and to consider the role of the “other” – both human, and more recently, more than human (i.e., animal). My personal philosophy and strategies are grounded in my passion and excitement for mentorship and learning opportunities, as well as my related educational training, varied employment history, and sociological expertise and interests particular to my involvement and commitment to community change. When students graduate from a program I was involved in with them, or from working on my team, it is my hope that they will reflect on their experience as one in which they were supported, challenged, and well prepared to contribute to their specific field of study and broader society. I consider it a personal life achievement when I hear from my former graduate students about their motivation and passion to find solutions to social problems in such roles as educators, government workers, entrepreneurs, parents, and students pursing further graduate studies.
Mills, C.W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, Self and Society. London: University of Chicago Press.
Colleen Anne Dell
University of Saskatchewan
Copyright © 2023 Colleen Anne Dell - All Rights Reserved.