Q&A with Dr. Colby King: Winner of the Honors Outstanding Faculty Award

By: Kasey Andrade

Colby (2)
Dr. Colby King

Dr. Colby King, an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department, is this year’s recipient of the Honors Outstanding Faculty Award. Check out the interview below to learn more about Dr. King, including his research interests, teaching philosophy, and best advice for students!

1.) What do you want students to know about you? (i.e. past career experience, research focus, outside interests, etc.)

I’m honored by the award, particularly because it is a student-nominated award. It really is a privilege working with BSU students and the BSU Honors Program.

I’m originally from western Pennsylvania, and got my Master’s and PhD at the University of South Carolina before getting this job at BSU. I teach and research urban sociology and social inequality, with a particular interest in how place shapes opportunities and how perceptions of particular places are created and become meaningful for the people who live and work there. I’m working on several research projects, and if you’re interested to know more about my areas of interest, a good place to start is my essays at the Everyday Sociology Blog.

I grew up in a working class family and was the first person in my family to get a Bachelor’s degree (which I’ve written about here). I share this because I know that many BSU students also come from working class backgrounds or will be among the first in their family to graduate college. When I arrived at Bridgewater I quickly learned that many of my faculty and staff colleagues here also come from these backgrounds. Over the last few years, I organized Class Beyond the Classroom (CBtC) to support students from these backgrounds and to promote solidarity among first-generation and working-class people at BSU. CBtC has held several story sharing events, and we have supported the formation of the new student group I am First!, through which many BSU students will be travelling to Class Action’s First Gen Summit this spring. In these activities, and in the classroom, I work to make supporting students from these backgrounds an integral part of our institution’s commitment to advancing diversity and social justice. I share my story as a way of demystifying the university, while also validating first-generation and working-class students, and promoting their sense of belonging.

My wife works for American Experience at WGBH (check out their films), and my brother is an artist (check out his work here). Also, I hesitate to get too political here, but I strongly support banning the designated hitter from baseball.

2.) What is a brief summary of your teaching philosophy?

I work to value students themselves, and to approach the material as if we’re learning together, because we are (I’ve just had a head start.). I want students to learn the fundamentals of the discipline while engaging with important topics and developing their critical thinking and communication skills. So, I teach through a variety of methods, including small and large group discussion, lectures, and a wide variety of active learning exercises and assignments.

Social inequality is a core area of my teaching and research, and a topic I have taught on in the Honors Program for several semesters. I am interested in social inequality because the forms and extent of social inequality really structures our social lives and our individual opportunities. Understanding social inequality is an important part of developing what C. Wright Mills called our sociological imaginations, which helps us make sense of our own lives and better navigate the possibilities presented to us.

I often say that many of the students here at BSU work harder just to get to the classroom than many students at other campuses work in class. This doesn’t mean I think classes should be easy for our students. Instead, I think it’s important to challenge students so that they get the most out of the effort they put into their studies. I assign low and high stakes writing and research projects, but I also expect students to bring thoughtful discussion to class and engage with their classmates, often in group projects. Through class discussion and group projects, students develop critical thinking and communication skills, but they also develop their social and cultural capital, both of which are critical resources for converting a college degree into more than just an official piece of paper.

I also try to demystify the “hidden curriculum,” or the unwritten rules about navigating college, by explaining how and why things work as they do in academia. I do this in part because how well students do in college should depend on their work and ability, not their skill in navigating an unfamiliar bureaucracy. We are fortunate to study at a place as diverse and dynamic as BSU. I think our classrooms are informed by the diversity of life experience brought to our campus from our students, faculty, and staff, and we should all value the perspectives that this diversity brings to our university.

3.) What has your experience been with the Honors Program?

I taught for three years in the Honors First-Seminar Cluster on Social Inequality, and have taught Honors sections of courses and advised Honors Theses. I’ve had the opportunity to see students do everything from questioning their own assumptions about a class topic, to completing a challenging research project about an important social issue, and all of these experiences have been great.

I have also appreciated the opportunity to work with colleagues across disciplines in the Honors Program. Refining the FYS Cluster each year with colleagues from all over campus was great, and teaching in the cluster reaffirmed my appreciation for the broader liberal arts.

4.) What is your best advice for students?

Challenge yourself not just by doing things that are difficult but by also doing things that are different. By that I mean, embrace the full breadth of a liberal arts education – take the art class, or the physics class, or the sociology class that you are curious about. Even if (or especially if) it’s not immediately obvious how it relates to getting a job after graduation, that class will improve your academic agility and will likely encourage you to be more curious, more creative, and better informed about the world. Read the material. Ask questions. Learn the fundamentals of your discipline. Break big projects down into the smallest possible pieces – each piece will be more manageable, and completing each piece will help you build momentum.

Make the most of the opportunity to build relationships with people who you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to if you weren’t a student here. But also, practice sharing what you are learning at BSU with folks outside of college. Being able to communicate what you are learning with others, especially those outside of college, is an important skill in itself, but this will also reaffirm the value of higher education.

5.) Why do you think it is important for students to have faculty members as mentors during their undergraduate career? What have you learned from mentoring students?

Thinking back to when I was a student, I know that some of the things that helped me the most were things I learned from mentors. Advice that I got from mentors, like breaking big projects down into small, manageable parts, or taking a wide variety of classes to broaden my perspective, really transformed my educational experience. I would not be nearly as effective in teaching were it not for the mentors that I had in college, graduate school, and now while at Bridgewater. I think many students today see the same value in developing relationships with faculty mentors.

There’s an often overlooked literal-ness in the word “discipline” in academia. In writing their dissertation and earning their PhD faculty have demonstrated that they are sufficiently able to navigate and contribute to their particular academic discipline; they are “disciplined,” in that way. It is very useful for students to understand the discipline as they study any particular subject in academia. It is important for student to have faculty mentors during their undergraduate studies because those mentors will help them learn the disciplines, in addition to the course material.

I have learned all kinds of things from mentoring students. I have learned how hardworking BSU students are, of course. I have been reminded of how useful sociology can be in helping us understand the social world (and how great it is to teach sociology). Reflecting on the Honors Theses I’ve mentored and the classes I’ve taught, I have also learned about assimilation of forced migrants in Lebanon, and perceptions of political strategies for addressing social inequality, and how perceptions of craft labor are commodified in “hip” butcher shops and barbershops. I might have learned about these things either way, but I learned about them more deeply through the work I’ve done with students here in the Honors Program at BSU.

Congratulations, Dr. Colby King!

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