Below is a guest post from Nathan Palmer, creator of www.SociologySource.com a site focused on spreading ideas and resources for teaching sociology.
Want to teach your students about norms, deviance, and the social construction of reality in a way that they’ll never forget? Try Doing Nothing, literally. Have your students silently stand in a public place for 15 minutes with absolutely no expression on their face. If anyone approaches them they are to reply to any and all questions by saying, “I am doing nothing.”
Students laugh when they hear the directions. Anxiety washes over them as they take their places. They struggle to contain nervous laughter and their fight or flight instinct that is screaming RUN in their head. All of a sudden those abstract concepts, deviance, norms, stigma, all become uncomfortably real. Students learn with their own two eyes how people react to non-conformers- to deviants. This is lived sociology.
Doing Nothing is not my own idea. Karen Bettez Halnon (2001) in Teaching Sociology outlined how she had her students individually do nothing in a public place for 30, of what I assume must have been excruciating, minutes. All I’ve done here is tweak her idea and amplify it to an extreme.
I figured if I have a class of 262 students why not put it to use. One person doing nothing is strange, but 262 students doing nothing is a sight to behold. Also, doing the activity as a class allowed me to verify* it was carried out and that students safety** was maintained.
Despite sociology being inherently social, it is surprising how rarely we use the public in the instruction of sociological concepts. I am most proud of how interactive I was able to make this learning experience. Students learned by doing (and at a grand scale).
Now, with our YouTube video, the students and I are trying to teach as many people as possible the sociological lessons we learned yesterday. My hope is that my students will see how their actions started a small social movement and created change and learning in others. I plan on using this as an example of how they can change the world around them. If you teach for social justice, if you hope to inspire your students to do more than just memorize some facts for a test, then we have to find ways to role model, or better yet provide a platform for, creating social change in our communities.
If you’re going to do anything with 262 people you’re going to need help and a lot of planning ahead. I recruited 11 student volunteers to help me with maintaining safety and crowd control. I created a handout to communicate to the volunteers what their responsibilities were (download it here).
I also created a set of concise and explicit lecture slides that visually explained the directions for the activity (see below | Download them here). Note that students were required to participate, but not to be video recorded. Students had the option to do the activity in another location away from cameras, but none of my 262 students chose not to participate (which was a delightful surprise). Students who were going to be recorded had to sign an image release and consent form.
*Break a norm in public. That is arguably the oldest sociology activity in the book. Problem is, most students don’t actually do it; opting instead to write the paper based on what they imagine the experience would be like. When this happens your break-a-norm activity turns into a short fiction assignment. Doing Nothing as an entire class allows you to verify students had the experience.
**As Bettez Halnon mentions in her Teaching Sociology article, students are left vulnerable in a public place if you ask them to do this activity alone. Every time I have done this activity I have found that passersby will try to coax a response out of students by touching them in some way. Typically this is a simple poking on the nose or lifting up an arm and then letting it fall, but I’ve seen students attempt to pull on students coats and backpacks. I absolutely would not do this activity without supervising the event myself. Along these same lines, I also instruct my students that if at any moment they feel unsafe in anyway they are to discontinue the activity and return to the classroom.
Bettez Halnon, Karen. 2001. “The Sociology of Doing Nothing: A Model “Adopt a Stigma in a Public Place” Exercise.” Teaching Sociology 29(4) Pp:423-38.