Civic Engagement in and out of the Sociology Classroom

Thomas Ehrlich gave us good guidelines when he defined student civic engagement as “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes” (Ehrlich 2000, vi). As useful as this definition is, I suggest we need to consider specific times and places in thinking through the civic engagement needs and contributions of students, faculty members, and communities. How does civic engagement look to a sociology department in a university in the mid-South? How do we try to contribute in the current political, social, and environmental moment? Answering those questions requires some understanding of the context, and contradictions, that we face every day.

Cultural Context and Contradictions

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) is located in one of the biggest cities in Appalachia. Knoxville is still a home to a mountain culture that continues to have great resonance for many of its residents. That culture has been simultaneously preserved and celebrated for its beauty and resilience, on one hand, and commodified and stereotyped, on the other hand. The mountain areas are a source of pride and tourist dollars, but those same mountains have suffered strip-mining and mountaintop removal, with subsequent ill health and pollution.

East Tennessee affiliated with the Union even though the rest of the state and region went Confederate. This allegiance may be meaningless to many readers, but for many in this area, those ideological divisions of almost 170 years ago remain. Non-southern readers should understand there is a very real and virulent neo-Confederacy movement thriving in the South, including Tennessee. Our state was the home of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the ex-Confederate general and slave trader who founded the Ku Klux Klan. But East Tennessee is also the home of the Highlander Research and Education Center, a famed social movement school that played enormously important roles in the southern labor movement, and the civil rights movement, and more recently continues to be an organizing hub for the movements for immigrant and LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter.

UTK’s Social Justice Project

Recognizing the contributions and contradictions in the place and time in which we live, the UTK Sociology department decided to pursue an umbrella project of social justice as an organizing structure for our scholarship and teaching. Our website articulates our mission this way: “A major goal of sociology is the application of (this) knowledge in the pursuit of human welfare and social justice, and the development of fair, effective, and sustainable institutions and policies.” Many of us had engaged in organizing or consulting work that built on our scholarship. As individuals, we had already found homes in peace and justice movements, the environmental justice movement, and in action against mass incarceration and for immigrant rights. As we recognized that we commonly used our scholarship to contribute to social justice movements, we deliberated about how to amplify that work in serious and varied ways. Our commitment to rigorous scholarship has never wavered, and we are mindful of our obligations to seek the best data possible. Yet as we gathered data, we simultaneously forged a culture that supported not only traditional research publishing, but also using that data and our skills to think through ways to make wider community impacts. The ways we make those impacts range from traditional community talks to expert witnessing to bringing our expertise to social movements. Our commitment to tangible impacts was nurtured when UTK was given a Carnegie designation as an engaged university, which provided further legitimacy for the work we are doing. Recently, the university has embarked on a quality enhancement project in service learning, which again affords some additional institutional backing.

Our social justice project has had significant influence on how we think about engagement. In doing so, we’ve revised the full undergraduate and graduate curricula. At both our undergraduate and graduate levels, our entry-level classes address ways to think about social justice by first defining social injustice—the stratification of life opportunities by race, class, gender, sexuality, and sexual identity, and the intersections among them. As our students come to understand the inequalities that confront us, they are pushed to think about ways to challenge them throughout the curriculum. Undergraduate students can choose to pursue a general sociology major, or to specialize in environmental sociology, critical criminology, critical race and ethnic studies, and soon in political economy; graduate students also have those four options. Classes in each area examine how specific institutions structure inequality and the patterned ways that people experience those inequalities. But those classes also unpack ways to think about addressing injustice through the rigorous examination of data and the application of theory that leads to action.

Three classes that cross the undergraduate specialty areas help the application of data and experience. Our applied methods class pushes students to select a semester-long project to research. In these days of “fake news,” it is crucial that students have the opportunity for extended research into controversial issues. Recent topics of that class, and others with similar aims, include the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and immigrant rights. Our professors take students well beyond the failure of social institutions to understand the racial and class components of how citizens were failed in Flint, and to understand the historical construction of immigrants as a political problem. Another class offers the whole class a semester long investigation of privilege while placing students in a social change organization. The structure of these classes offers students not only the ability to do research on local and tangible issues, but also a perspective on how organized groups pursue social change.

The other class that builds on our critical examination of our specialty areas is our internship class, in which we create opportunities for students to work in semester-long relationships with social justice organizations. The groups with which we’ve partnered to find placements for students include community schools, community legal facilities, local refugee service providers, public defenders, and an organization training disadvantaged youths in job skills pertinent to the green economy. Importantly, our student interns also attend class and read and discuss materials designed to help them understand their work experience through sociological lenses on race and ethnicity, work and organizations, and the political economy, among other fields. Our engagement work is further nurtured in our classes in community sociology, social values and the environment, political sociology, social movements, and globalization and social justice—all of which provide real-life examination of current data to offset the increasingly difficult process of sorting through multiple sources of information. As data become clearer to students, our professors provide greater opportunities to put those data to use in the community.

Engagement in and out of the Classroom

Engagement, to us, also means bringing scholarly communities together with others. To that end, we’ve held several conferences that extend beyond concerns of academics. These include conferences on the role of the university in struggles for social justice, on inequalities manifested in environmental extraction and environmental injustices, on ways to build the local green economy, on new directions in critical criminology and new directions in critical race and ethnic studies, and on labor and social change. These conferences have been organized by departmental faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, and interdisciplinary colleagues. But we’ve been careful at these conferences to reach out to community participants as presenters and audiences, and they have proven to be important venues for students and faculty to interact with workers in community organizations, local government, small businesses, and political organizations. Out of these conferences have come further opportunities for collaboration and career development.

Other ways we express our engagement is in response to specific issues and moments. UTK has unfortunately also been designated as a campus unfriendly to LGBTQ students by advocacy groups. This label was reinforced during a series of legislative assaults on institutions that fostered diversity at the university, including an office of diversity in the chancellor’s cabinet. The funding for that office was stripped by legislative action, with quiescent response by the university administration. During this controversy, sociology faculty members and students played significant parts in the critical response to the administration’s action and inaction. Amidst this threatening storm, our sociologists were there to advise, nurture, and support student-centered groups such as the UT Diversity Matters Coalition, the individuals leading those efforts, and individual students that sought comfort. Because of our consistent presence at demonstrations, rallies, meetings, and more, students always knew to whom they could turn during ongoing moments of struggle. In addition to supporting students, UT’s sociology professors took a leading role in circulating letters to faculty members and professional associations, seeking to support UT’s diversity institutions and personnel. Here too we relied on our professional expertise, as UT sociologists study the roots of exclusion and oppression. Our research helps illuminate obstacles in the way of meaningful diversity and interculturalism.

An Exemplar of Diversity

We also aspire to be an exemplar of diversity on the UTK campus and have taken many steps to that end. First, we took a critical look at our advertising for new faculty lines to create language that was more likely to attract diverse faculty. This change has worked to attract more applicants of color, even for positions in which the number of potential applicants is very small and the competition for those applicants is fierce. Our success has been demonstrable, as five of seven of our recent faculty hires were women and/or people with diverse backgrounds. Second, we revised policies regarding our annual graduate recruitment event. In the past, we have invited our top twenty-five candidates to attend. Last year, the Graduate Committee discussed how each factor in admission decisions (GRE scores, grades, letters of recommendation, personal statements) have been shown by research to disadvantage minority applicants. We decided that the “top twenty-five” invited to our showcase would include all applicants of color so that we would have better information on applicants that might otherwise not rise to the top of our pool. One positive outcome was that after we met and interacted with a student whose application materials looked “average,” he became our top recruit and is contributing greatly to our department. This year, we had ten students of color at our annual showcase and at least three who are sexual minorities.

We are an active department in other ways as well. In addition to our traditionally defined research work, many of us pursue what is often called public sociology. Other traditions call this work action research; regardless of the label, we are active in real and sustained ways that have impacts across the city, the state, the nation, and the globe. We work on immigrant rights and on anti–death penalty, anti-sweatshop, anti-racist, environmental, and union issues. We bring our scholarship to bear on real questions and take real action that has genuine consequences. We do this in ways that make significant and lasting difference to a variety of oppressed groups. We ally with or sponsor many progressive student organizations such as Oxfam, Students Who Stand, Student Peace Alliance, Young Democratic Socialists of America, United Students Against Sweatshops, UT Diversity Matters Coalition, and the Progressive Student Alliance. Some of the work those students do is heartbreaking in its beauty, its pain, and its need. We stand with their struggles just as we stand with others, and occasionally we stand alone. We are members and leaders in a variety of other action-oriented groups. All of this work is carried through paying attention to methodological rigor and theoretical nuance.

Long ago, one of sociology’s founding figures, Max Weber, argued that academics had to remain distant from an expression of their values as they pursued their research. The notion of engagement questions the viability of that stance. Engagement as practiced at the UTK Sociology Department suggests that academics' role is to be actively working in the community, supporting and leading, using our data and theory skills, and examining our time and place to see what contributions we can make in the search for social justice.


Ehrlich, Thomas, ed. 2000. Civic Responsibility and Higher Education. Phoenix: Oryx Press.

Jon Shefner, Professor of Sociology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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