"Be conservative, be liberal, be wherever you want to be politically -- that's fine, it's up to you. But be the most informed person you can be."

Alexander Tristan Riley believes that seeing the glass as half empty isn't necessarily such a bad thing — that, in fact, pessimism can promote learning. "No good answers to meaningful questions are easy," he says, "and I want my students to understand how murky and messy social issues can be."

Sociology wasn't Riley's first choice when he went to college, and he came to his career almost by accident: An introductory undergraduate philosophy course exposed him to the 'big-picture' questions of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which eventually pushed Riley haltingly toward academia as one of the few places where he could at least potentially spend his time thinking and writing about similar things. 

Riley examines these 'big-picture' questions with his students by asking them to think hard about their place in the contemporary social and cultural order. For instance, he teaches courses on popular culture and the mass media that look closely at the role of media in contemporary life.

"We need to get students to think about what's going on around them in our heavily mediated culture, if we want a society that is not uncritically accepting of the often simple-minded moral vision of much of our media culture," he says. "We have to ask who controls media and institutions. How do we evaluate so-called media experts' claims? This is stuff that's really important in the lives of students, whether or not they know it initially in this way, and a critical perspective allows them to expand their own vision of the world and of their own lives," he says.

As a teacher-scholar at Bucknell, Riley says his desire is to turn students into literate citizens who are informed and capable of critical thought. "I'm not here to push an agenda on my students except for this: Be conservative, be liberal, be wherever you want to be politically — that's fine, it's up to you. But be the most informed person you can be. That's what I try to reinforce with my students, that's what I ask of them."

Posted October 2012

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