Class Brings Societal Punishment to the Forefront of Students’ Minds


Susquehanna University never ceases to offer its students a wide and intriguing variety of classes. Name the topic, and it’s probably been offered in some form. Most classes are unique and exciting, and the professors who teach them stand out just as much as the class content. Michael Smyth, assistant professor of sociology, is no exception.

While Smyth teaches a wide range of sociology courses, from introductory classes to special-topics classes, one of the most intriguing is his Sociology of Punishment course. The class often challenges students to answer questions they’ve never contemplated before, such as, “In our society, who gets punished, how and for what?” Smyth says.

Students learn about the history of punishment and are challenged to understand punishment as a social artifact, which, like architecture, diet, clothing or table manners, has an instrumental purpose and a cultural style. Throughout the class, students are required to use sociological theories as lenses to look at punishment and its meaning. Smyth believes it’s an important topic to learn about because it “opens people’s eyes to a wealth of information about a topic we normally don’t think much about.” He also enjoys the way “students really get into the topic.”

“Dr. Smyth made the class accessible,” says creative writing major Angela Robinson ’12. “It was interesting looking at the prison system and history as a sociological unit because it made me re-analyze the concept from a different perspective and totally rethink my opinions on it.”

One thing Smyth considers vital to teaching any sociology course is to make the content relevant to a contemporary audience, while still providing a solid theoretical background. He frequently introduces recent documentaries, current news articles and case studies to provide students with context, and as a way to connect some of the drier theory to current affairs. In many of his sociology classes, Smyth also breaks students into small groups. Each group reads and reports on a different book about the sociological theory and main topic that the class is examining.

Smyth makes it his responsibility to help students see sociological theories and concepts in modern-day society, therefore creating an exciting, fast-paced learning atmosphere that engages students from all different majors.

Contributing writers to The ‘Grove section are Charlotte Lotz ‘12, Megan McDermott ‘14 and Karen M. Jones, assistant director of media relations.

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