My Thoughts

To hear students tell it, people are awful, greedy, selfish, pukes. That is “people” are. When students use their sociological imaginations to try and understand a large group of people, they very often presume the worst about humanity. If you want to try this yourself, ask your students why capitalism works so well in the United States? 10 out of 10 times someone in the room will say something to the effect of, "because Americans are greedy people and capitalism works with greed and not against it.

I teach social change and environmental sociology and in both classes it’s very easy for students to become fatalistic, so dealing with the “people are awful” problem is something I’m well versed in.

Time For a Reality Check

When a student exclaims how awful people are, I start by reflecting back to them what I hear them saying. “So you think that all people are greedy? You think it’s human nature to be selfish?”
“Yes, of course.”
I probe further with, “The ‘people’ you are talking about sound like some brutish awful people. Is that how you see it?”
“I’m not saying I like it or anything, but yeah. If you look throughout history and even today, people are greedy. That’s just how it is.” This is a close approximation of how many students would respond.

Unwittingly, the student in this scenario has helped me create a straw man to knock down. I ask the rest of the class to jump in, “is it fair to say that all people are mean, selfish, greedy, awful people? Can you think of examples where people act selflessly and help one another?” As my students fire off examples I write them on the board. Students typically talk about donating blood, volunteering around town, responding to a fire or other emergency, people coming together after a natural disaster, etc.

The world has real problems, to be sure, and greed is one of them. But fatalistic students can quickly create a hellish caricature of reality. When students fall into the “people are awful” flavor of fatalism, I ask them to think about the people who they interact with everyday (e.g. their co-workers, the people they see on the street or at a store, their classmates, friends, and family.) I ask them if those people are as awful as the hypothetical “people” they are talking about. The problem with “people” is that they don’t really exist. The “people” our students often talk about are two dimensional. Having them think about the three dimensional people in their life can make it easier for them to see their fatalism.

I posed this question on Twitter last week and it’s been reverberating around my head ever since.

If you think about it, your class has a lot in common with an airport:

  1. Airports want to help travelers reach their goals (i.e. get to their final destination or to Cinnabon). Teachers want to help their students reach their educational goals (i.e. skill mastery, knowledge acquisition, etc.)
  2. Just like the airport we have no control over who comes through our classes. We are expected to serve all comers.
  3. Travelers and students both come to us with varying levels of skills, competencies, knowledge.
  4. Some travelers are thrilled to be in the airport (i.e. “I’ve made it!”) while others see the airport as nothing more than a means to an end. This also holds for our classes (Substitute travelers for students and class for airport).

My point here is simple: How we design our courses is where most of the biggest opportunities for improving student learning reside.

It’s easy to discount this as a quant idea, but a great deal of SoTL research is comprised of ways that teachers can change the design of their courses to achieve pedagogical aims. Furthermore, what other lever is there to pull here, other than course design?

*Or How I Learned I Wasn’t 1/2 the Teacher
I Thought I Was

So I haven’t posted here for a hot minute. I’ve been really busy, but I’ve also been dealing with a sort of existential crisis. I read the book How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al. and it rocked my world. The book synthesizes the latest research from the scholarship of teaching and learning, cognitive psychology, and the like. It’s tremendous and should be required reading for all teachers. But why the existential crisis?

For better and for worse, teaching is my obsession. I started this blog because I wore out my friends and family talking about my classes constantly. Over time being a “good teacher” became a central component of my identity.

When I started this blog there was a constant voice in my head saying, “Who are you to tell anyone anything about teaching? Just who do you think you are?” I overcame this anxiety by pouring myself in my work and seeking external validation of my work. If my students gave me good evaluations, I must be a good teacher. If my colleagues, my mentors, and my department chair said I was a good teacher, then I must be. If I write a blog post about a pedagogical technique and it gets a lot of page view, tweets, etc., then that must mean it’s a good idea.

There was a moment where, I wasn’t sure I had that much left to blog about because, “my classes are going so well!” I felt like I was starting to reach “black belt” status as an educator and I was honestly worried I was starting to reach the upper bound on what I could learn about teaching sociology. In retrospect, I’m ashamed I let my ego get the better of me- that I didn’t see the folly in my hubris let alone my delusions of grandeur.

Reading How Learning Works

I opened How Learning Works hoping to pick up a few tips and to verify that the pedagogical approach I was currently using was built on a solid empirical foundation. Instead, I found myself dumbfounded by a question that I hadn’t until then asked myself, “Who am I designing my class for?” As I read about all the issues students face when trying to learn, I realized that for the most part I’d never even considered these issues when designing my class. I modeled best practices I’d picked up from my mentors and implemented some strategies I gleaned from Teaching Sociology, but by in large I designed my class with only one person in mind… me.

At some point I realized that the only thing I could control completely was myself. If I over prepared, if I perfected my lecture notes, if I found multimedia that reinforced my message, then I could rest assured that the class would be good. Or if it failed, I couldn’t be held responsible; I did my part. So without consciously making the decision, I decided to focus all of my energy and preparation inward. In doing so, I designed my classes to best serve my needs and then subsequently my students.

The radical idea that I took from How Learning Works is, I should be designing my classes for my students. To be clear, it’s not like I didn’t consider student learning before I read the book, but if we looked at where I was spending most of my time, it was on preparing myself on the content I wanted to deliver. The stars of my classes was the sociological content and me. But if I am to be focused on student learning, then my teaching is at best a precursor.

Another huge take away from the book was, I have no idea if my students are learning. Sure I assess student learning periodically on tests, papers, but on any given day in class, I had no idea if the methods I used in class actually affected student learning in any real way. Assessment has become a yucky word to many academics, but I think if we’re serious about learning we really must embrace the idea. With this in mind I start and end almost every class with some sort of in class writing assignment. In between classes it’s easy to flip through their writing and identify common misconceptions or misapplications and then tweak the next class to address those issues.

I plan on discussing all of the revelations I had while reading How Learning Works and all of the ways it’s changed me as a teacher, but in the interest of keeping this post reasonably short, I’ll stop myself from doing it here. Today I just want to tell you how great of an impact it had on me and hope that inspires you to read it yourself.

Where to from here?

So now I’m back here on Soc Source, but I return a different person. I’m unconfident. I’m trying to shift away from my “sage on the stage” days and toward an approach that centers on student learning. Instead of taking a command and control approach I’m trying to develop one that assesses my student’s learning and adjusts on the fly. I’m trying to figure out what it means to embrace a SoTL approach to teaching and how to do it.

I hope that this doesn’t read as self-indulgence, because that’s not why I wrote it. I wrote this to come clean to all of you. I’m not the teacher I thought I was. After reading How Learning Works I can see just how much I have yet to learn. I’m just starting to wrap my mind around SoTL and how I am going to become a teacher focused on student learning. I’ve only been working at this for a few months now, but I already have so much to tell you about what I’ve been learning. I’ve shifted course and I hope you’ll want to come with me on this journey.

“As the island of our knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance”

-John Archibald Wheeler

I always tell my students, “to talk about poverty is to talk about children”. The latest figures suggest that 1 in 5 children in the United States is living in poverty (it’s 1 in 6 of all people). However, when the poor are vilified as lazy moochers the face that is often imagined is not that of a child.

Poor Kids is a fantastic documentary that has come to us just in time. The film is narrated by the children of three families that are struggling to avoid becoming homeless. Hearing their voices and seeing poverty through the eyes of children is both disarming and gripping.

Watch Poor Kids on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

As a discipline, sociology is great at identifying the structural causes of poverty, but this only covers half of the sociological imagination. Poor Kids gives us the experience of the individual and delivers it in a way that neutralizes the “blame the poor” defenses that many of our students have. This film is a fantastic and free resource that all sociology instructors should consider using.

The Worst Students Ever…

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

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

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

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

Finding Patience By Finding Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am working on revamping my intro to sociology class from the ground up right now for the, long awaited, class pack 2.0[1] and it has me questioning, what topics are the most important to a 101 class? I’ve talked before about how I think a 101 class is like a Tapas restaurant, but the question is which bite size chunks of sociology must be included.

Looking through Teaching Sociology it appears I am in no way the first to raise this question. Many scholars have asked the question, “what should our goals be when teaching sociology?” I really enjoyed Hodges Persell, Pfeiffer, and Syed (2007) piece about what award wining and high ranking sociological teachers think is important[2]. Grauerholz and Gibson (2006) examined syllabi for common articulations of student learning goals and the means used to achieve them. Their work suggests that most sociologists incorporate readings, writing, and exams and that, “more active types of learning were less common” (Grauerholz and Gibson 2006: 5).

In “Liberal Learning and the Sociology Major Updated” McKinney, Howery, Strand, Kain, and White Berheide (2004:1) articulate our teaching objectives in language that is both poetic and inspiring:

The best thing sociology can do for undergraduate students, whether majors or not, is to teach them to learn effectively so that they can keep up with rapid changes in society, particularly in knowledge, and live meaningful, engaged, and productive lives. If we can achieve this goal and their on-going learning is based on a template of understanding the importance of social structure and culture—the sociological perspective—then we will have succeeded in providing an education worth having and in producing citizens and workers who will be of continuing value to their communities and employers.

But the question I have yet to find a strong discussion about and that I’d like to turn toward you all is, what subjects are truly critical for an introduction to sociology? For so many of our 101 students, this may be the only time in their life when they have the opportunity to learn and discuss the social issues of our time. What then, should we teach them? What must they be exposed to?

This question seems like it should be rather academic, pun intended. Many disciplines have a standard collection of topics that all introductory students must be exposed to. Sociology does not have such a thematic standardization and I for one say thank god! What makes sociology so interesting is how divergent a discipline it is. That makes it interesting, but it also has the potential to make it unwieldy.

For example, as someone who teaches Environmental Sociology as an upper division class, it can be challenging when students have had absolutely no exposure to thinking about the connection between the natural world and the social. I’m not suggesting that we mandate environmental sociology into introductory level soc classes, but rather, making the point that sociology students can have vastly different experiences from one teacher to another and that this has to have consequences.

What I’d like to ask you is, “What subjects are so important that you feel obligated to teach them to your 101 students?” I invite you to share you thoughts in the comments below, but I also thought a quick survey might get us some good non-random, non-generalizable data about what our community thinks. For lack of a better idea, below is a list of the chapters I found in the five 101 books I had in my office.

References:

  1. Grauerholz, Liz and Greg Gibson. 2006. “Articulation of Goals and Means in Sociology Courses: What Can We Learn from Syllabi.” Teaching Sociology 34(1):5–22.
  2. Hodges Persell, Caroline, Kathryn M. Pfeiffer, Ali Syed. 2007. “What Should Students Understand after Taking Introduction to Sociology?” Teaching Sociology 35(4):300–314
  3. MicKinney, Kathleen, Carla B. Howery, Kerry J. Strand, Edward L. Kain, and Cheterine White Berheide. 2004 Liberal Learning and the Sociology Majory Updated: Meeting the Challenge of Teaching Sociology in the Twenty-First Century. Washington DC: American Sociological Association.

  1. I can’t wait to show you what I’ve cooked up for the CP2. I’ve spent at least 40 hours already working on it and I think you are really going to dig it. I am really truly sorry for the delay. Also, thank you to everyone for the words of encouragement over this last year as I’ve worked on it. More soon.  ↩

  2. Also interesting was the study’s finding that many of the senior faculty they asked to participate declined because they had almost no recent experience teaching an introductory class.  ↩

Year In Review

Hey gang. The semester is over and I could use a break, how about you? I thought we’d do a year-in-review post this week before we go on our one week holiday hiatus. Below are the “biggest hits” and my favorites from the last 12 months. If you are new to the site this is a great way to catch up.

The Best of 2011

Doing Nothing and Learning Deviance

Teaching How What You Eat Communicates Your Class

Teaching Bias, Worldviews, And Social Locations

Your Perspective

Teaching Social Forces With Baby Names

Dead Grandmas & Teaching Research Questions

Dead Grandma

Teaching With Vulnerability

Making Social Facts Easy To Understand

SociologySource.com Manifesto

We will return January 9th with a fresh new post and maybe even a fresh new look. Thanks so much for reading this year and I wish you and yours a happy and safe holiday season. Take care.

Bored Students

So it’s that time of the semester. The luster of your lectures has worn off, students aren’t even trying to hide their texting, and your class discussions are nothing more than moments of silence in between you asking and answering your own questions. Maybe this isn’t happening for you (good on you then), but for the rest of us I have some words of advice that may help you reenergize your students and spice up the class (I’m using a completely non-sexual connotation of this phrase).

Don’t “Believe Your Thoughts”

“My students this semester are the worst I’ve ever had!” one of the people I follow on Twitter said this week. While I don’t know them personally and I don’t know their teaching situation, I found myself asking, “Really? Is it really that bad?” Maybe it is, but whenever I hear teachers complaining they never say, “this is my 3rd worst class ever.” It’s always the worst ever. We are all prone to view the experiences we are currently living through as harder than previous and future situations simply because we have no perspective on the situation at hand. In two months from now most of you will no longer consider things as dire as they are now.

The “worst ever” language is also a common turn-of-phrase, but this hyperbole becomes dangerous when we start believing it as an accurate description of reality. Buddhists have this saying, “don’t believe your thoughts.”1 If you listen to your inner dialogue throughout the day you will notice that the majority of the things that cross your mind are things that if you stopped and really examined each one of them you would find that you probably don’t believe them at all. When I’m in front of my class I can convince myself that the student who is grimacing hates my guts, is going to give me a terrible evaluation, I’m going to lose my job, and I will end up homeless on the side of the road with a mouth full of the bitter ashes of my dreams. Then again, maybe the student just missed lunch or their partner just dumped them.

Try to keep things in perspective and guard against the siren’s call of negative thinking. In the moment, indulging your fears feels good, but it is a fast track to unnecessary misery2. Do some reality checking by asking your students to write a 2-minute paper about what you discussed in class or if you haven’t already, do a mid-term evaluation. Remember if “believing your thoughts” can lead you to hate your job, then the inverse is also true. So try on some positive thinking.

Mix It Up

It’s easy to find a teaching style that works for you and stick with it. Don’t. You should always try new ways of reaching your students. If you lecture all the time, surprise your students with a 100% self-directed in-class group project. If you do lots of group projects and their effectiveness is waining, try showing a short video and leading a large class discussion. Try getting a guest speaker to come in. If your class discussions are flagging buy a bag of halloween candy and toss it out to the student who answers your question right (Double Bonus: the danger of candy whizzing across the classroom will awaken even the sleepiest of students).

Play Some Music

Play some upbeat music before class starts. Ideally pick a song that relates to the topic you are going to talk about, but if you can’t, just pick a toe-tapping ditty. “But I don’t know what ‘the kids’ are listening to these days!” Ok, then play them one of your favorites or… wait for it… ask them for suggestions. I ask my students for suggestions all the time; with the proviso that the suggested song not have curse words, be derogatory, or reinforce oppression (kinda narrows it a bit). Also, you don’t even need to buy most songs because you can find almost anything on YouTube and play it for free.

Remind Your Students & Yourself Why You Are Teaching This Class

It’s easy to forget why you love teaching. It can be a tough slog at points during the semester, but remembering why you are passionate about your subject can rekindle your spirits. Take a moment and jot down why you were so excited for the opportunity to teach this course before the semester began, then go into your class and use your notes to rally the troops. One word of caution though, if you don’t truly feel it or you think you can’t deliver an impassioned speech, it may be better to skip sharing this with your class. A half-hearted rally cry can turn into a death knell.

Conclusion

I’m fairly sure that all of my readers “know” all the tips I am suggesting here. However, it is easy for all of us to get stuck in a routine, feel trapped, and forget that we have all the control we need to change things. There is a cruel irony that sociology teaches us that we all have the power we need to create change and overcome adversity and yet so many teachers can feel trapped by courses they have unilateral control over. If we can’t create change in the classroom what hope do we have to create change outside it?


Footnotes:

1. Actually I don’t know if all Buddhists feel this way, but one of my favorite Buddhists, Dan Benjamin, talks about this idea on his podcast Back to Work. I highly recommend it.

2. Another Buddhist maxim is “suffering is optional.”