Resources for Teachers

The excellent teaching idea and resource below is from Tressie McMillan Cottom one of the brightest sociological minds on the Internet. If you’re not already following her on Twitter (@tressiemcphd) you should be, she’s prolific and always thought provoking. And if it isn’t already abundantly clear, I’m a huge fan of hers. This teaching activity was first published on her blog and she graciously agreed to share it with us.

I mentioned before that I try to push my pedagogy beyond what worked for me as a student.

I am teaching “Class, Status, and Power” this Spring. It is a basic sociology stratification course. This term I will experiment with offering alternatives to The Paper. I am starting with a platform I am most comfortable with: blogging. I know it is not a huge stretch from the essay but I think it is different in important ways. First, it redefines audience for student-writers. Second, students can leverage talents/skills in visual storytelling in ways that they cannot with written essays. Third, in a nod to the reality of the neo-liberal environment I always try to draw explicit connections for students between sociology and applied, marketable skills.

However, you’ll notice that there is still a traditional, much-maligned “term paper” that all students must write. My current position is that diversifying the writing abilities of students is not the same as abolishing one form for another. Writing a clear argument without the benefit of media is still a valuable skill. I believe it engages different types of thinking and reasoning processes that are more valuable, not less, as digital writing ascends in popular culture. I may evolve on that. For now, my typical student at Emory intends to go to graduate or professional school. I do not think we need one more credentialed financial wizard or scientist that cannot tell a clear story using words on a piece of paper. But that is so judgey of me. I own that.

In this blogging assignment I benefited a great deal from work shared online by Brian Croxall, Mark Sample and Jade E. Davis. It seemed only fair that I pay that forward by sharing the current draft of the blogging assignment I have written for my class. I welcome any feedback, especially from you pedagogical superstars that have toyed around with these things for awhile.

Download SOC 214 Critical Analysis Blog Guidelines

“Breakfast for boobs!” I heard a young woman in a bright pink shirt yell as I walked across campus last week. “Bagels for boobies!” her compatriot shouted. The glittery sign on their table advertised “$5 bagel boobz with pink strawberry cream cheese”. I was torn. Part of me was proud of the students for being activists, but another part of me was deeply troubled by the exuberant, cheery, and strangely sexualized way they were framing breast cancer.

But let’s be clear this “Bagels for boobs” fundraiser is not out of the norm of breast cancer awareness campaigns. There are countless T-shirts with pithy sexualized slogans such as “Save the Tatas”, “Save a Life Grope Your Wife”, and Boobies Rock!“ just to name a few. If there was a ever an opportunity to ”see the familiar as strange" and find the sociology hiding just below the surface, I think this is it.

Questions to Ask Your Students

I think we owe it to our students to question in our classes breast cancer awareness campaigns like these. Isn’t it down right bizarre that we sexualize a disease that kills thousands of women[1] each year? Is it really okay to objectify women in the service of raising money and awareness for said disease?

And while we are at it, do we really still need to be raising awareness? Can you think of any two things that Americans are more aware of than breasts and cancer? I know enough of the the history of breast cancer to know that there was a time when we didn’t publicly talk about it and we shamed women with breast cancer into silence, but this has largely changed because of breast cancer movements and activists. Raising awareness of an issue is the first step. It is what nascent movements are preoccupied with. Hasn’t the breast cancer movement graduated out of this phase? If you answer yes, then why do campaigns like these dedicate so much time, energy, and money toward raising awareness?

I ask my students these questions, not to demonize anyone, but rather to invite them to critically think about social movements, patriarchy, and the objectification of women’s bodies. Many of my students, friends, and family members care deeply about breast cancer and are passionate about supporting women with breast cancer and working to find a cure. And it’s precisely because they are so passionate that I think they would welcome a discussion about the effectiveness of the movement. If you care about these issues, as I do, then we should want to maximize the amount of impact our actions have on the issue.

Excellent Resources

There are loads of great resources that you can use to prime your students for a critical analysis of breast cancer awareness campaigns. First and foremost is the book and film Pink Ribbons, Inc.

In addition Sociological Images has two posts that I think students can really sink their teeth into:

  1. We should also note that men die of breast cancer each year as well.  ↩

It all started with such a simple question. “What are the rules parents follow when they pick a name for their child,” I asked a sea of students with my hands on my hips at the front of the movie theater I teach my Soc 101 class in. “Start by writing down your thoughts and in a moment we’ll share them with each other.” When most of the class was pens down, I asked them to discuss in pairs the rules they’d written down.

“Okay, so tell me what you think parents think about when naming their kiddos.” Hands snapped into the air. I pointed at a young woman with curly brown hair and nodded to give her the floor. “I think parents want names that sound employable.” My eyebrows raised and my jaw dropped and in a I’m-playing-dumb-voice I asked, “what ever do you mean?” Students laughed. Students writhed in their seats. “Some names are more employable than others? If that’s true, then give me some examples of ‘employable sounding names’,” I said using air quotes. A choir of voices shot out answers rapid fire.


Hands in the air I cut them off, “Hold on a second. I’m seeing a couple of trends in this list. First, not a darn one of them is a traditionally female name. You know women work too, right?” They laugh seeing the smile on my face. “But what else do all of these names have in common?” Before I could even finish the question, a young man near the front row shouted, “They’re white people names!”

“So if employable names all sound like ‘white people names’, then what does this tell us? Put another way, a conflict theorist would ask ‘who benefits from this’, so tell me who benefits from this?” From here you can teach students just about any sociological concept you want: social privilege, internalized racism, the dominant culture, symbolic violence, non-material culture, patriarchy, the glass ceiling/escalator, symbolic interaction, how personal decisions are affected by social forces, labeling theory, institutional discrimination, hegemony, and on and on. It’s a swiss army knife of an activity.

Instead of asking my students this simple question, I could have shown them the research on name discrimination in hiring by Bertrand and Mullainthan (2004)[1]. I could have told them that this was a real issue, but instead they told me it was issue. The list of names they generated revealed to them something about themselves that they might have been unaware of. I could have told them that, as we all do, they personally struggled with racism and sexism, but instead their actions confessed this publicly.

In English 101 the saying is “show, don’t tell,” and in Pedagogy 101 the saying is, “the one doing the work is the one doing the learning.” This activity works on both levels.


Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainthan. 2004. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination” The American Economic Review 94(4):991–1013.

  1. Don’t get me wrong, it’s vital that they do learn about the empirical research that’s been done, but I don’t think you want to lead with that. Make them want to know more about name discrimination, then show them the research.  ↩

I used to be a huge advocate for instituting hard and fast ground rules for class discussions. I used to spend the last third of my first class of the semester going over the rules with my students. I used to… then I read this:

If a goal of conversations about equity and social justice is to challenge current structures and assumptions, we must look closely at all guidelines we use in our classes and workshops, asking ourselves who they support and who, if anybody, they privilege. As such, many educators and facilitators have begun to rethink the idea of ground rules and ways they currently are implemented.

– Paul C. Gorski

It smacked me like a cold fish across the face. I was using the guidelines to keep me comfortable; they were there to fortify my authority. Being a member of the dominant culture in just about every possible way, when something keeps me comfortable it often points like a weathervane toward social power. Ground rules have a way of being a form of symbolic violence; a subtle hegemonic force used to press the dominant culture’s norms and values upon every student. It’s a quiet way of reminding every student in the room, “who’s in charge around here”.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think that some form of classroom decorum is needed for optimal student learning. I am not suggesting that a norm-less class is ideal or even possible. But if you give your students the ground rules for discussion like a royal decry, don’t be surprised if the your students think you come off like a dictator.

Setting Expectations Instead of Ground Rules

When you come to my class I want you to know that this is a safe learning environment where it’s okay to be wrong (i.e. factually inaccurate), it’s okay to disagree with someone, and it’s okay to be totally baffled or overwhelmed by sociology. Instead of having firm rules in place, I want you to know what you should and shouldn’t expect when we are having class discussions. Instead of having rules for discussion, I ask my students to help me create a list of things they should expect in classroom discussions and a corresponding list of things they should not expect.[1] Below is a list my class recently collected.

List of What to Expect Slide 1
List of What to Expect Slide 1

– Download a word document version of expectations here –

Lots of sources have suggested that instead of instilling ground rules by fiat, you should instead have your students design them. I like this idea and have had a great deal of success with this approach myself. During the first week of class have your students brainstorm ideas in small groups and then as a class work together to synthesize the list. This is a great opportunity for students to meet one another, form connections, and practice working together. Plus your students are far more likely to “buy in” to the class expectations if they played a role in creating them. Furthermore, you can role model good discussion behavior as you work with your students to identify themes and reword them. You can also have a profound impact on the final product by asking students to elaborate on their suggestions.

Is this the right approach? Dunno. Does it solve all of the problems I’ve identified with ground rules? I think not. But this is a step in the right direction. If you finish this piece unconvinced, I hope you’ll still join me (and the many other scholars doing work in this area) in thinking more about how the social structures of our classes reflect and recreate the inequality created by the social structures we teach within.

As a discipline we implore our students to look critically at the world they live in and ask “who benefits from this?” It seems reasonable that our students should expect as much from us.

  1. I give all credit for the idea of expectation setting to my friend and renowned educator, Dr. Breyan Haizlip. This is just one of the many ways she has made me a better teacher.  ↩

If you’ve given a student[1] an F on a paper before (especially a low F), then I’m willing to bet you’ve got an email like this before. There have been times when I’ve given students less than 20% on a term paper because they missed nearly all of the key points and turned in a paper well short of the expectations outlined in the directions. Every time I hand back a paper with an abysmal score, I brace for impact.

Recently, I had a paper go bad. For one reason or another a couple of students received dramatically low grades. Despite my best attempts to preempt the angry emails, they still came. As I read through them, I noticed a couple of patterns. First, my students’ protests tended to focus on circumstances that were at best tangential to paper or grade. They spoke of the dire outcomes that would result if they didn’t get a particular grade. Others told me how hard they tried; often by quantifying the number of hours they poured into the paper.

Second, the students almost never challenged my interpretations of their work or tried to rebuttal my critiques of their arguments. In a sense they were saying, “I may have missed all of the key points as you claim, but I worked too hard to get this few points.” Then it hit me, these students received a poor grade because they didn’t show any critical thinking in their paper and now, upset with their grade, they still didn’t critically think about their paper or the feedback I had for them.

So here’s how I replied to this email and how I will reply from here on when I get a similarly angry email:

When students fail a paper, it’s often because they failed to critically think. Maybe they didn’t understand the concepts. Maybe they didn’t give themselves enough time to write their paper. Or maybe they didn’t do the course readings the paper was based on. But for whatever reason, they failed to critically think about the assigned topic you gave them.

With this approach I am inviting my students to make a second attempt at critical thinking. From here I can recoup the learning opportunity they missed. I can also turn what might be a volatile situation into a learning situation.

Download the text of my email message.

  1. The email above is completely fictionalized based on years of reading similar emails. In the spirit of protecting my students privacy, I will be intentionally vague when discussing my students’ work.  ↩

In fact, there is.

Student Saying, WHAT!?!

It’s begging season. Around this time of year students across the country get desperate. I teach between 300–500 students every semester. So any crazy life situation that only happens to 1 in 500 students, happens in my class… every semester. Even students with mundane explanations for their poor performance can ruin your day after they tell you all of the dire things that will happen to them once you submit their D or F. It’s awful. I became a teacher to help students achieve their dreams, not to see them fall away from them. It’s excruciating for me.

If you’ve taught more than one semester, you’ve had to deal with situations like this. Given how much I hate the social awkwardness of student begging, I’ve developed a 2 phase approach.

Phase 1: Inform Them Early

Two weeks before the end of the semester I run the grades for the class in Excel.[1] Then I sort the grades and get the names/emails of everyone who has a 74% or below. All of these students get an email that informs them that they are “at risk” of earning a D or below and what they can do right now to improve their grade. See below and download the text of the email here.

Low Grade Email

Phase 2: Preempt the Begging

On the day that final grades are posted I send a class wide email thanking the students for a great semester and letting them no that there is no point to even asking for additional assignments or freebie points (or what I call “Just ’Cause Points”). I really tried to frame the email as a positive and explain that my unwillingness to change anyone’s grade stems from my desire to treat everyone in the class fairly. See below and download the text of the email here.

My plan isn’t fool proof and I still get a fair amount of emails from students that start with, “I know that you said you wouldn’t give out any extra makeup points, but I just can’t fail your course!” But, I get a lot less with my proactive approach.

  1. To make this grade book double useful, create 4 columns using Excel to calculate how many points it would take each student to earn an A, B, C, and D. That way if a student asks, "Is it possible for me to get a(n) _ grade you can quickly look and tell them.  ↩

I write a blog about teaching sociology. Did you know that? That has occasionally made me the lighting rod for questions from publishers and other technological pedagogical entrepreneurs. Almost always here’s how the interaction goes, “We really want to recreate the textbook but with [insert latest gizmo, web service, etc.]” or they ask me…

“How would you use Twitter to deliver a textbook?”

“What would you do if all of your students had iPads?”

“Imagine a world where the classroom was just a Facebook group. How would that revolutionize your lectures?”

Questions like these make me think they don’t get it.

Film making technology was supposed to revolutionize the theater. Now people as far away as Podunk Nebraska would be able to have the stars of the stage brought to a screen near them. Some of the first films ever made were recordings of stage plays with a fixed camera position and almost no cuts. For many the first inclination with the new film technology was to do barely anything more than reproduce the old. This phenomenon which I call “filming stage plays”[1] is time and again the first inclination of early adopters and the industries that try to capitalize on them.

All of this is to preface my take on using Twitter in the classroom with the challenge I presented myself. I wanted to find a way to introduce Twitter in a way that would add a dynamic to my class that was not otherwise be possible.

(Download my directions here)

Twitter for Discussion Questions: Why

Students in my social problems course were required to read a series of recent publications like The New Jim Crow, Academically Adrift, and some older publications like, The Rich Get Rich and the Poor Get Prison. Before each class meeting students were required to read all of the class discussion questions and tweet a unique discussion question of their own. Too often when I’ve asked students to write discussion questions in the past, all of the questions focus on either the text’s main idea or whatever is covered on the first few pages of the assigned reading. Tweeting discussion questions made it easy for students to see what had been asked already and create helped them novel questions.

I also encouraged my students to tweet questions in response to another students question. So when one student asked a question that was off the mark or not accurately representing the reading, their peer could point this out and suggest improvements. For the first few weeks not a single student did this, but as they got to know each other these types of interactions became more common. Students teaching students is rad.

Using twitter also made it easy for students to bring in outside media. It was not uncommon for a student to tweet the link to a related YouTube video or news story. Students also took photos of stories in our local paper and attached them to their discussion questions.

How Twitter is More Than a Discussion Board

Twitter shines for its ease of use, near ubiquitous availability (presuming an internet connection), and the promotion of dialogue. On the flip side, discussion boards are opaque with their nested conversations and hard to access (the LMS our university was using at the time had almost no mobile interface). To read each entry in a discussion board you have to click next and reload a page. On twitter all you need do is scroll your mouse or flick your finger across a touchscreen.

During class I used a Twitter widget to have all of the students tweeted questions continuously scrolling on the screen at the front of the room. Discussion boards can’t do that.

Twitter for Discussion Questions: How

To pull your student’s questions from the maelstrom of tweets you need to create two unique identifiers (what Twitter calls hashtags). I assume if you’ve read this far you know a little about Twitter, but a hashtag is a way to signify what your tweet is related to and also a way to sort tweets. So, for example you could search for #Sociology, as I did above, and see all of the tweets that include that hashtag and are in some way related to sociology.

I used one hashtag for my class (#gsusp)[2] and then another unique hashtag for each days reading questions. For instance, when we were discussing Academically Adrift the first day students would include the hash tags #gsusp #aad1 in their questions. The second day of that text it was #gsusp #aad2 and so on. This made it easy for students to see all of the questions ever created for our class ( by searching twitter for #gsusp) and for any specific day (by searching twitter for aad1). If you’re new to Twitter, hashtags can sound sort of crazy, but it doesn’t take long for their utility to become clear.

Twitter for Discussion Questions: Issues

Don’t fall for the “digital native” stereotype, 18–20 year olds can be technophobic too. During the first week when I unveiled my plans to use Twitter multiple students audibly groaned and some seemed panicked. In my anecdotal experience, the few “non-traditional” students were either familiar with twitter or trusted that they could figure it out. If you go down this route, you should plan for some resistance and for some extra time to guide students through the process. That said, by week 3 all of the issues were resolved and it was smooth sailing.

Tweets disappear fast. Twitter is about the present moment, so it shouldn’t surprise you that they don’t keep a publicly available/searchable record of tweets. Some of my students tweeted their questions well in advance and then when I did the hashtag search, their questions wouldn’t show up. Now you can go to the individual students twitter account and scroll down to find their tweet, but that can be fairly time consuming if students tweet a lot.

Many students had privacy concerns. They didn’t want me to see their personal twitter messages, even though they are by default publicly available. To their surprise, I too didn’t want to read their personal tweets. I encouraged all of my students to create a twitter account just for this class. Accounts are free, so that’s not an issue.


Like all new technologies Twitter affords new opportunities, solves old problems, and creates new ones. I’m not sure if my implementation of Twitter in the classroom is the best, but I think I was able to do more than “film stage plays”.

  1. This may be a saying used by more people in different industries and I picked it up from them. I claim no ownership of the saying. It’s just a handy way to denote a useful idea.  ↩

  2. gsusp = Georgia Southern University Social Problems

Question: Would you like it if most your students came to class having completed the assigned reading? Would you like it if they came to class with detailed notes so they could engage with their classmates better in discussions? Finally would you like to have a detailed outline of all of the reading you assign in your classes?

Well than do I have the assignment for you.

I have had amazing success with requiring my students to turn in notes covering the week’s reading (Download Direction Here)[1]. The notes have to be in outline form and, as I tell them, “need to be written as if the reader had never seen the text.” The notes are graded for their clarity and coverage of the topics in the text. Because these are weekly notes and I want to be able to grade them quickly, I created a check mark grading scheme that allows me to use a rubric with ease.

I incentivize the reading notes by allowing them to use them on both the essay midterm and final. “Think of your reading notes as a cheat sheet in a time capsule,” I tell my classes. I sign the front page of the students notes and then only allow notes that have my signature to be used on the test to try and dissuade students from creating other cheat sheets.

“How Long Should My Notes Be”

Reading notes are great because they teach students how to curate information. We live in a society that is awash with information. Consumption is often free or cheap, understanding is less available, but curation is the rarest of all. Our students will work in an information economy that pays people to shift through the haystack for needles. I stress the vocational value of this assignment to my students because they are likely to see reading notes as a “busy work” drudgery.

I tell my students that their challenge is to separate the hay from the needles. If they turn in notes that are so detailed and overfilled with information, I give them a grade similar to if they had turned in barely anything at all[2] Synthesizing information is a skill that students struggle with, this assignment fosters it.

Crowdsourced Class Notes

The by product of this assignment is a crowdsourced outline of your class texts. Last year it occurred to me that I could use my students’ reading notes to fill out my class notes. Each week I took the best reading notes and paired them with my class/lecture notes to create a top notch outline of what we read that week and what I wanted my students to learn. Now that I am teaching Social Change for the second time, I have found my class notes invaluable.

I’m not always able to reread all of the assigned readings for a given week, nor do I always need to (some of these texts I’ve read and taught more than a dozen times). Having a “CliffsNotes” guide on what we are reading and what I want my students to take from it, allows me to spend time thinking up new class activities and experiences. Put another way, my notes help me quickly re-remember WHAT I want my students to learn, so that I can spend most of my time focusing on HOW they will learn it.

(Psst… if you like this activity and want to hear more about it, check out The Sociological Source Podcast Ep 11. Chris & I talk about it in some depth.)

  1. I want to thank Dr. Susan Wortmann at Nebraska Wesleyan University for giving me this idea. She used this assignment, in a different way, in her graduate social theory course that I took from her. She was one of my best teachers, so stealing from her only makes sense.  ↩

  2. Side Note: you should see the looks on my overachieving students when they get a low grade on their 16 page reading notes. They never think I’m actually going to down grade them until I do.  ↩

Last Friday Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln opened in limited release. I haven’t seen the film, but I intend to because I want to see which Lincoln will be featured on screen.

I have known many Lincolns throughout my life. When I was a young child I was told that Lincoln freed the slaves and was one of the country’s greatest heroes. As a teen I was told that Lincoln was actually a shrewd diplomat who only freed the slaves to undercut the Confederacy. In college I was introduced to a much darker version of Lincoln; one who was a white supremacist and no civil rights hero at all. How can this be? How can there be so many versions of the same man? How can they be so polarized? Who is the real Abraham Lincoln?

It wasn’t until I read Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995) by James Loewen that everything clicked into place. In case you’ve not been exposed to the book yet, Loewen’s book is a content analysis of high school history textbooks. Loewen set out to find what is and is not being taught in schools in the U.S.

Loewen’s argument is far too nuanced for me to recount it here, but I’ll try to encapsulate it. The Lincoln our high schoolers read about is a vaunted hero who freed the slaves, but at the same time he was a shrewd politician who was not so much anti-slavery as he was concerned with holding the country together. As evidence Loewen points to an oft printed decontexualized quote from a letter Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union…

This sounds damning to be sure, but if we add the sentence that Lincoln wrote just after this sentiment, a more complex version of the man emerges.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

Without that last sentence it’s easy to see how both white supremacists and Black activists could argue Lincoln was a supremacist underneath it all. This is not to say that Lincoln really was the civil rights hero the history books make him out to be. Lincoln at some points in his life advocated white supremacy, while at other times he fought against systemic oppression.

I can’t do Loewen’s book or even the chapter dealing with Lincoln justice. I hope that this brief discussion of it will encourage you to read it for yourself if you haven’t already.

The film Lincoln, Loewen’s book, and the version of Lincoln living in your students’ minds is an opportunity to discuss a whole host of sociological issues. From the social construction of reality to the hegemonic aspects of education, Lincoln is an invitation to a show your students how sociology permeates through our history and our present.

The Lorax
The Lorax speaks for the trees, but does anyone else?

I participated in a research project that analyzed all 292 Caldecott Award winning and honoree books from 1938–2008. Our goal was to document the messages children were receiving about the natural environment and the animals in it. Put concisely, we found over time a decline in images of the natural environment and subsequently a decrease in the presentation of wild animals. Our findings suggest that the setting of children’s picture books have moved in doors (Williams, Podeschi, Palmer, Schwadel, Meyler[1] 2012).

Children’s picture books are particularly straightforward in their moral messages, therefore they are ripe for a content analysis. Many other researchers have analyzed Caldecott books to see if they have reflected changes in culture, for instance Pescolido, Grauerholz, and Milkie (1997)[2] looked at the presentation of African Americans before and after the civil rights movement.

Teaching Content Analysis

The near ubiquity of Caldecott books in public libraries paired with the straightforward messaging inside them, make it easy for teachers everywhere to have their students perform a content analysis similar to the one we published. I’ve found that content analysis is an great way to teach research methods, cultural production, and media messaging. Students consume media all day, but they are rarely asked to stop, analyze it systematically, and then draw conclusions based on the data they collected.

I’ve put together an assignment that asks students to find a Caldecott book, perform a simplified version of the analysis we performed in our research, and analyze their findings. This is a very rudimentary assignment that would work well for a high school or university level intro to sociology class. It could also be easily adapted for more advanced classes.

Download the assignment directions here: Word | Pdf
Download the “Calldecott Data Entry Sheet” portion of the assignment here: Excel.

  1. Williams, J. Allen Jr., Christopher Podeschi, Nathan Palmer, Philip Schwadel, Deanna Meyler. 2012. “The Human-Environment Dialog in Award-winning Children’s Picture Books” Sociological Inquiry 82(1):145–159  ↩

  2. Pescosolido, Bernice A., Elizabeth Grauerholz, and Melissa A. Milkie. 1997. ‘‘Culture and Conflict: The Portrayal of Blacks in U.S. Children’s Picture Books Through the Mid-and Late-Twentieth Century.’’ American Sociological Review 62:443–64.  ↩