Teaching Philosophy

The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.
The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.
The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.

That has been reverberating in my head since Jay Howard said it at ASA last month[1]. I’d heard the underlying idea many times before, but it was the first time that it clicked in my head. All of a sudden I had the eyes to see my classes in a whole new way; I was doing almost all of the work.



Intellectually I was committed to a student-centric teaching style, but if you looked at how I was spending the 150 minutes I had with my students each week, you would conclude that “covering” all of the material was a priority. Worst part of it is, I knew enough to feel bad about my students passivity. My preoccupation with “covering” the material was making me miserable. My lecture notes had become the dog that walks it’s master.

The preoccupation with covering the material is also built upon a faulty logic. Typically when someone says they “covered” a topic in class they mean they lectured about it. In the past I worried that if I didn’t cover a topic my students would surely be unable to answer a test question about it. As if the act of hearing me define a concept gives my students the best chance at learning it. This can’t be true if “the one doing the work is the one doing the learning is true”.

There’s time for anything, but not time for everything. If I spend all of class time covering my material, then there will be no time for my students to actively engage the material. This semester I’ve cut about a 1/3 of the material from my lecture notes to make room for my student’s voices. When a great class discussion or activity runs long and I can’t cover all of the concepts I’d hoped to, I breath deeply and repeat:

The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.
The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.
The one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.

  1. Jay gave someone credit for the quote during his talk, but I didn’t write down who it was. I searched the interwebs for a citation, but saw it credited to 4 separate authors. So to whomever credit the statement, thank you for facilitating my breakthrough.  ↩

At ASA I was asked to sit on a “what I wish I would’ve known” panel where new faculty gave advice to grad students on the market and new hires. First, let me say that it was a privilege to be asked to participate. But it left me with this question, “is being an experienced teacher the same thing as being a good teacher[1]”. I bring this question up not to take a shot at senior teachers[2], but to reflect back on my first few years as a professional teacher and invite you to rethink your goals for this fall.

As a (still) relatively new faculty, I have often been given the advice, “observe your senior faculty and pick up some tips and strategies for your class.” My department has senior faculty do classroom observations of all junior faculty. And while I’d never argue against the idea that wisdom comes from experience, I am still left wondering, can classroom experience serve as a proxy for pedagogical skill? If the answer is yes, then can we conclude that the “best” teachers would be some of the most experienced?

Part of the answer to the question of experience and ability lies in the research on skill acquisition and deliberate practice. Deliberate practice (as defined in the research by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer 1993) focuses skill acquisition on just one particular component of a skill that is currently something the individual struggles with. Then through repeated practice and immediate feedback the individual gets better at it. Deliberate practice can help us understand why so many Karaoke singers who sing the same songs over and over almost never become world famous singers.

In the classroom it’s easy to go into autopilot and just do what’s always worked for you in the past. Last April I wrote about how reading How Learning Works woke me up to the fact that I wasn’t half the teacher I thought I was. Because I had some experience under my belt and thought so highly of my teaching I had slipped into autopilot. I was going through the motions; going through my routine, but I wasn’t really growing as a teacher. I was still using my skills, but I wasn’t developing them very much.

Today I feel that teaching experience is no guarantee of teaching skill. You may be a subject expert and you may have a great deal of wisdom from years of experience, but if you haven’t pushed yourself to grow as an educator, your teaching quality may not be much better than it was 10 years ago. Everyone has something to learn or some aspect of teaching to work on. You don’t have to be perfect. I needed to hear that last semester and I’m going to need to hear it again and again throughout my career. We all have something to work on. So as the term begins for so many of us, I invite you to think about what aspect of your teaching you might want to work on this fall.

  1. What makes a good teacher? Is a good teacher one that is well liked or well respected or a teacher who gets their students to learn a great deal? This is an excellent question, which I will punt on until another blog post 🙂  ↩

  2. In fact, I owe a great deal to my mentors. Any success I’ve experienced in the classroom is in large part due to what I learned from them.  ↩

Sociology isn’t a collection of research findings and concepts. It’s a way a thinking, seeing, and a methodology for exploring the world around you. Every soc teacher knows this to be true, but if we looked at how we spend our time and energy would we find ourselves teaching the former or the latter?
I’m not judging anyone here. I don’t have this figured out myself. I’m simply pointing to a struggle that I think many of us have. The mismatch between what we know sociology to be and how we teach it and what our students learn from it; that’s a tough nut to crack.

I took American History at a community college the year after I graduated high school. Everyday my teacher, Mr. Little[1], wore the same dirty, sweat stained, pinstripe, oxford shirt that wrapped tightly around his large stomach. He would grip the sides of a brown lectern that sat on top of a cheap folding table toward the front of the classroom for the entire hour and fifteen minutes as if he would fly off the earth if he let go.

He plowed through his lecture notes in class-long monologue, barely ever looking up. So the entire room was taken aback when he stopped mid-lecture, wiped the sweat off his greasy forehead, and asked, “What do you think of Christopher Columbus? It is, after all, Columbus Day.” To my surprise a number of students raised their hands. The conversation was rather complimentary sounding something like the shadow of an eighth grade history report of Columbus.

The class was nearly entirely white (something not uncommon in Lincoln, NE). I distinctly remember there was one student who looked to be Native American, but given I never asked him to self-identify, I can’t be sure. The presumably Native American student sat toward the back of the room and was quiet. He was always early to class, like I was, but he never joined in the pre-class conversations, not even the gripe-fests that went on before Mr. Little showed up.

About 5 minutes into the discussion of Columbus, Mr. Little turned toward the Native American looking student, pointed in his direction and said, “You.” Mr. Little waited for him to make eye contact before continuing, “You’re Native right? What is the Native American perspective on Christopher Columbus?” The student struggled to find words. I wanted to pull my head into my body like Sammy (the box turtle I had growing up).

From that day foreword I profoundly understood that speaking should be optional in class discussions. I’m not saying you shouldn’t require student participation, but rather you should always allow you students to decide when and where they want the spotlight put on them.

Mr. Little probably thought he was being inclusive. He probably thought, in a perverse way, that by reaching out for this student’s opinion he was being “pro-diversity.”[2] However, Mr. Little was being anything but. Asking a student to speak on behalf of their social group (be it race, class, gender, etc.) is akin to saying “you people are all the same”. There is no “Native American perspective” because Native Americans are not monolithic. This is a common way that trying to be “inclusive” to non-dominant students backfires and only reinforces their “otherness”.

In my classes no one is allowed to throw the spotlight on another student. Especially not in an open class discussion. No one is expected to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. If you have something to say I pray that you will, but it’s not my place to force the stage upon you.

  1. Not his real name.  ↩

  2. Whatever that term means.  ↩

Are you a chef or a cook in the classroom[1]?Cooks dutifully follow recipes, but chefs pour their humanity into their work and create works of art. Cooks follow the map made by chefs. For as long as there have been chefs willing to share their recipes, there have been cooks complaining that they didn’t work[2].

Last week I read an article about Michael Wesch in the Chronicle called, “A Tech Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working.” Wesch is renowned for using technology in his classes and up until recently he was vocal advocate for expanding the use of technology in his classes. According to the article Wesch has reconsidered the role of technology in the classroom after hearing complaints from many who tried to implement his methods. It appears his pedagogical innovations weren’t easily replicated.

The article then abruptly pivots to a section called “Learning From an ‘Old Fogy’” that profiles the 100% technology free teaching style of Christopher Sorensen. We learn from this ‘Old Fogy’ that teaching isn’t about wis-bang techno-media, but rather its about creating a human connection with your students and subsequently creating a sense of community. Sorensen argues that teachers lead their students by being passionate advocates for their discipline; when students see how cool their teachers think the subject is, they can’t help but get intellectually excited about it.

The piece wraps up with Wesch saying:

“Students and faculty have to have this sense that they can truly connect with each other,” he concludes. “Only through that sense of connection do you have this sense of community.”

What I hear Wesch and Sorensen saying is successful teachers are chefs in the classroom. There is no off-the-self technology that you can adopt to make you an excellent teacher. This doesn’t surprise me nor should it you. As I’ve argued before, what makes great teachers great is that they bring their humanity into the classroom and teach passionately. This piece, and perhaps Wesch, make the mistake of thinking it was ever possible to replace humanity with technology in the first place.

Technology will never replace human connections between students and teachers because it simply can’t. However, technology can be used to unburden teachers from monotonous tasks so that they will have more time to engage with students and develop real human connections.

Hey Publishers I Want Hellman’s Mayonnaise

The challenge of turning Wesch’s innovations into off-the-shelf plug-and-play classroom solutions should be a lesson to publishers everywhere. Great classes can’t be “deployed across the enterprise”, so stop trying.

You can break publisher resources into two groups: Hamburger Helper and Hellman’s Mayonnaise. Many chefs love using Hellman’s because it saves them from the monotonous chore of making mayo and the quality is high enough that even the most developed of palates can’t detect the shortcut. With this handy time saver chefs are free to spend their time making master pieces.

Hamburger Helper on the other hand is a paint-by-numbers dinner in a box- standardized and soulless. Many of the products publishers offer educators are closer to Helper than they are Hellman’s. “But we let you customize,” publishers may be saying right now. That’s a step in the right direction, but chefs don’t customize box dinners, they make culinary art.

How Does This Article Relate to SociologySource?

A number of friends and readers sent me the Wesch article asking for my opinion and some asking, “does this change how you see the value of your site”? To address the later question, no it doesn’t. SociologySource is a place to share experiences and reports from trial-and-error learning. I hope that you’ll be inspired to use the activities and ideas shared here, but if you are looking for off-the-shelf plug-and-play solutions for your classroom, we will probably disappoint.

If you are reading this blog I’m guessing that you are a chef or at least aspire to be. I started SociologySource to let you into “my kitchen” in the hopes that if I shared my struggles and successes, you would too. I wanted to build a community of sociology chefs and am honored that so many of you have given me a piece of your time.

  1. The social distinction between chefs and cooks has historically involved racial, class, and gender inequality with white men disproportionately being recognized as chefs. I am using the distinction for metaphorical purposes with the hope that we can remove the racial and gender components. Outstanding teaching has no allegiance to any race, class, or gender.  ↩

  2. If you are reading this blog, my guess is that you are either a chef in the classroom or an aspiring chef. Every time I walk into the classroom I try to make art, but the key word in this sentence is try. I’m still learning- still failing. But hey, that’s true of art regardless of the medium. I have a strong opinion in this post, but I hope that no one reads this first paragraph and feels denigrated in any way. I’ll say this again at the end of the post, but I didn’t want you to have to wait until then to hear this.  ↩

“Smart students think they’re dumb, because they know what they don’t know. Dumb students think they’re smart, because they don’t know what they don’t know. So, do you think you’re smart… or dumb?” This was the question one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Julia McQuillian[1], asked me as an undergraduate.

With a single question Julia opened my eyes to the meta-cognitive level of learning. Until then I hadn’t thought critically about my intellectual blindspots and the assumptions I was making based on them[2]. This question helped me graduate from a dichotomous and concrete worldview, to a worldview that was much more complex and uncertain.

As teachers we must remember that our students are not primed for this type of thinking. By acknowledging the limited scope of a 101 course students can more critically assess the information in your class and their understanding of the world around them.


“A 101 class is a tapas restaurant. You eat a little of this, a little of that. If what you want is more of an intellectual meal, then you should take a semester long course like Race and Ethnicity or Social Inequality.” I tell this to my students on the first day of my 101 class to give them a sense of scope. It’s important to remind your students that they are only being exposed to the 1% of all the research on any of the topics you discuss in a 101 class. Novices are vulnerable to prematurely celebrating their mastery of a subject.


“I’ve forgotten more about the research on this topic than you’ve learned, so what makes you think you know enough to dismiss this research out of hand?” I’ve thought this to myself before when students tell me emphatically, “That can’t be true!” A more appropriate response to an outright rejection of the findings of social research would be a simple question: “Well, what evidence makes you so sure that this can’t be true?” Students will typically response with, “Well, my uncle is….” or “The Hispanic people where I’m from…” or some anecdotal evidence from their life. These “n of 1” counter arguments are an easy opportunity to talk about the perils of common sense and intuitive sociology. Students are prone to uncritically reject social research if it doesn’t jive with the worldview they hold. As a discipline sociology seeks counter-intuitive knowledge, so this type of rejection is neither surprising nor uncommon.

Sometimes students make the opposite mistake. They accept uncritically what the research has to say as though it was describing laws of sociology or decoding the Matrix. I know this is an issue when my students look at me like a magician. Mouth agape, they are dazzled by how, “You seem to know it all!” (Their words not mine). While it sure is easier to teach a class where everyone uncritically accepts what you, the sage on the stage, have to say, it’s just as damaging to your students learning as it’s counterpart. We have to be uncomfortable with uncritical thinking in our classes regardless of it’s orientation to the ideas we are teaching.

A third common reaction actually springs from critical thinking. Students, being good critical consumers of information, pick apart the methodological limitations of the research presented in class. Unlike the previous two reactions, this one is uncommon and should be encouraged to a point. I LOVE when students tell me a finding is weak because it only sampled _____ or it operationalized the variable in a narrow way (note: students rarely use this language, but this is what they mean). You simply cannot shoot down students who do this out of fear that they are attacking either your credibility or the researcher’s. Silence one contrarian and you will be telling the entire class, “I am the expert here. You need only ingest my pearls of wisdom uncritically.”

When students are hypercritical consumers of the information you are presenting in class, thank them for engaging with the material and having the courage to challenge the research openly in class. Then remind them of the confirmation bias and that they have a limited scope with which to judge the situation. I’ll often say something like, “You make some excellent points. This research, like all research, is limited in what it can tell us. However, this research is indicative of a whole collection of similar studies. Before we can say definitively that this study is flawed to the point it is inaccurately describing the social world, we would need to delve into the rest of the research in this field.” Hyper-critical students need to be encouraged to remain critical, but not to become unduly dismissive.

If you are teaching sociology, then you have an “expert’s mind.” You’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a “beginner’s mind.” Your perspective on sociology as a discipline is starkly different from the perspective your students have. It’s too easy to assume that your students would “just know” how limited their breadth of understanding of sociology is. You make this assumption at your own peril. Start the term by defining the scope of the course and ask your students to maintain their perspective on what they do and don’t yet know.

  1. I should acknowledge that it’s possible I am remembering this a little different than how it was said. Dr. Julia McQuillian is an outstanding teacher, scholar, and human being. Please don’t read this quote in any other context.  ↩

  2. I love asking my students what intellectual blindspots they think they have. Almost all of them say none. To which I ask, “Would you know if you had a ‘blind spot’? If you could see them, would we call them blindspots?”  ↩

Success looks like failure sometimes. When your students angrily resist what sociology has to teach them it’s easy to see it as a failure. You can either blame yourself (I could’ve taught that so much better!) or you can blame the student (well if they don’t want to learn, they can kick rocks!). However, I have a novel suggestion; you could say, “how wonderful! I’m thrilled that our class created such a stir within you.”1

Before you can fill a knowledge gap the student must become aware of it. Sociology involves worldviews and many times the knowledge gap students have are firmly entrenched in their worldview. So when students discover their knowledge gaps in the classroom, they create a sort of cognitive dissonance between their present (gap filled) worldview and a sociologically informed worldview. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable; even maddening.

Sociology is inherently subversive. Great educators are inherently agitators. When the two combine, no one should be surprised that some students become upset.

When a student pushes away it’s an opportunity to pull them closer. I’ve found anger is a common side effect of learning. The moment when the student expresses their anger (an All CAPS EMAIL, a classroom rant, a dramatic storming out of the room, etc.) you are presented with a simple choice; return their volley with the swift authority afforded to you by your titles, statuses, and degrees or reframe the situation, take the high road, and show your class that this room is a learning environment. Put simply, you can go to war with a student over his/her knowledge gap or you can reframe the situation and work together with the student to fill in that knowledge gap.

Reframing The Situation

There are really two separate perspectives that need to be reframed yours and your students. You need to see a distant angry student as a wonderful opportunity and your student needs to see their knowledge gap as a momentary inconvenience that can be assuaged by sociology. You’re a professional, so I assume you can handle your end of this reframing process. Your students may need more help, so I’ll focus here on them.

“When you said that today I could tell you were talking about me,” is a common statement I hear after class from students.2 I teach 300 students in a movie theater, but somehow students are certain that what I said in class was directed at them. We all do this; personalizing impersonal statements. Typically when students are angry about something discussed in class it’s because they have made this mistake. They feel like what sociology has to say about trends, averages, and international level data is somehow an indictment about their individual life or their family. “My family worked hard for everything they earned!” “What you said about people can’t be true because (I/my family)…” “You’re wrong about because (I/my family)…” If a student is angry look for the personalization. Then ask, “why do you think I was talking about you (or your family)?” Students will struggle to find any evidence. From here you can help your students remember that sociology is primarily about trends, averages, movements at the group level.

Anger makes us see in extremes. “You make it seem like __ are doomed and helpless!” “I’m sick of you telling us how white people have the world handed to them on a silver platter!” “If the United States is so bad why don’t you live somewhere else!” Luckily it’s pretty easy to neutralize this exaggerated thinking. I’ll ask my students, “What makes you think things are so terrible?” Or I’ll ask them, “what was said in class that made you think whites have the world handed to them?” What often seems to happen is students replace the findings of empirical sociological research with their reaction to them. I’ll say in class, “98% of the 128 Billion dollars of government backed loans by the FHA during the post WWII housing boom went to white Americans.” But what they hear is, “whites are totally underserving of their social standing. I’m talking about you; yeah you in the third row. You should be ashamed to be alive. I hate your guts, your family’s guts, and everything you stand for.”3

To neutralize the “whites are served the world on a platter” we need to reframe it in less exaggerated terms. I do this by asking my students, “Do you believe that your [social location] has an impact on your life? Does a Hispanic American have the same social experiences as a Native American, African American, Euro American or any other racial group?” In a sense I am reframing the question from “are people of different social groups 100% different” to “are people of different social groups 100% the same”. The answer to both those questions is no. The truth is somewhere in the middle. I want my students to acknowledge that some groups experience social privileges to some degree. It’s not a road paved in gold or highway to hell dichotomy. Its a matter of degrees (which vary depending on context).

Helping students move away from extreme dichotomous thinking will defuse tension and allow them to refocus filling in their knowledge gap.


When emotions and adrenaline surge in heated exchanges it’s too easy to lose perspective. Remember that you have the power to redefine the situation and use their energy to help them learn in a clever pedagogical jujitsu.


1. My all time favorite quote is by Tibor Kallman: “When you make something that no one hates, no one loved it.” It is better to be critique-worthy than to be average and boring. p.s. if you hate this post, please tell me so 🙂

2. On a related note, if you are one of my current or former students and you’ve read this post and thought to yourself, “Oh man he’s talking about me! How could he!” I promise I am not talking about you or any one student in particular. My reflections here are a conglomeration of experiences I have had at multiple institutions. The students that I’ve had the privilege to work with are outstanding and I’d argue better than most student bodies across the country.

3. I’m fairly sure I don’t need to say this, but I have NEVER thought this about any of my students EVER. That’s my point here. That’s why it’s funny (if it is). I love teaching, I cherish the opportunity I have with my students, and I honor the time and attention they afford me with respect, decency, and compassion.

I am not an expert. I do not have all the answers. I have a biased worldview. I make mistakes. When I speak in public whether in class or online, I’m scared. So basically I am not even close to perfect. I want you to know this. I want my students to know this.

Teaching is supremely hard in that your students frequently assume that if you are standing at the front of the room you know EVERYTHING about your subject. This leaves all of us with two choices. Either try to maintain that false “teacher as expert” image or be honest with our students about what we know and don’t.

When I teach sociology I am trying to help my students develop “eyes” to see at the sociological level. I want them to develop a sociological imagination. I want them to consider the social (and not only the individual) when they make decisions for the rest of their lives. Before any of this development can happen students must first acknowledge that their worldview isn’t unbiased and perfect. They must acknowledge that they have room to grow.

Almost every student is reluctant to do this because it’s scary. If there is no one “right” worldview and if I have mistakenly assumed my worldview untill now has been right and accurate, then the world is more complex than I thought it was. If the stereotypes and assumptions that I’ve never been bothered to examine until now are inaccurate and biased, then I have a lot of work to do. To ask students to hone their skills of seeing at the sociological level, is to ask them to admit vulnerability; to admit that they’ve got work to do.

And if you found yourself nodding along to the last paragraph about your students, stop and realize that you and I are also vulnerable to the same error in thinking. I mean I went to grad school. I study racism, sexism, classism, and all the other inequalities, so I am the last person who would say or do something that is racist, sexist, classist, etc. Right? By being a sociologist I am inoculated from reproducing inequality. I’m one of the good guys.

Having eyes to see at the sociological level is not an end state. You’re never “fixed”. I struggle almost daily with my privilege. Just last week I asked my class to define femininity in a discussion about gender and I said that long straight hair was commonly associated with being feminine. It wasn’t until after class that it occurred to me that by defining femininity this way meant that I was reinforcing Eurocentric beauty standards and alienating many students of color.

So what should I do now? I could hope that not many students noticed my mistake or I could use this moment to show my students how my social location biased my worldview. I can use the opportunity to teach my students about Eurocentric beauty standards. I can show them what honest critical self-evaluation looks like and role model personal growth. Lastly, I can apologize to the students I’ve alienated and try to reestablish trust with them.

If your goal as a teacher is to reach students and inspire them to be changed by the experiences you have together you have to role model vulnerability. Before someone is willing to change themselves they first must be honest about where they are and that ALWAYS requires vulnerability. You can’t expect many students to be willing to change if you are not willing to be vulnerable. Your students are smart they know when you are being honest with them.

I want to acknowledge that I, as a Euro-American male, am experiencing one of my many privileges here. When I walk into the room on the first day many of my students automatically extend to me credibility and authority. In these cases both are unearned. When teachers of color or female teachers walk into the room they are not only not automatically seen as credible, but in some cases they are automatically assumed to be non-credible and their authority will be challenged at every point. This makes showing your vulnerability all the more difficult, but it doesn’t change the dangers of the “Teacher as Expert” model.

I don’t have a one size fits all solution here. I am not prescribing a course of action that, if you start taking today, you will find your classes are 50% more awesome. I know many good teachers who are just trying to survive a hostile classroom. I can’t tell you what will work for you. However, I know the risks associated with pretending to know everything and role modeling a “I have nothing to learn” stance. To learn we must first acknowledge the areas of ourselves that need growth. How can we ask our students to do something that we won’t do ourselves. If you’ve read to this point, consider sending me your ideas about teaching with vulnerability. Email me at Nathan@sociologysource.com. Thanks!

A spectre is haunting academia- the spectre of technology and teacher obsolescence. What does it mean for the future of teaching if faculty video record their lectures and post them online, if professors publish their teaching resources for anyone to copy and use, if teachers give away their classes for free? If, in the spirit of collaboration, professors give away all that they are paid to do, how will anyone else with a Ph.D. get work?

These are important questions, to be sure, but they are secondary to the questions that we should be focusing on. The question we should be asking is, why do any of these online resources jeopardize anyone’s job. That is, if the experiences students receive at your school could be easily replaced by a video recording or a website, I don’t think either of those are the source of your real problem. How have we gotten here? How can we ensure that our jobs will be safe in the future? And how can we leverage technology to make this all happen?

Paint by Numbers Teaching – Paint by Numbers Learning:

You know it happens. My first semester as a teacher I even did it. I was relieved to find that my textbook publisher provided not only all the readings I would need to assign, but gave me lecture slides to use, exam questions to make tests with, and even some (crummy) activities to do with my students. Phew! Paint by numbers teaching- what a relief. I dutifully created a “3 multiple choice tests and 1 paper” class. I FELT like a teacher. Just like you can jump off a cliff, flap your arms, and FEEL like your flying… for a moment.

To my chagrin my students didn’t learn too many critical thinking skills and believe it or not they struggled to apply any of the concepts discussed in class. At first I thought, “Well I did my part. If they don’t WANT to learn and are only seeking the path of least resistance to an A, that’s not my fault.” Thankfully, moments after this crossed my cerebrum I sought the counsel of a few amazing teachers in my graduate program who knocked the legs out from underneath this self-serving logic.

Is this how we solve problems in reality?

A. Totally
B. Yep
C. I guess
D. Dunno
E. None of the above

When we teach paint by numbers our intent does not match our execution. We intend (or maybe aspire is the right word) to teach our students to critically think about the world around them, develop a sociological imagination (which is inherently critical, complex, and abstract), and maybe just maybe empower them to create change in their communities. However, in our execution we use bullet point slide lectures (which promote a teacher as expert model of learning) and multiple choice tests (which deemphasize abstraction and complexity). It should surprise no one that if you present yourself as the bastion of all “important” knowledge to your students and then assess their learning by measuring their ability to consume and regurgitate this “important” knowledge, that they don’t develop critical thinking skills. If you are the expert and there is only one right answer, then the world isn’t complex or abstract it’s simple and dichotomous.

Furthermore, what vocational skill are we developing in our students if we only use closed book exams? Very few professions provide us all of the information we would ever need or want to solve a problem and then at the very moment we need it most take it away from us and ask us to solve the problem from memory. After the creation of the Internet, an encyclopedic memory is rarely valued on the labor market anymore. Exams that can be graded by a computer are super convenient for professors, especially as class sizes balloon, but they are not without consequence.

Our students are savvy and if we teach along the path of least resistance- if we paint by numbers teach, we can’t blame them from mirroring that level of effort. If we dehumanize our classes our students are right to feel alienated.

Humanity or homelessness, where is technology taking us?

We stand at a crossroads. We have the opportunity to make ourselves irreplaceable or easily replaceable. We have the opportunity to use technology to teach with humanity or to use technology to dehumanize our classrooms into credential factories.

If we allow our classes to become standardized experiences that rely completely on publisher provided lectures and multiple choice exams we can’t act surprised as our classrooms become auditoriums. If we throw up our hands in despair and accept that large lecture hall classes will be dehumanized and impersonal, then we can’t complain when our students act indifferent and disengaged. If we make it possible for our classes to be replaced by a video recording or an iPhone app (as Gov. Tim Pawlenty suggests below at minute 4:33), then we should expect to be underpaid or unemployed.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Tim Pawlenty
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> The Daily Show on Facebook

But we don’t have to accept obsolescence. We could use technology to leverage the one thing that will make us irreplaceable- our humanity. We can use technology to collaborate and create interesting engaging activities, assignments, and experiences (I am talking here about both peer reviewed sources and nonpeer reviewed sources). I have discussed how I use technology to be on a first name basis with all of my 350 students. We can use social media to help foster a sense of community and fight against classroom anonymity. And these are just a few ideas.

Teach Sociology for change or Teach Sociology for change (as in pennies).

Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does. Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another…Art is the product of emotional labor. If it’s easy and risk free, it’s unlikely that it’s art.

Seth Godin, Linchpin

What does it mean to teach with humanity. It means to put yourself out there, to see your teaching as artistic expression, and to strive to create a change inside each of our students. Many of us are afraid to take the risk and teach with our whole humanity. We are afraid we will be laughed at, so we follow the pack and teach paint by numbers. Some of us even call this type of teaching, “being realistic” or “being a professional.” I call it cowering in fear. Making a human connection with your students is hard work (especially in mass) and risky, but it is all that stands between us and obsolescence. Where do you intend to stand along this dividing line?

Sociology has the power to change our students lives and the communities they & we live in. Students who can see at the sociological level (as well as the individual) make more informed choices and are far more likely to advocate for tolerance, acceptance, equality, and peace in their communities. The world is desperately in need of educators willing to put their heart and soul into helping students gain the eyes to see at the sociological level.


If you are reading this YOU ARE THE SOLUTION or at least you can be if you want to be. There are many paths to teaching with humanity and no one, especially me, can tell you how to get there. Teach with passion, refuse to accept a dehumanized classroom, share radically, collaborate with similarly motivated colleagues and you will find your way. And maybe start by sharing, Tweeting, or sending this manifesto to someone who you think might be as interested in finding ways to teach with humanity as you are.

Sociology Educators of the World Unite!


“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.

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.