Inside Scoop
It may be role-playing, but this prof’s not playing

On the first day of Introduction to Sociology class, Jim Wolfe comes strolling into the classroom wearing a burlap feed bag turned inside out.

The professor becomes a primitive, a man from another time, one who knows nothing about 21st-century life. Students are confused at first, but they soon come to realize that the point of this strange visitor is to get them to think about their own community and society. And instead of simply sitting and listening to a lecture, students find themselves engaged in a discussion.

“It’s an empowerment session,” says Dr. Wolfe. “Students take charge of their learning and become active participants, and they find it very liberating, too.”

But other “guests” come to visit. Dr. Wolfe has dressed as a man from Mars, a Pilgrim, a woodsman, a Scot, a Buddhist monk—even as infamous cult leader Jim Jones.

“When I show up as these characters,” he explains, “I provide a window on the world outside the University. It challenges the students to come up with their own views in contrast to the extreme views I present.”

On Culture Day, he comes in wearing a kaftan and speaking French. On Deviance Day, he’s an Amish, gay, crippled ex-con. On Gender Day, he appears in a pink outfit, hose, heels, and a wig, encouraging women to “serve their men” and marry rich husbands.

“Students are exposed to new aspects of the world and reprocess familiar aspects of the world in the spirit of free, humanizing inquiry,” Dr. Wolfe says. “I tell students that this is their course, not mine, and that I want them to talk, to argue, to discuss, and truly study society.”

In Introduction to Sociology, the first session ends with Dr. Wolfe passing out the course outline, which gives structure to the class. But in some of his experiential courses, there is no outline. In Poverty and Society, students are graded on the basis of the number of hours they put in reading about poverty, writing about it, hearing guest speakers in class (who either are poor themselves or work with the poor), observing poverty, or helping the poor. The Community Organization class brings community organizers whom students can assist. In Religion and Society, about half the sessions have guest speakers from various faiths.

“I hope students—especially freshmen—realize this is a great time to be alive and take advantage of learning opportunities,” says Dr. Wolfe. “Learning is an adventure, so let your mind wander and explore.”