Below are some discussion questions and an activity that can be used with “Beyond Mendel’s Ghost” by Michael J. Shanahan, Shawn Bauldry, and Jason A. Freeman.  You can find the article  in the Fall 2010 issue of Contexts.

Discussion Questions:

1)    Before reading this article, did you think nature or nurture was a stronger determinant in the lives of human beings? What about now?

2)    The authors stress that sociology and genetics are more intertwined than people realize. If this is the case, should sociologists and geneticists work together? What might this partnership look like?

3)    Some people think genetic research could enable parents to choose their children’s genes, ranging from preventing diseases to choosing skin color, eye color, etc. What are the pros and cons of this possibility? What would the authors most likely say about it?


Pretend you have the ability to choose which genetic characteristics you can pass on to your children. List three that you would select. Why? Compare your list to others in the course.

Parque Tsitsernakaberd memorial genocidio armenio Yerevan Armenia 05
Memories of the past are fluid and powerful.  They are influenced by the present and can simultaneously influence the present.  Memories can be manipulated to serve interests and often provide blueprints for social action.  In the Summer 2010 issue of Contexts, two pieces capture these and other nuances of memory.

Barbara Sutton’s photo essay on “Situating Memory in Argentina” highlights pictures of the military dictatorship that disappeared, tortured, and violated the human rights of the people of Argentina.  Robin Autry’s piece, entitled “Memory, Materiality, and the Apartheid Past,” examines processes of constructing memories in South Africa.

These readings could be paired together or could easily be paired with a chapter from Jeffrey Alexander et. al’s  book on Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, which explores the relationship between collective memory, identity, and trauma.

For an assignment, students could research sites of memory and bring pictures and a historical description of the site to share with a group.

Potential discussion questions include:

How can a memory be shared?  Do you have to experience something in order to have a memory of it?

Do you think collective memory has the ability to deter future atrocities and human rights violations?  Why or why not?

The notion of collective memory often insinuates that a dominant memory exists.  However, Autry’s piece notes that resources and opportunity also play a role in which memory prevails.  Discuss how power can affect collective memory.

How do you view the U.S. treatment of Native Americans, Abraham Lincoln, or more recent events like September 11th?  What factors influence these memories and beliefs about the past?

MuseScore passes 40.000 downloads in June 2010

If undergrads were asked to create a list of the most terrifying things at college, statistics would surely be near the top.  Many students, even in sociology, dread taking any class that mentions the word “statistics” in the title.

But, statistical methodology is an invaluable tool that can be used to explore the social world, and finding ways to illuminate complex concepts and connect the math to students’ daily lives is key.

Sue Hodge recently shared some great resources with us that might make this task a little easier:

ICPSR and SSDAN are partners on two projects to improve the quantitative literacy of students. One of the projects is, a website of resources for faculty and instructors to teach social science concepts through the use of data. It is not exclusive to sociology, but there are many resources for sociologists.  In addition to classroom resources, the site has current news articles that use data to explain a happening or some other news, such as the recent growth enjoyed by Netflix. Very often these articles are accompanied by a chart or table which can be helpful for faculty looking for easy ways to have students practice these skills, and sometimes, they illustrate the incorrect use of data.

When many of us think of society, animals don’t necessarily come to mind.  But, sociologists have recently begun to explore the relationships between human and non-human animals.  In the most recent issue of Contexts, Arnold Arluke examines the importance of animals in our everyday lives.  All students could find something to resonate with in this piece, whether they associate certain traits with certain animals, have watched television shows about animal hoarders, have lamented that their significant others couldn’t be as “loyal” as their pet, or choose not to eat animals or animal products.

There are many ways this piece could be utilized in the classroom.  Students could be asked to find a news story that focuses on animals and reflect on how the animals are portrayed and what Arluke would say the story reflects about our relationships with animals.  Or, students could choose a particular species and examine people’s relationships with that species over time.  For this example, several international cases would be useful to illustrate the cultural constructions of animals/pets.  Along these lines, students could also research the animal cruelty laws that Arluke mentions.  They can examine which animals are covered by these laws and discuss why some, like farm animals, are not.

Lastly, you could introduce the idea of “speciesism” and take a look at social movements that strive to achieve animal rights or animal liberation.  PETA’s campaigns that juxtapose animal suffering against human slavery and the Holocaust could also spark great discussions, so students could be given the assignment to peruse PETA2’s current Animal Liberation Project’s website.


Below is the last (for now) post from our guest blogger, Nathan Palmer.  Nathan’s work can be followed at

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. Frequently I hear, “”well things aren’t perfect, but they sure are getting better all the time.”  Countless 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 many students of color share this mindset. Using very recent current events can convince students that racism is not a thing of the past but a very real part of our present.

Even students who believe and know that racism is alive and well are typically unaware of the numerous current events that many feel are clear examples of racism. Students are surprised to hear that just this August a Mississippi middle school barred students of color from running for class president. Most students have not heard about the controversy surrounding the firing of Shirley Sherrod over claims of racism. Students are unaware that two ROTC students spread cotton in front of the Black Culture Center at the University of Missouri in February. They are shocked to learn that, also during this past February, a student hung a noose in the UC San Diego library and shortly thereafter a UCSD fraternity put on a “ghetto themed” party called the “Compton Cookout” where guests were invited to dress like thugs and “Nappy Headed Hoes.” I tell my students that this is by no means an exhaustive list. You could also discuss the recent Arizona Immigration laws, or the recent controversy over “Dr. Laura” using the N-Word multiple times on air.

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 racism. This is crucial, because it avoids any debate about the incidents and it keeps students from feeling bullied or steamrolled. Also, students are savvy enough to draw their own conclusions.

I wrap up the discussion by asking my class, “If racism is a thing of the past, why is it in the news so frequently?” “If we have civil rights laws on the books and a Black president, why do we continue to talk about the dead issue of racism?” Needless to say, my students always seem to see the ridiculousness of these questions.

NYC Pro-Muslim Rally Marching On Sept. 11th, 2010

Below Nathan Palmer, faculty in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Georgia Southern University, shares some great ideas on how to teach students about making heroes, the social construction of reality, and rituals.

DC Hero Minifigs - Wave 11

Students are filing into a large lecture hall. An empty stage in front of them with a simple black text on white background powerpoint slide reads, “What if we treated sociologists as celebrities or sports heroes?” At 9:00 am exactly the lights dim and a hyped up song begins to play. Students are looking around the room for answers when over the speakers they hear, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please as we announce tonight’
s starting lineup for your very own Georgia Southern Eagles! Starting at teacher hailing from the University of Nebraska, it’s NAAATHAAAAN PAAALMEEER!!!” The music reaches a crescendo as I storm in from the back of the auditorium, slapping high fives with students as I make my way to the stage. Once on the stage I pour baby powder in my hands and throw it in the air mimicking LeBron James’s pre-game ritual. Then I point both my fingers to one side of the room just like the fastest man in the world Usain Bolt does.

Heroes, Celebrities, and Constructing Reality
The music stops. When the students stop laughing hysterically I start a discussion about how we “make sports heroes.” We talk about the lights, music, the announcer’s tone of voice, the crowd participation and all the other rituals we do across the country at sporting events. This is a great way to discuss the social construction of reality in a way that students really connect with. I also bring in Durkheim’s insights about rituals and community building. Nowhere in the United States is there a more naked concerted effort to clearly define an “us” and a “them” as there is at sporting events.

Typically my students want to take the conversation beyond sports and look at pop-culture celebrity making. This is an easy transition given that the way we make pop-culture celebrities is very similar to sports hero making. Students talk about movie trailers with quick cuts and a dramatic voice over. They talk about TMZ, Extra!, and other celebrity news magazines that prop up the most mundane behaviors as being amazing and trend setting.

Inevitably, one student will say, “I hate celebrities and sports heroes. The real heroes of the world are Pat Tillman and the men and women who serve our country.” This is a excellent opportunity to talk about the rhetorical frames we use to describe soldiers. I will ask the class, “How do we talk about soldiers and the military in the United States when we want to honor them?” The class is quick to use words like sacrifice, bravery, courage, and honor. This demonstrates to the class that even when talk about people who do more than score a touchdown or star in a movie, we still use symbols and rhetorical devices to socially construct a heroic reality for them.

Making Your Intro Music
Creating your audio introduction is fairly easy. I buy a high energy top 40 song off of iTunes each semester so that my students will immediately recognize the song. iTunes is great because you can buy a “clean” or censored version of the song and it will only cost you $1.29. Most recently I used the song “Winner” by Jamie Foxx. After you pick a song you can use free programs like Audacity on a PC or GarageBand on a Mac to record your “announcer intro” and then mix the track with the song you’ve chosen.

Teaching symbolic interaction is typically something we all do during the first weeks of a introduction to sociology course. This activity is especially good because it affords us an opportunity to break student expectations early. As I am sure is apparent by now, this activity takes a fair amount of courage on your part. However, by putting yourself out there, so to speak, you can shatter student preconceptions about professors and college classes. You can also rest assured that your students will leave class and tell all their friends about what they learned in sociology today.

Teaching as Theater
The reality is, if you are teaching 100+ students in a large lecture hall you are doing performance theater like it or not. When students walk into a theater sized classroom and when you stand on a stage with a microphone, it should surprise no one that students expect to be entertained. As sociologists we have a unique opportunity to play with student expectations and violate norms in a way that both makes for good pedagogy and good theater.

Please welcome Guest Blogger, Nathan Palmer. Nathan is faculty in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Georgia Southern University, where he teaches Introduction to Sociology, Social Problems, and Environmental Sociology. Nathan’s research interests are focused on the scholarship of teaching and learning, inequality, education, and environmental sociology.

Nathan is also the editor of the teaching sociology focused blog  The post below is the first in a series of 3 posts by Nathan.

2010 Census

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 that you discussed 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 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 against when 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.

Download the Survey (pdf Version)

write or be written off
At Contexts and, we spend a lot of time thinking and expounding about how, for social science to be effective outside the academy, it simply has to be accessible. That means writing rigorous science in an approachable way and allowing for skillful editing to help make our points clear and concise for all readers. Doug Hartmann and Chris Uggen have been addressing these issues recently, both in their Letter from the Editors column in each quarterly issue of Contexts and in their Editors’ Desk posts here on They’ve written about science-in-the-vernacular and the art of being edited, along with the nuances of presenting scientific knowledge when, well, “It’s Complicated.” What we haven’t talked about is how good writers become good writers.

Sure, a few excellent authors were born that way. Silver-tongued and fleet-fingered, these stars of social science naturally present the insights of the ivory tower in the language of the people. Show-offs.

But, as a recent essay submitted by one sociology student points out, the rest of us need a little help. Kate Parker says, “For many undergraduate students, the writing life of a professor is pure mystery,” and pleads, “Teach students about the process of writing… Better yet, tell them about your writing process.” Below, her essay in its entirety and, in the comments (with any luck) you can share your suggestions on making writing itself a key pedagogical function.

“Out of My Shell,” Kate Parker

I used to be notorious for refusing to let anyone but professors read papers I had written.  My mother?  Nope.  My partner?  Not likely.  My fellow sociology students?  No way.  Each time I turned a paper in, I was convinced it was awful.  My writing process involved a steady flow of anxiety, punctuated with moments of pure panic.  I paced around the room, consumed sweets as though they were pure intellectual fuel, and stayed up all hours of the night.  In the end, I was sure that I had missed something critical.  I was certain that my thought process was not sophisticated enough or that my writing style was average at best.  So when a professor suggested I take her class on writing for sociology students, I nervously jumped at the chance.

On the first day of class, I took a look at the requirements for the course and came across one of my biggest fears: peer reviews.  Not only did I cringe at the thought of my fellow students quietly laughing at my writing, I felt extremely uncomfortable with the idea of criticizing their work.  Who was I to judge someone else’s writing?  We started reading Howard Becker’s book Writing for Social Scientists and discussed our fears in class.  Our professor explained that graduate students and professional sociologists depend on their peers for feedback.

After realizing that everyone else was as nervous as I was, my fears started to lessen.  We reviewed each other’s work several times throughout the semester and I began to (brace yourself) enjoy them.  Reading my classmates’ work exposed me to new styles of writing.  Finding both effective and ineffective aspects of their work helped me focus on what was effective and ineffective in my own.  They gave me fantastic suggestions and helped me work through specific areas I was struggling in.  I even found myself continuing to discuss assignments with other students after class.  Most importantly, I realized that letting others read and comment on my writing made me a better writer and this skill will be extremely useful when I graduate.

Peer reviews were not my only fear, however.  We were also expected to write multiple drafts of each assignment.  Like many undergraduate students, my idea of paper writing consisted of sitting down at 10pm the night before an assignment was due and writing the entire piece at once.  No drafts, minimal revisions.  I thought writing and revising multiple drafts were irritatingly tedious.  Now, in hindsight, it’s very easy to see why I was so anxious about my papers.  I felt that I had to have it perfect the first time.  And by waiting until 10pm the night before, I sort of did.  As I wrote and rewrote drafts for my writing class, I enjoyed how it managed to quell a great deal of the anxiety I felt during the writing process.  I stopped pacing around my room and eating a steady stream of sweets all night.  Realizing I didn’t have to create perfection the first time around was a huge relief, and I have taken that knowledge to other parts of my life.  I used to avoid risk in any situation, fearing humiliation if I didn’t do something correctly.  Now, I am comfortable with the fact that nothing is perfect the first time and sometimes I need to just go for it.  This has led me to start running again with the goal of finishing a half-marathon within a year, regardless of the fact that some people may think the term “running” is a bit of an exaggeration due to my tortoise-like pace.

Finally, I had to deal with my worst nightmare.  Even the mention of public speaking was enough to send my heart racing and make my palms sweaty, and now I had to endure this horrible process twice.  The first would be a practice presentation of our final research paper in front of the class.  The second was far worse: presenting at an undergraduate research conference.  I had grudgingly participated in the conference last year, and it was not an enjoyable experience due to the feeling of my nerves being wrapped around my stomach.  A class I had taken in public speaking ended in disaster after disaster.  Why would this be any different?  Luckily, I felt very comfortable with my classmates by this point in the semester, so I did not feel overly anxious during the practice session.  The conference presentation loomed in the back of my mind, but I began to notice that I wasn’t feeling the deep, overwhelming sense of dread I had previously experienced.  This, however, made me nervous.  There was no logical reason for me to feel this calm.  Surely a massive panic attack was just lurking under the surface, waiting until I made my way in front of a room filled with people.  But then this fear of my lack of fear suddenly disappeared as I made my way to the podium.  I presented my research loudly and clearly, without my face turning the unnatural shade of burgundy that had accompanied all of my previous public speaking experiences.  The confidence that had been built in my class transferred to my presentation, and if I had not been forced into the experience I would still be terrified of talking in front of people.  As a committee member for a local charity event, this confidence in front of a crowd was a great asset when I had to address volunteers, and I’m extremely grateful that I have this skill for my future career.

I’d like to finish with a little advice for Sociology professors: please teach your students how to write.   I’m not just talking about how to write a great topic sentence or how to use correct punctuation.  Teach students about the process of writing, that it’s ok to ask for help, that you don’t have to get it perfect the first time.  Better yet, tell them about your writing process and the anxieties you have experienced.  For many undergraduate students, the writing life of a professor is pure mystery.  It seems intimidating, foreign, out of reach.  Your students may have made it halfway through college, but it is very likely that no one has truly challenged them to face their biggest fears associated with writing.  If you give them this challenge, they will be much more confident and prepared for graduate school and professional life.

Kate Parker graduated from Indiana University of South Bend in 2010. She wrote this essay for Dr. Gail McGuire’s course “The Social Practice of Writing.” Parker can be reached at kate[dot]parker4[at]gmail[dot]com.

graduation (2)
Here is an active learning exercise that could be used with “A Matter of Degrees” by William Beaver (Contexts, Spring 2009).  Students will be asked to reflect on the purpose of college.  It could also easily be used with a discussion of manifest and latent functions and could be paired with statistics on levels of education throughout the world.

Below is a list of reasons for attending college that students commonly cite.  Please check the reasons that were motivating factors for you to attend college.

________ To get a better job

________ To acquire a set of skills

________ To earn a higher income

________ To follow a significant other

________ To meet new people

________ Due to doubts about what to do in life

________ To get a degree

________ To get out of parents’/guardians’ house

________ To meet a future husband or wife

________ Pressure from parents

________ To make a difference

________ Pressure from high school (teachers, guidance counselor)

________ Friends were going to college

________ Other: _________________________________________________________

Group discussion questions:

  1. Why do you think most students go to college?
  2. Do you think that you are learning skills in college that you will use in your job someday?  Does you think some majors teach more practical skills than others? If so, how?
  3. What was your main reason for going to college?
  4. In your opinion, what is the value of a college degree?  In other words, what does it show?

The following post was provided to us by Margaret Austin Smith.  Thanks, Margaret! :)

“I actually liked this book,” reports J. walking in to our second class meeting, his copy ofGang Leader for a Day in hand. His classmates agreed. They’d gobbled it up overnight and were full of thoughts about Sudhir Venkatesh and the folks in the community of theRobert Taylor Homes where he studied. Our first reading of the term, Venkatesh’s book presents a novel-esque account of the relationship between gang and community in a public housing building in Chicago. As a graduate student in Sociology, he set out to study race and poverty with a survey: “How does it feel to be poor and Black?” A.) Good B.) Somewhat Good C.) Bad D.) Very Bad. In the words of economist Stephen Leavitt(Freakonomics), he found out the real answer was E.) F— you!

As Venkatesh tells it, his first visit to the Robert Taylor home leaves him stranded in a stairwell over night, held hostage by gang footmen who think he’s an infiltrator from a rival “Mexican”  gang. Only when the gang leader, JT, arrives and finds the grungy grad student non-threatening is he allowed to leave. Venkatesh goes home, grabs a nap, and heads back later that day.

Why does he go back? He could have died! What was he thinking? Why did they let him go? The one sweet young man who raises his hand to say: Shouldn’t it be illegal for him to put himself in that much danger? His classmates chewed him up for that one. But my students are demanding answers, and perhaps if I could sing, I would tell them that Jay-Z has already addressed the same question: “I’m a hustler baby, I just want you to know…”

JT–the leader with whom Venkatesh briefly switches places to become the eponymous gang leader for a day–becomes Venkatesh’s point of entry into the community. Heading up a branch of a local institution-like gang, JT is a college-educated, former scholar athlete with a head like an Excel spreadsheet for keeping accounts that can’t be recorded on paper. My students – like Venkatesh – identify with him, sympathize with him even when they tried to resist doing so. Like Venkatesh, they are sheepish and hurt when we read about JT engaging in some of the more violent duties of his job: auditing (with his fists) residents whose economic activities are not properly authorized by the gang; marketing gang life to 14-year old boys with rolls of cash for them to spend and then pay back at elephantine interest rates (functionally making them indentured servants of the gang).

What my students are most struck by, however, is the sense of community among residents in this building of the Robert Taylor Homes. Residents act as police, plumbers, security guards, electricians, counselors, day-care providers, janitors, foster parents–and they take on these roles without formal pay checks, without contracts, without legal recourse should their jobs turn dangerous. What is clear to us is that there is an economy that operates outside the formal (legal) economy but operates much in the same way as that legal economy–and that these economies are embedded in the community in which they are operating. (Victory, Karl Polanyi! Economy is embedded in society!)

The students are receptive to — and eager for — more discussion about how informal economies operate. Why do some people get shut out from the formal economy? Shouldn’t supply and demand create positions for them–especially if much of what happens in the informal economy mirrors the work that’s done every day in the formal economy (child care, TV repair, car washes, clean-up, infrastructure, rent-collection, etc.)? Is it because they live in public housing that they cannot get formal jobs in which they could sue if they got hurt and demand pay checks when they did not get paid?

We try to address some history of public housing: we listen to Part 1 of Venkatesh’s radio documentary on the Robert Taylor Homes in class. Public housing was, at one time, a solution–it provided people with a safe and trustworthy alternative to paying exorbitant sums to seedy tenement landlords. It provided people with clean, dry living spaces that were not also occupied by farm animals. The people moved out of barns, out of slums, and into public housing moved into homes and into hope.  So when, my students ask, did public housing stop being a solution and start being a problem?

Yet even after this discussion, in which N. was an active and thoughtful participant, he wonders in his written reflection assignment:

“Questions that must be asked have to do with the intended purpose of the Robert Taylor housing project and its actual effects on its residents.  In what ways was this funded project looking to help people?  Which of its intended purposes are not being accomplished and why?  I believe it is very clear that the state of this project the way Sudhir is observing it first hand is not a positive thing for any of its inhabitants and is damning to any person involved with it.  The fact that the condition Robert Taylor is in can be reached by a state sponsored public housing setting must make us rethink the role of public housing, if public housing can be a positive thing for the well-being and happiness of citizens, and if so how?  How must it be accomplished differently from the way Robert Taylor is run?
“Let’s observe from this book some of those conditions.  Sudhir observes a community in which the public safety of the community is trusted to a gang that’s purpose is to sell crack cocaine by any legal or illegal means necessary.  Children are exposed daily to all manner of illegal activity.  Police and other government officials are not trusted and are even resented.  If there is a physical emergency an ambulance is not trusted.  90% of the people within this community are living on state sponsored welfare which most of them are not looking to as a temporary solution to their economic situation.  Now let’s ask why this building was built and why thousands of people call it home.  In what ways was this situation intended to be different?  Why is it a complete failure which is damaging to humanity.  I believe in striving toward the betterment of society and most importantly the families and individual people it is composed of.  I believe that if what Mr. Venkatesh is writing resembles the true occurrences of that project, it’s a shame it was ever built.”

His classmate, T, who had described in class growing up in public housing responds:

“I think you raised a good question of why are the projects such a failure to the idea of government aid to low income blacks in America.  I think one of the biggest issues things like public housing offer are the fact that it doesnt offer these individuals a chance for advancement.  For example, when you look at a place like the Robert Taylor homes.  They are located in a bad area where schools are bad, no big businesses are located around there, if you want a job go to the local corner store or liqour store where they most likely wont hire you.  For many young males around that area the gang life offers some stability for these people and their families.  The government doesn’t open up any doors for this people yet wonder why they can’t provide for themselves.  I believe this to be one of the major problems with public housing.”

Any suggestions for encouraging and furthering this discussion?

Attached here are some slides we used during our discussion about the robert taylor homes, including a chart from a warm-up exercise we did on discourse about public housing. In groups of 3-4, students were asked to make a two-column list, on one side noting things they’d heard about public housing and on the other side noting where they’d heard it from. I encouraged them to cite specific movies, books, rap songs, advertisements, etc., but they were very hesitant to do so. They mostly cited the book we were reading as their source for what they’d heard about public housing. Most students said they didn’t know or hear anything about public housing beyond what we’d looked at in this book. If I try this activity again, I think I will ask them to come up with a list of the other names by which public housing may be known and then ask them to approach the discourse activity from a view including all of those names. “Public housing” may have just seemed too formal for them to make the connections with what I am sure they DO see and hear in music, media, culture, ads, etc….Any thoughts?


Polanyi, Karl. 1944/2001. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon.

Venkatesh, Sudhir. 2008. Gang Leader for a Day. New York: Penguin.