Utah Tech University

Faculty Spotlight: Matt Smith-Lahrman

By Malia H Adamson

Dr. Matthew Smith-Lahrman is a Professor of Sociology at Dixie State University and has been for the past 23 years. At the beginning of his career at DSU (which back then was still a community college), he was the only sociologist at the university, and he’s been in the same office here ever since. He is now the Program Director of Applied Sociology, his program has grown a lot since he first got here. He’s really proud of how far it’s come in his time since it took about 10 years from his arrival for the university to even consider offering sociology as a bachelor’s degree.

Innovation in Teaching

A Tried and True Method

When it comes to teaching, Dr. Smith-Lahrman uses a fairly classical lecture method. He believes that lecture is valuable, as it’s a tried and true method that has been in motion and worked for thousands of years, so there must be something to it. But in order for a lecture technique to work, Dr. Smith-Lahrman believes that it is essential to involve students in the discussion. The best way to help students to retain the information that is presented in the class is to talk to them and call on them. As such, Matt takes the time to learn students’ names, so that during class, when he is walking around and teaching, he can call on them specifically to get them involved. He believes that if you get involved with students, then students will get involved in the class.

Dr. Smith-Lahrman likes to focus on interacting with students individually as a person instead of just viewing the class as a whole blob, as he has found that it helps students to be more present in class and pay attention. This was an aspect of his teaching that Zoom just couldn’t capture. Interacting with students in this way was something that Matt really missed doing during the pandemic, and as such, he’s been grateful that we have been able to be back in person again. However, he still is compassionate and aware of the circumstances of the pandemic, so even now, when he is back to in-person teaching, he still allows students to zoom into class so that he won’t be docking them for a health concern.

Ethnography in Sociology

Of course, the projects and other activities vary from class to class. In Dr. Smith-Lahrman’s Qualitative Research Methods class, students begin to use the techniques that they will use long after they complete their sociology degree. Students have to go out and observe in the local community, as well as interview people for their various projects. This way, the students get to have hands-on experiences that promote active learning. Specifically, they use the method of ethnography. Anthropology is the field that is most famous for this type of research, where you go and live with a group of people, but sociology utilizes it in many qualitative methods. Researchers live with a group of people, watch them, and take note of their lives, traditions, and culture.

For the Qualitative Research projects, students in the class get to choose a group of people to observe. In the past, students have chosen to observe a restaurant, or a church group, or other settings over the course of a few weeks. The students will go in and visit this setting many times during the project timeline, watching and recording the different behaviors that they observe. As well as this, the students take the time to interview a selection of people from the community during their time there. It’s a very important part of the program, and it allows the students to have great hands-on experience with sociology research, while also involving the local community. After this, students can take a follow-up survey class from Dr. Yildiz that covers the quantitative side of this research that completes that experience. During covid, Dr. Smith-Lahrman even tested out allowing students to choose an online group of people, such as an online game, chatroom, etc. The project was successful enough that he has continued to let students choose these communities going forward.

Matt Smith-Lahrman
(UMAC 2021)

What is your main area of interest when it comes to teaching?

Most sociology departments have both a quantitative and qualitative side. The quantitative side deals with numbers, statistics, and correlations – what is commonly referred to as Macrodata. On the other side, qualitative sociology deals with doing interviews and fieldwork and involves a bit of journalism. Dr. Smith-Lahrman is the qualitative sociologist at the university, which means he researches,  does fieldwork, observes people where they are, and doesn’t do any statistical work. He deals more with Microdata, which is face-to-face interactions among people and is most aligned with the theory of symbolic interactionism.

Get to Know Me Better

(CTL Classroom Photoshoot 2021)

What is your most challenging teaching experience?

It’s always a challenge to see a student struggling, especially when what they are struggling with is outside of the classroom. Dr. Smith-Lahrman struggles when seeing students like this because he wants to help them, but it’s not really his place as a professor. It’s hard sometimes to not see or treat students like your kids, especially in Dr. Smith-lahrman’s case where most students are now his kids’ age. But, he believes it is very important to keep a barrier between being a student’s friend or being their professor. It can be a challenge to do because it is important to get to know your students as a professor. But, you can’t care too much to the point that it is inappropriate.

Then, of course, there are times where professors will get a student that just really, really doesn’t like them. There was even been an instance in the past where he had to notify the campus police because a student had made threats against him after he gave them a bad grade on an assignment. But Dr. Smith-Lahrman admits that this type of situation is a very rare thing.

Whereas both of the previous examples come from situations outside of the class, there is still a fair share of challenges professors face inside the classroom. Sometimes students just don’t get the materials, which can be especially difficult when the subject is their major, and they just aren’t progressing as much as they need to be. In that situation, Dr. Smith-Lahrman takes the time to reach out to them, connect with them, and help to find a way to work through their problems with them.

(CTL Classroom Photoshoot 2021)

What is your favorite class to teach?

Introduction to Sociology is one of Dr. Smith-Lahrman’s favorite classes, as it is the introduction for students into all areas of sociology. The class covers a variety of sociology topics and theories, and while it’s a lot to cover in a single class, it’s a lot of fun. When it gets to sociology majors, Dr. Smith-Lahrman enjoys teaching social psychology and qualitative research methods. He also teaches a class every other year called the Sociology of Rock Music, which is an especially fun topic considering his own hobbies outside of the classroom.

What is your favorite teaching experience?

One of Dr. Smith-Lahrman’s favorite experiences he has with students is when they go and present their research at a conference. For example, DSU has the Regional Symposium for Research, Innovation, and Creativity every April, which is a great way for students to present their research. This year specifically, we had UCUR (the Utah Conference on Undergraduate Research) being hosted here for students to participate in. It’s always fun for Dr. Smith-Lahrman to see students expand their knowledge beyond the classroom. As well as this, the students in the sociology program also are required to take a capstone class where they write an article. Dr. Smith-Lahrman explains that it is amazing as a professor to be able to see a student’s journey in education through the course. He can remember where they started and where their writing and thinking skills were at when they began in the program and can compare them to their final paper to see how far they have come. The sociology program is still a pretty small and tight-knit program, and is only in its fifth year, so every year, he sends out a survey to the alumni of the program, asking them what they’re doing and how they’re applying their degree outside of school. They’ve had one student who started their own non-profit organization, and there are many who have gone on to grad school. There’s even one student who became a realtor, but his sociology helps him out a lot with being a successful salesman.

What are some of your hobbies outside of the classroom?

Outside of the classroom, Matt enjoys hiking with his wife, and while they’re not avid or hard-core, it’s an enjoyable hobby. He enjoys rock n’ roll and collects vinyl records and vinyl CDs. He also really likes aquariums and loves tropical fish, as well as loves reading in his free time. Some fun facts about Dr. Smith-Lahrman are that he hasn’t cut his hair since the beginning of the pandemic, he tries his best to be vegan, and he’s a Meathead (a fan of the rock and roll band the Meat Puppets).

(CTL Classroom Photoshoot 2021)

Are you from Southern Utah originally or did you move from another location when you came to DSU?

Dr. Smith-Lahrman grew up in California, in an area of San Diego called Bonita. He attended college at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona for both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. For his PhD, he attended Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. After graduating, he lived one year in Tucson, Arizona, which is where his wife is from, and they then eventually came to St George.  They ended up moving because of the job offer and didn’t know anything about the area before coming here, aside from a rafting trip to Utah Matt had taken to Utah prior to the job acceptance. However, he has lived here longer than he has lived in any place during his life. It’s a great outdoor place, and while it is missing some of the big city stuff that Dr. Smith-Lahrman had growing up, he likes it overall.

What is your best teaching resource?

Reading is Dr. Smith-Lahrman’s greatest resource. He can study anything and everything that people do as a sociologist, and as such, reading is a great place to gather this information. He reads not only sociology texts but fiction, websites, newspapers, other disciplines, and anything else that has to do with what people do. It’s all the information that will help him teach and improve. In sociology, he wants to know what people are doing, and as such, it is important to gather a variety of information from as many places as possible.

Dr. Smith-Lahrman’s fellow faculty are an important resource to him. In the McDonald building where he spends the majority of his time, there are some great neighboring professors, like Dr. McLeod, Joe Green, Dr. Yildiz, who are there to discuss with Dr. Smith-lahrman between classes about anything and everything. He loves to hear their ideas and have these in-depth discussions. Interacting with other people is a great resource!

(CTL Classroom Photoshoot 2021)

What inspires you in your teaching?

One of the things that Dr. Smith-Lahrman really likes about teaching is the age group of traditional students. It’s a great time in life for students to learn. Many of them are leaving home for the first time, and as such, they aren’t tied down or constrained, they have great ideas about the world, and they are just starting to have room to think for themselves. To these students, everything is fair game, which is very exciting to Dr. Smith-Lahrman. This attitude really helps him to stay younger in thinking. As well as this, the university isn’t high school, so he doesn’t have to deal with disciplining them in the same way as a high school teacher has to.

What advice would you give to other faculty teaching at DSU?

Dr. Smith-Lahrman believes that a professor’s career can be compared to many different things. For instance, in Baseball, they play 162 games in a season, which is a lot of games. During that season, sometimes the team will lose gonna lose, sometimes you’re going to lose badly, and some days it’s going to be great! Or, think about a tour of a rock band. Some nights the band sucks on stage, and the next day they’ll do great. Matt explains that teaching is just like this. Some days you’ll just know that a lecture was bad, and you can tell that the students didn’t like it. But, you still have to come in the next day and do it again. His advice is to try and look at things long-term. Don’t worry too much when you slip up have a bad class. Just take a look at what went wrong, and do your best to improve it the next day without beating yourself up over it. As long as you are making an effort to continue to be a better professor, the little things, like a bad day along the way, don’t matter. Teaching is a career, so look at things in the long run.