In Class Activities

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.  ↩

Week one. Second class. I pause mid-sentence in my lecture covering Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know The Answer by Duncan Watts. My eyes sit momentarily transfixed on the double doors at the back of the lecture hall before I direct them to the floor. Holding a syllabus in my right hand, I amble from one end of the stage to the other without uttering a word. My students sit silent, watching me, waiting to see what I’m going to do next. I crumple the syllabus in between my hands and launch it up into the air toward the mass of students. “Catch!” I say breaking the silence. Sure enough the ball of paper lands easily in the hands of a student.

The student’s eyes lock onto mine and she shows me the paper firm in hand like a baseball player shows an umpire the clean catch of a foul ball. With a nod of the head I say, “Please stand up.” A look of surprise, then awkwardness flash in sequence over the student’s face. Once standing I ask, “I didn’t know you were a physicist. How many physics classes have you taken?” “Uh… None. Well, one in high school, but none here.” “Forgive me, but I just saw you estimate the acceleration, velocity, and angle of that paper lickety split. How on earth could you have done all of those calculations on the fly if you are not a student of physics?” A slow smile emerges before it’s transformed into an unimpressed smirk. “Well, everyone knows how to catch things. It’s… it’s-” “Common Sense?” I ask her before she can find the right word. She nods.

People intuitively use physics everyday, but they aren’t physicists. When Newton theorized gravity he only told people what they already knew; things fall to the ground. Big whoop. Except, the scientific study of physics and mathematics made it possible to land a space shuttle on the moon and this is just one example of the myriad of innovations the scientific study of physics has made possible. I have never met a student who would say that physics was a pointless discipline. And yet, students often say that sociology is pointless because it only tells us what we already know. It only confirms what anyone with common sense would know.

Intuitive sociology (a.k.a. common sense) is the enemy in an introduction to sociology class. As the terrible saying goes, “everyone’s a sociologists” and that’s the problem. After a lifetime of understanding the world around them with intuitive sociological methods, which are atheoretical, non-systemic, and riddled with bias, students think to themselves, “well my common sense has gotten me this far, no reason I shouldn’t use it in this class.” Except, common sense leads the student down the wrong path nearly every single time in a sociology class. Students have to unlearn their common sense and resist the impulse to trust their gut.

I throw a syllabus at my students because I want to remind them that being able to catch something doesn’t mean you’ve mastered enough physics to ace the class without trying. I throw that syllabus because I feel compelled to call out the cognitive error that is common sense early and often.

Side Note: This Makes for Great Theater

I found it interesting how the students seemed to come alive as the paper sailed through the auditorium. The mood of the room changed when the crumpled ball of paper broke through the imaginary wall the separates the presenter from the audience. I spend so much of the first few weeks trying to emphasize that our class will be different than all of their other large lecture classes they may have taken, but this simple activity did more to make that point than any number of words could.

Pacing back and forth on stage, which is my custom to the chagrin of my 8th grade speech and debate teacher, I press the button on my clicker and the slide on the large screen at the front of my 500 hundred seat theater changes. I pause my lecture momentarily and look out over a sea of faces, counting how many have furrowed brows or heads cocked sideways like a confused house pet. The slide is simple with a black background and white letters that shows a quote from our text book You May Ask Yourself[1]:

Quote About Women Making Less Money Than Men

I stand quiet and the rare silence draws the eyes of the entire class toward the stage. I wait for a few moments and ask, “do you see it?” Awkward silence and muted chuckles fill the air until someone, typically in the front, raises their hand and asks, “do we see what?” “Oh, you don’t see it. Here, let me help you.” I push my clicker and this appears behind me:

“Do you see it now?” I ask again. After the confused silence becomes unbearable a student will inevitably say something to the effect of, “wow, that really sucks for women. Is that what you are looking for?” I shake my head no. “What would a conflict theorist say about this last half of the sentence.” Still nothing. “Ok, don’t feel bad, what I’m asking you to do is some fairly high-level analysis and that takes practice.”

“You’ll remember that conflict theorist are always asking, ‘who benefits from this?’” I hope you’ll also remember how conflict theory argues that those in power hide in plain sight either because their privilege seems unremarkable or because the privileged are not spoken about. With this in mind look at this sentence again and ask the conflict theorist’s question, ‘who benefits from this?’"

The class and I work together to solve the mystery of the loaded language and it doesn’t take long for us to decide that men benefit from sentences like this.

The inspiration for this activity came from what Michael Kimmel (2004) wrote in the New Internationalist magazine:

Often, though, the invisibility of masculinity makes it hard to see how gender equality will actually benefit us as men. For example, while we speak of the ‘feminization of poverty’ we rarely ‘see’ its other side – the ‘masculinization of wealth’. Instead of saying that US women, on average, earn 70 per cent of what US men earn, what happens if we say that men are earning $1.30 for every dollar women earn? Now suddenly privilege is visible!

I push the clicker one more time and the following appears:

With a single question we start a class long discussion about gender, privilege, and the social construction of reality. “Why don’t we say it like this?”


Kimmel, Michael. 2004. “A Black Woman Took My Job.” The New Internationalist Retrieved online July 30, 2012.

  1. This is in no way intended to be a critique of Conley’s You May Ask Yourself rather it is a critique of nearly all introduction to sociology books. I flipped through 5+ intro books before writing this and all of them have a sentence similar to the one that appears in my slide above.  ↩

The first week of a sociology class is tough. One of the first things many of us teach is the Sociological Imagination, or the idea that our individual lives are affected by social forces. I’ve found that students either don’t understand what that means or they think that “only other people” are affected by social forces. To illustrate the concept and to show them that it affects them personally I have this dead simple activity.

Ask your class to break up into groups of 3–5 and answer some question (the question is irrelevant to the activity). Tell them that each group needs to identify one member to be the leader and another member to be the secretary who writes down what is said. Let them work for about 2 minutes, just long enough that every group identifies a leader and a secretary.

This is where I tell my class to stop everything and stand up (I teach 300+ students so, that many students standing is a sight to behold). With the whole class standing I say, “Ok, if your group is all male or all female sit down now.” After about a third of the students take their seats I say, “Now if you are not the leader or the secretary, sit down.” “Great, now I want all of the group leaders still standing to come up to the front here and stand on the left side of the stage. And all you secretaries still standing can stand on the right side of the stage.”

As the students file down the aisle and take their sides an awkward laughter slowly builds. “So what trends do we notice in these two groups?” I ask the class. It doesn’t take long for the students to notice that there are almost no male secretaries and only around a 1/3 of the leaders are female.

“So, like I was saying, our individual choices are guided by social forces and cultural values. Do you see what I mean now?”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this summer, you’ve heard Carly Rae Jepsen’s unbelievably catchy pop song Call me Maybe. The song has become an internet phenomenon with lip dub versions of the song being posted online by celebrities like Katy Perry, The Harvard Baseball Team, President Obama, and even the hosts of NPR did a cover of the song. Given the ubiquity of the song within pop culture, the song is worthy of sociological critique[1] and I can guarantee your students will have at least heard the infectious number.

The Song Lyrics & Messaging

I’ve talked before about using pop songs to teach gender norms and Call Me Maybe’s lyrics are ripe for a similar class activity. The song lyrics are vapid, standard pop song romance themes. The crux of the song centers on this girl’s desire to have the object of her affection call her. It’s the same standard “pick me, pick me!” passive feminine messaging. Instead of taking what she wants, the girl in the song is hoping she can lure the boy into pursuing her. The title isn’t “I’ll Call You, Maybe”. Analyzing this song, especially if you are teaching right at this cultural moment, would be a great lead in to a discussion of gender roles and sexuality norms between heterosexuals.

To highlight the gendered messaging of the song, play the video for Justin Bieber’s Boyfriend right after showing Call Me Maybe. Bieber, who is freshly 18 years old, is trying to redefine himself as a mature artist (I just threw up a little). Anyways, the first release off his new album Boyfriend is a song projecting his power, affluence, and sexual prowess.[2] Jepsen is asking you to call her maybe and Beiber threatens to burn you with fondue gravy.

Bieber and Jepsen are touring together right now (don’t ask why I know this), so their music must be targeted to a similar demographic. I brought up this apples to apples comparison with my class last spring and we had a great discussion when I asked them, “why are there such starkly different messages about sexuality and gender between these two songs?”

The Video: Heteronormative or Not?

The video for Call Me Maybe alternates back and forth between Jepsen playing with her band in a garage and a heteronormative fever dream that she has for the Abercrombie & Fitch male model that lives next door. The video is a straightforward crush flick (just made that up) until (SPOILER!) the boy she’s been eying gives his digits to the guitar playing dude in the garage.

So is the video enlightened and pro-sexual equality? Well another way to look at it is, the guitar player and Jepsen both seem shocked if not distraught. The video is sure to inspire a healthy discussion about heteronormativity, gender roles, and even the relationship between a piece of art and the audiences reaction. That’s not bad for a throwaway, soon-to-be-forgotten, summer confection.

In Conclusion:

Hey, I just wrote this,
And this is crazy,
But here’s my idea,
So teach it maybe

  1. I’m certainly not the first to analyze the song. This post was inspired by this Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast and this Entertainment Weekly cover story.  ↩

  2. The song also demonstrates his ability to knock off Justin Timberlake and bite the Ying Yang Twins/David Banner style. Amiright? Huh? Huh? (Warning: Both these songs are astonishingly misogynistic).  ↩

Framing is arguably one of the most crucial concepts our students can learn. Framing and social construction are inextricably connected processes. Only when you understand how frames are used to manipulate (and create) the public’s perception can you fully critically analyze social issues. If you don’t understand framing, it’s really easy to be taken by a well crafted message, regardless of how warranted and measured its claims are.

The problem is, students struggle with the concept. Framing is almost a meta-process. It’s something that often happens in between the lines. When done well it’s subtle and covert.

In class I will show my students a commercial, or some other curated message, and together we critically analyze each piece of the message. We work together to identify all of the symbols and frames used. Slowly, one by one, the class begins to nod along as we go through it until finally most of the class leans back in their chairs and smiles that, “A ha!” smile. However, the moment I ask them to do it on their own they struggle to see anything beyond the surface message.

The deep analysis of cultural messages is hard to teach and hard to learn precisely because cultural messages and frames hide in plain sight. So instead of starting the learning process by trying to give students the eyes to see their surround in new ways, I think it’s better to start with something much easier to see and then try to bring the skills gained back to the student’s everyday life.

I Need Your Help

The activity I am about to tell you about I’ve never been tried before. Unlike most posts on SociologySource, I won’t be talking about a project that worked smashingly for me. Rather, this is a call to our readers for help. I see a problem, I have an idea for a solution, and I need YOUR help to execute it.

Using Cover Songs to Teach Framing

Music provides a handy metaphor for framing. When a band or artist covers a previously popular song in a way that is all together different it demonstrates how the same base material can be framed in very different ways to create starkly contrasting affects. At the end of this post I have some examples of just the sort of covers I am talking about.

I want to design a simple in-class (and/or homework) assignment that asks students to read a bit about issue framing and then analyze two starkly different versions of the same song.

Here’s What I Need

  1. Song Recommendations.
  2. Help me find songs that have dramatically different versions between the original and the cover version. The Holy Grail would be a song with two versions that are diametrically opposed. For instance a song that is very stereotypically masculine and aggressive paired with a version that is stereotypically feminine and passive. I’m looking for contradictory versions of songs that illustrate a sociological concept (gender, race, class, sexuality, etc.)

  3. A great, short, intro level article or piece about issue framing.
  4. I have never found a concise discussion of framing that I’ve liked for an intro level class. It’s a complex idea that is hard to succinctly describe in simple terms. If you have an article or short piece that you’ve had success with I’d love to read it.

Want to help?

Send me your recommendations to me via Email:, hit me up on twitter (@SociologySource), or post it on our Facebook page.

All contributors will be given credit by name. Thanks in advance!

Example Songs

Below are just a few examples. The original version followed by the cover.


Artist: Willow Smith

Artist: Jimmy Fallon (as Neil Young) feat Bruce Springsteen


Artist: Nine Inch Nails

Artist: Johnny Cash

“Suspicious Mind”

Artist: Elvis Presley

Artist: Dwight Yoakam[1]

  1. This song is a giant guilty pleasure of mine. The repeating guitar hook gets me every time. And I love how instead of saying, “I can’t walk out” Yoakam says, “iKaWaOu” in one syllable. My mother is an Elvis fanatic, she named our 3 cats Elvis, Pricilla, and Colonel Parker. TMI?  ↩

The best lessons are the ones your students teach themselves. You can’t tell students anything, but you can give them the eyes to see their own behavior from a new light and they will teach themselves more than you could’ve ever dreamed.

I love gender because it’s written all over our bodies. Students come into class doing gender. You only need to draw their attention to their own gendered presentations and ask them to “see the familiar as strange”. That’s easier said than done.

When students see a “failed performance”[1] of gender the intentionality of their own “successful” gender performance comes into stark contrast.

Photographer Rion Sabean did a collection of “Men-Ups” where men were shown in poses that are stereotypically reserved for women in Pin-Up calendars. The photos are men, doing “manly” things, but they are posed in gender opposite ways.

Support Rion by purchasing a Men-Up calendar!

After my student’s have been shook awake and their own gender performance is drawn into the light, I ask them to help me come up with a list of “gender rules”. I split the room and half address how a person becomes a “girly girl” and the other addresses how a person performs as a “manly man”[2]

Below are some slides I put together to highlight gender performances and media presentation of the masculine and the feminine.

The Codes of Gender

The Media Education Foundation has a great film that addresses gender and imagery better than any other I’ve seen. I’ve always liked Sut Jhally’s work, but this one is his best since Advertising and the End of the World.[3] Pairing this video with the Men-Ups calendar images is a powerful one two punch.

I top all of this gender imagery with an assignment that ask my students to go find a photograph of men and women in stereotypic poses and critically analyze the image. You can find those directions here. Enjoy.


  1. This is not a moral judgment, but a reflection of many students own perceptions. I do not contend that there is a right, appropriate, or “normal” gender performance, but rather I contend that many students perceive there to be one. All gender expressions are equally valid and equally deserving of respect. Do your gender how you see fit.  ↩

  2. I tell my students to notice how we do gender with terms like “girly girl” and “manly man”. To be masculine is to be mature, but to feminine is to be infantalized according to the dominant stereotype. My students laugh when I ask them to consider if I asked them to tell me how to become a “womanly woman” or a “boyish boy”.  ↩

  3. Dr. Jhally if you are listening. Please please update this film. I’d love to show it in my classes, but the ads are comically out of date now.  ↩

“As you know, the divorce rate in the United States has been exploding over the last 40 years. Today it is at an all time high.” When I say this in my 101 class during our discussion on research methods students nod along and dutifully write it in their notes. “You may be asking yourself, ‘what explains this historic rate of divorce’ and luckily for you sociology has the answer… But, first I want you to generate some hypotheses. Turn to your neighbor and see if you can whip up a list of causes of divorce. That is, why do most people get divorced?”

The class easily generates a laundry list of causes: financial stress, Internet porn, the reduced stigma surrounding divorce, the exploding teen pregnancy rate, are some of the most popular. For this activity I am just waiting until someone says unemployment, financial stress, or poverty then I spring into action. “So tell me more about financial stress. Why do tough economic times make the divorce rate go up?” The class quickly posits that if money is the root of many arguments then less money equals more problems (Despite what Biggie Smalls taught us). “Yes that’s absolutely right. As the country enters into tough times the divorce rate balloons. I think you are getting the hang of this sociological research thing.” With that settled we move on in the lecture.

After we finish the next topic I take an aside and say, “So I don’t know how to say this, but at some point in today’s class I told you the exact opposite of what social research tells us about a particular issue. Can anyone tell me which topic it was that I was misleading you on?” Students cock their heads to the side and give me a perplexed look. My dishonesty squelches their willingness to participate in a class discussion. After a few beats I continue, “would you believe it was about the divorce rate?” “I knew it!” shouts the class know-it-all. “Now I want you to turn to your neighbors and take a crack at guessing which part of the “facts” about divorce we just discussed were inaccurate.” Mild laughter washes over the room as the class releases the nervous energy my dishonesty created.

“Financial stress doesn’t cause divorce?” offers one student after I ask the class for their guesses. I turn to the rest of the class and ask them to show hands if they think financial stress does cause divorce. Half the class raises their hands. “Before I tell you what impact financial stress has on divorce rates,” I tell the class, “I want you to take a quick poll. Raise your hand if you are certain or at least strongly believe that your answer is right.” Over 3/4s of the class raises their hand. “Financial stress can create strain on a marriage, but during economic recessions divorce rates stall or even decline according to research in our textbook (Conley’s You May Ask Yourself).”

I spend the next few minutes discussing with the class why they wrote down the “facts” about divorce without questioning them. We talk about authority and obedience, about the perceived obviousness of “facts”, and how the mind creates plausible narratives to make any “fact” fit within the fabric of the preconceived ideologies the students hold. The real lesson here is about the perils of intuitive sociology. When we use common sense to explain sociological phenomena we indulge our biases and describe the world as we would like it. There are few sociological contradictions in a world created by intuition. I sum things up for the class, “If there is one overarching message I want you to take from this class, it’s that the world is far more complex than we are told it is and more complex than each of us would like it to be. There are no pure heroes and no pure villains. The world described by sociologists is one of intricate connections and overlapping gray areas.”

As we start to transition to the next class topic I throw down my final card to play, “Oh, and the census shows that the divorce rate has been declining since it peaked in 1980. For adults under the age of 39 the divorce rate was down significantly in 2009 compared to 1996. So all that talk of ‘historic-all-time-high’ and ‘exploding divorce rate’ that’s all nonsense too.” “I told you!” says the know-it-all to his nearby classmates.

Below is a guest post by Dr. Nancy Malcom from Georgia Southern University. Dr. Malcom was kind enough to share with us a manuscript she prepared that shows us how to use visual sociology, the sociology of sport, and Facebook to get our students to see the sociology that surrounds them in their everyday life. Dr. Malcom wrote a brief introduction to the manuscript below and you can download the entire manuscript here.

Sociology is everywhere everyday. To you and me this is a statement of the painfully obvious, but to our students’ untrained eyes sociology is largely hidden in their day to day lives. “Seeing sociology” is nearly a prerequisite to learning sociology. Given how important it is for our students to develop, I wanted to create an activity that focused their eye on the sociology surrounding them.

The Sociology of Sport lends itself particularly well to visual sociology given how omnipresent images of sports (specifically professional sports) are in our day to day lives. Even students who are averse to ESPN can not escape images of athletes in action on advertisements, websites, and magazines.

The assignment in brief:

  1. Students take photos of sports related phenomena they see in their lives
  2. Students post the photos on a private class Facebook page
  3. Students analyze the photos using concepts discussed in class
  4. Students discuss their analysis with their classmates via the comments section of each image on Facebook.

My students really seemed to embrace the assignment. My goal with the assignment was to show them that sports are a social institution that both reflects and reproduces the larger society. After seeing the photos they submitted, reading their analysis of the photos, and following their discussions I feel this assignment really met it’s goal.

There are many things you should consider before implementing this in your classes; all of which are discussed in detail in the manuscript. Even if you are not technologically gifted, I’ve tried to make the directions clear and relatively easy to follow. If you have a personal Facebook page that you’ve used before, then you should have most of the basic skills required for the assignment. But again, this is covered in the manuscript. I hope you enjoy it.

Nathan here again. So I hope your appetite is sufficiently whetted. If you’ve ever thought about using Facebook in class or orchestrating a photo assignment online, I really can’t suggest this piece enough. Download it now.

Worried Grandma

Professor Palmer,
I regret to inform you that I won’t be able to take today’s exam as my family has suffered a great loss.

Prof Palmer,
This is the worst possible timing, but sadly my grandmother has died and I will be forced to miss our exam today.

Hey, I missed today’s exam because my grandma died, what should I do?

Every semester right around test time I get emails like the ones above. For some reason grandmothers just start dropping1. It’s uncanny. When I start talking about this fact with my students they all smile and laugh quietly. I tell my students in as earnest a voice as possible that this phenomena is a prime candidate for social research. Fortunately for us this research has already been done by Dr. Mike Adams (1990)2.

Adam’s work is clear: Grandmothers3 hear of their grandchild’s exam, become tremendously worried, and die from the stress. My students laugh at this finding, but I go on in earnest. After a short discussion to define a hypothesis, dependent, and independent variable, I ask the students to work with their neighbors to identify all three in Adam’s dead grandma research. After a few minutes students correctly identify all three and I put up this slide:

Dead Grandma Syndrome Hypothesis

It never fails that at some point a student will say, “Professor Palmer this research doesn’t factor in student lying. Most of the students are making it up.” I muster my acting skills I learned in high school drama and through a perplexed look on my face. “No, that can’t be. Students wouldn’t do that. Would they?” If my acting holds gullible students will tell me that desperate students will say or do just about anything to not miss/fail a test. Then we move into a discussion of spurious correlations.

Students must understand how to ask a research question before students can understand that sociology is a science. Activities like the dead grandma can really help your students grasp these fundamental concepts quickly.


1. While this post and my presentation of the dead grandma research is delivered in a tongue and check way I tell my students after the discussion that I have a great deal of reverence for anyone who suffers the loss of a family member. In fact my dear grandmother’s funeral coincided with a test I had as an undergraduate, but I told the professor days in advance and took the test before the exam date.

2. Adams, Mike. 1990. “The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome and the Potential Downfall Of American Society.” The Connecticut Review. Available at:

3. The research reports that Grandfathers do not expire nearly as often as their heterosexual partners. An interesting fact that I ask my students to explore using a symbolic interactionist lens. Why use grandmas and not grandpas when forming an excuse? There must be some perceived rhetorical value in the gender of the grandparent.