About Nate
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
Oct132014

The Genie Scenario. What would you do?

Ideology is a lot like implicit bias. A smart person knows they have it, but they often struggle to see or describe it. One of the only ways to draw ideology into the light is to present it to students in unfamiliar ways. With this in mind I created the “Genie Scenario”.

Want to assign this to your students? Send them this link to an essay version of this complete with four assignable questions.


Walking along the beach one bright morning you trip over a hidden piece of driftwood. On all fours, a bright metallic spark of light escapes from the sand below searing your eyes. Like a blinded archeologist you clench your eyelids together while sweeping away the warm sticky yellow grains until your hand settles on something hot and smooth.
         "Are you done rubbing my lamp or should I come back later?" You whip your head around. A lumpy blue cloud with arms and a smiling face stands above you.
         "My god you're... you're a..."
         "I'm a genie, yes. Now how about you stand up and let's talk about what I can do for you."
         "Do I get three wishes?"
         "Nope. Not that kind of genie. Get up. Brush yourself off and get ready to listen carefully." Rising to your feet you subtly grab a a piece of you hip and pinch down hard. You don't wake up. This is happening.
         "As the saying goes kid, time is money." Genie says arms folded. He starts in while you brush yourself clean. "I have been to the future and I know how you will live your life and how it will come to an end- well for our purposes here, the more important point is that I know *when* it will end."
         "Wait, how I die?" Genie raises his hand.
         "Can't give you that. Plus, knowing your fate only imprisons the rest of your life; just ask Oedipus and Cronus. What I offer you is the opposite of that. I want to give you... freedom."
         "I am prepared to give you all of the money you will earn over the rest of your life. Take this offer and you'll never have to sell another hour of your life to your employer. I will return ten more times over the remainder of your life each time with 1/10 of the money you are set to earn over the remainder of your career."
         "Accept my offer and you are free to do anything you like with your time on Earth. Keep working if you like. Volunteer, travel, paint, or binge watch Netflix, it's up to you. You would finally be truly free to do what you want. However in return, every time you see me, before I give you your money, I'm going to painlessly remove one of your fingers."
         "So, do we have a deal?"

Bringing Capitalist Ideologies Into Plain Sight

I follow the “Genie Scenario” with a quick think/pair/share. That is, I ask my students to write down whether or not they’d take the offer and why. Then they talk to their classmates briefly before we talk as a whole group.

I have asked nearly 2,000 students to consider this offer and almost all of them have said they’d turn it down. The most common theme running through all the reasons they have given me for saying no can roughly be summarized as, “I need my fingers to live a quality life and once they’re gone they can’t be replaced.”

I ask my students to raise their hands if their reason for saying no fit’s with this summary and almost the entire room lifts up their arm. Then I ask them, “But couldn’t we say the exact same thing for your time? And many of you sell that for almost nothing.”

The Genie Scenario makes it easier for students to see one of their ideologies (i.e. selling my labor is normal if not moral). From here it’s much easier for students to understand Marx’s economic determinism and false consciousness, Gramsci’s hegemony, and the Frankfurt School’s critical theory. After the Genie Scenario, Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism helps students see how culture and the economy are both created by ideology and both also play a role in creating ideology.

Sunday
Oct052014

Before You “Go Off” On That Student

When a student is angry pull them closer to you. Embrace their critique and thank them for it. Show them that you really hear what they are saying and ask them to keep talking. If right now you think I’m crazy, that’s okay. This is a counterintuitive approach and that’s what makes it both disarming and pedagogically rich.

To understand why this approach works, first we have to examine how teachers commonly frame a student’s vehement challenge.

Student “Attacks” & “Defending” Our Selves

When a student challenges you, how do you respond? Or let’s take a step back, what are the adjectives you use inside your head when thinking about a student assertively challenging you or the ideas and research you are presenting them? It’s not uncommon for teachers (myself included) to frame a student’s challenge as “an attack” or frame their posture as “willful ignorance.” We might tell our colleagues afterwards that we had to “defend ourselves” from students who were “not willing to learn” or “blinded by their [insert perceived culprit].” The crucial self-reflexive question that we should ask ourselves is, what are we defending and how does that affect our teaching?[1]

Most of the time we are protecting our identities as teachers. We have spent years in graduate school and in our careers developing our identity as a competent teacher and content expert. But every teacher, no matter how developed their teacher identity, has a voice in their head that questions their competency and wonders if their identity is built upon a foundation of self-deception.

You might be tempted to think that this is an issue for only new teachers or sub-par teachers. To the contrary, the more reinforced our identity as a teacher is, the more egregious a student’s challenge can feel. That is, our internal monologue can tell us, “I am a full professor who’s won teaching awards and has published on this topic for decades. Who is this student to think they can pull my card!”

The point I’m making here is that it is perilous to conceptualize a student as your adversary. But if this conceptualization still rings true for you, then my suggestion is you employ an Aikido like approach to your students. In Aikido, you are trained to redirect the energy of your attacker. In this case, you take a student’s powerful energy and redirect it toward your learning goals.

How to Handle Student Challenges

Imagine a student has come up to you after class with a red face and explains all the ways that you, your class, and sociology in general have “got it all wrong” in a tone of voice teetering on the edge of incivility. How would this interaction go if you said something like this:

“Thank you for sharing this with me. I know that it’s not easy to challenge a professor or what’s written in a textbook. We are always talking about how important it is to think critically about things, so I absolutely appreciate the fact that you are thinking critically about our class. I hear you saying… , is that right?”

This is a classic deescalation technique. You are showing the student that you are hearing them, you are affirming their point of view, and most importantly you are role modeling civility and inviting them to join you. This is a powerful, mature, and authoritative response that projects confidence and compassion.

From here, encourage your students to continue talking. Often their outrage is based upon a misunderstanding of the course material, an error in logic, or the fact that they have privileged their anecdotal experiences above the empirical evidence you showed them. Ask questions that will direct the conversation to these mistakes. You will often find that the student’s own inner teacher will emerge and teach the students to better understand the material, acknowledge their logic errors, and accept that their anecdotal evidence and the empirical evidence can both be accurate.

There are numerous examples in society of how we adjust our expectations and tact when working with novices. For instance, when we deal with children, or a “new hire” at work, or the server at the restaurant who is “in training” (Goffman 1961/2013). I’m not suggesting that we “coddle entitled students”, rather I’m suggesting that we reframe student challenges as a passionate request for help.

References:


  1. Note that I am not talking about abusive student-teacher interactions. If a student crosses that line, my approach may not be appropriate.  ↩

Tuesday
Sep162014

You Should Write For Contexts!

If you could have the public's attention for a moment, what would you tell them about our education system, teaching, and/or learning? Contexts, the ASA's sociology magazine, is looking for people like you to write for our teaching and learning section. Your article can be about any topic related to education (Pre-k-12 & higher ed) and/or teaching and learning in general. Each article is only 1,500 words long and we don't use jargon, footnotes, or citations. Are you interested? Then you can contact me (Nathan Palmer editor of the T&L section of Contexts) at npalmer@georgiasouthern.edu Your audience awaits.
Tuesday
Sep162014

When Students Stop By Your Office Unannounced

The office drive by is the worst. A student walks by my office door, sees me inside and says, “Hi, Prof. Palmer are you busy?” Then there eyes fill with this look of vulnerability. In the past I used to just say, “Yes I am. Could you send me an email or come back during office hours?” This was always followed by an awkward moment. Students either were angry that I was being so selfish with my time or they just looked sorta heartbroken.

But now I know the secret to deflecting the office drive by.

“Prof. Palmer are you busy?”

“I am, but I always have a moment for a student like you.” I say with a smile.

“I’m having a problem. I [insert student problem].”

Then if I can answer the question in a snap I do so, but if the question requires even 2 minutes to answer I say, “You know what? That’s a really important question. I think that we should schedule some time when both of us can give our full attention to this. Can you send me an email about this or do you want to come back during my office hours?”

This approach works because it 1. allows a student to feel heard and 2. it screens out questions that can be answered instantaneously.

I’ve often thought how funny it would be to go over unannounced to one of my student’s dorm rooms and just knock. “Hi, are you busy? I wanted to talk about our class for a minute.” The look on the student’s face would be priceless.

Thursday
Aug282014

Social Media Quick Start Guide for Sociologists

“How can I get started on social media? Who should I follow on Twitter? What blogs should I be reading?” I must have heard some variant of those questions two dozen times at ASA this year. That will probably sound strange until I tell you that, I was an instructor for the JustPublics@ASA Media Camp Pre-Conference Workshops. As always, I’m here to help. Below are some suggestions for sociologists looking to dive into social media. Want a pdf version to email a friend? Here ya go.

First, you should check out the JustPublics@ASA Media Camp Workshop website for the handouts, resources, and best practices given out at the pre-conference workshop.

Who Should I Follow on Twitter?

You should follow people who are tweeting about your scholarly area of interest. That was the advice that Tressie Mcmillan Cottom, my Media Camp colleague, had for her workshop attendees. I’d echo that. The value of twitter is it’s ability to bring you people and information related to the things that interest you.

That said, if you’re looking for a list of sociologists active on Twitter, you could do a lot worse than the list that Rosemary F. Powers created on her webpage The Paradox of Society.

What Blogs Should I Read?

Below are all of the sociology blogs that I can think of. I’m sure I’ve left some off. This list has a clear bias toward the U.S., but I’m not up on sociology blogging outside the states (though I would like to be). Email me if you’ve got a blog you’d like me to add.