Last Friday Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln opened in limited release. I haven’t seen the film, but I intend to because I want to see which Lincoln will be featured on screen.

I have known many Lincolns throughout my life. When I was a young child I was told that Lincoln freed the slaves and was one of the country’s greatest heroes. As a teen I was told that Lincoln was actually a shrewd diplomat who only freed the slaves to undercut the Confederacy. In college I was introduced to a much darker version of Lincoln; one who was a white supremacist and no civil rights hero at all. How can this be? How can there be so many versions of the same man? How can they be so polarized? Who is the real Abraham Lincoln?

It wasn’t until I read Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995) by James Loewen that everything clicked into place. In case you’ve not been exposed to the book yet, Loewen’s book is a content analysis of high school history textbooks. Loewen set out to find what is and is not being taught in schools in the U.S.

Loewen’s argument is far too nuanced for me to recount it here, but I’ll try to encapsulate it. The Lincoln our high schoolers read about is a vaunted hero who freed the slaves, but at the same time he was a shrewd politician who was not so much anti-slavery as he was concerned with holding the country together. As evidence Loewen points to an oft printed decontexualized quote from a letter Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union…

This sounds damning to be sure, but if we add the sentence that Lincoln wrote just after this sentiment, a more complex version of the man emerges.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

Without that last sentence it’s easy to see how both white supremacists and Black activists could argue Lincoln was a supremacist underneath it all. This is not to say that Lincoln really was the civil rights hero the history books make him out to be. Lincoln at some points in his life advocated white supremacy, while at other times he fought against systemic oppression.

I can’t do Loewen’s book or even the chapter dealing with Lincoln justice. I hope that this brief discussion of it will encourage you to read it for yourself if you haven’t already.

The film Lincoln, Loewen’s book, and the version of Lincoln living in your students’ minds is an opportunity to discuss a whole host of sociological issues. From the social construction of reality to the hegemonic aspects of education, Lincoln is an invitation to a show your students how sociology permeates through our history and our present.

The Worst Students Ever…

“Ugh, I can’t believe we have to learn this crap,” said an older male student to a classmate. ”I know, right. This class is a joke," said a younger woman sitting next to him. The two of them looked liked the rest of the students in the room. I was observing another instructor’s class and he had a TOUGH room.

The instructor, who I’ll keep anonymous, tried every trick in the book to get the students engaged. He used thought provoking questions. He beamed with enthusiasm for his topic. He used engaging activities like think/pair/shares. It made no difference.

“Can you just tell us exactly what we need to know?” a student asked at one point. “Damn,” I thought to myself, “this class is taking utilitarianism to a new high.” Later during the class a student cut off the instructor with, “Are you going to make your slides available? What about some handouts, study guides, or cheat sheets? As much as I’m getting from today’s class, this isn’t going to really help me when I need to apply this information.” My eyes and mouth popped open with surprise. I had found the worst group of students ever. But here’s the thing…

This was a class full of faculty learning to use a new piece of class management software. At that moment it occurred to me; faculty are some of the worst students ever.

Finding Patience By Finding Empathy

“Students these days are awful!” is a common refrain in faculty meetings around the world. When faculty get their “shop talk” on, it’s only a matter of time before some one says, “When I was a student we had to [fill in the blank with some studious, noble, or other behavior which makes students of yesteryear sound righteous]” Frustrated faculty are certain of one thing; students today are not what they used to be.

Inside their frustration, which is undoubtedly warranted, faculty fall victim to the fundamental attribution error. When we think about why other people behave the way they do, we are prone to attribute another’s behavior to who they are as a person instead of attributing their behavior to their circumstances. So when we say “students these days” we are stereotyping based on the idea that students today are fundamentally different in character than we were when we were students.

We are sociologists who implore our students to use empirical methods to understand how the larger social context affects the actions of individuals. Then in our next breath we use our anecdotal experiences to decry the individual characteristics of our students “these days”. That’s rich, no?

The next time you have a “students these days” sentence dancing on your tongue, try to remember the last time you participated in a learning situation. Did you do the assigned reading? Did you play on your phone during the meeting? Did you have a face on that looked utterly bored to death? Did you struggle to keep from dozing off? Chances are if you think long enough about your own recent classroom behavior you may find that “faculty these days” are pretty similar to “students these days”. And when you find empathy for your students I’m betting you will find it much easier to reach them and teach them.

These are the news events, stories, and links that I am discussing with my students in my Soc101 classes. Want to share a new event with me to include in the next teachable moments? Send them to me here.

  1. Malala Yousufzai shot in head by Taliban on school bus – A great opportunity to talk about social movements, social change, and issue framing among many other possible topics. Also read Nicholas Kristof’s take on the shooting in the NYTimes (Thanks to Mediha Din)
  2. U-Conn Coach Auriemma wants to lower rims in NCAA women’s basketball to raise the popularity of the game. – Start a class discussion about equality vs. equity. Also, how gender norms affect the popularity of women’s athletics.
  3. Missouri Pastor’s “anti-equality” speech with a surprising twist ending. – A great comparison of LGTBQ/GSM rights to civil rights.
  4. UK Drug Policy Commission encourages the decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs – Great way to start a discussion about labeling theory and the social construction of a crime.
  5. California bans “conversion therapy” for minors.
  6. UrbanSitter is a new web service that will pair parents with a babysitter. – I plan on talking about this in my Social Change class. Gets at the depersonalization of work that Ritzer talks about in The Globalization of Nothing among many other places.
  7. The always great Philip Cohen explaining the Regnerus controversy in 4 minutes.

Critical thinking. Almost every teacher everywhere asserts that this is the one skill above all others they are trying to develop in their students. And yet.

And yet, have you ever explicitly taught a student the mechanics of critical thinking? That is, how to take apart the logic of an argument and then evaluate it piece by piece? Or are you assuming that your students should have learned that before they come to college?

I don’t think a single professor I ever had stopped and explained critical thinking to me. In my experience my professors, even the great ones, thought that if they role modeled critical thinking enough times their students would tacitly develop the skill. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that almost no one teaches the skill that we as an industry are intensely focused on?

I’ve heard so many of my peers gripe about how their students couldn’t critically think their way out of a paper bag. Heck, I’ve done my fair share of complaining too. The fact that so many of us are struggling with student critical thinking, or lack thereof, makes it even more perplexing that so few of us teach the skill we are desperately missing.

Teaching Critical Thinking

Last summer I came across and found it’s wonderful Critical Thinking: Concepts & Tools pamphlet by Paul and Elder. It’s a 23 page guide to reason, rationality, and logic that only costs $3. The pamphlet begins by explaining why critical thinking is a valuable skill worth developing and then moves into the mechanics of the intellectual approach. Paul and Elder ask students to break apart an article and locate the main purpose of the article, the key questions the author is asking, the important information the author is basing her or his argument on, the inferences/conclusions the author is drawing, the key concepts we would need to understand the author’s argument, the main assumptions the author is making, and finally what we should do if we take the author’s line of reasoning seriously. As that near run on sentence I just wrote makes clear, Paul and Elder take their critical thinking seriously.

I created a worksheet for my students based on Paul and Elder (2009) that asks them to break down an article using all of the points I just mentioned above. (Download: Word | pdf) I assigned it to my students this semester for the first time and guess what? They HATED it! When we discussed the critical thinking guide in class they thought it was simply stating what everyone already knew and they thought it had little to no value what-so-ever. So you can imagine my delight when they came back to class and said the assignment was, “too hard”.

“Wait, last week you said this was too obvious to spend time on. Now you are telling me this was a hard assignment? You can’t have it both ways,” I said to my class with a sly smile. After talking about their experience for a few minutes it became clear that my students found in-depth critical thinking harder than it looked.

Which leads me too…

The Thing I Hate The Most

The thing I hate the most during an in class discussion is when a student says, “I thought the author was totally biased.” It takes everything I have not to cock my head to the side and say, “oh really?” The accusation that some one is biased requires that you have something to compare one author’s claims against. Bias is a relative term; this argument is biased compared to this other argument.

When students say something is biased it’s an opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. The next time a student throws the bias card out ask them, “What about the authors argument do you find is biased? What questions did they not ask that you would have liked them to ask? What assumptions were they making that you thought unjust? What are they over emphasizing or under emphasizing? And also, what evidence do you have to suggest this over/under emphasis?” With a few rare exceptions, students who argue that something is biased are dismissing the authors argument WITHOUT critically thinking about it. Often calling something biased is really nothing more than intellectual laziness. Students in our classes best come correct.

Maintaining healthy relationships with students is all about establishing boundaries. While this may sound obvious or even simple, it’s often not. In this episode of the SociologySource Podcast, Chris and I delve into creating and sustaining boundaries, the challenges of teaching big classes in a small town, and what to do when the personal spills over into the professional.

Download/Listen to The SociologySource Podcast.

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I use visual lecture slides in my classes. That is, I have slides with almost no text on them. For many of my students this is alarming. They have been trained to be human Xerox machines who spend class time dutifully writing down what they see on the board. The first semester I did this I thought my students would love it. I was wrong.

They hated the fact that there was nothing written down. My mid-semester evals said, “I have no idea what the important information is by looking at the picture.” I was sympathetic to their situation, but I was unwilling to go back to death by bullet point[1]. The class participation, discussions, and general engagement had all shot through the roof. So I was stuck between two interests. I needed to help them see the structure without assailing them with bullet point slides.

I decided to just give them my lecture notes. I wrote down everything I was going to say, then cleaned it up, and put it in outline form. My students rejoiced, but I felt uneasy. I worried that no one would come to class and that those who did would stop taking notes. As it turns out, only the latter came to fruition.[2]

After the first test I email every student in my class who has less than a 75% in the class and ask them to have a face-to-face with me about how they are studying, what’s going on in their lives, and what they can do to improve their learning. I have 430 students this semester so you might believe me when I say the last two weeks have been wall-to-wall student meetings.

My students all made one thing clear. They had printed off the lecture notes and used them to study. Almost all of them thought that they were well prepared for the exam only to find that they had struggled. I was worried, but the scholar in me was determined to locate the culprit.

Hunting and Gathering in Class

When asked, my students told me that they were bringing the printed out lecture notes and following along as we went through them in class. Students were adamant that they never missed a thing discussed in class. The dozens of student conversations almost all sounded the same. Most said something to the effect of, “I always bring the lecture notes and listen intently. If you add anything that’s not on the print out, I always write it in. I can’t believe I did poorly on the test I had all of the information right in front of me when I studied.”

Most of the struggling students I met with spent their class time as information hunter gatherers doing little more at their desk than filling in the gaps on the lecture notes. When it came time to study for the test they read their “complete” lecture notes and nodded their head. It all made sense and it all seemed to flow logically[3].

This method may work for some students (to be honest, this sounds close to how I studied as an undergraduate). But, almost no one can learn simply by collecting information. All of us have to process and cognitively engage with the information.

I politely pointed out how passive their in class behavior was and almost all of them, to their credit, received it as welcome news. I suggested that instead of having their lecture notes out during class they leave them put away. Then take out a sheet of paper and take notes on what they are learning. This approach would have them listen, think about what they are hearing, and then attempt to rephrase the ideas in their own words. It’s unquestionable that this is a more involved process than simply going down the lecture notes checking that everything said in class is represented.

On Friday one of my students told me how much he liked this new approach, but he suggested that he found it easier to write when he reviewed the lecture notes as he walked to class. Then when he took notes in class on a blank sheet of paper he had some frame or structure to write his notes around.

I’ve yet to see if this turns students grades around, so you should take this advice with caution. Furthermore, this isn’t an empirical study but rather an anecdotal recounting of a trail-and-error approach. So it goes with out saying, your milage may vary. However, all of us who give out our lecture notes should be wary of how they may pacify our students in class experience.

  1. Not everyone who uses PowerPoint is guilty of death by bullet point. In fact some of my favorite teachers use PowerPoint in traditional ways and avoid almost all of the negatives I encapsulate in the term death by bullet point. That said, my PowerPoints before visual based slides were terribly. I had to change.  ↩

  2. This semester I started using the iClickers and my attendance has never been higher. Attendance is up, participation is up, and most importantly grades are up. I’ll talk more about how I use these soon.  ↩

  3. Of course it did, I worked and worked to make sure my lectures flow.  ↩

It’s gone. Goodbye my friend. Because of an outdated credit card number my domain service did not renew the .com version of my name. I’m unwilling to pay to get my domain back because I refuse to support an unscrupulous business model. is dead, long live www.SociologySource.ORG.

At first I was feeling angry, sad, and ashamed (how could I be so stupid?). But not any more.

Everyday I walk into a classroom I get to live my dream. I am one of the few people on earth who get to do what they love and love what they do. I started SociologySource because I was going to burst with enthusiasm and passion for teaching and learning if I didn’t find some place to release it. Two years later I feel more invigorated than ever; in the classroom things have never been better. Writing and sharing here at SociologySource has made me a better teacher, a better student of sociology, and a better person.

To all of my friends I’ve met on this ride, I can’t thank you enough for all that you’ve given me. Talking with readers and fellow sociology teachers has been without a doubt the best part of this whole experience.

Note: My Email Has Changed

The Email is gone. You can now reach me at

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If you subscribe to SociologySource via RSS, no need to change a thing. The RSS feed will remain:

How can we grade our students fairly?  What should we be grading them on?  And how can we grade written work in our large classes and still see our families?

These are the news events, stories, and links that I am discussing with my students in my Soc101 classes. Want to share a new event with me to include in the next teachable moments? Send them to me here.

The SociologySource Podcast

Today we are launching the SociologySource Podcast. A lively discussion about the issues sociology teachers face and a whole lot more. We are making this a weekly thing, so subscribe via iTunes or check back every Thursday for a new episode. Our regular cohost is Chris Garneau from the University of Science and the Arts of Oklahoma.

We’ve had a blast recording the first two episodes and I can’t wait to share them with you all. If you have an idea for a show topic or if you have a question you’d like us to discuss on air, send an email to So what are you waiting for? Go take a listen for yourself.