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.
How do White parents and Parents of Color teach their children about race? This is the primary question I ask my students for one week during my Race & Nationality courses. To help answer this I have the students read a chapter called “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” out of the “pop sociology”* book NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.
According to Bronson and Merryman’s Nurtureshock White parents don’t talk to their children about racism, but rather believe that children are naturally colorblind. Many of the studies done on how White parents talk to their children have found that White parents believe that talking to their kids about racism would actually make them racist. After reading all of the studies in the chapter that showed that White children, like all children, were able to identify physical differences in others and they believed that those who looked most like them were inherently better than those who did not. This is a great opportunity to talk about essentialism and ask if some adults still believe in essentialism. Some of my students took this to mean that racism is natural and subsequently okay. However, I try to draw a parallel between how children naturally do not want to share, but rather they have to be taught to share. We talk about how being selfish is shortsighted and anti-social, just like being a essentialist, and that parents who want their children to be good citizens teach their children to abandon these ideologies.
Bronson and Merryman go on to discuss how parents of color talk openly about race with their children as a means to prepare them for racism, prejudice, and discrimination that they will face. They provide research that shows teaching children of color cultural pride increases many pyscho-social variables (e.g. self-esteem, self-efficacy). This research is more than timely considering Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies programs. They also provide data to show that most White children inherently know that the White race has more social power than people of color, so teaching white pride to children is “abhorrent” and “redundant”.
Another aspect of race socialization challenged in Nutureshock is what Bronson and Merryman call this the diverse environment theory. This is the idea that if we put children of a races and ethnicities in a environment they will automatically internalize that all people are equal. Bronson and Merryman provide a number of recent studies that show that in many cases as the diversity of a school increases so to does the likelihood that a student “will stick with their own.” The authors present this not to discourage or discredit integration, but to make the point that simply putting students of various cultures in a room does not give them the skills to overcome essentialism and be accepting and understanding. Bronson and Merryman argue for frank and open education that acknowledges the uniqueness of each student and promotes social integration
My students loved this reading. The found it interesting, challenging, and they found the writting approachable. Where many texts leave intro students behind by using jargon or technical language, this text goes to extreme lengths to explain the complex simply.
*I use the term “pop sociology” here not to discredit the Bronson and Merryman’s work, but rather to acknowledge that this book is a collection of peer reviewed studies. Many of the overarching conclusions the book makes are made taking the findings from one sample and drawing a causal connection to a study done on another sample. This isn’t a best practice in social research and the findings should be considered within this context. However, the three main ideas I discuss here all came from individual studies, so they do not suffer from this methodological weakness. Alright, enough disclaimer 🙂
One of the central tenets of Conflict Theory is that those in power are able to control or manipulate the media and the public at large so that they can escape criticism. Subsequently those in power can do or say things that if a less powerful person exhibted the same behavior they would be ridiculed or possibly be committing a crime (As you can see there is some overlap with Labeling Theory here as well).
To illustrate this I ask my students what the difference is between a social policy or program that affects the poor versus a similar program/policy that affects the rich. So for example, many students are critical of “government handouts” in the form of welfare, but the same students are off put when I ask if welfare is akin to the tax write offs home owners receive. Aren’t these both government handouts? Some students will say that homeownership stimulates the economy, but I counter that food stamps, WIC, and many other welfare programs stimulate the economies of the communities where these monies are spent.
This last tax season Jon Stewart demonstrated this tenant of conflict theory by lampooning the network coverage of the finding that 47% of American households didn’t pay anything in taxes or even made a profit. Many of those who were in an uproar over this finding suggested that something was wrong with our tax system or, as Glenn Beck suggested, they should be forced to serve in the military if they were not going to contribute in some other way. None of the critics suggested that growing economic inequality was the cause, but rather blamed the poor for taking advantage of the system.
At the same time this story was running, only one US network covered the fact that Exxon Mobile, who made $35 billion in profits, didn’t pay a cent in taxes to the US government. To compound this, Exxon Mobile did pay $15 billion in taxes to other nations around the world. Instead of being critical of their tax evasion, US news networks celebrated Exxon’s profits.
I have shown this video in my classes and Stewart explains this aspect of Conflict theory better than I ever could in only 6 minutes. My students loved this video and were laughing out loud, but I do have to caution you that at one moment ( 3:26 into the video) Stewarts comedy is a tad inappropriate. I always ask my students if they are okay with a little blue humor before I show this clip.
While this blog has been mostly focused on social inequality topics, I have taught research methods in one form or another for years now. Teaching students how to design a survey can be tricky because the process is deceptively easy. Students think, “Hey, I have taken tons of surveys before. How hard can it be?” They then proceed to break every rule of good design you talked to them about in class.
A simple, quick, yet effective activity to teach good survey design is to have your students take a survey that is horribly designed. I tell my students that I want no talking and then pass out a survey about internet usage (download it here). Every question on the survey is either double barreled, leading, biased, or has response options that make no sense or overlap.
After a few minutes I tell them to stop and ask what they think of the survey. They uniformly say it’s awful. Students really like this activity- typically they laugh out loud when reading the questions. I then have them pair up and identify everything that is wrong with the questions. As a class we go through each question picking it apart. We then formulate new questions that don’t violate any of the basic survey design rules.
The activity is also beneficial because students get to take home an example of what not to do that they can compare their work to while creating their own survey. Pedagogically I really like this activity because it has the students playing an active role in their education. Also, the “bad survey” is formatted well so you can tell your students that their survey should look like the example you gave them, but with much better questions.
Approximately 95% of all cases resulting in felony convictions never go to a jury trial. Students are floored by this fact. We live in a Law and Order world where everyone gets a jury’s verdict within 60 minutes. Plea bargaining is a great topic for any sociology course because it clearly illustrates how social systems, like the criminal justice system, affects individuals.
The video tells the story of 5 defendants lives. Through all of these stories we learn about how plea bargaining can be abused by local governments, how judges can legally coerce defendants into taking a plea, and how the defendants guilt or innocence is largely irrelevant in the current process.
The video can be watched online for free and there is a word-for-word transcript that my students loved to review when they were writing their papers. Below you can find the directions to the reaction paper I had my students write. Also, their is another excellent movie called American Violet which is a dramatization of the events surrounding the first vignette.
“Situations defined as real are real in their consequences” – The W.I. Thomas Theorem
Conformity, obedience, and authority are all big topics in my sociology 101 courses. So it’s no surprise that I have students read about Stanley Milgram’s electrocution experiments. Students are stunned to learn that people were willing to electrocute another person to death simply because a man in a white lab coat told them to. Many of my students find the article very interesting, but laugh it off as something “other people” would do. To make students more empathetic of the people in Milgram’s experiment I have them take a pop quiz.
On the day the Milgram reading is due I show up to class exactly on time, leaving no time for before class chit-chat. I have a stern look on my face and in a authoritative voice I say, “Alright everyone, pop quiz. Clear your desks and take out a piece of paper. For the next 20 minutes I want NO TALKING!.” Students are stunned both by the pop quiz and my sudden change in demeanor. I wait with an impatient look on my face as they pull out pen and paper. If any students asks for clarification or attempts to protest I cut them off with a stern, “I said no talking.” When the students are ready I say, “Alright this is a pop quiz about math. I want you to write everything you know about Math. The more you write the more points you get. GO.” After a beat, students begin writing furiously.
“Alright this is a pop quiz about math. I want you to write everything you know about Math. The more you write the more points you get. GO.” After a beat, students begin writing furiously.
I wait maybe 30 seconds to a minute and tell them to stop. “Why are you writing about math in a sociology class?” I ask. After some laughter someone always says, “Because you told us to.” I spend the next 5-10 minutes decompressing and deconstructing the activity with the students. I tell them how hard it was for me to act so differently then I typically do. If you adopt this activity I can’t stress enough that you need to set boundaries for yourself (to avoid abuse or hurting your students feelings) and that you have to help students process through the emotions this activity filled them with. During the activity I refuse to demean or insult students in anyway. I simply speak with a clear and direct tone. This has always been enough to command obedience. I have never once had a student disobey or walk out.
With my students now cognitively open to the ideas of authority and obedience we move on to discuss the Milgram article. Often in the discussion students will draw the logical conclusion and ask in one form or another, “how much of our lives are really based on our own decisions and how much is guided by our obedience to authority figures?” I typically spend an entire class letting my students debate amongst themselves this very question.
In April of 2004 a man called a McDonald’s restaurant in Kentucky pretending to be a police officer. In a three and a half hour phone call he convinced the managers to strip search an 18 year old employee and force her to perform sexual acts on another man. The man who received the sex acts later pleaded guilty of sexual assault and was sentenced to 1 years imprisonment.
A big part of any sociology course is the idea that the world we live in is socially constructed. The Milgram experiment, my math pop quiz, and these news events clearly demonstrate the Thomas Theorem to students. Even if things are not based in the “real reality” they can have severe consequences if they are defined as real in our social construction of reality.
Getting students fired up about inequality is fairly straightforward. If you can convince them inequality is real and affecting themselves or people they care about they will decry the injustice. But how do you get students to do something about it? Earlier I discussed how to show students the way to make change in their community, but how can you encourage them to actually step up and do it? In many ways I am still, and will forever be, answering this question.
Part of the solution is in getting students to take social activism for a spin in your class. Make doing something in their community a graded assignment. I have my students during the last week of class write a letter to one of their political representatives (The directions for this activity can be found here). Students bring a stamped, addressed, handwritten, and unsealed letter about an issue of their choosing. I allow students to write any public official about any topic they like. The letters are handwritten because this communicates to the political representative beyond any shadow of a doubt that it was written by a human and not a computer. Also, the letter is unsealed so that I can ensure they wrote the letter.
Letters Written By My Students
This is only a small step. Students may write about frivolous topics unrelated to or even counter to the lessons of your course, but at the very least they will practice taking action in their community. The point is to get them to take action. If you forced them to write on a list of topics or worse force them to write about topics that you talked about in class the way you talked about them in class you will appear to be a political ideologue and you will be reviled by most of your students. You have to let the students draw their own conclusions.
Sociology courses and especially textbooks are very good at identifying and explaining social problems. But not so good at identifying solutions. Many students say in evals that they really want to talk about solutions.
I usually address solutions to social problems intermittently through out the semester, but the last week of classes I do nothing but talk about solutions. I want students to leave equipped and motivated to stand up to injustice where they encounter it. I have created a handout that I give my students called “Creating Change in Your Community”.
The focus of the handout is how the each student can make change in their own lives. While many students appreciate the discussion, some are displeased to find out that they have to personally act to create change. It seems some student where hoping for a program, piece of legislation that they could vote for, or some other external means to create change. I address this from the outset of the handout by talking about internal v. external locus of control. Somehow calling this tendency out by name makes it easier for students to let go.
In our class discussion I always address how hard it can be to take a stand against something you don’t believe in. To encourage students to be kind to themselves while they figure out how to put a voice to their beliefs I share with my students one of my all time favorite quotes from director David Mamet,
“Do not internalize the industrial model. You are not one of the myriad of interchangeable pieces but a unique human being and if you’ve got something to say, say it, and think well of yourself while you’re learning to say it better.”– David Mamet
To make speaking up even easier, I share with my students the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guide called “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry”. The guide is a sort of “playbook” that provides students with hundreds of potential scenarios and responses. There are sections on responding to bigotry in your family, at your job, at your school, or in public. This guide is full of useful and practical responses to bigotry. Each scenario begins with a real person’s story of how they encountered bigotry and how they responded. You owe it to yourself to take a look at this.
Kimmel (2000) wrote what I consider one of the best articles on masculinity, sexism, and homophobia in his article Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity. I am disappointed by the discussion of gender issues or gender stratification in textbooks. Reading through these chapters sexism, feminism, and homophobia are seen as women’s or gay and lesbian issues. Somehow the largest perpetrator of violence, aggression, and fear toward women and the LGTBQ community is somehow missing or only discussed indirectly. Many feminist researchers have rightfully criticized news headlines of rape incidents that say, “woman alleges rape” in the passive voice as opposed to, “man arrested for rape”. Textbooks that omit men and masculinity from discussions of sexism, feminism, and homophobia commit the same sin. In an effort to correct this omission I always incorporate discussions and critiques of masculinity in my courses.
Teaching students about masculinity issues is hard specifically because talking about masculinity is an unmasculine thing to do.
Traditional masculinity, according to Kimmel, is homophobic in the sense that any sign of femininity in a man is sure to draw emasculating criticism from his peers. Men, who subscribe to this narrow form of masculinity, then are afraid of or have a hatred of any none conforming men. Men and women emasculate non-conforming with words, violence, and isolation.
As a ice breaker into the subject, I ask the students to tell me what a “manly man” looks like, sounds like, walks like. Students can’t help but break into laughter as I take on all of the characteristics of a “manly man”. After that we talk about how gender is socially constructed and fluid. A great point of reference for this is the Maury Povich show. Maury frequently has a beauty pageant where some of the contestants are men in drag and others are women. He asks the audience to guess their gender. Most of my students have seen this show, so it is a great jumping off point to talk about gender as a social performance (Watch here at your own risk). I ask, “If gender is fixed and biological how could someone fool another into thinking they were a gender they are really not?” Students almost always jump on board the social construction bandwagon after this.
I also like to show a clip from the video Tough Guise that deals with many of the issues discussed in Kimmel’s article.
The Consequences of Narrowly Defined Masculinty
After we have clearly discussed how gender is socially constructed and defined what masculinity as homophobia means I ask my students to brainstorm the consequences men and women experience because of this narrowly defined masculinity. My students are quick to point out that many men do “stupid” risk taking behaviors to show they are tough. Students draw the obvious connection to the shamefully high levels of male violence toward women. Many men, they typically say, are hostile or even violent to gays and lesbians because a narrowly defined masculinity sees any non-compliance as an affront to their own masculinity. After this students usually go quiet.
I suggest that many father/son relationships are damaged by narrow definitions of masculinity. I ask my male students how many of their fathers are comfortable with hearing “I love you dad” from them? Many students laugh, suggesting that this is beyond the bounds of their relationship with their father.
At this point in the class I tell my students of a friend of mine, Ryan, who a few years back told me that he was going to buy a ring and propose to his girlfriend of many years. After a few weeks I had not heard any news of their engagement so I asked Ryan, “So did she say yes?” “No. We broke up a few days before I was going to propose,” Ryan said looking at the floor. “I’m sorry dude. That sucks. Did she tell you why she left?” Ryan put his tongue in the side of his mouth as though he was chewing on it and looked to the ceiling. After a long pause he said, “She said I was… emotionally unavailable.” He and I made eye contact again and he saw my perplexed look. After a few beats I said, “What the hell does that mean?” Ryan shrugged with and exclaimed, “I know, right?”
I tell my students it wasn’t until I started dating my wife that I finally understood what Ryan and his girlfriend were experiencing. A few weeks into our relationship my wife said something small that upset me. Seeing that I was upset she said, “Oh, how thoughtless of me. I have clearly hurt your feelings.” I scrunched my brow and responded, “Whoa lets not blow it out of proportion. I mean, that pissed me off, but it would take a whole lot more to hurt my feelings.” She showed me patience by letting it go for the moment, but a few weeks later something else upset me and she said again, “I hurt your feelings”. This happened many times over and each time I smiled or laughed it off and told her she was crazy. It wasn’t until a few months into the relationship that I finally woke up and said with a tone of surprise and discovery, “You know what… Just before I got pissed off I felt something… you DID hurt my feelings!”
Based on the looks my students give me I can tell that they think this story is contrived. How could the person who is teaching on the subject of masculinity be so oblivious to how it was affecting himself? I tell my students that I grew up in a family of four, my mom, dad, brother, and me. Being a 3/4 male household, I joke that our house was a, “toilet seat up house, if you know what I mean.” I share with them that I lived with men throughout my childhood and then with other men as roommates until the day I moved in with my wife. I was totally surrounded by men who, even though they loved me, didn’t discuss their or my emotions very often and when we did it was indirectly. After years of neglecting my emotions I had learned to not even acknowledge them. And in doing so I had lost part of my humanity.
Ryan and I were both emotionally unavailable. Both of us had lost touch with part of ourselves and this made us less able to be a equal partner with our loved ones. Fortunately for me I had a loving patient wife who gave me the space to find my way out of my narrowly defined masculinity box.
After this story I challenge my students to think of ways that women also emasculate men. Without fail a female student will say something like, “I have always thought that I didn’t want a boyfriend or husband who cried. I have even said aloud that to my friends.” Many men feel pressured to keep up their tough fronts around men and women. Women who stigmatize or ostracize men who are in touch with their emotions discourage multiple forms of masculinity. On the flip side women who flock toward men who put on the “bad boy” posturing reward the narrowly defined masculinity.
Kimmel argues that men feel powerless to masculinity. That even if they wanted to change their is little that a single person can do. This illustrates to students how social systems affect individuals, including themselves. The systemic nature of gender construction makes it perfect for any sociology course including a 101 course.
Every time that I have taught this subject in my class there have been male students who sit way back in their chairs, arms folded, with a disapproving look on their face. Early in my career I would say to myself, “Well not everyone is ready to get it.” But now I have come to realize that in all likelihood these are the very students who were most affected by what I and Kimmel had to say. That they were protecting themselves with the only tools our narrow definition of masculinity affords them. I often say at the end of my class “If you are put off by todays discussion or if you walk out of this room and say to your classmates, ‘What the hell was that guy talking about. He’s full of it.’ Then in all likelihood you are suffering from this narrowly defined masculinity the most.”
I feel I am at a distinct advantage teaching this class because I am a man. When I am critical of narrowly defined masculinity my students do not assume that I have an ulterior motive or that I am in some way a “man hater”. I can also role model a form of masculinity outside the narrow definition while still maintaining the power and authority given to me as a teacher. That said, I also feel a responsibility to teach this subject. This is a problem that affects me and that I have in thoughtless, low moments perpetuated the narrow definitions. I can discuss with my students how the narrow definition of masculinity has hurt me and how I have hurt others who didn’t conform. To be clear, I always am critical of my previous failings and repent for them in front of my class.
Does race still matter? This is my day one question for students in my race & ethnicity courses. Many students walk into my class on the first day thinking that racism, prejudice, and discrimination are issues that were solved in the 1960s. Students have said to me, “How much racism can there be if we have a black president?” While I see this line of thinking more often from my white students, I have had numerous students of color share this mindset.
Even students who believe and know that racism is alive with are typically unaware of the numerous current events that many feel are clear examples of racism. Many students are surprised to hear that this February two ROTC students spread cotton in front of the Black Culture Center at Missouri University to mock Black History Month. Or that after a noose was hung in the UC San Diego library a fraternity put on a “ghetto themed” party called the “Compton Cookout” where guests were invited to dress like thugs and “Nappy Headed Hoes.”
Many students are surprised to hear that this February two ROTC students spread cotton in front of the Black Culture Center at Missouri University to mock Black History Month.
I have developed a lecture that shows students how race and racism are still issues at the national, state (NE), and local level (Lincoln). All of the news events at the national level are from the last 6-12 months. I use data from the Kids Count to show students the poverty and graduation rates for the state by race & ethnicity. In Lincoln we are fortunate to have a chief of police who has blogged about the discrimination and hate crime issues we as a city face.
As we go through each of these news events and facts I say over and over again that I am not saying each of these events is evidence of racism. I am simply showing them examples of what others have called racist. This is crucial, because it avoids any debate about the incidents and it keeps students from feeling bullied or steamrolled. I ask my classes, “If racism is a thing of the past, why is it in the news so frequently?”
I wrap the lecture up by discussing how racism, prejudice, and discrimination affect us at an individual level. You can read more about this discussion in my post on the dichotomization of racism.
Below are the slides in Powerpoint and .pdf formats as well as the handout I give my students. The handout has links to all of the websites and youtube clips that the information came from. Please feel free to use these and if you have something to add send it my way