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
May122014

I Need Your Help!

Dear readers,

I need your help. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed sharing my ideas & resources with you here at Sociology Source, but now it’s time for me to ask for something in return. I am collecting data on how sociology educators are using the Internet to do their jobs. I’d like you to take my survey.

You can take this survey by clicking this link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/2G5TXS2

But wait! I have one more favor to ask of you. I need you to help me get the word out about this study. Tweet the link. Post it to your Facebook wall. Email the link to your colleagues. Do whatever you can to help us get the word out.

Thank you in advance for your help! Nate

Monday
Apr282014

Saying No to the "Giant Mound of Cocaine for the Ego"

***Breaking Bad SPOILER ALERT***

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was really… I was alive”

– Walter White.

I could give the same reasons for why I lecture as much as I do. Standing in front of a room full of people ready to hear what you have to say is exhilarating.[1] There aren’t too many places left where a person can get a group’s relatively undivided attention. It’s nice to feel heard. It’s fun to tell jokes to a room desperate for a laugh. It’s easy to feel really smart and competent explaining entry level concepts to beginning learners. We all have egos and for some of us, myself included, the classroom is a space to “fill our buckets” as my 6 year old would say.

Despite pulling Walter White into this conversation, I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying teaching. And I don’t think there is anything shameful about enjoying feeling competent and proud of the work you are doing, especially if you feel the work you are doing is an important social good.

The problem with lecturing is that it’s not the right tool for every pedagogical task and mono-strategy teaching has limitations. What we’re really talking about here is the “sage on the stage” vs. “guide on the side” divide. The research on learning finds that getting your students writing, discussing, or otherwise actively involved during class time increases how much they learn (Ambrose et al. 2010) or as the saying goes, “the one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.”

Many teachers struggle to develop alternatives to lecturing. But this can easily be overcome by reading books like Classroom Assessment Techniques, Student Engagement Techniques, Active Learning, and Collaborative Learning Techniques that are full of ready-made student driven learning activities.

Even if you removed every barrier and made switching to a student-centered teaching style as easy as possible, many of us still wouldn’t do it. Because we like lecturing. We are good at it. It makes us feel alive.

I once heard Annie Lamott, a successful author, say that reading the positive reviews of her books was like “a giant mound of cocaine for the ego”. She went on to say that to become a good writer you have to deny yourself these mounds of cocaine and simply focus on the work of writing. Maybe the exact same thing could be said about forgoing the “giant mound of cocaine for the ego” that is lecturing and being the “sage on the stage”.


  1. It can also be terrifying, but after you’ve taught for a handful of years, you start to feel competent and centered.  ↩

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.  ↩