I have to be honest. When I first got the invitation to write an essay for First Publics, I wasn’t much interested. I didn’t think it was for me. The reason is that I had assumed that First Publics—this wonderful new TSP blog spot for sociology instructors—was going to be all about and for sociology teachers who used all manner of new technologies and online materials, cool interactive graphics and exercises, and fun social media memes, clips, and videos. In contrast, I think of myself as more of an old-school teacher, given over to assigning readings, lecturing on those readings, and then giving exams or writing papers on that content. Nothing cutting-edge or innovative about that.

But then, in talking with the First Public’s team and tracking their content over the fall, I began to think maybe there was a contribution for me to make after all. It had to do with my plans to teach a big “Introduction to Sociology” course for the first time in a while, having taken a break to serve as department chair for a few years.

I told the team about my plans to use Lisa Wade’s wonderful new textbook “Terrible, Magnificent Sociology” and Matt Desmond’s new manifesto “Poverty, by America.” I explained to them that although I myself had never had a textbook in college (never had a sociology course as an undergrad, in fact), I thought a textbook was necessary for a class like this—not only because it was such a large group of students but because it was such a diverse group of students from different backgrounds and different majors, all with varying degrees of background knowledge and different learning styles. It was important because I thought students needed different ways to connect with and engage the material (and that Wade—a longtime blogger on TSP, indeed the inventor of “Sociological Images”—had produced a text that was particularly accessible and covered much of the ground I thought was important for a soc intro course). I also told them I also like to assign at least one book-length text from a sociologist so that they can get a better sense of how we think and talk—and that Desmond was one of the best writers and thinkers our field has to offer.

We also talked about lectures—and how I did power points, as students seem to want these days but kept them pretty basic and minimal most days. Some days I used nothing more than a text and some talking points outlined on the board. On these days, I told them, I think of my job as to model how a sociologist like myself thinks about the world, uses and interprets data and texts, modeling not only how to think but challenging myself to really bring sociology to life, make it vibrant and engaging for as many students as possible. (Or at least trying to keep them awake until the end of the hour). 

We talked about grading and examinations. I favor a mix of writing, both on exams and in stand-alone essays, as well as multiple choice/true-false time items. That is because I think of sociology as both an exercise in interpretation and critical thinking (thus, the writing) but also as something of a science needing some basic facts and core concepts, all of which lend themselves to more traditional examination formats like multiple choice, true/false and short answer/fill-in-the-blank type questions.

We also talked about the discussion sections, staffed by teaching assistants, that go along with the large lectures here in Minnesota. When I first started college, I often found myself annoyed with fellow students who talked a lot without seeming to say anything in such settings. These days, I have come to appreciate such talk. That is where students illustrate their thinking and begin to develop subtle ideas and distinctions, getting to deeper meanings and implications. I have also come to learn that a great deal of learning happens among classmates and peers. We learn from each other’s successes and failings in this endeavor to discuss and debate. And sections (and TAs) really help to facilitate all of this.

I brought all of these thoughts into my classroom this fall—into the chapters I assigned, the lectures I developed, the discussion exercises, and exams we crafted to help guide and ensure learning, reflection, and exposition. The class wasn’t completely traditional. I used online “inquisitive” study reviews for many of the chapters. I prepared PowerPoint slides for most lectures (especially useful, I think, for students with disabilities or illnesses or diverse learning styles). And I showed some videos and even offered an extra-credit sociology meme contest. But I still wrote an outline on the whiteboard each day, told a lot of stories, and tried to encourage students to read the textbook and supplementary articles on their own rather than spoon-feed everything to them. 

Perhaps the basic lesson for me is that as much as the world around us develops and evolves, and our teaching and pedagogy along with it, there is also a lot about teaching and learning that remains the same.

– Doug Hartmann

(My teaching assistants this first semester were wonderful, by the way. They were open to my ideas and assignments, supportive of my lectures and suggestions for section exercises,  willing and able to talk things through with students, and better than I at meeting them where they were in terms of both ideas and abilities as well as various individual challenges and issues. I couldn’t have done this class of 240 first and second year college students without them–and, in fact, might be writing a much different essay if they hadn’t been so skilled, hard-working, and supportive along the way.)


I don’t really know if or how successful this approach proved to be. Course evaluations are in, but the response rate was low (as it has been since the pandemic), and I don’t necessarily trust the results anyway: I know all of the biases that come with them (most of which benefit a middle-aged cisgender white man like myself) and because popularity doesn’t necessarily make good pedagogy. 

I also know that when I do the class again next year, I’ll be able to add some additional bells and whistles to the PowerPoint slides, find some additional amusing memes or other social media content, and perhaps also some more innovative in-class activities or polished discussion guides. My aforementioned awesome TAs also offered some really useful suggestions about how to improve course assignments next time, structure discussion sections, and update certain pop culture references and illustrations. 

But however this course evolves, I think the roots of how I approach it  and however successful I may be, will go back, as they do for all good instructors, to some of the basics:

  • Engaging, accessible readings and content;
  • A mix of big ideas, basic facts, and a critical orientation to the world;
  • Some balance between lecturing and active learning;
  • Exercises, assignments, and exams that encourage and, in fact, require ongoing engagement and active learning and thinking as well as factual knowledge and rote memorization.

Perhaps the basic lesson for me is that as much as the world around us develops and evolves, and our teaching and pedagogy along with it, there is also a lot about teaching and learning that remains the same. Being old school may be one of the most original, innovative things I’ve got going.

Douglas Hartmann is Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. He works in the areas of race, sports, culture, and public engagement, and is the author of Midnight Basketball: Race, Sports, and Neoliberal Social Policy (Chicago 2016). Hartmann is also a former editor of Contexts and co-publisher (with Chris Uggest) of the TheSocietyPages.org. When President of the Midwest Sociological Society, Hartmann made “Sociology and its Publics: The Next Generation” the theme for the Annual Meetings.