Resources for Teachers

“The world isn’t fair and it’s never going to be so what’s the point of whining about inequality,” so goes the ballad of the paralyzed student. Student paralysis is the second common reaction to discussions of inequality discussed in Nancy Davis’s article Teaching About Inequality Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage1. It is easy for a discussion of inequality to turn into a doom and gloom session. Even when you are careful to include examples of positive social change, students can be overwhelmed by the complexity and severity of inequality and throw their hands in the air.

There is also an element of privilege in play here. Privileged students who become aware of their privilege may react by saying, “it has and always will be this way,” because doing so absolves them from feelings of guilt and playing helpless neutralizes any responsibility they may have felt to stand up for equality. Furthermore, playing helpless to inequality allows the privileged to continue enjoying their spoils while helplessness among the unprivileged is a resignation to a life of disadvantage.

Dealing with Paralysis

When students despair they often become fatalistic. They are saying in a sense, “we are screwed. What’s the point of even trying?” In these instances I suggest running with their fatalism. Bounce back with, “you know what you’re right, what is the point? The one thing we always know for sure is that things will always stay the way they are now. We are all victims of our circumstances. Never in history has a disadvantaged group ever fought against the power in society to secure a better life for themselves. We’re doomed, so let’s just call it a day and we’ll pick up on this next time…” Without fail someone in the class will say, “No that’s not right! There are lots of examples of the disadvantaged fighting the powerful.” At this point all you need to do is get out of the way and let the non-fatalistic students teach their fatalistic peers a new way of seeing the world. The beauty of this trick is that you don’t fight against your students despair, but rather you use their logic against itself. Students seem to only want to be fatalistic up to a point.

Structuring Your Class to Avoid Paralysis

Teaching social problems inspires despair. Teaching students social activism inspires them to create social change. All discussions of inequality must be paired with a discussion of what is possible and historical examples of social movements and social change that reduced inequality. When we talk about how powerful political actors use their money and social influence to shape the laws in their favor, I also talk about how a loosely networked group of young people led a successful campaign against big tobacco- who at the time was as entrenched as any political power could be.

In my social problems classes I have them select a social problem at the beginning of the semester and over the course of the semester analyze it’s social causes. The culmination of my social problems class is an assignment that requires my students to carry out some form of social action that creates positive change for the social problem in our community. The students are then free to come up with any solution they can imagine. This forces the students to empower themselves and see that they can create social change. I’ve had students lead letter writing campaigns, create pamphlets on drunk driving and local resources for students dealing with alcoholism, and even had students form a student organization to end human trafficking and slavery. Assignments like these show students what they are capable of and mobilize paralyzed classes.


1. Davis, Nancy J. 1992. “Teaching about Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage” Teaching Sociology 20(3) Pp. 232-238.

Why is teaching inequality so hard? The Teaching Sociology article Teaching about Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage by Nancy J. Davis1 identifies three common student reactions to discussion about inequality. This article is tremendous and should be required reading for all sociology teachers. It is also approachable enough that I assign it to my 101 students at the start of the semester to prepare them for the emotions that they may feel over the course of the semester. I’ve talked about the ideas in this article over numerous posts, but the article is so influential that I wanted to focus on it more directly here. This week I will discuss the first (and in my experience most common) reaction, resistance, and next I’ll discuss paralysis and fear.


When physics teachers explain Newton’s laws of motion none of their students say, “Bull. Of course you’d say that. You are biased because of your _.” They just dutifully write it down and try to learn it for the test. After speaking with my physicist friends, they told me that no student has ever stormed out of their classroom in disgust. No student has asked if they could skip a particular chapter because they have a religious objection to it. For some reason sociology instructors aren’t afforded the same luxuries.

Sociology often challenges what students believe is a matter of common sense. When they come to class they are presented empirical arguments that tell them the world is not how they “know for sure” that it is. If physics told it’s students that gravity actually makes things fall upward; it just looks like things are falling to the ground because of your biased worldview then physicists would know a sociologist’s pain.

Students have a vested interest in their worldview. They have used it to make all of their decisions up to now and if they accept what you are teaching they must accept that their worldview is fundamentally flawed and they will have to reexamine everything they’ve been taking for granted. Self-affirming worldviews that inoculate us from feeling any responsibility for the social problems that surround us are SUPER convenient and comfortable. To let them go is frightening. Furthermore, these worldviews tell their holder that they are a good person who does what’s right and that they see the world as it is. If you challenge that you are creating a cognitive dissonance in their head and many students will resist what you have to say.

Resistance in the classroom has many manifestations, but the most common one is the denial of empirical evidence simply because, “that can’t be true”. Resistant students often challenge every idea you present in class, they challenge your credibility, and they try to win other students over to their way of thinking. I love engaging with my students and I don’t want them to dutifully write down what I say as though I am an expert, but if a student and I have gone back and forth in class with the same idea more than 3 times I start to look for the resistance. Often times students are completely unaware of their resistance and they see it as healthy skepticism. However, you have to make clear early in your semester that skepticism is demanding empirical rigor and applying critical thinking. Resistance is denying evidence you believe to be accurate simply because you need it not to be true.

Managing Resistance

When a student seems unwilling to accept or even consider sociological ideas it is often enough simply to ask them, “You seem to be unwilling to accept that this could even be possible. You seem to want this not to be true. Can you tell me why you don’t want this to be true?” This helps students turn their hypercritical energies toward their own thinking. If students are ready to grow they will see their biases, assumptions, and the emotions preventing them from considering that what you are telling them could be true. They almost certainly won’t have an “aha!” moment in class, but you set the stage for them to have it later, when they are ready.

Dealing with resistant students is also a great time for a think-pair-share. Ask your class to write down their answers to these questions, “What would it mean if it (the sociological idea you are teaching) was true? Just for a moment pretend that it is and write down what that would mean. How would you see the world around you differently and what would you do differently?” Give your students 5 minutes to write down their answers, then have them dialogue with their neighbor about it, and finally use their writing to start a class discussion. This is beneficial in two ways. First, if one student is being resistant to an idea you can bet that they have peers in the classroom who agree with them. Second, resistant students often assume that how they see the world is identical to how everyone else in the class does. Allowing their peers to challenge their thinking removes some of the onus from your shoulders and resistant students may be more willing to listen to challenges from their peers.

Lastly, and this is true for paralysis, rage, and resistance, just by discussing these common reactions you give your students the eyes to identify when these situations arise and the words to name them. After reading this article in my class I’ve had students during a classroom discussion spontaneously say to their peer, “it sounds like you are experience resistance. Why do you think that is?” When you give your students the tools to deal with resistance, paralysis, and rage they will self-police one another and everyone learns from it.


1. Davis, Nancy J. 1992. “Teaching about Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage” Teaching Sociology 20(3) Pp. 232-238.

Meadow Run

You are charged with deciding the fate of Washford Meadows. A sleepy poor farming community of less than 200 people who have lived 2 hours outside of Metro Atlanta on family farms that have been passed down for generations. This land is some of the most pristine wilderness the state of Georgia has left to protect or at least that is what the wealthy urbanites of Atlanta, who are pushing for the state park to be created wrote on the marketing pamphlets. However, the residents of Washford Meadows have refused to sell and it appears that if a state park is to be created the government will have to use eminent domain 1 laws to take the land from the residents and they’ll only be compensated a 1/3 of value that their land is currently appraised at. You are selected by the governor of Georgia to decide Washford Meadows fate. You must chose to protect the wilderness by turning it into a state park using eminent domain or you may chose to let the residents of Washford Meadows keep their lands and leave the wilderness unprotected. Be prepared to defend your choice.

This is the conundrum I present my students in my environmental sociology class. Conundrums are an excellent teaching tool because they force students to own their value hierarchy and it represents a more real life situation where at least one party has to lose2. Furthermore, no matter what answers your students give you can always devil’s advocate against them making this a great small group exercise. The valuable environmental sociology lessons that are easy to pull out of student’s answers are the social construction of “wilderness”, the connection between humans and the natural world, and the role inequality plays in environmental policy.

Inherent in the plan to turn Washford Meadows into a state park is the idea that nature worth saving lies outside of urban areas. That nature is something “out there” that urbanites have to drive to go see. This loaded idea makes it easier for city dwellers to litter, dump oil in sewage systems, and any other type of environmental degradation, because, “hey, this isn’t the ‘real’ environment and besides this city is a dump. Who cares?” When students in the past have said something to the effect of, “we have to protect what little environment we have left” I asked them why Atlanta or even our own urban community wasn’t an environment worth saving? Along these same lines other students asked in class why the rich urban folks didn’t create more green spaces inside Metro Atlanta?

Washford Meadows also teased out how students viewed human needs and environmental needs. In class we had talked about how intertwined the two are, but how our culture and political leaders often present them as disjointed. “I’m all for saving the environment, but we can’t put environmental needs above human needs,” is a common statement students make. Pressing students to see how they’ve falsely dichotomized human and environmental needs can help everyone in class grasp this key concept of environmental sociology. This false dichotomy is present in most of the pro-business arguments out there today. We are told that we can grow the economy OR address global warming, for example. The frailty of this argument is laid bare after this activity.

Inequality is also a in play in this scenario. Wealthy, educated, politically connected urbanites are using their influence to take land from the impoverished families living on Washford Meadows. My students have really grasped the connection between inequality and environmental policy when I frame the connection with this scenario. Students decry the treatment of the poor families, but balance their treatment against the interests of the many vs. the few. It is easy to get students to debate individual land owner rights versus the interests of society and the rights of nature.

This activity has worked really well for me and even if you don’t teach environmental sociology it can serve as a model for teaching using conundrums. I’ve attached a copy of the handout I gave my students for this discussion. Download it here.


1. This isn’t how eminent domain laws work, but the idea of eminent domain is well understood by students. After the activity I tell my students about the inaccurate portrayal of eminent domain laws.

2. If there is a downside of this activity it is that it forces dichotomized thinking. So its crucial that when students think of ways the two parties could compromise (e.g. a conservation easement), that you strongly reinforce the creative thinking.

Small Caesar Salad at Kapp's Pizza Bar & Grill

“This is a lot of work to do in just a few weeks!” says a student in a summer school course. “You can’t possibly expect us to get through all of this reading in less than 2 months?!?” says a student in an accelerated learning program. Many students eyes bulge out of their heads when they read our summer syllabi. What we have here is a failure to communicate and negotiate expectations.

“But Nathan, my academic rigor is not something I negotiate with my students!” you might be thinking. I agree. I don’t negotiate where I set the bar, but in a way we all negotiate how our class will perceive or interpret the placement of the bar. When I’ve taught summer and accelerate learning courses I’ve use a story, analogy, or parable1, of sorts to try to win students over to my way of thinking. Here it is:

A man sits down at a fancy restaurant. As he places a cloth napkin in his lap the waiter takes his drink order. “Tonight we have a lobster bisque, tomato basil soup, or a salad. Which would you like sir?” the waiter says clutching a small notebook and pen. The man thinks for a moment and replies, “I think I’ll have a caesar salad.” “Yes sir, right away.” A moment later the waiter places the caesar salad on the table. As the first forkful of leafy greens enters the man’s mouth his face scrunches and he spits out the bite of salad. “Excuse me miss, but this is the worst bowl of soup I’ve ever tasted!” The waiter’s reaches out to take the salad away as she says, “Oh, I am so sorry sir. I thought you ordered a caesar salad.” Indignantly the man says, “I most certainly did order a caesar salad, but this tastes nothing like soup.” The waiter turns cocks her head to the left, “Sir?”

The Point: Don’t order a salad and complain it doesn’t taste like soup.

I tell my students that registering for a summer or accelerated learning course and complaining it goes to fast is like ordering a salad and complaining it doesn’t taste like soup. Of course the class is set to a rapid clip, that’s what you ordered. “If you want to take this class at a more leisurely pace, I will be teaching this in the fall,” I usually tell them. It’s crucial that you emphasize the humor in the parable. If you sound like an angry parent shaking your fist in the air saying, “kids these days!” you will only push your students away. Almost always, my students laugh at the story and jump on board with the expectations I’ve set


1. I can hear my literary colleagues bristling at my inaccurate use of the term parable. Apologies in advance.

Cheating is rampant on college campuses. You should be prepared. Assume the best in your students, but be prepared for the worst in students. Fortunately good class design can help minimize the instances of cheating and clear cheating policies make it easy to deal with students when you find a student dabbling on the dark side.

1. Ask smart questions

“Write a 2 page summary of Marx’s Communist Manifesto,” is a terrible question in the Internet age. Ask this question and you should expect lots of copy/pasting. Smart questions today are specific, complex, and if possible related to something discussed in class.

Specificity is your friend. I often ask students questions like, “How does Prudence Carter define non-dominant cultural capital in Keepin’ It Real” There are very few correct answers to this question and if students Google “Non-Dominant Cultural Capital” they are very likely going to get an answer that does not sound like Carters which means they will either raise my suspicion and get caught or at the very least get a bad grade for an incorrect answer.

“How does Shapiro define institutional discrimination in The Hidden Cost Of Being African American? In your answer use examples from the video The House We Live In we watched in class.” This is a question I’ve asked my students to answer in the past. This is a good question because it asks students to apply a concept to something else. I could have asked the students to define Institutional Discrimination, but there are over 8 million webpages that students could copy/paste a definition from. By asking students to apply, compare, contrast, etc. multiple things, students are less likely to be able to find a ready made answer online and thus less likely to cheat.

2. Set clear expectations

Almost every time I catch a student quoting without attribution *cough* copy/pasting off of the net *cough, cough* the first thing the student says to me is, “I had no idea I could cite a source for this paper!”. Many of my students seem surprised when I tell them they could’ve just cited the website or article they quoted and they wouldn’t evaded receiving an F. While I wouldn’t give a good grade to a paper that cites Wikipedia, I wouldn’t call judicial affairs if they cited the Wikipedia article they quoted.

At the beginning of the semester I spend 15 minutes talking about what constitutes plagiarism and how it can be avoided. I provide my students with resources on campus and tell them, “If you are worried that what you’re doing may be plagiarism, come talk to me” 1 After we read the Academic Integrity section of the syllabus I say to my students,

“I became a professor because I wanted to help students reach their dreams, not because I wanted to possibly get them removed from school. It bums me out when I report students to judicial affairs, but I will. Last semester when I told cheating students I had reported them to Judicial Affairs they looked at me with astonishment. Don’t make their mistake. If you cheat, I’ll likely catch you and the consequences will be severe. Please don’t make me do this.”

3. Frequently reinforce your commitment to academic honesty

It’s not enough to tell you students once. Before any major assignment or test I remind my students what constitutes plagiarism or cheating and the severity of the consequences if they are caught. You don’t want your students to become paranoid, but you also don’t want them to become complacent.

It’s also a great idea to explore cheating as a social problem in your classes. When discussing deviance I’ve had students read Situational Ethics and College Student Cheating (1990 LaBeff, Clark, Haines, and Diekhoff)2 which describes how students use neutralization to maintain a positive sense of self despite engaging in behavior they know is wrong. My students love this article and they really love having an open class discussion about cheating. Of course they precede every statements with, “Well one of my friends told me…” I typically end this class discussion by asking students how prevalent they think cheating is on campus and what they think the consequences should be for cheating. At the end of the discussion I remind them of what the consequences are for academic dishonesty in this class.

4. Write a clear academic integrity statement

In your syllabus you need to define what academic integrity is, why it’s important, and what the consequences are for a student’s lapsed academic morals. I provide students with a link to the student handbook where they can see examples of what constitutes academic dishonesty and what consequences I am contractually bound to enforce.

Great teachers debate on how a academic integrity statement should be phrased. I’m inclined to be as explicit as possible when defining the consequences of cheating, but other teachers use more vague language to afford them flexibility in how they consequence dishonesty. 3 By allowing flexibility in your academic integrity statement you are free to make case-by-case decisions, but you also open yourself up to appearing to favor some students over others. An ambiguous academic integrity statement sees shades of gray and students may challenge your subjectivity in enforcing consequences. On the other hand, if you paint yourself into a corner with strict language you may end up delivering consequences that you do not feel are appropriate given the students circumstances. Both approaches have issues and limitations.

5. Enforce it equally

Students will respect you if you are fair. Before you make a deal with any student you should be sure you are ready to make that deal with any other student in the class in a similar situation. The value of a clear academic integrity statement is it does tie your hands and only requires you to carry out the consequences you promised all of your students you would. Students talk to one another to compare notes on you. If you are unequal with your treatment of students, it will cost you one way or another. I often say to students, “__ I really like you and it pains me to do this, but I did this to other students in your same situation. If I didn’t do the same thing right now with you I’d be playing favorites, I could lose credibility with the rest of my students, and maybe even be seen as unprofessional by my colleagues. I hope you can understand the bind I’m in. I know this isn’t the answer you want to hear, but I hope you can understand where I’m coming from.”

6. Enforce it with kindness and empathy

Teaching is about building students up not tearing them down. When you enforce consequences on a academically dishonest student don’t “teach them a lesson” or vent your frustration on them. This is disintegrative shaming and it will only push the student away and make them more likely to fail your class and/or drop out of school. Also, if you make them hate you, don’t be surprised if they do everything in their power to challenge your policies, the enforcement, etc. I feel ethically obligated to reintegrate students who’ve cheated.

When you meet with a student to discuss their academic dishonesty show them compassion. Tell them, “I know this isn’t reflective of who you are as a person. This was out of character with who you are.” Even if that’s not true, telling them this may be a self-fulling prophecy and that’s the best we can hope for. Next you have to tell the student how they can recover from this negative choice. No matter if a students gets a zero on a paper or an F for the class I always tell them what options they have and how they can get back on the path. You have to convince them that the consequences you’re enforcing are not a deathblow to their education.


1. This is as effective as parents telling their kids to come talk to them if one of their friends wants them to drink, use drugs, or have sex. However, I still think it’s important to show you are available to them.

2. LaBeff, Emily E., Robert E. Clark, Valerie J. Haines and George M. Diekhoff. 1990. “Situational Ethics and College Student Cheating.” Sociological Inquiry 60(2):190-197

3. My current academic integrity statement on the syllabus in the Soc101 Class Pack is far too ambiguous and it will be one of the first things changed in the Soc101 Class Pack 2.0 So unfortunately this part of the post is more of a “Do as I say, not as I do” until the next class pack launches this summer.

“Did you ever think that all this talk about me being an alcoholic led me to start drinking in the first place?” “No dad1, you’re an alcoholic that’s why we are always talking about it.”

Every semester at one point or another a student will raise their hand or send me an email to ask, “Did you ever think that things aren’t really this bad? Maybe sociologists create the problem by telling us things are so bad. Like the self-fulfilling prophecies we talked about in class.” When pressed these students typically state that, “the world is not as bad as you make it sound, so maybe the problem is you looking in the first place.” If you’ve taught for any period of time, you’ve heard this and you’ll hear it again very soon, so having a prepared response on hand will pay dividends.

Your Temporal Order is Backwards Dad

Talking about dad’s drinking didn’t make him start drinking. Dad started drinking and then we all started talking about it. Sociologists talking about social problems didn’t make them exist in the first place. Social actors made decisions, the consequences of those decisions created evidence then sociologists collected it, reported it, and then we talked about it in class. While this may be obvious to you, it’s not always to our students. As they learn I’ve found the alcoholic dad metaphor really helps them.

Social Location and Your World View:

Why do students say “things aren’t as bad as sociologists say they are”? Simple, because in the world they walk in things aren’t that bad. Typically, but not always, the students who say __ social problem isn’t a big deal are enjoying being a member of the dominant group in regards to the social issue in question. So Whites are prone to disbelieving racism, middle & upper class students discredit institutional explanations of inequality, and heterosexual students question if homophobia is really a big deal.

I use a set of socratic questions to address this. I ask my class, “Let’s say that I was totally sexist toward the men in my classes. Who would be the first to notice this fact?” “Men,” half the class says in unison. “Okay, so imagine that a male and a female student are talking after class and the female students says, ‘I just love Professor Palmer’s class!’ to which the male student replies, ‘Are you crazy? I hate him. He’s so unfair.” Heads gradually start nodding as I go into the story. “Is it possible that the female student might say, ‘you’re making a big deal out of nothing. He’s always been fair to me.’?” Lots of heads nodding now. “Yeah and maybe the female student might say, ‘I can’t believe you’d pull the gender card. You’re either seeing something that’s not there or you’re just too sensitive, but I think your real problem is your approach to the class not Professor Palmer.’” As you know, this is a common reaction when a minority person claims that they’ve been discriminated against. Creating a straw man out of this argument and then knocking it down in class typically inoculates the class from using this argument later in the semester. Furthermore, student who use this logic later in the semester find that their peers jump all over them with the tool kit they picked up from this discussion.

This isn’t sociologists’ opinions

I also reinforce that students aren’t making social problems happen because they aren’t making up these ideas in their heads. I remind students that the sociological research we read in class is empirical and peer reviewed, not simply the opinions of some ivory tower jerks.

“Why Don’t You Move To Europe if You Hate the US so Much!”

If you discuss the social problems facing the United States well enough you are likely to hear an angry student tell you to kick rocks. Hear again the alcoholic dad metaphor can help. Saying “well if you don’t like the problems this country has than you can leave” is akin to saying, “well if you don’t like my drinking so much why don’t you just go find another family.” When I feel I am about to incur my students ire I bring up this metaphor and say, “I could leave or dad could go to rehab. Just saying.” My students laugh and typically the tension is released. I tell my students that I love this country enough to do something about the social problems. And then I belt out a version of “I’m proud to be an American” and all is well again.


1. My dad is not, nor has he ever been an alcoholic. He is, however, a great sport about letting me use him in metaphors. Thanks dad!

Below is a guest post by Ann Kinnell from the University of Southern Mississippi.
If you have an teaching idea or resource you would like to share, you can find out how here

Some years ago I was trying to think of a way to get my students in my Sociology of the Family course to see how the ideal of mothering and fathering is socially constructed. The textbook we were using at the time certainly made this point but, from class discussion, it was pretty clear that students saw parenting in terms of sex-irreducible gender roles (Starbuck 2010, p16) 1 , i.e. the behaviors of mothers and fathers arise solely from the basic sex differences between men and women. Women get pregnant so they stay home and nurture children. Men do not get pregnant so they do not nurture children but leave the house to make money. As we discussed mothering and fathering in class, often it would come out in discussion that the mothers and fathers of my students often shared similar behaviors or characteristics. But I still felt that the students were downplaying those similarities as exceptions to the rule. So I started doing the following exercise. 2

I teach the course as a relatively large (65 student) lecture-based class. At least one class session prior to our discussion of parenting, I split the class down the middle. I have the students take out a piece of paper and have half of the class write MOM at the top of the paper and the other half write DAD at the top of the paper. I then tell them to write down the 5 most important characteristics of a good MOM or DAD (depending on which group they are in). I emphasize the word “good” because I am trying to get them to think about the ideal of mothering and fathering. When they are done, they hand them in. I often will have them put their name on the paper and give them a couple points extra credit.

Before the next class in which we discuss parenting, I go through the papers and pull 10 of them — 5 MOMs and 5 DADs. I try to pull some that are “traditional” descriptions (e.g. use the word nurture for MOM, breadwinner for DAD) and some that are non-traditional (e.g. use the word nurture for DAD, breadwinner for MOM) or neutral (e.g. do not use either the word nurture or breadwinner) descriptions. In the years I have been doing this, I have never had a problem pulling a mixture of descriptions.

In the class we discuss parenting I start out by discussing the perspective of sex-irreducible gender roles. I then tell the class we are going to have a “quiz” to see how good they are at recognizing descriptions of mothers and fathers. Sometimes I will have them take the quiz in their notes. Sometimes I will have them hand it in for a few points extra credit. I usually preface the quiz by 1) reminding them that the description I’m about to read are the ones they themselves wrote down in the earlier class and 2) noting that if mothering and fathering is totally based on biology, and thus mothers and fathers are totally different in their behaviors, each description should be easy to recognize and everyone should get 100% correct.

I then read the 10 descriptions to the students pausing after each one to have them write down whether they think the description is of a mother or a father. Once we are done with all 10, I ask them how confident they are that they got them all correct. Usually a few students will raise their hands to indicate that they are fairly confident. We have a brief discussion at that point as to why the entire class is not confident they got them all correct. Students usually offer some version of “they all sounded the same” as an explanation. I then remind them that they came up with the descriptions. We then go back through each description. I read it again.

I have the class say out loud what their answer was. Usually there is disagreement on each description. I ask each group why they answered the way they did. This brings out a discussion of stereotypical characteristics which the students look for as clues. I then tell them what the “answer” was – if it was a MOM or a DAD. At this point there are a lot of “YES!” and “What?” responses. When we have gone through all 10 descriptions and the students have “graded” their “quizzes,” I ask how many students got them all correct. The highest I’ve had in the years I’ve been doing this exercise is 8 out of 10 and that has only been one or two students each semester. The average for the class is about 5 correct — usually the number of “traditional” descriptions I include in the mix.

“Why it is the case that the majority of the class only got about 50% correct,” to segue into a discussion of how culture and society affects ideals of parenthood and the actual behaviors of parents. I ask them why many of the descriptions “sounded the same” in that the same descriptors were used for both moms and dads. Students usually draw on their own experiences pointing out that their parent (mom or dad) was a single parent and therefore did “double-duty” as mom and dad or both of their parents were in the paid labor force and therefore shared parenting duties. A few students each semester have stay-at-home dads who for various reasons (disability, unemployment, personal preference) took over “mom” duties.

I have never done a formal assessment of this exercise so I cannot say with any surety what impact it has on my students. However, the feedback I get through the class discussion has been entirely positive and my own impression of the discussion following the “quiz” is that students are more open to examining the cultural and structural factors that affect parenting. Students also write a paper at the end of the analyzing the experiences of three generations of their own families based on the topics we have discussed in class. Most of them seem to have “gotten” the point of the discussion on parenting in that they incorporate it into their papers. Either that or they are just trying to make me happy!


1. Gene H. Starbuck. 2010. Families in Context, Second Edition Revised and Updated. Paradigm Press

2.In the interest of full disclosure, I have been doing this exercise for at least 8 years now and do not remember if I got the idea from someone else. I do read Teaching Sociology so if I am borrowing someone else’s exercise without proper attribution, I apologize.

Some students won’t listen to you. You wrote it in your syllabus that no cell phones, laptops, or other distracting technology is allowed in your classroom , but they’re doing it openly right in front of you.

Recently a professor was arrested for battery after he shut a student’s laptop to get her to pay attention and stop surfing the web during class. Distracted students are clearly a problem everywhere. So what to do?

Well I have a 100% effective solution to stop to stop this annoying problem. Are you ready… Stop nagging them to put away their technology and teach your heart out to the students who are paying attention.

“Wait, what? You mean let them disrespect me to my face?” you may be thinking right now. Yep. That’s basically what I’m saying. Except make one minor change. Don’t view it as being disrespectful or an affront to your authority. If you haven’t stopped reading in disgust yet, let me explain how I handle the situation and why I do it this way.

On the first day of class I go over the syllabus and discuss at length the no technology policy in my syllabus. I share with the students recent research that shows distracted students do worse than their peers who don’t divide their attention. I even show a clip of FRONTLINE:Digital Nation that talks about how humans are crummy at multitasking even especially when they think they rock at it. I give them every opportunity to see that distracting technology is hazardous to their grades health, but alas some students don’t listen.

Last semester I had a class that was texting all the time. At first I thought they just forgot the policy on the syllabus, so I politely reminded them and tried to make light of it with a joke. The students responded to that with disdain. A few classes later when I felt my students where totally disengaged and wrapped up in their technology so I gave them another reminder this time with a stern, but patient approach. The students responded to that with disdain. A few classes later, I saw the exact same few students with laptops out, cell phones in hand. I tried bitting my tongue, but couldn’t so I started a discussion about Goffman’s presentation of self 1 and how their desks were not invisible forcefields hiding their texting from my view. Despite my attempts to be funny the students first starred blankly or rolled their eyes, then responded with –wait for it– disdain.

I was beyond frustrated. I’d like to think I am clever person and yet all of my attempts to curb student texting, laptop surfing, and headphone wearing had been futile. I commiserated with my colleagues, grumbled to myself about it in my office, and started writing a blog post about this phenomenon. I got half way through before I realized the problem. I was trying to change someone else’s behavior by telling them what to do. Which any sociologist can tell you isn’t highly effective.2

In my teaching tool kit I have techniques for inspiring students, encouraging students, supporting students, compelling students, and maybe even empowering students 3 , but I can’t find in my verb tool kit any techniques for forcing, pressuring, or coercing students to do anything.

Fact is, we can’t force students to do anything and we need to own that like yesterday. If you disagree with this, then I think you’re deluding yourself or being an unethical teacher. For me personally, this is a fact I think I have down and then something pops up that reminds me I am still holding on to this dead idea.

Our Power and Our Authority

Weber says that authority is power that people perceive as legitimate as opposed to coercive. When we try to force our students into complying with our expectations of behavior we must consider if the students perceive this use of power as legitimate.

Under some circumstances I don’t care what students think. If a student is personally attacking another student with hate speech, I am going to intervene without regard for how my actions are perceived. However, if the “offense” is much smaller like sleeping in class or texting their BFF I think we should consider how our students perceive these acts. We teach our students everyday that our world is socially constructed and not individually constructed, but when we only consider our own worldview and disregard the rest of the classes worldviews, we are role modeling a behavior antithetical to developing a sociological imagination.

If our students perceive the acts of texting, sleeping, or surfing the web as a legitimate use of their time in class, then it unfortunately doesn’t matter that you disagree. Your authority is compromised when you use your power in ways that your students perceive as coercive. And, again, it doesn’t matter how unfair you think that is. You can’t control how they perceive you and your use of power.

I was watching Oprah the other day (I know) and she had David Arquette on (I know, I know) and he said his yoga instructor at rehab (just keeps getting better doesn’t it) told him that, “anger is like drinking poison and expecting another person to die.” Venting your frustration at your students for not paying attention to you may feel right or even good in the moment, but it will only reduce your authority and subsequently reduce the attention they give you.

Sing For The Ones Who Came to Hear You Sing

So what can you do about student inattention? Pour your soul into teaching for the students who are listening to you. Engage with them as much as possible and they will love you for it. If you focus on the students who are present and reward them with an inspiring class they will help you create a class norm of attentiveness and they will enforce sanctions on the non-compliant precisely because they believe you’ve earned that level of respect and authority. These students will be the ones saying “Shh!” when students talk loudly or are being disruptive. When it becomes the norm to treat you with respect, other students will follow suit. This is the only option that doesn’t weaken your authority.

My 3 Step Solution

So back to my solution. First accept that you can’t force your students to stop using technology in class and maintain your authority. Second, lay the ground rules at the start of the semester to encourage their attention. And finally, teach your butt off to the students who are listening and more will follow.

  1. In my previous post I discussed how well this activity has worked for me and it certainly has. However, it works well at teaching Goffman and not at getting all my students to stop using technology in class. I would still recommend the activity for students to learn Goffman, but maybe not so much as a solution to ending distracted students. ↩

  2. Thanks to my colleague Dr. Nancy Malcom for helping me put this idea into words. ↩

  3. I am starting to hate this word. Empower means to give someone the authority to do something and in reality I don’t give anyone the power to do anything. Students learn, change their minds, or change their communities because they do it, not because of something I bestow upon them. I aspire to be a catalyst for their change, but in the end they deserve the credit for doing the hard part of the work. ↩

For many of us student evals are what our merit evaluations hinge upon. Good student evals make you a good teacher, bad ones do the opposite. This is unfortunate for the sociology teacher because sociology is an inherently subversive discipline. When students are upset by our classes it may be because they are actually learning or it could be because our teaching methods alienate and frustrate them. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes. So, how can you get the good student evals you need and insure that student frustration is a by product of learning and not a byproduct of a poorly designed or implemented lesson plan? Do a mid-term evaluation of your courses.

Download my mid-term.doc student eval form*

A simple anonymous mid-term student evaluation of your course can give you great feedback while you still have time to make changes. On the day that I am going to administer the mid-term eval I start by telling my students that,

“These evals and the evals at the end of the term are very important to me and my career. When I was an undergraduate I used to think they were a big waste of time and that no one really read them or cared what was said on them. However, for a lecturer like myself, these evals are the only document that evaluates what we’ve done here in this room. My employer will only know what you tell them about this course. Your feedback is absolutely critical and all I ask is that you give me a moment of your time on these evals and be honest. If there is something you don’t like tell me how it could be improved. If there is something that you like a lot tell me what you liked about it. Today we will be doing mid-term evals because I want to hear from you and get ideas about this course while I still have time to implement them. If you have a good idea that I can implement right now, I will. You have my word.”

I’ve honed this intro over the years and I really like it because it addresses 2 key issues. 1) It communicates the importance of the evals and neutralizes student misconceptions about their irrelevance. 2) I ask them to tell me what they liked and didn’t like. Many of you may be thinking that asking students to complain about your course is counterproductive to getting solid evaluations, but I strongly believe that acknowledging that the course isn’t perfect is far more likely to engender sympathetic students. Students, by in large, don’t want to punish instructors they want to be heard and be told that their perspective on the course is valid and understood by the instructor. Acknowledging your imperfections openly will reduce the need for students to forcefully show you their point of view. This is hard and this goes back to the teaching with vulnerability we talked about already.

The real reason you want to do a mid-term eval is that it allows students to unload their frustrations before the final evaluations (which are viewed by your supervisors). It gives you time to make adjustments and have a better experience the last half of the semester. THIS IS CRUCIAL: read the mid-term evals right away and find at least one thing you can do or change right now, then do it, and then tell your students you heard them and made changes. This says to your students, “I’ve heard you and I care enough about our relationship to make changes right now.”

Be aware that mid-term evals can feel like a swift kick to the esophagus. Maybe I am too sensitve, but harsh evals can ruin my day. It’s hard to hear feedback that is short of constructive, but it’s crucial to growing as a teacher. I’ve also found that many of the really painful evals hurt precisely because their critiques are so dead on. The pain sometimes comes from being accurate and from my inability to think of a solution at the moment. However, these evals are the weathervane pointing to the areas you need to refocus your attention on.

*While I wrote this eval myself, I can’t really claim it as my own intellectual property nor do I care to. I have borrowed from or been inspired by many many evaluations created by my colleagues. So many that I can’t even give credit to them here. Thank you to all my colleagues and mentors for helping develop this form. Also, please feel free to take my form, edit it, and share it without attributing it to me. Just enjoy it and things are square with me.


Disruptive Students? Don’t Start Drinking:


Almost all of the email that I get from teachers across the country is about disruptive students. Students who challenge every single point made in class. Students who value anecdotal experiences over empirical social facts. Students who loudly assert that the teacher is biased, partisan, and a terrible teacher. So what are we to do when a student is hellbent on derailing a class? First, don’t start drinking.

Being shipwrecked has to be the crappiest ways to die. If exposure or sharks don’t kill you, dehydration will. Adrift in the largest body of water in the world you die of thirst. Who says god doesn’t have a sense of humor. Of course, you could drink the salt water, but while it may temporarily make you feel better you are only hastening your demise. The more you drink sea water, the faster you die. Simple as that.

Same is true in classes with disruptive students. A hypercritical student who openly questions your authority and legitimacy raises the anxiety of even the best teachers among us. How can a teacher assuage this anxiety and get his/her legitimacy and authority back? Become unquestionable- un-critique-able (I invented a word). Research your tail off and know your subject matter backwards and forwards. Prepare tirelessly for you class so it’s perfect. And finally, try to filter everything you say in class to be sure that what your saying is accurate. HA! That’ll show the disruptive hypercritical student.

Except doing all of these things, especially the mental double checking of everything said in class, will almost certainly make you sound unconfident. Students, and people in general, are astonishingly well equipped to sniff out bravado and inauthenticity. When you get in your own head about everything you are teaching it makes you sound like you’re faking the funk. It feels as good as drinking saltwater, but it also is just as debilitating. To deal with a disruptive student you almost certainly have to try something that is counter intuitive.

There isn’t a one size fits all solution for disruptive students, but sometimes the best way to handle a student who demands to have their non-sociological non-empirical ideas heard is to get out of the way. This pedagogical Jujitsu works because it takes the pressure of being the expert off your shoulders and makes it your disruptive students burden to bear. Ask the rest of your class to provide the disruptive student with feedback. If the class is unwilling to openly challenge the student ask the class to write an anonymous two minute response paper and then give them to the student. As anyone who has read teaching evaluations knows students can be brutal evaluators. Furthermore, most disruptive students have no idea how they are perceived by their peers. Asking for peer evaluation of the disruptive student will address the problem on both of these fronts.

Editors Note:
There will be a special post on this Wednesday, so check back then or watch your RSS feed.