Golden Apple lecturer details political power of optimism


During her “ideal last lecture,” Golden Apple Award recipient Sandra Levitsky discussed her road to becoming a teacher, described the underlying optimism behind the study of sociology, and emphasized how using one’s voice to promote social change is a politically powerful form of optimism.

Levitsky, associate professor of sociology, LSA, was honored Monday with the 28th annual Golden Apple Award, which annually recognizes one professor for outstanding teaching. The award is the only student-selected teaching recognition on campus.

Golden Apple Award recipients are charged each year with giving a lecture as if it’s their last, a tradition inspired by teacher Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos, who taught others to “get your life in order one day before you die.”

Levitsky opened the lecture detailing her journey to becoming a teacher. She said in her teens, she fell in love with words and their power to persuade, and set her sights on becoming a lawyer. However, once she attended law school, she got the opportunity to co-teach a class and she discovered she wanted to be a teacher.

Levitsky, associate professor of sociology, delivers her “ideal last lecture” Monday as this year’s Golden Apple Award recipient. (Photo by Peter Matthews, Michigan Photography)

When speaking with her father, a college professor, he encouraged her to pursue academia.

“He said to me, ‘Every time you get in front of a lecture hall to teach, you have the opportunity to profoundly shape how your students see the world,'” Levitsky said. “You give them information, you give them ways of understanding that information, you teach them how to critique that information, you challenge them to come up with their own information, and then you send them off into the world and you let them loose to change the world.”

The remainder of Levitsky’s lecture was a response to sentiments brought up by one of her former students, who, despite succeeding in Levitsky’s introductory sociology course, voiced hesitation to take more sociology courses because of the depressing nature of the subject matter.

Levitsky is the 28th winner of the Golden Apple, the only student-selected teaching recognition on campus. (Photo by Peter Matthews, Michigan Photography)

However, Levitsky said, if you peel back the depressing topics in sociology, the social science “rests on a core of optimism.”

“I believe there is tremendous power in that optimism,” she said. “And I’m not talking about emotional power or psychological power. I’m actually talking about real political power.”

Levitsky said sociologists know that what is observed in the social world — like racial segregation or sexual violence — is not inevitable or natural.

“These are particular ways of organizing society that could, under certain conditions, be arranged in some other way,” she said. “Our work as sociologists is to figure out how.

“So we study other cultures to see how other societies do things differently. We study other time periods to see that we used to do things differently. But all of this is to say that we believe fundamentally in the possibility of social change.”

Sociologists, Levitsky said, study social change in different ways, two of which are either to understand what is driving a social problem, or to study the status quo and determine how it persists or can be disrupted.

Noting the current #MeToo movement, Levitsky discussed how structural barriers, such as the fear of retaliation and the habit of institutions to protect those accused of sexual harassment, can silence those who experience discrimination at the hands of powerful figures of authority.

Levitsky said sociology, in turn, shows us that when silence occurs and people feel disillusioned or powerless or ashamed, they “withdraw from virtually all forms of political participation.”

“Silence maintains the status quo,” she said. “This political moment is about voice.

“Harvey Weinstein was not felled by a single voice, he was felled by a movement. And each individual voice in that movement had to believe that her voice mattered. And that is absolutely an act of faith but it is a politically powerful form of optimism.”

This unleashing of voices, Levitsky said, has been seen through other recent movements as well, such as Black Lives Matter and the surge of activism around gun control after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“We are in a moment right now when people are collectively, powerfully, optimistically giving voice not just to change the story but to change who gets to tell the story,” she said. “And that is where we find social change.”

In closing, Levitsky described the incredible impact of the activist movement in combating the U.S. government’s inadequate response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

“Even in the face of haters, even in the face of doubters, it takes people willing to believe that their voice matters and that again is a politically powerful form of optimism,” she said. “I am an optimist working in an optimistic discipline. But so much of optimism comes from knowing what you are capable of. You have no idea how much power you have.”

The award ceremony included a performance by the student singing group “Angels on Call.” (Photo by Peter Matthews, Michigan Photography)

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