By Brooke O'Neill
Photo by Chris Strong

Sociologist Kristen Schilt explores how cultural assumptions about gender and sexuality can perpetuate inequality. Studying populations such as transgender men in the workplace and graduate students, she uses ethnographic and survey research to unravel the ways gender, sexuality, and race create persistent disparities. In the classroom, she strives to make sure every student has an equal voice.

What does the award mean to you?

It’s very nice. I really love doing research, but I also really value teaching. It’s something I’ve tried my whole career to put a lot of thought and energy into, so it was really exciting to win the award—and very unexpected.

Talk a bit about your teaching methods.

I’m really about two things: involving students in the learning methods and fostering community. I try to lecture very little and get people to have more of a structured discussion. In classes, I have people introduce themselves and get to know each other. That creates much better discussion.

Who inspires you as a teacher of graduate students?

During graduate school I developed a lot of skills for teaching undergraduates, and then I got here and was like, “Oh, wait. How do you teach graduate students?” Luckily, I’m in a department where people are always striving to make themselves better, so I asked some of the more senior faculty if I could sit in on some of their classes. Andrew Abbott was a really big source of inspiration, as was Mario Small.

What do you most enjoy about teaching?

There’s something really exciting about seeing students come to a different kind of understanding. Maybe they’re going to end up back where they started—that’s fine—but they’ve gone on a journey. Seeing a change in the quality of work people hand in over the quarter or seeing them grasp a complex theoretical concept as you discuss it in class are really rewarding moments.

What’s special about teaching UChicago grad students?

One thing that’s unique about Chicago is that while it’s a research-intensive university, it’s also a place where people are really focused on teaching. At many universities winning a teaching award would be kind of ho-hum, but here my department was really excited for me. That’s what is really fantastic about this place: People are superb researchers, and they also pride themselves on being superb teachers. Of course, we also get fantastic graduate students, who make it very easy to do this work.

What do you know now that you didn’t when you started teaching?

I know now that discussion doesn’t just happen because you say, “Let’s discuss.” Not everybody is going to feel equally comfortable speaking, and sometimes you’re going to have to really think about how to involve everyone in the class in the conversation, rather than just the two or three most vocal. That’s one of the hardest skills to learn, particularly from the faculty perspective, because you really appreciate people who talk. But you have to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone is talking and think about ways to get others involved.

What words of wisdom do you have for future professors?

Pay more attention to how your grad classes are taught. We spend so much time thinking about how to teach undergraduates because that’s what we’re trained to do as graduate students. Seek out opportunities to learn more about teaching.

Originally published on June 4, 2012.