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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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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


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.


Racism and White Privilege as Institutional Power

Below is a guest post from Dr. David Mayeda a professor at The University of Auckland and blogger at sites like The Grumpy Sociologists, The Cranky Sociologists, and SociologyInFocus.

Racism can function in a number of capacities. Yes, anyone – including people of color – can hold racial prejudices, meaning holding attitudes that stereotype those from other racialized groups. And anyone – again including people of color – can discriminate along racialized lines, meaning acting behaviorally according to racial prejudices. As an undergraduate student, I was taught in simpler terms that racial discrimination is racial prejudice put into action. So I suppose yes, ethnic minorities can enact reverse racism against Caucasians. But racism’s strength depends on its historical and contemporary context. Let’s listen to comedian Aamer Rahman explain:

Ahhh, I could watch that a thousand times over and still not be tired of it!

The power that racism carries depends on how it is embedded in institutions and whether or not racist actions carry with them institutional support. Hence, even if ethnic minorities have advanced in society and carry power, they still typically lack institutional power, and when racist actions are perpetrated against them, minorities tend to lack the institutional means to defend themselves. As Solorzano and colleagues (2002) argue, “racism is about institutional power and that People of Color in the United States have never possessed this form of power to a significant degree” (p. 24).

Returning to the story at hand, as Dr. Gibney was discussing this very concept in her class, a white male student asked, “Why do we have to talk about this in every class? Why do we have to talk about this?” And as Dr. Gibney attempted to respond, another white male student interjected, “Yeah, I don’t get this either. It’s like people are trying to say that white men are always the villains, the bad guys. Why do we have to say this?” Dr. Gibney replied, “if you’re really upset, feel free to go down to legal affairs and file a racial harassment discrimination complaint.” After the white (male) students took Dr. Gibney up on her offer, we can see the institutional aspect of this case come further into play.

In fact, following the students’ complaint it was not the credentialed and employed Dr. Gibney who was supported by her institution. Rather, it was the white students who were institutionally supported by an individual with significant power: Vice President of Academic Affairs Lois Bollman formally reprimand Gibney by stating among other things, “Your actions in [targeting] select students based on their race and gender caused them embarrassment and created a hostile learning environment.”

Despite earning advanced degrees and being accomplished enough to be hired by institutions of higher learning, ethnic minorities must first deal with students (and colleagues) who question their credibility. Dr. Gibney’s experience with students is strikingly similar to this African American faculty member’s account, documented in Patton and Catching’s 2009 article, "‘Teaching while Black’: narratives of African American student affairs faculty":

As each new cohort enters my classroom, I am prepared to present my credential and prove my credibility. But it doesn’t stop there. The students have to assess my teaching before I receive my ‘pass.’ I can’t tell you the number of times where students, especially older White men in our doctoral program, have challenged my authority in the classroom or took subtle shots at my credibility. (p. 720).

Then, when scholars of color discuss how racism operates systemically in society, they run a greater risk of being challenged by students for their alleged reverse racism. And worse yet (as was clearly the case with Dr. Gibney), those students from the dominant group are more likely to receive institutional support from their university’s management, who unsurprisingly also represent the dominant group.

Dr. Gibney, however, is not taking this sitting down. She and six colleagues plan to file an anti-discrimination lawsuit against Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Good on them. Still, in order to earn and exercise power and respect, look at all the extra work people of color are burdened with. I do not profess to understand what Dr. Gibney has experienced as an African American female academician, but as a person of color actively supporting Maori and Pacific students in Aotearoa New Zealand, I can relate. Stay strong sistah.

  1. Explain how institutionalized racism differs from interpersonal racism (racism occurring between two individuals who are of equal power).
  2. It is very difficult for many of us to believe that systemic, institutionalized racism can exist since racism is outlawed in most societies. Explain how racism operates institutionally despite being illegal.
  3. Read Nathan Palmer's take on this here. How does this case exemplify white privilege?
  4. Dr. Gibney’s struggles are happening within a context of higher education. Identify and describe an example of institutionalized racism in another sector of society.
  5. If we already have laws that outlaw racism, how might society work to eradicate institutionalized racism?
Photo via Wikicommons.

Classroom Privilege & The Case of Shannon Gibney

Three white college students file racial discrimination complaint against professor over lesson on structural racism” The Salon headline from yesterday reads like my personal nightmare. In fact, Shannon Gibney’s account of what happened in her classroom reads like what I can only guess is the personal nightmare of any educator who teaches their students to critically think about hegemonic social power.

Gibney, a professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, started a discussion on structural racism in her Intro to Mass Communications class when multiple white students complained, “Why do we have to talk about this in every class?”. Gibney gives her first hand report of what happened next in an interview below:

“You guys are taking it personally. This is not a personal attack. We’re not talking about all white people- you white people in general. We’re talking about whiteness as a system of oppression.” I’ve said almost that exact same thing to my own students. And yet I know that some of my students still do take it personally. I’ve experienced first hand students stubbornly clinging to an individual-centered understanding of the world despite my attempts to open their eyes to the social structures that all individuals operate within.

In fact, as I listened to Gibney I kept thinking, I’ve said the exact same things. I’ve been in situations like that before. Oh my god, that could be me. But… to be honest, it couldn’t.

My White Male Privilege in The Classroom

Do a Google Image search for the words college professor (or just click here) and what do you see. A lot of faces that look a lot like mine. When I walk into the room, I’m willing to bet, no one thinks, “oh god. A white guy, I wonder if he’s qualified. He must have been an Affirmative Action hire.” I’ve written about this before as have others. Regardless of what I do, I am the embodiment of authority. My credibility, authenticity, and trustworthiness are rarely if ever questioned.

When I challenge my students to critically analyze white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. no one says, “well of course you said that because you are…”. No one says I have a political agenda or an axe to grind. In fact, I often get kudos for doing it. I’m seen as a sort of selfless freedom fighter. Because of my social privilege I often am able to walk right by my students resistance, neutralize their rhetorical strategies, and be heard. It’s not because I’m a better teacher (note that some critiques of Gibney have argued she’s a poor teacher). It’s because I’m a cisgender, hetero, able-bodied, middle class, white male[1].

And now lets put some empirical meat on these anecdotal bones. Studies find that people of color are disproportionally tasked with teaching required diversity classes where challenging social privilege is more likely to happen (Alex-Assensoh 2003). A qualitative analysis of students’ comments on student evaluations of instruction found that women, especially women of color, were more likely have their authority questioned and to be seen as biased or affected by their personal politics (Perry et al. 2009; Schueths et al. 2013)[2]. This is just the tip of the empirical iceberg, but it’s clear that, like we’ve always taught our students, an individual’s social location and the social contexts they operate in affect their experiences.

What Can We Do With All of This.

First, David Mayeda on our Facebook page suggests starting a letter writing campaign in support of Gibney and I think that’s a great start. But more than anything else, let’s stop pretending that social privilege ends at the threshold of our classroom. To my fellow faculty of privilege, let us own our privileges, even if we are uncomfortable with them and even if we are attempting to subvert the systems that privilege us. Personally, I’m going to read this story and remember that I am not Shannon Gibney; in fact my experience is probably closer to the three white men who filled the complaint. And then I’m going to work from there.

References: Alex-Assensoh, Y. 2003. Race in the academy: Moving beyond diversity and toward the incorporation of faculty of color in predominantly white colleges and universities. Journal of Black Studies 34, no. 1: 5–11.

Perry, Gary, Helen Moore, Crystal Edwards, Katherine Acosta and Connie Frey. 2009. “Maintaining Credibility and Authority as an Instructor of Color in Diversity-Education Classrooms: A Qualitative Inquiry.” The Journal of Higher Education 80, no. 1: 80–105.

Schueths, April M., Tanya Gladney, Devan A. Crawford, Katherine L. Bass, and Helen A. Moore. 2013. “Passionate Pedagogy and Emotional Labor: Students’ Responses to Learning Diversity from Diverse Instructors.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 26, no. 10: 1259–1276

  1. I left out some of my privileged statuses, but I think you get the point.  ↩

  2. Full disclosure: April Schueths, the first author of this article, is the editor of SociologySource.org and also my partner.  ↩


"Aren't You Freezing?" & Relative Deprivation 

My Town's Lowly Movie Theater

“Oh my god, aren’t you freezing?” asks a young woman standing next to me in line for a movie. The movie theater is Statesboro, GA is so small the box office is between the two entrance doors. I turn toward her and see she is dressed like Randy from A Christmas Story (you know, “I can’t put my arms down!”). “No, it’s like 60 degrees.” I reply politely with a bemused look on my face. Bouncing on the balls of her feet to generate warmth, she says with bemusement equal to mine, “Okay? But it’s November and I’m freezing!”

Sitting in the movie theater, it occurred to me; this is the most approachable illustration of relative deprivation that I can think of. When it hits 60 degrees in the spring damn near every student on campus has flip flops and shorts on, but when the thermometer drops to 60 degrees in the fall it’s not uncommon to see people dressed for a blizzard. It’s the same 60 degrees, the only thing that changes is your relative assessment of how cold/warm it was just a few days ago.

Ultimately, this is a simple illustration of relativity, but from here it’s not a giant pedagogical leap to relative deprivation.

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