In Class Activities

Most sociology 101 students don’t actually do sociology. They read about sociological research, but they themselves don’t typically have the opportunity to partake in it. Imagine an intro to physics where students weren’t expected to do physics, an intro to composition class where students didn’t write, or even a spanish 101 course where not a spanish word was uttered. Each would be preposterous. And yet a sociology class where students don’t actually do sociology is par for the course.

The reason for sociological research absence in soc 101 classes is somewhat obvious. It’s hard to get a class of 30 students to independently conduct sociological research and most of us are teaching intro to soc classes with hundreds of students. Also, sociological research is a complex beast and it takes practitioners years to really learn how to do sociology. This summer I’ve made this issue my nut to crack and I think I have found a way to offer your students a chance at doing sociological research in your soc 101 class regardless of how many students you have. I have developed a solution that I will be using this fall when I teach a Soc 101 class that has 400+ students in it.

If you are going to have a class this size do anything you need to have 1) really clear directions, 2) a way to automate most of the tedious repetitive work, and 3) you need to simplify the complex research process down into a few key ideas. To address all three of these I have created an activity that asks my students to conduct survey research on why students don’t do the readings assigned in their classes. The students have to write their own hypothesis statement that identifies an independent and dependent variable and then design and implement a survey that will allow them to test their hypothesis.

Sounds like a whole lot of work right? Well the process is radically simplified by using Google docs. Google docs allows users to create “forms” (a.k.a. surveys) to collect and analyze data. It’s dead simple to create a survey, make it a stand alone webpage, get users to fill it out, and then use Google’s “Analyze data” wizard to get simple descriptive statistics and graphical representations of your data. After students have collected and analyzed their data they can “share” their form/survey with you and you can easily see all their survey, the data they collected, and their statistical analysis.

I’ve created the base directions for this activity which you can download here. I’ve also created a handout for creating surveys on Google Docs that walks students through the process step by step with images and clear directions, download them here. I also wanted my students to learn a little about survey methodology so I created a “Do’s and Don’ts of Good Survey Question Design” handout which you can download here.

Hopefully this assignment will allow our students to experience sociological research without creating mountains of paperwork and unnecessary hassle for us. If you use this or you have your large classes conduct sociological research in another way I’d love to get feedback from you. Send me an email at and tell me what’s worked for you.


“Why do you eat what you eat?” I ask my students. After a long pause filled with students giving me bewildered looks someone says, “because it tastes good?” I press them to dig deeper in hopes that they will see a connection to the social world, but almost always they are unable to. My students are staunch believers that what they eat is purely a matter of choice and even an expression of personal freedom. Sure, they say, your family may develop your taste for certain dishes as a child, but that is just your family eating what tastes good to them. Nothing sociological going on here.

Food is a powerful sociological issue because it connects our physical bodies with nature, the economy, and indirectly with every social institution. Food production is public policy, a cornerstone of our economy, and always present in the media. Simply put, food is culture. And yet many students never think twice about it. Thus making it a prime target for teaching sociology.

“Divided We Eat” by Lisa Miller is a Newsweek article that provides students with a great introduction to the issues around food and social class1. The article talks with epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski about the social factors that influence our food choices. As we discuss the article as a class I ask my student to examine food from a symbolic interactionist perspective and my students quickly draw connections between what we eat and how we express our class position.

“In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.”-Miller, Newsweek

After our discussion I pass out an activity I created (download pdf here) that has my students create a food journal for a day and analyze it. Many students were now able to see the connection between what they eat today, what they ate growing up, and their social class position.


1. Thanks to Chad Gesser (@profgesser) for Tweeting this article into my world.

“No one wants to date YOU!” I tell my students. “You can’t get anybody looking like you look, sounding like you sound, or acting like you act. Oh no.” Students brows scrunch up with a healthy mix of confusion and offense. I take a long pause and watch my students writhe in their seats before I say, “If you act like you on a first date, you can bet it will be your last date. You have to send your representative to a first date. Your representative is the ideal version of you.” With this we start a conversation about Goffman’s Presentation of Self and the ideal. 1

Dating is ripe for sociological analysis because it is full of unspoken norms, tension, and false presentations of self. It is easy to see the social construction of reality on a date because we are expected to construct a reality about who we are, about the world around us, and we are expected to construct a romantic experience for our partner. Dates, especially first dates, are a break from normality, so it is easy to see the familiar as strange- because first dates are strange. After I let my students know that I think they are love worthy, date-able people, I ask them to break up into small groups and answer the following questions.

When on a First Date:

  1. What would you not tell your date about yourself or what would you not bring up in conversation?

  2. What would you emphasize about yourself in conversations?

  3. How might you behave on a first date that is different from how you behave normally?

  4. How would you dress or present yourself physically?

After 10 to 15 minutes in small groups I ask the class to come back together. We review Goffman’s Presentation of Self and what he had to say about the ideal. I then ask the student to share their answers My goal here is to help them see Goffman in their responses. Students report that they dress nicely, use their manners, don’t talk about ex-partners or their problems, and never under any circumstances get angry unless they want to end the date immediately. I suggest to students that dates are an easy way to see how staging, costuming, and dialogue unfold like a well rehearsed play. Students universally agree. The ideal self (what I called our representative) goes on a date with another representative and they both work to create an ideal date. The artificiality of a first date makes it easy to see the effort put into constructing reality, but the goal of this exercise is to get students to see similar efforts to construct reality not just on dates, but nearly everywhere in society.

I wrap up the discussion by suggesting that there is a period in any romantic relationship where you actually haven’t fully met your partner. I joke with my class, “if you haven’t got into an argument with your partner, then you haven’t really met them yet.” Students heads nod and invariably a student or two tells a story of one of their friends who is getting married after only dating their partner for a short time. At least anecdotally, this seems to be a common occurrence for 20 somethings. This last semester one of my students rephrased my words-of-caution for young lovers. He said, “If you haven’t heard your partner fart then you shouldn’t marry them, because you haven’t met them yet.”


1. As my hip readers will already know, I stole the “no one wants to date you” bit from Chris Rock’s Bigger & Blacker.

<!– "I want you to stand perfectly still & expressionless for 15 minutes outside the union," that is what I told my 262 soc101 students yesterday as I surprised them with an activity called "Doing Nothing". The Doing Nothing activity, originally designed by Karen Bettez Halnon, is a modification on the classic break-a-norm activity.
I use this activity to teach norms, deviance, and Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Students feel first hand the anxiety of norm violations. They experience being stigmatized and being labeled by others as crazy, creepy, or even scary. Instead of norms, deviance, and Goffman being abstract sociological concepts they become real experiences.
Advantages to Doing Nothing as a Class:
Break a norm in public. That is arguably the oldest sociology activity in the book. Problem is, most students don’t actually do it; opting instead to write the paper based on what they imagine the experience would be like. When this happens your break-a-norm activity turns into a short fiction assignment. Doing Nothing as an entire class allows you to verify students had the experience.
Another benefit of Doing Nothing as a class is you can provide a safe and secure environment for your students.

Want to teach your students about norms, deviance, and the social construction of reality in a way that they’ll never forget? Try Doing Nothing, literally. Have your students silently stand in a public place for 15 minutes with absolutely no expression on their face. If anyone approaches them they are to reply to any and all questions by saying, “I am doing nothing.”

Students laugh when they hear the directions. Anxiety washes over them as they take their places. They struggle to contain nervous laughter and their fight or flight instinct that is screaming RUN in their head. All of a sudden those abstract concepts, deviance, norms, stigma, all become uncomfortably real. Students learn with their own two eyes how people react to non-conformers- to deviants. This is lived sociology.

Doing Nothing is not my own idea. Karen Bettez Halnon (2001) in Teaching Sociology outlined how she had her students individually do nothing in a public place for 30, of what I assume must have been excruciating, minutes. All I’ve done here is tweak her idea and amplify it to an extreme.

I figured if I have a class of 262 students why not put it to use. One person doing nothing is strange, but 262 students doing nothing is a sight to behold. Also, doing the activity as a class allowed me to verify* it was carried out and that students safety** was maintained.

Public Sociology:
Despite sociology being inherently social, it is surprising how rarely we use the public in the instruction of sociological concepts. I am most proud of how interactive this learning experience was. Students learned by doing (and at a grand scale).

Now, with our YouTube video, the students and I are trying to teach as many people as possible the sociological lessons we learned yesterday. My hope is that my students will see how their actions started a small social movement and created change and learning in others. I plan on using this as an example of how they can change the world around them. If you teach for social justice, if you hope to inspire your students to do more than just memorize some facts for a test, then we have to find ways to role model, or better yet provide a platform for, creating social change in our communities.

As a final note, it would mean a lot to me if you would take the time to watch the video above and pass it along to someone you think would enjoy it. The more people who watch the clip the more my students will feel capable and empowered to create social change. I have loved giving away as much as I possibly could over the last year and now I am asking for one small favor in return. Five minutes of your life to watch the clip, send it to someone else, Tweet it, post it on Facebook, etc.

Thank you,

Event Logistics:
If you’re going to do anything with 262 people you’re going to need help and a lot of planning ahead. I recruited 11 student volunteers to help me with maintaining safety and crowd control. I created a handout to communicate to the volunteers what their responsibilities were (download it here).

I also created a set of concise and explicit lecture slides that visually explained the directions for the activity (see below | Download them here). Note that students were required to participate, but not to be video recorded. Students had the option to do the activity in another location away from cameras, but none of my 262 students chose not to participate (which was a delightful surprise). Students who were going to be recorded had to sign an image release and consent form.

*Break a norm in public. That is arguably the oldest sociology activity in the book. Problem is, most students don’t actually do it; opting instead to write the paper based on what they imagine the experience would be like. When this happens your break-a-norm activity turns into a short fiction assignment. Doing Nothing as an entire class allows you to verify students had the experience.

**As Bettez Halnon mentions in her Teaching Sociology article, students are left vulnerable in a public place if you ask them to do this activity alone. Every time I have done this activity I have found that passersby will try to coax a response out of students by touching them in some way. Typically this is a simple poking on the nose or lifting up an arm and then letting it fall, but I’ve seen students attempt to pull on students coats and backpacks. I absolutely would not do this activity without supervising the event myself. Along these same lines, I also instruct my students that if at any moment they feel unsafe in anyway they are to discontinue the activity and return to the classroom.

Bettez Halnon, Karen. 2001. “The Sociology of Doing Nothing: A Model “Adopt a Stigma in a Public Place” Exercise.” Teaching Sociology 29(4) Pp:423-38.

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.

“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).

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.

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.

“I wish there was something I could do,” I found myself saying after I heard of another suicide of a bullied gay teen. And then it hit me like a whack on the side of the head. I have a flipping class of 200 students. Why not put that to some social use? It’s true that this project was not on my syllabus at the start of the semester and it will require that I take some time out to develop the project, but THIS is sociology. It’s not some abstract concept in a book, its public sociology; sociology that could make a difference.

I have been troubled in recent weeks by the number of campaigns to end ______ that don’t actually mitigate the social issue in any real way. I have wanted to write on my Facebook status that, “I like it on something that can actually make a difference in breast cancer.” (Read this if that makes no sense to you 🙂 I feel that if we construct an activity like this well, we could demonstrate to our students how to take social action in ways that actually create a impact in their community.

I try to avoid being an activist teacher in my classroom because I find it alienates more studesnts than other approaches, so this project would have to be something students could elect to do if they wanted. For this to work it couldn’t be heavy handed or feel forced. This project would be an option for motivated students who wanted to do something unique.

The activity that I came up with (Download it here) is what I call a “Pitch Me” project. I set out some clearly defined outcomes, for instance that it needs to be public and it must incorporate sociology, but after these guidelines are met they are free to run wild. Students email me a pitch that includes all the relevant details and then we collaborate to develop the idea in to a satisfactory project. What I love about this project is that it asks students to solve a interesting problem and lead which is the goal I talked about last week.

Please feel free to download, modify, or share these directions in anyway that you feel could make a positive difference. If you use this idea or develop one like it, let me know and we can share our students work on this site after the semester is over. Together I believe we can really make a difference in our communities and across the planet. Thank you in advance for considering it.