Sociology Professor Sparks Compelling Conversations in Online Classes
Meet Dr. Eileen O’Brien, a longtime Saint Leo University sociology professor who encourages plenty of engagement and interaction in her online classes.
Dr. Eileen O’Brien loves engaging with her students, even in an online learning environment. According to the Saint Leo University sociology professor and associate chair of the Department of Social Sciences, when students share their own personal experiences, this is when the learning environment truly comes to life.
The 50-year-old affectionately goes by “Dr. O” to many of her students. She is a native of Newport News, VA and currently resides in nearby Yorktown. She has a 19-year-old daughter, Kaya, and a 15-year-old son, Kaden. Their two cats, Cal and Luna, are rescues.
As a teenager, O’Brien quickly recognized how some of her decisions were being negatively perceived by others.
“My personal experiences dating interracially and being ostracized by family at the time taught me a lot of lessons about how people don’t always practice what they preach,” O’Brien explains. “This struck me at a very impressionable age.”
These experiences fueled her desire to eventually study sociology.
“I knew I wanted to study racism in some capacity,” she says. “Early on, I didn’t know what sociology was. Even today, I ask my students if they can really define it. Plus, there are no ‘help wanted’ signs for sociology majors out there, but there are so many careers graduates can pursue. To me, this makes it a very unique field.”
O’Brien attained a BA in sociology degree from the College of William & Mary in 1994. She attended The Ohio State University to earn a master’s in sociology in 1996. Her Ph.D. in sociology came from the University of Florida where she graduated in 1999.
“I like to call myself the ‘Heisman Trophy good-luck charm.’ This is because Eddie George won the Heisman Trophy for Ohio State in 1996 when I finished my master’s there, and Danny Wuerffel won it in 1997 at Florida when I was starting my Ph.D. there.”
Fresh off her Ph.D. program, O’Brien became a college professor at the age of 27. Her first teaching role was a four-year stint at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Brockport. She then transitioned to teach at the University of Richmond. Her next stop was Christopher Newport University in Virginia.
She first learned of Saint Leo University in 2011 when she saw a job posting for a sociology professor position. She inquired about the university through a fellow professor.
“A business professor at the time, DR. Mayes Mathews, was a shared local Saint Leo connection. His wife, Cheryl, was teaching with me at Christopher Newport University. He was a great man who had put many of our business courses online early on in the world of online education. I am really thankful for him demystifying this opportunity through conversations enlightening me on how Saint Leo was set up here in the area. He made it sound like an enticing and unique place to be.”
She made the connection, interviewed for the job, and soon began teaching at some of the university’s locations around Virginia. She taught at the Newport News, Little Creek, and Chesapeake Education Centers, as well as at the Ft. Eustis Education Office on base when the university had physical locations throughout the state.
She provides her take on the definition of sociology.
“Sociology is getting you to think about being a fish out of water. Society and culture teach us to think a certain way, but sometimes we lose sight of what goes on in other cultures.”
She offers up one example she and her fellow instructors have used in their classes.
“In our senior seminar class, we will ask students if they would consider driving a hearse in their regular day-to-day travels. You have to remember that some societies don’t use hearses at all, and then in others, people don’t even drive vehicles. Each culture attributes its own meaning to material objects that may not always translate the same everywhere, but our own ethnocentrism can keep us from realizing that at first.”
Looking at information and data to back up statements is also a must, she adds.
“Sociology isn’t always common sense,” she explains. “You might have a hunch about something, but you still have to test things and look at the data. What many people think is the most common pattern of human behavior is actually not. This is why I try to ground my students in data and make them think critically.”
Saint Leo University’s BA in sociology program is offered at University Campus and online. O’Brien strictly teaches in the online version of the undergraduate degree program.
In 2016, the program added two concentrations from which sociology students can choose as areas of focus for their coursework. These include Diversity and Inequality and Applied/Clinical Studies.
O’Brien was lucky enough to have created a Racial and Ethnic Relations course and another called Sex and Gender. She has also taught Building a Multiracial Society, Global Social Change, The Social Ladder: Diversity and Inequality in America, among a number of other course topics.
The research experience students gain is a big selling point of the program, the sociology professor says.
“The big thing that is unique to our BA in sociology program is that students conduct their own independent research. They apply to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) to do live human studies. It’s almost like doing a mini master’s thesis because it involves original data collection.”
One example of this is that students gain hands-on experience with IBM SPSS, a cutting-edge data analysis software. She can’t stress how much of a differentiator this is for students to include on their resume and earn an edge in their future job search.
“This is definitely a skill set our students can brag about and use in their careers. There are so many transferable skills students learn through their senior seminar projects and the program in general, everything from human resources to social work to law enforcement.”
In addition to its high-quality academic courses, students in the BA in sociology program get a chance to become members of the Alpha Kappa Delta International Honor Society chapter. Induction into this chapter can lead to a number of professional networking opportunities.
While she enjoys teaching in a traditional classroom a little more than virtually, she absolutely sees the numerous benefits of online learning.
“Zoom is good because it does offer lots of opportunities for interaction among the students,” she says. “Right now, Zoom sessions are still optional for students in our online sociology program, so these sessions provide a space for those who are highly motivated and able to do so to gather for a value-added, enhanced experience.”
She opens each class period by providing a clear roadmap.
“It is really important to have a structure to each class period to let students know what we are doing that day,” she explains. “They need to understand how we are getting from Point A to Point B.”
Interaction is a key ingredient to her teaching recipe.
“I get them involved in the conversation as much as possible. I want the students to be able to bring their own life experiences to class. If they can relate the concepts we are learning to their own lives, I think they will understand them better.”
She occasionally employs another unique method as well.
“At the beginning of a class period, I will sometimes ask 10 true-or-false questions. The students will then work together in small groups to come up with the answers to these questions. I think this activity can help orient the students to the topics of the day.”
She also tries to bring a lighthearted mood to each course, something she believes can set a positive tone for the students and help them feel more comfortable speaking up.
“I love to laugh with my students and I never know when it’s going to happen. I try to be in the moment, riff off of who is there, and bring certain personalities into the discussion. The most important thing is to get to know your students.”
Additionally, observing her fellow faculty members has also provided her a unique vantage point on what she can do to become a more effective instructor.
“While I’ve taught at several universities, Saint Leo University is the only one that has a very strong peer observation program. You get different perspectives from others who do this work. I’ve learned a lot observing other faculty on things I can add to my own classes and teaching style.”
According to O’Brien, showing her students what they can accomplish is the most powerful aspect of her role as a sociology professor.
“For me, the most rewarding thing is to be able to hold a mirror up to the students, letting them know what they are capable of but may not realize or haven’t discovered,” she says. “Especially with adult learners, being part of their educational journey to help them empower themselves is amazing.”
She thoroughly enjoys teaching adult learners, many of whom are close to her age.
“I love this student population because I can relate to the students with their cultural references.”
She notes that it warms her heart to receive messages from former students who tell her how much she meant to them.
“My students are my extended family, especially when they become alumni,” she says. “What they can say to my current students is so much more valuable than what I can tell them. This is why I try to keep in touch with alumni and invite them to speak to my classes.”
She is a proud member of the American Sociological Association (ASA). She is also involved in the Southern Sociological Society, an organization whose conferences she has attended with students where they have presented their research. She serves on the board of All Together Williamsburg, a group facilitating community race dialog, and leads community workshops on white privilege and racism. In addition, she is on the Citizen Advisory Committee for the Yorktown Sheriff’s Office.
Her most recent book, published in 2020, is White Privilege: The Persistence of Racial Hierarchy in a Culture of Denial. Co-authored with Dr. Ninochka McTaggart, it examines race, gender, and hip-hop with a focus on Asian-American and African-American relations, as well as white privilege. They recently issued a revised edition with an additional chapter on the impacts of the pandemic on black and brown cultures, recent racial uprisings, and the white supremacy aspects of the January 6, 2021 insurrection.
In her free time, working out is a passion of hers.
“Fitness is very important to me. I was a fitness instructor for over 20 years. I find it to be a great stress reliever, and we have a great community at the gym where I’m currently a member.”
She also likes following local musical artists, traveling, and trying out new restaurants.