Below is a guest post by Ann Kinnell from the University of Southern Mississippi.
If you have an teaching idea or resource you would like to share, you can find out how here

Some years ago I was trying to think of a way to get my students in my Sociology of the Family course to see how the ideal of mothering and fathering is socially constructed. The textbook we were using at the time certainly made this point but, from class discussion, it was pretty clear that students saw parenting in terms of sex-irreducible gender roles (Starbuck 2010, p16) 1 , i.e. the behaviors of mothers and fathers arise solely from the basic sex differences between men and women. Women get pregnant so they stay home and nurture children. Men do not get pregnant so they do not nurture children but leave the house to make money. As we discussed mothering and fathering in class, often it would come out in discussion that the mothers and fathers of my students often shared similar behaviors or characteristics. But I still felt that the students were downplaying those similarities as exceptions to the rule. So I started doing the following exercise. 2

I teach the course as a relatively large (65 student) lecture-based class. At least one class session prior to our discussion of parenting, I split the class down the middle. I have the students take out a piece of paper and have half of the class write MOM at the top of the paper and the other half write DAD at the top of the paper. I then tell them to write down the 5 most important characteristics of a good MOM or DAD (depending on which group they are in). I emphasize the word “good” because I am trying to get them to think about the ideal of mothering and fathering. When they are done, they hand them in. I often will have them put their name on the paper and give them a couple points extra credit.

Before the next class in which we discuss parenting, I go through the papers and pull 10 of them — 5 MOMs and 5 DADs. I try to pull some that are “traditional” descriptions (e.g. use the word nurture for MOM, breadwinner for DAD) and some that are non-traditional (e.g. use the word nurture for DAD, breadwinner for MOM) or neutral (e.g. do not use either the word nurture or breadwinner) descriptions. In the years I have been doing this, I have never had a problem pulling a mixture of descriptions.

In the class we discuss parenting I start out by discussing the perspective of sex-irreducible gender roles. I then tell the class we are going to have a “quiz” to see how good they are at recognizing descriptions of mothers and fathers. Sometimes I will have them take the quiz in their notes. Sometimes I will have them hand it in for a few points extra credit. I usually preface the quiz by 1) reminding them that the description I’m about to read are the ones they themselves wrote down in the earlier class and 2) noting that if mothering and fathering is totally based on biology, and thus mothers and fathers are totally different in their behaviors, each description should be easy to recognize and everyone should get 100% correct.

I then read the 10 descriptions to the students pausing after each one to have them write down whether they think the description is of a mother or a father. Once we are done with all 10, I ask them how confident they are that they got them all correct. Usually a few students will raise their hands to indicate that they are fairly confident. We have a brief discussion at that point as to why the entire class is not confident they got them all correct. Students usually offer some version of “they all sounded the same” as an explanation. I then remind them that they came up with the descriptions. We then go back through each description. I read it again.

I have the class say out loud what their answer was. Usually there is disagreement on each description. I ask each group why they answered the way they did. This brings out a discussion of stereotypical characteristics which the students look for as clues. I then tell them what the “answer” was – if it was a MOM or a DAD. At this point there are a lot of “YES!” and “What?” responses. When we have gone through all 10 descriptions and the students have “graded” their “quizzes,” I ask how many students got them all correct. The highest I’ve had in the years I’ve been doing this exercise is 8 out of 10 and that has only been one or two students each semester. The average for the class is about 5 correct — usually the number of “traditional” descriptions I include in the mix.

“Why it is the case that the majority of the class only got about 50% correct,” to segue into a discussion of how culture and society affects ideals of parenthood and the actual behaviors of parents. I ask them why many of the descriptions “sounded the same” in that the same descriptors were used for both moms and dads. Students usually draw on their own experiences pointing out that their parent (mom or dad) was a single parent and therefore did “double-duty” as mom and dad or both of their parents were in the paid labor force and therefore shared parenting duties. A few students each semester have stay-at-home dads who for various reasons (disability, unemployment, personal preference) took over “mom” duties.

I have never done a formal assessment of this exercise so I cannot say with any surety what impact it has on my students. However, the feedback I get through the class discussion has been entirely positive and my own impression of the discussion following the “quiz” is that students are more open to examining the cultural and structural factors that affect parenting. Students also write a paper at the end of the analyzing the experiences of three generations of their own families based on the topics we have discussed in class. Most of them seem to have “gotten” the point of the discussion on parenting in that they incorporate it into their papers. Either that or they are just trying to make me happy!


1. Gene H. Starbuck. 2010. Families in Context, Second Edition Revised and Updated. Paradigm Press

2.In the interest of full disclosure, I have been doing this exercise for at least 8 years now and do not remember if I got the idea from someone else. I do read Teaching Sociology so if I am borrowing someone else’s exercise without proper attribution, I apologize.

Some students won’t listen to you. You wrote it in your syllabus that no cell phones, laptops, or other distracting technology is allowed in your classroom , but they’re doing it openly right in front of you.

Recently a professor was arrested for battery after he shut a student’s laptop to get her to pay attention and stop surfing the web during class. Distracted students are clearly a problem everywhere. So what to do?

Well I have a 100% effective solution to stop to stop this annoying problem. Are you ready… Stop nagging them to put away their technology and teach your heart out to the students who are paying attention.

“Wait, what? You mean let them disrespect me to my face?” you may be thinking right now. Yep. That’s basically what I’m saying. Except make one minor change. Don’t view it as being disrespectful or an affront to your authority. If you haven’t stopped reading in disgust yet, let me explain how I handle the situation and why I do it this way.

On the first day of class I go over the syllabus and discuss at length the no technology policy in my syllabus. I share with the students recent research that shows distracted students do worse than their peers who don’t divide their attention. I even show a clip of FRONTLINE:Digital Nation that talks about how humans are crummy at multitasking even especially when they think they rock at it. I give them every opportunity to see that distracting technology is hazardous to their grades health, but alas some students don’t listen.

Last semester I had a class that was texting all the time. At first I thought they just forgot the policy on the syllabus, so I politely reminded them and tried to make light of it with a joke. The students responded to that with disdain. A few classes later when I felt my students where totally disengaged and wrapped up in their technology so I gave them another reminder this time with a stern, but patient approach. The students responded to that with disdain. A few classes later, I saw the exact same few students with laptops out, cell phones in hand. I tried bitting my tongue, but couldn’t so I started a discussion about Goffman’s presentation of self 1 and how their desks were not invisible forcefields hiding their texting from my view. Despite my attempts to be funny the students first starred blankly or rolled their eyes, then responded with –wait for it– disdain.

I was beyond frustrated. I’d like to think I am clever person and yet all of my attempts to curb student texting, laptop surfing, and headphone wearing had been futile. I commiserated with my colleagues, grumbled to myself about it in my office, and started writing a blog post about this phenomenon. I got half way through before I realized the problem. I was trying to change someone else’s behavior by telling them what to do. Which any sociologist can tell you isn’t highly effective.2

In my teaching tool kit I have techniques for inspiring students, encouraging students, supporting students, compelling students, and maybe even empowering students 3 , but I can’t find in my verb tool kit any techniques for forcing, pressuring, or coercing students to do anything.

Fact is, we can’t force students to do anything and we need to own that like yesterday. If you disagree with this, then I think you’re deluding yourself or being an unethical teacher. For me personally, this is a fact I think I have down and then something pops up that reminds me I am still holding on to this dead idea.

Our Power and Our Authority

Weber says that authority is power that people perceive as legitimate as opposed to coercive. When we try to force our students into complying with our expectations of behavior we must consider if the students perceive this use of power as legitimate.

Under some circumstances I don’t care what students think. If a student is personally attacking another student with hate speech, I am going to intervene without regard for how my actions are perceived. However, if the “offense” is much smaller like sleeping in class or texting their BFF I think we should consider how our students perceive these acts. We teach our students everyday that our world is socially constructed and not individually constructed, but when we only consider our own worldview and disregard the rest of the classes worldviews, we are role modeling a behavior antithetical to developing a sociological imagination.

If our students perceive the acts of texting, sleeping, or surfing the web as a legitimate use of their time in class, then it unfortunately doesn’t matter that you disagree. Your authority is compromised when you use your power in ways that your students perceive as coercive. And, again, it doesn’t matter how unfair you think that is. You can’t control how they perceive you and your use of power.

I was watching Oprah the other day (I know) and she had David Arquette on (I know, I know) and he said his yoga instructor at rehab (just keeps getting better doesn’t it) told him that, “anger is like drinking poison and expecting another person to die.” Venting your frustration at your students for not paying attention to you may feel right or even good in the moment, but it will only reduce your authority and subsequently reduce the attention they give you.

Sing For The Ones Who Came to Hear You Sing

So what can you do about student inattention? Pour your soul into teaching for the students who are listening to you. Engage with them as much as possible and they will love you for it. If you focus on the students who are present and reward them with an inspiring class they will help you create a class norm of attentiveness and they will enforce sanctions on the non-compliant precisely because they believe you’ve earned that level of respect and authority. These students will be the ones saying “Shh!” when students talk loudly or are being disruptive. When it becomes the norm to treat you with respect, other students will follow suit. This is the only option that doesn’t weaken your authority.

My 3 Step Solution

So back to my solution. First accept that you can’t force your students to stop using technology in class and maintain your authority. Second, lay the ground rules at the start of the semester to encourage their attention. And finally, teach your butt off to the students who are listening and more will follow.

  1. In my previous post I discussed how well this activity has worked for me and it certainly has. However, it works well at teaching Goffman and not at getting all my students to stop using technology in class. I would still recommend the activity for students to learn Goffman, but maybe not so much as a solution to ending distracted students. ↩

  2. Thanks to my colleague Dr. Nancy Malcom for helping me put this idea into words. ↩

  3. I am starting to hate this word. Empower means to give someone the authority to do something and in reality I don’t give anyone the power to do anything. Students learn, change their minds, or change their communities because they do it, not because of something I bestow upon them. I aspire to be a catalyst for their change, but in the end they deserve the credit for doing the hard part of the work. ↩

Hold my BoomBox High

Music is a teacher’s best friend. Used well music can pull your students into a discussion, get them to consider controversial issues from new perspectives, and set a tone for a great class.

I play a song in the last minutes before class starts almost every time we meet. It is a really cool effect to have the music end and then say, “Ok, I’ve got 9:30 so let’s get started.” 1 It’s very theatrical, almost like how comedians use music to hype up an audience before their set. Especially when the song is up tempo, it starts the class with students leaning forward and interested as opposed to half asleep. I’ll put the song lyrics on the overhead when they reinforce the class discussion topic for the day.

It’s ideal to find a song that discusses the topic for the day, but when I can’t think of one I simply try to find a song that is at least enjoyable, minimally offensive to everyone’s tastes, and up tempo. Below is a short list of songs that I use in my classes and the topics I have them go with.

  1. First day of class – Show Goes On by Lupe Fiasco
  2. Race – All black everything by Lupe Fiasco
  3. Social Inequality – Working Class Hero by John Lennon
  4. Gender – When I Was a Boy by Dar Williams
  5. Sexuality – Born This Way by Lady Gaga
  6. Crime & Deviance – Prison Song by System of a Down
  7. Authority & Obedience – Monkey Wrench by Foo Fighters
  8. Environmental Sociology – Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell or cover by Counting Crows

I’ve linked to YouTube videos of all the songs so you can hear them, but I typically don’t show these in my classes. Also, I usually invest in the censored versions of the songs when they use really harsh language (Prison Song by System of a Down I’m looking at you here).

Share: What songs would you use?

What songs are you using in your classes or what songs would you use? Suggest a song by filling out the form below. You can download everyone’s suggestions here.

I create a form similar to this in my classes that allows my students to submit their song suggestions. The results have been hit and miss. Some songs have been amazing and others have been astonishingly offensive and totally unusable in class. However, I think this is a great way to get your students to take an active role in the class. If you play a student submission I highly recommend giving that student a shout out after the song is submitted. My students love it when I do that.

How To Deal With Controversial Lyrics:

Waring Artistic Expression Label

On the first day of class when we are going over the syllabus I put up the slide you see above and tell my students to be prepared for artistic expressions that may surprise, shock, or potentially offend them. I make it clear that the messages we hear/see in these artistic expressions are not meant to be taken as a class lesson. These artistic expressions are one artists reaction to the issues that we talk about in class. I tell them that if they don’t like the art, that is fine. They are not expected to agree with anything in the art, but they are expected to consider it and why the artist felt compelled to make such a statement. I also include a message like this in my syllabus, which you can download here.

After this groundwork is laid, reinforce it’s message when you talk about the music in class. For instance, when I play All Black Everything by Lupe Fiasco (which is about an alternative reality where African Americans are the dominant social group in the U.S. and the world) I ask the class, “Why do you think Lupe wrote this?” Then I go through the various aspects of the song to get student feedback and analysis of Lupe Fiasco’s ideas. Notice that when I talk about this song I get out of the way and ask why did Lupe say or do this? This allows students to express critiques of his art without feeling like they are confronting or challenging me. Students are a lot more comfortable being art critiques then they are challenging the person who grades their work. It’s a small nuance here, but I think it’s crucial.

Ultimately, you have to weigh the costs of controversial lyrics against the benefits of the educational gains. You’re a professional, so this should be a snap. I listen to my gut. If a song feels too risky I don’t play it.

More Resources:
Albers, Ben and Rebecca Bach. 2003. “Rockin´ Soc: Using Popular Music to Introduce Sociological Concepts.” Teaching Sociology 31: 237-245.


1. To get this effect I create a playlist in iTunes with only the 1 song I want to play before class starts. Then I look at how long the song is and push play when that amount of time is left before class starts. So if the song is 3:46 long I start the tune at 9:26. I promise you it is super easy.

For many of us student evals are what our merit evaluations hinge upon. Good student evals make you a good teacher, bad ones do the opposite. This is unfortunate for the sociology teacher because sociology is an inherently subversive discipline. When students are upset by our classes it may be because they are actually learning or it could be because our teaching methods alienate and frustrate them. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes. So, how can you get the good student evals you need and insure that student frustration is a by product of learning and not a byproduct of a poorly designed or implemented lesson plan? Do a mid-term evaluation of your courses.

Download my mid-term.doc student eval form*

A simple anonymous mid-term student evaluation of your course can give you great feedback while you still have time to make changes. On the day that I am going to administer the mid-term eval I start by telling my students that,

“These evals and the evals at the end of the term are very important to me and my career. When I was an undergraduate I used to think they were a big waste of time and that no one really read them or cared what was said on them. However, for a lecturer like myself, these evals are the only document that evaluates what we’ve done here in this room. My employer will only know what you tell them about this course. Your feedback is absolutely critical and all I ask is that you give me a moment of your time on these evals and be honest. If there is something you don’t like tell me how it could be improved. If there is something that you like a lot tell me what you liked about it. Today we will be doing mid-term evals because I want to hear from you and get ideas about this course while I still have time to implement them. If you have a good idea that I can implement right now, I will. You have my word.”

I’ve honed this intro over the years and I really like it because it addresses 2 key issues. 1) It communicates the importance of the evals and neutralizes student misconceptions about their irrelevance. 2) I ask them to tell me what they liked and didn’t like. Many of you may be thinking that asking students to complain about your course is counterproductive to getting solid evaluations, but I strongly believe that acknowledging that the course isn’t perfect is far more likely to engender sympathetic students. Students, by in large, don’t want to punish instructors they want to be heard and be told that their perspective on the course is valid and understood by the instructor. Acknowledging your imperfections openly will reduce the need for students to forcefully show you their point of view. This is hard and this goes back to the teaching with vulnerability we talked about already.

The real reason you want to do a mid-term eval is that it allows students to unload their frustrations before the final evaluations (which are viewed by your supervisors). It gives you time to make adjustments and have a better experience the last half of the semester. THIS IS CRUCIAL: read the mid-term evals right away and find at least one thing you can do or change right now, then do it, and then tell your students you heard them and made changes. This says to your students, “I’ve heard you and I care enough about our relationship to make changes right now.”

Be aware that mid-term evals can feel like a swift kick to the esophagus. Maybe I am too sensitve, but harsh evals can ruin my day. It’s hard to hear feedback that is short of constructive, but it’s crucial to growing as a teacher. I’ve also found that many of the really painful evals hurt precisely because their critiques are so dead on. The pain sometimes comes from being accurate and from my inability to think of a solution at the moment. However, these evals are the weathervane pointing to the areas you need to refocus your attention on.

*While I wrote this eval myself, I can’t really claim it as my own intellectual property nor do I care to. I have borrowed from or been inspired by many many evaluations created by my colleagues. So many that I can’t even give credit to them here. Thank you to all my colleagues and mentors for helping develop this form. Also, please feel free to take my form, edit it, and share it without attributing it to me. Just enjoy it and things are square with me.

I had the opportunity to talk with Jon Smajda on the most recent Office Hours podcast about SociologySource, the Soc101 Class Pack, and the SociologySource Manifesto. I am really proud of the podcast and I hope you’ll take a listen.

Listen Here

Subscribe to the wonderful Office Hours Podcast

Have you ever wondered why students seem armed to the teeth with anecdotal evidence to counter almost everything sociology has to teach them? Why do they seem so resistant to accepting the lessons of sociology. I’m sure you’ve had a student who, despite mountains of empirical evidence and your best attempts to explain it to them, refuses to acknowledge that their view of the world is inaccurate. What’s up with that? Well, the answer is very complex, but the confirmation bias (and the fundamental attribution error discussed last week) can help us understand our students better and be more empathetic teachers.

The confirmation bias, simply defined, is the bias toward accepting information that confirms our worldview without critique while at the same time being overly critical of information that counters are preconceived notions of the world. This explains how students are drawn to and remember information or experiences that confirm their views. It also explains why some students are harshly critical or even prone to dismissing out of hand any evidence that counters their view of the world. The confirmation bias is behind stereotypes, discrimination, and the construction of our worldview*. There is actually new research that suggests that non-confirming evidence can actually “backfire” and strengthen a person’s commitment to their misconceptions (learn more about this by listening to this NPR Talk of the Nation episode)

To get the most bang for your buck, you should talk about the confirmation bias as early in your class as possible. Put a name on it and you are half way to overcoming it. After the bias has a name you can pull it out when a student seems to be suffering from it. I often say in my classes, “You seem unwilling to consider that this evidence is accurate. What would it mean if it was? Just for a moment pretend that it is accurate, how would that change the way you see things?”

I use Fox News and MSNBC as examples of the confirmation bias. These two news agencies channels are built on the confirmation bias. Most people who tune in to these channels find that it is an opportunity to learn why the way they see the world is right and to laugh at the stupid people on the other side of the argument. Does Fox News do a better job of eviscerating the liberal point of view? Is MSNBC less biased? All of these questions are beside the point, so please don’t send emails 🙂 The point is that these channels are self-affirming and that is their business strategy. I also use this as an opportunity to discuss how the split screen screaming talking heads is a poor model for social discourse and that our classroom discourse will not devolve into that.

So what? After you explain the confirmation bias to students, they may think this to themselves. So what that I am more critical of some info than I am of others. Some students may see a sociological discussion of the confirmation bias as being a “bleeding heart liberal” telling them they need to be considerate of others. In my experiences students with the most social privileges are the most likely to experience the self-inoculating logic. I find the best way to get students to buy in and to care about confirmation bias is to give them “real world” examples of its practical value. I tell them that when Napster and music file sharing blew up record executives were unwilling to see that the world wasn’t going to be buying music on plastic discs for much longer. They were unwilling to see the world as it was, to acknowledge that it had changed, and because they clung to their worldview they have seen a dramatic reduction in the profits and their need to exist. Having the courage to see the world as it is, to listen to voices that challenge us, to be willing to change your mind as new evidence emerges, is the key to be a successful person in any field, discipline or career.

Teaching our students how to locate empirical evidence and use it to refine their worldview is an essential skill regardless of their major. Sell them on this and they will buy into your class.

Teaching the confirmation bias can help your students learn sociology, but it can also help you be an empathetic teacher. It is too easy to say that students “simply don’t want to learn” or to blame their resistance on who they are (anyone see the fundamental attribution error at work here?). I believe that students, by in large, really want to learn. After we accept the confirmation bias is affecting our students, it is easier to empathize with their position and be patient.

*Yes, you suffer from it too and if you acknowledge and own this in front of your students they will be more likely to believe you and accept the gravity of this bias.

The fundamental attribution error is so central to learning sociology that it astonishes me that I’ve never seen it covered in a Soc 101 text*. The fundamental attribution error is the idea that each of us as an individual is biased toward viewing our behaviors within the context of our circumstances. However, when we view the behaviors of others we attribute their behaviors to who they are as a person or to their character. The classic example is speeding.

To begin a class discussion on the fundamental attribution error I ask my students to think about the last time they broke the speed limit. Not like 5 miles an hour over, but like really really broke the speed limit. After a moment I ask, “So why were you speeding?” Students describe how they typically don’t recklessly speed unless there is some dire need to get somewhere fast. Students talk about being fired if they are late to work one more time, sleeping through an alarm and being late to a final or midterm, or speeding to catch a flight. Many times students start their explanations by saying, “I typically don’t speed, but…” When asked why they speed students provide a litany of circumstantial reasons for their “unusual” behavior.

I then ask students to think about the last time they were driving and someone blew by them or was weaving through traffic recklessly. After they collect this memory, I ask them how they feel about the speeding driver. “I typically yell, ‘you ___ hole!'” one of my students said this semester. Students go on to describe how they feel the reckless driver is a danger to society and they need to be stopped. Student describe speeders as fundamentally different people from them. They have a character flaw that makes them speed. There is almost always no discussion of how the other speeders may be experiencing circumstances similar to the times that students recalled speeding. Basically what pans out every time I have this discussion is that, students speed because of unique circumstances, but others speed because of who they are.

We can see the fundamental attribution error all over the place in sociology. It’s present in almost every stereotype. We see it in the criminal justice system. But where I experience the fundamental attribution error the most is in discussions of inequality. Students can go on and on about how they’re loved ones work extremely hard and still can’t get themselves out of poverty, but they also go on and on about how they know so many poor people who, unlike their loved ones, are lazy and unwilling to even try to live independent of government aid. I frequently hear a statement like this, “It makes me so mad to see all these people who live off of welfare whining about being broke when they aren’t even looking for work or trying to be independent. When my family was on welfare we used it because we had to and as soon as we could get off of it we did.” Statements like this show how students place their families use of welfare within the context of their circumstances, but they refuse to extend the same to other families on welfare. The character of these other families are fundamentally different from theirs. When we talk about empirical research that shows that the majority of welfare recipients only receive aid for a short period of time and then leave the programs as soon as they can, students seem perplexed. They tell me stories of people they saw picking up welfare checks in Cadelac Escalades. They tell me that despite my empirical evidence to the contrary, most people “abuse welfare” and their family was one of the rare exceptions. Knowing that this discussion is almost certainly coming, I start the semester with a discussion of the fundamental attribution error and I’ve found that students are increasingly willing to accept the empirical evidence.

Discussions of authority and obedience are another area ripe for the fundamental attribution error. In my class we watch a clip about the Stanford Prison experiment, read about Millgram’s electrocution experiments, and the like. Students learn about all these examples of obedience with disbelief. Students almost always say something like, “Well all this research shows is there are some gullible and obedient people out there.” Here again is the fundamental attribution error. My students believe that these “obedient people” are fundamentally different than they are. A quick way to neutralize this self-serving logic is to ask the class, “how many of you think this is true? Show of hands who thinks that ‘people are gullible and obedient’?” Almost every hand in the class goes up. “Okay, now how many of you think you are gullible and obedient?” Not a single hand goes up. “Oh, so this is something ‘people do’ but none of you do it. Huh, that’s strange.” This is a great launching point for a discussion of the fundamental attribution error.

*The fundamental attribution error comes from social psychology (as far as I know). So it kinda makes sense that it’s not featured in a 101 text.

If there is one thing The Daily Show does better than anyone, it’s expose hypocrisy. This is helpful when teaching conflict theory. One of the central tenants of conflict theory (and hegemony more directly) is that those in power use their influence to cast their behaviors in the best light possible. These powerful actors similarly use the media to cast the least powerful in society in the worst possible light. (Note: I spoke about this last year, read that post here)

J. Stewart and the Daily Show gang’s coverage of the Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to abolish the teachers union’s ability to collectively bargain has been particularly on point. Stewart effectively juxtaposes the cable news media’s presentation of the “lazy, fat cat, undeserving teachers” making $50k a year to the “job creating Wall Street executive” making $250+ who deserve a continuation of the Bush tax break. Even more damming is the video of the same people saying one thing for the rich and the exact opposite for teachers. While Stewart’s brashness is not conducive to everyone’s teaching style, I find my students have a better understanding of conflict theory/hegemony after watching clips like this.

Here’s a bonus clip that shows how the media rejoice when big banks like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sacs rake in the dough because the Fed is literally giving them the money to sell to the US government to pay back the TARP money we gave them. While students may need some help following this cycle, they are appalled to learn how the big banks receive this government handout.

<!– "I want you to stand perfectly still & expressionless for 15 minutes outside the union," that is what I told my 262 soc101 students yesterday as I surprised them with an activity called "Doing Nothing". The Doing Nothing activity, originally designed by Karen Bettez Halnon, is a modification on the classic break-a-norm activity.
I use this activity to teach norms, deviance, and Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Students feel first hand the anxiety of norm violations. They experience being stigmatized and being labeled by others as crazy, creepy, or even scary. Instead of norms, deviance, and Goffman being abstract sociological concepts they become real experiences.
Advantages to Doing Nothing as a Class:
Break a norm in public. That is arguably the oldest sociology activity in the book. Problem is, most students don’t actually do it; opting instead to write the paper based on what they imagine the experience would be like. When this happens your break-a-norm activity turns into a short fiction assignment. Doing Nothing as an entire class allows you to verify students had the experience.
Another benefit of Doing Nothing as a class is you can provide a safe and secure environment for your students.

Want to teach your students about norms, deviance, and the social construction of reality in a way that they’ll never forget? Try Doing Nothing, literally. Have your students silently stand in a public place for 15 minutes with absolutely no expression on their face. If anyone approaches them they are to reply to any and all questions by saying, “I am doing nothing.”

Students laugh when they hear the directions. Anxiety washes over them as they take their places. They struggle to contain nervous laughter and their fight or flight instinct that is screaming RUN in their head. All of a sudden those abstract concepts, deviance, norms, stigma, all become uncomfortably real. Students learn with their own two eyes how people react to non-conformers- to deviants. This is lived sociology.

Doing Nothing is not my own idea. Karen Bettez Halnon (2001) in Teaching Sociology outlined how she had her students individually do nothing in a public place for 30, of what I assume must have been excruciating, minutes. All I’ve done here is tweak her idea and amplify it to an extreme.

I figured if I have a class of 262 students why not put it to use. One person doing nothing is strange, but 262 students doing nothing is a sight to behold. Also, doing the activity as a class allowed me to verify* it was carried out and that students safety** was maintained.

Public Sociology:
Despite sociology being inherently social, it is surprising how rarely we use the public in the instruction of sociological concepts. I am most proud of how interactive this learning experience was. Students learned by doing (and at a grand scale).

Now, with our YouTube video, the students and I are trying to teach as many people as possible the sociological lessons we learned yesterday. My hope is that my students will see how their actions started a small social movement and created change and learning in others. I plan on using this as an example of how they can change the world around them. If you teach for social justice, if you hope to inspire your students to do more than just memorize some facts for a test, then we have to find ways to role model, or better yet provide a platform for, creating social change in our communities.

As a final note, it would mean a lot to me if you would take the time to watch the video above and pass it along to someone you think would enjoy it. The more people who watch the clip the more my students will feel capable and empowered to create social change. I have loved giving away as much as I possibly could over the last year and now I am asking for one small favor in return. Five minutes of your life to watch the clip, send it to someone else, Tweet it, post it on Facebook, etc.

Thank you,

Event Logistics:
If you’re going to do anything with 262 people you’re going to need help and a lot of planning ahead. I recruited 11 student volunteers to help me with maintaining safety and crowd control. I created a handout to communicate to the volunteers what their responsibilities were (download it here).

I also created a set of concise and explicit lecture slides that visually explained the directions for the activity (see below | Download them here). Note that students were required to participate, but not to be video recorded. Students had the option to do the activity in another location away from cameras, but none of my 262 students chose not to participate (which was a delightful surprise). Students who were going to be recorded had to sign an image release and consent form.

*Break a norm in public. That is arguably the oldest sociology activity in the book. Problem is, most students don’t actually do it; opting instead to write the paper based on what they imagine the experience would be like. When this happens your break-a-norm activity turns into a short fiction assignment. Doing Nothing as an entire class allows you to verify students had the experience.

**As Bettez Halnon mentions in her Teaching Sociology article, students are left vulnerable in a public place if you ask them to do this activity alone. Every time I have done this activity I have found that passersby will try to coax a response out of students by touching them in some way. Typically this is a simple poking on the nose or lifting up an arm and then letting it fall, but I’ve seen students attempt to pull on students coats and backpacks. I absolutely would not do this activity without supervising the event myself. Along these same lines, I also instruct my students that if at any moment they feel unsafe in anyway they are to discontinue the activity and return to the classroom.

Bettez Halnon, Karen. 2001. “The Sociology of Doing Nothing: A Model “Adopt a Stigma in a Public Place” Exercise.” Teaching Sociology 29(4) Pp:423-38.


Disruptive Students? Don’t Start Drinking:


Almost all of the email that I get from teachers across the country is about disruptive students. Students who challenge every single point made in class. Students who value anecdotal experiences over empirical social facts. Students who loudly assert that the teacher is biased, partisan, and a terrible teacher. So what are we to do when a student is hellbent on derailing a class? First, don’t start drinking.

Being shipwrecked has to be the crappiest ways to die. If exposure or sharks don’t kill you, dehydration will. Adrift in the largest body of water in the world you die of thirst. Who says god doesn’t have a sense of humor. Of course, you could drink the salt water, but while it may temporarily make you feel better you are only hastening your demise. The more you drink sea water, the faster you die. Simple as that.

Same is true in classes with disruptive students. A hypercritical student who openly questions your authority and legitimacy raises the anxiety of even the best teachers among us. How can a teacher assuage this anxiety and get his/her legitimacy and authority back? Become unquestionable- un-critique-able (I invented a word). Research your tail off and know your subject matter backwards and forwards. Prepare tirelessly for you class so it’s perfect. And finally, try to filter everything you say in class to be sure that what your saying is accurate. HA! That’ll show the disruptive hypercritical student.

Except doing all of these things, especially the mental double checking of everything said in class, will almost certainly make you sound unconfident. Students, and people in general, are astonishingly well equipped to sniff out bravado and inauthenticity. When you get in your own head about everything you are teaching it makes you sound like you’re faking the funk. It feels as good as drinking saltwater, but it also is just as debilitating. To deal with a disruptive student you almost certainly have to try something that is counter intuitive.

There isn’t a one size fits all solution for disruptive students, but sometimes the best way to handle a student who demands to have their non-sociological non-empirical ideas heard is to get out of the way. This pedagogical Jujitsu works because it takes the pressure of being the expert off your shoulders and makes it your disruptive students burden to bear. Ask the rest of your class to provide the disruptive student with feedback. If the class is unwilling to openly challenge the student ask the class to write an anonymous two minute response paper and then give them to the student. As anyone who has read teaching evaluations knows students can be brutal evaluators. Furthermore, most disruptive students have no idea how they are perceived by their peers. Asking for peer evaluation of the disruptive student will address the problem on both of these fronts.

Editors Note:
There will be a special post on this Wednesday, so check back then or watch your RSS feed.