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In her last lecture, Sandra Levitsky, an associate professor in the Sociology Department, presented “Sociology and the Political Power of Optimism.” That is, the topic outlined her “ideal last lecture” — an annual event held Monday evening for this year’s Golden Apple Award Ceremony and recipient, Levitsky.
Levitsky is the 28th recipient of the prestigious, student-selected faculty award and was chosen out of nearly 700 nominees. Each year, the Golden Apple Award Ceremony offers the honoree an opportunity to present their “last lecture” to students and other individuals who appreciate their work. Along with her lecture, attended by over a hundred University of Michigan community members in Rackham Auditorium, Levitsky also decided to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Before Levitsky took the stage, LSA junior Kyle Riebock, Golden Apple Award Committee president, welcomed the audience and spoke to the quality of Levitsky’s role as a professor and as a mentor for students at the University. Riebock also noted her work with Sociology Opportunities for Undergraduate Leaders, which helps first-generation students academically and professionally, and her research on various social issues.
“Professor Levitsky is truly a wonderful example of a professor deserving of this award,” Riebock said. “When the committee surprised her, I was really able to hear a lot of heartfelt sentiments from her student and peers that truly moved me … Her research investigating social needs and inequality is truly inspiring and impactful.”
Riebock also praised the legacy Levitsky has created so far and expressed his desire to follow in her footsteps.
“As a future teacher myself, if my legacy inside and outside of the classroom can amount to even half of the legacy Professor Levitsky has created for herself, then my career will be more successful than I could ever imagine,” he said.
Levitsky began her lecture by discussing her journey to becoming a teacher. She explained how she initially disdained academia, but after pursuing a law degree, realized she enjoyed being in front of students and tackling big questions about social issues.
While Levitsky recognized the difficulty of the subject, she also noted the power which could come from sociology.
“If you peel back all of the depression in sociology, our social science rests on a core of optimism, and I believe there is tremendous power in that optimism,” Levitsky said. “And I’m not talking about emotional power or psychological power, I’m talking about real political power.”
Levitsky gave two examples of ways audience members could study social change: understanding what drives a social problem and understanding the status quo. To look at an example of the former, Levitsky cited the racial inequalities against the Black community in regards to police drug searches and in the criminal justice system over the past 50 years.
“The criminalization of the African-American community is one area that has gotten worse over time, it hasn’t even stayed the same over the past half-century, it has gotten worse, and it is a particularly insidious problem because there is a self-reinforcing nature to it,” Levitsky said. “We know that racial stereotypes play a role in the criminalization of the Black community but locking up the Black community only contributes to the stereotype that Black people are criminals.”
To understand the influence of the status quo when looking at social change, Levitsky offered the instance of the #MeToo movement. While she acknowledged the impact of the recent activism, Levitsky also pointed out this was not the only time in U.S. history where sexual harassment issues have been brought to the national forefront. She also noted the common themes of powerful predators, and how fear of repercussions cause many survivors of sexual assault to remain silent.
“Through sociology, we know power works in different ways, and (in) many cases involving sexual misconduct and employment, power is based on dependence,” Levitsky said. “But there are other more subtle dimensions to power that are at work here too, and one of these is the capacity of power to silence people.”
According to Levitsky, sociology shows how silence maintain the status quo because it can cause persecuted individuals to withdraw from political and social spheres. She also said social change can occur when the status quo is disrupted, and highlighted some parallels between the #NeverAgain movement and the 1980’s Act-Up Movement — which she sees as one of the most concrete victories for activism.
“What activists did then, and what activists do now, is taking that grief and that fear and turning it into political voice,” Levitsky said. “But it takes people willing to believe even in the face of haters, even in the face of doubters, it takes people willing to believe their voice matters, and that again is a politically powerful form of optimism.”
LSA sophomore Pamela Sobze appreciated how Levitsky presented solutions to tackling large social problems that she felt in the past have not been discussed.
“I’m in the environment program so I’m already familiar with activism, but what I’m learning more and more through school is that activism and politics are way to make change,” Sobze said. “Here we kind of learn what the problem is and all that has been drilled in my head, but I liked how she brought optimism into it and was like, ‘Well you can change things, and this is the way to do it.’”