If your car’s air conditioning isn’t working, turning the knob back and forth repeatedly isn’t going to fix it. You must open the hood to see what’s really going on.
That is sociology – it’s the sociology Professor Joseph Ewoodzie aims to teach Davidson College students.
“If we see an achievement gap, for example, like black kids aren’t scoring as high on tests, you can’t say it’s the black kids causing the problem,” he said. “That’s like saying the air conditioning just won’t work. Sociologists are lifting the hood of society to see what we don’t understand. What is happening at the very bottom of this issue?”
Ewoodzie arrived in Davidson after growing up in Ghana and making educational and career stops in Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio and the South Bronx. He set his sights on Davidson before a job was even available because he wanted to teach at a small liberal arts institution, in the South, near a city and near a Historically Black College or University (HBCU).
Known by friends and colleagues as “Piko,” Ewoodzie is a qualitative researcher and urban sociologist who works to get as close as possible to the lives of people who are going through the icky stuff – the really horrible stuff most of us just talk about. And he is committed to getting students involved and interested in the bigger picture.
“Students work so much harder if the work they’re doing is bigger than their professor,” he said. “That’s 100 percent true. It’s just more meaningful.”
One of the ways this meaningful work is happening is through a class-turned-summer research program Ewoodzie co-leads with colleagues from Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU in Charlotte. The focus of this partnership is the sociology of Beatties Ford Road in Charlotte.
“It doesn’t make sense to train our students up in the Town of Davidson and not teach them how to engage in cities,” he said. “It’s easy to talk about diversity and inclusion and social justice when you live in a place like Davidson, and it becomes purely an intellectual exercise. We are so privileged to have a city in our backyard, and a cool city at that. So we should think about it as part of the Davidson student experience.”
For Charlotte, Ewoodzie’s students offer intellectual capital. They offer curious minds, which can work with other curious minds to decide what the city will become in the future.
For as much as Ewoodzie’s approach has taught his students, Davidson has taught the teacher just as much in his first four years on campus.
“These last four years have allowed me to crystalize what I do for a living, or at least what I like to imagine I do for a living,” he said. “My hope is that I entice and inspire my students to imagine their careers as a response to social problems, under the hood of society, trying to fix the mechanism that causes a problem.”
Davidson is a welcoming place, he says, to have that kind of ambition. It’s a place that tries hard to encourage students to make change and provide the resources to make it possible. In and out of the classroom, Ewoodzie sees their passion for improving society.
“Davidson students are privileged,” he said. “Even first-generation college students or students with a lot of financial need – they have more privilege than many, many people. But for most of them, if you look them squarely in the eye and tell them there’s this thing in the world that is not good and we can make it better, eight out of 10 would say let’s do it,” he said. “And that’s great.”
His one critique? That Davidson encourages students to make change but only if it keeps “elites” at the top.
“It’s like we want to change the world so long as it does not affect our standing in the world,” said Ewoodzie. “I think we can take our mission as an institution more seriously, to prepare students for lives of leadership and service. That should not mean making sure we’re successful and then sprinkling what’s left over as our community service.”
This idea is explored in a book by Anand Giridharadas, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”
Despite the work left to do, Ewoodzie has a deep appreciation for Davidson and the many opportunities it provides him to grow as a sociologist and as a teacher as he encourages students to look under the hood of society and effect real change.
Recommend a Game Changer
Do you know a member of the Davidson community — alumnus or alumna, faculty or staff member, current student — who has championed positive change — in family, community or world? If so, we invite you to nominate a game changer. Davidson will follow up to tell the story.