Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answeris an easy to understand and thorough dismantling of the myth of common sense. The book intrigues it’s readers with a simple question; how is it that something we rely on so heavily can be so biased, unreliable, and fictitious? The single greatest barrier students have to learning sociology is their inability to let go of common sense and embrace empiricism. Watt’s book, more than any other I’ve read, focuses on the science of sociology and makes a strong, but measured1 case for using empiricism. Every sociology 101 student should read at least a portion of this book.

I will be using Watts’s book throughout the Soc101 Class Pack 2.0 especially early in the semester. While most textbooks think it’s really important that students know the names of long dead sociologists, I think it is far more useful to provide your students with the basic skills they need to start seeing and thinking like sociologists. Most textbooks’s early chapters are a parade of findings from studies done decades ago and these texts seem to assume that by reading findings students will learn the method of sociology which is like assuming you could infer a pig from looking at many varieties of sausage2. Having your students read the preface, chapter 1 (The Myth of Common Sense) and chapter 2 (Thinking on Thinking) will help them see how flimsy intuition and common sense are and once you’ve broken this mindset they will be ready for you to help them build a sociological mindset to replace it. This first portion of the book addresses many of the topics I’ve been talking about here on Sociology Source for a while. Confirmation bias, the fundamental attribution error, etc. are all covered brilliantly here. Furthermore there is a lot of great terminology, like “The Lake Wobegon Effect”, that can be recalled later in the semester when students stumble back into common sense thinking.

“So now what do I do?”

Typically the last chapter in a 101 textbook is horrible. After describing in depth all the social problems we face instead of telling the reader what they could do about them, textbooks frequently just talk about social change research and then abruptly stop. It’s no surprise that many students ask, “So now that I know all about these terrible social problems, what the hell do I do now to solve them?” Chapter 8 (The Measure of All Things) provides students with a clear and understandable description of how social scientists approach mitigating social problems. Watts provides multiple empirical approaches, but argues that good science doesn’t just measure it experiments. What he really means here, is that a good social scientists collect data and then adjust according to what their early findings suggest. Social scientists shouldn’t, he argues, imagine they understand what causes the social problem, but rather they should assume they don’t and remain open to the data as it emerges. I’ve done Watts a disservice by making my summation of his argument a tad opaque; Watts discussion is very clear and I believe any first year student could follow it. Watts also provides illustrative examples of 6 approaches to studying social problems and enacting solutions. This chapter shows students that social scientists do more than describe the doom and gloom of social problems. Social scientists here are shown changing and improving the world around them.

Applied isn’t a four letter word

While I know it isn’t very “academic” of me to say so, I think it’s important that what we teach our students has some practical value in their lives. Your students want to know why they should care about sociology, especially when it’s not their major area of study. Watts’s equally showcases the basic and applied research tracts of sociology. Portions of the book focus on sociological market research, public policy research, and even, gasp, marketing research. The book is often listed in the business/leadership section of online bookstores. While that typically makes me skeptical, Watt’s work deserves the attention of all sociologists and their students. Focusing on business applications of sociology doesn’t cheapen the discipline or this book, in fact it will draw in a wider audience of your students. Furthermore, if you believe that market applications aren’t “real sociology”, then you should have lots of straw men that you can knock down all semester long.

As the summer goes on, I will be providing some activities and assignments based on Everything Is Obvious as I plan on using excerpts from the book in almost all the courses I teach this fall.


Footnotes:

1. I say measured because Watts doesn’t over state the accuracy of empiricism. He acknowledges the limitations of what we can know empirically and provides countless examples of empirical studies that, while scientifically rigorous produced findings that were inaccurate, biased, and even sometimes, fictitious.

2. I can’t remember who I need to thank for the pig metaphor. If you know hook me up in the comments or contact me.

 

“How could I provide better customer service to my students?” This is the question I kept asking myself after reading Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh. Hsieh (pronounced like Shay) is the CEO of Zappos.com, an apparel company that is renowned for their dedication to serving customers. When I started the book I thought, “well this will be an interesting read, but I am lucky I don’t do customer service.” By the time I finished this book, my whole view of teaching changed. Hsieh’s work provides two worthwhile insights for teaching that I cover here. First, I argue that teachers do provide customer service and second, what makes people happy.

Providing Customer Service:
I reject the consumer model of teaching flatly. I am not an employee of my students. What happens in my classrooms is not a transaction. Good classes help students develop in personal and professional ways. Great teachers focus not only on the material, but on guiding students through a process of learning and personal growth. So before we can go any further with this discussion I need to disentangle customer service from consumerism and capitalism. A more useful definition of customer service, for teachers, is creating professional connections with students that acknowledge their humanity and uniqueness. Customer service then is the opposite of a teacher-student relationship where the only thing a teacher knows about the student is what their grade book tells them.

I can provide customer service to my students by knowing what their educational dreams are and directing them to resources that can help make them a reality. I can provide customer service by committing myself to learn each student’s name (currently I have ~200 students, FYI). I can provide customer service by learning each of my student’s names and at least knowing some basic information about them. Responding to email in a timely manner is customer service. Being in your office during office hours is customer service. Providing clear directions for all of your assignments and using rubrics when grading is customer service. Providing rich feedback on written work is customer service. I can provide customer service by avoiding terse language in emails and showing patience when I answer a question for the hundredth time.

How to make your students happier:
Making students happy is simultaneously something that many faculty would say is, “not my job” and other faculty would say is the holy grail they’ve been searching for their entire professional lives. You can’t make everyone happy, but in Hsieh’s book he reviews some of the basic findings happiness research provides. Psychologists of happiness find four main situational aspects that lead to happiness. 1) Perceived control, 2) Perceived progress, 3) Connectedness, and 4) Being part of something bigger than yourself. I’ve been thinking about ways I could structure my class to increase each of these.

Perceived Control
The clearer you can be with what you expect of your students the more control they will perceive. Clearly defined assignment directions and a clear syllabus are good steps in the right direction. Grading rubrics also promote student efficacy. I am also a big fan of providing my students with multiple options on any assignment. There is certainly more work in creating multiple assignment directions, but it’s nice to not have to grade 200 copies of the exact same project. Also, it lets students pick assignments that most interest them.

Perceived Progress
Giving your students timely feedback on graded work is the best way I can think of to promote a sense of progress. I, like many of you I’m sure, use an online grade book so that students can see their course grade in real time. I make it a priority to get feedback to my students within a week.

Connectedness
This is the toughest one for me. I am experimenting with creating a Facebook group page for my course, but I have found students don’t really communicate as much as I would like on the page. We can, of course, do group activities and small group discussions, but this isn’t enough for me. I think this is the aspect of happiness that if done right could pay the greatest dividends for us all.

Being part of something bigger than yourself
Sociology as a discipline lends itself well to connecting to the larger community outside your classroom. Local current events can bring sociological topics to vivid life. Service learning opportunities can literally take sociological concepts out of the classroom and into the “real world”. You can also create projects that require your students to take an activist stance in their community.

“But it’s not my job to provide customer service or make my students happy,” you may be saying. Agreed. It may not be your job, but it’s your opportunity. It’s your opportunity to bring your art to your audience in a way that will create a lasting meaningful change in their lives. It’s hard to do and the constraints we all face make it even more difficult, but this is what we should all be aspiring to.

What do you think? How do you provide customer service or set your class up to make your students happier? Tell us below in the comments.

Note to Readers: I thought we’d take a break from our normal posts to talk about a few recently released books and how they impact teaching and specifically my teaching philosophy. I want this to be an open discussion, so I have turned on the comments below. Alternatively you can email your thoughts to me at Nathan@sociologysource.com.

Recently I read two books that have changed my approach to teaching. The books Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh and Linchpin by Seth Godin are not about teaching or education really. They are about giving your art to the world. Godin’s book begs you to silence the voice of resistance inside you that wants you to hide your art. Hsieh’s book wants you to see that your happiness lies within your art and within those you give your art to. For the first part of this two part series I will focus on what I learned from Godin’s Linchpin and how it has changed my game. On Friday in part 2 I will focus on how we can create a happier classroom and increase our educational outcomes in the process.

The world needs your art:
I consider teaching my art (as I am sure many of you do). I spend almost my entire waking life thinking about ways to make my classes better. It’s my passion and some close to me may say my obsession. I call it my art not because I think my classes are so amazing; I have had amazing classes and I have had mediocre classes. I believe teaching is art when you can make connections with another human being. It is art when students leave class a changed person. When you breakdown the complex and esoteric so that students can understand it in simple terms, it’s art. I have never made a masterpiece yet, but like anyone who considers themselves an artist, I will be chasing it for the rest of my life.

You are an artist. The world needs you to believe in your art. Then the world needs you to share it with as many people as possible. This is the central message of Godin’s Linchpin. I don’t need to tell the readers of this blog that teaching sociology can change lives and be the catalyst for social change in your community. What an amazing and imposing opportunity this is. Thank you for taking this challenge. I am sure you don’t hear this enough.

What should we be teaching in our classrooms?
The most directly relevant part of Godin’s book is his discussion of what should be taught in classrooms at every level. Godin argues that there are two types of classes (read more about it here):

Type 1. You can take a class where you learn technique, facts and procedures.
Type 2. You can take a class where you learn to see, learn to lead and learn to solve interesting problems.

After reading this I had to take stock of what I am doing in my classes. I was working really hard to open students eyes to the larger world around them, but I wasn’t teaching them to lead and I wouldn’t say the problems I was having them solve were… interesting. I still don’t have all, let alone some, of the answers. Today I am just posing the questions.

For example if, like me, you give close book multiple choice tests then what are you preparing your students for? Is there ever a scenario in day to day life where a person has access to a whole bunch of useful information for solving a problem, but then at the moment when it is most needed it is taken away? How do you solve problems in your life? I use Google, research, books, colleagues, and anything else I can find. If this is your reality too, then why don’t we test students differently?

Another problem with multiple choice tests are they tend to test lower order learning. Multiple choice is great for testing definitions, facts, names, and dates, but it’s really hard to write multiple choice questions that ask students to apply concepts or evaluate problems. It can be done, but it rarely is.

I tell my students that when they are being interviewed for their future jobs the main thing the HR staff will be trying to figure out is, can this applicant lead and solve interesting problems. I am using “interesting problems” in the broadest sense possible here. They will not assess if the student can memorize a whole bunch of facts, names, and dates and then mind dump it on paper. That passive form of learning is useless in the larger world.

Working within our constraints:
“But I teach classes of 100 or more students.” I feel ya, I do too. Which makes teaching leadership and creative problem solving all the more challenging. However all art is created within constraints. Virtuoso artists thrive under constraints. Shakespeare flourished underneath the very tight constraints of sonnets.

The trend in higher education is for classes to get larger and larger. We can either complain about it and reminisce on better days or we can work within our constraints and deliver our art. Given that I’m a long way from retirement, I vote for the latter.

So what do you think? How are you getting your students to learn to see, lead, and solve interesting problems? How are you overcoming your constraints? Please feel free to comment below or email me directly at Nathan@sociologysource.com.