I am the Head of Sociology at a large sixth form in Yorkshire. We have 253 students in A1 and A2. I’ve been teaching sociology for twenty years now, I did it at degree, A Level and GCSE. It’s pretty much in my blood. I often tell my students that my ‘religion’ is sociology – it’s what gets me through the night.  So, when COVID-19 hit the UK, I started to look at it from a sociological perspective. Now, I realise that isn’t new and most of you reading this will have done so as well. But, I found the discipline was comforting and helped me understand the situation. It did help me through the night.

When the college I work in closed, we had excellent training in Zoom and various other interactive teaching methods. Our IT team and Moodle support team worked incredibly hard to make sure every teacher was trained and equipped. So, I set up our ‘study’, usually full of clothes awaiting ironing and my CDs and records. So, by ‘setting up’ this meant I cleared a space at my desk and tried to keep the door closed to marauding children. I stuck a record on and got on with my remote learning.  My plan was to address each class on the day I taught them – to give them tasks and use various different tools to test and enlighten them.  I obviously planned to do this with both A1 and A2. Then it was announced that the A2 exams were cancelled. This caused a flurry of concern, tackled by our SLT and pastoral staff. Once this died down a bit, it was supposed to be on with remote learning.

With my A1 students, it soon became clear they all had different levels of access to devices on which they could receive the lessons I wanted to do with them.  This was due to lack of, or slow wifi, many siblings or no laptop. I decided early on that I would send an email based on workbooks via Moodle. So far, this has worked well and the A1s are engaging with the material. I’ve slowed it down, extended deadlines as we have gone along as students are facing illness, family members dying and religious festivals.

The A2 students became distant, some emailed to say that they wanted to finish the course because they found it interesting and some wanted to continue the subject at university. I kept the lessons going. We were doing the Theory unit where students are expected to evaluate the usefulness of the various sociological theories in helping us understand contemporary society. I began sending emails on this and found myself applying it to the lock down. Then, as I listened to news reports, I found myself repeating these explanations. Then one day, whilst out walking in the morning, I began to form a narrative about COVID-19. When I got back to my ‘study’ I began typing this up. A student emailed and suggested I started a blog containing the stuff I was sending out to them. I needed advice about blogs and how to do them. Once this simple advice was received by this grateful Luddite, I started my “Sociology of This” blog. I started with data focusing on the usefulness of qualitative data as opposed to quantitative. I followed this with blogs on the media, anger, social distancing, shopping, structures, capitalism and the Queen – all incorporating the theoretical material we had been studying in A1 and A2.   In my teaching, I add anecdotes about my experiences – I did this in the blog too as I thought it would help the students. I added observations and thoughts I had. I also steered away from naming the virus, I often call it “This” or just a “virus”.

My partner read the first one and suggested I shared them on social media. I shared a link on Facebook and got some great feedback and some friends also shared the link. The college Twitter and Facebook pages shared the link too and I soon got quite a lot of views. But, more importantly, I got some feedback from my A2 students who I’d been sending work out like an adrift astronaut hoping someone would hear. I was told the blogs helped them understand the theories really well – some argued, some shared links to books or articles they had read. One made me cry. A student said she didn’t feel so lonely reading them, as my own experiences made her realise other people were facing problems too. A1s fed back too, saying the blog posts were helping with their distance learning too.

Past students read the blogs as well. One messaged the blog saying she wondered what I and sociologists would be making of the situation. Now she knew. Parents also commented on my blog and on the college Facebook page. One said she “never knew sociology could be so interesting”.

The most viewed blogs are on social distancing and structures, a recent one on remote learning is doing well for views. But, as I say in the first blog, quantitative data must be treated with suspicion.

Mark Mckay is Head of Sociology at Greenhead College in Huddersfield.  Twitter: @mccardigan

Blog: Sociology of This