Professor Profile: Charles O’Connell

Professor Charles O’Connell, lecturer for the sociology department at UC Irvine, has received recognition on more than one occasion for his passionate views on social and political matters, particularly within the classroom.
Most college professors intend to provoke critical thinking in their students. While some attempt to provide comprehensive lectures with objective perspectives, others prefer to passionately argue lesser-known sides of various issues, forcing students to question what they have learned. The latter approach may best describe O’Connell’s technique of lecturing.
‘He describes his teaching style himself as being ‘in your face’ and it is,’ said Eugene Park, a fourth-year sociology major and former student of O’Connell. ‘His ideas sound very Marxist in theory, but he never claims to be in any political spectrum.’
O’Connell insists that his sole intention is to give students exposure to sociological arguments, debates and research findings on various topics.
‘It’s my job to expose [students] to these different debates,’ O’Connell said. ‘If I think there are three different positions on a subject, and students have heard none of them, I will explain all three. But if I think they know one position more than another, then I will give more time to the other position.’
Amy Yeh, a third-year biological sciences major currently enrolled in O’Connell’s class about the Vietnam War, said that she finds his lectures to be interesting.
‘I think he’s one-sided, but you eventually see the logic of his reasoning, and it is all supported by facts,’ Yeh said.
O’Connell said that he gives one standard rule to each of his students: ‘Don’t believe what I say; just file it. But don’t disbelieve it either.’
After graduating with a B.A. in philosophy, O’Connell began his teaching career in 1971 as a member of the department of religious studies at Bishop Alemany High School. Eventually, the principal fired 18 teachers whom he believed were not supportive of his authority. O’Connell was among them.
‘I try to teach people to doubt,’ O’Connell said. ‘Thinking does not begin if you accept ideas on basis of authority.’
He moved on to Junipero Serra High School, once more as a member of the department of religious studies. During his time there, he taught a class devoted to the Vietnam War. According to O’Connell, both faculty and parents believed he was raising too many questions regarding the government’s actions during the war, and the dean recommended that he attend graduate school.
O’Connell’s main inspiration to study sociology came from reading Karl Manheim’s ‘Ideology and Utopia,’ which describes how the ruling powers of any society are capable of shaping ideologies that reflect their political and economic interests. He learned that ideas are not structured on a purely logical basis, but are a reflection of the ruling group’s interests.
‘It interested me how the structures of power influence ideas,’ O’Connell said.
From there, he then moved on to study at California State University, Northridge and UCLA, where he eventually earned his Ph.D. in sociology. After teaching at University of California, Los Angeles for four years, he was offered a job there, where he taught for 11 years.
Although he lives in Los Angeles, O’Connell said he prefers teaching at UCI because there are more opportunities to pursue his interests. Although he was offered an administrative position at UC Los Angeles, he was not interested. He preferred Irvine because it offered several courses that he considers to be more interesting, such as classes devoted to the war on terror, the Vietnam War and 20th century African-American politics. He hopes to develop new courses, such as a class focused on the rise and fall of socialist society in the 20th-century.
When asked why his classes are so popular, O’Connell answered: ‘They think I look like Brad Pitt.’