Teaching Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is your powerpoint presentation created for? That is, who benefits most from what you put on the slides? Do you put everything a student would need to know to do well on exams? Probably not. When you know a topic like the back of your hand do you put a whole lot of fine details on your slides? Most people don’t. Then who are bullet point slides designed for? Not our students/audience, but for you the presenter. It’s no wonder then that students eyes glaze over by the second slide.

Cognitive Overload:
Bullet point slides ask your students to listen to you, read what they see, and write it down in their notebook. Listen, read, write simultaneously. But the truth is, no one can really multitask, you can only do 3 things half heartedly. You know what I am talking about; the classroom gets silent when you progress your slides forward. If you want to ask a question you have to wait until everyone gets the slide copied in their notes. Bullet points force your students to ignore you. So then are your presentation slides an aide to your instruction or are you an aide to your PowerPoint’s instruction. You can reclaim your class, if you want to.

The Potential in PowerPoint.
Your lecture slides could captivate your students. They could communicate in a simple, straightforward manner a complex concept by using an image or metaphor. Instead of bullet points telling students about a current event, you could show them what it looked like. You could use your slides to convey the emotion connected to your concepts. Your slides could make your students laugh or want to cry. The potential is so amazing that it is near criminal that so many of us are leaving this opportunity on the table. See & download my examples below:

Current Events:

This slides doesn’t tell your class about the two students who spread cotton in front of the Black Culture Center at the University of Missouri, it takes them there. It shows them the smug look on the perpetrators face when they were arrested.

Presenting Concepts Visually:

Social Stratification as explained through rock stratification.

Racial Injustice


Conveying Emotion:

This photo shows the grieving mother of a Muslim American Solider Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan who was killed in Iraq serving his country. I use this photo when we talk about Islamophobia and what it means to be an American.

Graphically Explain Data

“But, My Students Expect To See My Notes”:
This could be put another way: “But, my students expect me to tell them what’s on the test.” This is a dangerous teaching model. It makes you “the expert” with all the information. It also encourages diametric thinking (i.e. that there is only right information and wrong information.) Students with this mindset will hate group work, because why would they want to talk to non-expert students when there is a sage in the room? Students at this level of thinking cannot understand how answers can be partially right or how complex certain situations can be. If you want to encourage higher level thinking you have to break students out of this model and changing your PowerePoints is a straight forward way of doing just that. If you don’t change them, you should ask yourself, “what type of thinking am I preparing my students for?”

I tell my students all the time, “If you want a different type of class, then you have to be a different type of student. I promise you that I will do everything in my power to be a different kind of teacher and make this a different kind of classroom experience.” Different in, different out. If you want a different experience with your students you have to try different things. I say so what if your students expect bullet point slides. Give them a well thought out, interesting, challenging class and they won’t complain that you didn’t follow some unwritten rules.

How You Can Do It:
I use Google Image search and Flickr’s Creative Commons search to find most of my images. These are free resources that you can use as long as you credit the owner or creator of the images (what’s know as attribution in creative commons lingo). Another option that I use a lot is iStockPhoto.com which is a website that has thousands of professional royalty free images for around $5 each. This is less attractive, but if you buy images that can be reused in many classes it can lesson the pain.

This post and all of my lecture slides were inspired by Garr Reynolds’s Amazing book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery
. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Lastly, I don’t use PowerPoint because I find that program infuriating. If you have a Mac you should at least try Keynote. It makes it dead simple to produce snazzy lecture slides in less time than it takes to fumble through PowerPoint.

I am a white middle class heterosexual male sociology teacher. I teach about inequality that I benefit from. I teach about inequality that I can mindlessly recreate both inside of and outside of class. I teach about inequality that some students deny exists and some know on a first name basis. From the outside this could seem hypocritical; I could appear a fraud. Have I chose the wrong line of work? Can white teachers teach race and ethnicity? Can middle class teachers teach economic inequality? Can male teachers teach gender inequality? Can straight teachers teach sexual inequality? They can and they must.

I’m let in & taken at my word

As a white middle class male heterosexual teacher I walk into my class room and when students lay eyes on me they more often then not have their preconceptions of what a professor is going to look like met. My collard shirt, my wedding ring, my clean shaven face all reassure them that I am what they were most likely bargaining for. I fit the stereotype of a professor and subsequently benefit from it. When I talk about inequality students take me at my word. They don’t say to themselves, “well of course you would say that you are _______”. When a person of privilege asks, “why are things this way; why are things so unequal” the taken for granted aspects of our culture are more easily knocked down from their perch of sacredness and honest exploration of the status quo can begin. (Messner 2000).

For students of privilege I can use our shared cultural experience as an illustrative example of how inequality is created. When I tell my students how I mindlessly hurt someone with my own prejudice I can role model how to grapple with and acknowledge privilege. For all of my students I can be an example of someone who stands up for social justice and does not tolerate intolerance. I can show them that no one is inoculated from being prejudice, discriminating, or holding biases. I can stand before them not as a savior with all the right answers, but a fallible educator with some of the right questions.

I’m obligated for countless reasons, but here are two of them.

First, racism is not people of color’s problem, nor is misogyny women’s problem, nor is homophobia the LGTBQ community’s problem, etc. The oppressed and exploited are not responsible for ending oppression and exploitation. They are inextricably linked to it and certainly most affected by it, but it is not their responsibility to mitigate it. As an individual who begrudgingly benefits from exploitation and oppression I am obligated to work to end it. If you believe for one second that you benefit because of your social position (regardless if you seek it out or not) and you believe in social justice, then you either feel obligated to do something about it or you feel cognitive dissonance. If what I’m saying sounds to you like “white guilt” or one of it’s equivalents, then I ask you, how is cognitive dissonance treating you?

Second, research suggests that faculty of color and women are disproportionately assigned to teach what’s called in the biz, “required diversity classes”(Perry, Moore, Edwards, Acosta, and Frey 2009). These classes on race, gender, sexuality, and inequality are tough classes for any teacher. Subsequently this makes the tenure process, for which course evaluations are a component, more changeling for anyone who teaches them. Assigning faculty of color and women to teach required diversity classes recreates inequality and reflects the “oppression is the responsibility of the oppressed” mentality discussed above. As a person of privilege I am obligated to share the burden* of teaching these courses

Minding Your World View

Teaching inequality from a place of privilege requires me to be constantly reevaluating my world view, how I structure my class, and how I interact with students. Privilege is often automatically extended to the privileged. Bias emerges not from consciousness, but from being unconscious about how your world view is slanted. To understand your privilege and how you benefit from it you have to think outside of yourself. You have to imagine how your words and actions would appear to someone who does not experience the privileges you do. Its complex, convoluted, and at times maddening. But the burden of dealing with privilege is minuscule compared to the burden forced upon those without it.

Teaching involves power and so it has the potential to recreate inequality. All teachers must be mindful of this. You must be willing to own up to your mistakes and learn from them. You must be honest with your students about the privileges you hold and your humanity. This is the only way to reduce inequality, make your community a better place, and change students lives.

*For the record. I don’t see teaching diversity as a burden, but a privilege. I prefer teaching required diversity courses as I love interacting with my students on material that is challenging and at times controversial.

Perry, Gary, Helen Moore, Crystal Edwards, Katherine Acosta and Connie Frey. “Maintaining Credibility and Authority as an Instructor of Color in Diversity-Education Classrooms: A Qualitative Inquiry.” The Journal of Higher Education 80.1 (2009): 80-105.

Messner, Michael A. 2000. “White Guy Habitus in the Classroom: Challenging the Reproduction of Privilege”. Men and Masculinities 2:457-469

When I first started teaching I thought that my role as a sociologist was to debunk social myths and get my students to see the world my way. I thought if I could provide them with enough evidence they would have to believe that my political point of view was right. In a sense I was doing teaching as activism. What I’ve learned sense then is that a patient, hands off approach works best at getting students to “see the social” in sociological issues- especially the controversial social issues.

My mentor and friend, Dr. Lori Dance, reminded me some time ago that all of our students are taking a class. As obvious as that sounds, it is easy to forget that a classroom is a learning environment where it is okay to be wrong, uninformed, or oblivious. We have to be patient with our students and trust that when they are presented all of the facts about the topic they will come around and have a “a ha!” moment.

On the first day of all my classes I make a joke about the difference between a course in calculus and one in sociology. If a student in a calculus class raises their hand and says, “I think the solution is to take the derivative.” Other students don’t throw their hands up and say, “Oh my god! Are you ignorant or what? Clearly the solution is to take the anti-derivative. What the hell is wrong with you?” However, if you’re not careful about laying down discussion ground rules this type of response will almost certainly happen a few times in your career. Patience is the fist step in reaching students with a politically neutral teaching style. If you are not patient and you try to force your beliefs, or the arguments your text(s) are making, you will find your students become entrenched in their previous world view and unwilling to listen to anything you have to say. Let them be where they are and once trust is established they will be open to coming over to your point of view.

Another thing I say at the start of every class is, “I’m the only one being paid to be politically neutral*.” I tell the students that we will take a look at what the texts, videos, and guest speakers have to say and then each of them will decide what is of value to them. They are free to take what they like and leave what they don’t like. While at first glance this seems like a fast way to prevent any growth in my students, what I’ve found is that if you let students take an active role in selecting what they think is valuable they tend to adopt far more of the lessons from the course than if you try to push it on them. This is especially true of students who come to the class with many views that are opposed to the lessons of sociology. Students take ownership of their change and personal growth because they were in charge of it.

Furthermore, as any social science teacher can tell you, when a student says something that goes starkly against what the evidence in the text shows, other students will speak up and call that students logic into question. By letting the students self-regulate the class discussion you foster a peer-centric learning environment. And in my experience students are far more likely to take to heart that which another classmate says as opposed to what the “authority figure” at the front of the room says.