If you could have the public’s attention for a moment, what would you tell them about our education system, teaching, and/or learning?

Contexts, the ASA’s sociology magazine, is looking for people like you to write for our teaching and learning section. Your article can be about any topic related to education (Pre-k-12 & higher ed) and/or teaching and learning in general.

Each article is only 1,500 words long and we don’t use jargon, footnotes, or citations.

Are you interested? Then you can contact me (Nathan Palmer editor of the T&L section of Contexts) at npalmer@georgiasouthern.edu

Your audience awaits.

The office drive by is the worst. A student walks by my office door, sees me inside and says, “Hi, Prof. Palmer are you busy?” Then there eyes fill with this look of vulnerability. In the past I used to just say, “Yes I am. Could you send me an email or come back during office hours?” This was always followed by an awkward moment. Students either were angry that I was being so selfish with my time or they just looked sorta heartbroken.

But now I know the secret to deflecting the office drive by.

“Prof. Palmer are you busy?”

“I am, but I always have a moment for a student like you.” I say with a smile.

“I’m having a problem. I [insert student problem].”

Then if I can answer the question in a snap I do so, but if the question requires even 2 minutes to answer I say, “You know what? That’s a really important question. I think that we should schedule some time when both of us can give our full attention to this. Can you send me an email about this or do you want to come back during my office hours?”

This approach works because it 1. allows a student to feel heard and 2. it screens out questions that can be answered instantaneously.

I’ve often thought how funny it would be to go over unannounced to one of my student’s dorm rooms and just knock. “Hi, are you busy? I wanted to talk about our class for a minute.” The look on the student’s face would be priceless.

“How can I get started on social media? Who should I follow on Twitter? What blogs should I be reading?” I must have heard some variant of those questions two dozen times at ASA this year. That will probably sound strange until I tell you that, I was an instructor for the JustPublics@ASA Media Camp Pre-Conference Workshops. As always, I’m here to help. Below are some suggestions for sociologists looking to dive into social media. Want a pdf version to email a friend? Here ya go.

First, you should check out the JustPublics@ASA Media Camp Workshop website for the handouts, resources, and best practices given out at the pre-conference workshop.

Who Should I Follow on Twitter?

You should follow people who are tweeting about your scholarly area of interest. That was the advice that Tressie Mcmillan Cottom, my Media Camp colleague, had for her workshop attendees. I’d echo that. The value of twitter is it’s ability to bring you people and information related to the things that interest you.

That said, if you’re looking for a list of sociologists active on Twitter, you could do a lot worse than the list that Rosemary F. Powers created on her webpage The Paradox of Society.

What Blogs Should I Read?

Below are all of the sociology blogs that I can think of. I’m sure I’ve left some off. This list has a clear bias toward the U.S., but I’m not up on sociology blogging outside the states (though I would like to be). Email me if you’ve got a blog you’d like me to add.

The article below originally appeared on SociologyToolBox.com and was written by Todd Beer an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lake Forest College.

Systematic racism has been made evident again in the shooting of an unarmed young Black man, Michael Brown, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Pulling stories directly from recent news headlines is one way to get students’ attention and demonstrate the abundant relevance of the sociological perspective. The New York Times has a timeline of the events that serves as a useful starting point (from the mainstream media) to share the events with students that may have not kept up with the story.

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The community of Ferguson, Missouri (the site of the shooting) has responded with on-going mass protests.

Ferguson cannot be understood in a vacuum. These events are rich with sociological issues – inequality and poverty, racial profiling, the militarization of the police, protester and police interaction, social media (#Ferguson and hashtag activism) and the “criminalization of Black male youth”.

Looking first at the disproportionate levels of poverty and subsequent exclusion from the economy of many Blacks in the US, Brookings, a Democratic leaning think tank, analyzed census tract data of changes in the poverty rates in Ferguson (and the surrounding area) between 2000 and 2008-2012. They state:

“But Ferguson has also been home to dramatic economic changes in recent years. The city’s unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. For those residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third. The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of the decade.

Amid these changes, poverty skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.”

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The community of Ferguson, one of many that have been disproportionally hurt by the economic downturn, has experienced long term poverty, and this undoubtably was part of the mass frustration that contributed to the emergence of the protests. See Brookings web site for their full story.

However, the key grievance that seems to have inspired mass protest is the relationship between the police and the community. In previous posts I have explored the disproportionate number of Blacks incarcerated, arrested for drugs, and racially profiled under programs such as “Stop and Frisk”. While the population of Ferguson is 63% Black, 90% of the police officers are White. As noted by the New York Times (see below), Blacks in Ferguson are disproportionally stopped and arrested by the predominantly White police force.

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An FBI and federal justice department investigation is on-going and reports of the events present conflicting stories – an eye witness that was with the victim at the time says Michael had his hands up, but slowly emerging (which certainly adds to the distrust) police accounts argue that an unarmed Michael was in a confrontation with the officer. The job of the police is to make arrests and allow a court system to decide guilt. The police later released images from a video of a suspect robbing a convenience store (no weapons were used). Let’s just say it was Michael (that would still have to be proven). A police officer should be able to subdue a suspect without shooting him six times. In essence, (presuming guilt instead of innocence) Michael was sentenced to death for supposedly stealing a handful of cigars.

The police responses to the protests in Ferguson have exposed the results of the militarization of municipal police forces. Images of police in full military gear, helmets, armored vehicles, sharp-shooters, high caliber weaponry, and military fatigues certainly garnered the attention of the media.

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The distribution of military weaponry to local police departments began after the terrorist attacks of September 11th under the guise of preparing communities for foreign attacks. Now we see this weaponry and accompanying tactics used in our own communities. The saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail” comes to mind.

This weaponry has been widely distributed.

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Click on the map above to have students go to an interactive version that allows them to see the distribution of the weaponry in their county. For example, I can see that in Cook county, home to my city of residence, Chicago, the police have obtained over 1200 assault rifles and even three “mine resistant” vehicles.

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The use of these weapons and tactics is not limited to Ferguson. In June of 2014, the ACLU published the following report:

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 12.54.43 PMIn it they report the increased use of SWAT tactics for search warrants for low level drug investigations and that the “militarization of policing encourages officers to adopt a ‘warrior’ mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies” (p.3). These tactics and mentality have resulted in the deaths of innocent people, including infants and children (see the report for numerous stories).

Do these tactics pay off? According to the ACLU’s research, the majority of the time they do not. Drugs are only found about a third of the time.

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And these tactics are used disproportionately in cases involving racial and ethnic minority suspects.

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So, was this an isolated event among two individuals – the officer and Michael Brown? No. Sociologically, the impoverished community context likely leads to community members feeling disconnected from the rewards of mainstream society, the stereotyping of Black males as “thugs” and criminals likely added to the officer’s fear of Michael and activated socially constructed cognitive cues of “danger”, the community’s response is generated by local and national racial profiling by the police and a lack of minority representation among the officers, and the type of police response to the protests was a result of the militarization of the police driven by the “war on terror” and the power of the military industrial complex in our economy (and foreign policy).

Teach well, it matters.

Additional reading:

Elijah Anderson, Editor. 2009. Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black, and Male

Kate Harding. 2014. Ten Things White People Can Do About Ferguson Besides Tweet “

Viktor M. Rios. 2006. “The Hyper-Criminalization of Black and Latino Male Youth in the Era of Mass Incarceration”

Robert Sampson and William Julius Wilson. 2005. “Toward a Theory of Race, Crime and Inequality” in Race, Crime, and Justice: A Reader edited by Shaun L. Gabbidon and Helen Taylor Greene

Nick Wing. 2014. “When The Media Treats White Suspects And Killers Better Than Black Victims”


August 20th, 2014

Recent Gallup survey results show vastly different perceptions of the police. These are not skewed by the events in Ferguson as the data is from 2011-14, but they certainly explain some of the resulting protests.

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August 21, 2014

Below is a link to a good article on the challenges and weaknesses of the data on the number of people killed by police each year. It’s great to inspire critical thinking about facts.

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Here is polling data specific to this event from the Pew Research Center…

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For more excellent resources like this, please check out Todd Beer’s SociologyToolBox.com.

Ready or not ASA is upon us. For those of you who are pedagogically inclined, I’ve put together a list of events that you should check out. Mostly these are the ASA Section of Teaching and Learning events. If you spot other sessions/events that I should feature, email them to me at Nathan@SociologySource.org.

I’ll be tweeting from a lot of the sessions and I hope to see you at our Sociology Blog Party on Saturday at Johnny Foley’s Irish Pub. For more on the blog party check here.


Monday August 18th — ASA Section Day


Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology Paper Session. Connection, Transfer, and Reflection: How Community Engagement Enhances the Sociological Imagination


Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology Invited Session. Mapping the Sociology Curriculum


Hans O. Mauksch Award Speech, Betsey Lucal, “Getting Real about Private Troubles as Public Issues: Students, Teachers and Higher Education in the 21st Century


Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology Business Meeting


Section on Teaching and Learning Roundtables


Reception, co-sponsored with AKD at the Parc 55 Hotel (room not assigned yet) with cash bar.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014:

8:30 – 10:10

Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology Paper Session. Capstones, Culminating Experiences, and Senior Seminars: Meaningful Teaching Ideas that Help Students Put It All Together.

Are you coming to ASA? Do you like chatting with friendly sociologists? Would you like to meet your favorite blogger face-to-face? We’ll then come on down to Johnny Foley’s Irish Pub and join us for the 3rd Annual Sociology Blogger Party. This is a casual and fun affair open to anyone. Your favorite bloggers from the Sociological Cinema, Sociological Images, The Society Pages, Conditionally Accepted, SociologySource, and SociologyInFocus will all be there.

Tell your friends, bring your colleagues, or come alone and meet new people. We’d love to see you. The details are below and for even more info go to our Official Blog Party Page

WHO: Open to everyone! Please bring your friends and colleagues.
WHEN: Saturday 8/16 4:30–6:00pm
Johnny Foley’s Irish Pub
243 O’Farrell Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

What do we call sociological research done by untrained sociologists?

In it’s simplest form sociological research is nothing more than the making and testing of hypotheses about the social world (i.e. groups of people, institutions, culture, etc.). We all do that every day. You can’t make sense of the world without doing informal sociological research. So what do we call this untrained sociological research?

What I’m talking about is not common sense. As Mathesin (1989) points out, common sense is a body of knowledge, not a methodology. What I want to talk about is the methodology people use everyday to explore the social world. To be clear, I’m talking about the non-systematic observations of anecdotal evidence, hearsay, and media reports used to draw conclusions about the social world. What should we call that?

We should call it intuitive sociology.

By definition intuition means “The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning”. Furthermore, unlike scientific reasoning, intuition draws its conclusions,
“without the use of rational processes”. Intuition is also BFF with the confirmation bias, as it’s conclusions are often drawn “based on or agreeing with what is known or understood without any proof or evidence”.

Therefore I define Intuitive Sociology as the non-systematic, non-empirical process of making and testing hypotheses about the social world that is carried out without conscious reasoning. The findings from this methodology are often selected based on the prior beliefs and/or needs of the individual using the approach.

Why Intuitive Sociology Matters

Intuitive sociology matters because it is what our students bring with them into our class room. The first challenge any sociology teacher faces is convincing students that a rigorous, conscious, rational, empirical methodology offers them something that their intuitive sociology methods cannot. You have to show them that intuitive sociology is flawed and produces a vision of the world that is often inaccurate. You have to give them “new eyes” to see the world around them again for the first time.

Our students will spend the entire semester going back and forth between their intuitive and scientific sociological methodologies. They will waffle between anecdotal and empirical evidence. Keeping this in mind can help us be more empathetic and patient teachers.

Intuition is Flawed, Science is Flawed

Sociology is not a religion (to Comte’s chagrin). Obviously, sociology like all scientific endeavors is also flawed. Any first semester grad student can rail on the subjectivity of science, but I’ll spare you as I’m guessing you already know the deal. Empirical methods cannot give us the “Truth”, but they can provide us with a perspective that intuitive methods cannot.

We also need to honor the experiences of our students. Shaming their use of intuition or ridiculing their common sense is a counterproductive approach to teaching. We should not present sociology as diametrically opposed to intuition and common sense because in reality they are interconnected, but that’s a topic for another day. I think the best we can hope for our students is that when they leave our classes they will find ways to use their sociological imaginations in conjunction with their intuition and common sense.

The Next America by Paul Taylor is an outstanding and approachable book that I plan on using in my sociology classes this fall. The book is a tour de force of social statistics. This is no surprise given that it was written by the Executive Vice President of the Pew Research Center Paul Taylor.

What makes this book so outstanding is how it manages to integrate sociological research with Pew studies, while at the same time never overwhelming the reader with a stats attack. If you want to show your students how to write and explain data, this is the book for you. Taylor lowers the on ramp to social statistic and demography and presents a picture of the United States as an ever changing social system full of surprises. Statistics are used to dispel a myth of common sense, to highlight a piece of the American mosaic, or to help the reader make sense of a seemingly chaotic social world.

As the book’s title alludes to, Taylor is primarily interested with how birth cohort affects perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. In each chapter the data is segmented by each of the living generations (Greatest Generation -> Silents -> Boomers -> Xers -> Millennials). After reading a few pages, the reader can’t help but see that our perceptions of the world are guided by the historical moment we live in and have lived through. In other words, this book is amazing at showing how historical context affects an individual’s perception of the world around them. As I’ve recently lamented many of our students intuitive understanding of the social world is built upon an ahistorical framework. I am hoping that a text like Next America will pry open my students’ minds to the role historical timing plays in their lives.

While the dramatic title would have you believe this book is all about the “looming generational showdown”, that was really only the focus of 3 chapters. The rest of the book looked at how the different generations felt and behaved on issues like marriage, religion, immigration, racial inequality, and use of digital technology. If you are looking for a quick introduction to the sociological research on any of these issues, this book is hard to beat. In this way the book serves as a public facing edition of the Annual Review of Sociology.

As a bonus, Taylor was interviewed by Jon Stewart about Next America. This short (6 min) clip will be a great way to introduce the book and the author to my students this fall.

Taylor’s work is strongest when it focuses on sharing the wealth of demographics and social data points. When Taylor strays into drawing conclusions and predicating the future the results are a mixed bag. While this book uses a lot of sociological data it is not a sociological book. At times I winced as Taylor espoused the dominant ideology (e.g. racism for the most part is a thing of the past). To his credit, Taylor often presented data that challenged these dominant ideologies. To his discredit, these contradictions were rarely acknowledged and I anticipate having a few confused students. All that said, science is often a contradictory process, so dealing with conflicting arguments is a skill that I hope to develop in my students.

This book is a winner and I plan on using it for at least the next few years. The curated presentation of real time social data that this book offers alone warrants your consideration.

***Breaking Bad SPOILER ALERT***

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was really… I was alive”

– Walter White.

I could give the same reasons for why I lecture as much as I do. Standing in front of a room full of people ready to hear what you have to say is exhilarating.[1] There aren’t too many places left where a person can get a group’s relatively undivided attention. It’s nice to feel heard. It’s fun to tell jokes to a room desperate for a laugh. It’s easy to feel really smart and competent explaining entry level concepts to beginning learners. We all have egos and for some of us, myself included, the classroom is a space to “fill our buckets” as my 6 year old would say.

Despite pulling Walter White into this conversation, I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying teaching. And I don’t think there is anything shameful about enjoying feeling competent and proud of the work you are doing, especially if you feel the work you are doing is an important social good.

The problem with lecturing is that it’s not the right tool for every pedagogical task and mono-strategy teaching has limitations. What we’re really talking about here is the “sage on the stage” vs. “guide on the side” divide. The research on learning finds that getting your students writing, discussing, or otherwise actively involved during class time increases how much they learn (Ambrose et al. 2010) or as the saying goes, “the one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.”

Many teachers struggle to develop alternatives to lecturing. But this can easily be overcome by reading books like Classroom Assessment Techniques, Student Engagement Techniques, Active Learning, and Collaborative Learning Techniques that are full of ready-made student driven learning activities.

Even if you removed every barrier and made switching to a student-centered teaching style as easy as possible, many of us still wouldn’t do it. Because we like lecturing. We are good at it. It makes us feel alive.

I once heard Annie Lamott, a successful author, say that reading the positive reviews of her books was like “a giant mound of cocaine for the ego”. She went on to say that to become a good writer you have to deny yourself these mounds of cocaine and simply focus on the work of writing. Maybe the exact same thing could be said about forgoing the “giant mound of cocaine for the ego” that is lecturing and being the “sage on the stage”.

  1. It can also be terrifying, but after you’ve taught for a handful of years, you start to feel competent and centered.  ↩

I want my students to see that social change isn’t magic. That it is a social process directed by social forces. I want them to know that previous historical events often serve as antecedents to change. And finally I want them to experience how learning about the past can help us better understand our present and predict our future. These are the goals I set for myself every time I teach my Social Change class.

I pair these with the goals I have for every class I teach. For instance, I always want my students to learn about the scientific method, how to find and read peer-reviewed research, and how to write like a sociologist. Lastly, I want my students to develop the skill of creatively solving interesting problems because that it what they will be doing every day of their professional career. I always tell my students, if a question can be answered with a google search, no one will pay you to answer it.

“Align Your Goals With Your Assessments!”

Everyone tells us to align our teaching goals with what we are doing in the classroom and with the graded assessments. That is excellent advice and I think it’s safe to say we all aspire to have our goals, classroom activities, and assessments aligned. However, in reality it’s really hard to get all of your ducks in a row.

This semester I worked really hard to ensure that my student learning outcomes (SLOs) aligned with the written papers I assigned my students. Today I want to 1. give everyone a copy of my assignments and 2. discuss how I worked to get my goals and my assessments in line.

Student Learning Outcomes:

By the end of this class students will be able to…

  1. Analyze a social change event using sociological concepts/tools like social/historical contexts, social structure, sociological theory, materialist/idealist factors, etc.
  2. Answer a social change research question using peer-reviewed research. (aka think and write like a sociologist).
  3. Design a Direct action campaign to alter the power relations surrounding a social issue (aka creatively solve interesting social problems).

Download All 3 Papers Here

Paper 1: Analyze a Social Change Event

I decided to focus my class around one single example of social change: mass incarceration. I had my students read the first 2 chapters of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Alexander (2010) is making a clear argument that the War on Drugs (WoD) policies have recreated the racial caste system that has been with the United States since slavery. She walks the reader from slavery to vagrancy laws to Jim Crow laws to WoD polices arguing that each instance was a mutation of the prior system of oppression.

I ask my students to write down all of the social antecedents they see in the assigned two chapters. Then we worked together to create a list of antecedents (download here). The next day in class I draw a big time line across the double-wide white board at the front of the room. We worked together to fill the timeline with all of the crucial events and other social antecedents. With their antecedent list and timeline in hand, I have my students apply everything we’ve learned about social change from the rest of the class to the WoD and mass incarceration in paper 1.

Paper 2: Think & Write Like a Sociologist

One of the key ideas of social change is that if something hasn’t changed yet, then it’s probably because somebody else doesn’t want it changed. That’s my one sentence summary of Darhendorf’s (1959) Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Really what we’re talking about here is hegemony and the social forces that maintain the status quo. I want my students to be able to identify those on each side of the WoD issue. I also want my students to develop their skills at doing literature reviews and using empirical evidence to support their arguments. Paper 2 combines both of these into a simple research paper.

Paper 3: Creatively Solve Interesting Problems

What good is knowing how things change if you don’t learn how to create some change yourself along the way? The book Organizing for Social Change is a workbook that guides you step-by-step through the process of fighting for social justice. The first two chapters explain what direct action organizing is and then the rest of the book is a series of worksheets and tasks to get your activist campaign off the ground. In paper 3 my students are challenged to plan a direct action campaign to mitigate the consequences of the WoD polices and mass incarceration in general.

This assignment is a “choose-your-own-adventure” style assignment. Students have to come up with their own ideas and then flesh out their campaign from there. As I write my students are working on this paper right now. Not a day has gone by that a student hasn’t said, “This is hard! I can’t think of any good ideas.” To which I always say, “Excellent! It sounds like you are doing the hard work of learning right now. Keep it up.”

While it might sound like I am enjoying their anguish, in reality I don’t. But I know that frustration, anger, and exhaustion are all common side effects of learning. Too often writing assignments are paint-by-numbers style activities. Students have grown accustomed to being told exactly what to write about, so open assignments like this give student the opportunity to creatively solve interesting problems.