Teaching classical sociological theory through the media

Each quarter I try structuring my classes differently so that I can experiment with a variety of teaching styles. This quarter I worked as a teaching assistant for my department’s “Classical Sociological Theory” class, which covers changes in European and U.S society that occurred during and after the Industrial Revolution.  I required each student to sign up for one week in which to turn in a relevant media piece and an accompanying one-page essay.  Here are the instructions I gave them:

Each of you are responsible for finding a news article, short video, cartoon, photo collection or other piece of media relevant to our readings once during the quarter. Your assignment is to select a media piece (10 min. max) that will help the rest of the students relate what we are reading about to current events, or help them understand one of the week’s theories better in its historical context.  E-mail me a link to this item the Friday before discussion section, along with a one page type-written paper describing how you suggest using the item in class and what its strengths and limitations are for understanding the relevant theory. 

I really liked this assignment.  I designed it primarily to give me ideas to use as a starting place for what to do in class each week, but it has educational value for the students too.  Each week I had between 5-8 one-page papers to skim for ideas.  I didn’t always end up using something that the students suggested, but they always got my mind moving in the right direction.

Sometimes I organized the entire class around one or more media pieces, and other times they played much more marginal roles.  I used them in a variety of ways:

  • showed the media piece and asked the students to identify which theory it best illustrated
  • showed the media piece and asked the students what a particular theorist would think of the events depicted
  • prepared an ungraded quiz in which the students first watched a series of media clips, then individually responded to written questions that asked them to identify which theory the clips best illustrate
  • played the clips while the students came into class or while I took attendance to set the tone for class
  • showed clips to give students a sense of the historical context in which a particular theorist lived

When everything works well, the media pieces help make theory less abstract and more memorable, help students relate to theory by showing its relevance to current events, and test the boundaries of student understanding of theory by asking them to apply it in a new context and identify what parts of the theory fit and what don’t.

Next time I use this approach, I’d like to spend more time discussing the limitations of using the theory in question to interpret the media piece.  I expect this would help the students understand the theories in a more nuanced way, but I often ran out of time to do it.

Mini media library

Here are my favorite pieces. Some of these were submitted by students, some I found myself, and some are from other teaching assistants and faculty.  I did not use all of them in class.





  • Mechanical society: Baraka clip

The enlightenment and the counter-enlightenment


3 thoughts on “Teaching classical sociological theory through the media

  1. Pingback: Teaching Contemporary Sociological Theory Through the Media | The Long Haul

  2. Pingback: Student-generated classroom content | Tracy Perkins

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