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Nate Palmer is the primary author of Sociology Source, the editor of SociologyInFocus.com, the creator of SociologySounds.com, and a lecturer of sociology at Georgia Southern University.
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Monday
Apr212014

Teaching Social Change & Aligning Goals with Assignments

I want my students to see that social change isn’t magic. That it is a social process directed by social forces. I want them to know that previous historical events often serve as antecedents to change. And finally I want them to experience how learning about the past can help us better understand our present and predict our future. These are the goals I set for myself every time I teach my Social Change class.

I pair these with the goals I have for every class I teach. For instance, I always want my students to learn about the scientific method, how to find and read peer-reviewed research, and how to write like a sociologist. Lastly, I want my students to develop the skill of creatively solving interesting problems because that it what they will be doing every day of their professional career. I always tell my students, if a question can be answered with a google search, no one will pay you to answer it.

“Align Your Goals With Your Assessments!”

Everyone tells us to align our teaching goals with what we are doing in the classroom and with the graded assessments. That is excellent advice and I think it’s safe to say we all aspire to have our goals, classroom activities, and assessments aligned. However, in reality it’s really hard to get all of your ducks in a row.

This semester I worked really hard to ensure that my student learning outcomes (SLOs) aligned with the written papers I assigned my students. Today I want to 1. give everyone a copy of my assignments and 2. discuss how I worked to get my goals and my assessments in line.

Student Learning Outcomes:

By the end of this class students will be able to…

  1. Analyze a social change event using sociological concepts/tools like social/historical contexts, social structure, sociological theory, materialist/idealist factors, etc.
  2. Answer a social change research question using peer-reviewed research. (aka think and write like a sociologist).
  3. Design a Direct action campaign to alter the power relations surrounding a social issue (aka creatively solve interesting social problems).

Download All 3 Papers Here

Paper 1: Analyze a Social Change Event

I decided to focus my class around one single example of social change: mass incarceration. I had my students read the first 2 chapters of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Alexander (2010) is making a clear argument that the War on Drugs (WoD) policies have recreated the racial caste system that has been with the United States since slavery. She walks the reader from slavery to vagrancy laws to Jim Crow laws to WoD polices arguing that each instance was a mutation of the prior system of oppression.

I ask my students to write down all of the social antecedents they see in the assigned two chapters. Then we worked together to create a list of antecedents (download here). The next day in class I draw a big time line across the double-wide white board at the front of the room. We worked together to fill the timeline with all of the crucial events and other social antecedents. With their antecedent list and timeline in hand, I have my students apply everything we’ve learned about social change from the rest of the class to the WoD and mass incarceration in paper 1.

Paper 2: Think & Write Like a Sociologist

One of the key ideas of social change is that if something hasn’t changed yet, then it’s probably because somebody else doesn’t want it changed. That’s my one sentence summary of Darhendorf’s (1959) Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Really what we’re talking about here is hegemony and the social forces that maintain the status quo. I want my students to be able to identify those on each side of the WoD issue. I also want my students to develop their skills at doing literature reviews and using empirical evidence to support their arguments. Paper 2 combines both of these into a simple research paper.

Paper 3: Creatively Solve Interesting Problems

What good is knowing how things change if you don’t learn how to create some change yourself along the way? The book Organizing for Social Change is a workbook that guides you step-by-step through the process of fighting for social justice. The first two chapters explain what direct action organizing is and then the rest of the book is a series of worksheets and tasks to get your activist campaign off the ground. In paper 3 my students are challenged to plan a direct action campaign to mitigate the consequences of the WoD polices and mass incarceration in general.

This assignment is a “choose-your-own-adventure” style assignment. Students have to come up with their own ideas and then flesh out their campaign from there. As I write my students are working on this paper right now. Not a day has gone by that a student hasn’t said, “This is hard! I can’t think of any good ideas.” To which I always say, “Excellent! It sounds like you are doing the hard work of learning right now. Keep it up.”

While it might sound like I am enjoying their anguish, in reality I don’t. But I know that frustration, anger, and exhaustion are all common side effects of learning. Too often writing assignments are paint-by-numbers style activities. Students have grown accustomed to being told exactly what to write about, so open assignments like this give student the opportunity to creatively solve interesting problems.

Monday
Apr072014

TMI! When To Share with Students

How much should I share with my students? Here's a guide that has always served me well: think about what is motivating you to share personal information.

If you want to share because you think it will be a boon to your students learning, then do it.

If you want to share something personal because you need to share it with someone, don't. Get a therapist or call a friend.

Share only when it's pedagogically rich.

Monday
Mar242014

You Can’t Be A Sociologist Without History

Want to learn something about your class?

The next time you teach, start class by asking your students to write about the recent history of any social issue of the moment. Help them generate a list of topics on the board. Climate change, marriage equality, racism in the legal justice system, mass shootings, the 13 year war in Afghanistan, Bronies, the #Selfie, anything they want. Nothing major, just a bulleted list of the key moments over the last 30 years. Give them 5 min.

If you’re feeling really brave try writing the recent history of all of these issues yourself. Personally, I know enough about these issues to know that I don’t know enough about these issues. I think I could muster the watershed moments in each, but not well enough to explain them to a class full of students.[1]

After you go to your happy place, read through your students’ papers. I’m willing to bet that for the most part your students will be unable to provide even a rudimentary history of a social issue[2]. Keep in mind that your students chose these issues, so in all likelihood you’re reading about the social issue that they feel they understand the best.

If your students don’t know the history of social issues, they will be forced to build their understanding of the social world on top of a framework devoid of historical context. If the sociological imagination lies at the intersection of biography and history, then how can we expect our students to develop as sociologists without a basic understanding of thier recent past?

The next time you find yourself thinking, “they just aren’t getting it.” Ask yourself, “do they know the first thing about the history of this issue?” Without a historical context no one can have a sociological imagination.


  1. I would need to review the literature before I would be ready to teach it to a room of undergraduates.  ↩

  2. Obviously every class and every student is different. Some will struggle more than others. If you find you have a class of students who can all provide an accurate recent history of a social issue, then run down the rows of desks high fiving each one of them like a maniac.  ↩

Monday
Mar102014

Yik Yak & Using Your Students' Words to Teach Them

Yik Yak paddy whack throw a teach a bone.[1]

Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could see what your students are saying about the community you live in? Well good news friends, there’s an app for that.

Meet Yik Yak. It’s a sort of anonymous twitter. You can post messages anonymously and then people can vote them up or down. But what really makes Yik Yak interesting is that you can only read the messages that were published by someone else near your current location. So for instance, if you open Yik Yak in the student union you’ll see different messages than if you open it at the library.

It might be easier to think of Yik Yak like a virtual bathroom wall were people scribble messages anonymously. And just like a bathroom wall it’s full of horrible, vile, and down right mean messages sent by people too cowardly to say them publicly. The app has received a lot of criticism because it’s been used by school children and college students alike to bully, harass, and shame students and teachers.

All that said, I think Yik Yak could be used as a pedagogical tool… if you’re courageous. Often I find myself trying to convince my students that racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are problems on our campus and in our town[2]. Now instead of telling them that intolerance is a problem, I can show them it is. I plan to show them the words of their peers and the community they live in when I talk about racism, sexism, and homophobia. I’ll show them that some of the most oppressive messages receive the most up votes. Yik Yak will serve as an ice breaker and, I hope, neutralize the “we don’t have that problem around here” argument.

Why This Might Be a Terrible Idea

As soon as my students know that I am on Yik Yak I open the door for them to say the most hurtful things they can anonymously. I trust my students. I sincerely like and respect them as well. I think at this point in the semester we’ve established a strong enough report to do this. But that said, I don’t plan to load Yik Yak after class. I’ll give it a few days for any “Prof. Palmer Sucks!!!” messages to fade into the background. If you think your students have animosity toward you or are bigoted toward you because you are from a non-dominant group, you should really consider not using Yik Yak.

But Wait!

Of course Yik Yak messages are an unrepresentative sample. Oh, looky there, another concept that Yik Yak can teach your students.


  1. Sorry, couldn’t help myself.  ↩

  2. This probably goes without saying, but I would make this same argument in every town and at every school in the United States.  ↩

Monday
Mar032014

The Academic’s Guide to Writing Online

The greatest sin a sociologist could commit is being boring… okay okay, abusing human subjects is the greatest sin, but being boring isn’t far behind. Sociology is, for a lack of a better word, sexy. No one storms out of actuary sciences class in a huff, but our students find our classes so emotional, so compelling, so challenging that they literally can not stand it and they run away.

On the four year anniversary of SociologySource.org I want to tell you what I’ve learned about making sociology accessible to the masses. Throughout all of my teaching, all of my work on SociologyInFocus.com, and the one-off projects I’ve done like the “Doing Nothing” video, I’ve been thinking really hard about and trying to develop my skills at communicating highly complex ideas with language that anyone could understand.

The Academic’s Guide to Writing Online

Download PDF Version of Guide

This is a guide for how to write so that your scholarly work finds an audience. This isn’t advice for how to write to get published in a top journal, in fact this might be the exact opposite of that advice. Ultimately, writing for social media is writing for a public audience. Therefore, it’s an act of public scholarship.

Talk to Me! - Acknowledge the Reader.

EXAMPLE: Many scholars today argue that when sharing your ideas with your audience the use of the third grammatical person places distance between the two parties whereas employing the first and second person delivers a reading experience that is superior in it’s intimacy with the reader

  • Talk to your reader. Write as if your reader is in the room with you.
  • Alternate your writing between the first person, “my research finds…” and the second, “your students will love…”
  • Ditch the authoritative third person voice as it is often the coward’s crutch. It’s the bravado we use when we fear that what we say won’t be taken seriously.[1]
  • Show don’t tell. Don’t be afraid to slip into a narrative to allow your reader to experience the event first hand. “Telling” stories second hand is like serving a dinner guest pre-chewed food.

Just Say It! - Never lead with a disclaimer or qualifier.

EXAMPLE: I don’t want you to read this and think I am trying to be mean. I’m also not trying to say that this applies to all forms of writing. As I said above, these are just my opinions.

  • SHOOT ME IN THE FACE! Did you have something to say underneath all those disclaimers and qualifying statements?
  • Never lead with disclaimers or qualifying statements. Say what you want to say immediately and then, if you really must, give them your disclaimers/qualifiers.
  • Your first sentence exists to entice the reader to read the second sentence. Your first paragraph’s job is to intrigue your reader so they are compelled to read the second. And so on and so on.

K.I.S.S. - Keep it Simple Scholar!

EXAMPLE: Academic writers who use jargon and esoteric language are often preoccupied with communicating their cultural capital to their peers and because of this they sacrifice what could be a learning opportunity for a lay audience.

  • Mercilessly destroy jargon. If you absolutely have to use a piece of jargon, don’t just define the term. Introduce the term to your reader using an anecdote or other illustrative tool.
  • Nix the esoteric language. If a ten cent word can communicate an idea, don’t use a ten dollar word instead. You went to grad school; we get it.
  • The greater the pre-requisite amount of education a reader must have to understand your reading, the smaller your audience will be and the smaller your impact will be.
  • Jargon and esoteric language are the sacrificial offerings we place at the alter of public sociology.

Get in & Get Out.

  • Keep it succinct. If possible, keep any blog post to less than 500 words.[2]

No! It’s Not All Important

  • Only present the reader with information that is essential for them to understand your larger points.
  • You have an expert’s mind, so to you it’s all essential. Try to remember back to when you were a novice to your subject. Try to remember how a “beginner’s mind” saw your subject and then write to answer the questions of the reader with a beginners mind.
  • “Kill your darlings” as the saying goes. Delete non-essential information.

If You Have Something to Say, Say It

  • Say something compelling, intriguing, challenging, inspiring, evocative, poignant, or otherwise interesting.
  • If what you write feels risky you’re on the right path. If it’s something that you sincerely believe or something that empirical research can back up, then take the risk and hit publish.
  • “The web has made kicking ass easier to achieve, and mediocrity harder to sustain. Mediocrity now howls in protest.” - Hugh Macleod

Don’t Let Perfection Be The Enemy of The Good

  • Don’t worry if your grammar isn’t perfect. I’m not a grammarian. I have no doubt that those of you who are could rip apart what I’ve written.
  • Focus on clearly communicating your ideas. It’s more important that you share your ideas with the world than it is to make sure your writing is 100% error free. Get in the arena and mix it up with people.
  • Your writing isn’t etched in stone. Remember that unlike print, you can immediately change errors as your readers point them out to you.

A Final Note

Not every scholarly publication needs to be written so that a the general public can read it. There is nothing wrong with scholars using academic journals to share highly technical and complex research with other trained social scientists. However, as a discipline we need to have a bias toward accessibility and cultivate a community of sociologists highly skilled in communicating esoteric research into human readable texts. And this community of explainers, communicators, and ambassadors to our discipline need to be seen as providing an invaluable service to us all.


  1. Not all authors are treated equally. Non-dominant voices are often presumed incompetent and using an authoritative voice can be an effective counter-measure to this type of discrimination. This is not cowardice. However, as a whole academics over rely on the authoritative voice to deal with their fear that others will unmask them as a fraud or take their openness as a sign of weakness.  ↩

  2. Oh the hypocrisy! This blog post is 1,060 words long!  ↩