Yik Yak paddy whack throw a teach a bone.[1]

Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could see what your students are saying about the community you live in? Well good news friends, there’s an app for that.

Meet Yik Yak. It’s a sort of anonymous twitter. You can post messages anonymously and then people can vote them up or down. But what really makes Yik Yak interesting is that you can only read the messages that were published by someone else near your current location. So for instance, if you open Yik Yak in the student union you’ll see different messages than if you open it at the library.

It might be easier to think of Yik Yak like a virtual bathroom wall were people scribble messages anonymously. And just like a bathroom wall it’s full of horrible, vile, and down right mean messages sent by people too cowardly to say them publicly. The app has received a lot of criticism because it’s been used by school children and college students alike to bully, harass, and shame students and teachers.

All that said, I think Yik Yak could be used as a pedagogical tool… if you’re courageous. Often I find myself trying to convince my students that racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are problems on our campus and in our town[2]. Now instead of telling them that intolerance is a problem, I can show them it is. I plan to show them the words of their peers and the community they live in when I talk about racism, sexism, and homophobia. I’ll show them that some of the most oppressive messages receive the most up votes. Yik Yak will serve as an ice breaker and, I hope, neutralize the “we don’t have that problem around here” argument.

Why This Might Be a Terrible Idea

As soon as my students know that I am on Yik Yak I open the door for them to say the most hurtful things they can anonymously. I trust my students. I sincerely like and respect them as well. I think at this point in the semester we’ve established a strong enough report to do this. But that said, I don’t plan to load Yik Yak after class. I’ll give it a few days for any “Prof. Palmer Sucks!!!” messages to fade into the background. If you think your students have animosity toward you or are bigoted toward you because you are from a non-dominant group, you should really consider not using Yik Yak.

But Wait!

Of course Yik Yak messages are an unrepresentative sample. Oh, looky there, another concept that Yik Yak can teach your students.


  1. Sorry, couldn’t help myself.  ↩

  2. This probably goes without saying, but I would make this same argument in every town and at every school in the United States.  ↩

I am crazy. I just want to lay that down before I tell you my plans this semester.

I am broadcasting my office hours live every Wednesday afternoon this semester. This semester I have over 400 students and I have to do something to try and make myself more available. Each week, during face-to-face office hours I only interact with 0 to 5 students. My hope is that I can raise this number substantially by making it dead simple to start a dialogue with me.

How To Hold Online Office Hours

I will be using a Google+ feature called Hangouts on Air. Hangouts allow up to 10 people to video conference (in a manner very similar to Skype). Hangouts on Air broadcast the video conference live online and after the broadcast the video is available for students to watch on YouTube. The amazing part of Hangouts on Air is how simple it is to pull off. The recoding, broadcasting, and archiving on YouTube all happens automatically; you just click one check box. If you’ve ever Skyped with someone, you have almost all the skills you’d need to broadcast your office hours. I promise you, if this becomes a pain to manage, I’ll be right back here to tell you about it.

Students will be able to “hangout” during the recording (i.e. appear on air with me) using their Google+ accounts. Georgia Southern University, where I teach, provides all students and faculty with Gmail accounts which come with Google+ accounts built in. For students who are camera shy, they can send their questions by email, tweet, or instant message.

I’ve created a handout for my students that explains how this whole thing works and how they can get their questions answered. You can download it and adapt it to your class.

More Examples

I am not the first to try this. John Boyer aka the Plaid Avenger at Virginia Tech has been holding online office hours for his mega-classes of 2,670 students. Boyer’s approach is far more animated and humorous than mine, but if you are thinking about holding online office hours, watching a little of his work might help you. I studied his Ustream feed to pick up on the mechanics of broadcasting, receiving real time questions, etc.

Wednesday 1:30 EST You Can Watch Live.

I am crazy for doing this. Not for hosting online office hours; that will become far more common on a long enough timeline. I am crazy for broadcasting my first live office hours right here in front of all of you. Check back on Wednesday at 1:30EST and you can watch the live stream on this very page. It will be embedded below and we’ll do it live.

Email is the digital equivalent of weeds. You can spend all day dealing with it, but tomorrow there’ll be more. There is no trick I can give you to reduce the size of your inbox, but I do have a few strategies for minimizing the impact email has on your day[1]. The first is to follow the divide and conquer approach described in the first post in this series. But after you’ve done that here are 5 more quick strategies.

1. Always Be Closing

Unless you are trying to develop a connection with a student, try to end the conversation with every email. If you can end a conversation in one email rather than bouncing emails back and forth, you’ll save [bookoo] time.

2. Craft Your Emails & Syllabus Carefully

Some students ask you questions that are clearly covered on the syllabus, but a lot of students ask questions because what you said in class, written in a class-wide email, or printed on paper isn’t as clear as it could be. Always be thinking, “will students email me questions about this?” as you’re writing or saying anything. You can’t nip all of them in the bud, but a majority of them can be.

3. Not For Them, But With Them

Students like to ask you to do things for them, but you should say no. Instead offer to do it with them. The classic example of this is the question “will you read this 10 page paper and give me feedback before it’s due so I can know if I need to keep working on it?” This is a one way time transaction. When asked I reply, “I’d love to go over your work with you, but I prefer to do it face-to-face. Please feel free to stop by my office hours or let’s set up a meeting soon so we can really pour over your work.” This approach dramatically speeds up the process because you don’t have to write everything down. The old adage, “I can’t be working harder than you,” is the driving logic behind this approach.

4. Let Students Answer Each Other’s Questions

Give your students a way to answer their own questions online. Most LMSs have a discussion board feature that can easily be turned into backchannel for student interaction. My students use this all the time and I patrol it frequently to be on the look out for crises as they bubble up.

5. Use Keyboard Shortcuts

If you are using Gmail (and god love you if you aren’t/can’t) you owe it to yourself to learn the keyboard shortcuts. These make it a snap to reply to emails (just push r), archive an email (push e), move up or down your inbox using j and k, etc. It may take you a minute to learn to incorporate them into your workflow, but they are a huge time saver (especially [ and ] which archive and move up and down your inbox). Read this if you want some help on setting these up on your gmail account.


If you’re not careful, email can eat your lunch, but it doesn’t have too. You need to find the strategies that work best for you. These are just a few that have worked for me. I’d love to hear what works best for you in the comments below, on Facebook, Twitter, or send email to Nathan@SociologySource.com


  1. Just as a reminder, I have over 300 students every semester. So the advice I have may not apply if you teach at a smaller school or a school with much smaller class sizes. However, I think that all of us struggle to keep up with our inboxes.  ↩

Once you’ve separated monotonous busy work emails from requests for a human connection, you’re ready to plow through the former as quickly as possible. Boiler plating, or using prewritten email messages, can save you buckets of time. “But every email is a unique snowflake!” you may be thinking. Well here are just a few of the emails that I’ve boiler plated:

  • I’m sick did I miss anything important?
  • What’s my grade?
  • I’m Bobby’s dad what’s his grade (a FERPA request)
  • Can I email you my paper? (Answer: No)
  • THE PDF YOU GAVE US DOESN’T WORK
  • When are your office hours?

TextExpander

TextExpander (or it’s Windows doppelgänger Breezy) is a little program that allows you to write blurbs of text that will automagically plop into anything you write when you type a predefined string of text. TextExpander is always watching what you type just waiting for one of these strings. This is super handy for pieces of text you write all the time.

So for instance, I’m always typing the name of my university. So I’ve got it set up so that when I type ggsu it replaces these four letters with Georgia Southern University. TextExpander speeds up all of my emails because I script all of my salutations. To make it easy to remember I repeat a letter 3 times and use t for a generic thanks, p for professional sign offs, and f for a friendly goodbye.

When I type
When I type

TextExpander allows you to add more than just text. You can have returns, it can add into a prewritten block of text what you have copied in the clipboard, and for the super nerds, you can even run code within your blurb. Confused? Check out this video:

TextExpander can be purchased here and it’s PC equivalent can be purchased here. If you use both a PC and a Mac, it’s easy to synch the two up using Dropbox. Finally, if you have an iPhone or iPad TextExpander is available on both platforms.

Canned Emails:

If you’re institution uses Gmail as it’s email client, they love you. Almost all other email clients are absolutely awful for anyone who gets more than 5 emails a day. One of the best things about Gmail is the Labs feature where you can elect to turn on added functionality to your Gmail account. One of my favorites is a feature called Canned Emails that allows you to write boiler plate blocks of text, save them, and then plop them into an email from a drop down menu. It’s super slick.

Always be on the lookout for interactions that can be boiler platted. If you find yourself writing something more than once, try using Canned Emails and/or TextExpander. Remember, every moment you spend on interactions that don’t increase human connection, is an opportunity lost.

I love interacting with students; it’s one of the best parts of my job, however I love some parts of it more than others. I’ve learned that all student interactions can be broken into two groups. The first group fosters a human connection between faculty and students. The second group is tedious busy work that has zilch to do with connection.

Sometimes it’s easy to identify the true nature of an interaction from the jump. “What chapter are we reading this week?” and other questions that could be answered by a cursory glance at the syllabus best characterize the second group. These requests are tedious busy work that the student is attempting to off load from their todo list on to yours. They are asking you to cut their steak for them. Don’t.

“What you said in class today really affected me. Can we talk about it?” while it’s rarely said this overtly, when students approach you with requests like these you should come alive or probably think of getting another job. This is what teaching sociology is all about. When students admit that they have gaps in their knowledge they are showing you their vulnerability. If you shame them or do not properly answer their questions, they will close up for the rest of the semester and perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to deeply learn sociology will be lost.

Be aware that sometimes a simple request or question can be a veiled request for connection. For instance, “can you help me calculate my grade,” may really be a cry for help. You have to develop a sixth sense for these, watching body language, listening to intonation, and placing questions in context. I hear a lot of academics talking about student entitlement, but we must remember that students are not a monolithic group. Some expect too much, but others don’t dare to make reasonable requests.

Ruthless Maximization of Human Interactions

The mark of a true pro is the ruthless maximization of interactions that develop human connection and the equally ruthless minimization of those that don’t. You and I have a finite amount of time each day for students. Each moment you spend cutting your student’s steak for them is a moment you cannot spend on developing a human connection with your students. My wife always says, “just because someone throws the ball to you doesn’t mean you have to catch it.”

Always be looking for ways that your students can carry the other half of the board. The more you can put the onus on their shoulders, the freer you are to develop a human connection with them.

Over the years I’ve developed tactics to put this maximization ideal into practice.
If connection interactions are the needles and tedious busy work interactions are the hay, I want to show you how to blast through the hay with as little effort as possible. Over the next few posts I want to share with you the strategies that I use to minimize the time I spend on non-connection student interactions.

The Getting Through The Hay Series:

  1. Scheduling Student Appointments The Easy Way
  2. Boiler Plating Emails
  3. Dealing with a torrent of email
  4. Streamlining Letter of Recommendation Requests

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.  ↩

Are you on the Twitter? I am (@SociologySource & @NathanPalmer1) and I really think you should be too. It’s an essential part of how I teach.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up checked Twitter and found a video or news story about the very sociological topic I was preparing to teach that day. Using these in my classes gives the sociological concepts we discuss a sense of immediacy that is priceless. I follow a pretty eclectic bunch of sociologists and educators who feed me the latest news, media, and perspectives on what’s going on right now.

I’ll stop selling you on Twitter. If you use Twitter than my explanation probably sounds like someone explaining how a rotary phone works and if you don’t use Twitter I’m hoping you are officially sold on it now.

#TeachSoc and #LearnSoc

The reason I bring all this up is to make a modest suggestion to the sociological Twitter community. What’dya say we create a hashtag[1] for resources for teaching sociology (#TeachSoc) and learning sociology (#LearnSoc)? This would help all of us and it would make finding the best resources for your class less dependent on serendipity.

I’m in the middle of a redesign here on SociologySource and one of the pieces I’m going to add is a feed of all the Tweets marked with a #TeachSoc or #LearnSoc. So I’m putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak. I hope you’ll join me.


  1. A hashtag is a way of sorting posts on twitter. So for instance if all the great resources for teaching sociology were posted on Twitter with a #TeachSoc, then sociologists could do a search on Twitter for the words TeachSoc and a glorious list of resources would emmerge.  ↩

Do you give quizzes online? If you do, then you feel my pain. I use weekly quizzes to assess student learning in real time (à la my Early and Often strategy). On the face of it, this is a great plan, but every week I am inundated with emails from students claiming that they took the quiz, but that our LMS[1] lost it, glitched, or cheated them in some other way.

So here’s the conundrum: How do I create a policy that is fair to students who really have had technical difficulties that are beyond their control, while also weeding out students who are false reporting them? My solution, create an explicit set of directions to get the students to troubleshoot their problem themselves. Then only after they’ve tried everything, they email me.

You can download the form I use here: (Word | Pdf | Pages)

LMS Glitched Handout

All the pieces you will need to adjust are highlighted in red. If you modify this form or have suggestions for modifications send it my way to nathan@sociologysource.com or @SocSource on Twitter. I’d love to see your work.

What I like about this policy is that it puts the onus of solving the problem almost entirely on the student, which means it can scale to even the largest classes. This acts as a buffer because almost 99% of the problems will be solved before they even send me an email. Second, it is a standardized approach to the problem. No one can say I was unfair as long as I don’t deviate from the policy. Lastly, it rewards students who don’t wait until the last minute to take the quizzes.

Does it sound like I’m kinda proud of myself here? It’s cause I am 🙂


  1. We use a version of Blackboard and WebCT called GeorgiaView at Georgia Southern University. It’s not my favorite, but we are switching to Desire2Learn which sounds like it is it’s own sequel. Worst. Name. Ever. Just saying.  ↩

Most sociology 101 students don’t actually do sociology. They read about sociological research, but they themselves don’t typically have the opportunity to partake in it. Imagine an intro to physics where students weren’t expected to do physics, an intro to composition class where students didn’t write, or even a spanish 101 course where not a spanish word was uttered. Each would be preposterous. And yet a sociology class where students don’t actually do sociology is par for the course.

The reason for sociological research absence in soc 101 classes is somewhat obvious. It’s hard to get a class of 30 students to independently conduct sociological research and most of us are teaching intro to soc classes with hundreds of students. Also, sociological research is a complex beast and it takes practitioners years to really learn how to do sociology. This summer I’ve made this issue my nut to crack and I think I have found a way to offer your students a chance at doing sociological research in your soc 101 class regardless of how many students you have. I have developed a solution that I will be using this fall when I teach a Soc 101 class that has 400+ students in it.

If you are going to have a class this size do anything you need to have 1) really clear directions, 2) a way to automate most of the tedious repetitive work, and 3) you need to simplify the complex research process down into a few key ideas. To address all three of these I have created an activity that asks my students to conduct survey research on why students don’t do the readings assigned in their classes. The students have to write their own hypothesis statement that identifies an independent and dependent variable and then design and implement a survey that will allow them to test their hypothesis.

Sounds like a whole lot of work right? Well the process is radically simplified by using Google docs. Google docs allows users to create “forms” (a.k.a. surveys) to collect and analyze data. It’s dead simple to create a survey, make it a stand alone webpage, get users to fill it out, and then use Google’s “Analyze data” wizard to get simple descriptive statistics and graphical representations of your data. After students have collected and analyzed their data they can “share” their form/survey with you and you can easily see all their survey, the data they collected, and their statistical analysis.

I’ve created the base directions for this activity which you can download here. I’ve also created a handout for creating surveys on Google Docs that walks students through the process step by step with images and clear directions, download them here. I also wanted my students to learn a little about survey methodology so I created a “Do’s and Don’ts of Good Survey Question Design” handout which you can download here.

Hopefully this assignment will allow our students to experience sociological research without creating mountains of paperwork and unnecessary hassle for us. If you use this or you have your large classes conduct sociological research in another way I’d love to get feedback from you. Send me an email at Nathan@sociologysource.com and tell me what’s worked for you.

“We’re just going to have to do more with less,” this is the mantra of academic administrators across the country. If you’ve read The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed in the last few years then you know the topic of living with budget cuts is evergreen. The times they are a changing and as budgets constrict teachers are expected to teach more students and more courses with less resources. You’re just going to have to learn to do more with less. But you know this mantra is nonsense. No one does more with less.

Doing More with More:

The power of community and collaboration should not be news to professional sociologists. Colleagues in departments across the globe share syllabi, resources, and teaching ideas with the peers in their department without any reservation. Not doing so is widely seen as being uncollegial. While the value and RIGHTNESS of this sharing is so obvious at the departmental level, many academics are wary about sharing with their peers online.

However, in the “doing more with less” reality we find ourselves in the only way to ease the pain of constricting resources is to work together nationally and globally. If sociology educators used Internet technology as a platform for sharing resources with our peers across the planet, we could broaden our collective resources and do more with more.

Many of us need to expand our conception of being collegial and who we perceive as a peer. If you are a professional sociology educator reading this, then to me you are my colleague. Sharing my resources with you only makes sense to me and I hope that my giving will inspire you to give to the community as well. You can get involved by participating in any of the following.

The Movement’s Already Afoot. Join Us.

Online Resources:

  1. Join the Teaching Sociology Google Group/Listserv

    The Teaching Sociology Google Group/Listserv is a community of postsecondary sociology educators who share resources, ideas, ask and answer questions about how to teach sociology. It’s a great place to find activities for your classes, best practices for teaching, and much more.

  2. Share your teaching resource on ASA’s peer-reviewed TRIALS online

  3. Share online videos and find new ones for your classes at SociologicalCinema.com

  4. Share a teaching resource right here on SociologySource.com

Offline Resources:

  1. Join the ASA section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology

  2. Share your teaching resource with the Teaching Sociology Journal