The article “Balloon Boy Plus Ei8ght? Children and Reality Television” from the Culture Reviews section of the Spring 2010 issue of Contexts is short and class-room friendly piece that explores the use of children in reality TV. As a big part of their popular culture, students will likely have a lot of say about reality TV in general and its use of child stars. Use the following questions either as a group or individually to spark an interesting discussion:

1) What are some reality TV shows that you know about that use children as their main stars? Do you watch them?

2) What do you think it is about using children in reality TV that makes so many people tune in?

3) Levey argues in the article that the children are being exploited by their parents and producers. Do you agree? Why or why not?

4) If you had the opportunity to put your children on a reality TV program, would you? What would be the benefits? What would be the drawbacks?

5) Do you agree with the author that the children currently on reality TV will suffer consequences for it down the road? If so, what are some examples?

6) Imagine how your childhood would have been different if you had been on reality TV. Do you think it would have been a positive or negative experience for you?

Or use this activity:

Bring in a clip of a reality TV show that utilizes child stars to share with the class. Discuss the way the filmmakers and the adults on the program are interacting with them. Do they seem to be enjoying their time in the spotlight? Do you think this is child labor?

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?

This in-class debate allows students to understand both sides of the controversy over whether English should be the official language of the United States. This activity is designed to be used with “English-Only Triumphs, but the Costs are High” by Alejandro Portes in Contexts Spring 2002.

Directions: Students will read the article before the class period and come to class prepared with 3 arguments in favor of English being the official language of the United States (check out for arguments on this side) and 3 arguments opposed to English being the official language. Students will be assigned a side to take when they come into class. The two sides will break into smaller groups of 4-5 and discuss their arguments supporting their assigned side. Each small group will have 1 or 2 representatives who will be responsible for presenting their arguments to the other side. All representatives from one side will present their groups arguments, followed by all representatives from the other side. While one side is presenting, each student on the opposing side will come up with a rebuttal to an argument presented. After both sides have presented, the floor will be open for debate. After the debate, all students will come out of character and will have the opportunity to express their opinions on the issue. Afterward, all students will write an in-class reflection on what they learned from the debate and how they feel about this issue.

To be completed before class:

English should be the official language of the United States because:




English should not be the official language of the United States because:




In-class Small Group Work:

After all members of your group have presented their arguments, pick 3 that the group agrees are the best arguments for the debate:




As the other side presents their arguments, think of a rebuttal to one or more of their points.


Individual Reflection (after the debate):

What was your position on this issue before the debate?

What did you learn from this debate?

What is your position on this issue now?

Here is an activity that was given to us by Amy Alsup, a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota.  The activity revolves around a clip from Season 1 of Mad Men located on Youtube and entitled “Peggy and the Gynecologist.”

Scene Description:

It is the early 1960s and Peggy Olson begins work at Sterling Cooper advertising agency as a secretary.  Her co-worker Joan recommends that Peggy embrace the attention from men and “show a little leg.”  In this scene, Peggy visits the gynecologist to get a prescription for contraceptives.  The gynecologist warns Peggy not to “be a strumpet” and sleep around just because she is not likely to get pregnant on the pill.

This clip demonstrates stereotypical attitudes about women and sexuality.  While women are expected to give men sexual attention, they are at risk of being considered “tramps” if they are rumored to be involved in high amounts of sexual activity.  The gynecologist in this scene warns Peggy, “Even in these modern times, easy women don’t find husbands.”  The assumption here is twofold: women are expected to give men sexual attention under the radar but still expected to “be proper” and get married.  Although it is not Peggy’s intention to immediately “find a husband,” it is expected that this is her goal.

This clip could be used to introduce a lecture, discussion or active learning exercise on the medicalization of women’s sexuality.  It could also be used to introduce a broad discussion on gender roles and sexuality in the 1960s.

Active Learning Exercise Idea:

Have students read a book or article about women’s sexuality and social control.  Show this video clip in class, and have students write a written reflection addressing the following questions, then discuss with a partner:

(1) How are women’s bodies subject to control today?  Is this different or similar than in the past?

(2)  Birth control for many women was empowering when it was first prescribed in the 1960s.  However, prescriptions were also regulated and controlled in large part by men.  How is women’s health regulated today?  Are there improvements or new setbacks?  What are they?

(3)  What is medicalization?  How can this concept be used to understand the power dichotomies between doctors and patients?  Men and women?

Ideas for texts include:

Conrad, Peter. 1992.  “Medicalization and Social Control.”  Annual Review of Sociology, 18: 209-32.

Gordon, Linda (2002). The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

For this activity, have students read David Grazian’s essay in the Culture Reviews section of the Spring 2010 issue of Contexts “Neoliberalism and the Realities of Reality TV.” After they read the article at home or in class, have them watch various clips from reality tv shows highlighted in the article and answer/reflect on the questions below. They should come prepared to discuss their reactions to the article and the video clips in class.

1) Have you seen the reality tv shows that Grazian discusses in the article? How often do you watch shows like these? Do you enjoy them?

2) What do you make of Grazian’s argument that reality tv shows reflect a neoliberal agenda? Do you buy this argument? Which parts of his argument do you find most compelling? If you don’t agree with Grazian, why not? What parts of his argument do you disagree with or find troubling?

Use video clips like these….

Bouquins XVIIIe

In the spring issue, the graduate student editorial board published a report on the bestselling books written by sociologists in the past decade. (The piece, “A Fresh Look at Sociology Bestsellers,” can be found here.)  The feature would make a great addition to an introductory course or, even better, a senior “capstone” course for sociology majors. Here are some activities to help bring the article to life in the classroom.

1. Compare and contrast the findings from this study with the results of Herbert Gans’ similar report in a 1997 issue of Contemporary Sociology.  What are the key differences in the types of books on each list? What similar trends did the graduate students find when they updated the study?

2. The study is essentially about how the public consumes sociology. Discuss other popular perceptions of sociology and sociologists, such as those found in media or popular culture. How accurate are these portrayals, and how might such portrayals help explain the success (or lack thereof) of sociology books?

3. Although the study is about books that sell, a related topic is about books with influence. Have students write a short reflection paper on the sociology books that helped shape their decision to pursue sociology as a college major or career. Why were these books influential? Are these the types of books that also sell a lot? Why or why not?

4. Finally, the underlying tension in the article is the role of sociology in public life. If bestselling books are any indication, it appears sociologists may not be playing a prominent role in popular debates. Ask students if they agree with this conclusion. If so, then how might sociologists reclaim their role in public life?

A third (and final!) set of ideas for using Hull, Meier and Ortyl’s piece “The Changing Landscape of Love and Marriage” (Spring 2010 issue) from the authors!

Exercise #1:

Have students answer the relationship values questions (which they used for their research published in Journal of Marriage and Family) as a learning exercise; perhaps in advance of the assigned reading so they are not biased by having read the article, and then compare the students’ responses to the findings in their JMF article as a jumping-off point for class discussion of relationship values/attitudes, where they come from, whether/why they differ by gender, SES, sexual orientation, etc.

“How important do you think each of the following elements is for a successful marriage or serious committed relationship?”  (using a 1=”not important” to 10=”extremely important” scale)

1)  Love

2)  Faithfulness

3)  Life-long commitment

4)  Financial security

5) Being of the same race

Exercise #2:

The article talks broadly about romantic v. confluent love. Students could debate which of these two models is more relevant today and/or which pieces of each model they like/don’t like and why.

For the romantic love model, Swidler’s four features (or myths) could be discussed:

1) one true love
2) love at first sight
3) love conquers all
4) happily ever after

For confluent model, Gidden’s ideas include these features:

1) relationship contingent on satisfaction of both partners
2) lots of communication/negotiation
3) overarching goal of self-development

The following case study could accompany any readings or discussion on religion, culture or rights.  For example, it could be used with Jen’nan Ghazal’s “Muslims in America,” which is available through Contexts online.

Lisa is a new professor at a large public university.  Her class just finished a unit on gender, and her students are taking an essay test. Lisa sits near the front of the room and keeps a watchful eye over her students.  The classroom is completely silent except for their pencils scribbling furiously.

Suddenly, one of her students stands up and faces a corner.  He starts to bow, and Lisa realizes that he is praying.  Many of the students look up and start watching him instead of continuing their exam.  Lisa can tell they are distracted, but she also believes that the student has religious freedom. Thus, she decides to pretend that nothing is happening.

After class, a few students approach Lisa and complain about the student who was praying.  They say that they were seriously distracted during the exam and would like 10 more minutes to work on it.


  1. What should Lisa do?
  2. Did Lisa make the right choice to ignore the student instead of asking him to stop?
  3. Should a student be allowed to observe her or his religious rituals during class?   Should this differ around the world?  By the type of school?

Public display of affection
The authors of the “The Changing Landscape of Love and Marriage” (found in the most recent issue of Contexts) Kathleen Hull, Ann Meier and Timothy Ortyl have graciously lent the Teaching blog some great ideas for ways to use their article in the classroom.
The first activity they offer to pair with the article is an in-class survey that asks the students to rank their feelings/opinions on love, relationships and sexuality.  Here’s a sample of the questions:

Full survey here.

In-Class Survey (sample questions)

Rate the importance of the following characteristics in a mate, using a four-point scale as follows:

A=indispensable; B=important; C=desirable, but not very important; and D=irrelevant or unimportant.

9.  good cook and housekeeper
10. pleasing disposition
11.  sociability
12.  similar educational background
13.  refinement and neatness
14.  good financial prospect
15.  chastity (no previous experience in sexual intercourse)
16.  dependable character…

27. There’s been a lot of discussion about the way morals and attitudes about sex are changing in this country.  If a man and a woman have sexual relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?

A.  Always wrong
B.  Almost always wrong
C.  Wrong only sometimes
D.  Not wrong at all

28.  What if they are in their early teens, say 14 to 16 years old?  In that case, do you think sex relations before marriage are always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?

A.  Always wrong
B.  Almost always wrong
C.  Wrong only sometimes
D.  Not wrong at all

29. What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex – you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?

A.  Always wrong
B.  Almost always wrong
C.  Wrong only sometimes
D.  Not wrong at all

34.  Who do you think usually enjoys sex more – men, women, or do they both enjoy it the same amount?

A.  Men
B.  Women
C.  Both the same amount
D.  Don’t know

Rate your agreement or disagreement with the following statements using this 5-point scale:

A=Strongly agree, B=Agree, C=Neither agree nor disagree, D=Disagree, E=Strongly disagree.

35.             Same-sex couples should have the right to marry one another.
36.            It is all right for a couple to live together without getting married.
37.            It’s a good idea for a couple who intend to get married to live together first.

42.   Which of the following statements comes closest to your feelings about pornography laws?

A.  There should be laws against the distribution of pornography whatever the age
B.  There should be laws against the distribution of pornography to persons under 18
C.  There should be no laws forbidding the distribution of pornography
D.  Don’t know

45.  I would not have sex with someone unless I was in love with them.

A.  Strongly agree
B.  Agree
C.  Disagree
D.  Strongly disagree

46.  My religious beliefs have shaped and guided my sexual behavior.

A.  Strongly agree
B.  Agree
C.  Disagree
D.  Strongly disagree

(questions 9-26 are from Buss et. al.–referenced in the article)

Be on the look out for more activities to pair with this article next week!

This learning activity asks students to create a curriculum for a sex education class in small groups based on what they learned from the “After the Sexual Revolution: Gender Politics in Teen Dating” by Barbara Risman and Pepper Schwartz in Contexts Spring 2002.


Discuss and answer these questions with your small group:

1) Do you think there is a sexual double standard for female and male teenagers? Did you observe this in your high school? Here at college? In your family?

2) Do you think that the double standard endures throughout life or do you think it disappears after the teenage years?

3) Do you consider teenagers having sex a social problem? Would your parents agree?

4) If it is a social problem, what are some specific problems/dangers/concerns that you see with teenagers having sex?

5) Do you think there are emotional consequences for sexually active teenagers? If so, what are they?

6) What was your high school sex education class like? Do you think the class had any effect on students’ sexual activity or their views on sexuality? Did it help prevent sexual activity or not? What do you think were the goals of the class?

7) What do you think the focus of sex education classes should be? Should they promote abstinence or focus on prevention of physical, emotional, and/or social problems of teenage sex?

Part II

Based on what your group discussed, create a “curriculum” for a high school sex education course that would confront the issues that you brought up about teenage sexuality.

Questions to think about:

1)    What were the issues that your group talked about? Did you identify physical, social, cultural, and/or psychological issues?

2)    How do you think an educator should approach these issues with high school students?

Our “curriculum” would include these topics and strategies: