MCC instructor Debra Taylor shakes up sociology classes with a doomsday scenario

MCC-Maple Woods instructor Debra Taylor talks to one of the teams in an Introduction to Sociology class. Students are imagining how they would build a society from the ground up in the aftermath of a devastating event.

In a classroom at MCC-Maple Woods, 40 students divided into teams are creating a new society. Think “Survivor.” Or maybe “The Walking Dead.”

On the first day of this project, sociology instructor Debra K. Taylor informed students that each team would represent one of 15 people gathered in a shelter awaiting a “cataclysmic event.” Before that happened, the 15 would have to cast out seven among them, because there was food enough only for eight.

Who would go: The 6-month-old baby? The NFL superstar? The paroled murderer?

Later, the role-playing students would have to start their own culture, deciding how a new government might look, for example, or religion, economy, family structure etc.

This day, the students in one of Taylor’s Introduction to Sociology classes have been given three new tasks, including making an illustrated chart spelling out the roles and responsibilities of each position within the new culture.

The three-week unit — Taylor calls it “Culture Re-booted 2.0” — is an example of a “flipped classroom.” Essentially that refers to a course’s in-class and out-of-class components being reversed: Students might watch a video, listen to a podcast or read the textbook on their own time, but in class work on exercises or projects.

The project is also, to use more education lingo, “experiential learning,” which takes a more active approach than a typical lecture/note-taking format.

Taylor is not a believer in tests or quizzes — she cites test anxiety as one reason — but she does have other ways of assessing student progress.

Coming to class, “they may need to be prepared to write” — a group paper analyzing prostitution from a sociological point of view, for instance.

The culture reboot project comes with a group grade; each team has to create an “e-presentation” at the end. There’s an individual component, too. Students who miss class lose points. But they can Skype into team meetings by phone if their peers agree.

“I tell them, we can’t go through life without group work” or learning how to collaborate, Taylor says.

“I’m out to make them better individuals who can apply what they’ve learned in sociology to their own lives.”

Taylor’s “interactive innovation” in engaging students wins praise from Crystal Johnson, Ph.D., social sciences and business division chair at MCC-Maple Woods.

“She challenges them to not only think outside the box, but work outside their normal academic comfort zone,” Johnson says.

Taylor has been an adjunct instructor at MCC since 2005, mostly at the Maple Woods campus but at Longview as well.

She is, in fact, an MCC grad. She started work on an associate degree at Longview in 1976, was interrupted by life, and returned in 1995 as a 30-something. She got her diploma in 1997, then went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UMKC.

She will soon also have a Ph.D. from UMKC. She’s finishing up her dissertation on Civil War-era murals and monuments in Cass and Bates counties, analyzing which groups are represented and which ones are not.

Before teaching, Taylor worked as a mortgage banker.

Like many other part-time instructors, she’s a “road scholar.” Some semesters, she has traveled between teaching gigs at Maple Woods, Avila University and Johnson County Community College. She spent the 2015-16 school year teaching at Emporia State University.

This semester, she is teaching three sections of the beginning sociology class at Maple Woods.

Back in the ’90s, after she took that course herself — in an intense eight days between spring and summer semesters — Taylor was hooked. Her parents had always told her she was nosy. No, she was just interested in how groups of human beings behave.

“I did not set out to teach,” Taylor says. “It was kind of a fluke. I found out I loved it.”

It’s been tough this year, though. Her husband of 17-1/2 years, Harry, died in late January after a month in the hospital. During that time, teaching was a welcome distraction and about the only thing she had control over, she says.

A week after Harry’s death, she was back in the classroom. She didn’t want her students to get behind.

Taylor does not, by the way, allow students to think they’re “less than” for attending community college. At a four-year university, a professor is likely trying to teach, research and publish all at the same time. But at MCC, students are the focus.

“They’re getting our full attention,” Taylor says.