My Thoughts

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

This may be controversial and I may draw a fair amount of criticism from my techno-friendly teachers, but I don’t allow my students to use technology in the classroom. No cell phones, no laptops, nada. I am not technophobic. I have tons of gadgets, I research technology, I run a blog you may have heard of, so my objection to technology in the classroom is not borne out of ignorance. My concern is that students use technology to check out of my class and not to enhance it.

My first teaching gig was as a recitation instructor for a 250+ class. I sat in the very back of the class during every lecture and almost every screen was on Facebook or some other unrelated site. I know my students can’t stop themselves from surfing the web during class time, because I can smell my own. When I took a graduate methods course that required every student to be behind a laptop during lecture, I too couldn’t help myself. It would start innocently, I would look up the difference between grand mean centering and mean centering in Hierarchical Linear Modeling and next thing you know I would be reading about some D list celebrity news. If I can’t help myself how can I expect my students to?

You Are Not a Single Cell Organism

The above is what I tell my students on the first day of every one of my classes. I tell them that single cell organisms use osmosis to pull in what they need from the outside world. They, I tell them, are unable to absorb class information simply by showing up. I make the joke that if they were going to text their BFF, read a newspaper, or sleep during class they may as well do it in the comfort of their home. This isn’t a brow beating. I just try to be as honest and as non-judgmental as possible. They need to know how to set themselves up for success.

“Virtually all multitaskers think they are brilliant at multi-tasking and one of the big discoveries is, you know what, you’re really lousy at it. It turns out that multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking” -Dr. Clifford Nass (Timestamp: 10:40)

To help make my case I show them a recent PBS Frontline video that looked at how college students multitask at M.I.T. and Stanford. In both cases the students interviewed thought it was, “unfair” of teachers to deny students their technology because we “have to accept” that they are excellent multitaskers. Unfortunately for the very confident students in the video research suggests that most multitaskers are terrible at it. Watch the first 11 minutes of the video below to see both the interviews and the scientific research being done.

Teaching in a technology free environment comes with responsibilities. If you are going to demand your students undivided attention you owe it to them to provide a rich, interactive, and compelling class*. It’s not fair to demand all eyes on you and then drone on behind a podium reading prepared notes. If you are going to request the students be present then you have to do more than simply be present yourself. I have encountered faculty who believe they are “owed” the attention and respect of their students. While this may be true, this must be reciprocated back to the students. You “owe” them an outstanding education.

I have found that many students groan on the first day when I make them put away their laptops and cell phones, but after a few weeks they don’t seem to mind. If you can give your students a class that they are engaged in, they won’t miss their gadget distractions for long.

*To be clear I use technology in my classes all the time. Videos, websites, multi-media presentations, and music are a big part of what we do during class time.

Below is the blurb I add to every one of my syllabi:

Use of Personal Technology During Class
Because this class is highly interactive and your participation is important to its success, the use of personal laptops, iPods, and cell phones during class is prohibited.

Sociology courses and especially textbooks are very good at identifying and explaining social problems. But not so good at identifying solutions. Many students say in evals that they really want to talk about solutions.

I usually address solutions to social problems intermittently through out the semester, but the last week of classes I do nothing but talk about solutions. I want students to leave equipped and motivated to stand up to injustice where they encounter it. I have created a handout that I give my students called “Creating Change in Your Community”.

The focus of the handout is how the each student can make change in their own lives. While many students appreciate the discussion, some are displeased to find out that they have to personally act to create change. It seems some student where hoping for a program, piece of legislation that they could vote for, or some other external means to create change. I address this from the outset of the handout by talking about internal v. external locus of control. Somehow calling this tendency out by name makes it easier for students to let go.

In our class discussion I always address how hard it can be to take a stand against something you don’t believe in. To encourage students to be kind to themselves while they figure out how to put a voice to their beliefs I share with my students one of my all time favorite quotes from director David Mamet,

“Do not internalize the industrial model. You are not one of the myriad of interchangeable pieces but a unique human being and if you’ve got something to say, say it, and think well of yourself while you’re learning to say it better.”– David Mamet

To make speaking up even easier, I share with my students the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guide called “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry”. The guide is a sort of “playbook” that provides students with hundreds of potential scenarios and responses. There are sections on responding to bigotry in your family, at your job, at your school, or in public. This guide is full of useful and practical responses to bigotry. Each scenario begins with a real person’s story of how they encountered bigotry and how they responded. You owe it to yourself to take a look at this.

Get the Handouts Here
Creating Change in Your Community (pdf Version)
Creating Change in Your Community (Word Version)

Flickr:~My Aim Is True~

Why do you get paid to teach sociology? Why is that of value? Why do many colleges require that their seemingly unrelated majors, like physics, take a sociology course?

Sociology is required because being able to see how social systems affect individuals is supremely valuable skill. Empathy, acceptance, and understanding all start by being able to understand the position of another and you can not understand another without acknowledging the difference in their lived experiences. Empathy, acceptance, and understanding are the keys to closing a sale, building an alliance, and achieving your goals in the face of opposition. Those who have these skills will be better citizens, business people, and have a richer, more meaningful life.

So it only makes sense that students are falling over themselves to get as much out of your classes as possible, right?

Many of us have found that our students are not as excited by sociology as we are. On the first day many students see no value in the class, beyond the fulfillment of a college requirement and being one step closer to graduation. Some, maybe even most, have heard that sociology is “an easy A”. Why is there such a discrepancy between the obvious value sociology educators see in our courses and the minimal value students may possible see?

Barriers in Students’ Minds

I think I can answer both why sociology is required and why students tend to not see value in a sociology course. Sociology is the study of seeing beyond the individual to the social or the systematic. This is something that for many of our students they have been systematically taught to ignore, minimize, and devalue. A system oriented explanation of personal suffering (whether economic, educational, or political) is seen as playing the “blame game”. It is a sign of weakness and the shrugging of responsibility in many social circles. Part of being socialized in the United States means being prescripted with all of the explanations and justifying rationales one would need to disregard any systematic analysis of the world that conflicts with their present individual centered world view.

Part of being socialized in the United States means being prescripted with all of the explanations and justifying rationales one would need to disregard any systematic analysis of the world that conflicts with their present individual centered world view.

Many students have a strongly wall barrier in their minds that prevents them from even considering how social systems affect themselves or others. For many students the individual or “personal responsibility” logic is extremely compelling and the wall in their mind is a immoveable barrier, a fortress wall. Students are comfortable living behind this wall. It may be all they’ve ever known. In my experience students of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, and education levels can potentially suffer from this Balkanization of the mind*.

So then the answer is, sociology is an extremely valuable skill that many of us have a very hard time acquiring. You are paid to help students identify the barriers they have created for themselves and encourage them to break through it. I say encourage because you can not force students to do anything they don’t want to.

From this vantage point students who challenge the sociological arguments and evidence you present are not being obstinate or “jerks” as I have heard some call them. Students are defending the walls they’ve created in their minds with the tools society has preloaded them with. Students are not necessarily being “disrespectful” to you, they may be experiencing cognitive dissonance by trying to hold onto their old world view while trying accept or consider the new opposing world view you are presenting them. That is how you can present a obvious and logical argument supported by clear evidence to students and they can dismiss it out of had. Your students are also certainly not unintelligent or incapable of learning sociology. Teachers with this vantage point can work from a place of sympathy, understanding, and patience.

Breaking Through

You are not responsible for shattering the barriers in your students minds. You need only put a single crack in the wall. Over time, as the students gain more perspective or as the things you have taught your students pop out at them, pressure will build against that barrier and eventually the crack you placed will spider out. Then the immoveable barrier, the fortress wall, will shatter like glass and students will cross over to a new perspective of the world. This may be years after your class. You may never see it. Regardless, when you evaluate your effectiveness as a teacher it can not be in terms of what percent of the class broke through and “got it”. Be respectful of the process and kinder to yourself.

*It should be noted that all of us have to one degree or another this prescripting. And all of us, including you and I, are responsible for continuous critical self-evaluation and dismantling the wall were we find it.