The buddy system: The best thing I learned in preschool

Another old post rescued from my “drafts” folder that stands the test of time.


My sister and her family used to live in Amish country in Western Pennsylvania.  When I visited I was impressed by the prosperous looking farms and the teams of horses out plowing the fields.  On one visit, my brother-in-law pointed out a nice home as we drove by it.  He told me the original house had recently burned down, tragically killing several of the family’s children in the fire.  My brother-in-law drove that road regularly and watched as the Amish community came together to rebuild the house – finishing it within a matter of weeks.

I’ve often thought it would be nice to feel the strong sense of community support that seems to be a part of some religions. But I turned down my own opportunity to join a church when I was a teenager, and am not likely to change my mind now. In my own small, secular ways I try to create other kinds of support systems.  They’re not romantic, and often involve making dates to do things with others that I might not do alone.  I definitely wouldn’t have spent last Friday afternoon working on the paper for my upcoming qualifying exam, or going to the gym after that, without having a standing date with my writing buddy and another with my gym buddy!

Every now and then I also miss the sense of shared purpose that can come from having a job that actually involves people all working on the same project.  Academics are mostly doing their own thing, and PhD students are certainly not allowed to co-author their dissertations.

Here’s some of what I’ve already tried and found helpful:

  • Weekly writing dates – in groups or pairs (just to write, not to workshop our writing)
  • Grading get-togethers – for moral support!
  • Exercise buddies – mostly gym time and walks
  • Soup exchanges – everyone makes a soup at home, divvies it up into containers, and gets together to trade soups so we can stock our freezers with a variety of yummy homemade soups! I try to do this each winter.
  • Friday lunch dates at the college cafeteria – thanks Bernie!
  • Project buddies – I finished my master’s thesis with the help of weekly phone meetings with two other friends working on their own theses, and did the early stages of work for my qualifying exam supported by regular coffee meetings with another fellow student (thanks Brandi!). I both cases we didn’t read each other’s work or talk about the content of our projects, but used the time to set goals, troubleshoot, and get moral support.
  • Brainstorming buddies – I have found that most of my academic advisors tend not to be productive people to brainstorm with. They’re much more useful at providing constructive criticism on ideas that are already fairly concrete. But concrete ideas are necessarily preceded by the messier work of making sense of fuzzy thoughts, general interests, and gut feelings, which for me needs to be done in a criticism-free environment, constructive or otherwise. Hence, one fellow student and I have periodically gotten together for brainstorming sessions related to our work. This usually involves big sheets of butcher paper, markers,  lots of post-its, and lots of encouragement. : )
  • Future projects partner – all of the ideas above can be done with people who have a wide variety of research interests. In addition, I have one friend whose research interests are very closely aligned with my own, and we have a shared google doc with a ever-expanding wish-list of future research and writing projects to do together. Now, it may be a long time before we get to any of them. I’m diving into my own intensive dissertation research, and my friend is wrapping up research for a post-doc at the same time that she begins a new teaching job. Still, having this running list gives me a place to cultivate the pleasure of dreaming up new projects; provides a sense of myself as a career academic who will get to work on a wide variety of projects over time, even though my dissertation currently seems interminable; and helps me trust that the future that will allow more collaborative work than my current status as a Ph.D. candidate.
I’ve heard of others who get together to do their house-cleaning in groups, taking turns with whose house they focus on, but I’ve never tried it. I also keep thinking it would be fun to do a monthly “cook for the freezer” day with a friend. You know what they say, many hands make light work! Or, at least, work that is more fun.

Speed-dating, Dave Chappelle, and the limitations of structuralism

Oops! Discovered this post written during the winter quarter in my “drafts” folder and am publishing it now…


Last week in discussion section for Contemporary Sociological Theory I covered Harold GarfinkelErving Goffman, and the limitations of structuralism.

To review Garfinkel and Goffman, I played the speed-dating video below (suggested by one of my students), and had the students analyze it in small groups with this worksheet.

In a nutshell, we discussed how the video provides a good example of the unstated rules of interaction described by Garfinkel and Goffman (who were lumped together with the French Structuralists by the course instructor, Andy Szasz). Both people clearly come to the interaction with shared expectations for what happens on a speed-date, and successfully managed taking turns in conversation, flirting, and the other sorts of things meant to happen in this particular situational template.

Then, we watched the following Dave Chappelle video, “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong” (the office scene with Vernon Franklin – also suggested by a student):—vernon-franklin

Here the students were able to see the consequences of breaking social rules of interaction (Dave Chappelle’s character gets fired after a workplace outburst), and also discuss the limitations of the structuralist paradigm.  To help them with this latter task, I asked the following kinds of questions as I visited their small groups:

  • Does it seem like everyone in the group came to the meeting with shared expectations about what would happen there?
  • Does “give me some skin” seem to mean the same thing to Dave Chappelle’s character as it does to his mentor?
  • What emotion does Goffman tell us that people usually feel after they break social rules or lose face? Does Dave Chappelle’s character appear to be feeling this emotion?  What does he appear to be feeling?  Why?
  • Is there value in breaking with expected rules of social interaction?

Link roundup: Resources for teaching environmental justice

I’ve come across a variety of intriguing online resources in past months that I keep meaning to write-up into a variety of teaching tools. But time is short so instead I’m posting them all here, with a few short ideas on how they might be used in the classroom. Happy teaching!

Race and the outdoors

  • Stuff white people like: camping A tongue-in-cheek send-up of camping, camping culture, and the disproportionate participation of white people in camping. Could be a great way to stimulate classroom conversation about outdoor activities and race. I could see reading the post aloud and asking the following kinds of questions to get the conversation rolling: How many of you like camping?  How many of you don’t? Does this post ring true to your experience of camping or not camping? Does this post seem like an accurate representation of camping? Does this post seem like an accurate representation of who camps? Why do you think white people are the dominant participants in so many recreational activities in the outdoors?
  • Diversity and the outdoors – google hangout with Allison Chin (Sierra Club), Audrey Peterman (Legacy On the Land), Javier Sierra (Sierra Club en Español), Juan Martinez (Children and Nature Network), Rue Mapp (Outdoor Afro) and Rusty White (surfer). People of color outdoor-leaders discuss how they got interested in the outdoors and how to get more people to join them. This video would be a good follow-up to the “Stuff white people like” blog post described above because it contradicts it in some ways. You could ask students to consider how the leaders featured in the google hangout might respond to the “stuff white people like” blog post.  Would they agree or disagree with its content?
  • America’s forgotten black cowboys This article could help students question racialized narratives of the American West, as well as to consider the historical experiences of people of color in the American outdoors.

Race, Nation, and Agriculture: The “God Made a Farmer” Videos 

I could imagine showing the first video without any introduction and asking the following questions at the end of it:  Did you notice anything odd about this video?  Was anything missing? If the students can’t think of anything, show the second video and ask them the question again. The point would be to launch into a discussion of the video’s startling use of white people to represent farming in America, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of people working in this industry are Latino. This could be a fruitful jumping off point for discussion about framing, narrative, representation, race, the history of farming in America, or any number of other juicy topics. Be sure to discuss what the difference between a “farmer” and a “farmworker” is. Child labor could make for an interesting and relevant topic for a follow-up conversation too.


Other data sources. See this activity for ideas on how they could be used.


I’m not sure how I would use these in the college classroom, but wanted to post them here for future reference.

Consumer society and “haul videos”

Have you ever heard of “haul videos?” I hadn’t until one of my  Contemporary Sociological Theory students recently turned one in as part of an assignment.  As described in this New York Times article, haul videos depict people showing-off recent purchases, or hauls, and posting the resulting videos on YouTube to share with others. It was a perfect fit for our topic that week: Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 critique of consumer society in One Dimensional Man. Here’s what we did in class:


  • I had the video below playing as students got to class, and then showed the beginning of it again during class.
  • I used this worksheet to guide the student work and class discussion.

First, we worked  through these big picture questions individually for a few minutes:

  1. What is the historical context in which Marcuse wrote this book?
  2. What is Marcuse’s main argument?
  3. How does his argument relate to Marx?  To other Frankfurt School theorists?

After reviewing this questions as a group, we looked at this advertisement and then watched the beginning of the haul-video below (most of them had already seen the later content, which gets repetitive, as they arrived in class). After they saw the video projected onto the screen in full-screen mode, I exited full-screen and drew their attention to how many people have seen the video before (779,798!), and was pleased to hear little gasps go up around the room. : )

In small groups, I had the students use Marcuse’s ideas to analyze the video and the ad. They also found quotes in the text that related to the media pieces, and discussed to what extent Marcuse’s 1964 critique still applies today. Finally, we discussed everything as one large group.

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


Day at the newest UC

I spent yesterday visiting UC Merced – the state’s newest University of California campus, and the first in the San Joaquin Valley.  It’s small but quite impressive!  They have about 5,000 students, mostly undergraduates, and will grow into a larger university over time.  Here are a few shots of their modern buildings and grounds.  (The buildings are all LEED certified.  Check out the reflective panes attached to the walls of the library to reduce cooling costs, and the gravel parking spots that reduce runoff.)