Bored Students

So it’s that time of the semester. The luster of your lectures has worn off, students aren’t even trying to hide their texting, and your class discussions are nothing more than moments of silence in between you asking and answering your own questions. Maybe this isn’t happening for you (good on you then), but for the rest of us I have some words of advice that may help you reenergize your students and spice up the class (I’m using a completely non-sexual connotation of this phrase).

Don’t “Believe Your Thoughts”

“My students this semester are the worst I’ve ever had!” one of the people I follow on Twitter said this week. While I don’t know them personally and I don’t know their teaching situation, I found myself asking, “Really? Is it really that bad?” Maybe it is, but whenever I hear teachers complaining they never say, “this is my 3rd worst class ever.” It’s always the worst ever. We are all prone to view the experiences we are currently living through as harder than previous and future situations simply because we have no perspective on the situation at hand. In two months from now most of you will no longer consider things as dire as they are now.

The “worst ever” language is also a common turn-of-phrase, but this hyperbole becomes dangerous when we start believing it as an accurate description of reality. Buddhists have this saying, “don’t believe your thoughts.”1 If you listen to your inner dialogue throughout the day you will notice that the majority of the things that cross your mind are things that if you stopped and really examined each one of them you would find that you probably don’t believe them at all. When I’m in front of my class I can convince myself that the student who is grimacing hates my guts, is going to give me a terrible evaluation, I’m going to lose my job, and I will end up homeless on the side of the road with a mouth full of the bitter ashes of my dreams. Then again, maybe the student just missed lunch or their partner just dumped them.

Try to keep things in perspective and guard against the siren’s call of negative thinking. In the moment, indulging your fears feels good, but it is a fast track to unnecessary misery2. Do some reality checking by asking your students to write a 2-minute paper about what you discussed in class or if you haven’t already, do a mid-term evaluation. Remember if “believing your thoughts” can lead you to hate your job, then the inverse is also true. So try on some positive thinking.

Mix It Up

It’s easy to find a teaching style that works for you and stick with it. Don’t. You should always try new ways of reaching your students. If you lecture all the time, surprise your students with a 100% self-directed in-class group project. If you do lots of group projects and their effectiveness is waining, try showing a short video and leading a large class discussion. Try getting a guest speaker to come in. If your class discussions are flagging buy a bag of halloween candy and toss it out to the student who answers your question right (Double Bonus: the danger of candy whizzing across the classroom will awaken even the sleepiest of students).

Play Some Music

Play some upbeat music before class starts. Ideally pick a song that relates to the topic you are going to talk about, but if you can’t, just pick a toe-tapping ditty. “But I don’t know what ‘the kids’ are listening to these days!” Ok, then play them one of your favorites or… wait for it… ask them for suggestions. I ask my students for suggestions all the time; with the proviso that the suggested song not have curse words, be derogatory, or reinforce oppression (kinda narrows it a bit). Also, you don’t even need to buy most songs because you can find almost anything on YouTube and play it for free.

Remind Your Students & Yourself Why You Are Teaching This Class

It’s easy to forget why you love teaching. It can be a tough slog at points during the semester, but remembering why you are passionate about your subject can rekindle your spirits. Take a moment and jot down why you were so excited for the opportunity to teach this course before the semester began, then go into your class and use your notes to rally the troops. One word of caution though, if you don’t truly feel it or you think you can’t deliver an impassioned speech, it may be better to skip sharing this with your class. A half-hearted rally cry can turn into a death knell.


I’m fairly sure that all of my readers “know” all the tips I am suggesting here. However, it is easy for all of us to get stuck in a routine, feel trapped, and forget that we have all the control we need to change things. There is a cruel irony that sociology teaches us that we all have the power we need to create change and overcome adversity and yet so many teachers can feel trapped by courses they have unilateral control over. If we can’t create change in the classroom what hope do we have to create change outside it?


1. Actually I don’t know if all Buddhists feel this way, but one of my favorite Buddhists, Dan Benjamin, talks about this idea on his podcast Back to Work. I highly recommend it.

2. Another Buddhist maxim is “suffering is optional.”

Everyday in the United States school children are exposed to rags-to-riches stories. Children gather round on the rug and listen to the teachers they adore read to them about “self-made” men like Abraham Lincoln. They learn from their history and social studies books that the United States is a meritocracy where anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they are willing to work hard 1. Over the course of their public education students learn this lesson well; work hard, take advantage of your opportunities, and you will certainly be successful. By the time students come into my 101 class this is a painfully unremarkable story. When I recount it in class their response is a unanimous, “Yeah. Duh. So what?”

“Is there anything wrong with teaching school children the world is theirs for the taking? You just have to work hard?” I ask them. Typically my students struggle to find a single issue with teaching the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideology. “Is it true?” I ask them “Can anyone be successful as long as they work hard and take advantage of their opportunities?” Nearly the entire class smirks at the obviousness of my question. Someone responds with a, “Well, No.” “No? And yet we teach it to our children without a second thought. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

“What would a conflict theorist ask here?” “Who benefits?” someone chimes out. “Yes, that’s right. So who benefits if we tell everyone in the United States that they can get ahead if they work hard, despite that being at best only partially true?” A hand pops up, “Those who are already successful benefit because it makes them look good.” “Exactly. Ok, now let’s ask the inverse. Who suffers?” Perplexed silence fills the room for the next 120 seconds. “Anyone? Take a shot at it.” No takers today. “Ok then, help me with this: If I am a child and I hear my teacher tell the class that all you need to be successful is a good work ethic and my parents are wealthy, then what must I think about my parents?” “They worked hard?” says multiple students simultaneously. “Yes, of course. And what if my parents struggle to put food on the table? What if I know for certain that my family is not successful or worse what if I know that my parents are poor? Then what would the ‘bootstrap’ myth tell me about my parents?” A single hand raises slowly, “Then your parents must not be hard workers.” “Think about that for a minute. What a powerful lesson to teach our children. If your family is rich, they earned it. If your family is poor, they’re lazy. Why on earth would we teach that in school?”

From here my students are ready to explore stratification, hegemony, justifying rationales, and all the rest of it. It’s starts with an innocuous story and ends with a class on the front of their seats, needing to know more.


1. Loewen, James. 1995. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: The New Press

“As you know, the divorce rate in the United States has been exploding over the last 40 years. Today it is at an all time high.” When I say this in my 101 class during our discussion on research methods students nod along and dutifully write it in their notes. “You may be asking yourself, ‘what explains this historic rate of divorce’ and luckily for you sociology has the answer… But, first I want you to generate some hypotheses. Turn to your neighbor and see if you can whip up a list of causes of divorce. That is, why do most people get divorced?”

The class easily generates a laundry list of causes: financial stress, Internet porn, the reduced stigma surrounding divorce, the exploding teen pregnancy rate, are some of the most popular. For this activity I am just waiting until someone says unemployment, financial stress, or poverty then I spring into action. “So tell me more about financial stress. Why do tough economic times make the divorce rate go up?” The class quickly posits that if money is the root of many arguments then less money equals more problems (Despite what Biggie Smalls taught us). “Yes that’s absolutely right. As the country enters into tough times the divorce rate balloons. I think you are getting the hang of this sociological research thing.” With that settled we move on in the lecture.

After we finish the next topic I take an aside and say, “So I don’t know how to say this, but at some point in today’s class I told you the exact opposite of what social research tells us about a particular issue. Can anyone tell me which topic it was that I was misleading you on?” Students cock their heads to the side and give me a perplexed look. My dishonesty squelches their willingness to participate in a class discussion. After a few beats I continue, “would you believe it was about the divorce rate?” “I knew it!” shouts the class know-it-all. “Now I want you to turn to your neighbors and take a crack at guessing which part of the “facts” about divorce we just discussed were inaccurate.” Mild laughter washes over the room as the class releases the nervous energy my dishonesty created.

“Financial stress doesn’t cause divorce?” offers one student after I ask the class for their guesses. I turn to the rest of the class and ask them to show hands if they think financial stress does cause divorce. Half the class raises their hands. “Before I tell you what impact financial stress has on divorce rates,” I tell the class, “I want you to take a quick poll. Raise your hand if you are certain or at least strongly believe that your answer is right.” Over 3/4s of the class raises their hand. “Financial stress can create strain on a marriage, but during economic recessions divorce rates stall or even decline according to research in our textbook (Conley’s You May Ask Yourself).”

I spend the next few minutes discussing with the class why they wrote down the “facts” about divorce without questioning them. We talk about authority and obedience, about the perceived obviousness of “facts”, and how the mind creates plausible narratives to make any “fact” fit within the fabric of the preconceived ideologies the students hold. The real lesson here is about the perils of intuitive sociology. When we use common sense to explain sociological phenomena we indulge our biases and describe the world as we would like it. There are few sociological contradictions in a world created by intuition. I sum things up for the class, “If there is one overarching message I want you to take from this class, it’s that the world is far more complex than we are told it is and more complex than each of us would like it to be. There are no pure heroes and no pure villains. The world described by sociologists is one of intricate connections and overlapping gray areas.”

As we start to transition to the next class topic I throw down my final card to play, “Oh, and the census shows that the divorce rate has been declining since it peaked in 1980. For adults under the age of 39 the divorce rate was down significantly in 2009 compared to 1996. So all that talk of ‘historic-all-time-high’ and ‘exploding divorce rate’ that’s all nonsense too.” “I told you!” says the know-it-all to his nearby classmates.

“I thought this class was going to be about the environment, but we keep talking about illegal immigrant workers.” is a statement one of my students years ago made in my environmental sociology class. The social inequality we see in a society is reflected in and reproduced by the the maltreatment of the environment. This is the foundational idea I want my students in environmental sociology to learn. However, drawing the connection between the two can at times seem counter intuitive to students.

I love the film Food, Inc. because it addresses how intertwined our social realities are to our environmental realities. The video pairs the exploitation of low level workers in the food industry with the tragic conditions animals are raised and slaughtered in. At one point in the film someone says that corporate food producers treat workers exactly like the treat their animals. Both will be gone soon, so it just easier to design the system to acquire them quickly, use them up, and discard them.

We see in the film how large food corporations use their power to shape the government regulations that are supposed to oversee their industry and protect consumers. Students learn that in some states legislation has been proposed that would make it a felony to snap a photo of a industrial food operation and how in all states its a crime to speak out against food producers under the “veggie-libel laws”. This film is perfect for any class that discusses Mills’s The Power Elite or anything from Marx.

While the film paints a grave picture of our current food situation in America, it’s not doom & gloom. Throughout the film I found myself thinking, “why are we producing food like this? This makes no sense.” I’ve yet to have a class where students were perplexed by the rampant irrationality of rationality on display in the entire industrial food production system. The film closes with actions that people can take and tells the viewer, “You have a vote on this system three times each day”. More than any issue I present in my environmental sociology class my students really seem motivated and confident they can affect a change. In particular students agreed with the CEO of Stonyfield Farm Organics who says in the film, consumers have far more sway on what grocers sell than they may perceive.

I created a viewing guide for my students to fill out as they watch the film (download it here) and a short writing assignment that focuses on the connection between the social and natural worlds (grab it here). Food, Inc is available on Netflix streaming for free and should mandatory viewing for all sociologists.

“What’s the difference between sociology and psychology?” is a question I’m asked a lot. “One is awesome,” is my standard response. I deftly refuse to clarify my response if asked.

We’ve all heard the aphorism, “we all play the cards we’re dealt.” This pro-personal-responsibility turn of phrase is what I use to describe the interplay between individual choices and social forces and to answer the ever present soc/psych question.

“If we all play the cards we are dealt, then sociology asks, ‘is the dealer crooked?’” I tell my students. “In poker the deal is random, but are life chances dealt randomly? Is there a pattern? Are some players favored by the house with great hands time and again while others are constantly ‘down on their luck’? Personal responsibility is important, to be sure, but it can only tell us how you played your cards. Sociologists want to know more about the dealer and the casino the game is played in.

As to the separation of psych and soc, “There is a great deal of overlap between sociology and psychology. However, if sociology focuses on the trends at casino and in the dealing of the cards, then psychology delves into how the player understands and plays their hand.” This is too simplistic, I tell my classes, but it helps to differentiate the two. The demarkation holds at the lower levels of both disciplines, but as you learn more about either you’ll find that they are cut from the same cloth.

“Can I add my opinion into this paper?” is a common question in all of my classes. Opinion, as defined as a student’s perspective on a social issue that is informed by empirical social research is always welcome. However, sometimes students just want to tell you what they think and skip that whole backing-it-up part. I always tell my students they, “can have any opinion they can back up with evidence.” But sometimes students just want to tell the reader what they think to add some flavor to the piece they’re writing. Opinion has it’s place in academic writing, but how do you get students to go easy on opinions in their writing? I use cilantro.

It is both

“Opinions are like cilantro. Add a little and it’ll taste awesome, but give me a bowl full of cilantro and tell me it’s a meal? I’m not eating it.” Another, more technical way to put it, “Opinion is great in addition to empirically supported thought, but it’s not a replacement for empirically supported thought.1

Another food metaphor I use answers the ever present, “How long should I make this essay?” question. On essay tests and papers, students typically ask this question but what they are really asking is, “How many words do I have to write to get an A?” I used to always give students a wishy washy answer that some long papers are full of fluff and some short papers are able to get right to the point. Students seemed wholly unsatisfied by these answers. So now I say, “I want your writing to be like French food: small, dense, and rich. Jam a short essay chalk full of concepts, data, and critical thinking and you can be brief.” Being succinct is a valuable skill and when students deliver an essay worthy of the French food metaphor it’s a delicious thing to grade. Bon appétit!


1. Both of the food metaphors I use were taken from the musings of one Merlin Mann. I repurposed them for the classroom, but he said them first. Props to him and I’m a huge fan of all of his work.

“What is the story behind your name? Turn to your neighbor and tell them how your parents chose your name,” I say at the start of class1. Students love answering this question. When I ask if anyone wants to share a flurry of hands go up.

The story behind every students name is a 100% personalized one. Sometimes it’s a simple story (e.g. named after a TV character their mother adored) and sometimes its a complex Rube Goldberg like series of events that lead to their naming. Regardless of how their parents came to their name, the students present their naming as a completely individual choice made by their parents2. No one ever says, “Lindsey was really popular at the time of my birth and my parents just wanted to fit in”

To hear students tell it the child naming process is unique from one family to the next. They seem to have perceived their relationship with their parents as one of a kind and wholly removed from the larger society. This is exactly why using child naming as an example of culture and social forces. Research by Stanley Lieberson in the book A Matter of Taste (summarized well in this NYT article) suggests that parents balance the desire to have a unique name for their child with the desire to not have a name that is wildly divergent from the rest of children in their culture. Most parents wouldn’t name there child alkdjfsoic. However, parents want their child to be recognized as special or as a unique human being, so they also don’t want to name their child something too generic or too common.

What emerges from this naming process is a trend. Many names go in and out of fashion; trending up in popularity and then back down. An easy way of illustrating this to your students is to use the US Social Security Administration’s “Popular Baby Names” database. This easy to use website allows you to search any name and see how it ranks against the 1000 most popular baby names. For most students their names go from out of fashion in the decades before their birth, then they become popular right around their birth, and then fall out of popularity again. Below are some examples from 3 friends of SociologySource. Thanks to @soziologikus (aka Werner), @danielledirks, @sober_sociology (aka Paula), and @yogspiers (aka Eugene).

NOTE: The Y Axis is the rank order of the name.
Lower values equal more popularity.

Danielle's Name Over Time

Eugene's Name Over Time

Paula's Name Over Time

You are a savvy sociologist so you are probably thinking, “But wait, what about the times it doesn’t work?” Indeed you are right. It doesn’t always work, as Werner (i.e. @soziologikus) shows us. Werner was not inside the 1000 most popular US names3. When the database doesn’t register a name it provides us with an opportunity to teach students about social demographics and data collection.

I ask my class to break up into small groups to critically think about how the data was collected and how that might impact the ranking of the name in question. Students are quick to point out that if this database contains the first names of all the people in the United States, then it has a bias toward white Americans. This discovery affords us the opportunity to talk about oversampling and also the changing demographics of the United States.

What I want my students to take away from this activity is not that there are rules that everyone follows verbatim when naming children, but rather I want them to see how a personal choice is guided by social forces. The fact that at times this database provides contradictory evidence only demonstrates the complexity of human behavior.


1. I learned about this excellent ice breaker from April Schueths. Thanks.

2. There is one big exception to this rule. Some African American students in my classes report that their parents selected their name so that, “people couldn’t tell I was Black until they saw me in person.” I typically talk about name discrimination on job applications and resumes during my section on racial and ethnic discrimination, but the findings suggest that name discrimination is a very real problem in the United States. It’s interesting, however, that when I ask these same students to tell me how their parents ultimately selected their name students tell a very personalized narrative. So even for students who have seen how larger social forces (e.g. racism) affect personal decisions, the final decision stills focuses on individual level variables.

3. Werner was not born in the United States, so this probably explains his absence from the top 1000 most popular baby names.

Below is a guest post by Dr. Nancy Malcom from Georgia Southern University. Dr. Malcom was kind enough to share with us a manuscript she prepared that shows us how to use visual sociology, the sociology of sport, and Facebook to get our students to see the sociology that surrounds them in their everyday life. Dr. Malcom wrote a brief introduction to the manuscript below and you can download the entire manuscript here.

Sociology is everywhere everyday. To you and me this is a statement of the painfully obvious, but to our students’ untrained eyes sociology is largely hidden in their day to day lives. “Seeing sociology” is nearly a prerequisite to learning sociology. Given how important it is for our students to develop, I wanted to create an activity that focused their eye on the sociology surrounding them.

The Sociology of Sport lends itself particularly well to visual sociology given how omnipresent images of sports (specifically professional sports) are in our day to day lives. Even students who are averse to ESPN can not escape images of athletes in action on advertisements, websites, and magazines.

The assignment in brief:

  1. Students take photos of sports related phenomena they see in their lives
  2. Students post the photos on a private class Facebook page
  3. Students analyze the photos using concepts discussed in class
  4. Students discuss their analysis with their classmates via the comments section of each image on Facebook.

My students really seemed to embrace the assignment. My goal with the assignment was to show them that sports are a social institution that both reflects and reproduces the larger society. After seeing the photos they submitted, reading their analysis of the photos, and following their discussions I feel this assignment really met it’s goal.

There are many things you should consider before implementing this in your classes; all of which are discussed in detail in the manuscript. Even if you are not technologically gifted, I’ve tried to make the directions clear and relatively easy to follow. If you have a personal Facebook page that you’ve used before, then you should have most of the basic skills required for the assignment. But again, this is covered in the manuscript. I hope you enjoy it.

Nathan here again. So I hope your appetite is sufficiently whetted. If you’ve ever thought about using Facebook in class or orchestrating a photo assignment online, I really can’t suggest this piece enough. Download it now.

What's a Social Problem

The photo above is on the projector screen when I turn and start class by asking, “What is this a sign for? That is, where would we see this sign and why would it be put up in the first place.” After some bewildered looks students state the obvious, “those signs are along the border.” “The border of Georgia1“I quickly ask. Students laugh softly, “No the Mexican border”. “Why?” I prod them. “Because that’s where all the illegals come from.” “Oh, I see,” I turn and point to the screen in the front of the room and continue, “Who can tell me what ‘social problem’ if any this sign could be associated with. That is, what name would we give to the social problem this sign reflects.” A chorus of voices says, “Illegal Immigration”.

I nod and say, “What if I told you that this social problem you call ‘Illegal Immigration’ is part of a grand story that powerful people in society have been trying to get you to believe? What would you say?” After a healthy pause I follow, “Could anyone in the class tell me the story of ‘Illegal Immigration’?” The silence in the room becomes deafening as my students turn and look around the room with perplexed looks on their faces. “Well then I’d like you to do some research and come back to me next week and tell me if you’ve figured out the story.”

The Research on “Illegal Immigration”

“Illegal Immigration” or undocumented immigration, as I’ll be referring to it, is a hot button issue that has been consistently in the news media for as long as I can remember. However the issue seemed to hit another peak in public attention when Arizona passed a highly punitive state law to enforce federal immigration policy. This was only furthered by the passing of copycat laws in Alabama and Georgia (just to name a few). Given all the media attention there is a lot of great resources out there for teaching the controversies around this social problem.

My students love it when I can pair academic sources with popular media. They really love it when we use multiple mediums. I’ve created an “immigration media collection” that includes the following. The collection is designed to present conflicting arguments from the opponents of and supporters of undocumented immigrants.

  • “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” by Jose Antonio Vargas (Story featured in The New York Times Magazine).
  • An audio podcast of a NPR Fresh Air Interview with Vargas & Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. Vargas goes into further detail in his half of the podcast and Krikorian talks about why he feels Vargas should be deported.
  • A CBS Evening News report on how Georgia farmers are struggling to farm without undocumented immigrants.
  • An episode of 30 Days where a Minute Man lives with an undocumented family. See below:

30 Days: Immigration from MacQuarrie-Byrne Films on Vimeo.

I pair all of these popular media with the chapter on immigration from our course textbook and it creates a powerful pedagogical tool. Students seemed to be really thinking about the issues deeply. Many students said it was only after they watched the video and read Vargas’s story that they wanted to know more about the facts and sociological research surrounding undocumented immigration. So, at least in this case, popular media created a hunger for scholarly research.

The Stories We Tell About Undocumented Immigration

After spending a week on undocumented immigration my students were primed to break down the narrative behind the social problem. When I asked, “What is the story or stories well tell about ‘illegal immigration’ in the United States?” My students quickly pointed to the border and that image I’d used to start our entire discussion. “The border isn’t the only problem.” I asked them to tell me more. “Around half of immigrants over stay their visas, so we could build a wall to the heavens and it wouldn’t end the problem of undocumented immigration.” I was impressed.

“What else,” I asked. There was a long pause before someone said, “The story we tell is only half the story.” With a prompt from me the student continued, “We only talk about the undocumented immigrants and we rarely if ever talk about the corporations that employ them.” “Bingo,” I replied. For the rest of the class we talked about conflict theory’s argument that powerful social actors use their influence to define social problems as being the responsibility or fault of the least powerful in society. “It’s all in the name,” one of my students said. “‘illegal immigration’ says it all. The problem is the ‘illegals’ not the employers who bring them here.” “Right,” I began, “we call it ‘illegal immigration’ and not ‘non-citizen exploitation’. Both names are apt, but as a society we’ve been convinced to focus on the former.”

While my students were feeling particularly anti-corporation I asked them if they play a role in undocumented immigration. Multiple heads shook left to right and someone mustered a, “No.” “What sectors of our economy do undocumented immigrants work in? That is, what jobs do they tend to have?” Quickly a list forms, “Farming, meat packing, factory work, landscaping, and housework,” were shouted out. Then I asked, “If undocumented laborers are paid an unfair wage for harvesting food or manufacturing products, does this not make them cheaper?” The obvious answer came easily. “Do you think that any of you have purchased any of these products made cheaper by undocumented immigration?” No one said a word, but heads slowly nodded. “So in that case all of you have directly benefited from undocumented immigration. You’ve had more money in your pocket because someone didn’t get paid what they should have, right?” The answer didn’t come as easy this time.

What I want my students to learn is that the story we tell about undocumented immigration is a simple one that blames only one group; the group with the least social power. In reality undocumented immigration is terribly complex and each of us in the United States has been either a victim or benefactor of harsh state and federal immigration policies. Once students accept that the world is far more complex than we are told it is on the news we can start to develop their sociological imagination.


1. I teach in Georgia.

Social Solutions

Social Problems has problems. The class title alone, “Social Problems,” is pessimistic and despair inspiring. On top of that most texts (and most classes if we want to keep it real) are 99% focused on diagnosing the problems our society faces and their social causes. Furthermore, we reify social problems when we disconnect them from everyday “real” world students live in. Should we really be surprised when students call the course Doom & Gloom 101? In a cruel irony, social problems taught this way [paralyzes students] with despair, mystifies the causes of social problems in our students’ lives, and subsequently reproduces or at least exacerbates the social problems the course was designed to tackle. Damn.

To fix social problems’ problems I’ve devised a semester long project that will empower your students to identify, analyze, and solve a social problem facing their community. Furthermore, this semester long project requires students to critically analyze empirical research, synthesize their analysis, and frame their findings in a way that is accessible to the public. Pairing this activity with a “social solutions” mindset inspires students to be activists in their community.

Nuts & Bolts of the Project

The semester long project is really five separate, but interlocking assignments. Two of the assignments are group projects and three of them are individual assignments. I break up the class into groups of five students. Students are then charged with finding a social problem they are all interested in learning more about. Students can pick any social problem they like, but it must be 1) social in nature and 2) they have to be willing to adopt a system-blame approach to the problem as opposed to a person-blame approach.1 After students settle on a topic I sit with them and help them develop their idea and supply them with any sociological jargon that may be helpful in their search for scholarly resources.

Students hate group work because of freeloaders, so these assignments are designed for students to be graded for their independent work before they are asked to use it in group work. For instance, students work together to create a group “fact sheet” based off of 10 peer reviewed sources. Before they start this group project each student must turn in a “Sources & Synopsis” assignment that asks them to find two peer reviewed sources and write a one page synopsis about it. That way when the five students meet to work on the fact sheet each student must have two sources in hand and be ready to share a synopsis of the article.

Overview of Assignments


Course Project Overview Slide

  1. Sources & Synopsis
    This first assignment asks students to find two peer reviewed sources about their sociological topic. This assignment affords me the opportunity to teach students about the peer-review process, how to do scholarly research, and how to think about their social problem in sociological terms (i.e. the jargon & concepts used in sociological research).

  2. Group Fact Sheet2
    The second assignment has the five students pool their peer reviewed sources together and create a “fact sheet”. The fact sheet is designed to be accessible to the general public while maintaining a solid ASA citation form. Students are encouraged to include images and present their information in a visually appealing way. The fact sheets must include information about the social problem, debates or conflicting information within the scholarly community, and (most importantly) (Inter)National, State, and local resources so that a reader of the fact sheet could do something to mitigate the problem if they were so inspired by the fact sheet.

  3. Social Institutions Analysis
    Where does this social problem come from and what could be done about it at the macro level? These are the two base questions of this assignment. Students are expected to dive into their system-blame analysis and explain how our social institutions create, reinforce, and exacerbate their social problem. I ask students to think like a conflict theorist and identify the benefactors of their social problem and the oppressed. You could ask students to use any other theory, but I find that students in this low level class struggle with finding their own theory and seem to have the strongest grasp on conflict theory. What I like about this assignment is, for students to do well on this assignment they must have truly read their scholarly sources, understood them, and then drawn their own connections between them. This paper really tests their ability to synthesize and evaluate their sources.

  4. Finding Local Solutions & Taking Action
    Now that they understand the social and institutional causes of their social problem, students are asked to take action in reducing their social problem. They have to come up with a course of action independently, pitch it to me, and then carry it out by semester’s end. The social action needs to only satisfy two criteria. 1) it reduces their social problem in a meaningful way and 2) the action is verifiable. In the past students have led food drives, volunteered at domestic violence shelters, created a pamphlet on ways to avoid drinking and driving, and even carried out a letter writing campaign. Students then write a paper about their experiences and why they feel it made a positive impact.

  5. Group Presentation
    The project wraps up with a group presentation where students inform their peers about their social problem. Students relay the information they collected for their fact sheet, their social institutions analysis, and they discuss the social action they took. I have students do this during finals week.

A Couple of Issues

This isn’t a paint-by-numbers assignment and despite all the pedagogical value assignments like this have, some students hate choose-your-own-adventure assignments. I implore my students to see that the world they will graduate into doesn’t need people who can follow directions, but leaders who can create their own directions. Most students passionately accept the challenge, some hate my guts. Such is life.

You should also be aware that students may inadvertently recreate the oppression they seek to ameliorate. If students fall into a person-blame approach it’s easy to take points away because they didn’t follow the directions, but sometimes it’s not that cut and dry. I had a group of students lead a letter writing campaign targeting the Georgia State lawyer responsible for prosecuting child support non-payments. On the surface it seems like a good thing; make dads accept the financial responsibility of parenthood. However, it also disproportionately vilifies low income men. Some men don’t pay child support because they are deadbeats, some don’t pay because they are unable to. I had my students address this issue in their papers and I asked them to present an argument from both sides of this issue. They did an excellent job and I think learned a great deal from it.


1. I tell my students during the first week of class that both a person-blame and a system-blame approach have value. That regardless of the social problem there are systemic causes and issues of personal responsibility. I argue that systemic causes are more significant than many students think they are. I also explain that this class is focused on Sociological analyses of social problems and therefore we will almost exclusively focus on system-blame approaches. I end by saying that there is no shortage of person-blame in the media, politics, and the news, so they should have no problem finding a venue for their person-blame energies.

2. Have to thank Laci Fiala, Katie Slauson-Blevins, and April Schueths for this assignment. I lifted whole portions of these fine teachers excellent assignment. Thanks!