The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.
The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.
The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.

That has been reverberating in my head since Jay Howard said it at ASA last month[1]. I’d heard the underlying idea many times before, but it was the first time that it clicked in my head. All of a sudden I had the eyes to see my classes in a whole new way; I was doing almost all of the work.



Intellectually I was committed to a student-centric teaching style, but if you looked at how I was spending the 150 minutes I had with my students each week, you would conclude that “covering” all of the material was a priority. Worst part of it is, I knew enough to feel bad about my students passivity. My preoccupation with “covering” the material was making me miserable. My lecture notes had become the dog that walks it’s master.

The preoccupation with covering the material is also built upon a faulty logic. Typically when someone says they “covered” a topic in class they mean they lectured about it. In the past I worried that if I didn’t cover a topic my students would surely be unable to answer a test question about it. As if the act of hearing me define a concept gives my students the best chance at learning it. This can’t be true if “the one doing the work is the one doing the learning is true”.

There’s time for anything, but not time for everything. If I spend all of class time covering my material, then there will be no time for my students to actively engage the material. This semester I’ve cut about a 1/3 of the material from my lecture notes to make room for my student’s voices. When a great class discussion or activity runs long and I can’t cover all of the concepts I’d hoped to, I breath deeply and repeat:

The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.
The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.
The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.

  1. Jay gave someone credit for the quote during his talk, but I didn’t write down who it was. I searched the interwebs for a citation, but saw it credited to 4 separate authors. So to whomever credit the statement, thank you for facilitating my breakthrough.  ↩ is an amazing free resource for teachers (but I heard the editor of the site is a self-promoting blowhard). In all seriousness, I created SociologyInFocus to help you teach your classes. Think of the site as a timely sociology micro-reader. We use current events like the unrest in Egypt, the Trayvon Martin Verdict, and Anthony Wiener to illustrate sociological concepts for an intro level student audience. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible to teach sociology as it happens.

Plus we make it easy to assign the articles to your students. Each article ends with four “Dig Deeper” questions that you can have your students answer either as extra credit or as supplemental reading. The four questions can also be used to start a great class discussion.

We are a team of dedicated teachers who want to help spread the ideas of sociology to as wide of an audience as possible. We’d be honored if you included our work in your classes. To make it as easy as possible we’ve created a special page just for teachers and launched a twice yearly teacher newsletter (subscribe today).

If you like SociologySource, I have no doubt that you will love .

I used to be a huge advocate for instituting hard and fast ground rules for class discussions. I used to spend the last third of my first class of the semester going over the rules with my students. I used to… then I read this:

If a goal of conversations about equity and social justice is to challenge current structures and assumptions, we must look closely at all guidelines we use in our classes and workshops, asking ourselves who they support and who, if anybody, they privilege. As such, many educators and facilitators have begun to rethink the idea of ground rules and ways they currently are implemented.

– Paul C. Gorski

It smacked me like a cold fish across the face. I was using the guidelines to keep me comfortable; they were there to fortify my authority. Being a member of the dominant culture in just about every possible way, when something keeps me comfortable it often points like a weathervane toward social power. Ground rules have a way of being a form of symbolic violence; a subtle hegemonic force used to press the dominant culture’s norms and values upon every student. It’s a quiet way of reminding every student in the room, “who’s in charge around here”.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think that some form of classroom decorum is needed for optimal student learning. I am not suggesting that a norm-less class is ideal or even possible. But if you give your students the ground rules for discussion like a royal decry, don’t be surprised if the your students think you come off like a dictator.

Setting Expectations Instead of Ground Rules

When you come to my class I want you to know that this is a safe learning environment where it’s okay to be wrong (i.e. factually inaccurate), it’s okay to disagree with someone, and it’s okay to be totally baffled or overwhelmed by sociology. Instead of having firm rules in place, I want you to know what you should and shouldn’t expect when we are having class discussions. Instead of having rules for discussion, I ask my students to help me create a list of things they should expect in classroom discussions and a corresponding list of things they should not expect.[1] Below is a list my class recently collected.

List of What to Expect Slide 1
List of What to Expect Slide 1

– Download a word document version of expectations here –

Lots of sources have suggested that instead of instilling ground rules by fiat, you should instead have your students design them. I like this idea and have had a great deal of success with this approach myself. During the first week of class have your students brainstorm ideas in small groups and then as a class work together to synthesize the list. This is a great opportunity for students to meet one another, form connections, and practice working together. Plus your students are far more likely to “buy in” to the class expectations if they played a role in creating them. Furthermore, you can role model good discussion behavior as you work with your students to identify themes and reword them. You can also have a profound impact on the final product by asking students to elaborate on their suggestions.

Is this the right approach? Dunno. Does it solve all of the problems I’ve identified with ground rules? I think not. But this is a step in the right direction. If you finish this piece unconvinced, I hope you’ll still join me (and the many other scholars doing work in this area) in thinking more about how the social structures of our classes reflect and recreate the inequality created by the social structures we teach within.

As a discipline we implore our students to look critically at the world they live in and ask “who benefits from this?” It seems reasonable that our students should expect as much from us.

  1. I give all credit for the idea of expectation setting to my friend and renowned educator, Dr. Breyan Haizlip. This is just one of the many ways she has made me a better teacher.  ↩

At ASA I was asked to sit on a “what I wish I would’ve known” panel where new faculty gave advice to grad students on the market and new hires. First, let me say that it was a privilege to be asked to participate. But it left me with this question, “is being an experienced teacher the same thing as being a good teacher[1]”. I bring this question up not to take a shot at senior teachers[2], but to reflect back on my first few years as a professional teacher and invite you to rethink your goals for this fall.

As a (still) relatively new faculty, I have often been given the advice, “observe your senior faculty and pick up some tips and strategies for your class.” My department has senior faculty do classroom observations of all junior faculty. And while I’d never argue against the idea that wisdom comes from experience, I am still left wondering, can classroom experience serve as a proxy for pedagogical skill? If the answer is yes, then can we conclude that the “best” teachers would be some of the most experienced?

Part of the answer to the question of experience and ability lies in the research on skill acquisition and deliberate practice. Deliberate practice (as defined in the research by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer 1993) focuses skill acquisition on just one particular component of a skill that is currently something the individual struggles with. Then through repeated practice and immediate feedback the individual gets better at it. Deliberate practice can help us understand why so many Karaoke singers who sing the same songs over and over almost never become world famous singers.

In the classroom it’s easy to go into autopilot and just do what’s always worked for you in the past. Last April I wrote about how reading How Learning Works woke me up to the fact that I wasn’t half the teacher I thought I was. Because I had some experience under my belt and thought so highly of my teaching I had slipped into autopilot. I was going through the motions; going through my routine, but I wasn’t really growing as a teacher. I was still using my skills, but I wasn’t developing them very much.

Today I feel that teaching experience is no guarantee of teaching skill. You may be a subject expert and you may have a great deal of wisdom from years of experience, but if you haven’t pushed yourself to grow as an educator, your teaching quality may not be much better than it was 10 years ago. Everyone has something to learn or some aspect of teaching to work on. You don’t have to be perfect. I needed to hear that last semester and I’m going to need to hear it again and again throughout my career. We all have something to work on. So as the term begins for so many of us, I invite you to think about what aspect of your teaching you might want to work on this fall.

  1. What makes a good teacher? Is a good teacher one that is well liked or well respected or a teacher who gets their students to learn a great deal? This is an excellent question, which I will punt on until another blog post 🙂  ↩

  2. In fact, I owe a great deal to my mentors. Any success I’ve experienced in the classroom is in large part due to what I learned from them.  ↩

The soc nerds are coming. The soc nerds are coming. ASA is just 5 days away. I’ll be posting updates on Twitter and right here as I attend session/meetups. Below is an incomplete list of the teaching and learning focused events (and a Blog Meetup & Party). For more details (e.g. where these events are held and who exactly is presenting at them), see the official ASA Program.

ASA 2013 Banner Image


The Section on Teaching and Learning Pre-Conference Workshop This is a fantastic workshop to reevaluate your approach to teaching, pick up some new classroom tricks, and get your questions answered by some of the best sociology teachers around. This annual event does require that register in advance (and registration is closed for this year), but I plan to cover this event on Twitter and right here on SociologySource, so stay tuned on Friday. I am a panelist/facilitator for this event, so if you are planning on attending come say hi. I’d love to meet you face-to-face. Find out more.


10:30 –12:10pm
Teaching Workshop. What If Students Asked the Questions? Student-Facilitated Policy Discussion in the University Classroom

Teaching Workshop. The Sociology of Effective Lecturing

Sociology Blog Meetup. at Faces & Names (159 W 54th St).Come hang with your favorite authors from Sociological Cinema, The Society Pages, SociologySource, SociologyInFocus, ScatterPlot,Family Inequality, The Montclair SocioBlog, and more. This will be a relaxed, fun, and friendly affair.

Section on Teaching & Learning Reception at Rosie O’ Grady’s (800 7th Ave). Open to everyone. If you are a section member or want to see what were all about, come on down.

-Section Day for ASA Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology-

Awards ceremony. Hans O Mauksch Award presentation by Jeffrey Chin

Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology Business Meeting

Teaching and Learning with Technology

Teaching the CORE of Sociology-or not! What should introductory students know?

Teaching Public Sociology

Scatterplot Sociology Blog Party at Lillie’s Victorian Establishment (249 W 49th St). Another chance to meet some of your favorite sociology bloggers. I’ll be there along with many other nice folks. Open to all sociology bloggers, tweeters, tumblrs and their readers, commenters, and lurkers. And if you don’t fit in any of those columns, well your invited too. More info.


Teaching Sociology Editorial Board

Teaching Workshop. Teaching Social Theory – New Approaches for Bringing Social Theory to Life

Teaching Workshop. Teaching Introductory Sociology for the First Time

Teaching Workshop. Teaching Climate Change in Sociology

Teaching Workshop. Sex Matters: The Importance and Mechanics of Teaching Sexuality Effectively

Reception for Scholars with International Research & Teaching Interests


Teaching Workshop. Embracing (or at Least Not Fearing) Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom

Regular Session. Teaching Sociology

Thematic Session. Teaching about Inequality in the Face of the American Dream

Professional Development Workshop. Demonstrating Teaching Excellence: Creating Successful Resources in TRAILS

Teaching Workshop. Practical Experience and Methods of Introducing Conversation Analysis to Audiences Who are New to this Approach

Teaching Workshop. Building a Cumulative Curriculum in the Sociology Major

“What are you talking about? That’s not what I said! Weren’t you listening?!”

I love my wife more than anything. We’re best friends and nearly constant companions. That said, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve miscommunicated. She said something that was to her was crystal clear, but what I heard was the exact opposite of what she intended. Or I’ve said to her, “be at this place at this time and bring those things”. Only to show up at said time and place to find her no where to be seen or without said things in hand. Surely some of these miscommunications can be attributed to mindlessness, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve really tried to do exactly what I thought she wanted and screwed it up royally. Each time this happens the aggrieved party throws their hands up in with a flabbergasted look that screams, “DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE WORDS THAT ARE COMING OUT OF MY MOUTH!?!?!?!”[1].

“It’s Not My Fault You Can’t Read The Directions!”

When my wife speaks I am 100% interested in what she has to say, especially when we are working out the logistics of an event or day. And still, with 100% interest, miscommunication happens. Now let me ask you a question. How interested are your students in what you have to say? Probably less than 100%, yes?

As faculty it’s easy to feel exasperated when a student seems to have either not read the directions or completely misread them. I’ve heard many a faculty say, “It’s not my fault if they can’t read the directions!” Or, “Part of working in the real world is learning to follow directions, it’s not my responsibility to explain every single step of the process to them.” However, even under the best of circumstances miscommunication happens, so I’d politely like to suggest that working to minimize miscommunication is indeed your responsibility.

5 Ways to Minimize Miscommunication

  1. Watch Your Assumptions

“Do I really need to write that in the directions, don’t students already know that…?” Let me be clear, no. They don’t already know that. The reason you are a professor is that you were an exceptional student. You did “already know that”, but that makes you the rare exception. When you write your directions, write them so clearly a person not in your class could understand them.

  1. Be Explicit to a Fault

In your directions lay out your expectations in as much detail as possible. Consider presenting your directions as a step-by-step process to communicate the approach you feel they should take. Or even better, provide a checklist or grading rubric as these make your expectations clearer.

A word of caution: If the directions for your assignment are 7 pages long or as detailed as the tax code, your students won’t read them. You have to find the right balance between explaining your vision for the assignment, while not overloading your students. Be concise and clear.

  1. Use Formatting to Communicate Effectively

Use text formatting like bold, underline, and italics to guide the reader’s eye to the crucial information. Use bullets and lists to help your student organize the steps in the process. If you expect a certain citation style, format your directions accordingly to role model the desired outcome. Well designed directions, syllabi, and rubrics can really help reduce miscommunications.

  1. Tell Them What You Don’t Want

Miscommunication often happens because the person presumes they know what you are going to say before the read what your directions. They feel they have a handle on your expectations and give a cursory glance at the directions. Nip this in the bud, by telling your students what you’re not looking for. Say it in class early and often. If you can work it in your directions, all the better.

  1. Realize Students Read What They Think You Said

If you’ve ever taken a survey methodology course, then you already know that people don’t read what you write, they read what they think you were trying to communicate. Once you realize that there are many possible interpretations of even the most explicit directions, hopefully you’ll find it easier to sympathize with your confused students.

This Sounds Like Too Much Work

You may be thinking, “who has the time for all of this extra work?” And that’s a fair point. However, I’d argue that if you put in the time to make your directions as clear as possible on the front end, you won’t spend gobs of time answering panicked student questions or grading terrible student work. In my opinion, grading bad papers takes far longer than grading good papers. Help your students give you the work you’re looking for and you’ll save yourself a lot of time and stress.

  1. Please, please don’t get the wrong impression about my wife. She is the nicest most giving person I’ve ever known. Every couple has moments like this.  ↩

Ready or not, sociology happens. Events like Saturday’s not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial have a way of becoming class discussion topics. Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome when students come to class highly motivated to talk about sociology, but these events can thrust your class into a discussion that they aren’t really ready for. I imagine there are quite a few of you today who will be forced to discuss race, racism, and institutional discrimination with a class that hasn’t yet read that chapter or been properly introduced to the sociological concepts they need to properly have that discussion.

In moments like these you need your students to be okay with the ambiguity of learning and their confusion. But ambiguity and confusion are not unique to these moments, they are in fact part of learning anything. Every semester when I introduce a new big idea like “there is more than one perspective of reality” I know that some of my students think I am a loon or on drugs. In those moments where we take a big jump and I am worried I’ll lose students, I simply say:

“I know that this might not make sense right now, but that’s okay. Keep the idea in your head and as we further discuss ____, I think you will find that it does make sense.”

My point here is that you have to prepare your students to deal with ambiguity. I work really hard to ensure that every lesson “makes sense” to as many students as possible, but no matter how hard I try, some students will be “lost”, because ambiguity is part of the learning process. To set my students up to deal with this ambiguity I always say something like the following on the first day and then repeat the sentiment throughout the class:

“Learning sociology is a process. It doesn’t always make sense in a given moment. But if you stick with it, keep an open mind, and keep coming back to the material it will slowly make sense. For most students of sociology there is a learning curve, you will be confused for a while until eventually it ‘clicks’. All of this is to say, it’s okay if something doesn’t make sense to you. It’s okay if something you learn in class seems wrong or implausible or crazy. Stick with it, push through the confusion, and you will eventually come out the other side.”

To hear students tell it, people are awful, greedy, selfish, pukes. That is “people” are. When students use their sociological imaginations to try and understand a large group of people, they very often presume the worst about humanity. If you want to try this yourself, ask your students why capitalism works so well in the United States? 10 out of 10 times someone in the room will say something to the effect of, "because Americans are greedy people and capitalism works with greed and not against it.

I teach social change and environmental sociology and in both classes it’s very easy for students to become fatalistic, so dealing with the “people are awful” problem is something I’m well versed in.

Time For a Reality Check

When a student exclaims how awful people are, I start by reflecting back to them what I hear them saying. “So you think that all people are greedy? You think it’s human nature to be selfish?”
“Yes, of course.”
I probe further with, “The ‘people’ you are talking about sound like some brutish awful people. Is that how you see it?”
“I’m not saying I like it or anything, but yeah. If you look throughout history and even today, people are greedy. That’s just how it is.” This is a close approximation of how many students would respond.

Unwittingly, the student in this scenario has helped me create a straw man to knock down. I ask the rest of the class to jump in, “is it fair to say that all people are mean, selfish, greedy, awful people? Can you think of examples where people act selflessly and help one another?” As my students fire off examples I write them on the board. Students typically talk about donating blood, volunteering around town, responding to a fire or other emergency, people coming together after a natural disaster, etc.

The world has real problems, to be sure, and greed is one of them. But fatalistic students can quickly create a hellish caricature of reality. When students fall into the “people are awful” flavor of fatalism, I ask them to think about the people who they interact with everyday (e.g. their co-workers, the people they see on the street or at a store, their classmates, friends, and family.) I ask them if those people are as awful as the hypothetical “people” they are talking about. The problem with “people” is that they don’t really exist. The “people” our students often talk about are two dimensional. Having them think about the three dimensional people in their life can make it easier for them to see their fatalism.

If you’ve given a student[1] an F on a paper before (especially a low F), then I’m willing to bet you’ve got an email like this before. There have been times when I’ve given students less than 20% on a term paper because they missed nearly all of the key points and turned in a paper well short of the expectations outlined in the directions. Every time I hand back a paper with an abysmal score, I brace for impact.

Recently, I had a paper go bad. For one reason or another a couple of students received dramatically low grades. Despite my best attempts to preempt the angry emails, they still came. As I read through them, I noticed a couple of patterns. First, my students’ protests tended to focus on circumstances that were at best tangential to paper or grade. They spoke of the dire outcomes that would result if they didn’t get a particular grade. Others told me how hard they tried; often by quantifying the number of hours they poured into the paper.

Second, the students almost never challenged my interpretations of their work or tried to rebuttal my critiques of their arguments. In a sense they were saying, “I may have missed all of the key points as you claim, but I worked too hard to get this few points.” Then it hit me, these students received a poor grade because they didn’t show any critical thinking in their paper and now, upset with their grade, they still didn’t critically think about their paper or the feedback I had for them.

So here’s how I replied to this email and how I will reply from here on when I get a similarly angry email:

When students fail a paper, it’s often because they failed to critically think. Maybe they didn’t understand the concepts. Maybe they didn’t give themselves enough time to write their paper. Or maybe they didn’t do the course readings the paper was based on. But for whatever reason, they failed to critically think about the assigned topic you gave them.

With this approach I am inviting my students to make a second attempt at critical thinking. From here I can recoup the learning opportunity they missed. I can also turn what might be a volatile situation into a learning situation.

Download the text of my email message.

  1. The email above is completely fictionalized based on years of reading similar emails. In the spirit of protecting my students privacy, I will be intentionally vague when discussing my students’ work.  ↩

STUDENT: I’m having a really hard time coming up with an idea for this project.
ME: Okay, give me one of the ideas you had.
STUDENT: Well, uh… None of them are any good.
ME: No biggie. Give me the worst idea you had.
STUDENT: (laughs) To tell you the truth, I didn’t have any ideas.
ME: None?

I love assignments that have very few directions. My students last year called them “choose your own adventure papers”. I want my students to learn how to creatively solve interesting problems independently. To get a sense of what I’m talking about, check out this paper that I have my social change students do that requires them to take action to ameliorate the social problem that they’ve been researching all semester.

In my anecdotal experience, students presume that if they don’t have a “good idea” immediately after reading the directions, they feel they never will. Almost all the students who approach me for help have not brainstormed on paper, or talked out their ideas with a classmate, or any other form of creative problem solving. It seems that it never even occurs to them to do so.

What’s Your Worst Idea?

Question Mark

We have to teach our students to use their creative problem solving skills and remind them to employ the strategies they’ve been taught previously (e.g. brainstorming, mind mapping, etc.). I ask my students, “what’s your worst idea” to give them the space to have ideas without any expectations of quality. Then I ask them to brainstorm the idea with me, then and there. I bite my tongue and let them talk through their ideas. If their really stuck, I might ask them a question a la the Socratic method. But no matter what, I absolutely will not give them the answer. If no “good ideas” come out during our 5 minutes of brainstorming, I ask them to, on their own, mind map or otherwise write down their ideas and then bring them to our next class.

Without fail, they figure it out. They come bouncing into class to “tell me their good idea” and I can say, “see I knew you had it in you!” When we force our students to work through their creative process independently, we make a space for them to practice arguably the most valuable skill we could ever teach them; how to independently & creatively solve interesting problem.