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What brings you here? Teaching and research at U of T

Sociologist Erik Schneiderhan is dedicated to deliberation (Photo courtesy of Assistant Professor Schneiderhan)

Three years ago Erik Schneiderhan sat in an interview with two U of T Mississauga faculty members who blew him away with their energy and dynamism.

He left the interview full of excitement, convinced the University of Toronto would be a great fit for him and his family.

Today, as Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Schneiderhan teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in subjects such as Contemporary Social Theory and Political Sociology. And he conducts research which supports student learning, through UTM’s Research Opportunity Program.

Schneiderhan loves the interaction with students.

“As they are formulating their ideas and their world views, I like being a part of that process,” says Schneiderhan. “And I feel honoured to have the opportunity to help shape those ideas.”

It was about 10 years ago while working as a Teaching Assistant at the University of Wisconsin that Schneiderhan felt this surge of enthusiasm for education.

“The more time I spent in the classroom, the more excited I got about teaching and generating ideas,” says Schneiderhan.

He also found himself increasingly interested in the sociological approach that thinks about structure and social relations with political dimensions, specifically in terms of democracy and the allocation of (state) resources. This reflects Schneiderhan’s experiences before academia when he worked on political campaigns and as a policy analyst in New Hampshire. 

Schneiderhan’s research has consisted of archival work on 19th-century charity in the United States and Canada, in conjunction with an exploration of pragmatist theory - which connects experience and practice to theory in order to discover how and why people do what they do. His project takes a theoretical approach to showing how pragmatist social theory can help us to understand historical events in different ways, particularly the unintentional dimensions of social phenomena.

More recently, Schneiderhan has done field experiments in London and Birmingham, England, working with The Runnymede Trust, the leading think tank on race and ethnic issues in the United Kingdom. With his collaborator, Shamus Khan from Columbia University, he works to create deliberative assemblies, where groups of multi-ethnic minorities can gather and discuss their concerns about financial security, retirement, and social inclusion (The most recent deliberation in Birmingham, England, can be viewed here).

Schneiderhan’s earlier work shows that deliberation in a political milieu differs from just talking.

“Deliberation is a different way of communicating that leads to better outcomes because it is grounded in inclusiveness and reason giving,” says Schneiderhan, who has also researched deliberation on the UTM campus, with about 150 UTM students discussing opinions about who should be responsible for covering tuition costs.

Schneiderhan describes his deliberation research as “current and relevant,” and through his work he has found that the people he worked with in England mainly want their concerns to be validated.

“We have created a space where they could be heard and have a voice,” says Schneiderhan. “Now we’re taking the results of those conversations and we’re bringing them to policymakers through the Runnymede Trust, and that has a potential to have a real impact through policy and through heightened awareness; it has a real opportunity to impact their lives.”

Schneiderhan notes that there are often concerns with a breakdown in communication within heterogeneous and multi-ethnic groups. However he has found in his research that mixed groups have a high quality of discourse, often engaging in “robust and spirited political communication.”

As a part of his next project, Schneiderhan plans to conduct similar multi-ethnic deliberations, comparatively, in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States and hopes to conduct bigger projects looking at the reality of multiculturalism in terms of people’s everyday lives. He is trying to bring questions of racial and ethnic justice to Canada and then do a comparative analysis with similar countries.

At UTM, Schneiderhan has found a great balance that equally blends his love of teaching and research combined with his interests in sociology and politics; a fusion that allows him to shape and explore ideas both inside and outside of the classroom.