SCU’s Sociology Department
Celebrating Sixty Years of Reflective Evolution
As many department alums and friends of the department know, the Sociology Department at Santa Clara will celebrate its 60th anniversary in a few months! In the mid-1950s, one sociology course had been taught by a member of the History Department, and then at the urging of an outside accrediting agency, Santa Clara’s administration agreed to hire one full-time sociologist to teach starting in the fall 1957. Witold Krassowski, beloved by many as Dr. K, quickly earned the respect of administrators and in the spring of his first year on campus. Before that year was out the Board of Trustees granted departmental status to Sociology and authorized it to offer major. That was in the spring of 1958 and by the fall of 1958 a major was in place. In the sixty years since there have been several significant periods of change in the department’s curriculum and character.
At first the Sociology Department was quite small and graduated its first cohort of students in 1960. Working with a handful of students in each of the early graduation cohorts, the major required a senior thesis of all students, emphasized close personal interaction between students and faculty, and provided solid preparation which served graduates well in their work lives. The department also created a cognate in Anthropology. Most graduates from that time remained well connected to the department, particularly while Dr. Krassowski was alive. The rate of progression of graduates from SCU into graduate school in Sociology and eventual to teaching positions was high, and success of Sociology graduates in a range of other professions was also quite notable.
The department grew steadily after 1964, no doubt in part because of the energy generated by the Civil Rights Movement, debate about the Vietnam War, and many other causes and movements of the time. During those same years (1964-1973) the Sociology Department was also the administrative center of a separate and interdisciplinary Social Science major. A herculean effort was expended for a few years to maintain the atmosphere of a small department offering close personal attention, and there continued to be novel curricular experiments, one of which was the addition of an internship course. But the department’s rate of growth bordered on astounding. But the time the number of number of graduates in the Sociology major combined with the number of graduates in the Social Science major peaking at 90 in 1972, the demographic reality of department growth was forcing consideration of significant programmatic change. The required senior thesis was abandoned in 1972 (to be reinstituted in 1980) and the Social Science major was disbanded in 1973. The inaugural meeting of the department’s undergraduate research conference which took place in the spring of 1974 represented the department’s continued commitment to providing faculty support for students but could not change the fact that the department had been transformed in significant ways by high enrollments.
Growth in the Sociology major at Santa Clara up to 1973 mirrored or exceeded national trends and is evidence of the SCU Sociology Department’s success in offering students an academic home and an intellectual vantage point from which to examine the pressing issues of the times. But the department’s success in attracting large numbers of students meant it was impossible to maintain the original character with an individualized senior thesis required of every student and an emphasis on open-door faculty availability and careful mentoring for each student. After a difficult transition in the early 1970s, the department modified its program to involve large numbers of Santa Clara students in thoughtful discussion of pressing societal and community issues. But as this transition was made, two cataclysmic shocks transformed Sociology’s position relative to student demand. By early in 1973 the dramatic reduction in American military ground presence in Vietnam was softening the intensity of the campus activism which had caused enrollments in Sociology courses to balloon. By the end of 1973 a major oil embargo was starting to produce ramifications which would manifest themselves in several years of “stagflation;” painfully slow growth in employment and wages accompanied by uncomfortably significant price inflation and high interest rates. Parent and student attitudes about education quickly changed and were expressed in a single question uttered with new emotional vehemence. “What kind of job and I going to get with a Sociology degree?” After that the Sociology Department experienced 15 years of steadily declining enrollments. Lacking a critical mass of sociology majors, the depth of classroom discussions in many classes suffered student enthusiasm for the Sociology major slowly diminished. Partly in an effort to regain its sense of value as a major, the Sociology Department re-instituted a required senior thesis starting with the class of 1980, but the department continued to struggle with the logistical challenge of bringing more rigor into the major while defining the content and expectations of most courses with the needs of the non-majors in mind. By the mid-1980s the number of Sociology graduates produced by the department fell into the single digits in some years. No sociology faculty were received tenure from 1973 to 1988 (although Anthropology was launched as a distinct major within the Department in 1978, and two Anthropology faculty members were tenured during that period).
In the late 1980s and early 1990s a steady series of small programmatic initiatives were taken within the department in an effort to follow what the American Sociological Association was then viewing as recommended practices; developing a building block developmental curriculum made up of sequenced courses, strengthening research methods, providing more opportunities for students to participate in faculty-directed research, and trying to bring students into somewhat closer contact with meaningful opportunities for engagement in the wider community. Astonishingly, in 1998 SCU’s sociology major won the American Sociological Association’s coveted Distinguished Contributions to Teaching Award for developing a building block curriculum providing sound theory/methods preparation and demonstrating the relevance of academic skill-sets for those confronting challenges in organizations and communities. Most of the first decade of the 21st century was spent improving the department’s delivery of its developmental, building block curriculum. This including the 2002 launch of Silicon Valley Notebook which was originally designed as an in-house publication to showcase outstanding student work produced moving through the department’s developmental curriculum. Enrollments in the major increased, and job and graduate school placement improved substantially, as did the level of student identification with the major all improved.
Despite the successes the department enjoyed after sequencing building block courses, practical problems increased over time. For a small department to offer a curriculum of sequenced courses it must be realistic to assume that students can be scheduled (and will understand that they need to be scheduled and will appreciate being scheduled) to take particular courses at particular times. But this assumption grew less realistic over time, as greater numbers of Sociology students took on two and sometimes even three majors. At the same time Study Abroad changes reduced predictability in scheduling a study abroad experience, which started to regularly cause problems for a department trying to sequence courses there was only staffing to offer once each year. Furthermore, as the cost of college education rises, more of our students have part-time employment and work longer hours on, and even off, campus. Maintaining a building block curriculum in a small department can also seem to defy the kind of expert/specialist career model which contemporary universities hold faculty members accountable to. For a combination of reasons, then, it has become apparent that Sociology’s tightly bound course sequencing, for which it won an important national award in 1998, is no longer working well under current conditions.
The department celebrates the fact that it realizes the time has come to rethink and revise the curriculum we have in order to support the future success of our current students, considering staffing and other resources the department has and the conditions we anticipate our students may confront in the future. Thus, as the department ends its sixtieth year, we realize this is the time for a new round of curricular change to invigorate the program with a realistic and forward-looking vision. We feel enthused and optimistic as we envision a future-looking program which can be delivered by the faculty who are likely to be on campus for years to come, following the upcoming retirements we anticipate. We have always benefited from and been privileged by great feedback and insight coming to us from alumnae/alumni and other friends of the department. Please keep us in your thoughts as we embark on the next part of our journey. The outcomes will be more illustrious with your help and involvement.