KL Twin Tower with a twist
Photo by Rushdi13 via flickr.com

Many instructors wonder if they are teaching concepts students can actually apply in their daily lives outside of the classroom.  Chris Uggen, a professor at the University of Minnesota, decided to find out through a bonus question on the final exam in his sociology of deviance course.  Specifically, he asked students to provide particular examples of how they used class material outside of the course sometime during the semester.  And, he received good news–students shared many ways in which they used course material.  To view them and view more of his reflections on this simple but powerful idea, see his blog here.

domo match
Photo by Kristine Oplado via flickr.com

When I took my first sociology course my freshman year of undergrad, I had no idea I would enjoy it more than the biology courses I was taking for my major.  But, I loved it.  In fact, I can still remember the simple classroom activity that caused me to rethink my major.

Our professor asked us to visit a toy store (or a store with a fairly sizeable toy section) and write a short reflection paper about the differences we saw between toys marketed for boys and toys marketed for girls.  She asked us to pay attention to the packaging (What types of colors are used? Who is depicted playing with the toys?) and the toys themselves.  Afterward, students discussed their findings in class, and it was clear that many of the students really enjoyed the activity.  We then discussed gender and gender socialization, and even though I don’t study gender, the way sociologists examine what most people take for granted had me hooked.



One of my co-advisors, Elizabeth Boyle, was recently telling me about using children’s books in the classroom.  She shared that she uses The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales as a tool to teach students about postmodernity.  For example, the book illustrates that truth is relative by telling stories from the point of view of atypical characters.  It also exposes the grand narratives that structure language and thought that we often take for granted.  So, I wanted to pass along that teaching tip.  What undergrad wouldn’t enjoy reading a children’s book for an assignment?

Here is a link to an article that discusses the book’s connection to postmodernity: http://www2.unca.edu/postscript/postscript21/ps21.5.pdf

And, here are the slides that Elizabeth uses in the classroom.

Undredal Church
Tensions between religion and science are not new.  Today, many people assume that scientists are athiests, but little is actually known about their religious and spiritual views.  To learn more, Elaine Howard Ecklund conducted a study of religion among scientists.  She explores the results of the study in the 2008 Contexts feature “Religion and Spirituality Among Scientists.”  Below are a few questions to accompany the article.

1)    Does the finding that scientists often hold religious views surprise you?  Would you assume it varies by discipline? Why or why not?

2)    Why do you think a greater proportion of scientists are atheists than the general population?

3)    Considering that 69% of social scientists surveyed identified as spiritual, how might you explain a reluctance to discuss religion in an academic setting?



Joel Best’s 2009 Contexts feature “Sociologists as Outliers” takes a look at how sociologists can learn from Malcom Gladwell’s ability to translate research to a wide audience.  In the classroom, students can discuss what sociology contributes to the understanding of social behavior and how we can make our contributions known.

1)    Pick a success in your life and identify the social factors that played a role in the chain of events that helped you succeed.

2)  The hockey league example illustrates that circumstances can change outcomes. Think of another example where structural forces shape individual outcomes and describe it briefly.

ACTIVITY: Find a news article on the web that quotes a sociologist (see our sister blog, Citings & Sightings).  Why was a sociologist particularly well-suited to comment on the topic of the article? What did sociology bring to the discussion that another field might not?


A group of sociologists recently revisited the controversial 1965 Moynihan Report.  Your students can read about it in the Fall 2009 Contexts feature “The Moynihan Report, A Retrospective” by Kate Ledger.  Below are some questions and an activity you can use in the classroom.


1) The Moynihan Report is available online at http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/webid-meynihan.htm. Read the introduction and describe how it compares with the image you had after reading the Contexts article. Which analysis do you find more compelling and/or enlightening?


2) According to this article, a number of sociologists think Moynihan would have had different ideas about black families had he studied class instead of race. Why would this be true?


3) When the Moynihan Report was leaked to the press 45 years ago, there was an outcry and social science about family, race, and inequality started to happen “under the radar.”  How can the media help or hinder social science research?


Activity: Use www.eurekalert.com or a comparable source to find a press release on a social scientific study that sounds interesting. Read the press release and the original article (your school’s library website will help you find the original) and compare them. Does the press release do the article justice? What parts of the original research seem overlooked? Do any seem overhyped?




Escape cell, Alcatraz

In the Contexts feature “No Real Release” (Winter 2009), Jason Schnittker and Michael Massoglia explore the link between incarceration and health.  Below are some questions you can use with the article.  Also, check out some online content to accompany the article!

1)     Describe the ways that incarceration is linked to poor health and inadequate health care. In contrast, how is incarceration beneficial to the health of some prisoners?

2)    This article demonstrates how the stigma of incarceration can be “contagious” and affect how the children of ex-cons are seen and see themselves. What are some other stigmas that seem to rub off on friends and family?

3)    As you learned in the article, discrimination against ex-cons is legally sanctioned. Should it be? Why or why not?


ACTIVITY: Imagine that you are a social worker in a community where many former inmates return after leaving prison. What policies might you advocate to address the health needs of your community in light of prisoner re-entry? What resources would you need? What community leaders or organization would you need to enlist for support?



Connecting students’ lives and previous experiences to lessons is always a great way to capture attention.  “The Sociology of Bubbles” by Bruce G. Carruthers (Contexts, Summer 2009) explains the sociology of the economic meltdown, a topic that will surely be of interest to many students.

Here are some potential questions that you could use with article:

1)    Do you have any experience with the finance system in the U.S. (e.g., the stock market, school loans)? Has your experience been positive or negative?  If you have no experience, how do you think you will in the future?

2)    Has the economic recession changed your views of the financial system in this country? What consequences of the recession have you seen in your own life?

3)    Why do you think so many people invest in the stock market or borrow from banks when the risks are so high? What do you think this says about our culture?

4)    The author writes that economic inequality in this country is at levels not seen since the Great Depression. Based on what you learned from this article and your own knowledge, what are the social repercussions of such high economic inequality?




Olympic Moral Compass

Morality is a contentious topic both inside and outside of the academy.  In the Fall 2009 Contexts feature “The Good, the Bad, and the Social,”  Daniel Winchester and Steven Hitlin examine the sociology of morality and explain that every situation, no matter how brief or small, has a moral dimension.  And, our ideas of right and wrong are shaped by social forces.

When you assign the article, you could also assign a “morality test.”  Here are a few examples:


You could also assign this New York Times article that briefly explains the work of Jerry Burger, a Santa Clara University Psychologist who replicated Milgram’s study four decades later.

Use these questions with Simon J. Williams’ Winter 2011 Contexts Feature, “Our Hard Days’ Nights.”

1.   It may be surprising to read that sociologists study sleep.  How is sleep social, and what does sociology have to offer the study of sleep?

2.  The author repeatedly refers to sleep as a “right.”  Similarly, Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts the right to rest and leisure.  How is sleep a right?  What does this mean, and do you agree with this classification?

3.  The article discusses Modafinil and other wakefulness-promoting drugs that are already being used by the military to combat drowsiness.  Discuss the pros and cons of drugs like Modafinil.