Have you or your friends taken SOC100? How many of them are pursuing a major or minor in sociology? Until I mentioned it to him, Nathan Innocente, an assistant professor at UTM’s Department of Sociology, never thought of himself as one of the few professors who can claim to have taught nearly every UTM student, as a result of teaching Introduction to Sociology.

Last week, I sat down with him to discuss his journey to academia, as well as the remarkable popularity of SOC100. Surprisingly enough, I have not taken SOC100.

Innocente describes his journey to academia and becoming a professor as “accidental” and “serendipitous.” He began as an undergraduate in criminology with hopes of pursuing law enforcement as a police officer or an RCMP member.

After about a year and a half in, Innocente’s career plans changed. He considered applying for law school, various government positions, and even contemplated a career in the military. Innocente credits one of his professors for suggesting the idea to pursue graduate school instead.

“I came to U of T to do a Masters in criminology, and then I ended up getting a job at a criminal justice sector NGO, so I was doing criminal justice research. At that point, I had still considered academia, but I liked the job that I had,” says Innocente. “I decided I would pick up some extra courses in the sociology department because they had so many methodology courses that criminology didn’t have at the time, like statistics and field methods, [and] survey methods. Then, almost by accident, I ended up getting another Masters in sociology. I liked sociology quite a bit, so I decided to apply for a Ph.D. and move into academia full time.”

Innocente has taught SOC100 for four years at UTM. When Innocente joined the UTM faculty, he consulted with professor Jayne Baker to learn how to run the course.

Along with teaching SOC100, Innocente is conducting his own research. Broadly, he focuses on white-collar crime, but more specifically, he looks into the relationship between organizations in crime. He focuses on topics such as mortgage fraud, identity theft, and how the ways in which organizations communicate may create processes that offenders can easily corrupt.

“When I got into the Ph.D. program, I was doing a Sociology of Work course which I fell in love with, and I thought was absolutely fantastic,” he says. “Some of the things we were learning about included precarious labour and how technology changes labour. So instead of writing the standard, boring term paper, I asked my professor if I could do research instead. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was moving away from criminology and into this other field that I thought was really interesting: the study of occupations.”

The research involved interviewing conveyancers and real estate title searchers about how technologies have impacted their work. They discovered that there was a big real estate fraud problem, and that people didn’t know how to check for fraud. “The criminologist in me came back out again and I knew I had to pursue it. I decided my next project would be to look into that. So for a course in the following semester, I looked into fraud and real estate fraud.”

Innocente advises students to work hard and get involved in order to maximize the opportunities they open for themselves.

“I liked the physicality of certain jobs, like policing and military, but I also liked the intellectual side of things, and I thought law or grad studies would be one way to satisfy that. If you put in your best effort in a number of different areas, that means that you leave a lot of options open and you also expose yourself to new opportunities,” Innocente says. “If you’re engaging in activities and exposing yourself, you’re going to have all the tools at your disposal to then make a choice about what you want to do. I allowed myself to be open to different ideas and to take them in different directions. You really create your own opportunities, so I think keeping it open and having a role for serendipity is beneficial.”

So why is SOC100 so popular? Innocente isn’t sure, but what he does guarantee is that he’ll try hard to make course material relevant, entertaining, and thought-provoking. He says that it is important to get students talking and asking questions. Even in a class of 500 or 1000 students, promoting open discussion is crucial.

“One of my metrics for success in SOC100 is that if I have a student come up to me and say they took the course thinking it was going to be super lame, but now they want to minor in it or do a double major,” he says. “That to me is the best metric of success: when people come in and they have an assumption about the material that it is irrelevant, common sense, or nonsense, and you can show them the value of it.”

Innocente explains that in SOC100, they try to emphasize a different way of understanding and looking at the world, and that the tools provided by sociology are valuable for seeing the world from this new perspective.

“I try to use a number of examples in my class, anything from why I joined the military to how I met my wife—anything that can be subjected to that kind of analysis. And part of it is to be able to understand the world, to be able to have this relevant information but also the relevant tools to see things that are invisible, like social structure.”

“To try to not only understand the world, but especially in a lot of the examples I give, to understand yourself,” Innocente continues. “Why do I think this way? Why do I make the decisions that I make? What kind of tools can help a student come to conclusions about themselves? I try to promote students to think in that way, think out structurally and also to think in and reflect on their own behaviours.”