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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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Wednesday
Jan292014

Teaching Inequality, Privilege, & Masculinities

Below is a guest post written by Amanada Kennedy originally posted on Masculinities 101. If you have a teaching resource or idea you’d like to share on Sociology Source please let us know.

Large Bicep with Football Stitching On It
Img: Visual Culture Blog

With the Spring semester about to begin, I am deep in “course prep” mode. This semester I will be teaching American Society, a staple in the sociology department. I generally teach this class as a course on inequality, specifically debunking the myth that our society is a classless, egalitarian society. I divide the course into four segments on class, race, gender, and sexuality, with the final component of each segment working to tie these categories together and introduce students to the theory of intersectionality. We explore how science, medicine, family, religion, popular culture, media, education, and public policies (like marriage, health care, and immigration law) both create and propagate inequality. And we talk about whether institutions like these, which are often used to preserve the status quo, can instead be used to fight inequality. By the end of the semester, students are able to explain how social identity categories operate in the United States, and accurately link these categories to existing problems of inequality. It is my favorite course to teach, and generally students seem to enjoy the provocative discussions that emerge out of the readings and lectures.

This term, however, I am prepping the class in the midst of writing my dissertation, specifically a chapter documenting the men’s movement in the United States. This movement is comprised of diverse groups with different, often contradictory, goals. For example, the profeminist men’s movement works alongside feminist organizations, and aims to change masculinity in ways that improve the lives of both women and men. Profeminist men are well known for their work engaging men in anti-rape and anti-violence causes (for example,the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, or NOMAS). But not all of the strands of the men’s movement share these politics. Some, called the mythopoetic men’s movement (like the ManKind Project), are decidedly apolitical, advocating instead for personal, psychological growth and change. These men believe that changes in modern society have left men struggling, searching for decent role models of “true” masculine behavior. The solution for them is not necessarily working for social change, but helping men develop more fulfilling identities and relationships. And finally, there is the men’s rights (or men’s human rights) contingent (like A Voice for Men and the National Coalition for Men, or NCFM). This wing of the movement is highly conservative and reactionary. They see modern social changes, especially those brought about by feminism and other civil rights movements, as the cause of a great many ills for American men. They believe that the tables have turned so dramatically in our society, that now women have advantages over men. Issues tackled by these groups run the gamut: from concerns about false rape allegations and coercive military draft policies, to the unfairness of “ladies’ nights” and men’s lower health quality. The solution for these organizations is enacting legal and policy changes, especially through litigation. While they do not share goals or tactics, one thing they all share is a belief that current iterations of masculinity are limiting and fail to represent the diversity of men’s needs and desires.

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with my class. Well, I like to push students to see inequality not just as a disabling force, but also an enabling one. In other words, while inequality is disadvantaging for many, it persists because it seems to “work” for a small (but powerful) few. But inequality is bad for everyone—this is a big message in my class. Highly unequal societies are less healthy and happy societies overall. That means that it is disadvantaging even for those who also benefit from it. Studying the men’s movement pushes me to think about ways to teach inequality that highlight its schizophrenic nature. Inequality is not just about those on the bottom rung, it also about each privileged step up the ladder. Even those in power are often unhappy, as evidenced by the men’s movement.

So when I teach gender inequality, I begin with what students expect: namely, with the assertion that ours is a male dominated society. That means that the qualities we value in one’s character, in leadership positions, in the public sphere generally, are those qualities associated with masculinity. Masculinity reaps rewards—we can see this in the gender wage gap, among other things. But then I go further. Whose masculinity reaps rewards, I ask? Upper class, white, heterosexual men’s masculinity is the masculinity that pays. That leaves out most men. Moreover, masculinity demands much from men, sometimes much more than it repays.

My favorite example is (American) football (see some great posts on the topic here, here, and here). It is definitively American and blatantly masculine. It creates heroes of its players, and provides fame and fortune. But, it is a warlike sport that ravages men’s bodies. Men battle on the field to demonstrate their physical ability, their courage, their competitiveness, just as in society where men compete with one another for dates, promotions, etc., all of which rests on their masculine performance. But this performance can be grueling. For football players, it brings broken bones, chronic pain, and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a condition in the brain, produced by repeated sub-concussive trauma, leading to early onset dementia, mood disorders, and memory loss. In society, the price men pay may not be as obvious as the scars and bruises that football causes; men pay for their privilege in shorter life spans (often attributed to risk-taking behaviors like fast driving and drinking, and lifestyle choices like eating red meat), stunted emotional development, and a lack of fulfilling relationships (because the characteristics that make good businessmen do not always make good friends or partners).

We do not have to turn to reactionary models like the men’s rights movement to make sense of why American men are unhappy and feel dissatisfied by their social roles, nor should we. We do not have to blame feminists or women for making things better for themselves, nor should we. In fact, any move toward greater social equality is good for everyone, even those whose power is threatened (or diminished). We can, however, take note of the facets of life where different groups (of men, of women, of immigrants, of workers, etc.) find flaws, and see how these flaws emerge out of unequal conditions. We will obviously find them among those most disadvantaged in society, but we will also discover them hidden behind social privilege. The solutions to these concerns will be found in dismantling structures of inequality.

How do you teach inequality? Have you discovered innovative ways to get students (at any level) to think about privilege and power? Or have you encountered resistance when teaching these topics, and if so, how do you manage that response?

Further Reading

  • Kimmel, Michael. 2013. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. New York: Nation Books.
  • Rothenberg, Paula. 2014. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. 9th Edition. New York: Worth Publishers. [this is the textbook I use for the class, which contains a variety of readings that lend themselves to the structure I’ve laid out]

And, for more on teaching and pedagogy, see Markus Gerke’s post here.

Amanda Kennedy is a founder and editor of Masculinities 101. She is currently completing her PhD in Sociology at Stony Brook University.

Crossposted at Masculinities 101

Monday
Jan272014

Who is the Public Face of Sociology?

The 101 class is the public face of our discipline. Every year there are roughly a million students in the United States who take Soc 101, that is, if my publisher friends’ estimates are to be believed. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, 101 will be their only exposure to our discipline. Sure, they might hear about our research findings in the media, but chances are they’ll have no idea that it was a sociologist who produced the research.

So, who’s teaching the 101 courses at your institution? In many places 101 is taught by a hodgepodge of grad students, adjuncts, lecturers, and assistant professors.[1] In every one of these situations we position on the front lines our least experienced educators (many of whom have never received any formalized training on pedagogy). Now, don’t let me be misunderstood. I reject the idea that years of experience correlates with excellence in the classroom. I’ve been cutting my grass since I was 10, but I’ve always done the bare minimum to avoid the ridicule of my neighbors. My neighbor’s yard, on the other hand, is the stuff that would make the angels cry. Wisdom in the classroom certainly has it’s advantages, but an inexperienced teacher who is passionate and focused on honing their craft can quickly make up for a lack of experience.

How do the faculty in your department think about 101? Is it something to be avoided like the plague? Is it a hazing ritual that you put newbs through so that senior faculty can get to teach their “real classes” (i.e. their upper division classes within their area of interest)?

Why Does It Matter Who Teaches 101

First, it matters because the introductory classes serve as the on ramp to the major. As reported by InsideHigherEd.com in their forth coming book How College Works, Chambliss and Takacs find that,

Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.

Second, it matters because of Krulak’s law which posits, “The closer you get to the front, the more power you have over the brand.”[2] Put simply, if the 101 class is the frontline of sociology, then the 101 teacher is the ambassador for us all.

Why Does It Matter Who Is the Public Face of Sociology?

Sociology has an image problem. As a discipline it’s not uncommon for the general public to think we are either explaining nothing more than common sense, not a “real science”, an academic arm of the socialist party, or simply radical liberal wackadoodles. For instance, take a look at the controversy that swirled around Patricia Adler last month. As reported by Rebecca Schuman on Slate, commenters to Adler articles said, “Sociology is a pseudoscience which has successfully pursued government subsidies in tuition dollars for decades… It is akin to getting a degree in practical witchcraft.”

As sociologists, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you that there are risks to having a poor public perception. In an age when our fellow social scientists have seen their discipline made ineligible for NSF funding, it’s hard to argue that the public’s perception of your discipline doesn’t matter. Plus, don’t we do research to create an impact in the world?

What Needs to Change?

We should take our introduction classes seriously. When we meet department cultures or individuals who belittle the role of the 101 class we should speak up and educate our colleagues. If less experienced faculty are teaching intro classes, we owe it to ourselves to ensure that they are well trained and have the resources they need to be successful. For while the viability of an individual professor’s career may hinge on publications and grant dollars, the viability of a academic discipline hinges on the ability to recruit students and impress upon the public the value it holds for them.

As my Internet friend Todd Beer says, “Teach well. It matters.”


  1. Obviously there are some structural explanations for the concentration of non-tenure and/or less senior faculty at the 101 level. The pool of qualified applicants for a 101 course is much larger than the pool for upper division classes that require more specialized training and experience.  ↩

  2. The idea for Krulak’s law came from a quote by General Charles C. Krulak that Jeff Sexton was inspired to share on his blog, but was coined into a law by Seth Godin. Credit where credit due.  ↩

Wednesday
Jan152014

Teaching Stratification and Blogging as Pedagogy

The excellent teaching idea and resource below is from Tressie McMillan Cottom one of the brightest sociological minds on the Internet. If you’re not already following her on Twitter (@tressiemcphd) you should be, she’s prolific and always thought provoking. And if it isn’t already abundantly clear, I’m a huge fan of hers. This teaching activity was first published on her blog tressiemc.com and she graciously agreed to share it with us.

I mentioned before that I try to push my pedagogy beyond what worked for me as a student.

I am teaching “Class, Status, and Power” this Spring. It is a basic sociology stratification course. This term I will experiment with offering alternatives to The Paper. I am starting with a platform I am most comfortable with: blogging. I know it is not a huge stretch from the essay but I think it is different in important ways. First, it redefines audience for student-writers. Second, students can leverage talents/skills in visual storytelling in ways that they cannot with written essays. Third, in a nod to the reality of the neo-liberal environment I always try to draw explicit connections for students between sociology and applied, marketable skills.

However, you’ll notice that there is still a traditional, much-maligned “term paper” that all students must write. My current position is that diversifying the writing abilities of students is not the same as abolishing one form for another. Writing a clear argument without the benefit of media is still a valuable skill. I believe it engages different types of thinking and reasoning processes that are more valuable, not less, as digital writing ascends in popular culture. I may evolve on that. For now, my typical student at Emory intends to go to graduate or professional school. I do not think we need one more credentialed financial wizard or scientist that cannot tell a clear story using words on a piece of paper. But that is so judgey of me. I own that.

In this blogging assignment I benefited a great deal from work shared online by Brian Croxall, Mark Sample and Jade E. Davis. It seemed only fair that I pay that forward by sharing the current draft of the blogging assignment I have written for my class. I welcome any feedback, especially from you pedagogical superstars that have toyed around with these things for awhile.

Download SOC 214 Critical Analysis Blog Guidelines

Monday
Jan132014

My New Semester Resolution

I used to love to burn down my classes at the end of every semester and rebuild it anew. As I taught each semester I would see all of the problems, weaknesses, and areas for improvement and I’d convince myself that all my classes sucked and had to be jettisoned and never spoken of again. Looking back I now see this as a form of pedagogical self-flagellation. It’s also a sort of academic Groundhog Day where every semester I am stuck trying to get my legs underneath me.

My new semester’s resolution is to write down all of those problems, weaknesses, and areas for improvement that you can only see in the moment, while you’re teaching. I’ve created what I titled a A.F.I. (Areas for Improvement) file for each of my classes that will serve like a letter to my future self to open once the semester is over. I want to use this space as a place to both document bugs in the class and as a space to dream about how I might dramatically restructure the class.

From here out, instead of a slash and burn approach, I resolve to use my A.F.I. lists to improve my classes in an iterative fashion. Instead of trying to birth the perfect class each semester, I want to develop a 3–5 year plan and evolve my classes as I go. This seems like a much more humane approach to professional development.

Happy New Year

Monday
Jan062014

101 For Everyone

I think my mouth was agape. Even if it wasn’t, I was dumbfounded. I need a second to compose myself, so I stalled by asking, “can you repeat the question?”

The student kindly obliged, “What exactly is a social institution?” The question didn’t throw me, but rather the fact that it was two weeks from the end of the semester. “Okay, who can help answer this question. What is a social institution?” I stood there repeating the question like Ferris Bueller’s teacher calling role. No one knew the answer or at least no one felt confident enough in their understanding of the concept to put themselves out there.

I wasn’t dumbfounded at their ignorance, but rather my own. I had been teaching for months, using all of the core terms of sociology, assuming that they all knew what I was talking about. But clearly they didn’t. We worked on it for the rest of the class and I found that most of them understood the concept broadly (e.g. “That’s like the government or education and stuff, right?”). However, none of the students could have given me anything close to a concise definition.

Didn’t You Take Soc 101?

Being that social change is an upper division course with Intro to Sociology as a perquisite, my first impulse was to blame their 101 instructor, but then I realized that for many of these students I was their 101 teacher. My next thought was, I’m not nearly as good of a Intro to Sociology teacher as I had thought; I mean, if students don’t leave my class with this fundamental concept, haven’t I failed them? Slowly I realized the problem wasn’t in how I taught them, but rather how I was thinking about the learning process.

Teachers often suffer from what I call the lecturer’s fallacy which posits, if we talked about it in class they learned it. While I call it the lecturer’s fallacy, it also holds for teachers who do more “guide on the side” activities like student directed learning, classroom assessment techniques, and the like. Basically, it’s the idea that if you showed me you learned it yesterday you should be able to demonstrate mastery over the concept today. But, this is not how learning works.

Hearing something once or even learning something in a more hands on way one time, does not mean that mastery has been developed. I learned about red shifting, blue shifting, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in an Astronomy class as an undergrad, but I would fail a test on these subjects today. I’d also struggle to learn new concepts that built upon any or all of these concepts I had previously learned.

Students very well may have learned all of the core concepts from a Intro to Sociology Class, but they may have no idea how to apply those concepts to situations outside of the class they learned it in. If students took 101 with a different teacher than their current courses and if the language the teachers used to describe the concepts were vastly different, students may be unable to transcode lessons learned from intro into the new teacher’s framework. I could go on here, but rather than bluster on, I’ll just suggest (again) that you read more about this issue of learning and many others in How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al.

The Solution? 101 for Everyone.

Starting this semester and for the rest of my career, I’ll be spending the first few days of class reviewing and assessing students understanding of core concepts like social institutions, the sociological imagination, culture, socialization, structure & agency, and basic social theory (you can download my 101 review handout here). Some of you are likely thinking, “but aren’t you going to have to cut out important concepts from your upper division classes?” To which I’d say, yes unfortunately I will. However, I hope that by spending time on the foundation of sociology, my students will be able to learn a greater proportion of course specific concepts that remain.

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