What I wish I told my undergrads this morning.

2016 has been one of those years where you consistently wake up to bad news. We’re no longer able to ask the question: What would Bowie do?

I’m in my first year of teaching undergraduate sociology and criminology students. I’m green, they’re green, but we’re learning and growing our knowledge and skills together. And although they don’t see it, I see their progress and their passion coming through.

We meet on Wednesday mornings and usually it goes smoothly and people learn things. But this morning I missed a trick. I missed my Dead Poets Society moment. But when you’re in your first term of teaching, it seems like you need to have time to prepare yourself for those moments. Perhaps when you yourself are not so green.

So here it is: my Dead Poets Society moment via blog post (And I’m writing this during my office hours, so technically, I’m still teaching. Missed trick averted) and I hope this is applicable not just for sociologists and criminologists, but everyone.

Dear Students,

I’m sorry I made you read a bunch of undergraduate ethnographies in this morning’s  workshops. Instead, I should have told you why it’s important and why it matters that you do this. Indeed, why it matters that you’re here.

I should have let you harness your anger and frustration and incredulity at a toxic political environment that has made life uglier, scarier and more perilous for you. As women, as BAM students, Muslim women, as LGBTQ+ students, I see you all and how the current societal situation threatens you directly and indirectly. I see those who are visibly scared, I see those who makes jokes of the situation by way of dulling the pain.

But this is why you’re here. This is why you’re sitting in my sociology and criminology class finding out more about how to do research. You want to know why these things are happening, you’re angry and you want to change the world. And I want you to change the world.

Here’s the thing we academics don’t tell you nearly as often as we should: you are sociologists, you are criminologists, you are political scientists and you are media critics and scholars. There aren’t any special qualifications or exams that magically certify you in these professions. You need some theory behind you, some know-how in research and writing, a stack of curiosity and away you go. That’s why you’re in my class, to gather and refine all of those things. You are not just students. My role as your seminar tutor is to be a sociologist who is a bit further down the road to  encourage you, teach you the skills and knowledge you need and give you advice on how you might want to approach your research. Occasionally I’ll get stroppy when you don’t prepare for class but that’s usually because as teachers we want to use the short time we have with you each week wisely.

So here’s application part: we need your voices, we need your curiosity, we need your experiences to speak to the societal problems we find ourselves in during this weird, weird year and well beyond.

You can make a difference by being observant, by being critical, by being brave. Stay angry but stay reflexive. Always be asking why. Always be willing to dig deeper into the things you can’t comprehend, but accept the complexity; it will serve you well in discussing the nuances of society. Use your time here during your undergraduate career to refine your thoughts and your knowledge. Test out ideas, go with your curiosity. Your job for the next few years to become the best sociologists, criminologists, critics and scholars this world needs. And know that in these years, we have your back and are cheering you on.

We need your anger and curiosity. If you’re a sociologist, we need you to go all C. Wright Mills on this, and look deeply into the personal, individual problems that speak to public issues at a societal level. Or perhaps do a feminist, queer or postcolonial reading of current society. If you’re a criminologist, investigate how groups are vilified and criminalised and profiled. If you’re a political scientist, examine populism, examine it hard. If you’re a media scholar, get stuck into truthiness and the post-fact era, fact checking and the ways that media operate.

But we need you to be you. Like a wise man (ok, a cartoon character) once said, ‘Remember who you are.’ This is precisely what makes your voice important and speak volumes to your own communities and beyond. Stay humble, don’t patronise, don’t speak above where people are at. An academic friend of mine, Crystal Abidin has sage words for her students in Singapore: “I always tell my students that despite the booksmarts they compete to pursue in our rigid education system, the auntie selling tissue paper on the street wouldn’t care much for Durkheim or Queer Theory or 3500 word essays. The onus is on us to break out of these bubbles, to relate to each other, to be level citizens, to emphatize, to call out microaggressions, to visibilize systemic discrimination – to care and care enough to take action.”

We need you all more than ever. There is plenty of work to be done.

See you next week.