Teaching Tips

Lit-up sign by the road that reads, US Border Patrol.
Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, Flickr CC

Teaching about immigration can be tough because students come to our classrooms with the battle lines already drawn and believing their minds are already made up. We know, for example, that “the border” occupies a large conceptual space in our collective minds and that certain racialized populations suffer from perceptions of illegality. I have successfully re-centered my classroom conversation in a more constructive direction by starting with something most students seem to have a complete lack of information about: how the U.S. immigration system actually works.

Below I share some resources and
ideas for leading an hour long discussion on “everything you wanted to know
about the immigration system but were afraid to ask.” The activity below would
be a great fit for any course where you are going to spend several class days
on migration in the United States: Global Sociology, Social Problems, Migration,
Race & Ethnicity, or Crime & Deviance. This activity is intended to take
advantage of the fact that a classroom is a special place designated for
learning, where everyone (including the instructor) can always learn something
new without feeling embarrassed of our ignorance.

Materials:

You bring:

  • White board and marker
  • Projector/internet/resources to look at a
    website in class
  • Links to resources on immigration you want to
    show (suggested below)
  • You’ll probably want a printed copy of the
    immigration preferences and especially yearly numerical limits
    handy for
    your own reference (you may also want a few extra copies to pass around)

Students bring:

In-Class Activity

  1. Ask students what questions they have about the immigration system. Write the questions on the white board as students say them out loud.
  2. When you have a good number of questions on the board, including some basic ones, start with the most basic questions and begin answering them. Do this based on your own knowledge and, when helpful or necessary, show the students the immigration preference system and yearly numerical limits. Other resources for answering the questions can be found at the American Immigration Council Immigration 101 and, of course, the Department of Homeland Security. The fact that the DHS website is a bit complex and it may be hard to find the answer to many of the students’ questions is OK; that will be educational and make the larger point about the immigration system.
  3. Ask if anyone has ever traveled to another country. Ask the student(s) who answers where it was, what happened when they entered that country, whether they needed a passport, etc. Prompt the group to think about what would happen in the converse situation if a person from that country came into the United States. Would the same kind of situation occur? (It is important at some point in this conversation to encourage students to get at the fact that the U.S. has more power internationally than anyone else; we can go almost anywhere without applying for a visa in advance but the opposite is not true. This fact is invisible to most of us.)
  4. If there are other questions that seem essential to you, prompt the students to ask them or ask the students yourself to see if anyone knows the answer. It is essential to this exercise that your class understands that for the vast majority of migrants to the United States, there is not only no “legal path to citizenship,” there is no legal path to entry. I have found by having these discussions that most of my students did not understand the difference between citizenship and visas.

Discussion Tip

As you are standing in front of the room fielding questions, be sure to remember to acknowledge that some folks in the room may have more knowledge of the system (e.g., international or immigrant students), but do not make anyone feel as if they need to speak about their experiences or act as though they are experts. I think it is enough to say that of course some of us may have experienced this first hand. Some migrant or international faculty may talk about their own experiences while others may want to avoid that. It is my own belief that those of us who are white and U.S. born should take on the task of teaching these lessons so that others are not put in the awkward position of fielding these potentially hostile or awkward questions on their own.

Possible Variations

One way to vary this activity
would be to assign the questions to different groups in the class and have each
group research the answers on the Department of Homeland Security website. A
possible pitfall of this is that many of the answers can be a little detailed,
confusing, and interrelated, so the instructor would need to keep an eye on
making sure there is plenty of time for debriefing and not too much time spent
in the groups.

It is also a great idea to spend a little time either at the beginning or end of this class period simply learning about the experiences of undocumented migrants in the United States. This can be done through a video like this one or assigning a reading; if done in advance, a video or reading could be a great way to get the questions for this activity started with some curiosity toward learning more about what we don’t understand about immigration status.

Additional Resources

“Drop the I Word”
resources for help discussing why “illegal” is not an appropriate term in a
sociology classroom (or journalism)

Visual
example of the Latinx experience
from SocImages

Contexts “in brief” on the additional stresses experienced by undocumented parents

Dr. Meghan Krausch studies race, gender, disability, and other forms of
marginalization throughout the Americas and in particular how grassroots
communities have developed ways to resist their own marginalization. Read more
of Meg’s writing at
The Rebel Professor or get in touch directly at meghan.krausch@gmail.com.

Photo by Heather, Flickr CC

If you’re anything like me, when you need a break from your work, you spend some time binge watching TV. Of course, I only watch the most intellectually stimulating shows — which brings me to The Great British Baking Show. Over my holiday break, I watched all six seasons and the holiday special. While this isn’t my proudest accomplishment, it did get me thinking about student feedback and The Great British Baking Show as a pedagogical model.

Photo of Paul Hollywood by helen, Flickr CC

If you haven’t seen the show, the set-up is that in each episode, the bakers have three baked goods that are judged before one of the contestants is eliminated. The bakers know about and plan for two of the challenges, but the third is a surprise. As you can imagine, each week there is a range of success, and therefore a range of feedback given.

Over the course of the episodes, I began to notice that judge Paul Hollywood stood out — not just for his icy, blue eyes but also for the comments he made and the advice he gave the contestants each week. Paul is especially efficient and concrete in his feedback to contestants. Paul and Mary Berry, the other judge, follow many of the tactics that research shows to be best practices in providing effective feedback. I want to highlight a few of them.

  • Be specific. Research shows that specific feedback is more effective than general feedback in helping students reach certain goals (Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Locke & Latham, 1984). Specific feedback encourages the student to really focus on that specific task for future assignments. This is something that I noticed immediately on the Great British Baking Show. For example, if a baker presents a four-tiered cake with three different cake batters, two types of icing, and various other flavored decorations, the judges don’t just say “good job.” Instead, they comment on each individual flavor, texture, and aspect of the visual presentation, letting the baker know that his or her cake was moist but the flavor left something to be desired or that the decorations were pretty but had an off-putting texture.
  • Give weight to what is most important. As faculty, we try to do this with our rubrics. We need to make sure that we allocate more points to the aspects that we think are most important. This gives our students information about what they should focus on when completing their assignments. The judges in the show also do this. Throughout all of the seasons, they focus on flavor. While the appearance of each baked good matters, they are more concerned with what it tastes like. On numerous occasions, Paul mentions that some bakers are concerned more with “style over substance.” This shows that the judges prioritize the taste and flavor of the food. As faculty, we need to do decide what the most important learning outcome is and focus on it within our rubrics and grading.
  • Help students advance. Hattie and Timperley (2007) also encourage faculty to provide specific feedback that helps students work toward their ultimate goal. We need to use proactive language to help students further their work. Paul and Mary do this with each of the contestants. After tasting their food and giving specific feedback on each aspect, they provide information about how to improve. For example, if Paul notices that a cake is “too close-textured” or has cracked, he may advise the baker to knead the dough less or prove the dough more. (I say this like I have any idea what that means)
  • Ask pointed questions. Throughout the seasons, the judges ask specific questions of the contestants. For example, Paul may notice the bakers rolling the dough or braiding their plaited bread in a non-traditional way. He is known to stop and ask the contestants about the benefits of their method. In order to answer the questions, the baker is forced to think through their knowledge of baking basics. The same goes for our students. By including specific questions in our feedback, we encourage students to think and formulate ideas for themselves.

I know we all get crunched for time and fall back on our go-to grading phrases. But as our semester progresses and the papers start rolling in, I plan to think about The Great British Baking Show. Paul and Mary really do offer great examples of specific, proactive feedback — much better than a simple “good job.”

 

Dr. Andrea Krieg is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Elmhurst College. She earned her PhD from Bowling Green State University in Sociology. She teaches a variety of courses and loves her time in the classroom.

Photo of a sign depicting a stick figure in a dress outside of a women’s restroom. Photo by Brendan Riley, Flickr CC

Like many instructors of the sociology of gender and feminist theory, I teach Simone de Beauvoir’s foundational text, “Introduction to the Second Sex.” Not only is Beauvoir part of the feminist cannon, but in some ways it seems even more relevant in today’s sociology classroom as Beauvoir deconstructs the very category of “woman.” She provides fertile groundwork for anyone looking to teach about sex and gender beyond the constructed gender binary. Unfortunately the reading can be a little difficult for undergraduate students to digest; this is where Sociological Images comes to the rescue! In this activity the instructor will show students contemporary, everyday examples of Beauvoir’s concept of women as “other” and engage them in a discussion about its continued relevance. This active and visual engagement is designed to incorporate Beauvoir into students’ working vocabulary.

This activity is ideal for Sociology of Gender and classes that teach feminist theory, but it could be modified for use in classes that explore gender in smaller doses like Family or Introduction to Sociology.

Materials:

You bring:

  • Projector/internet/resources to look at a website in class
  • Links to the Sociological Images posts you want to show

Students bring:

  • Copy of Beauvoir’s “Introduction to the Second Sex,” assigned in advance

Instructions

  1. Assign Simone de Beauvoir’s “Introduction to the Second Sex” to be read by students in advance.
  2. Open the class by discussing the reading a little bit so that the main questions and topics are in the foreground of students’ minds. This could also be done by lecturing for the first section of class if that better suits your teaching style. For example, I ask the students to identify some of the key sentences of the reading, and what they think Beauvoir’s key question is. There are of course many important concepts in this reading, and in order to stimulate a comfortable discussion, it’s important to just let students nominate any and all sentences and ideas.
    The ideas that I’ll focus on in the next steps are Beauvoir’s concept of woman as “other,” or, as she says, “A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong” (xxi); and “thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him” (xxii). Keep going until someone comes up with this; you can leave other questions and concepts that come up here on the backburner to come back to later in this class to see how the reading fits together as a whole.
  3. Once you have students puzzling over this idea of women as other, pull up this post from Sociological Images for your class. The SocImages team refers to this same concept as “women versus people.”
  4. Expand each image in the post one at a time by clicking on it and ask the students “what do you see?” I do not show my students the pre-written analysis on the post but ask them to do the analytic work together in our discussion. Allow the students to start to discussing and problematizing each image out loud as a group as you go through each one by one.
  5. At the bottom of the post there are links to more; two of my favorites are scientists and females scientists and Body Worlds, although that example is not visual and will have to be read in advance and explained.
  6. Throughout this discussion it is important to clarify that the problem is not necessarily the segregation of the items or that there are separate women’s items (t-shirts are a great example here); it’s that, just as Beauvoir describes, one item is for “everybody,” while another item is specifically for women. Are women not part of everybody? You can draw the students back into a discussion of Beauvoir and her continued relevance today by engaging the question of what is hidden under these universal categories. How does one dominant group remain unmarked while others end up marked?

Possible modifications

  • You could also give an assignment to students after this exercise to find their own local examples. (I have often had students come back and tell me in later class periods that they couldn’t stop seeing this concept at work in the world.) This could work well for discussion board posts, or an extra credit assignment, especially if coupled with a short paragraph explaining how the visual/example they found illustrates the concept with citations from the reading.

Additional resources

TROT on the Social Construction of Gender and Sex

A list of 5 reasons why pointlessly gendered products are a problem (even if they aren’t “women vs people”) from Sociological Images

A different example to illustrate the broader concept of how privilege operates for those in the “unmarked” group from Sociological Images

 

Dr. Meghan Krausch studies race, gender, disability, and other forms of marginalization throughout the Americas and in particular how grassroots communities have developed ways to resist their own marginalization. Read more of Meg’s writing at The Rebel Professor or get in touch directly at meghan.krausch@gmail.com.

Photo of a sign marking the historical site of the Stewart Indian School (1890-1980). Photo by Ken Lund, Flickr CC

*~* “Teach with TSP” Contest Winner, 2018 *~*

One of the ways that The Society Pages can be really useful for teaching is for finding ways to connect recent events in the news to larger sociological conversations in the classroom. Today’s suggestion shows one way to use “There’s Research on That!” to do just that: without necessarily assigning any of the readings to the students, the instructor can find a topic of relevance and use the academic resources included in the TROTs post to quickly catch themselves up to speed on the recent sociological literature in order to facilitate a stronger class discussion. This is a great way to keep classes relevant and to keep ourselves current in the field.

Recently a Texas court ruled the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) unconstitutional. This topic would be of interest in a variety of sociology courses: Family, Law and Society, Race and Ethnicity, Social Problems, and Intro to Sociology units on institutions.

Materials:

You bring:

  • Projector/internet/resources to show a streaming film in class
  • Link to the documentary
  • Read the TROTs resources ahead of time
  • Prepare and print copies of a worksheet with some questions (suggestions below) connecting the ICWA with contemporary and historical experiences on Native people in the United States
  • Paper copies of a news article about the Texas court decision striking down the ICWA (unless you want to assign it in advance or have students read together in class)

Students bring:

  • Any reading you want to assign in advance

Instructions:

  1. Ask students to read a news article about the Texas court ruling that the ICWA is unconstitutional. You can either have everyone do this together at the start of class or assign this to be read in advance, but in all cases ask students to take written notes on anything they don’t understand or have further questions about.
  2. Ask students if they have any immediate comprehension questions about the news article. For example: if they didn’t understand a word or basic concept, then those questions should be answered. Otherwise, tell students to keep their questions in mind during the documentary. The questions should help the students connect the contemporary to the historical.
  3. Show the first 40 minutes of the PBS Documentary “Unspoken: America’s Native American Boarding Schools.” The documentary streams for free online. Its full length is 56 minutes but I don’t recommend the last 16 minutes for this activity as it is not focused on boarding schools and will probably distract class discussion. Ask the students to complete the worksheet while they watch the documentary, which will again help make broader sociological connections between the historical experience of boarding schools and contemporary foster care systems and schooling. Actively using the worksheet also teaches students to be more active watchers of content.
  4. Use the answers on the worksheet AND the questions students wrote on the news article to launch a discussion. A good prompt for starting a discussion after an emotional video like this one can sometimes be to first let students just react to the content (ex: “how did it make you feel?” or “what did you think?”) before trying to get them to think too analytically.

Worksheet Question Suggestions

  • Did the documentary answer any of the questions you wrote beforehand?
  • What is the Dawes Act?
  • List 3 dates you heard and what happened on those dates. (You as the instructor can use these to have students construct a timeline later for a more extensive activity if you want. These can be a really useful for active learning and to really have students visualize how long certain periods lasted in relation to how little time has passed since then.)
  • How long did American Indian boarding schools run? When were they closed?
  • Give one example of resilience from the documentary.
  • What surprised you?
  • What does assimilation mean? How does it relate to American Indian boarding schools? To the Indian Child Welfare Act?
  • There are more ideas for discussion on the PBS website of the documentary.

Additional Resources

 

 A special thank you to Bret Evered for her invaluable pedagogical knowledge and assistance with this activity.

Dr. Meghan Krausch studies race, gender, disability, and other forms of marginalization throughout the Americas and in particular how grassroots communities have developed ways to resist their own marginalization. Read more of Meg’s writing at The Rebel Professor or get in touch directly at meghan.krausch@gmail.com.

Photo of laptop and papers on a bed. Photo by allnightavenue, Flickr CC

*~* “Teach with TSP” Contest Honorable Mention, 2018 *~*

I am committed to teaching students how to translate and disseminate sociological knowledge beyond the classroom. This semester, I taught a new course titled “Femininities and Masculinities.” At Skidmore College, this is a gateway course to the major. One of the challenges of teaching this course is getting students to understand complex theories about gender and sex at an introductory level. Most of my students have not taken a sociology course, or are concurrently taking Introduction to Sociology. On top of that, the course is designated writing intensive, so I face the daunting task of teaching students how to become better writers.

To tackle these intersecting issues, I assign The Society Pages’ book, Assigned: Life With Gender, and require students to write a blog post about a topic of their choice. The text serves as a benchmark for sociological blogging and helps students digest complex sociological theories about gender and sex through accessible prose. The three objectives of this assignment are to illustrate comprehension of theories and concepts through application, advance analytical writing using sociological prose, and to use an accessible platform (blogging) to enrich their college writing experience.

In this class, we read classic texts such as West and Zimmerman’s “Doing Gender,” and Judith Lorber’s “Seeing is Believing.” To unpack these works, I concurrently assign articles from Assigned: Life with Gender. For example, Tristen Bridges’, “Doing Gender with Wallets and Purses,” complemented West and Zimmerman’s classic text, while Markus Gerke’s piece on gay male athletes helped students grasp Connell’s complex typology of masculinities.

Teaching students how to write well is challenging, and many obstacles stand in the way. Procrastination, confusion or partial understanding of fundamental theories and concepts, and lack of practice writing sociologically are a few among many. Over the years, I have noted that one of the biggest challenges students face in sociology writing courses is interpreting and analyzing theories and translating this knowledge into accessible prose. A short blog post allows students to focus on understanding a concept or theory well while improving their writing.

Over the years I have learned to incorporate a scaffolding approach in assignments. Students focus on one assignment — in this case, the blog post — and submit tasks throughout the semester (see assignment guide below). The benefits of this are numerous, and teach students essential skills such as time management. For writing assignments, a scaffolding approach teaches students that starting early and re-writing are essential skills for solid academic writing.

Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. During a recent meeting with a student who is writing a blog post on transgender men’s experiences of ballet dancing he told me, “I appreciate this assignment because we can work on something that we are passionate about.” His blog post, which is inspired by his observations (he is a ballet dancer), reveals how transgender men are ostracized when they challenge classical ballet dress code. Other topics include; the gendering of beer pong, sexual racism perpetuated in gay dating apps such as Grindr, expressions of masculinity and femininity among female aircraft pilots, how haircare regiments among African American women reinforce emphasized femininity, and how the DSM-5’s lack of criteria for diagnosing EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) reinforces dangerous body image ideals.

Blog Post Assignment (pdf)

Ruth M. Hernández is a sociologist whose research and teaching interests lie in the intersection of gender, international migration, and Latinx communities. Currently, she is a Lecturer in the Sociology Department at Skidmore College where she teaches courses on gender and Latinx communities. In addition to her scholarship, Ruth is an activist involved in various community projects that address issues affecting temporary and permanent Latinx migrants in the Northeast. You can reach Ruth by email at rhernand@skidmore.edu 

Photo of a backpack, a pair of shoes, and a book lying on the grass. Photo by Josué Goge, Flickr CC

*~* “Teach with TSP” Contest Honorable Mention, 2018 *~*

I’ve always loved Tristan Bridges’ Sociological Images piece about how we can readily see the ways that we “do gender” by analyzing what we carry around with us every day. Bridges focuses on wallets and purses, telling the story of a transgender women who struggled to learn the norms of purse-carrying during the process of socially transitioning to being recognized as a woman – remembering to bring it, knowing what to put in it, how to carry it, etc.  Aside from the fact that wallets and purses themselves are gendered, Bridges shows how what we put in those wallets and purses is also gendered. I’ve found the four-by-four schema presented in the piece to be a great model for getting students to analyze the contents of their own wallets and purses and to reflect on the ways that gender norms influence their choices.

In this activity, I build directly from Bridges’ piece to get students thinking about whether and how gender norms influence the kinds of things they carry around with them. While Bridges focuses on wallets and purses, I’ve found that students are most likely to be carrying backpacks. So I complicated Bridges’ piece a bit to get students thinking about not only how wallets and purses are gendered, but also how what might seem like a gender-neutral bag – backpacks – may or may not conform to some of the same gendered norms found among wallet and purse carriers.

I’ve used this activity in an Introduction to Gender Studies class and an Introduction to Sociology class. It’s worked great in both contexts. I usually run this activity during a week/day that’s devoted to understanding concepts like socialization and the social construction of gender. I have students read the Bridges piece, either as part of the week’s readings or as part of the activity itself, and then hand them the attached handout with a four-by-four schema and some discussion questions. Then we talk as a class about their analysis. Students enjoy the interactive and tactile aspect of the activity (I ask them to dig through their bags), and it gets them talking about sociological concepts like gender norms, socialization, and “doing gender.”

Activity Materials

Doing Gender with Backpacks – Handout Lab 8

Jacqui Frost is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include non-religion and religion, culture, and civic engagement, and her dissertation project is an ethnographic study of a non-religious community.

Photo of a health app on smartphone. Photo by Jason Howie, Flickr CC

*~* “Teach with TSP” Contest Honorable Mention, 2018 *~*

I use this in-class activity in the “Health, Medicine, & Illness” week in my Introduction to Sociology class to engage my students in critical thinking about small changes that can be made to address people’s micro experiences with health issues and inequalities.

I give each of my students a copy of “The Rise of Health-Tracking Technology,” an article from The Society Pages blog, “There’s Research on That!” 

Students are asked to read the article and then are put into groups of three to discuss the following questions:

  • How can we understand health-tracking technologies as part of medicalization?
  • What are some of the benefits of health tracking technologies?
  • What are some of the social problems associated with these technologies?
    • What are some problems these technologies are intended to help?
    • What potential problems might evolve from these technologies?

Then, students are asked to work in their groups to brainstorm ideas for how they would design their own health-tracking or health/wellness oriented app to address some of the social problems of health and illness we have learned about that week.

Student groups are then asked to present their app designs to the rest of the class, emphasizing how use of that app would address social inequalities associated with health, illness, and wellbeing.

An example of one proposed app from my student groups was the following:

An app that would address some of the health inequalities in food deserts through a GPS based system that would let users know where places to buy food are in their near vicinity. The app would be connected with store employees so that users would know when fresh produce and other fresh food items were available in the stores.

The take away discussion after this activity involves talking with the students about how small changes can make a difference in the way that people experience health inequalities in their daily lives, but that we must also be working in an ongoing way to address these inequalities at the macro level too.

 

Lydia Hou is an advanced graduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying international students and Higher Ed diversity projects. Her work broadly focuses on race, gender, qualitative methods, critical higher education, and pedagogy.

Photo of a sign that says, “polling place” in three languages. Photo by Andrew Mager, Flickr CC

With so many concerns about voter suppression in the 2018 midterm elections, now is an excellent time to highlight the important role that social science can play in public debate and in our classrooms. Today’s suggestion for Teaching with TSP is a group exercise using King and Roscigno’s special feature on the 50th anniversary of the voting rights act that can be done during class followed by a discussion with the whole class. I used this exercise in my lower division Race & Ethnicity class, but it could easily be used in other lower division classes like Introduction to Sociology or Social Problems, or in an upper division Political Sociology class with some additions and modifications (which I’ll explain below). This exercise is ideal for a course in a general education curriculum that meets a social sciences requirement where instructors are often tasked with teaching students how to assess different kinds of information, evaluate evidence, and understand biases. I like this exercise because it leaves room for students with differing levels of ability, and because it directly and constructively engages students who hold the belief that everything taught in Race & Ethnicity or other sociology classes is “biased” or based on “differing opinions” without attacking them.

Materials:

You bring:

  • Printed copies of the article (1-4 copies per group)
  • Whiteboard and a bunch of markers

Students bring:

  • A copy of the book or other text you have recently read in your class
  • Pen and paper

Instructions

  1. Place the students in groups of 4-5 and give each group at least one copy of the article. Make a section on your white board for each of the different terms: 1) an opinion, 2) an empirical fact, and 3) a social scientific claim. Ask students to read through the entire article and, as they go, to identify two of each: an opinion, a fact, and a claim. They will need to write each of these on the board as they find them. You may want to make the rule that no repeats are allowed since that sometimes helps people work a little more quickly in groups (but this may not work if you have a larger class and a lot of groups).
  2. As students fill the board and work through the exercise you can choose to either let incorrect answers stand or you can go talk to the groups and ask them to fix those answers in the moment, depending on the dynamic and size of your class.
  3. Students are likely to come up with good questions about the difference between these three terms for you and each other while they work through the exercise, keeping in mind that part of what may be new here for college students is the addition of the “social scientific claim.” While K-12 does teach a related skill, it tends to focus on fact vs. opinion, which leaves evidence-based arguments in a confusing gray area for many new college students. Furthermore, many of us know that observable empirical facts in sociology are often nonetheless controversial. This exercise opens up that fact for conversation directly from an unexpected angle.
  4. Groups that finish early complete the same exercise using the most recent course reading, until all groups have at least finished the main exercise.
  5. Gently correct or clarify anything from the answers on the board. Transition from small group activity to large group discussion by asking “What do you notice when you look at the answers on the board? Does anything jump out at you? Anything surprise you? Confuse you?” This gives students a moment to reflect on what all the groups did. By asking students to choose the direction, you allow them to take ownership over the activity and lead the discussion in a direction that’s interesting to them, and the result is a more engaged, productive discussion that will allow students to tell you what they know and don’t know about the topic and what they want to know more about. More ideas for discussion are below, along with possible modifications to the exercise.

Discussion Guide

  • Is voter fraud a problem? (Establish that given this article and exercise the students understand that it is not a problem.) Why do you think so many people think it IS a problem? Did you think it was (more of) a problem before today?
  • Explore students’ reactions to why voter ID and other voting access laws are being changed, especially since voter fraud isn’t a problem. Do they agree with the authors? Are they unsure of the reasons? Can they develop their own sociological hypotheses?
  • Discuss the history of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Movement. What did students learn that was new? Do they have questions or reactions? Is there a reason these changes are happening now?
  • What is the role of social science and sociology in politics?

Possible Modifications

  • Students could be asked to update this piece or to make it local by researching the requirements to register and to vote in their own state.
  • If you are in a state with voter ID legislation, students could research who introduced and supported this legislation, what challenges have occurred to it, and the judicial opinions that have been issued.
  • Either of these could be done as part of a class activity or as a homework assignment.

Additional TSP Reading on Voter Suppression

How Voter Suppression Shapes Election Outcomes

Strict Voter Identification Laws Advantage Whites—And Skew American Democracy to the Right

Dr. Meghan Krausch studies race, gender, disability, and other forms of marginalization throughout the Americas and in particular how grassroots communities have developed ways to resist their own marginalization. Read more of Meg’s writing at The Rebel Professor or get in touch directly at meghan.krausch@gmail.com.

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.