two teaching things

Following up on Jessica’s post, I’ll report an exploratory assignment that worked surprisingly well for introducing students quickly to the diversity of sociological topics and a classic class discussion topic (suicide) that worked well but had a worrisome angle.  Neither is the “blow you away this was awesome” reaction of Jessica’s experience, but either or both might promote useful exchanges about teaching.

What worked really well

Background:I’m teaching honors introduction to sociology to a crew of mostly freshmen who are mostly non-majors. (They take it because it is an honors com-b course.) One of the goals of this course is to convert good students to sociology. They have to choose a topic for a major research paper and a second goal is to expose them quickly to a broad range of sociology so they can have a wider conception of things that they might do papers about in time to choose a topic and get to work on it. One assignment is for each student to interview one or two professors and report to the class next week about their research. This has the goal of getting them to meet faculty as well as of exposing all students to short descriptions of faculty research. This went pretty well last term; this term’s reports are next week.

The new idea I had that worked surprisingly well as an ungraded exercise was to have them scan abstracts of ASR and AJS. I gave them specific instructions about how to bring a long list of abstracts up in SocIndex. The assignment was to scan at least 30 abstracts and to slow down and read the ones that looked interesting. They were to summarize at least three abstracts that looked interesting and write about the whole experience. I also gave instructions for how to look up other journals in specialty areas (giving them a list of titles) and how to look up particular key words. Their feedback indicated this exercise worked: they quickly saw a breadth of sociology that they would not get from just what I talk about, and each student found different kinds of articles interesting. It remains to be seen whether this helps broaden their ideas of paper topics.

What worked well but with a pretty serious caveat

A lot of on-line resources about teaching introductory sociology mention using suicide as an opening discussion topic. First I let them have an open discussion about causes of suicide — they emphasized depression, bullying, and competitive pressures — then pushed them to make demographic predictions. Some knew boys/men suicide more and emphasized young adult suicide. One person mentioned religious strictures. When pushed on race/ethnicity, they had no clear predictions, they thought disadvantage might make you suicidal. Then I put up the  graph of suicide rates by race, sex and age available from Wikipedia Commons. (I had also located some other graphs and read some articles so I had broadened my own knowledge of the subject a bit, although I am still by no means an expert.)  They were very startled at the age X race X sex interactions these graphs show. It led to a great discussion of what the social factors might be, with me talking about how I wasn’t sure which explanations were right, but we could think about how to test them. I quoted some Blacks as saying “if other people are trying to kill you, you don’t kill yourself,” talked about the possibility that White men who are not doing as well as they’d hoped cannot blame discrimination and perhaps blame themselves more, brought up the Catholic/Protestant difference (for which I did not have graphs but had checked the data), and mentioned the complex problem of selective mortality as influencing rates in old age. One explanation of the White male trend I had located one article on young male suicide that shows that the negative relation between an area’s race-specific SES and its suicide rate goes to zero for Blacks when gun availability is controlled but stays significant for Whites. In short, it did work quite well to get some predictions, show some data, and talk in an open-ended way about cultural factors, individual factors, etc. and the range of ways of talking about the problem. I did not go into Durkheim’s altruistic and egoistic suicide types because I had not reviewed them enough to feel comfortable with that line of discussion.

The caveat: In a class of 20, 2 students said in their private daily reactions that it bothered them to talk about suicide. One has been suicidal and the other has had friends suicide. They seemed ok with the way the discussion went, into social factors rather than personal woes. But given the high prevalence of suicidality among young people, maybe this isn’t such a good topic. It would probably be safer to get something equally surprising and interesting that is less likely to be a trigger. Ideas anyone?


Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

5 thoughts on “two teaching things”

  1. I love the idea about the abstracts, OW. I give a guest lecture in our interdisciplinary Intro to Gender Studies class about “Gender and Sociology” and find that bringing in a stack of current issues of Gender & Society to pass around while I lecture – and highlighting titles/abstracts that I think will interest college students – is a nice way to introduce students to work out there. Students seem unlikely to seek out journals and assignments based around them can be an effective way to get them to overcome any initial fear about them. It will be interesting to see how it influences the paper topics or approaches.

    As far as the discussions of suicide go, I hope that someone else is able to provide some insight. I often use the step exercise in my classes to get people to think beyond the individual. It, too, elicits some negative reactions in students, but not those who are already struggling (as those who have contemplated suicide or recently lost loved ones to it might). Instead, it’s those who are privileged who are most likely to experience the negative affect.


    1. I’m pretty sure the class variation among my honors students is too small to make the step exercise work for them, although I’ve always wanted to try it in my big class. Maybe I should just do it! This term’s classroom has enough room to make it feasible.


      1. If you can wait until spring and do it outside, I highly recommend it. Having done it both inside and out, there’s something about the freedom of the outdoors that make it more powerful (and fun for the students).


      2. In Wisconsin that means late April as a rule. I’m a little dubious about finding a place near the classroom for 120 students to do the exercise and not wander off. I’ve never been a big fan of outdoor acoustics. On the other hand, I’m not sure as I think about it that I could do the exercise in the classroom, either. Hmmm.


  2. The first time I taught Durkheim’s Suicide I was a TA responsible for running a discussion section. I made the mistake of getting bogged down in a series of “My friend committed suicide, was that anomic or altruistic?” type questions. Since that class I have tried always to emphasize that the importance is on social patterns, not individual causes.


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