Teaching Intro Soc.

This is the class I have the most experience with, having TAd for it for two semesters at UNH and taught it for three semesters at Great Bay Community College. Here are some of my thoughts about the class.

1. Intro. to Sociology should include a survey of what sociology is and what we can learn from it. This overview can give students some basics and help them see what they might be interested in learning more about. I try to ensure students get this survey through:

  • Our introductory textbook. We use James Henslin’s Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach one at Great Bay, which I like (though there are a few gaps). I also like Dalton Conley’s You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking Like a Sociologist, which is the one I used when I was a student in Intro. Soc. Nevertheless, if given the choice, at this point I would scrap the textbook in favor of a coursepack reader, and provide what would be missed through short and engaging lectures.
    • I have used “application analyses” in a hybrid course as well as in person. This is when students search for and identify an empirical example of a concept in current practice or discussion from our reading in a contemporary piece of media (e.g. newspaper article, blog post, video clip, etc.). Students share their media with the class, explain what it is, and explain the specific sociological concept the piece of media demonstrates and how the piece of media (or select parts of it) applies to said concept. This is a great way to give students opportunities for transference, connect students with the material, give students different messengers and examples of relevant sociological concepts, and for me to learn and think about the concepts in new ways as well.
      • Here is a copy of the assignment I used for my hybrid course. Besides sharing their application analysis, students were required to comment with one paragraph on someone’s application analysis from the preceding week and with at least two sentences to an application analysis from any week before that one; this included students being allowed to respond back to someone else who had responded to one of their posts. Here is a copy of a metacognitive walkthrough I put together for students to help those who needed it with the application analyses (and as you will see, the reading reflections that were also part of what I called ‘Weekly Investigations’).
      • Here is a copy of the assignment I used for my in-person course. For this semester I had students sign up on a wiki on Blackboard for two classes during which they would present their application analyses. This made it feasible timewise and also allowed students to choose topics that interested them to investigate further (or to choose a date that worked better with their schedule). Students submitted their piece of media online before class, which gave me something to show the class on the projector and something to grade, but rather than have them write out a description and analysis, I just had them present it in class. Here is the (similar) metacognitive walkthrough I gave students to help with these presentations.
    • The last time I taught this class, I moved away from the textbook. We are required to use it, and so I had students read portions I felt were core sociology takeaways (38 pages in total) and do weekly “course content presentations.” These covered guiding questions I had for each chapter (and occasionally from provided supplemental readings). Each week students presented a response to a question that had been assigned to them, with the expectation that presentations should be 1-4 minutes. I supplemented these with showing the short chapter animation videos that summarize the chapters. I have mixed feelings about these, though students reported liking them, that they did use the book to look into things they had heard about from others’ course content presentations that they found interesting, and that they appreciated having the book for reference and did not feel like they were wasting money buying something they didn’t use. If I teach Intro. again in a setting that requires a textbook, I’ll have to re-evaluate whether I want to try this again, do it differently, or do something else. However, until then I don’t need to figure it out. Here are the guiding questions I used this last time as well as some I used previously, sorted by chapter (last time I taught I had them categorized by topic and some cross chapters, but by chapter is probably more useful for most folks). I also include here a list of the short supplemental readings I include to supplement what I feel are a few gaps in the book. I also have assigned to and/or shared with students this open-source textbook section on sociological theory.
      • Part of the reason I moved away from the textbook was to be able to assign students readings that I kept trying to sneak in but that were just too much on top of an in-depth textbook and all the other activities and homework assignments students have for the course. Here is a list of the readings I assigned (outside of the textbook).
    • In my experience, brief class reflections and reading investigations serve as a good check-in to ensure students complete the reading and are prepared to engage with it, as well as to give me a check for understanding about their understanding of what we are learning.
  • Student presentations. We survey the lay of the land through having students choose a Contexts magazine article to present to the class.  Students peruse through a list I provide of articles with keywords to find something that interests them. They sign up on a wiki on Blackboard. The presentation assignment is here and the reflection I have students do afterwards is here. This assignment also allows students to dive more deeply into an area they find interesting.

2. While surveying sociology is an important goal, I personally feel moving from one topic to the next each week ends up lacking the depth I want my students to have and that the focus on detailed content and new vocabulary ends up taking away from my ability to teach students what I think are the core tenets of sociology that are useful and unique takeaways I want all my students to deeply understand and be able to apply: the sociological imagination/perspective, socialization, social construction, and social stratification. So, while we go through content, I dually structure my class around teaching and re-teaching and re-teaching these constructs.

  • I focus classes around these topics and spend ample time on them, even if it means a particular social institution is not going to get its own class. There are required readings for the first month that focus on understanding the sociological perspective. I briefly expose students to these four concepts and share examples on the first day of class, so that students are primed to better learn them going forward.
  • I traditionally start my first class with an in-class experiment in which students evaluate candidates for student government, only to learn afterwards that everyone has the same candidate statement except half the class’s statements were for Emily and half were for Greg (in bigger classes I also add in Lakisha and Tyrone); after analyzing and discussing our data, we take a look at this similar study that was completed on a bigger scale… I take the time with social stratification to do the Starpower simulation and to do a power shuffle. Sociology also has wonderful examples that can be used for helping students think critically and create cognitive space and openness to thinking about how social structure impacts social phenomena.
  • Students engage in metacognitive reflections, which helps them both with their success as a student but also to work through some of the more abstract concepts we are learning, as well as some of the things we are learning that may challenge their preconceptions about the social world. Here is an example is what that assignment looks like.
  • Our class is discussion based. Students are required to actively engage with the material. They often have to write more than they would perhaps like.

3. Sociology is a (social) science. As such, I think students should get the opportunity to do science. Many natural science classes have lab components, in which students will conduct experiments that may not be novel but engage them in doing science and discovering the laws and mechanics involved. To this end, I engage my students in doing sociology. This is a great way to learn more about sociological methods, increase understanding of concepts and transfer knowledge into applied settings, and to bring students into the fold as partners in learning.

  • These are scientific inquiries my students complete. We do one a week, usually with us discussing them the following class. However, I include the full research process in here, from being aware of research ethics to information/library research to publishing work to communicating that work to a public audience. Depending on our research project, I also build scientific inquiries to correspond with moving those forward (and that will then be students’ research project assignment for that week).
  • Students also engage in a research project around a research question they come up with. Here is a Social Problem Research Project assignment (with limited scientific research required) and here is a more traditional sociology research project that requires students to conduct their own research. Both are broken down into parts that we complete throughout the semester, which students find more manageable and really appreciate. I’ve also posted on the page about teaching Society and Technological Change about another form I’ve done for a research project, which is to have students craft a paper that looks more like a scholarly-journalistic magazine article (following the guidelines of Contexts) instead of a traditional academic research paper. The first time I taught this class, students completed a more traditional research paper and put together a slide presentation to present to the class. The paper was very approachable, because by the time it got to writing the rough draft, they had already had miniature assignments of writing their literature review, writing their methods, writing their findings, etc. In my Society & Technological Change class, I had students model their research papers in the format of a Contexts article, which made for more engaging and well-communicated reading. The papers were due a week before the last class. I compiled them together and we had our own Contexts issue for students to read as their assigned reading for the week. Rather than present what their peers had already read, students were responsible for leading a discussion based on their article. Most recently I have had students in the introductory course focus their research on a social problem of their choosing. The end product is an advocacy letter they write to a target they identify. Their letter synthesizes what they have learned, appropriately leaves some things out, but also takes into account matters of framing and storytelling. At our last class students read an abbreviated version of their letter to the class. While I do not require students to send their letters, I do require them to identify a mailing address, e-mail address, or webform through which they could send it, as well as, in submitting their final assignment, to write whether they think they will or will not send it and why. In the introductory sociology class we basically did not do any scientific research as part of this project, though students did look at first-hand accounts; when we did a similar project for my Social Problems course students did a content analysis and interviews.

4. Here are some resources I like for teaching Intro. Soc.


Sociological theory

Sociological imagination

Research Ethics

  • For research ethics, I have a case study I developed that we discuss using the protocol we used in the course I took on Ethics in Research and Scholarship.

Social Constructionism

  • From Joel Best‘s research on the social construction of social problems, it’s always good to know that, despite all the media hype, NO ONE is trying to poison your kids’ Halloween candy. Really. No one. (I use this when teaching about the difference between the objectivist, subjectivist, and contextual constructionist approaches to social problems.)
  • For an example of social construction that helps students to differentiate what we are actually talking about and whether or not things really exist, I like to use a stop sign. A stop sign exists and is real to us, but it only exists as a stop sign because of the meaning that we give it. We use subjective meaning to create a perceived objective reality/object.
  • Again for social constructionism as well as cultural relativity, here is a radio clip about how cold it is.
  • A great example of social constructionism is this video clip (from a longer documentary called Busting Out) about the social construction of breasts as sexual.
  • This is a nice (not-so-)little infographic that’s been put together about different cognitive biases that affect how we think. This is from psychology, so the class isn’t going to learn much about these, but it’s a nice reminder.
  • I like to start our conversation about race by asking students for a definition of race. If they were trying to explain race to someone, what would they say? What differentiates people of different races? After we get a list of different ideas, we work our way through and debunk each one.


  • Having students read and discuss the Horace Miner’s classic 1956 article “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” and then having them look at it again through new eyes once the truth has been revealed is always fun and a good segue into ethnocentrism. When they first read the article, I ask them to answer the following questions:
    • Overall, how would you describe these people and their way of life? What is your overall impression of them? Why?
    • Which ritual did you find most interesting? Most bizarre? Most familiar? Why?
    • Would you want to live in Nacirema?
  • Another great example for ethnocentrism is to watch the food immunity challenge from the TV show Survivor: China.

Social Stratification