One of my favorite ways to teach about authority is to draw upon Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments.  As many (if not all) of you know, Milgram designed a series of experiments to see whether people would shock others up to lethal levels when instructed to do so by a scientist.  In most cases and depending on various situational characteristics, the majority of people complied, showing they would shock someone up to lethal levels.  You can read more about the experiments on a Backstage Sociologist post, found here.

A BBC documentary covered an effort to recreate the experiment a few years ago, which found similar results (with a small number of total participants, however).  The entire documentary is on Youtube, but if you’re worried about time, this 6-minute clip shows the actual experiment and includes brief discussions about authority.

I’ve used this clip generally to talk about authority as well as more specifically to illustrate how human rights violations may take place.  This clip is also a great introduction to a discussion about Weber’s types of authority.

Over on Citings & Sightings, Hollie found a great NY Times opinion piece by Dan Slater called “Darwin Was Wrong About Dating,” which analyzes theories of dating norms through evolutionary psychology.  I would definitely incorporate this article into a course or lesson on gender norms in sexual behavior. By breaking down certain Darwinian theories of gendered mating practices, the piece does a great job of showing how such theories can fall apart when examined through a sociological lens.

Students very often come to sociology classes with assumptions about fundamental, biological differences between men and women when it comes to heterosexual dating practices (“men are naturally more aggressive and compete for the attention of women”, “women are less promiscuous because they need a male partner to provide for children”, “men have a biological drive to spread their seed”, etc.)

Try the following activity in your class to help get students thinking about the social construction of dating practices:

Before students have read the article (probably in the beginning of the semester), ask the class to start naming off various beliefs about dating practices and write them on the board. For example, you could ask: “What do you (or others, or certain scientists) think is natural, or biological, about heterosexual dating practices?”

Then, after they have read the article (this could be in the same class period or between two class periods), ask them if they still believe anything about dating practices and norms is biologically determined. You could have them break into small groups and look through the research cited in the article, and then pose the question to the class. Then, as they begin to explore the various social norms that determine dating practices, ask how this changes their view on dating and sexual encounters in general. This will surely start a lively discussion about our  society’s taken-for -granted assumptions about gender difference.



If you’ve taught a class, you’ve likely struggled with getting all (or maybe even some!) students to complete required readings.  Sociology Source’s Nathan Palmer recently posted a great assignment to help with this issue, and we wanted to re-post it below.  Thanks, Nathan!


Question: Would you like it if most your students came to class having completed the assigned reading? Would you like it if they came to class with detailed notes so they could engage with their classmates better in discussions? Finally would you like to have a detailed outline of all of the reading you assign in your classes?

Well than do I have the assignment for you.

I have had amazing success with requiring my students to turn in notes covering the week’s reading (Download Direction Here)[1]. The notes have to be in outline form and, as I tell them, “need to be written as if the reader had never seen the text.” The notes are graded for their clarity and coverage of the topics in the text. Because these are weekly notes and I want to be able to grade them quickly, I created a check mark grading scheme that allows me to use a rubric with ease.

I incentivize the reading notes by allowing them to use them on both the essay midterm and final. “Think of your reading notes as a cheat sheet in a time capsule,” I tell my classes. I sign the front page of the students notes and then only allow notes that have my signature to be used on the test to try and dissuade students from creating other cheat sheets.

“How Long Should My Notes Be”

Reading notes are great because they teach students how to curate information. We live in a society that is awash with information. Consumption is often free or cheap, understanding is less available, but curation is the rarest of all. Our students will work in an information economy that pays people to shift through the haystack for needles. I stress the vocational value of this assignment to my students because they are likely to see reading notes as a “busy work” drudgery.

I tell my students that their challenge is to separate the hay from the needles. If they turn in notes that are so detailed and overfilled with information, I give them a grade similar to if they had turned in barely anything at all[2] Synthesizing information is a skill that students struggle with, this assignment fosters it.

Crowdsourced Class Notes

The by product of this assignment is a crowdsourced outline of your class texts. Last year it occurred to me that I could use my students’ reading notes to fill out my class notes. Each week I took the best reading notes and paired them with my class/lecture notes to create a top notch outline of what we read that week and what I wanted my students to learn. Now that I am teaching Social Change for the second time, I have found my class notes invaluable.

I’m not always able to reread all of the assigned readings for a given week, nor do I always need to (some of these texts I’ve read and taught more than a dozen times). Having a “CliffsNotes” guide on what we are reading and what I want my students to take from it, allows me to spend time thinking up new class activities and experiences. Put another way, my notes help me quickly re-remember WHAT I want my students to learn, so that I can spend most of my time focusing on HOW they will learn it.

(Psst… if you like this activity and want to hear more about it, check out The Sociological Source Podcast Ep 11. Chris & I talk about it in some depth.)

  1. I want to thank Dr. Susan Wortmann at Nebraska Wesleyan University for giving me this idea. She used this assignment, in a different way, in her graduate social theory course that I took from her. She was one of my best teachers, so stealing from her only makes sense.  ↩
  2. Side Note: you should see the looks on my overachieving students when they get a low grade on their 16 page reading notes. They never think I’m actually going to down grade them until I do.  ↩




As we all scramble to wrap up syllabus planning for the Spring semester, I wanted to share a great podcast I’m adding to mine!

Last week, Office Hours sat down with Joshua I. Newman and Michael Giardina to talk about their recent book Sport, Spectacle, and NASCAR Nation: Consumption and the Cultural Politics of Neoliberalism. Their conversation covered topics including the whiteness of stock car racing, religion and rebellion at the race track, and the production and consumption of Southern identity. 

I’m using this for an American Race Relations class, but it would also work great in a Methods course, as the authors talk about the ethics of conducting ethnographic research with groups of people who are very different from themselves.

The following are some questions to have them answer at home or to get the discussion started in class:

1. Which political party has incorporated NASCAR and NASCAR fans into their campaign strategy? How do the author explain this tactical choice? What do you think about this campaign strategy?

2. The authors point out that NASCAR has attempted to increase the diversity of its fan base. According to the authors’ research, how have some fans responded to this move?

3. What does it mean to “perform whiteness” and what are a few examples given by the authors? Why, according to the authors was this type of performance perhaps more prevalent at racetracks not located in the South?

4. Describe the methods used in this research. Why do the authors stress that this method was essential to address their research questions? Why was this method also challenging for the authors? Explain.

5. What applications might this research have for today’s political climate? How might NASCAR nation have changed under an Obama presidency versus a Bush presidency?


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.