Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates with Introduction to Sociology students

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 10.11.14 PMI 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:

  1. 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
  2. Show how ideas we are learning about in the classroom circulate in the real world
  3. 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.
  4. 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
  • intersectionality
  • structural racism
  • structure and agency
  • race as neither “essence nor illusion” (from Omi and Winant)
  • monolithic
  • 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.

Student-generated classroom content

This year I’m participating in the HASTAC Scholars program organized by Duke University and UC Irvine. It is an online forum for scholars to discuss ideas and share resources related to the intersection of the humanities, arts, sciences and technology. We are organized into working groups and posting on various HASTAC blogs and online forums.

One of the HASTAC groups has created the “Pedagogy Project,” which will be publicized by the  #FutureEd folks. They are organizing a collection of blog posts on teaching and the HASTAC Scholars have all been invited to contribute material. So, here’s my contribution!

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I try to find way to incorporate student-generated content into my classes whenever possible. The idea is to improve student learning by creating an environment that encourages them to be active learners who see their own lives and interests reflected in class content.

There are a wide variety of ways to approach this, from your standard student-presentations on independent research projects to fully democratized student-led courses.  Over the last few years, I’ve been experimenting with techniques in the middle of the spectrum that incorporate student generated content but still give me room to “curate” their ideas.

Different classes require different kinds of models for incorporating student ideas. I’ve listed some of what I’ve been doing below. These are all specific to student-generated classroom content. They do not cover ways to increase student participation in classroom processes such as grading, assignment design, peer-review of papers, or discussion.

CLASSICAL & CONTEMPORARY SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY: Theory courses are challenging. They assign dense, abstract readings that most students struggle to understand. In these courses, I assigned students the task of supplying me with a constant stream of media sources related to the class content. The idea was to 1) give students a formal way to practice applying sociological theory to the world around them by asking them to choose and submit a media item that exemplifies that week’s theories, and 2) to help me generate interesting, relevant classroom content that speaks to their age group.

Students sign up to submit a media piece once during the quarter. For pedagogical purposes it would be great to have them do it more often, but to keep my grading manageable I limited it to one piece per student. This means that when I sit down to put together my lesson plans at the beginning of the week, I have 5-8 one page papers that I can skim for ideas. Each mini-paper presents a media item, describes the strengths and weaknesses of using that week’s key theory to analyze it, and suggests how to use the media item in class. This has resulted in classes in which we use The Simpsons to help students understand Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation or alienation; news coverage of a police surveillance tower at an Occupy rally to understand Foucault’s idea of the panopticon; and YouTube “haul videos” to understand Herbert Marcuse’s critique of consumer society.

When we analyze the media items, I push students not only to think about what aspects of the piece fit the theory in question, but also to think about the ways the theory does not fit the media piece. This helps the students learn to assess the limits and potential weaknesses of each theory, which is usually challenging for them.

You can see the details of the assignment, as well as what was generated from it in both classes here and here.

WOMEN & WORK: I have two small extra-credit assignments designed to help me incorporate student-generated content in this class. Students can sign up to submit a song and/or a news item with a one page mini-paper that describes how it relates to the key concepts in that week’s readings. When I am putting together my lesson plans at the beginning of the week, I read that week’s mini-papers and select one song and one news item to share at the beginning of each class. The song plays as students are coming in to class and getting settled, while the news items are shared after class has begun.

Playing songs as students are coming in has a number of benefits. First, it makes it easier to start class on time with little disruption from late or chatty students. Students arrive earlier than usual so as not to miss the song, and when it ends they are quiet and ready to start class. Second, it gives us a fun way to expand the reach of our reading beyond the classroom and out into the pop culture in which they are immersed in day-to-day life. Third, having them help choose the songs means that the songs are much more current than they would be if I picked them all myself. For example, we’ve screened the 2005 song suggested by a student for our day on sex work I’m ‘n Luv (Wit a Stripper), as well as my own contribution from 1971, Gonna Be an Engineer. After the song finishes, the person who proposed using it says a few words about why s/he chose it. Then, we might have a brief class discussion about the song and/or refer back to it for more analysis later in the class.

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In all of these assignments, I make the final decisions about what student ideas to share with the rest of the class. This helps me do quality control to ensure that the only media pieces, songs or news items shared with the entire class are a close fit for that week’s content and will aid, not hinder, student understanding. When some of the unchosen items are a also a good fit for the class content, I often briefly reference them at the beginning of the class without making them a focal point of the class session. This gives the students a sense of how widely the theories in question can be applied, and helps bring our readings alive.

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…

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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):

http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/t0brk3/chappelle-s-show-when-keeping-it-real-goes-wrong—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?