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.