Photo by 401(K) 2013 via
Photo by 401(K) 2013 via

We want to take a moment to alert you to a fantastic new teaching tool: Recession Trends.  As the website’s “about us” explains, “The Recession Trends initiative, a collaboration between the Russell Sage Foundation and the Center on Poverty and Inequality, is dedicated to monitoring the social and economic fallout of the ongoing downturn.”

There are many ways you could use this informative website in the classroom.  For example, you could ask students to form a research question about the recession (e.g., Did crime rates rise during the recession?) and use the website to help answer it.  Specifically, the website includes a graphing utility with data on each of the 16 domains covered regarding the recession (housing, poverty, immigration, crime, health, etc.).  The graphing utility is found here, and the domains are listed on the right-hand side.  Note that students likely would need a few minutes to explore the domains before picking a research question that could be answered using the website.

This could also be paired with the Office Hours podcast with David Grusky, one of the creators of the website.  A teaching activity to accompany the podcast, which was posted earlier this year, is below.

In this episode of Office Hours, TSP’s Sarah Shannon speaks with Stanford University Sociology Professor David Grusky about the social and economic effects of the recession.  This entire podcast could be assigned to students, though you could also considering assigning part of it (the first 20 minutes, for example).

Grusky and Shannon cover many topics in this 50-minute conversation, so there are many avenues for discussion.  Here are a few basic questions that cover some of the main points.

1)   How does the most recent recession differ from past recessions?  In other words, what makes it a “great” recession?

2)   How does the recession affect inequality in the United States?

3)   What are some of the responses to the recession, and how do they differ from responses to the Great Depression?

4)   Why does Grusky see a danger in the focus on tax-based solutions to the current economic problems?

5)   Grusky and Shannon speak specifically about college students several times throughout the podcast?  How is the recession impacting students, and what is the bottleneck that they mention?

Our own Hollie Nyseth Brehm recently wrote a special feature for TSP entitled “The Crime of Genocide.” The article is a short and concise summary of the conditions that can lead to genocide, as identified by social science research. This would be a great article to use in a course on crime, as criminologists have largely neglected the study of genocide. It’s a great introduction to the topic!

A few questions to get the discussion going:

1. What does the word genocide mean and how did the word come to mean what we understand it to mean today?

2. Why have genocides generally been ignored by criminologists? What do they have in common with other types of crime more often studied by such scholars?

3. What does the metaphor “genocide doesn’t come like rain” mean? Why is this the case?

4. How do psychological and individual factors matter (or not matter) when trying to understand which people become perpetrators of genocide?

5. How can the government and characteristics of the state play a role in encouraging genocide? (The author gives several reasons. List them all.)

6. How can the international community play a role in preventing and stopping genocide? How do connections to other countries matter?


3D Judges Gavel

Below is an activity that will be included in an upcoming Norton volume on politics.   The activity could be modified to fit any discussion about power.   A few weeks ago, I used it in a human rights law course.  We were discussing power and authority as part of a unit on the causes of human rights violations.  Thus, the activity below is slightly modified for this discussion, though you could change the questions on power to reflect any class discussion.

We started the discussion about power with this activity.  Then, we defined power and talked about why it’s a loaded word.  We also talked about a few other assumptions that came up during the discussion, such as the idea that power is only an attribute of people (rather than something structural or institutional) and the idea that only some people have power.  This activity could be paired with the TSP Special on power, found here.

  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 be reading a series of statements about power.  After each statement, they should stand under the sign that most closely reflects their reaction to the statement (and that they must choose a sign).
  3. Read the first statement (listed below).  After participants have assembled under the signs, ask each group to discuss why they picked that particular position and to choose a spokesperson to explain a few points of the discussion.
  4. Ask everyone to leave their group and go to the center of the room.  Then ask participants to stand under the sign that most closely reflects their own reaction to the statement again.  (This gives participants the opportunity to change their positions if they wish, though this is optional based on how discussion is going and the time you have allotted.)  Ask whether, after hearing the various arguments, any participants changed their position.  Then ask a few volunteers to explain why they decided to change their positions.
  5. Repeat this exercise for the following statements.  You can add or subtract statements to alter the length of the exercise.

*Power corrupts.

*Power causes human rights violations.

*You can’t get anything done without power.


Image via Daniel Oines,

As the holidays draw near, it seems fitting that several of this week’s citings were about toy stores.  One of the citings, found here, was about a Swedish company that is working to eliminate gendered toys. The other, found here, focused on class and toys.

Below is an expanded version of a related activity (that we posted about briefly in the past).  This activity focuses on gender and toys, but you could also include class and toys (or ask the class to read the second citing listed above as part of the discussion after the activity).

Go to a local toy store or department store, and bring something to take notes. While you are there, take detailed notes about the following:

*Can you tell if there is a boys’ section and a girls’ section? How do you know?
*If there are boys’ and girls’ sections, how do they differ? (Think about the number of toys, colors of toys, types of toys, etc.)
*If there are boys’ and girls’ sections, how are they similar?
*Do the toys seem to encourage different types of values?
*Do the toys seem to encourage different roles for boys and girls?
*What other differences or similarities do you see?

Students could bring their notes to class for group discussion and/or write a paper based on their findings. If they write a paper, be sure to ask them to give detailed descriptions as well as link their findings to material covered in class (and turn their notes in with the paper).

The following is another guest post by our own Kyle Green who is teaching Sociological Research Methods this semester and has generously shared teaching activities with us. Thanks Kyle!

During the height of election season (or doldrums depending on your view of the political spectacle that descends upon our country every four years), I shared a teaching activity that had gone well in my large research methods class. The only problem is that the activity loses some of its luster during the three years between debates—asking students to re-watch notable past debates is one option, but I am guessing the students will be less excited when they know the outcome of the election.

With this in mind I recommend a similar activity using the Intelligence Squared debates that pit ‘experts’ against each other with the goal of swaying the audience’s view. There are currently over 60 debates available for download that cover a wide range of topics include should college football be banned, are men ‘finished’, and should the U.N. admit Palestine as a full member state.

For this activity I asked each student to choose any topic of interest that seems sociological (it would also be very easy to pick out five or six that you think are particularly relevant). I then asked them to listen or watch the full debate, take detailed notes about the types of arguments the participants on each side made and the data they used to support their claims.

The students were also required to include:

What debate did they choose to listen to? Why?
What types of information was the most or least convincing? Why?
Did the participants refer to any research on the topic? What type of research? How much detail did they give?
Did they spot any of the common research errors or logical fallacies we discussed in class?
How they think the topic guided or shaped the arguments used?
Did they think about the issue in the same way that they did before?
Did they agree with the audience’s assessment of who won or lost the debate?

I have the students bring their notes to class. I then divide them into groups of three where they have a chance to discuss their observations before we have a larger class discussion about the lessons we learned. I have found that one of the richest parts of the discussion is thinking through the types of data used during the debates and how the effectiveness varied based by both topic and listener. For instance, some students were suspicious of numbers and swayed by personal experience while others in the class had the exact opposite reaction.

Photo courtesy Mary Chayko

Our Community Page Cyborgology recently posted about guest tweeters. That’s right, guest tweeters. As explained here, Mary Chayko invited Cyborgoloy’s Nathan Jurgenson to spend an hour live-tweeting with her class.

The class would be gathered physically in the classroom and he would join in from his own remote location. Afterward, the students and I would review and reflect on the experience fairly thoroughly—our engagement with Nathan and his ideas, our engagement with one another, what we learned, what we didn’t, and why. My goal was to wring as much as possible, intellectually and socially, from the exercise.

Based on course content and Jurgenson’s expertise, students were asked to think of one question that they wanted to ask Jurgenson. As Chayko explains thoroughly (be sure to read it!), this takes a bit of planning. Explaining just some of the preparations, she notes,

I always survey each of my classes at the start to determine the level of interest and willingness of the students to use social media for class-related activities. I offer students an opportunity to opt out of social media use, to use pseudonyms online, and I require those that wish to use it to abide by a strict set of social media use policies which we discuss at great length (and which I am happy to share). I also teach all my students, ad infinitum, ad nauseum I’m sure, to use social media responsibly and professionally.

Her planning, and the willingness of her students, resulted in a great conversation and learning experience.

We recommend this great documentary, The Road From Crime, about desistance from crime to show in any crim or intro class. The documentary follows Allan Weaver, a Scottish ex-offender turned probation officer as he explores how individuals like himself get caught up in the criminal justice system, and how some are eventually able to leave a life of crime behind. He discovers that “the system” actually leads to more re-offending, because it encourages labeling and stigmatization of ex-offenders.

The film references the research of American criminologists John Laub and Robert J. Sampson and interviews John Laub and Faye Taxman. Overall, it is a compelling and passionate discussion about what offenders need to become ex-offenders.

Make sure to show the one with English subtitles! The accents are hard to understand with American English ears :)

To listen to an interview with two criminologists who worked on the film (and its parent project, Discovering Desistance), please visit our Office Hours section.

Enter Ellis IslandDuring the 2012 election, immigration was not nearly as big of an issue as it has been in previous elections.  In the newest TSP Roundtable, leading scholars of immigration address why this might be the case and, more broadly, why immigration has long been a divisive political issue in the United States.  This is a great reading for any number of sociology classes.  A few questions for students to ponder after the reading include:


1)   How has immigration to the U.S. changed over time?

2)   According to Massey, when did the most recent cycle of xenophobia start, and why?

3)   How do immigration and race intersect?

The quiz, How Much Do You Know about U.S. Immigration, would also be a nice complement, though some of the figures may need to be updated slightly.

Bad News on the Doorstep

The TSP blog, Citings & Sightings, tracks sociologists and other social scientists whose work makes it into the news.   This activity draws upon this concept and gets students thinking about the public impact of sociology. 

1) Browse to and read several examples of citings.

2) Then, search for a news story that cites a sociologist.  If you get stuck, try google news and search for the terms “sociologist” or “sociology.”

3) Using the Citings & Sightings blog as a model, write your own “citing” for the article you found.

Students could bring their citings to class and share them in groups or as a class.  Then, the groups or your class could discuss the following questions:

1) In your opinion, what makes the article, or the research cited, newsworthy?

2)  Why was a sociologist particularly suited to comment on the article?

3)  What unique contribution did sociology bring to the article?

4) Do you see many sociologists in the news?  Why do you think this is the case?

With a marriage amendment looming in Minnesota, I decided to spend a day on this issue in my Sociology of Families class. I wanted to present both sides of the issue without having to do it myself–because I could have hardly been neutral on the subject–so I had the students read short commentaries on the subject in class and evaluate the persuasiveness of the arguments.

This activity could apply to any contentious political issue that you would like to discuss in class, but are wary of sounding biased.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how I organized this activity in my class of 80 students:
(I allowed about an hour for this activity, but it could definitely have been longer.)

1. Before class, I collected several different commentaries from a major newspaper–half opposed to the amendment and half in favor of it. I paired one opposed with one in favor and stapled them together in a pack.

2. First, I split my class into groups of 4-5 and had each group read one commentary supporting the amendment and one opposing it–so each packet was being analyzed by two groups only.

3. I gave them 10 minutes or so read the commentaries, asking them to look for arguments that they found compelling or not compelling. I instructed them to underline and take notes on their handout, especially focusing on arguments that relate to themes we have discussed in class. For example, what have we learned in class that would serve as evidence to either suport or refute this claim?

4. Then, I had them discuss the articles with their small groups, and share which arguments they had focused on. This is the part that could have been a bit longer. Most groups appeared to be having spirited conversations about the articles.

5. Lastly, I asked them to share their analyses with the class. When they shared which arguments they had discussed, I prodded them to explain why they found that specific argument compelling or not compelling, and urged them to bring in material from class that would support their claim. (This part didn’t come as easy to them, which made me think that this would also be a great take-home exercise where they would have more time to reference their notes from previous classes). I took notes on their comments on the board, but I don’t think I would do that again. I feel it might have been a more fluid discussion without it.