S T E P H E N . V A L O C C H I
The following feature story appeared in the campus publication MOSAIC in November, 1997.
Stephen M. Valocchi
Learning to see both the constraints and the grand possibilities in the world
Associate Professor of Sociology Stephen M. Valocchi smiles as he recounts a former student teaching assistants comments to an introductory sociology class. Sociology is not easy. Sociology hurts, Kathleen M. Sauer 94 once told his class, Valocchi recalls. While sociology points out the constraints, it also points out the grand possibilities when people recognize those constraints and then choose to act differently, she asserted.
Valocchi is pleased with Sauers assessment of the discipline because he believes it conveys the essence of what he teaches. What sociology does so well is remind us that individuals make choices within a certain kind of context and a certain kind of structure, Valocchi says. Some individuals have many choices, and other individuals have fewer choices. Most of the time, these choices come to us by accident of birth, by accident of our race, class, sex, and social position. Sociology reminds me and my students that individuals are not as free as we think we are,
Since joining Trinitys faculty 12 years ago, Valocchi has become known as an engaging and popular teacher. A Pennsylvania native who holds a doctoral degree from Indiana University, Valocchi, who is the department chair, teaches classes in race and ethnicity, social class and mobility, social movements, and political sociology.
A mediator, moderator, and guide
Since Ive come to Trinity, Ive played with the boundary between communicating material and engaging students, so that my courses have become more interactive and more Socratic in nature more a conversation between students, with me as mediator, moderator, and guide, he explains. His students eagerly respond to his teaching approach. Its really easy to get students to see the relevance of sociology to their everyday lives. Theyre poised and ready to do that. Trinity students want to see the connection. If anything, they have challenged me to do more of that.
To see the connection, Valocchi encourages his students to become more closely involved with the people they study. Research can be a very alienating experience. I encourage my students to do more qualitative interviewing of a small group of people so a closer connection between the subject and the object of the research can be made. I want my students to look at, and not simply understand in the abstract, the different theories of power in society, understand them, and then apply them in some context.
Students in Valocchis course in Social Class and Social Mobility, for instance, spend the semester reading ethnographies, and in so doing undertake a journey up the class-structure ladder from the lowest socioeconomic group to the super-rich. Students then produce an ethnography of their own. Students go and spend time with people different from themselves. They develop a relationship with their subjects so the final project becomes both personal and sociological.
In his own research, Valocchi has put a personal face on Hartford. As a member of the Hartford Studies Project, an interdisciplinary research and teaching effort of the College that explores Hartfords past in relation to its present, Valocchi compiled oral histories of city residents who grew up during the Great Depression. He is working on a book-length manuscript of the results entitled Hartford Voices. He is also examining the gay liberation movement, an outgrowth of his ongoing research into social movements, for which he received a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship last year.
Bringing life to the classroom
Sociology has become a very personal pursuit for Valocchis students. Sociology major Adrian L. Reyes 00 took an independent study with Valocchi in which he studied the process of ethnic identity formation of Puerto Ricans born in New York. Id always wanted to study Nuyoricans, he said. Professor Valocchi helped me develop the topic and course curriculum. He has a phenomenal interactive teaching style that brings life to the classroom.
Sean F. Griffin 98 is an Individualized Degree Program (IDP) student and psychology major who is a teaching assistant in Valocchis Race and Ethnicity course this semester. The course is challenging in terms of content and the volatility of the subject matter, he says. But Professor Valocchi creates a classroom environment in which its safe to bring out your personal feelings.
Professor of Sociology Noreen L. Channels says of her colleague, As a teacher, Steve is very effective in getting students to deal with difficult, complicated issues. He respects their points of view and gets them to think critically. Hes a wonderful colleague whos well-informed about social issues.
For Valocchi one of the best things about teaching sociology at Trinity is the variety of students he encounters in the classroom. Over the last 12 years, my classes have become more diverse in terms of class, race, and sexuality, he observes. The challenge for me is to put together a course with a body of material that challenges my students and gets them to look at their experience in life as material. Because they have different experiences, they react to the material differently. The diversity makes for a much more enjoyable classroom.
If students are forced to deal with differences and different experiences, they are forced to see that theyre not the center of the universe. Thats a learning experience for students, and its a learning experience for me, too.
-- Suzanne Zack