President Sullivan's First U.Va. Course Offers More Than 'Sociology of Work'

President Teresa A. Sullivan has taught a course on the sociology of work more than 15 times over the past 35 years, and she did so once again during the University of Virginia's January Term.

But this time around, there were several firsts: her first time teaching a course at U.Va., her first time teaching a course while a university president, and her first time teaching a J-Term course.

So why did she carve out time from her overstuffed schedule to get back in the classroom? "A lot of reasons," she said.

"It's partly the love of teaching," she said. "Partly, it's giving a good example, because I would like J-Term to flourish, and this is one way of showing faculty that I think it's important. Of course, I always look for ways to get to know the students better, and this is one way to do that. And the students are drawn from all schools and departments, and not just my own department, and I think that's helpful, too."

The compressed J-Term schedule – four hours of daily classroom time for two weeks – prompted a few small changes – adding daily group exercises and dropping some writing assignments. Otherwise, the course had much in common with past iterations, and incorporated the many refinements and lessons learned through teaching a course over decades.

Sullivan's mastery of the subject is clear. In fact, she co-authored the course textbook, "The Social Organization of Work," now in its fifth edition.

"She has this breathtaking arsenal of knowledge, and she's so efficient in delivering the information," said Clay Kerchof, a second-year urban planning major in the School of Architecture from Birmingham, Ala.

Kerchof was one of 17 students in the seminar class, mostly third- and fourth-year students, from a wide variety of majors, including English, commerce, philosophy and economics, as well as sociology.

"This is one of a few select classes that I've taken that U.Va. where I actually feel like it has made me a smarter person," said Maria Malas, a fourth-year philosophy and French double major in the College of Arts & Sciences, who will be joining Teach for America after graduation. "I can have an intelligent conversation with someone about multinational corporations or globalization or different factors that affect the workplace or the nuances of how unemployment is calculated."

The students were aware of the unique privilege of taking a class taught by the president. "It's great to get to know her in this setting," Kerchof said. "There's no other way we'd have a chance to get so much face time with her."

Sullivan interspersed the basic subject material with nuggets of wisdom. For instance, after laying out the underlying dynamics behind the financial squeeze many households face – the rising expenses like health care and college tuition, and stagnant average real wages since the 1990s – she noted that many have opted to take on more debt, including second mortgages. "Not prudent," she advised. "Your problem already is lack of income, so why would you think you're going to be able to pay it back?"

When talking about the challenges of balancing one's family and work roles, and explaining how simply managing a household is time-consuming, she wryly noted, "Your parents are probably sufficiently deft at this that you don't realize it involves a fair bit of time."

"The sociology of work is applicable to just about everything," said Phil Boothe, a fourth-year economics major from Fairfax County, who transferred to U.Va. from Northern Virginia Community College.

Sullivan uses the subject as an opportunity to engage students in thinking about their own work experience and plans. The material naturally lends itself to that connection, she said. "It seems to me a shame to cover such meaty topics, and not tie it to 'when you are a worker, you should think about …' So there was a lot of that, and that was a theme all the way through."

Sullivan invited several employees in her office to speak with the class about their own careers. Her assistant, Sean Jenkins, discussed the challenges of balancing work and home life with a 1-year-old son. "Marriage is a huge life change, but it's not even comparable to the change one experiences entering parenthood," he told them. 

John Simon, executive vice president and provost, described how his academic career led to his current position, something he never expected or planned. He had turned down a previous provost job offer, because "if you don't respect the team you have to work with, and resonate with the values of the institution, you're going to hate the job."

He explained how he generally doesn't think about or plan out his own career ladder. "I don't aspire to do anything that I'm not doing now. ... You can't do a job well if you're focused on positioning yourself for your next job."

Sullivan hoped the speakers would help the students realize that everyone's career path is unique, and often includes unexpected turns. "I want students to know that if you don't have it all figured out at age 22, that's all right. Lots of people don't have it figured out at age 22. And they still have a great career. They heard that in lots of different ways."

For many of the students, leaving Grounds will be the first time since kindergarten that their path ahead is wide open. 

"The ambiguity of the future is tough," Kerchof said. "But dealing with that is part of growing up, I guess."

By the final days of the class, Sullivan sensed that many of the students were more confident about entering working life after college, she said. 

Fourth-year English major Kelsey Miller, who finished her coursework a semester ahead of schedule, chose this for her final course at U.Va. Next month, she will move to Montana to work for the Northern Plains Resource Council on conservation and agricultural policy that impacts family farms.

"It energized me to be in this class, and to interact with someone who's awesome, working all the time, and doing cool things," she said.

— By Brevy Cannon

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications