Over the past year, I’ve had a number of conversations about teaching writing with faculty members teaching courses ranging from Intro to Methods to Senior Projects. These courses require different kinds of writing and different modes of thinking. Intro instructors are most concerned with description, that is, teaching students how to describe sociological patterns they observe in the world, or to describe the sociological significance of some concept from the course. In Methods, instructors add a focus on synthesis, that is, bringing themes or strains from existing literature together to point toward a research question that the student can write a proposal to investigate. Methods courses also often require critical writing, especially when assignments ask students to identify strengths or weaknesses in the methods of studies they read. Senior Projects instructors combine synthetic and critical summaries of existing literature with descriptive analysis of data students have collected by themselves.

It might be surprising that with the different kinds of writing being taught in these courses, and the different kinds of assignments they use, there is one instructional tool has proved useful in all of them. But there is. It’s called a reverse outline.

Image from www.paperravenbooks.com
Image from www.paperravenbooks.com

Many of us teach our students to write outlines before they try to write papers, but this is not always effective. Outlines only work well when students already have some idea of what they want to say. They presume that before sitting down to write, students know what needs to be described, synthesized, or critiqued, and that the problem separating them from a good finished paper is one of organization, not content.

Experience across the Minnesota sociology curriculum shows that this is not usually the case. For better or for worse, students often sit down to write having no idea what they’re going to say. In this situation, writing an outline is no easier than writing a paper, and it can actually be counterproductive, because it gives students the idea that they have to have full command of their argument before they begin writing. This is not helpful, and for many, it’s intimidating. It prevents students from engaging in the descriptive, synthetic, and critical analysis of course materials, and makes them think instead about things like paragraphs and sections.

This is why I recommend something else: a REVERSE outline. The reverse outline is conceptually the same as an outline – it highlights the main points of an argument and charts how they are structured in a paper. The difference is that the reverse outline isn’t written until after the student has begun to draft their work. Whereas an outline asks students to organize their thoughts before they put a single thing down on the page, a reverse outline invites them to take risks with their writing, knowing they’ll be able to come back later to structure their arguments. It asks them to be adventurous early in the writing process, and only later to apply rigid requirements for style and organization to thoughts that they have now been able to develop fully. This is extremely effective for teaching the basic skills of descriptive, synthetic, and critical writing, because it allows students to think about content and organization at the same time. Unlike an outline, which presumes that content has been mastered before writing begins, it acknowledges that the content will be revised and improved through the process of organizing it.

The reverse outline is a good way for students to transfer their unstructured thoughts on course concepts and materials into organized writing that follows a logical flow. It’s also a great intermediate assignment between first and second drafts of a paper. But most importantly, it’s an extremely useful way for students to develop their own writing skills through evaluation of others’ work. Particularly in upper level courses, students often have a hard time writing literature reviews that synthesize thematic areas and broad ideas from existing work. Asking them to read a simple journal article and write a reverse outline of it is a great way to help them see how an effective literature review points toward a research question. Likewise, students in introductory courses can learn a great deal from reverse outlining short think pieces from sources like Contexts or Sociological Images, or from popular press sources.

As with the five-minute workshops I discussed in an earlier post, the idea with reverse outlining is to integrate writing instruction with course content that an instructor is already using. If you have a multi-draft assignment coming up, give it a try. If you don’t, ask your students to write a reverse outline of an upcoming reading. Either approach should help with teaching the integration between content and organization that students so often struggle with.

Most sociology teachers want to teach writing. The problem is they don’t have time. With dozens or hundreds of students, meeting one-on-one with even a small fraction of those who need help is impossible, and since students’ writing skills vary significantly, it’s difficult to draw up in-class lessons that will help students at all levels. Given these structural impediments, it’s hard to blame instructors for de-emphasizing writing skills in the classroom.

To address this problem, I’ve recently incorporated a tool called the five-minute workshop, developed by Pamela Flash, Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Minnesota, into my teaching. Using five-minute writing workshops enables instructors and TAs to quickly and efficiently teach writing skills that benefit all students, regardless of their current writing abilities.

The basic concept is simple enough. Give students five minutes to either write something or revise something that connects to work they are already doing, or to content you are already teaching. Then move on. Do it again next week. And the next. And so on.

This works because writing is more than putting words on a page. Minnesota sociology faculty report that what holds our students back the most is not crafting prose, but struggling to identify and communicate sociologically important concepts and arguments, or to effectively juxtapose competing arguments from readings and lecture. Five-minute writing workshops focus on these kinds of skills: the conceptual and analytic part of the writing process, more than the art of phrasing. Give students five minutes to either write something or revise something that connects to work they are already doing, or to the subject matter you are already teaching, and then move on with the rest of your content for the day.

To design a five-minute workshop for use in your course, start by identifying a core writing skill that you think your students should work on. For instance, I often find that my students need practice describing the role of media in transmitting cultural scripts. During discussion of gender, culture, or media, I display the image below and ask students to take three minutes to write one sentence about the role of perceived physical attractiveness in the cartoon. We then discuss their ideas for a couple more minutes, and move on. This develops students’ abilities to recognize cultural frames and narratives as depicted through visual media and to distill broad ideas into sharp, debatable statements.

The possibilities are vast. To practice thesis development, put a characteristically problematic thesis statement on a slide and ask students to write a version that improves it. To work on style, project a sloppy, overwritten paragraph, and have students write a version that conveys the same meaning in half the number of words. If students are struggling to identify theoretical tension, display a concept map of a recent reading and have them describe the relationship between two of the central elements. And so on.

These workshops are designed to be brief, fun, and stress-free. If you’d like some help designing a few to get you started integrating writing instruction into your course, drop me a note. I’d be happy to help.

There’s Research On That!” (#TROT) is a blogging project at The Society Pages that presents short summaries of classic and contemporary research relevant to current events as a resource for journalists and the public. While our archives are a great resource for students looking to kick-start a sociological research paper or for readers who want a fresh take on the news for their next cocktail party, the format of these posts also works great for class assignments! For this activity, students write their own TROT posts as an exercise in collecting, evaluating, and summarizing research.

Guidelines:

  1. Browse the “There’s Research On That!” blog to get a sense of how TROT posts are written. They usually start with a summary of a current event, then provide sociological ideas relevant to the matter at the hand. The author highlights one to four key ideas from the research and includes citations for each source with hyperlinks to the authors’ website and the publication information.
  2. Choose a recent news event or pop culture trend to analyze. Ask yourself, “What would sociologists have to say about this that the rest of the media may be missing?” Make a list of a few possible themes to investigate about the topic, such as the impact of social construction, institutions, or networks.
  3. Search for literature on your themes using an online database such as JSTOR, Sociological Abstracts, or Google Scholar. Select three to five pieces that speak to the themes or provide broader information about the topic.

***Start with major journals in the field—American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, or Social Problems—but the search doesn’t end there! Books and publications focusing more narrowly on subfields, such as Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Gender & Society, or Deviant Behavior are always helpful. Also, remember to think broadly; sometimes a general article about the topic can be more helpful than one that fits the news story perfectly.

  1. Evaluate the research. Read the methodology sections of any journal articles, or find reviews of the books published in academic journals. Do you find the conclusion(s) convincing, based on the evidence provided? Is the methodology high quality? Which pieces provide the best takeaways for a general reader? Once you’ve considered the possible sources separately, consider how they will fit together in your post. From your list, pick the best two or three pieces to include in your article.
  2. Write a TROT post in the style of the website. Remember the main components: a short summary of the news, including links to media coverage so the reader can see what’s already been written; key takeaways you identified in the sociological literature; and citations of the research. Be prepared to discuss in class why you picked the sources you did.

TROT is an evolving project quickly becoming an integral part of TSP. Instructors are encouraged to contact the TSP staff (email stewa777@umn.edu) with the best TROT posts from this assignment for possible publication on TSP!

Note: At the time this post was written, The Society Pages’ Discoveries were called The Reading List.

DISC clippedFindings about lifetime earnings, fertility, graduation rates, and gentrification are interesting all on their own, but how do sociologists go about studying these topics? To address this question for my Intro to Sociology class, I began with a 10-min. mini-lecture on “Methods” based on the info in Ch. 2 of Dalton Conley’s You May Ask Yourself textbook. (The students had SQ3Red this chapter for homework.) To kick it off, I reviewed how sociology was different from the other disciplines—our topic from the previous class, and then got into the new material about variables, samples, qualitative and quantitative, methods, etc.

So that the students could develop a fuller sense of the new concepts they learned, I created this methods sheet for the class to practice applying them. First, as an example, we answered the questions from the sheet about the first article in the Reading List Packet together as a class. Students were able to ask questions about the procedure and I could clarify the directions before they tried one on their own.

Then, students were instructed to get into small groups of 2 or 3. Each group was directed to work on answering the questions about a different Reading List article. When all groups had finished, each reported back to the class what the question, findings and methods were.

Why I like this activity:

  • it’s easy to differentiate if you have a heterogeneous class. The Reading List articles vary in difficulty, so you could assign easier articles to groups that struggle and more difficult ones to groups that need a challenge. Alternatively, you could differentiate by interest by letting each group claim which article to begin with.
  • if one group gets done way ahead of the others, they can move on to a different article, so nobody’s stuck waiting around for groups that need more time. If the whole class picks up the skills quickly, you could set a time limit and reward the group that finishes the most articles before time is up.
  • it’s social—at the beginning of the semester, students can get to know one another, and get comfortable working together and sharing answers with the class
  • having groups report back to the whole class provides a low-stakes way for the teacher to correct students’ misunderstandings in a way that benefits the whole class
  • students learn about the breadth of sociological inquiry while practicing their skills of identifying parts of a research article (and—perhaps more importantly—the parts of a research study)

 

The NonViolence Project takes its symbol from a sculpture inspired by the shooting death of John Lennon. Photo via nonviolence.com.
The NonViolence Project takes its symbol from a sculpture inspired by the shooting death of John Lennon. Photo via nonviolence.com.

Horrible events, such as mass shootings, typically gain a lot of media attention, with fear and political outrage not far behind. Social scientific knowledge about topics like violence, gun control, and mental illness, however, is often obscured or excluded from these reports and calls for action. This activity, which can be done as a group or individually, helps readers think about how social scientific evidence can influence policy:

  1. Browse the Internet to gather two or three news stories from the weeks following a recent mass shooting in the United States.
  2. What claims are made in these stories about the causes of mass shootings?
  3. What calls for change are made by victims’ families, politicians, experts, or others?
  4. What policies are suggested to address mass shootings?

Next, read “A Broader-Based Response to Shootings” by Chis Uggen and think about how social science evidence compares to media reports. What does the evidence suggest we should be doing to address these crimes?

A still from the Public Enemy video for "Fight the Power." Chuck D, holding the bullhorn, has since become an outspoken agitator and public figure working toward equality and political participation.
A still from the Public Enemy video for “Fight the Power.” Chuck D, holding the bullhorn, has since become an outspoken agitator and public figure working toward equality and political participation.

In our volume The Social Side of Politics, Vincent J. Roscigno’s article, “Power, Sociologically Speaking,” serves as the lead essay. In it, we learn that you can’t discuss politics without discussing power. This activity helps highlight the point for students and instructors alike.

Guidelines for the facilitator:

  1. Make four signs labeled “agree,” “strongly agree,” “disagree,” and “strongly disagree.” Hang one sign in each corner of the room.
  2. Tell participants that you will read a statement about power (listed below). After you read the first, participants should move to stand under the sign that most closely reflects their reaction to the statement.
  3. After participants have assembled under the signs, ask each group to discuss why they picked that position and choose a spokesperson to explain their rationale to the entire group.
  4. After each group presents its opinion, as participants to return to the center of the room, then disperse, again, to the sign that most closely represents their reaction to the same statement. If they choose, participants can change their position. Ask a few to explain whether and why they changed—or did not change—their position after hearing out the other groups.
  5. Repeat for each statement, adding or subtracting to alter the length of the exercise.

Statements about Power:

  • Power corrupts.
  • You can’t get anything done without power.
  • Power is connected to race (class/gender/etc.).
  • People or organizations that want to change things in their community should seek power.
A scene from "The Road from Crime"
A scene from “The Road from Crime”

In our volume Crime and the Punished, we featured our interview with sociologist-filmmakers Shadd Maruna and Fergus McNeill. This activity builds from their film:

How and why people stop committing crime is an important question. “Discovering Desistance,” by Sarah Lageson and Sarah Shannon describes how two social scientists “co-created” “The Road from Crime,” a film about desistance from the perspective of former prisoners and the practitioners who work with them. Watch the 50-minute film as you consider these discussion questions:

  1. In what ways might the criminal justice system promote reoffending?
  2. According to the filmmakers, desistance is both an “internal” and an “external” process. Where do you see internal and external processes in the film.
  3. What punishment policies might be changed, added, or abandoned to better promote desistance?
  4. Most people who work in the criminal justice system have never been convicted of serious crimes. How might the system be different if it incorporated more input from people who had been punished under it?

After watching the film, imagine that you are a social worker in a community to which many ex-prisoners return. What resources do you think you’d need to address community needs and help former inmates desist from crime? What community leaders or organizations would you need to enlist for support? Discuss your thoughts in a group and draw up a list of the “stakeholders” whose voices are critical for designing your policy.

Aoki-chainsmokers_v3Linda Catalano is a sociologist at Queens College and Hunter College. Follow her on Twitter at @SocThing.

Selfies, I’ve found, are a terrific way to begin to get across George Herbert Mead’s distinction between the “I” and the “me,” which students can find difficult to grasp and tend to resist. I’ve developed an exercise that incorporates selfies which works fairly well, but I suspect that there are even better ways of using selfies that draw out more of Mead than I’ve been able to do.

I’ve been using a textbook (Edles & Applerouth 2010) with several selections from Mind, Self & Society (Mead 1934) in which Mead outlines his famous concept of the self as incorporating two phases, the “I” and the “me.” I was surprised to discover that my students have considerable trouble with this notion, and given the choice, avoid questions about it on exams.

Why students resist. Students don’t like Mead for many reasons. Aside from the fact that they often have trouble with his long and convoluted prose, students tend to have several conceptual difficulties. First, they have trouble with the way that, for Mead, social reality is all process. Students tend to feel their conceptual ground turn into quicksand, that they have nothing to hang on to. more...

Photo by Steve Tulk via flickr CC
Photo by Steve Tulk via flickr CC

The following is a guest post written by Kyle Green and Alex Manning. Kyle and Alex are sociology Ph.D students at the University of Minnesota. Kyle is a member of The Society Pages graduate board and co-host of the Office Hours podcast. His research focuses on culture, sport, gender, and the body. Alex researches race, youth, parenting, and sport.

This World Cup, soccer is on American’s minds at levels never reached before. Fans are filling bars, coffee shops, and even massive stadiums to cheer on the US national team. World Cup fervor has led many in the U.S. media to ask the once every four-year question, “has soccer made it in America?” Large television numbers, a sizeable number of American fans supporting in Brazil (Americans bought 7% percent of world cup tickets, only trailing Brazilians), large participation numbers, and increased youth consumption of the game, have all contributed to public discussion about the game’s popularity and place in the United States.  While there has been much excitement surrounding soccer and the World Cup, some have reacted to the popularity of the tournament with fear, dismissal, and outrage (here and here).

Audience: This activity would work well in a number of courses including Introduction to Sociology, Race, Class, & Gender, Sport & Society, and Sociology of Consumption.

Summary: In this activity the class works together drawing on personal experiences and associations with soccer to think about the social spaces the sport fills and to connect the participation and consumption patterns of the sport to larger social trends. In doing so the students will use their sociological imagination to begin to understand the fervor, both positive and negative, surrounding the World Cup. more...

This year I taught Introduction to Sociology. In order to discuss the power of discourse in society, I showed by students Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story“. My students were enamored. We had a fascinating and engaging discussion about single stories and the ways in which they affected my students’ lives and their engagement with the world around them. As a result of this phenomenal class, I developed the following assignment that I thought other sociologists would like to adapt to fit their courses.

Assignment Description and Instructions:

Chimamanda Adichie passionately and clearly teaches us the “danger of a single story” in her 2009 TED Talk. (You can find it here: http://www.npr.org/2013/09/20/186303292/what-are-the-dangers-of-a-single-story). Adichie demonstrates the ways in which our society is a collection of social stories or narratives, the most pervasive and controlling of which are/were manufactured by people with social power (the power elite).

Single stories can include stereotypes, ideologies and, what sociologists call, cultural hegemony. Stereotypes are overly simplistic generalizations about a subgroup of peoples. Those that “stick” often are constructed by people with power and used to limit opportunities for the stereotypes’ subjects. Ideologies are sets of ideas that shape how people make sense of the world around them. Depending on the social power of those holding and employing these ideologies, they can have significant impact on social structures and the life chances of others. Cultural hegemony is a system beliefs, norms, and values, shaped by the ruling-class, that justifies the status-quo as natural or normal, and thus makes it invisible. These discourses shape what is knowable and sayable in any given context.

For your papers, you will select a societal single story and analyze it. The first paper will examine a stereotype, the second an ideology, and the third a hegemonic narrative. For each, you will explore the story, its origins, its functions, and its impact on society. You will then examine the alternative stories: those told by the victims of the single story and/or those who are able to see through the discursive fog. Finally, you will propose ways to change the story both in your daily life and on a broader scale. As you move through these projects, also reflect on the ways in which stereotypes, ideologies, and hegemonic narratives are intertwined/not clearly separated. more...