The view from faculty seating – HU Commencement with President Obama

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!

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For the full text of President Obama’s commencement address, click here. For video, click here. And for summary and analysis, try the following:

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.

Film Screening and Discussion

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


Valentine’s Day and Fossil Fuels

If you’ve ever been to a workshop on how to write an op-ed, you’ll know that the leaders spend a lot of time talking about the need for your piece to have a “hook.” This usually means finding a way to link what you want to say to some kind of timely news event. Most of these are fairly straightforward. On Mother’s Day, you publish your op-ed about the need for state-sponsored maternity leave. On Valentine’s Day, you write about worker abuses and pesticide poisoning in the international cut-flower industry. Or, for another Valentine’s Day idea, you write about fossil fuels.

Wait, what? How do fossil fuels go together with Valentine’s Day? Well, watch “Breaking Up With Fossil Fuels is Hard to Do” for an example of a masterful, if somewhat unexpected, media “hook.”



Then, use it in your classrooms!

  • For media studies classes, use it as an example of a media “hook,” as described above. Or use it after showing this video first. Then use both videos to analyze framing, strategic political communication, and how political actors respond to the messages of their opponents.
  • For environmental studies, social movements, or politics classes, use the video above and this video as a way to get students interested in the politics of climate change. Both videos tell simplified, politicized stories. What truth is there in both videos? What are the the different plans that already exist for lowering our use of fossil fuels? What political forces oppose these plans? How likely are the plans to succeed in the contemporary political moment? What would it take for them to succeed?
  • For gender classes, watch the first video and ask students, “How is gender being used in this vide? What does it mean that the “fossil fuels” character is female? That the narrator is female? That the story is tied to Valentine’s Day and breaking up? What stereotypes about women are being used to help make the point that we shouldn’t “Break up with fossil fuels?”

Thank you to Jean Boucher and Milton Takei for sharing these videos on the environmental sociology listserve of the American Sociological Association. Happy teaching!

New digital project in honor of Teresa De Anda

Today I released a new digital project to honor the memory of California pesticides activist Teresa De Anda, and to help educate the public about the problem of pesticide drift. In Her Own Words is an expansion of the blog post I wrote the day before Teresa’s memorial service last fall. It includes photography, new and previously published oral history, suggestions for readings to use with the website in college classrooms, links to resources to help address the problem of pesticide drift in community settings, and a short essay I wrote about Teresa.

Thank you, Valerie Gorospe, for allowing me to continue to work with your mother’s stories, and to share them with others so they might learn from everything she accomplished. Thank you also for your support Linda MacKay, Lauren Richter, Tracey Brieger, Sarah Aird, Tracey Osborne, Rachel Deblinger, Zoe Stricker and Evelyn Torres Arellano.

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With Teresa, in front of a photo I took of her, at an exhibit of my photography in Fresno. February 10, 2011.

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.

Rapping toddlers, inappropriate grandparents, and early structuralism

In my discussion sections for Contemporary Sociological Theory, we recently reviewed early structuralism and the work of Ferdinand de Sassure and Claude Levi-Strauss. The students had already been over this content in lecture with the course instructor, Andy Szasz, so my task was to give them an opportunity to review the material, ask questions about things that confused them, and practice using the key concepts. As I’ve been doing much of this quarter, I used video clips submitted by my students as part of their section assignment to accomplish all of these goals.

I should note a few things.  The week before we had already done an in-depth review of Sassure, focusing in particular on his concepts of the “signifier” and the “signified.”  We had used this cartoon, also submitted by a student,to distinguish between the two (I pointed out that the signifier of the Cherokee language is visible in the cartoon, but because none of us speak Cherokee, we could not understand the signified, or meaning, of that text).  We discussed how other theorists later used Sassure’s work in linguistics as the basis for a body of theory that places great emphasis on the cultural structures (rules/norms/patterns…) that shape social life. We discussed how the language you learn as a child depends on what culture (or cultures) in which you grow up. Then we reviewed how other aspects of our lives are also shaped by larger cultural “structures” over which individuals usually have little control.

After watching the video below, the students divided into small groups and worked through the Sassure section of the day’s worksheet, which tasked them with writing down sentences about the video that used key words/concepts from the reading.  They also had to find a quote from the reading that applied to the video. I got the idea for using this video from The Sociological Cinema.

As it turned out, many of the students had a hard time applying Sassure to the video. I think adding song and movement to regular speech adds a lot of layers of complexity (not present in the cartoon we used the week before) that made the clip harder to analyze.  Some of the students got a bit confused when the conversation veered towards whether the child’s babbling speech is the signifier (in which case the signified is unknown to the audience because he has not yet mastered English) or whether his entire performance is the signifier (in which case the signified could be seen as successfully conveying the act of rapping).  Another student was stumped on whether  or not the child had a specific meaning/signified he was trying, but failing, to convey. These were all good questions that some of the students were able to follow and respond to, but other students got increasingly confused as the conversation went on. If I use this clip again I’ll have to think about how to better support the discussion.

Next, we worked on Levi-Strauss’s theory of kinship rules as an example of another kind of cultural structure that shapes people’s lives and social interactions.  I showed the video below and had the students fill out the relevant section of the day’s worksheet. The video shows an actor entering into a scene unknown to him. He has been dressed up to look like an old man but otherwise has no information about his character nor  about the characters played by the other actors. The other actors have all been given a loose script to work with ahead of time.  Because the Sassure conversation took longer than I was expecting, we had less time to discuss this video, but I think analyzing it through Levi-Strauss’s work was a fairly straightforward experience for most of the students.

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