Sociology majors express concerns over lack of professors, classes

Sociology Department Chair and Associate Professor John T. Lang talking about changes in the Sociology department at Occidental College on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/The Occidental

At the end of the Spring 2019 semester, the Occidental sociology department had six tenured professors active on campus. This semester, that number is down to three, and in Spring 2020 there will be two, according to sociology department chair John Lang. Lang said this has made it difficult to offer an ideal curriculum.

“What we’d really like to do is offer a robust, enhanced curriculum,” Lang said. “The reality is, we weren’t able to offer a robust, enhanced curriculum this year.”

According to Lang, two professors — Richard Mora and Lisa Wade — are currently on sabbatical, and one more, Dolores Trevizo, will go on sabbatical Spring 2020. Professors John Chung-En Liu and Krystale E. Littlejohn also left the college at the end of the 2018-2019 academic year, according to Lang.

Hannah Zeltzer (junior) is a sociology major. Zeltzer said she was planning to take a required sociology methods class this semester and discovered it was not being offered when she opened Course Counts to register for classes.

“They’ve offered a methods class every semester for the past three years, so I planned to take methods this semester and go abroad next semester, and then they didn’t offer methods this semester,” Zeltzer said. “So now I’m going to have to do my comps — which requires taking methods — while I’m taking the class.”

Some students will have to take methods after completing their senior comprehensives (comps) because they were planning to take methods this semester, according to Zeltzer. According to Occidental Course Counts, a methods class has been offered every semester since Spring 2016. While methods is not being offered this semester, it will be offered Spring 2020, according to Lang.

“In recent years, because we had larger cohorts, we did the methods course back-to-back semesters,” Lang said. “We didn’t do that because we have less than twenty majors graduating. We make sure we offer the required courses in the year, but it’s not always going to be at the time people want.”

Zander Granath (senior) is working on his sociology comps this semester. Many upperclassmen sociology majors were unaware of the shortage of tenured professors and lack of required classes this semester until they prepared to register for their Fall 2019 courses last spring, according to Granath.

“I think you can have the scheduling disappoint people, but you can also give them a heads-up that it might happen so they can prepare for it,” Granath said. “All the sociology majors opened the Course Counts, and we were like ‘Oh my god, where is everyone?’”

Megan Purdome* (junior) said her advisor left the sociology department at the end of last semester. She says it has been difficult to explore career options without an advisor.

“We pretty much all lost the relationship that you’re supposed to build with an advisor,” Purdome said. “It’s difficult also as I’m looking at [internship/job] options for this summer, and they all ask for a letter from your advisor, or ask you to talk to your advisor, and I just don’t have one.”

Occidental College Student Megan Purdome (junior) talking about changes in the Sociology department at Occidental College on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/The Occidental

Lili Henkel (senior) said that finding a mentor for her comps within the department has been challenging with so many tenured professors away from campus.

“We’re doing our comps right now and we’re doing it by ourselves, basically,” Henkel said. “I think it’s unfortunate the way comps are going this semester.”

While professors Lang and Lin are on campus, many of the other professors that seniors had built relationships with and relied on to guide them through their comps are now gone, according to Henkel.

“All of the professors who I did know well and would have gone to for research funding are not here this semester,” Henkel said. “I think that mentorship — as far as how to navigate the institution of Oxy — is down. Not that many people have a relationship with professor Lang. He doesn’t teach that many classes. He does a lot of other stuff for the college, but I wouldn’t necessarily ask him to be my mentor because I’ve only met him maybe three times.”

Henkel said that although she feels she is working on her comps independently, she is more concerned about what a lack of mentorship in the department may mean for underclassmen.

“I have to navigate things on my own, and I can do that because I’ve been here for four years,” Henkel said. “But for first years taking their first sociology class and having their first interactions with the department, you don’t want them to feel unsupported.”

In addition to difficulty with advising, the department lacks financial resources for student research, according to Granath. Granath said he did not receive any money from the department for his comps and was told the department does not provide funds for its students. As an alternative, Granath turned to other resources on campus.

“I had to get money from the Undergraduate Research Center through the Academic Student Projects grant, and I had to go through the Diversity and Equity Board through student funding,” Granath said. “They asked if there was any money in the sociology department and I said to my knowledge, no.”

Granath said he also reached out to the Schwartz Fund, which is typically reserved for economics students. Other students have had to partially pay for their projects, according to Granath.

Granath said it is especially difficult to understand why sociology research is unable to get departmental funding compared to other, similar departments.

“We are pursuing a lot of the same fields as economics or politics majors, but there’s such a difference in resources available to students in the sociology department,” Granath said. “I don’t get the sense that our department wants us to get the financial resources to do this kind of work.”

Granath said advertising sociology to prospective students is hard when faced with the reality of the resources available to majors.

“I work in admissions and I’m a senior fellow, and I wish I could say that as a sociology major, there’s all these resources available for you to go pursue an international project or money to pursue local research projects. But there’s not a sociology comps fund at all, to my knowledge,” Granath said.

Granath and Henkel said they are concerned for the future of the department and for underclassmen considering majoring in sociology.

“To be completely honest, if I was a first year, I would not be considering the sociology major right now,” Granath said. “With only two full-time faculty, if you’re not interested in either of their parts of sociology, you’re not getting the full picture at all.”

*Megan Purdome was previously a staff writer at The Occidental.