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Why do you get paid to teach sociology? Why is that of value? Why do many colleges require that their seemingly unrelated majors, like physics, take a sociology course?

Sociology is required because being able to see how social systems affect individuals is supremely valuable skill. Empathy, acceptance, and understanding all start by being able to understand the position of another and you can not understand another without acknowledging the difference in their lived experiences. Empathy, acceptance, and understanding are the keys to closing a sale, building an alliance, and achieving your goals in the face of opposition. Those who have these skills will be better citizens, business people, and have a richer, more meaningful life.

So it only makes sense that students are falling over themselves to get as much out of your classes as possible, right?

Many of us have found that our students are not as excited by sociology as we are. On the first day many students see no value in the class, beyond the fulfillment of a college requirement and being one step closer to graduation. Some, maybe even most, have heard that sociology is “an easy A”. Why is there such a discrepancy between the obvious value sociology educators see in our courses and the minimal value students may possible see?

Barriers in Students’ Minds

I think I can answer both why sociology is required and why students tend to not see value in a sociology course. Sociology is the study of seeing beyond the individual to the social or the systematic. This is something that for many of our students they have been systematically taught to ignore, minimize, and devalue. A system oriented explanation of personal suffering (whether economic, educational, or political) is seen as playing the “blame game”. It is a sign of weakness and the shrugging of responsibility in many social circles. Part of being socialized in the United States means being prescripted with all of the explanations and justifying rationales one would need to disregard any systematic analysis of the world that conflicts with their present individual centered world view.

Part of being socialized in the United States means being prescripted with all of the explanations and justifying rationales one would need to disregard any systematic analysis of the world that conflicts with their present individual centered world view.

Many students have a strongly wall barrier in their minds that prevents them from even considering how social systems affect themselves or others. For many students the individual or “personal responsibility” logic is extremely compelling and the wall in their mind is a immoveable barrier, a fortress wall. Students are comfortable living behind this wall. It may be all they’ve ever known. In my experience students of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, and education levels can potentially suffer from this Balkanization of the mind*.

So then the answer is, sociology is an extremely valuable skill that many of us have a very hard time acquiring. You are paid to help students identify the barriers they have created for themselves and encourage them to break through it. I say encourage because you can not force students to do anything they don’t want to.

From this vantage point students who challenge the sociological arguments and evidence you present are not being obstinate or “jerks” as I have heard some call them. Students are defending the walls they’ve created in their minds with the tools society has preloaded them with. Students are not necessarily being “disrespectful” to you, they may be experiencing cognitive dissonance by trying to hold onto their old world view while trying accept or consider the new opposing world view you are presenting them. That is how you can present a obvious and logical argument supported by clear evidence to students and they can dismiss it out of had. Your students are also certainly not unintelligent or incapable of learning sociology. Teachers with this vantage point can work from a place of sympathy, understanding, and patience.

Breaking Through

You are not responsible for shattering the barriers in your students minds. You need only put a single crack in the wall. Over time, as the students gain more perspective or as the things you have taught your students pop out at them, pressure will build against that barrier and eventually the crack you placed will spider out. Then the immoveable barrier, the fortress wall, will shatter like glass and students will cross over to a new perspective of the world. This may be years after your class. You may never see it. Regardless, when you evaluate your effectiveness as a teacher it can not be in terms of what percent of the class broke through and “got it”. Be respectful of the process and kinder to yourself.

*It should be noted that all of us have to one degree or another this prescripting. And all of us, including you and I, are responsible for continuous critical self-evaluation and dismantling the wall were we find it.

On the first day of my Race & Nationality courses I ask my students to answer the following question in their mind, “Could you be prejudice or discriminate?” Based on the looks I get I can tell that most think that they have not and would not participate in any type of prejudice or discrimination. Isn’t that strange? How could a class full of students think that none of them participated in prejudice or discrimination? I believe the answer lies in how we have conceptualized racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. We have dichotomized them and in doing so we have made it easy for most of us to deflect any possibility of participation in systems of prejudice & discrimination.

There Are Good People & Bad People… I’m Good’

As a society we have dichotomized racism, prejudice, and discrimination into things that you are or you are not. We have split the world into two camps- the good and the evil. To be someone who is a racist in many students minds means being an overt bigot who puts a great deal of thought and effort into hurting people of color. As Feagin (2001) discusses, racism is a thing other people, specifically other white people, do. As long as you know someone who is more racist than you are then you are not a racist yourself. Dichotomization implies a clear dividing line between those who are and those who are not. Without shades of gray a person need only know someone who is more racist than they are to assume that they are on the other side of the dividing line.

Dichotomization prevents people from critically analyzing their thoughts and behaviors. Most of us need to feel that we are good people. So when someone says to us, “hey what you just said is flat racist” what we may hear is “Hey what you said makes you an evil person”. You can see the evidence of this in how people react to such statements. “I am not a racist. How dare you pull the race card on me!” Dichotomization doesn’t allow people to make mistakes, own them, and apologize for them. Under dichotomization, to admit to saying something racist is to admit to being, at least partially, an evil person. In this way dichotomization prevents people from growing and leaving stereotyped ideologies behind.

As soon as possible you need to address this misconception. Call it out by name and show students how it is one of the major barriers keeping many of us from taking an honest look at ourselves. How can we change what we won’t acknowledge?

Demonstrating The Fluidity of Prejudice & Discrimination

The single best way to show how good, moral, educated people can slip into bigoted or stereotyped thoughts is to own your own mistakes in front of your class. I tell my students of a time when I shared an office with two other graduate students. I was working on a lecture for my Race & Nationality class when my computer went on the fritz. I phoned the IT person and he said he would send his assistant down as soon as he came in. Shortly after my officemate Jill [Not her real name], a white woman, told me that her husband was coming to pick her up for lunch, but she had to leave the office for a bit. She asked if I would receive him and have him sit at her desk and wait for her. I said of course.

Some time passed and I heard on knock on the door. I looked up to see an Asian American man with an orange polo shirt leaning against the doorframe. His face showed his was confused by my presence. We both paused for a moment. “Oh you must be hear to fix my computer,” I said as I started to tell him what happend just before my computer broke. “I’m looking for Jill,” he interrupted with his hand extended to stop my misguided assumption. I could feel all of the blood rush to my face. I looked to the floor and collected myself. “I am so sorry. I made an assumption based on a stereotype. I am so embarrassed. Jill went upstairs for a sec. Have a seat. She’ll be right back.” Given my gross and offensive assumption Jill’s husband was beyond gracious as we talked about what we both did for a living. The irony of preparing a lecture on prejudice & discrimination while simultaneously participating in both was not lost on either of us.

Demonstrating my own vulnerability to false, stereotyped, and prejudice logics and discriminatory actions shows my students that I am human and not beyond any of the things we talk about. I share with them that many students have told me that they are “color blind” and that they do not participate in prejudice or discrimination of any kind. I ask them how is it possible that a person like myself who has read more about the topic than they have, who has written more papers than they have about the topic, who has spoke publicly more often about this topic is not invulnerable to participating in them and yet these students have it all figured out. How can someone who is not living and breathing these ideas be able to avoid it so completely? Every time my students answer back, that it isn’t possible.

Exposing your own mistakes is risky. You could lose your credibility with students or maybe even your authority. Students could judge you and become angry with you. However, I think that role modeling how to take ownership of your mistakes empowers students to critically analyze their own lives. How can we ask our students to do something that we are unwilling to do ourselves?

Feagin, Joe. 2001. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations. New York, NY: Routledge.

Educational Inequality can be a really challenging subject to teach. Many students are unaware of how unequal schools are in the United States. Some are surprised to hear that educational inequality in the United States has actually gotten worse since 1968. In my classes I have used an excerpt from Savage Inequalities
that highlights the stark differences between two school districts (P.S.79 and P.S.24). Kozol also does a great job of pointing out, in simple language, the complexities of the public education system and the consequences it creates in children’s lives.

After briefly talking about the general impressions of the article, we watch a short 9 min video where J. Kozol talks about his other book The Shame of the Nation. In the video he talks about a girl named Pineapple who lives in the South Bronx. The school district Pineapple lives in spends $11,000 a year on her public education, while a child in a affluent suburb 12 mins a way would receive $19,000 and a child in Manhasset New York receives $22,000 a year. I created a google map of these 3 districts to show students how close they were. I also created a presentation slide of the map.

Kozol sets students up with loads of information, but he is far less exciting for students than the clip I have from the Oprah Winfrey Show. Trading Schools is a clip about students from a affluent public school in the suburbs and a public inner city school switching schools for one day to see what life is like on the other side. Students loved this video and it really inspired conversation.

At this point in the discussion I like to present educational inequality as a tragedy of the commons. We discuss how there is a rational, if short sighted, motivation for parents to secure the best education for their children possible and sabotage the education of other children who will compete with their own when it comes time to apply for college or for employment. School districting is a tragedy of the commons because even if parents feel that they should send their children to public schools, as soon as they see another parent leveraging their class advantage by taking their child to a private school or moving to a more affluent school district that parent will almost certainly feel compelled to provide the same advantage to their child. The tragedy is that making the best decision for each individual child will perpetuate inequality of the educational system

Needless to say, discussing educational inequality can depress students and runs the risk of encouraging them to throw up their hands in defeat. However, heeding the advice of Hedley and Markowitz (2001) I like to finish this discussion by talking about solutions. I start by talking about reification and I implore the students to realize that “the school system” and “the government” are institutions that are controlled by humans. If we want to change these institutions we need only change the ideas, policies, and expected behaviors of our public leaders. I share with students that many communities across the country do not use school districts in this way and that many if not most nations across the world do not divvy up school funding this way. Students are encouraged to hear that a solution does not so much need to be developed, as a solution needs to adapted from one of the numerous examples of less unequal school districts

Educational Inequality exists to a large degree simply because it goes undiscussed in many circles of life or because it is blamed on the parents and students of low income neighborhoods. This presentation/discussion almost always outrages or at least challenges students to reexamine their worldview. For a sociology class, this discussion is excellent at showing how our social systems affect the life chances and behaviors of individuals.

Download Toolkit (200kb):
Handout/Fact Sheet on Educational Inequality
Discussion Questions
Video Links (.rtf file)
Presentation Slides

Frankenberg, Erica, Chungmei Lee, and Gary Orfield. 2003. A Multiractial Society with Segregated Schools: Are we Losing the Dream? Cambridge, MA: Civil Rights Project, Harvard University.


This is a presentation I do that helps students understand how two groups of people could be labeled differently for doing the exact same behavior in the exact same place at the exact same time.  I use this is both my Race & Nationality course and my Intro to Soc courses.

I usually begin by asking students to think of labels that can positively or negatively affect someone.  I follow that up by asking, “how does someone get a label like this? Can they give it to themselves?”  This helps draw the social dynamics of labeling theory into the light.

Download The Presentation Here

Download The Teacher Support Version Here

A Girl Like Me is a video that explores beauty standards for African American women. The candid conversations with African American women about the pressures they face makes this film interesting and accessible. The video also recreates the Doll Test Experiment originally conducted by Dr. Kenneth Clark. In the experiment African American children are presented with two similarly dressed dolls; one white and one black. The children are then asked which doll is the good doll and which is the bad doll. It is heart wrenching to watch some of the African American children pick the White doll when asked to identify the nice doll.

This video is beyond compelling and I can’t recommend it enough for any sociology class