The Legend of Penn State's SOC 119

The Legend of Penn State's SOC 119

“You have GOT to see this video,” my friend said to me earlier this semester. We were sitting in her dorm room, relaxing and talking about life, classes, and relationships when she had a random burst of excitement! Normally I would have expected either a new song on YouTube or the latest viral video from her, but instead she pulled up this:

SOC 119, the trailer!

This is the official trailer for SOC 119 – Race Relations, one of the most popular elective classes at Penn State. Until that day, I had never heard of the class or of Sam Richards, the legendary professor of SOC 119. Since then, my friend and I have vowed to attend the class, which is held Tuesday and Thursdays from 4:15 to 5:30 in 100 Thomas. If you plan on going, don’t tell them I sent you.

Last week, equipped with our heavy winter jackets and scarves, we made our way through the wind and below freezing temperatures to one of the most talked about classes at PSU.

Upon entering the classroom a whole 10 minutes before class was set to begin, we discovered how crowded a 726 seat lecture hall can really be. Seats were scarce but we managed to find two next to each other. There probably were more than 726 people in the room from the combination of the actual class and from extraneous students like ourselves who decided to drop in to see what all the buzz is about.

soc 119Displayed on the screen in front of us was a live twitter feed of all the tweets containing #soc119. Most of them were about how awesome this class was, how good the music before class was (some Kendrick Lamar song) as kids entered the lecture hall, and how everyone was trying to save seats. One tweet made a good point against saving seats that the idea behind this class was to be more comfortable with strangers and to get to know people you normally wouldn’t talk to. I wasn’t sure if that was really the big message behind SOC 119, but I was about to find out.

Sam Richards looked like any average professor on the outside, dressed in his khakis and a button-down shirt, carrying his leather bag. But when he opened his mouth for the first time you could tell there was something different about him.

“Yo,” he said, “listen up. Here’s the deal…” He spoke like an average person, not like an established professor; more like a student than anything. For that very reason, I think the students respected him more. They all quieted down after he started talking and there was never a time after that when he had to hush the audience down. If that isn’t respect for a professor, then I don’t know what is.

Since it was early in the semester, Richards began explaining some general procedures of the class that involved something called #fresheyes and how other parts of the class would work. Then he got down to business.

SOC 119 focuses a lot on topics that involve whites vs. nonwhites, men vs. women and so on. It seems pretty difficult to cover such topics without getting someone upset or angry but Richards helped to rid me of those worries pretty fast. “This is not a class to bash white people,” Richards said. “This class will give you the opportunity to look all the way around.” SOC 119 is intended to open people’s eyes to the crazy stereotypes and preconceived notions that sometimes influence our decisions without us thinking about them.

The class that we ended up attending was based on race relations and the battle against inequality. One of the big questions Richards brought up was, “How did we get to where we are today?” He went on to perform an elaborate presentation with the help of six volunteer students involving the table and chair at the front of 100 Thomas. In the end, the big takeaway from class was that the rules and laws that white people created have kept other people out of the upper tier. “We don’t understand what is going on today if we don’t understand how we got here,” he said.

If you asked me if I enjoyed my short visit in SOC 119, I would say yes. The class is very different from any class I have experienced thus far at Penn State. It’s not about test grades or memorizing facts or dates or computing numbers to get big elaborate answers. It’s about life.

SOC 119 is about understanding who we are inside and how our history has made us believe and follow some of the stereotypes and preconceived notions that are so often thrown around today. It’s about opening our eyes to reality and helping us to see the good in every single person. This class certainly lives up to its legend. So whether you sign up to take the class, or decide to sneak in for a lecture or two, I would highly suggest visiting 100 Thomas.

And who knows, Sam Richards helped open my eyes, he may help open yours too.