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Sam Richards Gets Real

You may know Sam Richards (@iunlearn) from being one of the over 400,000 people who watched his “radical experiment in empathy” on TED. Or you may have heard of Sam Richards from the book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America by the modern day right-wing McCarthyist, David Horowitz.

But each year some 725 students get to know Sam Richards as that eccentric professor who stands up on tables to deliver inspiring out-of-the-box perspectives on racial issues every Tuesday and Thursday in 100 Thomas.

As professor of the Sociology 119 class, Race and Ethnic Relations, Richards throws aside the normal class room experience for “unlearning” his students. In his line of study, it’s more important to “break down what we think we know” about the world around us a build it back up with unique thoughts and ideas.

“In class we talk in a very open way about things that no one discusses,” said Richards as posters of Karl Marx, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and a 5-year-old girl smoking a spliff look down at him from the walls of his “white man” office. “Let’s be honest, let’s be open and let’s be real.”

Richards believes the “dynamic energy” felt in his classroom is attributed to the unusually receptive environment he has fostered in his 20 years of teaching the course. Frankly discussing why black people wear their hats sideways or the intimate details of gay sex is something that you “don’t get to do a lot in the world.”

The class combines three distinctly different pedagogical experiences. There is a large-scale lecture hall where Richards presents mentally stimulating ideas and theories. Then there are more intimate, 15-person discussion groups where in-class material can be confirmed or contended by the diverse input of the students.

The third segment of SOC 119 is the most innovative, however. Richards (in perfect reverse philosophy) caves to the ‘texting in class’ dilemma by integrating the tech-savvy nuisance into a productive educational tools.

Blog posts and a Twitter timeline (#SOC119) move the heated class discussions into the digital realm where those of us who can’t find an Adderall dealer spend most of our time anyway.

Richards admits that sometimes things “get a little wild.” Some Tweeters take things out of proportion with ignorantly insensitive remarks while others catalog their pre-class drug diet. Despite the noise, however, the crux of the Twitter discussion can be seen as a digital way of passing notes. It gives those who aren’t ballsy enough to raise their hand a podium to express comments and thoughts.

Whatever the mode of education, it appears Richards’ words aren’t falling on deaf ears.

Former SOC 119 student and TA, Nchewi Imoke, said it was easily the best class he has had so far at Penn State.

“Whether you agree or not is up to you, but there is no doubt he will move you,” said Imoke. “He’ll make you think about the tough questions that may have never crossed your conscience mind before.”

But “telling it to you how it is” for two-and-a-half hours each week is only scratching the surface of what Richards does as a sociologist.

On 9/11’s tenth anniversary, he spoke at a workshop for the Wisconsin Council of Churches and the Islamic Society in Milwaukee. He’s a TEDxPSU “evangelist,” always trying to rally support for the annual showcase of innovative thinkers. He is even filming a pilot for a PBS program that is set feature four days of his in-class lectures.

But what is really starting to develop under the creative watch of Sam Richards (with the help of his wife, Dr. Laurie Mulvey, who, he admits, thinks of “all the cool ideas”) is the World in Conversation project. WinC is a student-led discussion that challenges those of different races and genders to dissect their preconceived notions and test their validity in a diverse yet open environment. Through shared stories and experiences, participants can walk a mile in the shoes of someone that they may have never sat down to “get real” with before.

Now in WinC’s ninth year, the program has expanded to include video dialogues between Penn State students and students from various Arab countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Israel, Gaza, Iran, and Morocco. Titled the West Meets Middle East initiative, Penn Staters and Arabian college students have an open forum to shed the cultural barriers and just talk to people who portrayed by popular misconceptions as our “arch enemies” or the world’s “black sheep.”

“I think a lot of students will be surprised by how many things they have to talk about,” said Richards. “They’ll probably find that the Arab students are a lot like Penn State students—well, without the alcohol.”

Despite Richards’ packed schedule, he admits the heavy work load is “self-imposed.” He’s constantly developing more questions in need of answers.

“I could live three lives right now and all three of them would be full,” he said. “Naturally, life speeds up as you find more and more experiences you want to have.”

But sociology doesn’t seem like a job to him. It is something that Richards believes he was born to do.

The field’s transparent boundaries and demand for human interaction perfectly collide with his eclectic interests and incessant drive to generating new ideas about society. This “love” he has found in sociology makes Sam Richards one of the most dangerous professors and one of the most influential professors all in one cool dude.

“Life gets busier and busier because you’re falling in love with the things that you really like and enjoy learning about. It’s something unique about the professorial profession.”

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