My Thoughts

My thoughts on teaching sociology, pedagogy, working with students, and everything else connected to the job of being a sociology teacher.

The greatest sin a sociologist could commit is being boring… okay okay, abusing human subjects is the greatest sin, but being boring isn’t far behind. Sociology is, for a lack of a better word, sexy. No one storms out of actuary sciences class in a huff, but our students find our classes so emotional, so compelling, so challenging that they literally can not stand it and they run away.

On the four year anniversary of I want to tell you what I’ve learned about making sociology accessible to the masses. Throughout all of my teaching, all of my work on, and the one-off projects I’ve done like the “Doing Nothing” video, I’ve been thinking really hard about and trying to develop my skills at communicating highly complex ideas with language that anyone could understand.

The Academic’s Guide to Writing Online

Download PDF Version of Guide

This is a guide for how to write so that your scholarly work finds an audience. This isn’t advice for how to write to get published in a top journal, in fact this might be the exact opposite of that advice. Ultimately, writing for social media is writing for a public audience. Therefore, it’s an act of public scholarship.

Talk to Me! – Acknowledge the Reader.

EXAMPLE: Many scholars today argue that when sharing your ideas with your audience the use of the third grammatical person places distance between the two parties whereas employing the first and second person delivers a reading experience that is superior in it’s intimacy with the reader

  • Talk to your reader. Write as if your reader is in the room with you.
  • Alternate your writing between the first person, “my research finds…” and the second, “your students will love…”
  • Ditch the authoritative third person voice as it is often the coward’s crutch. It’s the bravado we use when we fear that what we say won’t be taken seriously.[1]
  • Show don’t tell. Don’t be afraid to slip into a narrative to allow your reader to experience the event first hand. “Telling” stories second hand is like serving a dinner guest pre-chewed food.

Just Say It! – Never lead with a disclaimer or qualifier.

EXAMPLE: I don’t want you to read this and think I am trying to be mean. I’m also not trying to say that this applies to all forms of writing. As I said above, these are just my opinions.

  • SHOOT ME IN THE FACE! Did you have something to say underneath all those disclaimers and qualifying statements?
  • Never lead with disclaimers or qualifying statements. Say what you want to say immediately and then, if you really must, give them your disclaimers/qualifiers.
  • Your first sentence exists to entice the reader to read the second sentence. Your first paragraph’s job is to intrigue your reader so they are compelled to read the second. And so on and so on.

K.I.S.S. – Keep it Simple Scholar!

EXAMPLE: Academic writers who use jargon and esoteric language are often preoccupied with communicating their cultural capital to their peers and because of this they sacrifice what could be a learning opportunity for a lay audience.

  • Mercilessly destroy jargon. If you absolutely have to use a piece of jargon, don’t just define the term. Introduce the term to your reader using an anecdote or other illustrative tool.
  • Nix the esoteric language. If a ten cent word can communicate an idea, don’t use a ten dollar word instead. You went to grad school; we get it.
  • The greater the pre-requisite amount of education a reader must have to understand your reading, the smaller your audience will be and the smaller your impact will be.
  • Jargon and esoteric language are the sacrificial offerings we place at the alter of public sociology.

Get in & Get Out.

  • Keep it succinct. If possible, keep any blog post to less than 500 words.[2]

No! It’s Not All Important

  • Only present the reader with information that is essential for them to understand your larger points.
  • You have an expert’s mind, so to you it’s all essential. Try to remember back to when you were a novice to your subject. Try to remember how a “beginner’s mind” saw your subject and then write to answer the questions of the reader with a beginners mind.
  • “Kill your darlings” as the saying goes. Delete non-essential information.

If You Have Something to Say, Say It

  • Say something compelling, intriguing, challenging, inspiring, evocative, poignant, or otherwise interesting.
  • If what you write feels risky you’re on the right path. If it’s something that you sincerely believe or something that empirical research can back up, then take the risk and hit publish.
  • “The web has made kicking ass easier to achieve, and mediocrity harder to sustain. Mediocrity now howls in protest.” – Hugh Macleod

Don’t Let Perfection Be The Enemy of The Good

  • Don’t worry if your grammar isn’t perfect. I’m not a grammarian. I have no doubt that those of you who are could rip apart what I’ve written.
  • Focus on clearly communicating your ideas. It’s more important that you share your ideas with the world than it is to make sure your writing is 100% error free. Get in the arena and mix it up with people.
  • Your writing isn’t etched in stone. Remember that unlike print, you can immediately change errors as your readers point them out to you.

A Final Note

Not every scholarly publication needs to be written so that a the general public can read it. There is nothing wrong with scholars using academic journals to share highly technical and complex research with other trained social scientists. However, as a discipline we need to have a bias toward accessibility and cultivate a community of sociologists highly skilled in communicating esoteric research into human readable texts. And this community of explainers, communicators, and ambassadors to our discipline need to be seen as providing an invaluable service to us all.

  1. Not all authors are treated equally. Non-dominant voices are often presumed incompetent and using an authoritative voice can be an effective counter-measure to this type of discrimination. This is not cowardice. However, as a whole academics over rely on the authoritative voice to deal with their fear that others will unmask them as a fraud or take their openness as a sign of weakness.  ↩

  2. Oh the hypocrisy! This blog post is 1,060 words long!  ↩

This blog post is from’s co-founder and editor April Schueths. It originally appeared on César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández’s crImmigration blog and he graciously allowed us to crosspost it here.

“I feel like I’ve changed her life… I feel like I’ve screwed her life up,” Joel laments head in hands, fighting back the tears. Joel, a Mexican immigrant who is undocumented, is facing at least a ten year unlawful presence ban from the U.S. He planned on staying in the U.S. for just a few years to earn some money, but then he met Alyssa, “She’s my right hand, mi media naranja” (my other orange half or soul mate).

When Alyssa, a U.S. citizen, married Joel over ten years ago, they gave little thought to federal laws. They were both musicians and met in their church choir. Even though they were from two different countries they both grew up in small, rural communities and had shared values of faith, family and hard work. They married and had a baby. They lived the American Dream of home ownership and have another baby on the way.

They were told by their attorney to wait for immigration reform, as there is virtually no hope for their family to adjust Joel’s legal status under the current immigration policies. His only other option for adjustment of status was to return to Mexico for at least10 years.

“Where are my rights, my child’s rights as a U.S. citizen? I don’t think any American citizen should be separated from their spouse for this. We can’t even pay a fine.” Alyssa voices her frustration passionately.

Their reality shatters the popular myth that marriage to a U.S. citizen is a direct and easy pathway to citizenship. Alyssa’s experience, and the experience of tens of thousands of other U.S. citizens, supports the position that the full rights and benefits of citizenship are not extended equally to all Americans. Alyssa’s story demands that we reevaluate the assumed benefits of U.S. citizenship in mixed-status marriage.

Alyssa and Joel’s story and the stories of other mixed-status couples are rarely mentioned, especially the ways in which citizen spouses too become marginalized. During the last eight years I’ve talked with many mixed-status couples and U.S. citizen spouses consistently discuss several challenges.

Experiences of Marginalization

Nearly everyone the couple encounters, who knows about their immigration situation, says something along the lines of, “but you’re married, I don’t understand why you’re having all of these immigration problems.” Most people don’t realize that since 1996 that stereotypical “Green Card” marriages for undocumented spouses, especially those with extended unlawful presence in the U.S. or multiple entries, have become relatively outdated. In those situations, marriage alone cannot help someone without documentation adjust his/her legal status. As Abby, a U.S. citizen spouse said, “Nobody gets what it’s like.”

U.S. citizen spouses report that they’ve lost numerous benefits and rights. Here are just a few of the more common issues discussed. Because most employers require a spouse’s social security number to access benefits, citizen spouses aren’t usually able to share their employment benefits with their undocumented spouses. This is important as most undocumented immigrants do not have their own health insurance or a job that provides employer-based insurance. In some cases, couples have trouble even getting a marriage license. Couples report having to figure out which city or county will marry them without a social security number. U.S. citizens that would normally qualify for Earned Income Tax Credit are not eligible if their spouse has an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). This was also the case in 2008 when the federal government sent economic stimulus payments to eligible families. Citizen spouses have even had trouble getting car insurance in their own names. Additionally, couples face restrictions and risks on travel. Most undocumented spouses don’t have a valid driver’s license, but some drive out of necessity (e.g., work, family obligations, etc.). Mixed-status couples cannot fly anywhere together and certainly cannot leave the U.S. together—at least not if they plan to return together.

These citizens feel betrayed by their country when their rights are taken from them.

Mixed-status couples including U.S. citizens experience tremendous distress. They can live a clandestine life in the U.S. but face chronic distress and fear that the rug will be pulled out from underneath them at any moment by falling into immigration detention or deportation proceedings. This is especially true for families that include immigrants of color living in anti-immigrant communities. And this doesn’t even consider the compounded stress and oppression experienced by same-sex couples who are also mixed-status. For many couples, every time they say goodbye they know it could be their last. Even for families that haven’t had a family member detained or deported, most of them know families who have experienced this trauma.

When a spouse has been deported (although some families are pushed out and leave on their own as the stress of living without legal status becomes too stressful), the family may relocate to that spouse’s country of origin or in a few cases, an entirely different country. For the most part, undocumented immigrants are migrating from developing nations, with few job prospects. Therefore, exiled families often see their incomes reduced dramatically. Access to quality education, healthcare, and concerns regarding public safety are often mentioned. The final option, and also the least desirable, is to live separate from a spouse and/or children in two different countries. For couples dealing with medical and economic issues, this becomes their difficult reality.

American families are having their families terrorized by U.S. immigration policies. No human is illegal, no family should live in fear, and every citizen should get to be with their other half of the orange.

How can I help? Get involved with groups like American Families United, an advocacy group for mixed-status couples.

Related Publications

April M. Schueths, Ph.D., LCSW is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia Southern University. Within the broad area of social stratification her research focuses on the intersection of race/ethnicity with social structures including family, education, and health. She has peer-reviewed articles published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Latino Studies, Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, and Teaching in Higher Education. She is the co-founder and editor of, a site dedicated to sharing resources and ideas for teaching sociology. You can learn more about April at her website,
Editor’s Note: All names have been changed to protect anonymity.

Last week Sociological Images featured a post of mine from last year on how the language we use often hides privilege. Inspired by Michael Kimmel I flipped the oft quoted figure that “women make 81 cents to every $1 a man earns” to “Men have consistently been paid more than their female peers, earning about $1.19 to every $1 of a woman’s wage”. Turns out, I did the math wrong.

As I read the comments under the post, my heart fell on to the floor. I was exposed. There it was in black and white, I’m an impostor. I’m a huckster. I’m a fraud.

A cacophony of self-loathing voices rattled my head. “Who are you to tell other people how to teach their classes?” “Your pathetic excuse for scholarship has made your friend look bad on her blog because she foolishly trusted you.” “See I told you this would happen. You need to be quiet and let the real academics handle this. You’re just a lecturer.”

To some readers this might seem like an extreme overreaction, but to many others it won’t. Everyday of my career I have carried with me these voices of self-doubt and I’m willing to bet that if you are truly in touch with your emotions, you have too. And I’m a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, citizen, [I could go on] male. I’m supposed to be the embodiment of authority, but even with all of my privilege I can’t ever feel comfortable.

I am not alone. I know that you feel this way too. Because of my impostor syndrome I’ve ducked opportunities; I’ve deliberately held myself back. I’ve held my tongue (believe it or not).

Why I’m Writing This & Why Aren’t You Writing Online?

Why aren’t more sociologists/academics blogging? At the very least, why aren’t more applied sociologists or social activist sociologists blogging? There is a giant platform to share you research, reach the people who could create social change, and/or engage with other researchers in your field. But yet, almost no one does it. Why?

I think the fear of being exposed as an impostor is a big reason more sociologists and academics in general don’t share their ideas and research online. Online there is no journal to bestow their authority to your words. There are no fact-checkers and/or peer reviewers. It’s just you, walking the tightrope without a net.[1]

I am writing this today because I want you to tell the voices in your head that are constantly catastrophizing … you don’t die. Humble pie tastes awful, but it’s a tiny price for me to pay for all of the wonderful people I’ve met and the opportunities that’ve come my way because I started blogging. There is a portion of the world waiting to hear about your research, your teaching, and your perspective on the world. Take the risk. Start the conversation. It will be worth it.

Further Reading:

  1. Of course there are a host of other factors that play a role here. For instance, it doesn’t “count” for tenure and promotion, all of us are already strapped for time, etc.  ↩

The 101 class is the public face of our discipline. Every year there are roughly a million students in the United States who take Soc 101, that is, if my publisher friends’ estimates are to be believed. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, 101 will be their only exposure to our discipline. Sure, they might hear about our research findings in the media, but chances are they’ll have no idea that it was a sociologist who produced the research.

So, who’s teaching the 101 courses at your institution? In many places 101 is taught by a hodgepodge of grad students, adjuncts, lecturers, and assistant professors.[1] In every one of these situations we position on the front lines our least experienced educators (many of whom have never received any formalized training on pedagogy). Now, don’t let me be misunderstood. I reject the idea that years of experience correlates with excellence in the classroom. I’ve been cutting my grass since I was 10, but I’ve always done the bare minimum to avoid the ridicule of my neighbors. My neighbor’s yard, on the other hand, is the stuff that would make the angels cry. Wisdom in the classroom certainly has it’s advantages, but an inexperienced teacher who is passionate and focused on honing their craft can quickly make up for a lack of experience.

How do the faculty in your department think about 101? Is it something to be avoided like the plague? Is it a hazing ritual that you put newbs through so that senior faculty can get to teach their “real classes” (i.e. their upper division classes within their area of interest)?

Why Does It Matter Who Teaches 101

First, it matters because the introductory classes serve as the on ramp to the major. As reported by in their forth coming book How College Works, Chambliss and Takacs find that,

Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.

Second, it matters because of Krulak’s law which posits, “The closer you get to the front, the more power you have over the brand.”[2] Put simply, if the 101 class is the frontline of sociology, then the 101 teacher is the ambassador for us all.

Why Does It Matter Who Is the Public Face of Sociology?

Sociology has an image problem. As a discipline it’s not uncommon for the general public to think we are either explaining nothing more than common sense, not a “real science”, an academic arm of the socialist party, or simply radical liberal wackadoodles. For instance, take a look at the controversy that swirled around Patricia Adler last month. As reported by Rebecca Schuman on Slate, commenters to Adler articles said, “Sociology is a pseudoscience which has successfully pursued government subsidies in tuition dollars for decades… It is akin to getting a degree in practical witchcraft.”

As sociologists, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you that there are risks to having a poor public perception. In an age when our fellow social scientists have seen their discipline made ineligible for NSF funding, it’s hard to argue that the public’s perception of your discipline doesn’t matter. Plus, don’t we do research to create an impact in the world?

What Needs to Change?

We should take our introduction classes seriously. When we meet department cultures or individuals who belittle the role of the 101 class we should speak up and educate our colleagues. If less experienced faculty are teaching intro classes, we owe it to ourselves to ensure that they are well trained and have the resources they need to be successful. For while the viability of an individual professor’s career may hinge on publications and grant dollars, the viability of a academic discipline hinges on the ability to recruit students and impress upon the public the value it holds for them.

As my Internet friend Todd Beer says, “Teach well. It matters.”

  1. Obviously there are some structural explanations for the concentration of non-tenure and/or less senior faculty at the 101 level. The pool of qualified applicants for a 101 course is much larger than the pool for upper division classes that require more specialized training and experience.  ↩

  2. The idea for Krulak’s law came from a quote by General Charles C. Krulak that Jeff Sexton was inspired to share on his blog, but was coined into a law by Seth Godin. Credit where credit due.  ↩

I used to love to burn down my classes at the end of every semester and rebuild it anew. As I taught each semester I would see all of the problems, weaknesses, and areas for improvement and I’d convince myself that all my classes sucked and had to be jettisoned and never spoken of again. Looking back I now see this as a form of pedagogical self-flagellation. It’s also a sort of academic Groundhog Day where every semester I am stuck trying to get my legs underneath me.

My new semester’s resolution is to write down all of those problems, weaknesses, and areas for improvement that you can only see in the moment, while you’re teaching. I’ve created what I titled a A.F.I. (Areas for Improvement) file for each of my classes that will serve like a letter to my future self to open once the semester is over. I want to use this space as a place to both document bugs in the class and as a space to dream about how I might dramatically restructure the class.

From here out, instead of a slash and burn approach, I resolve to use my A.F.I. lists to improve my classes in an iterative fashion. Instead of trying to birth the perfect class each semester, I want to develop a 3–5 year plan and evolve my classes as I go. This seems like a much more humane approach to professional development.

Happy New Year

Three white college students file racial discrimination complaint against professor over lesson on structural racism” The Salon headline from yesterday reads like my personal nightmare. In fact, Shannon Gibney’s account of what happened in her classroom reads like what I can only guess is the personal nightmare of any educator who teaches their students to critically think about hegemonic social power.

Gibney, a professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, started a discussion on structural racism in her Intro to Mass Communications class when multiple white students complained, “Why do we have to talk about this in every class?”. Gibney gives her first hand report of what happened next in an interview below:

“You guys are taking it personally. This is not a personal attack. We’re not talking about all white people- you white people in general. We’re talking about whiteness as a system of oppression.” I’ve said almost that exact same thing to my own students. And yet I know that some of my students still do take it personally. I’ve experienced first hand students stubbornly clinging to an individual-centered understanding of the world despite my attempts to open their eyes to the social structures that all individuals operate within.

In fact, as I listened to Gibney I kept thinking, I’ve said the exact same things. I’ve been in situations like that before. Oh my god, that could be me. But… to be honest, it couldn’t.

My White Male Privilege in The Classroom

Do a Google Image search for the words college professor (or just click here) and what do you see. A lot of faces that look a lot like mine. When I walk into the room, I’m willing to bet, no one thinks, “oh god. A white guy, I wonder if he’s qualified. He must have been an Affirmative Action hire.” I’ve written about this before as have others. Regardless of what I do, I am the embodiment of authority. My credibility, authenticity, and trustworthiness are rarely if ever questioned.

When I challenge my students to critically analyze white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. no one says, “well of course you said that because you are…”. No one says I have a political agenda or an axe to grind. In fact, I often get kudos for doing it. I’m seen as a sort of selfless freedom fighter. Because of my social privilege I often am able to walk right by my students resistance, neutralize their rhetorical strategies, and be heard. It’s not because I’m a better teacher (note that some critiques of Gibney have argued she’s a poor teacher). It’s because I’m a cisgender, hetero, able-bodied, middle class, white male[1].

And now lets put some empirical meat on these anecdotal bones. Studies find that people of color are disproportionally tasked with teaching required diversity classes where challenging social privilege is more likely to happen (Alex-Assensoh 2003). A qualitative analysis of students’ comments on student evaluations of instruction found that women, especially women of color, were more likely have their authority questioned and to be seen as biased or affected by their personal politics (Perry et al. 2009; Schueths et al. 2013)[2]. This is just the tip of the empirical iceberg, but it’s clear that, like we’ve always taught our students, an individual’s social location and the social contexts they operate in affect their experiences.

What Can We Do With All of This.

First, David Mayeda on our Facebook page suggests starting a letter writing campaign in support of Gibney and I think that’s a great start. But more than anything else, let’s stop pretending that social privilege ends at the threshold of our classroom. To my fellow faculty of privilege, let us own our privileges, even if we are uncomfortable with them and even if we are attempting to subvert the systems that privilege us. Personally, I’m going to read this story and remember that I am not Shannon Gibney; in fact my experience is probably closer to the three white men who filled the complaint. And then I’m going to work from there.

Alex-Assensoh, Y. 2003. Race in the academy: Moving beyond diversity and toward the incorporation of faculty of color in predominantly white colleges and universities. Journal of Black Studies 34, no. 1: 5–11.

Perry, Gary, Helen Moore, Crystal Edwards, Katherine Acosta and Connie Frey. 2009. “Maintaining Credibility and Authority as an Instructor of Color in Diversity-Education Classrooms: A Qualitative Inquiry.” The Journal of Higher Education 80, no. 1: 80–105.

Schueths, April M., Tanya Gladney, Devan A. Crawford, Katherine L. Bass, and Helen A. Moore. 2013. “Passionate Pedagogy and Emotional Labor: Students’ Responses to Learning Diversity from Diverse Instructors.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 26, no. 10: 1259–1276

  1. I left out some of my privileged statuses, but I think you get the point.  ↩

  2. Full disclosure: April Schueths, the first author of this article, is the editor of and also my partner.  ↩

Monday 9:00am.

STUDENT: Don’t kill me but I missed the test last Friday.
ME: What happened?
STUDENT: I had a family emergency.
ME: Huh. Why did you wait two days to contact me?
STUDENT: I had a lot on my mind.
ME: Let’s think about this like a symbolic interactionist. How do you think I am going to interpret the fact you waited two days to contact me.
STUDENT: Uh… How should I… Um…

I’m usually able to keep my cool no matter what my student throw at me, but this situation (which happens 10–15 times a semester[1]) makes my blood boil. I feel so disrespected; like I am here to serve them when ever it’s convenient for them. My time doesn’t matter. I’m not doing anything else with my life. Frequently when this conversation takes place, the student has this entitled tone- this presumptuous demeanor. I’d love to tell you that I can handle any situation with grace and ease, but this one is my Achilles’ heel.

Then it dawned on me, situations like this happen precisely because students don’t have a developed sociological imagination. In Keith Roberts keynote address at the ASA Pre-Conference Workshop on Teaching and Learning, argued passionately that to learn sociology is to learn to perspective take. That is, to develop your sociological imagination you must first be cognizant of others, then be able to imagine how they experience from the world from their eyes, and finally be able to use the scientific method to tease out your bias (as much as that’s possible). If you’ve taught sociology for any amount of time, then you know that developing the skill of perspective taking can be really hard for students. Put simply, for the most part students are bad at perspective taking[2].

When students miss our test and then don’t think to contact me immediately are being inconsiderate. That is, they are not considering how their actions will make me feel. They have not considered how their inaction will look from my perspective. Given that they fail to employ the skill I am primarily focused on teaching, I can forgive their transgression. I can reframe it as a sign that they have much to learn instead of a sign of willful disrespect. Then I can let it go.

  1. The above exchange with a student isn’t a real conversation I had with a student. It’s an amalgamation of all the conversations I have with my students. Also, note that I teach ~400 students a semester.  ↩

  2. I teach mostly “traditional age” students. To be fair, students who are older may have more life experiences and thus a more developed ability to perspective take. However, age and experience does not always lead to a well developed ability to perspective take.  ↩ is an amazing free resource for teachers (but I heard the editor of the site is a self-promoting blowhard). In all seriousness, I created SociologyInFocus to help you teach your classes. Think of the site as a timely sociology micro-reader. We use current events like the unrest in Egypt, the Trayvon Martin Verdict, and Anthony Wiener to illustrate sociological concepts for an intro level student audience. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible to teach sociology as it happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Ways to Minimize Miscommunication

  1. Watch Your Assumptions

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

  1. Be Explicit to a Fault

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

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

  1. Use Formatting to Communicate Effectively

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

  1. Tell Them What You Don’t Want

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

  1. Realize Students Read What They Think You Said

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

This Sounds Like Too Much Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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