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Eleanor Townsley

Professor of Sociology


See video of Townsley discussing her new book


From the Princeton Review:

A curiosity about the world around her and a passion for sharing it with students is what drives Eleanor Townsley, who teaches sociology at Mount Holyoke College. “In general, my goal is to help students see further,” says Professor Townsley.


“One way we say this in sociology, following C. Wright Mills, is that we want students to develop their sociological imaginations. I hope students know that I have their best interests at heart and believe they can do great things.”


These words of wisdom come from a woman who is described by students as “incredibly witty, thoughtful, and BRILLIANT in sociology,” extremely dedicated to her work, and “from her lectures alone you can see how much she loves what she studies.” Another student said, “I was not particularly interested in media or in sociology, and after taking her class, I’ve decided to major in sociology.” Though her preferred topic is theory, because, as Townsley says, “big ideas are important,” “she also enjoys introductory classes that allow her to act as the gateway to the field of sociology, as well as topics courses such as Intellectuals, Media and the Public Sphere, Sociology of Media, and Contemporary Theory and Cultural Sociology.


“I have always been fascinated by how intellectuals and ideas affect social change,” Professor Townsley says. “It seemed to me—and it still does—that sociology can provide both the theories and empirical tools to address these questions.”


Professor Townsley’s classes are a combination of lecture and discussion, and she likes to pose questions that students will keep thinking about after class. “One of my favorite exercises is to introduce the idea of small-scale social structure, that is, the idea that social interaction is structured,” she says. To illustrate the concept, she’ll break a mundane rule of social interaction to reveal how it works. “For instance, I will offer to shake someone’s hand and then quickly take my hand away when the student moves to return the handshake. Students typically laugh or say I’m mean. I then push them to elaborate why, and to describe what occurred more precisely. The goal is to get students to see how the operation of these small-scale social structures produce social order and support social institutions.”

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Taken on April 5, 2012