I think my mouth was agape. Even if it wasn’t, I was dumbfounded. I need a second to compose myself, so I stalled by asking, “can you repeat the question?”

The student kindly obliged, “What exactly is a social institution?” The question didn’t throw me, but rather the fact that it was two weeks from the end of the semester. “Okay, who can help answer this question. What is a social institution?” I stood there repeating the question like Ferris Bueller’s teacher calling role. No one knew the answer or at least no one felt confident enough in their understanding of the concept to put themselves out there.

I wasn’t dumbfounded at their ignorance, but rather my own. I had been teaching for months, using all of the core terms of sociology, assuming that they all knew what I was talking about. But clearly they didn’t. We worked on it for the rest of the class and I found that most of them understood the concept broadly (e.g. “That’s like the government or education and stuff, right?”). However, none of the students could have given me anything close to a concise definition.

Didn’t You Take Soc 101?

Being that social change is an upper division course with Intro to Sociology as a perquisite, my first impulse was to blame their 101 instructor, but then I realized that for many of these students I was their 101 teacher. My next thought was, I’m not nearly as good of a Intro to Sociology teacher as I had thought; I mean, if students don’t leave my class with this fundamental concept, haven’t I failed them? Slowly I realized the problem wasn’t in how I taught them, but rather how I was thinking about the learning process.

Teachers often suffer from what I call the lecturer’s fallacy which posits, if we talked about it in class they learned it. While I call it the lecturer’s fallacy, it also holds for teachers who do more “guide on the side” activities like student directed learning, classroom assessment techniques, and the like. Basically, it’s the idea that if you showed me you learned it yesterday you should be able to demonstrate mastery over the concept today. But, this is not how learning works.

Hearing something once or even learning something in a more hands on way one time, does not mean that mastery has been developed. I learned about red shifting, blue shifting, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in an Astronomy class as an undergrad, but I would fail a test on these subjects today. I’d also struggle to learn new concepts that built upon any or all of these concepts I had previously learned.

Students very well may have learned all of the core concepts from a Intro to Sociology Class, but they may have no idea how to apply those concepts to situations outside of the class they learned it in. If students took 101 with a different teacher than their current courses and if the language the teachers used to describe the concepts were vastly different, students may be unable to transcode lessons learned from intro into the new teacher’s framework. I could go on here, but rather than bluster on, I’ll just suggest (again) that you read more about this issue of learning and many others in How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al.

The Solution? 101 for Everyone.

Starting this semester and for the rest of my career, I’ll be spending the first few days of class reviewing and assessing students understanding of core concepts like social institutions, the sociological imagination, culture, socialization, structure & agency, and basic social theory (you can download my 101 review handout here). Some of you are likely thinking, “but aren’t you going to have to cut out important concepts from your upper division classes?” To which I’d say, yes unfortunately I will. However, I hope that by spending time on the foundation of sociology, my students will be able to learn a greater proportion of course specific concepts that remain.

W Kamau Bell at Nerdist Studios
“How come black people can say the N-word, but white people can’t?” That’s a question teachers of race get a lot and comedian W. Kamau Bell has a great answer, “You can say anything you want, but you have to live with the consequences of your words.” While Bell is talking about the N-word, his wisdom could be applied to any discussion of privilege/oppression or really any highly controversial topic.

Intent vs. Impact

There seems to be genuine distress and/or hurt on my students faces when they say, “No, no, no. That’s not what I meant at all!” For the most part, students who say something that deeply offends portions of the classroom seem surprised by the impact of their words. It’s as if I’m watching the student reach down, wrap their hands around their ankle, open wide and stick their foot in their mouth only to be dumbfounded as to how it got their in the first place.

Bell’s retort to the “N-word question” makes me laugh because he is hitting on something that is so painfully obvious and simultaneously something that we[1] often want to pretend isn’t true. Our words and actions sometimes have an impact that we did not intend when we said those words or took those actions. This “intent vs. impact” idea is something that students struggle with, but it’s also a prerequisite for classroom discussions that are open, honest, and safe. It’s something I teach when we set our class expectations for discussions and reiterate throughout the semester.[2]

  1. “who is we?” is something I always ask my students. Many times we is used when the speaker means white people. However, I used the term we to refer to everyone. While folks of privilege may be more likely to deny the intent vs. impact idea, all of us are prone to denying it. If you’ve ever said, “that’s not what I meant at all” to a partner, relative, or friend, then you’re inside my we.  ↩

  2. If you’re looking for a activity/video to illustrate the “intent vs. impact” idea check this out.  ↩

Great questions tease out who understands from who doesn’t, but these questions are the most likely to leave your students unsure of themselves. So how do you get students to take the risk and reveal their honest understanding? Here’s a trick I picked up from this great video on using clicker questions in class. Instead of asking your students’ to tell you what THEY think is the right answer, ask them to explain why SOMEONE would pick one of the answers.

“Can someone tell me why someone would think A is the right answer? Now, you’re not saying you think A is the right answer. You’re explaining why someone would think it is.”

This approach allows students who don’t understand to expose it in a risk free manner and all of your students can dissect the misconceptions and faulty logics that underly the “wrong answer”. While this approach is ready-made for classes that use clickers, it can also easily be adapted for any socratic method discussion.

I took American History at a community college the year after I graduated high school. Everyday my teacher, Mr. Little[1], wore the same dirty, sweat stained, pinstripe, oxford shirt that wrapped tightly around his large stomach. He would grip the sides of a brown lectern that sat on top of a cheap folding table toward the front of the classroom for the entire hour and fifteen minutes as if he would fly off the earth if he let go.

He plowed through his lecture notes in class-long monologue, barely ever looking up. So the entire room was taken aback when he stopped mid-lecture, wiped the sweat off his greasy forehead, and asked, “What do you think of Christopher Columbus? It is, after all, Columbus Day.” To my surprise a number of students raised their hands. The conversation was rather complimentary sounding something like the shadow of an eighth grade history report of Columbus.

The class was nearly entirely white (something not uncommon in Lincoln, NE). I distinctly remember there was one student who looked to be Native American, but given I never asked him to self-identify, I can’t be sure. The presumably Native American student sat toward the back of the room and was quiet. He was always early to class, like I was, but he never joined in the pre-class conversations, not even the gripe-fests that went on before Mr. Little showed up.

About 5 minutes into the discussion of Columbus, Mr. Little turned toward the Native American looking student, pointed in his direction and said, “You.” Mr. Little waited for him to make eye contact before continuing, “You’re Native right? What is the Native American perspective on Christopher Columbus?” The student struggled to find words. I wanted to pull my head into my body like Sammy (the box turtle I had growing up).

From that day foreword I profoundly understood that speaking should be optional in class discussions. I’m not saying you shouldn’t require student participation, but rather you should always allow you students to decide when and where they want the spotlight put on them.

Mr. Little probably thought he was being inclusive. He probably thought, in a perverse way, that by reaching out for this student’s opinion he was being “pro-diversity.”[2] However, Mr. Little was being anything but. Asking a student to speak on behalf of their social group (be it race, class, gender, etc.) is akin to saying “you people are all the same”. There is no “Native American perspective” because Native Americans are not monolithic. This is a common way that trying to be “inclusive” to non-dominant students backfires and only reinforces their “otherness”.

In my classes no one is allowed to throw the spotlight on another student. Especially not in an open class discussion. No one is expected to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. If you have something to say I pray that you will, but it’s not my place to force the stage upon you.

  1. Not his real name.  ↩

  2. Whatever that term means.  ↩

Everyday in the United States school children are exposed to rags-to-riches stories. Children gather round on the rug and listen to the teachers they adore read to them about “self-made” men like Abraham Lincoln. They learn from their history and social studies books that the United States is a meritocracy where anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they are willing to work hard 1. Over the course of their public education students learn this lesson well; work hard, take advantage of your opportunities, and you will certainly be successful. By the time students come into my 101 class this is a painfully unremarkable story. When I recount it in class their response is a unanimous, “Yeah. Duh. So what?”

“Is there anything wrong with teaching school children the world is theirs for the taking? You just have to work hard?” I ask them. Typically my students struggle to find a single issue with teaching the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideology. “Is it true?” I ask them “Can anyone be successful as long as they work hard and take advantage of their opportunities?” Nearly the entire class smirks at the obviousness of my question. Someone responds with a, “Well, No.” “No? And yet we teach it to our children without a second thought. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

“What would a conflict theorist ask here?” “Who benefits?” someone chimes out. “Yes, that’s right. So who benefits if we tell everyone in the United States that they can get ahead if they work hard, despite that being at best only partially true?” A hand pops up, “Those who are already successful benefit because it makes them look good.” “Exactly. Ok, now let’s ask the inverse. Who suffers?” Perplexed silence fills the room for the next 120 seconds. “Anyone? Take a shot at it.” No takers today. “Ok then, help me with this: If I am a child and I hear my teacher tell the class that all you need to be successful is a good work ethic and my parents are wealthy, then what must I think about my parents?” “They worked hard?” says multiple students simultaneously. “Yes, of course. And what if my parents struggle to put food on the table? What if I know for certain that my family is not successful or worse what if I know that my parents are poor? Then what would the ‘bootstrap’ myth tell me about my parents?” A single hand raises slowly, “Then your parents must not be hard workers.” “Think about that for a minute. What a powerful lesson to teach our children. If your family is rich, they earned it. If your family is poor, they’re lazy. Why on earth would we teach that in school?”

From here my students are ready to explore stratification, hegemony, justifying rationales, and all the rest of it. It’s starts with an innocuous story and ends with a class on the front of their seats, needing to know more.


1. Loewen, James. 1995. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: The New Press