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
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!  ↩

Wednesday
Feb192014

"MI MEDIA NARANJA", My Other Half of the Orange

This blog post is from SociologySource.org's co-founder and editor April Schueths. It originally appeared on César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández's crImmigration blog and he graciously allowed us to crosspost it here.

“I feel like I’ve changed her life… I feel like I’ve screwed her life up,” Joel laments head in hands, fighting back the tears. Joel, a Mexican immigrant who is undocumented, is facing at least a ten year unlawful presence ban from the U.S. He planned on staying in the U.S. for just a few years to earn some money, but then he met Alyssa, “She’s my right hand, mi media naranja” (my other orange half or soul mate).

When Alyssa, a U.S. citizen, married Joel over ten years ago, they gave little thought to federal laws. They were both musicians and met in their church choir. Even though they were from two different countries they both grew up in small, rural communities and had shared values of faith, family and hard work. They married and had a baby. They lived the American Dream of home ownership and have another baby on the way.

They were told by their attorney to wait for immigration reform, as there is virtually no hope for their family to adjust Joel’s legal status under the current immigration policies. His only other option for adjustment of status was to return to Mexico for at least10 years.

“Where are my rights, my child’s rights as a U.S. citizen? I don’t think any American citizen should be separated from their spouse for this. We can’t even pay a fine.” Alyssa voices her frustration passionately.

Their reality shatters the popular myth that marriage to a U.S. citizen is a direct and easy pathway to citizenship. Alyssa’s experience, and the experience of tens of thousands of other U.S. citizens, supports the position that the full rights and benefits of citizenship are not extended equally to all Americans. Alyssa’s story demands that we reevaluate the assumed benefits of U.S. citizenship in mixed-status marriage.

Alyssa and Joel’s story and the stories of other mixed-status couples are rarely mentioned, especially the ways in which citizen spouses too become marginalized. During the last eight years I’ve talked with many mixed-status couples and U.S. citizen spouses consistently discuss several challenges.

Experiences of Marginalization

Nearly everyone the couple encounters, who knows about their immigration situation, says something along the lines of, “but you’re married, I don’t understand why you’re having all of these immigration problems.” Most people don’t realize that since 1996 that stereotypical “Green Card” marriages for undocumented spouses, especially those with extended unlawful presence in the U.S. or multiple entries, have become relatively outdated. In those situations, marriage alone cannot help someone without documentation adjust his/her legal status. As Abby, a U.S. citizen spouse said, “Nobody gets what it’s like.”

U.S. citizen spouses report that they’ve lost numerous benefits and rights. Here are just a few of the more common issues discussed. Because most employers require a spouse’s social security number to access benefits, citizen spouses aren’t usually able to share their employment benefits with their undocumented spouses. This is important as most undocumented immigrants do not have their own health insurance or a job that provides employer-based insurance. In some cases, couples have trouble even getting a marriage license. Couples report having to figure out which city or county will marry them without a social security number. U.S. citizens that would normally qualify for Earned Income Tax Credit are not eligible if their spouse has an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). This was also the case in 2008 when the federal government sent economic stimulus payments to eligible families. Citizen spouses have even had trouble getting car insurance in their own names. Additionally, couples face restrictions and risks on travel. Most undocumented spouses don’t have a valid driver’s license, but some drive out of necessity (e.g., work, family obligations, etc.). Mixed-status couples cannot fly anywhere together and certainly cannot leave the U.S. together—at least not if they plan to return together.

These citizens feel betrayed by their country when their rights are taken from them.

Mixed-status couples including U.S. citizens experience tremendous distress. They can live a clandestine life in the U.S. but face chronic distress and fear that the rug will be pulled out from underneath them at any moment by falling into immigration detention or deportation proceedings. This is especially true for families that include immigrants of color living in anti-immigrant communities. And this doesn’t even consider the compounded stress and oppression experienced by same-sex couples who are also mixed-status. For many couples, every time they say goodbye they know it could be their last. Even for families that haven’t had a family member detained or deported, most of them know families who have experienced this trauma.

When a spouse has been deported (although some families are pushed out and leave on their own as the stress of living without legal status becomes too stressful), the family may relocate to that spouse's country of origin or in a few cases, an entirely different country. For the most part, undocumented immigrants are migrating from developing nations, with few job prospects. Therefore, exiled families often see their incomes reduced dramatically. Access to quality education, healthcare, and concerns regarding public safety are often mentioned. The final option, and also the least desirable, is to live separate from a spouse and/or children in two different countries. For couples dealing with medical and economic issues, this becomes their difficult reality.

American families are having their families terrorized by U.S. immigration policies. No human is illegal, no family should live in fear, and every citizen should get to be with their other half of the orange.

How can I help? Get involved with groups like American Families United, an advocacy group for mixed-status couples.

Related Publications

April M. Schueths, Ph.D., LCSW is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia Southern University. Within the broad area of social stratification her research focuses on the intersection of race/ethnicity with social structures including family, education, and health. She has peer-reviewed articles published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Latino Studies, Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, and Teaching in Higher Education. She is the co-founder and editor of www.SociologySource.org, a site dedicated to sharing resources and ideas for teaching sociology. You can learn more about April at her website, www.aprilschueths.com. Editor’s Note: All names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Monday
Feb172014

Make Writing Easier For Your Students

Writing is hard. Actually pushing the keys on the keyboard is easy, but getting your butt in the chair is hard. For most people writing is second only to public speaking on their list of things they’d rather not do.

The secret to writing is starting. If you start writing early enough and thus give yourself plenty of time to work through your writing process, you are way more likely to write something you can be proud of. However, despite imparting this wisdom on my students I can tell that they wait until the absolute last minute to write my papers.

Before we lament “students these days!”, let’s think about why students procrastinate on writing papers. For many, they are just simply too busy with a full class schedule, work/family obligations, and their campus clubs/activities. There is little we can do about this first issue.

Even students with ample free time procrastinate on writing papers and this I blame on fear. They are afraid that they will bomb the paper. They are afraid they won’t know what to do and they’ll have to stare into the abyss of the blank white Word document screen. Their fear tells them that anything they write will probably suck, so what’s the point? Yes, they are afraid and that’s why they wait until the last minute.

They wait until something they are more afraid of shows up. The big fear is that they have waited too long and now they are certain to fail this paper which certainly means they will fail the class or worse (!) fail out of school all together. Gripped with the big fear their former anxiety seems small and they sprint as fast as they can to complete the paper at hand. As my friend says, no one thinks of their sprained ankle while they’re running for their lives.

How To Get Your students to Start Writing Earlier?

Make them start right now. Hand out the directions to your class paper and then give them 10 minutes to free write their ideas or draft an outline.

Last week I gave my students directions for their first paper in my Social Change class. After handing out the directions, I asked them to draft a three bullet outline right on the back of their directions. Then I asked them to circle on the directions the aspect of the paper they felt they were least prepared to write about. This week in class the first 10 minutes of class my students will do a free writing activity for each of the main components of the paper. The paper isn’t due until 2/28, but after this week they will have drafted notes, outlines, and scraps of writing that can be used in their paper. No one will have to start with a blank page.

Lower the on-ramp to the writing process by having your students start before they can even think of procrastinating. If you believe me that the hardest part of writing is the starting, then have your students start the writing process immediately.

Wednesday
Feb052014

Moving the Race Conversation Forward

Sometimes it’s not what is said, but what isn’t. Research done by Race Forward shows that when the media talks about issues of race and racism, they do not discuss the systemic aspects of the issue. Most often when the discussion turns to issues like incarceration rates, youth unemployment, immigration, etc., the news presents only an individual level analysis. Without the context of systemic racism, the viewer is left to draw conclusions about the individual. Personal responsibility and accountability are some of the only tools left in the toolbox when we myopically focus on the individual.

Jay Smooth explains it all in the video above far better than I could here. You should read Race Forward’s full report and do yourself a favor and subscribe to Jay Smooth’s YouTube Channel.

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