I throw a Rosie the Riveter poster on the overhead and ask my students “why is this photo an important symbol of feminism in the United States?” Long pause, a timid hand is cautiously raised. “Uh, it’s a poster used to encourage women to join the workforce during WWII.” I nod to encourage the student, “yes that’s right, but why was this such a big deal?” After some prodding a student always says some version of, “It’s a big deal because before WWII women didn’t work.” “Yes that’s right,” I say, “before WWII women weren’t in the workforce at all. Right?” Looking over the class I can tell my students are on to me.

My students are right that the common story of Rosie the Riveter is that it signifies when women entered the workforce. However, this isn’t really true (as I am sure you already know). Women have always been in the workforce (and I am not talking about domestic labor). Women who had no choice other than to work have always done so. Many women of color, poor women, and unmarried women have always been represented in the labor force. So “the story” of Rosie is a wonderful opportunity to teach our students about intersectionality.

“What exactly is feminism? That is, how could we define the term?” I ask my students. After a few moments a student says that feminism is about equality between men and women. “Equality between which women to which men? Do you mean that women want to be equal to a poor undocumented immigrant man from Ethiopia? Do women want to be equal to a impoverished gay man? Or do women want to be treated as equals to a rich white heterosexual Christian able-bodied man?” Awkward silence sweeps the classroom.

The complexities of inequality that moments earlier may have been hiding are now laid bare. I have my students read the article that inspired this activity, Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression by Bell Hooks and a short article about the Matrix of Domination by Patricia Hill Collins. After breaking the common definition of feminism, the students and I work together to rebuild a new definition of the term.

I am not an expert. I do not have all the answers. I have a biased worldview. I make mistakes. When I speak in public whether in class or online, I’m scared. So basically I am not even close to perfect. I want you to know this. I want my students to know this.

Teaching is supremely hard in that your students frequently assume that if you are standing at the front of the room you know EVERYTHING about your subject. This leaves all of us with two choices. Either try to maintain that false “teacher as expert” image or be honest with our students about what we know and don’t.

When I teach sociology I am trying to help my students develop “eyes” to see at the sociological level. I want them to develop a sociological imagination. I want them to consider the social (and not only the individual) when they make decisions for the rest of their lives. Before any of this development can happen students must first acknowledge that their worldview isn’t unbiased and perfect. They must acknowledge that they have room to grow.

Almost every student is reluctant to do this because it’s scary. If there is no one “right” worldview and if I have mistakenly assumed my worldview untill now has been right and accurate, then the world is more complex than I thought it was. If the stereotypes and assumptions that I’ve never been bothered to examine until now are inaccurate and biased, then I have a lot of work to do. To ask students to hone their skills of seeing at the sociological level, is to ask them to admit vulnerability; to admit that they’ve got work to do.

And if you found yourself nodding along to the last paragraph about your students, stop and realize that you and I are also vulnerable to the same error in thinking. I mean I went to grad school. I study racism, sexism, classism, and all the other inequalities, so I am the last person who would say or do something that is racist, sexist, classist, etc. Right? By being a sociologist I am inoculated from reproducing inequality. I’m one of the good guys.

Having eyes to see at the sociological level is not an end state. You’re never “fixed”. I struggle almost daily with my privilege. Just last week I asked my class to define femininity in a discussion about gender and I said that long straight hair was commonly associated with being feminine. It wasn’t until after class that it occurred to me that by defining femininity this way meant that I was reinforcing Eurocentric beauty standards and alienating many students of color.

So what should I do now? I could hope that not many students noticed my mistake or I could use this moment to show my students how my social location biased my worldview. I can use the opportunity to teach my students about Eurocentric beauty standards. I can show them what honest critical self-evaluation looks like and role model personal growth. Lastly, I can apologize to the students I’ve alienated and try to reestablish trust with them.

If your goal as a teacher is to reach students and inspire them to be changed by the experiences you have together you have to role model vulnerability. Before someone is willing to change themselves they first must be honest about where they are and that ALWAYS requires vulnerability. You can’t expect many students to be willing to change if you are not willing to be vulnerable. Your students are smart they know when you are being honest with them.

I want to acknowledge that I, as a Euro-American male, am experiencing one of my many privileges here. When I walk into the room on the first day many of my students automatically extend to me credibility and authority. In these cases both are unearned. When teachers of color or female teachers walk into the room they are not only not automatically seen as credible, but in some cases they are automatically assumed to be non-credible and their authority will be challenged at every point. This makes showing your vulnerability all the more difficult, but it doesn’t change the dangers of the “Teacher as Expert” model.

I don’t have a one size fits all solution here. I am not prescribing a course of action that, if you start taking today, you will find your classes are 50% more awesome. I know many good teachers who are just trying to survive a hostile classroom. I can’t tell you what will work for you. However, I know the risks associated with pretending to know everything and role modeling a “I have nothing to learn” stance. To learn we must first acknowledge the areas of ourselves that need growth. How can we ask our students to do something that we won’t do ourselves. If you’ve read to this point, consider sending me your ideas about teaching with vulnerability. Email me at Nathan@sociologysource.com. Thanks!

“Did you hear that Georgia is going to pass a version of the Arizona immigration law? That totally sucks!” a student says to me. I pause for a moment and respond, “I have heard that and I called Georgia and told it to go to its room without supper and think about what it’s done.” The student cocks their head to the side with a bewildered look on their face.

I hear a version of this statement almost monthly. Sometimes it’s a national law, sometimes its a local law, sometimes it’s even a campus policy that students are up in arms about.

I teach in Georgia. I and most of my students are citizens of Georgia, the US, and all of us are members of Georgia Southern University (GSU). So it strikes me as odd that students speak of Georgia, the United States, or GSU as though it is something outside themselves- something they are not a part of.

What’s really going on here is reification. The students speak of Georgia as though it is an entity in and of itself, but it’s not. It’s made up of people. I am Georgia. They are Georgia. This is painfully obvious when we talk about our university. GSU is nothing more than the students, faculty, staff, and administration (all of whom were human beings, last I checked).

Reification, simply defined, is mistaking something composed of or created by humans as being an entity unto itself. We do this all the time when we talk about “the economy” or “the government” or most of all “the system”. “The system” doesn’t exist on its own, “the system” regardless of what system we are talking about is comprised of humans who are typically moving a mouse, pushing buttons on a keyboard, and squinting at a monitor.

Am I just splitting hairs here? No, because we cannot change anything unless we know where to direct our energies. When we talk about “the economy” we ignore that people (policy makers, business leaders, etc) make the decisions that direct the economy and affect each of our lives. If we believe that “the economy” is a big hairy monster that needs to be coaxed back into giving us jobs (see below), we make ourselves powerless. People can be changed, behaviors can be modified, but mythical creatures cannot.

Img: Shekhar Gurera

We can empower students by bringing social systems into a human perspective. To teach reification I compel my students to see that, “WE are Georgia. WE are the United States. WE, especially, are GSU. If you don’t like something, let’s work together to make social change.”

I use the slide above (download it here) as a sort of ice breaker for reification. To really teach reification you would need to pair this ice breaker with a lengthy discussion about how social policy is formed and enforced.  I also typically pair this reification ice breaker with a discussion of hegemony (read about that here).

“Uh Professor, I think you are way off on this one. I know what your sociology research tells you, but people round here aren’t like that.”

Teaching students to see beyond the individual and at the sociological level is really hard. Especially in the United States we overvalue anecdotal personal experiences & undervalue empirical social facts. Worse yet, when student’s lived experiences differ from what sociological research finds, they believe that their lived experience invalidates the sociological research. So how can we get our students to see at the sociological level? Easy. Just put it in terms they understand.

I tell my class to imagine that I have just handed back their graded tests for them to review. I tell them that the class average was a 72%. This, I tell them, is an empirical social fact. The trend or in this case the average for the entire class was 72%.

Then I ask them, “would it make sense if one of you told me ‘the average can’t be a 72% because I got a 96% on my test’?” They laugh at the ridiculousness of this question. “Well when I present to you empirical social facts and you say to me ‘well I know this one guy who doesn’t do what your research says’ or ‘well that’s not true in my experience, so your social fact must be wrong’ you are basically arguing that because you got a 96% the class average can’t be a 72%” Many heads nodding in unison. They get it.

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
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> The Daily Show on Facebook

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!

You have a worldview. You mistake your version of reality for THE version of reality. This is a challenging concept to teach students, particularly in an intro class, especially during the first week of class. However, if you can plant this seed in the first week and keep coming back to it throughout the semester it will pay dividends.

There Are Multiple Realities.
To students who have never taken a sociology course before this can seem like some Matrix stuff. But this concept is so central to everything we teach in sociology. When you tell a student about a national trend or some other fact that is true in aggregate, the student is likely to disbelieve it if the fact runs counter to their lived experience. For example, if I tell students that most Americans who use welfare only do so for a short period of time, but they know someone who they perceive to be “gaming the system” the social fact can ring untrue to them.

Let’s stop for a second and break down this reaction. If what the teacher says is incongruent with what the student has experienced as reality it must be untrue. Central to this line of thinking is the idea that there is a single version of reality; that there is a single truth. If you hope to challenge your students to see beyond their limited worldview and use sociological facts to inform them as they develop a new worldview, you must FIRST get them to accept that worldviews exist and they have one.

Single Camera Perspective.
I repeat over and over throughout the semester this idea that each of us has a biased worldview because we are all limited to a single camera perspective. That is we can only see what comes before us, we can only hear what is around us, and we can only read that which is in front of us. No one has the definitive version of reality, including the professor at the front of the room. One of the best strategies for winning over your students on this idea is to own up to your own biases and how your worldview is and has been shaped by your single camera perspective.

Social Location Matters
Asking students to see their worldview is like asking someone to see the contact lenses on their eyes- hard, but not impossible. Help your student see their worldview by tracing it back to their social location. If you can get students to see how their social characteristics (race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc) affect their worldview you are half way there. The other half is to get them to place their social characteristics within a social context (i.e. find their social location). Here I try to get students to recognize if the majority of the people in the community they grew up in shared their social characteristics. Being of the majority in a community suggests either segregation and/or being of the dominant group (either is a social construction and an opportunity to teach how social forces affect individuals).

Activity- Social Location Finder:

I have created a “Social Location Finder” worksheet that addresses both these issues. Students are asked to first identify their social characteristics and then address if their social characteristics were of the majority in the communities they were raised in. Then students are asked the following:

Now Think About This:

  • Is it possible that your answers to the questions above impact the way you experience the world around you? Do these answers affect the way you experience this school or even this class?
  • If you answered them differently would you be treated differently by others? Would you have access to certain experiences that you don’t presently? Would things you take for granted now be unavailable to you if you answered the questions above differently?
  • More directly, do you think that the experiences of a White, male, middle class, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied, U.S. citizen student at this school are different than a non-White, female, lesbian, Muslim, who is a legal resident, and has a physical disability?

If your students agree that experiences of reality vary by social location or even if they can just acknowledge that there is not a single reality, you are on your way to breaking them from an individualist perspective of reality and toward adopting a perspective that is informed by sociological facts.

You can download the Social Location Finder or this activity any many others can be found in the Soc101 Class Pack which is available to download free by clicking here.

Everything you need to teach introduction to sociology in one free convenient download.

Nathan Palmer, creator and author of SociologySource.com, has taken all of the lectures, activities, and assignments, he uses in his introduction to sociology class and put them into one convenient Class Pack. If you are preparing a course in sociology right now this is the product that you need.

The download is available to all members of SociologySource.com. Membership is free and registering is quick and easy.

This is only the beginning:

In the coming months look for updates and new features to be added to the Soc101 Class Pack. The Soc101 Class Pack is in public beta and we look forward to receiving feedback from users. You can also look forward to Class Packs on other sociological topics.

Download The Soc101 Class Pack Now.

A couple of months back I shared directions for a project that gave students the opportunity to create a video, website, or anything really that raised awareness of bullying & homophobia in their community (You can read it here).

I am delighted to tell you that the projects were a smashing success. Not very many of my ~200 students took the option, but the few that did delivered outstanding results. One of the best student submissions came from my student Sarah Farmer (who graciously gave me permission to share her project and name with you here).

Sarah interviewed people in her community who were touched by violence and homophobia. One of the films most shocking moments is the discussion with Adam, who lost his front teeth after a racially tinged assault. But the films most poignant moment was when we meet John a gay man who discusses the pain of his family’s reaction to his coming out, conversion therapy, and ultimately being given up for adoption by his parents because of his sexuality.

When I showed this film in class everyone was blown away. I am so proud of Sarah’s work and so honored that the men and women in the film were willing to share their experiences. I feel that films and projects like this can transform a sociology class into a platform for opening channels for dialogue and creating social change.

If you have taught even a single class, then you know how hard it can be to stay enthusiastic when some/most of your student’s faces look like they are bored to death by what you’re saying. First off let’s clear the air, this happens to every teacher in every class at some point or another. This is not a sign that you are a bad, boring, or ineffective teacher. It is also not a sign that your students are somehow rude or unmotivated. A semester/quarter long class is an exercise in endurance for both teachers and students. Given the inevitability of these moments I suggest that you use them as an opportunity to teach your class something about Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Yawns, Heavy Sighs, and Screwed Up Faces

Before class starts on the day that I want to teach Goffman I pick 3-5 students who I’ve developed a relationship with and I ask each one of them to come sit up at the front of the class with their chairs turned so they face the rest of the students. I ask each of these students to silently take notes about their experiences viewing the class from this angle. I ask them to write down what people’s facial expressions look like, what they can see the students doing with their hands, and to write down anything they see that would make them think that a student is not really interested in the class or paying attention.

When class starts someone typically asks me why some of the students are sitting at the front. I come up with some fib on the spot, typically about norm violations. For the rest of the class I make no mention of the students at the front of the room or even look in their direction. I want the class to forget that they are there and act normally.

When we’re almost near the end of our discussion of Goffman I ask the class to work on a two minute paper or answer some questions in small groups. Then I quickly discuss with my observers what they saw and help them frame their observations in the language of Goffman. When I tell the class that the panel of students at the front have been taking notes about their facial expressions and body language they typically break up in laughter. Without fail the observers have found the experience eye opening and they say things like, “People in this class act like they are invisible” or “No one in here is good at hiding their phones while they text.” When I ask the panel if, based on the facial expressions and body language of the students, they think the class was interested in todays discussion of Goffman the panel almost always says, “no” or, “hell no”. The rest of the class is shocked to hear that their perceptions of their facial expressions and body language were so far from the perception of the observing students.

What I love about this activity is that I am not the one who has to tell the students how poorly they present themselves. If I were to simply tell them what I see everyday it would sound like nagging or maybe even offensive, but when they hear it from their peers they take the feedback with no argument. I also love this activity because it is like a tool kit that you can use later in the semester. If you look out onto your class and see a ocean of yawns, heavy sighs, and screwed up faces you can say, “Do you guys remember that Goffman activity we did because looking out at you all today it seems you may have forgotten the lessons learned.” Students immediately perk up or put away their cell phones.

Poverty has a way of not seeming so bad to many students. For traditional students who’ve come straight out of their parents home and into the dorms of a university the world can seem like a very manageable place. Frequently when I tell my students that a full time worker making $7.25/hr receives roughly $940 a month, more than a few of them say, “Wow, that’d be great!” Their privilege and their parents economic support obscure the true costs of life.

One activity that I picked up years ago was to have students create a budget to see if they could really live off of minimum wage. This activity is in no way my own creation. It has been covered by Labeff and Clark (1986) in Teaching Sociology and I picked it up from one of my mentors Dr. Helen Moore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The only twist I put on the activity is that I have students read an excerpt from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed.

Download my version of this activity here.

After students have read this excerpt I tell them to imagine that they have two children ages 1 and 3 and that they work full time at the local mall for $7.25/hr. Students are then expected to search local newspapers and websites to find an actual place they could live in town. Then they have to call childcare centers to get quoted prices for 40 hours a week of care for their children. After that they have to budget for utilities, a grocery budget, transportation costs, and any other cost they can think of.

When they have completed their budget, I ask them to write a 3 page paper that discusses how hard they think it would be to raise a family on minimum wage. I have them compare Ehrenreich’s experiences on minimum wage to their experience creating the budget. Lastly, I ask them, “After putting this budget together what would you say to someone who says that people on welfare are lazy and working the system for a easy life?”

Almost every student who I’ve spoken with after this assignment has said that life on minimum wage would be really hard for a single person let alone a parent of two children. I love this assignment because it allows students to walk half a mile in another person’s shoes. This activity grounds sociology’s lessons in the “real world” and in the experiences of the student.

LaBeff, Emily E. and Robert E. Clark. 1986. “Budgeting for the Eighties: Living Middle Class: A Class Project for Introductory Sociology” Teaching Sociology 14(2):136-137.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. 2001. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. Henry Holt and Company. New York:NY