I assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates’s award-winning book Between the World and Me to my Introduction to Sociology students during both the fall and spring semesters of this last academic year. In both classes it was the last assigned reading. The book gave me an opportunity to do a number of things:
- Build on the conceptual work we had already done by training students how to identify sociological concepts when they are presented in different language than what they are learning in the classroom
- Show how ideas we are learning about in the classroom circulate in the real world
- Provide space to reflect on racial inequality as experienced by Coates’s life story and his efforts to pass on his knowledge to his son, for whom the book is written.
- Learn a bit more about Howard’s history and help students get excited about using their time there to learn and grow (Coates attended Howard University and writes glowingly about his time there in this book)
The first time I taught the course, I had students practice identifying concepts we had learned about in the as they appeared in the book. I used a variation of this worksheet to do so. After they worked on this task in small groups, I had students read the passages aloud and describe which sociological concepts they thought each illustrated. (This led to one of my favorite moments in that class when the students broke into spontaneous applause at the conclusion of a particularly impassioned reading).
Here are the concepts they worked with:
- essentialism and anti-essentialism
- structural racism
- structure and agency
- race as neither “essence nor illusion” (from Omi and Winant)
- race vs. class
Here is one of the excerpts they analyzed (from p. 103):
It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.
The students discussed how this excerpt illustrates the concept of structural racism because of the way that the disproportionate death of black Americans at the hands of the police is not dependent on individual racist intent of any single police officer.
In the second version of the class, which was much larger, I read the excerpts aloud myself and we discussed them as a large group without the benefit of small group work first. I also showed this video of Coates speaking about his book. I thought the video would help bring the text alive and underscore that authors are real people, just like them.
Next time I teach a small version of the class, I’ll return to having the students fill out the worksheet I provide in small group, followed by large group discussions. This approach gave them the best chance to really work through the ideas and learn from how others did the same. Then I’ll consider skipping the video and instead have students read and discuss reviews of the book from a wide variety of political perspectives. I would assign at least one from the left that criticizes the book for not going far enough, perhaps written from a feminist perspective, and one from the right that sees the book as racially inflammatory in a world that is now “post-race.” This would broaden the students’ thinking about the book itself, and could also be used as an opportunity to learn about intellectual and political discourse.
Last Saturday Howard University hosted its 148th graduation ceremony. I donned my (borrowed) academic robes to celebrate our graduates and hear President Obama, our commencement speaker. I’ve shared my snapshots below to convey what it was like to attend and participate. They show: workers setting up for graduation during the last week of the semester, getting through security and onto campus on the day of the ceremony, faculty waiting for the event to begin and then processing into the the yard together, President Obama being “hooded” while he receives his honorary Ph.D., and the commencement ceremony. The last photo is of Sociology graduate Diamond Crumby showing off her awesome cap. Congratulations Diamond and the Howard class of 2016!
For the full text of President Obama’s commencement address, click here. For video, click here. And for summary and analysis, try the following:
- “President Obama Embodies Blackness, Confidence, Hope at Howard University’s 148th Commencement,” by Paul Holston, The Hilltop.
- “President Obama’s Commencement Speech, Howard University,” by Clarence B. Jones, Huffington Post.
- “Obama Gets All In His Blackness at Howard“, by Leah Donnella at Code Switch, NPR
- “Sheriff Clarke Blasts Obama’s ‘Insulting’ Commencement Speech,” Fox News Insider.
- “This Young Woman Is the Reason President Obama Stays Optimistic About America,” by Lauren Duca, Teen Vogue.
- “Obama Proves, Yet Again, That He Is Our Most Black, Feminist President to Date,” Melissa Harris-Perry, Elle.
- “Seven days, three speeches: one week in the life of having a black president,” by Steven W. Thrasher, The Guardian.
- “President Obama Calls Out Safe Space Culture. Weakly,” by Mollie Hemmingway, The Federalist.
- “Tucker Carlson Slams Obama Blackness Riff: What If Romney Said ‘Be Confident in Your Whiteness’?” by Tommy Christopher, Mediaite.
Classes are over now, but next year I plan to show the President’s commencement speech toward the end of my Introduction to Sociology class. I’ll ask the students to analyze it according to sociological concepts we’ve been learning (structure, agency, social stratification, intersectionality, theories of change, American individualism, etc.). Then I’ll have them chew on a few of the wide array of responses to his speech listed above. I like doing these sorts of activities to underscore how the concepts we are learning in the classroom get used in the political world, even if they are not always referenced by the same names. If any of you do something similar with the speech, let me know how it goes. I won’t be teaching Intro to Sociology again until next spring, so there’s plenty of time to build on your experience.
This Thursday I’m hosting a screening of Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek at Howard University. The event is open to the community so please join us if you live in the area!
Here’s the film description: “Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek follows the painful but inspiring journey of Derrick Evans, a Boston teacher who moves home to coastal Mississippi when the graves of his ancestors are bulldozed to make way for the sprawling city of Gulfport. Over the course of a decade, Derrick and his neighbors stand up to powerful corporate interests and politicians and face Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster in their struggle for self-determination and environmental justice.”
After the screening, the following speakers will help us discuss the film:
- Leslie Fields: Director of the Environmental Justice Program, Sierra Club
- Brentin Mock: Staff writer, The City Lab
- Terri Adams-Fuller: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences, Associate Dean of College of Arts and Sciences, Howard University.
The screening is timed to honor Earth Day (the next day), and also to promote Howard’s new Environmental Studies undergraduate major, which begins in the fall of 2016. Please join us!
When: Thursday April 21st, 6-8pm
Where: Screening Room West, CB Powell Building, School of Communications, Howard University
Co-sponsors: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences, School of Communications, Environmental Studies Program
Last spring I posted briefly about a new multimedia assignment in which students create their own websites that I used with my students in “The Making of California” at UC Santa Cruz. This fall, I tried it again with my “Environmental Inequality” students here at Howard University. I was, for the second time, happy with how the assignment turned out. Since several people have asked for details, I’m posting my assignment prompts and other reflections here. I will also be presenting this assignment at Howard’s first “Teaching With Technology” conference this Friday.
First, let me acknowledge how important it is to have colleagues with whom to discuss these kinds of projects! Rachel Deblinger joined UC Santa Cruz last year as a Postdoctoral Fellow through the Council on Library and Information Resources. Her presence on campus brought those of us doing work in the digital humanities and digital social sciences together for a rich exchange of ideas that prompted me to create this assignment. Rachel also made herself available for one-on-one brainstorming sessions. As a result, I abandoned an overly ambitious assignment idea that used a different website platform and ended up with this one instead, which sets students up for a successful first experience creating a website on which to post their own original research and writing. So, thank you, Rachel!
Here’s the gist of it. The assignment asks students to research and write a multimedia essay on a subject of their choice that is featured on a website of their own design. The purpose is to improve students’ content knowledge, research and writing skills while also teaching the following: 1) how to write for a public audience, 2) media literacy, and 3) basic web design. Students do not need any prior technical skills in order to successfully complete the assignment, and are given detailed prompts for small assignments throughout the semester that support step-by-step development of their projects. They also complete in-class activities designed to help them think about how to write for different audiences.
By the end of the course, the students each create a website that includes the following:
- An original essay informed by their research that incorporates relevant YouTube videos
- A curator’s statement that describes why the student chose the YouTube videos that they chose
- An annotated bibliography
- An author’s biography
- A copyright statement
- One other section of content of their own choice
Here are some of my supporting documents that you may find useful as you adapt this assignment to your own purposes:
- Sample syllabi for classes that use the assignment
- Assignment Prompts
- Why did you use Google Sites? I used Google Sites because it was the easiest website creation tool that I could find, and because at both institutions where I tried this assignment, Google already provides the student’s campus e-mail service. So, they all already have Google accounts. For my own websites, I use WordPress. It is free, open-source, and more sophisticated. However, I quickly decided that WordPress was too technically complex for what I had in mind for my students. The point of the assignment isn’t to teach technical skills so much as it is to have students practice all the usual stuff (research and writing), while also having a successful first experience sharing their writing in a website of their own creation. For those who take a liking to the experience, it may serve as a gateway into more complex website creation tools. After conversation with my tech mentor Allen Gunn at Aspiration, I also plan to incorporate a conversation with my students about the risks of relying on for-profit web infrastructure such as Google Sites next time I do this assignment, even while I plan to still use Google Sites.
- This sounds like a lot of work. How many students did you have? I used this assignment for one class of 30 and one class of 6. Though to be fair, when I taught the class of 30 I was teaching a new course for the first time, on the academic job market for the first time, and finishing my dissertation (for the first time). I taught the class of 6 was while teaching two classes (one for the first time), and getting oriented at a new academic institution. If my class size went much over 30, I would probably start requiring this project be done in pairs or small groups to cut down on the time spent grading. You could also try cutting some of the mini-assignments, such as the list of sources or the draft website with written content, though the final projects would be of lesser quality as a result.
- I don’t know anything about creating websites. Can I still use this assignment with my students? Yes, Google Sites are fairly straightforward to create, and my assignment prompts provide step-by-step instructions for how to create them. Literally, the prompts say things like “click the button shaped like a pencil in the upper-right corner of your screen.” However, you do need to be able to do the assignment yourself before you give it to your students, and to be willing to help them with any technical problems they may encounter (in my experience so far, they haven’t had many). It is also worth asking the tech support at your institution if they provide technical support to students with Google Sites, in which case you can hand off all technical questions to someone else. This has not been an option at either of the campuses where I have done the assignment.
- How do you make sure this assignment still works even as Google Sites changes? You need to set aside a half hour to an hour to do the assignment again yourself before the semester starts every time you teach the class, especially when you are teaching it in a new institution. This ensures that the instructions on your assignment prompt are up-to-date even as the technological infrastructure inevitably changes over time (think of all of Facebook’s changes on how to manage your privacy settings). Do not just take my assignment prompts and use them without test-driving them yourself and making corrections! I did almost all of the assignment with my Howard e-mail address before classes began this fall. I found out later that I had neglected one of the steps, the copyright statement, which includes directions for how to import the symbol representing the level of copyright protection the student chooses for their work. It turns out that doing this task through Howard’s Google-provided student e-mail accounts was mysteriously complicated in ways that my UC Santa Cruz students did not experience. If I had known, I would have told them to skip importing the symbol, and just to use the appropriate language without the visual cue. Oh well. I also learned through this process that Howard automatically adds the campus name and logo to Google Sites created by students with their campus e-mail addresses, whereas UC Santa Cruz did not.
- Can I see your students’ final websites? An important part of the assignment, to me, is that it prompts students to set their websites to “private” at the beginning of the class. Some of you may wonder why I do this. After all, isn’t the purpose to get students to practice writing for a public audience, and not just writing for their professor? Well, yes and no. That is the ultimate goal, but the key is that students are practicing this skill, in many cases for the first time. Setting the website visibility to “private” at the beginning of the course means that they can practice this new skill safely in private without any potential negative ramifications from the (sometimes nasty) blogosphere. It also means that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you are running afoul of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. All that said, an important part of the assignment is that it is, or at least can be, “real” beyond the classroom. So, I tell students that while the class is in session their websites need to be “private” for all the reasons above, and then after the class ends, it is their decision whether or not to change their work’s status to fully “public” or to limit access to people of their choice. Of the 36 students who have done this assignment with me to date, to my knowledge only one student has made his or her website public. You can see it here. Thanks, Jesse!
- What would you do differently next time? I’ll likely increase the length of the essay that forms the core content of each student’s site. I made it short to begin with, since I was thinking of it as a blog post. But now I might reframe it into something in between a blog post and a digital “long-form essay” instead. Will need to think about that. I also notice that students have a hard time integrating their YouTube videos into their essays – many simply plunk them in the middle of their text with no introduction or analysis. So, I might introduce a lesson in class that addresses this problem, while emphasizing the ability to segway between ideas and content as a transferable skill important to many different kinds of writing. Also, Google Sites makes formatting the annotated bibliographies and citations list difficult, so I’d like to spend some time figuring out how to make them look better and then add those directions to the relevant assignment prompt. Also, I’ll probably have students switch from using parenthetical citations in their essays (standard in my field) to endnotes (visually cleaner for public-facing work).
That’s all for now. I will undoubtedly think of more things that belong here over the next few days, as well as after Friday’s presentation at Howard’s “Teaching With Technology” Conference. I may cheat and add these things to this post later, so check back next week.
Over the last few years I’ve been involved with a multi-campus group thinking about the many different ways that the concept of sustainability is used. Under the able leadership of Miriam Greenberg, this group recently launched an collection of digital essays called Critical Sustainabilities: Competing Discourses of Urban Development in California. It features short case-studies to show how the idea of sustainability is used for competing political purposes. It also features essays about key-words that underpin sustainability debates. The project’s focus on Northern California complicates the ways in which the area is often seen as a model of sustainability efforts.
My contribution, with co-author Lindsey Dillon, analyzes efforts to create a policy mechanism by which energy created from trash could qualify for sale as renewable energy in California. This poses the strange prospect of categorizing trash as a “renewable resource.” We locate this debate in the small farmworker town of Gonzales. A proposal to locate what was alternatively called a “waste-to-energy plant” or an “incinerator-in-disguise” was recently defeated there. Though the case center on Gonzales, the broader conflict is happening nationwide. You can read our piece here.
Those of you with overlapping research interests may be interested in submitting a paper to the group’s proposed panel at the 2016 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.
Workers cover the existing landfill at the site of the proposed “waste-to-energy” facility in Gonzales.
This summer I graduated with my Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz, packed up my home, and drove across the country to Washington DC. Since August 16th I have been working as an Assistant Professor at Howard University‘s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. The department is in developing an area of expertise in environmental justice scholarship, and next year the campus will launch a major in environmental studies. So, it’s an exciting time to join Howard’s faculty. I’m also looking forward to helping to bridge the new emphasis on environmental justice with the department’s existing expertise in medical sociology through research on environmental health. I hope to continue to collaborate with environmental justice/health scholars and activists in California and also make new connections here in Washington D.C.
When I left UC Santa Cruz, the campus was in the final stages of becoming a federally designated “Hispanic Serving Institution.” In the Sociology department, about 65% of the undergraduate majors were part of the first generation to go to college in their family. I enjoyed working with first-generation college students and the campus’s growing population of undocumented students, and am proud to now work at a historically black university also committed to populations underserved by higher education.
This year I am teaching “Introduction to Sociology” and “Environmental Inequality.” Over the next few years I plan to develop new courses in “Sociology of Environmental Health” and “Sociology of Food and Agriculture.” We are in our second week of classes already and the students have been great. But, I’ll miss being able to say that my school mascot is a banana slug!
If you are in the area, drop me a line to say hello!
My new professional home – Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall.
This spring I taught a new class in the Community Studies program at UC Santa Cruz called “Making California.” Overall, the idea was to teach students about key moments in the history of California in order to help them better understand and intervene in current events. I used C. Wright Mills’s concept of the sociological imagination as a foundational theory to help students understand how individual lives are shaped by the broader historical and political context in which they exist. We also paid attention to how social movements have, in turn, helped people to change the political context in which they live. A second key theme of the course was California’s racial history and recent transition to majority people of color state. Finally, we spent a lot of time thinking about California’s role in the nation and world. This meant we read about both how the state has influenced events outside of its borders, as well as been influenced by the broader world.
For the core class assignment, students analyzed a key moment in California’s history by explaining what happened, what led to the events described, and the current relevance of those events. They were tasked with writing for a public audience, and crafting an introduction to capture a reader’s interest and draw them in to reading the rest of their essay. Students presented their work orally, and in historical order, at the end of the course. In this way we created a partial, “People’s History of California.” The written component of the assignment took the form of multi-media essays they wrote on websites of their own design (more on this assignment in my next post). This assignment was inspired by conversations with Ildi Carlisle-Cummins about how we could incorporate her new project, Cal Ag Roots, into the class. The launch event for Cal Ag Roots will involve telling the story of three key moments in the history of California agriculture. So, several of my students chose her stories as their “historical moments” to work on for the purpose of the class assignment. Their work therefore supplemented her own background research on these three key moments.
I drew on syllabi developed by Julie Guthman and Lindsey Dillon to help structure the class. See my own syllabus below.