Through the Looking Glass | Dr. Mike Sosteric

Published by Nelson Canada. Cite as:

Sosteric, Mike (2013). Through the looking glass: engaging students in the new communication age. In Fostering Conversations: About Teaching Sociology in Canada. Toronto: Nelson. []

Through the looking glass: engaging students in the new communication age

As Sociologists and teachers we are constantly trying to make contact with our students, engage them, and transform them (Bereska, 2013; Brym, 2013). In traditional “brick and mortar” universities, becoming a good instructor in the classroom may be enough, but in the boundary-less world of modern communication technologies, where content can be delivered at a distance, and where instructors may never see, speak, or even hear their students, being good in the classroom becomes largely irrelevant. In the new age the question is not how to engage a student in the classroom, the new question is how to engage a student made increasingly sophisticated about written communication (Hudd, 2013) through the looking glass of a high res, smart phones, screens.

Thankfully we already know the answer to the question, mostly. As Brym points out, we have to tell a good story. In the traditional university, a good lecturer does that in the classroom, becoming an actor of sorts, performing stories with dramatic interest and flare. Telling a story through the high res looking glass is, however, different. Traditional rules may not apply, and new challenges impinge on our awareness. Through the looking glass, students are no longer a captive audience, bound by the temporal and spacial limits of their bodies. Through the looking glass, students are free to disengage at any time and look elsewhere for instruction. Through the looking glass, and because of the ubiquity of social media, students arrive practiced in the communication of their own thoughts and sophisticated in the use of narrative to communicate. And if this was not challenge enough, instructors often lack in feedback. In the classroom we can see the faces of the people we teach, and we know for certain if students are engaged, or when boredom and confusion threaten the learning experience. Through the looking glass it is not so. Through the looking glass we may lose Alice down the rabbit hole without ever even knowing she was there.

So, what do you do?

You tell a good story, but you do it in writing.

And how do you do that?

Well, as Cheshire the Cat tries to teach Alice, first you have to admit what isn’t there so that you can see what it is that you’re missing. Second you have to know where you’re going before you can get to where you might want to be. For me knowing where I’m going comes via a recognition of where I have been, and where I have been is through an post-secondary education system that teaches (and attaches) me to only one type of writing, and not a very useful type at all (if, that is, we define useful as the number of people we ultimately engage). Our pride is linked to the obscurity of our discourse (Sosteric, 2011), our voice is stifled by the fetish of our citations, and like Cheshire the cat, engagement and communication fade into the invisible etheric mist. But surely, in a field where communication is key, this is a fundamental irony. We are aware of, and invoke, the power of narrative, but like the invisible cat behind the elusive grin, its accomplishment eludes us. There is, however, a grace here. We allow ourselves to see only the grin, and thus we can ignore the non-existence of what we know should be there (i.e. good writing). We don’t need to pretend it is there because we delude ourselves that it doesn’t exist anyway. In this way we don’t have to realize what has in fact not been in front of our faces all along (i.e. good writing). This is probably a good thing since our heads might pop right off if the truth was ever revealed too quickly.

Of course, this brings us back to the question, how do you tell a good story.

Well, ask somebody who doesn’t know and they’ll tell you there is no definitive way. It is an art, it is a fashion, it is a fading Cheshire feline. For myself, though, I think the path through the forest is clear and straightforward, and some useful general guidance can be proffered.

Set intent. I always ask myself the question, what is it that I want to do? Do I want to prove to my reader how learned I am, or do I want to punch them in the metaphorical nutsack to get their attention. It makes a difference in how the words flow out, and in what direction I revise. As I write these next words I am unconcerned about your opinion about me, and more concerned that you are listening to what I’m saying. As this sentence follows upon the last, my thoughts flow back over what I’ve written and I wonder not only if I have your attention, but if I’ve accomplished the task at hand (which is to get you to pay attention, to engage you long enough, so that you hear what I have to say). If I have, then I am on the right path. If I haven’t, then I try to be honest about it. Pretending something is there (i.e. my reader’s attention) when it is not is about as logical as engaging in a conversation with an invisible cat.

Know thine audience. Accomplishing the task at hand is a complicated process, no doubt. It is even more complicated when you consider the fact that we all think differently. What works to engage the emotions and attention of a left-brain-dominant academic will not work on a first year university student. You have to know the difference not just at a superficial level, but at a deep level. Psychological and emotional responses change as the education process proceeds and this is something you’ll need to become aware of. They key is emotions. You want to invoke the emotions of your reader! Engaging writing is emotional writing. Engaging writing tugs at our cares and our passions, our prejudices and our conventions, not necessarily with a view towards positive emotive response. You can engage emotions by subtly offending, poking with a stick, or dancing an annoying jig around the core meaning of a phrase just as much as you can by softly strumming the heart strings of passion. Of course, the admonishment to know they audience takes on heightened importance when you bring emotions into play because engaging emotions increases risk. There is often a fine artistic line between dancing a playful jig, and stomping on the readers toes.

Of course, the deep challenge here (and here you must see beyond the cliché) is that knowing your audience may first require you to know yourself. This may be a challenge for some, but if you’re going to be a good story teller you’re going need to cross that bridge.

Of course, the deep challenge here (and here you must see beyond the cliché) is that knowing your audience may first require you to know yourself. This may be a challenge for some, but if you’re going to be a good story teller you’re going need to cross that bridge. The first step across that bridge is to be honest with yourself. If you are a lousy writer, admit it. If you are unfamiliar with the range of human emotions, face that. You don’t get to be a good writer by deluding yourself. The only way forward from here is personal honesty and emotional integrity of self. You can dance and play along the way, but be honest and truthful all the same.

Be playful and explore. Speaking of dancing, as an academic our ability to play may have been beaten out of us by the colourless grind of our advanced intellectual training, but we shouldn’t assume others have lost out as well. Engage potential readers by playing with them. Play with words, play with emotions, jab at your audience with a pointed stick, take the position of the Red Queen and threaten to cut off their heads if you think that will do the trick. It matters not how you do it, only that you get them to take a closer look (without going just a little too far). In some cases this might involve an abrasive, flailing jig. In others subtle tweaks of deep emotional structures may do the trick. In the best of cases you can be open, forthright, and filled with humor, making jokes if you are confident in your ability to control your readers emotions. But stay at a cautious distance if unsure, or walking on sensitive ground.

Practice and be brave. Even though we are barely a third of the way through the forest, the challenge, Shirly must be coming into clear focus. Knowing your audience, invoking emotions, and engaging them through creative, playful, writing takes skill. Developing the necessary skill takes time, commitment, patience, and practice. It takes, on average, about eight years to learn how to write in an academic vein. If you want to draw fluids from another vein, you’re going to have to take time to practice and develop just the same. Traditional outlets for scholarly output are insufficient since they demand you drain your voice, perspective, and playful inner core from your magnificent creative output, in favor of rhetorical fantasies of objectivity. New venues for exploration, like my own Socjourn that provides a place for professionals to practice creatively engaging with the student audience, are required. Of course, bravery is a required as well. Writing an academic article requires “removing the subject” (that’s you) and replacing it with the banal authority of others. This requires no courage at all since you can always blame failure on someone else. On the other hand writing to creatively communicate requires you to stand and deliver in isolation. Even with the intimidating snicker snack of a vorpal blade in hand, you stand on your own. Be brave and be strong. Open your vital psychic organs to the sneering derision and foul breath of the Bandersnatch, and then kill it dead as it inhales deep in preparation to attack.

Ignore authority. Speaking of slaying the foul beast, engaging your reader, whether that is through narrative, parable, or playful riposte, demands that you ignore those who tell you the way it should be done. Guidance and direction are OK, but boredom is the inevitable outcome of rule or authority based repetition. To engage your reader you need to be creative and you can only do that by periodically breaking convention. Of course, be sensible about this. Don’t break a rule or ignore advice for the sake of breaking a rule or ignoring advice. Doing so does not make you a creative writer, it only makes you a gangly, rebellious, adolescent.

Claim authority. To engage the reader you have to be confident. Speaking in your own voice will only get you so far, especially if your voice is weak and unsupported. Singers ground their voice in the diaphragm and sing from the stomach (chakra). You must learn to do the same. Knowing your audience, practicing your skills, engaging emotions, and narrative playfulness should lead you to write not with the booming voice of the autocrat, but with the powerful and (gravely, abrasive, gentle, or lilting) voice of authority

Finally, be open, not only with the practice of others, but with your practice as well. I have written traditional scholarly articles, short pieces designed to challenge ideological conventions and engage emotions (Sosteric, 2012; 2012a), “teaching monographs” designed to provide a looking glass view on complicated topics like social class, money, the economy, accumulation, debt, and the inevitable political conflict results (as Michael Sharp, 2010), and even “parables” (really just stories about spiritual topics) when I think the form might be effective. I’m not always successful, and in fact recently have been erasing a lot of my earlier writing as I cringe at their creatively primitive character, but “putting it out there” no matter how outside of accepted convention it is, and how rough around the edges it might be, is required for forward advance. Singers take singing lessons that is true, but they sing in front of other people as part of their self-training program. Whatever caliber of writing it is that you aspire to, you must do the same.


Bereska, Tami (2013). What Makes a “Good” Lecture. Fostering Conversations: Nelson. []

Brym, Robert (2013). Engagement in the Classroom. Fostering Conversations: Nelson.[]

Hudd, S.S. (2013). Writing Sociology: Practices of a Discipline. Teaching Sociology. 41: 2-4.

Sharp, Michael (2010). The Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy: Accumulation and Debt. St. Albert: Lightning Path Press []

Sharp, Michael (2008). Parable of the Ships. Lightning Path Press. []

Sosteric, Mike (2012). The emotional abuse of children. Socjourn. []

Sosteric, Mike (2012a). Ding dong the alpha male is dead. Socjourn. []

Sosteric, Mike (2011). Better writing through intent. Socjourn. []