Professor Tom Linneman to be honored with Jefferson award

Tom Linneman

On the first day of each sociology course he teaches at the College of William and Mary, Tom Linneman assigns himself the first classroom project.

Most semesters at the College begin in the middle of the week and Linneman, an associate professor of sociology, spends part of each first class taking photos -- his students' photos. He then spends the weekend studying the photos on flashcards.

"My goal is to know all of their names by Monday," said Linneman, who teaches 100 or more students each semester. "It sends a message on the first day that they're not going to be able to hide in the back of the class and go unnoticed."

Linneman's students are not the only ones being noticed these days.

At this year's Charter Day celebration, Linneman will be awarded with the 2005 Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, the highest award given to young faculty members at William and Mary. In his seventh year at the College, Linneman has developed a reputation among his students as a demanding professor – but one who genuinely cares about them.

"Students know that Tom is friendly, funny and interesting, yet don't doubt that he expects hard work and participation in class," said one of Linneman's former students, Erica Nybro, a member of the Class of 2000. "Tom himself never loses focus of his ultimate goal of teaching his students, and is unafraid of trying new ways of communicating sometimes challenging ideas and skills."

Whether it's using a video clip from a news segment to spark discussion on race relations or picking up his guitar to sing a protest song during the middle of class, Linneman teaches the science of sociology in an interactive way that allows his students to connect to the material. That could come through splicing humorous animated characters into his PowerPoint slides, or assigning projects directed toward his students' own interests.

"He works through denser, more difficult material by pairing it with something much more accessible," senior Katie Dykgraaf wrote in one recommendation letter. "My favorite thing that Professor Linneman does with complex material in class is writing a haiku to illustrate a point, and asking the class to do the same thing."

In his short time at William and Mary, Linneman has also gained the respect of his colleagues in the 12-person Department of Sociology. He enthusiastically serves as a teaching mentor to new professors and also seeks leadership roles within the department.

"I can think of no one who personifies the best of what we are institutionally – and what he have become departmentally – in terms of thoughtfulness about teaching than Tom," Chancellor Professor of Sociology Kathleen Slevin wrote in recommending Linneman for the honor. "His attention to all aspects of teaching excellence is legendary in our department – among both faculty and students."

Linneman is perhaps best known for his approach to Social Statistics – a course that many young sociology majors consider as a necessary evil to their college degree.

From the first day of class, Linneman lets his students know that "talking in maths" is frowned upon. Using a variety of media, Linneman takes material that some initially consider boring or obscure and breaks down the fear of math in his students, showing them its real-world value.

"Teaching statistics to sociology majors is not an easy task – many of the students are math-phobic, and have been dreading this required course since declaring their major," noted a former student in recommending Linneman for the Jefferson award. "Tom was able to make statistics accessible, understandable and relevant to sociology students."

Linneman looks for interactive ways to involve his students in each topic. A typical day in one of his classes begins with a 20-minute lecture followed by a five-minute video clip on a related subject. The video clip is usually followed by a 10-minute discussion and then another 10 minutes devoted to lecturing, or another activity.

Linneman said some might criticize his approach as catering to the MTV generation – the assumption being that today's college students don't have a long enough attention span. According to Linneman, it's just a way of connecting with students on their level.

"We spend some time in class talking about sexuality and how sexual identity has changed over the past 50 years," said Linneman, using an example. "You can talk about that in a lecture but if you show them video clips of something from the 50s, something from the 80s and something from the present day -- that's really going to hit home a lot more."

However, this creative approach does not translate into easy grades for students. It's rare that someone receives an A in one of his courses. But unhappy students are even rarer. Student evaluations for his courses are full of praise – he's received perfect scores on student evaluations in the majority of courses he has taught at William and Mary.

"One of the first things I say in pretty much any class is that as much as I like Oprah, we're not going to teach the Oprah Winfrey approach … where we're just going to sit and talk about how we feel about this," he said. "Sociology is a social science. It's a soft science but it still is a science and we approach things scientifically. It's not just this field of study, it's something people do for a living and there are a lot of choices that have to be made. You could make good choices. You could make bad choices."

This passionate approach as a social scientist resonates with Linneman's students. They are eager to volunteer for his research projects – he's currently working with students on a research project on "Will and Grace," the popular NBC sitcom starring two characters who are gay men – and they are eager to learn about studying human social behavior.

"This project really came out of a conversation I had with a student," Linneman said. "We look at every episode and locate every instance where one of the men on the show is referred to as a woman. This happens hundreds and hundred of times on the show. It's a study of gender and sexuality and how the men on the show are continually feminized."

He added, "It's just a really fun project."

Keeping the job fun is the easy part, Linneman said. Connecting to students in a way that brings the course material to life for them is the rewarding part, he added.

"I get to talk everyday about stuff I'm interested in – and look into it, research it and teach it," Linneman said. "It's just a great job."