Teaching Sociology of Gender During COVID-19: Lessons from Contexts Magazine

Photo by Samantha Borges on Unsplash

In March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused most university education to go virtual, we were starting a new quarter and were scheduled to teach “Sociology of Gender.” Having no experience with online teaching, nor pandemics, we faced the question of: how do we teach about gender inequality, online, in this context? In this essay we describe an assignment (linked here) that we developed as part of our strategy to address this question, as well as what we learned from reading the students’ essay responses to the assignment. In the course, Taylor was the instructor of record and developed the assignment while Gonzales was the teaching assistant and graded all of the student essays. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a massive social, political, and economic crisis affecting both society and the intimate lives of individuals. Grading and discussing this assignment was illuminating because it helped us make connections between how the crisis played out in our students’ lives, our own lives, and in broader society. We noticed how by connecting our own experiences to the students’ experiences we engaged our “sociological imaginations” (Mills 1959) to better understand all of our biographies in the context of this historical moment.


The Course and the Assignment

In the course we taught students to view gender as a social construct and to engage in gendered analyses of social phenomena. For the assignment, we asked students to read and analyze one of eight Contexts blogs or online journal articles. Contexts is a public facing sociology journal, published by the American Sociological Association. In their essays, students were asked to assess whether, and how well, the author/s used a gendered analysis. Students could write, for example, about how well, and whether, the author/s wrote about the: “process by which something becomes coded as masculine or feminine” (Wade and Ferree 2018: 30). Alternately, a gendered analysis may discuss how something reproduces gender inequality or the gender binary. We also asked students to incorporate a variety of concepts and theories previously introduced in the class, including: intersectionality, a multilevel model of gender, the gender binary, and sexual dimorphism. We intended this assignment as practice for the students in thinking and writing critically about what it meant to perform a gendered analysis—a main goal of the class. We assigned the essay to a total of 100 students in a 10-week course which ran from March 30, 2020 through June 21, 2020. 

 Of the eight blogs and articles the students could choose to write about, the most frequently chosen was “Race, Gender, and New Essential Workers during Covid-19” (Pangborn and Rea 2020). In writing about this blog, our students connected the structural and institutional ways that COVID-19 relates to race, class and gender. Pangborn and Rea (2020) helped students better understand how the gendered institution of work intersected with COVID-19 exposure to disproportionately impact low-income women workers as well as Black and Latinx workers. While students praised the blog’s focus on both the race and gender of front-line workers, they critiqued the article for its lack of intersectional analysis of these two categories. In particular, students noticed that Pangborn and Rea (2020) did not take into account how Black and Lantix women were differently impacted, as compared to white women. The students’ critiques along these lines align with critiques made by scholars of intersectionality that the experiences of women of color are especially ignored and undermined. 

The choice of this blog is a case in point about the possible connections the students made between their lives and the effects of COVID-19 in the United States. The majority of our students were women, working class, and/or students of color, many of whom worked service jobs. The students’ writing in Spring 2020 seemed to reflect their interest in the experiences of workers who shared their demographic characteristics as well as their economic precarity. 

When teaching a “Sociology of Gender” course we will use this assignment again. The assignment gave students practice in applying academic theories, such as gender theory and intersectionality, to current events that influenced the students’ own lives and allowed them to exercise their sociological imaginations. Students were able to identify both the strengths and limitations of the Contexts articles and blogs, utilizing concepts learned in class. In particular, Pangborn and Rea (2020) allowed students to do a gendered analysis on the topic of work in the context of COVID-19. As such, we felt that the assignment helped students to apply concepts learned in our virtual classroom to current events and public sociology. We also found that Contexts provides an approachable type of writing for university students to analyze in an upper division gender course. Contexts provides a counterpoint to more traditional academic articles, especially in language accessibility and because it is free.

We have ideas for how to further enhance the assignment in the future. For example, asking students to integrate personal experiences related to COVID-19 into their essays, making more explicit the connection between the personal and the public and between individual experiences and social institutions. In this way, the assignment could be further utilized to strengthen their sociological imaginations. 


The Sociological Context of the Assignment

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted educational institutions in a context of already decreasing public funding for education as well as an educational system stratified by race and gender. In California, the UC system of higher education has been defunded over recent decades, contributing to higher debt for undergraduates as well as stagnant wages, relative to cost of living increases, for graduate students. Our class reflected the demographics of the Sociology major, the largest undergraduate major at UCSB, in that the majority of students were either Latinx, Black, or Native American, the majority were women, and many were working class. As is similar in the K-12 schools they come from, our students experience high student faculty ratios in their classes relative to other students at the university. That is, sociology undergraduates have a relatively high student faculty ratio compared to other majors at UCSB, majors which are populated by students who are, on average, more economically privileged, and/or more likely to be white and/or male. Many UCSB sociology students work multiple jobs to both pay for college and to contribute to family income. Contribution to family income, by students, became even more critical as COVID-19 caused high unemployment rates. As such, the economic precarity that was already an issue faced by many UCSB sociology students, was suddenly exacerbated in March of 2020 with the economic shutdowns in California and elsewhere. 

Because of her own economic precarity and reliance on a service job to pay rent, Gonzales was also disadvantaged by these same gendered and racialized systems of work and inequitable exposure to COVID-19. At the time the assignment was due, Gonzales, a PhD student in sociology, was grappling with uncertainty and anxiety about potentially losing her service job that she is dependent on to pay her rent in a region with an extremely high cost of housing. Working 10 to 15 hours a week at a wine tasting room catering to tourists, she earns at least half of what she is paid as a graduate student per month. Gonzales’s social location, working a service job to pay rent, as many of our undergraduate students do, gave her special insight to the students’ perspectives on the assignment.

Sometimes as faculty it is easy to forget that both undergraduate and graduate students are also part of the systems of inequality that we are teaching about. Taylor’s discussions with Gonzales regarding the students’ essays caused Taylor to reflect on the ways that our students were often disadvantaged by the same gendered and racialized systems of work and inequitable exposure to COVID-19 that we asked them to write about. For both Gonzales and Taylor, thinking and writing about this assignment, as well as grading it, helped us to connect our own experiences to the social institutions we, and the undergraduates, are all embedded in. 

The assignment also gave Gonzales an idea for a paper related to her dissertation. Reading the Contexts articles and blogs, and reading the students’ responses, led Gonzales to a deeper understanding about how COVID-19 is a racialized, intersectional health issue. This understanding was reflected in a subsequent manuscript and dissertation chapter. In sum, this assignment, developed in a time of uncertainty, anxiety, and change in the lives of both ourselves and our students, was a learning experience, and a chance to use all of our sociological imaginations. 

Gabrielle G. Gonzales is a graduate student in the department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Catherine J. Taylor is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her main research and teaching areas include gender, work, health, social psychology, and social inequality.