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?

Teaching contemporary sociological theory through the media

Last quarter I worked as a teaching assistant for my advisor Andy Szasz’s class on Contemporary Sociological Theory. This means that I attended lectures, graded student work, and led two break-out classes of 30 students each. Like the time I taught classical theory, I assigned the students the task of supplying me with a constant stream of media sources related to the class content.  You can see the text of the assignment below, and read descriptions of how I used some of their media pieces in class below that.

Assignment

Each of you are responsible for turning in a short media assignment once during the quarter.  We will sign up for due dates on the first day of section. You are tasked with finding a news article, short video (10 min. max), cartoon, photo collection or other piece of media relevant to our readings that will help the rest of the students relate what we are reading to current events, or to help them understand the theory better in its historical context. These assignments will be due on Friday.  You should choose a media piece that helps illustrate a sociological theory from the reading due for the Monday and Wednesday lectures of the same week. I will review your assignments over the weekend and use them to help plan our discussion sections for the following week. 

After you choose your media piece, write a 1 page, type-written essay that includes the following:

  • Short summary of the media item.
  • Description of what sociological theory your media piece relates to, and how it relates to that theory.
  • The strengths and limitations of your selected media piece for understanding the sociological theory in question.
  • A description of how you suggest using this media item in section in order to help the other students better understand the sociological theory discussed in your paper.

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Marx

  • Ice-breaker activity: Share Squares.
  • I used the Simpsons and The Meatrix video to discuss Marx – read about how here.

The Frankfurt School, part 1

The Frankfurt School, part 2a: The Culture Industry

  • I used Wall-E and Disneyland’s “Carousel of Progress” to explain the culture industry in section, check it out here.
  • And here’s the worksheet.

The Frankfurt School 2b, Consumer Society

  • See my post on how I used a sample “haul video” in section here.

Structuralism

  • I used a video of a rapping toddler and a comedy sketch to help explain structuralism, read about it here.  The comedy video also applies to some of Goffman and Garfinkle.

Goffman and Garfinkle

Poststructuralism

  • See my post on using Pink Floyd to help students understand Foucault here.

Postmodernism and review

  • I had this advertisement for Yas Island in Abu Dhabi playing as the students came into class and got settled.
  • After we briefly discussed postmodernism and how it relates to the video above, I had the students work through this worksheet to begin to review the key ideas of the different theoretical perspectives covered in this course.

Pink Floyd and Michel Foucault: A match made in heaven

Last week I covered excerpts from “Discipline and Punish” by Michel Foucault with my students in Contemporary Sociological Theory. We spent most of the class reviewing the concepts in small groups with the help of this worksheet.  We focused in particular on how institutions like monasteries, boarding schools and prisons train people to become highly disciplined “docile bodies,” and the implications of this phenomenon for society. Towards the end of class, we watched Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” video.  See if you can find examples in it of what Foucault would have called “disciplinary technologies!”

(Hint: look for micro-penalities, separation, detailed prescription, aggregation, hierarchical observation, normalizing judgement…)

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.

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:

Notes:

  • 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.