Jennifer Melvin is a sociologist and social demographer in the department of Behavioral Sciences. Her research agenda focuses broadly on the intersections of race, ethnicity, nativity, and gender, and how they form disparities in health and mortality for disadvantaged groups. Her most recent co-authored textbook, Debating Social Problems, was published in 2019 by Routledge. This textbook teaches students how to debate social problems by studying multiple argument styles and framing arguments in sociological theory. Additional work appears in peer-reviewed journals such as The Journal of Aging and Health, Demographic Research, and The Journal of Public and Professional Sociology. Her newest project with undergraduates focuses on housing challenges and gentrification processes in St. Augustine, and more specifically, the Lincolnville area.
What drew you to Flagler College, a small liberal arts teaching college?
My family vacationed in St. Augustine while I was growing up and I have always loved the architecture and history of Flagler College and St. Augustine. I was living in Austin and looking for a job at a small liberal arts college after teaching classes of 150 students and never knowing anything about my students, not even their names. Now I know most if not all the sociology majors and they often come by my office just to chat about something from class or a project they are thinking about. Sometimes they come by just to say hello. It is so refreshing to have that kind of advising relationship as well. In addition, I love being able to work with students on undergraduate research and I never had a chance to do that until I came to Flagler College. I really felt that Flagler was a good fit for me.
What has been the most rewarding experience?
My most rewarding experience is watching students grow intellectually and question many of their beliefs, values, and worldviews. The late sociologist, C. Wright Mills, coined the Sociological Imagination as a conceptual framework for understanding that you are never alone in this world. Anything you feel is being felt by others at the exact same time. This is built on the assumption that we are all interconnected through the intersection of biography and history that we share. Once students really grasp these concepts their perspective often changes and watching students develop this sociological imagination is so rewarding. Even if they are not familiar with sociology, they will at least (hopefully) take their sociological imagination with them in life.
Broadly speaking, Sociology is the study of human interaction, and it questions students’ world view. We also study current events as they pertain to sociology. These can be difficult conversations, and not everyone agrees, so there are debates in class. And that part of sociology can be challenging to teach. Staying as unbiased as I can while fostering these important conversations about inequality in our society is challenging. However, I believe it is important that students debate social issues and learn how to disagree in a mature and professional manner since that is a skill set that will serve them well throughout their lives.
How has Covid-19 affected how you teach?
I have been teaching remotely this semester because of COVID-19 and it has been a good experience so far. However, I constantly work at building community in my online classes with discussions that dig into the material we are studying. This is certainly more difficult to accomplish on an online discussion board than a conversation in class, and in that way, it is challenging since you are really trying to get students to engage throughout the week. I am really looking forward to getting back in the classroom.
I had a chance to observe your online course, you were able to cover the topic of the pandemic in a natural way for your specific class. Can you walk us through what your class prep looked like?
By May I knew I wanted to completely re-prep my Sociology of Medicine & Health class for the fall semester so that the focus was on COVID-19 as it disproportionality affects vulnerable sub-populations, especially African Americans, LGBTQ folks, essential agricultural workers, just to name a few. I took a critical approach based on health disparities and social stratification within the medical system and society itself. I also knew I wanted students to understand why vulnerable populations are suffering and receiving very little help. It is literally a case of marginalized folks being completely overlooked as they die in prisons, assisted living facilities, the fields, the meat industry slaughterhouses, and many of these folks never even make it to a hospital or they do and are turned away. I guess you could say that my prep was focused on the health disparities caused by COVID-19 and how social stratification, mitigates, or exacerbates the severity of the disease based on a variety of psychosocial factors. And what this looked like was me reading and learning everything I could about COVID-19 this past summer and into fall, finding quality reading materials on the virus, and building an online environment where students can engage deeply with the material, and also continuing to look for evidence-based articles on the virus – I guess you could say I’m still prepping because I introduce new data and we compare it to predictions made months ago.
If you could have dinner with any person alive or dead, who is it, and why?
The late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been on my mind a lot the past four years, and even more since her passing. People know her as a feminist icon and pioneer for women's rights, but she also battled stereotyped notions for both men and women (one of her most famous cases involved a man gaining the same rights as a woman). She was a complex woman who sometimes sided with conservative justices and did not always believe the Supreme Court should be the vehicle for progress. I would love to hear about her life experiences from her.