A spectre is haunting academia- the spectre of technology and teacher obsolescence. What does it mean for the future of teaching if faculty video record their lectures and post them online, if professors publish their teaching resources for anyone to copy and use, if teachers give away their classes for free? If, in the spirit of collaboration, professors give away all that they are paid to do, how will anyone else with a Ph.D. get work?

These are important questions, to be sure, but they are secondary to the questions that we should be focusing on. The question we should be asking is, why do any of these online resources jeopardize anyone’s job. That is, if the experiences students receive at your school could be easily replaced by a video recording or a website, I don’t think either of those are the source of your real problem. How have we gotten here? How can we ensure that our jobs will be safe in the future? And how can we leverage technology to make this all happen?

Paint by Numbers Teaching – Paint by Numbers Learning:

You know it happens. My first semester as a teacher I even did it. I was relieved to find that my textbook publisher provided not only all the readings I would need to assign, but gave me lecture slides to use, exam questions to make tests with, and even some (crummy) activities to do with my students. Phew! Paint by numbers teaching- what a relief. I dutifully created a “3 multiple choice tests and 1 paper” class. I FELT like a teacher. Just like you can jump off a cliff, flap your arms, and FEEL like your flying… for a moment.

To my chagrin my students didn’t learn too many critical thinking skills and believe it or not they struggled to apply any of the concepts discussed in class. At first I thought, “Well I did my part. If they don’t WANT to learn and are only seeking the path of least resistance to an A, that’s not my fault.” Thankfully, moments after this crossed my cerebrum I sought the counsel of a few amazing teachers in my graduate program who knocked the legs out from underneath this self-serving logic.

Is this how we solve problems in reality?

A. Totally
B. Yep
C. I guess
D. Dunno
E. None of the above

When we teach paint by numbers our intent does not match our execution. We intend (or maybe aspire is the right word) to teach our students to critically think about the world around them, develop a sociological imagination (which is inherently critical, complex, and abstract), and maybe just maybe empower them to create change in their communities. However, in our execution we use bullet point slide lectures (which promote a teacher as expert model of learning) and multiple choice tests (which deemphasize abstraction and complexity). It should surprise no one that if you present yourself as the bastion of all “important” knowledge to your students and then assess their learning by measuring their ability to consume and regurgitate this “important” knowledge, that they don’t develop critical thinking skills. If you are the expert and there is only one right answer, then the world isn’t complex or abstract it’s simple and dichotomous.

Furthermore, what vocational skill are we developing in our students if we only use closed book exams? Very few professions provide us all of the information we would ever need or want to solve a problem and then at the very moment we need it most take it away from us and ask us to solve the problem from memory. After the creation of the Internet, an encyclopedic memory is rarely valued on the labor market anymore. Exams that can be graded by a computer are super convenient for professors, especially as class sizes balloon, but they are not without consequence.

Our students are savvy and if we teach along the path of least resistance- if we paint by numbers teach, we can’t blame them from mirroring that level of effort. If we dehumanize our classes our students are right to feel alienated.

Humanity or homelessness, where is technology taking us?

We stand at a crossroads. We have the opportunity to make ourselves irreplaceable or easily replaceable. We have the opportunity to use technology to teach with humanity or to use technology to dehumanize our classrooms into credential factories.

If we allow our classes to become standardized experiences that rely completely on publisher provided lectures and multiple choice exams we can’t act surprised as our classrooms become auditoriums. If we throw up our hands in despair and accept that large lecture hall classes will be dehumanized and impersonal, then we can’t complain when our students act indifferent and disengaged. If we make it possible for our classes to be replaced by a video recording or an iPhone app (as Gov. Tim Pawlenty suggests below at minute 4:33), then we should expect to be underpaid or unemployed.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Tim Pawlenty
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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But we don’t have to accept obsolescence. We could use technology to leverage the one thing that will make us irreplaceable- our humanity. We can use technology to collaborate and create interesting engaging activities, assignments, and experiences (I am talking here about both peer reviewed sources and nonpeer reviewed sources). I have discussed how I use technology to be on a first name basis with all of my 350 students. We can use social media to help foster a sense of community and fight against classroom anonymity. And these are just a few ideas.

Teach Sociology for change or Teach Sociology for change (as in pennies).

Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does. Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another…Art is the product of emotional labor. If it’s easy and risk free, it’s unlikely that it’s art.

Seth Godin, Linchpin

What does it mean to teach with humanity. It means to put yourself out there, to see your teaching as artistic expression, and to strive to create a change inside each of our students. Many of us are afraid to take the risk and teach with our whole humanity. We are afraid we will be laughed at, so we follow the pack and teach paint by numbers. Some of us even call this type of teaching, “being realistic” or “being a professional.” I call it cowering in fear. Making a human connection with your students is hard work (especially in mass) and risky, but it is all that stands between us and obsolescence. Where do you intend to stand along this dividing line?

Sociology has the power to change our students lives and the communities they & we live in. Students who can see at the sociological level (as well as the individual) make more informed choices and are far more likely to advocate for tolerance, acceptance, equality, and peace in their communities. The world is desperately in need of educators willing to put their heart and soul into helping students gain the eyes to see at the sociological level.


If you are reading this YOU ARE THE SOLUTION or at least you can be if you want to be. There are many paths to teaching with humanity and no one, especially me, can tell you how to get there. Teach with passion, refuse to accept a dehumanized classroom, share radically, collaborate with similarly motivated colleagues and you will find your way. And maybe start by sharing, Tweeting, or sending this manifesto to someone who you think might be as interested in finding ways to teach with humanity as you are.

Sociology Educators of the World Unite!