Teaching sociology through the zombie apocalypse

A sociology professor describes how his new class “Impact of the Zombie Apocalypse on the Pacific Northwest” helps him teach sociology theories and concepts:

The zombie apocalypse is the subject of a sociology course I am teaching during winter term at Linfield College in Oregon, and the class is packed. When I tell friends and colleagues, the reaction ranges from “Wow! Nice!” to giving me looks once reserved only for “Underwater Basket Weaving 101” courses taught back in the 1970s…

Sociologically speaking, one of the most fascinating aspects of zombies has been their persistence as “the Other,” something against which we can mirror our fears. Early zombie movies such as White Zombie (1932) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943) are laced with racial overtones. These morphed into George Romero’s classic critiques of white middle-class fears of black America, to more recent movies that feed off our love-hate relationship with technology and our fear of eco-disasters. While we express anxieties about 9/11 subpopulations, our movies portray zombies that are actually dormant cells, ready to unleash themselves on an unsuspecting populace. Unlike vampires, werewolves, aliens or orcs, zombies present a relatively blank slate against which we can project our fears.

Most sociological theory focuses on the concept of utopia or dystopia. In dystopic societies, people grapple with things that are undesirable or frightening, and they respond to their fears. For many in 21st century America, those fears include capitalism, racism, rapid technological change, urban shifts or even semi-automatic rifles.

The zombie apocalypse class provides a pedagogical tool to spark conversation. In the face of change, how do we survive as a society? How do we maintain group cohesion? In The Walking Dead, survival requires greater brutality and physical strength. In that scenario, how do women avoid being reduced to “women’s work?” And how would nations react to an environmental disaster or apocalypse, as in World War Z? How do zombie-like events influence foreign policy

The class sounds reasonable to me – provided that the class has sufficient sociological content – though I know classes like these tend to draw attention from people who think colleges (and sociologists?) aren’t teaching much (or not teaching the right stuff) in the first place. Using current themes, such as those found in numerous television shows and movies that students are particularly immersed in, is one way to hook students and encourage them to think more deeply about social life. In this case, it seems to me that pushing students to think more about what they would consider an utopia or dystopia could be revealing in how they individualistically approach the world and encourage them to pull back a bit and consider the bigger social forces at work and other people involved. This is a bit tongue in cheek but we don’t have to blow up major cities or have major diseases or creatures to get to this point. Imagine if college students could not have access to their smartphones and computers – imagine at least the short-term apocalypse! But, of course, the world is bigger than just zombies or a loss of cellphones and studying apocalypses may help students see the basics of society that we all tend to take for granted.

A Harvard sociology class where students will distribute $100k in grant money

A Harvard sociology course with $100,000 in grant money to distribute sounds like a cross between the work of a typical intro-level social problems course and what foundations do:

While most Harvard College students focus on what they will take away from a course, students who enroll in Sociology 152: “Philanthropy and Public Problem-Solving” this spring will have the opportunity to give back­—in the form of $100,000 in grants to Boston-area non-profits of their choice.

Students enrolled in this new course will split into teams based on area of interest. Each team will conduct research on a particular social issue, ranging from homelessness to education reform, and will eventually choose a local organization to provide with a grant.

The Once Upon A Time Foundation, based in Fort Worth, Texas, has donated $100,000 for students enrolled in the course to distribute to non-profits. The foundation has funded similar courses at Stanford, Princeton, Yale, and various colleges in Texas.

Harvard Kennedy School Senior Lecturer Christine W. Letts and Senior Research Fellow James L. Bildner will co-teach the class, which will be open to both College and Kennedy School students. “It’s an exceptional opportunity,” Bildner said.

An opportunity indeed.

While this could be good practice, I wonder if students might reach another conclusion: handing out just $100,000 is not enough to tackle serious social problems. Even major money sources like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can only do so much.

Sociology class project in San Jose leads to succesful vote in favor of raising the minimum wage

Following up on a previous story on this blog, voters in the city of San Jose approved a minimum wage hike to $10 that began in the sociology department of San Jose State University:

San Jose voters on Tuesday agreed to increase the city’s hourly minimum wage to $10 — $2 above the statewide floor, siding with proponents of the measure who said it was necessary in order for low-income workers to survive in an increasingly pricey tech-based economy.

With all precincts counted, nearly 59% of voters had approved the measure, making San Jose only the second municipality in California and the fifth in the nation to set its own minimum wage. The others are San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Santa Fe and Albuquerque, N.M.

The measure was the brainchild of San Jose State University sociology students and was promptly embraced by labor organizations, which spearheaded the campaign…

The San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and other business groups had opposed the measure, saying it would force employers to slash worker hours and cut jobs, as well as discourage new businesses from moving in. The arguments were similar to those made in San Francisco, which has phased in a similar measure passed by voters in 2003. Its hourly minimum wage stands at $10.24 and will increase to $10.55 in January.

Now it will be interesting to watch what happens in San Jose after the passage of this measure. San Jose is an important place: it is the 10th largest city in the United States with close to a million residents, has strong connections to the high-tech community, and is a “re-emerging immigrant city” with a high proportion of foreign-born residents.

Also, what do you do for an encore in a sociology class or program after helping make this happen?

Student writes letter to Sociology 301 course, reinforces stereotype about the easiness of sociology

A Canadian student wrote a letter to her Sociology 301 course about what went wrong:

But slowly, week by week, you became less interesting. I don’t know what it was, but I just didn’t want to see you anymore. I showed up, sure, and I continued to take notes, but my heart just wasn’t in the relationship like it had been in July. You had grown dull, boring. I wanted something better, something that kept my attention, and I thought of the classes I’d taken last fall, but I continued our weekly meetings.

The first mid-term came, which was wonderfully open book. I passed with minimal studying and flying colours. I think our relationship rekindled a bit there, because I remembered why I was so taken with you in the beginning: you were easy.

But then the second mid-term approached, and I knew I wasn’t prepared. All my note taking wasn’t enough to make sense of your endless rambles. What did I actually know of society, the course material, since I barely listened in class, choosing to read a novel in between writing down your notes. So I studied hard, not wanting you to know I was losing interest. I wanted you to believe that I still cared. And I passed, again, and I don’t think you knew just how little I wanted to see you anymore…

The final was today, and I have to say, I’m not going to miss you, Soc. Sure, we had some fun times, some great moments of discussion and humour, but we’re just not made for each other. I’m going to go back to journalism classes in the fall, I think you should know that. No, we can’t hang out anymore – you’re just not right for me. And despite my grades, I don’t care about you. I faked the whole relationship. I’m sorry.

While this could be taken as a story about the lack of effort from college students, I’m more interested in the other part: why take a sociology course in the first place? The early parts of this letter (not quoted above) share the student’s enthusiasm for the course. But, by the time the exams rolled around, the true sole reason emerges: the class was supposed to be easy and it didn’t quite turn out that way. And when it got a little tough, sociology suddenly didn’t seem so exciting.

I’m not surprised by this as sociology often has a reputation as an easy class. Doesn’t everyone know about society? Isn’t a lot of it common sense? I wonder if the student who wrote the letter might have had a different opinion if that first mid-term was challenging which might have led her to more engagement before the second mid-term. By asking interesting questions, sociologists can demonstrate that it is discipline that offers variety, complexity, and connections to individuals and groups. Indeed, a good portion of Introduction to Sociology is about showing that the richness of the discipline, one which many college students have not heard of or only have cursory knowledge. Humans present an ever-moving target with complex and fluid relationships. Collecting and analyzing data can be complicated. Working with and developing to explain (and perhaps even predict?) human behavior is messy. The (implicit) goal of Introduction to Sociology is to show all of this and present sociology as a worthy discipline that can enrich student’s lives as well as help the world.


A story of teaching sociology to a young child

At a few points, I’ve thought about how sociology could be taught to young children. One way would be to include it the social studies curriculum but another would be to have kids accompany their parents to college classes in sociology:

Fourteen years ago, Karen Bilodeau was an unusual student at Bates College. She was 33 years old and often took her preschooler, Emma, with her to classes or to meetings with professors…

All that made an impression on Emma, a senior at Edward Little High School. With a goal of becoming a doctor helping underprivileged children, this fall she’ll go to college on the campus she walked as a child…

Between the ages of 3 and 6, Emma remembers going to professor Emily Kane’s sociology classes. “I remember her doing a lot of projects. Kane examined gender equality in ‘The Little House on the Prairie.’ I remember that being fascinating,” Emma said…

When it was time for Emma’s college search, she longed to go out of state. During an overnight visit to Oberlin in Ohio, she said she changed her mind, preferring to be near her younger siblings and longing for Bates.

At age 17, like she did at age 4, Emma sat in on Professor Kane’s sociology class. “It was very much like, ‘This is what I want to be doing the next four years,'” she said.

Emma plans to study sociology and African-American studies. Her adopted siblings are African-American. She also plans to take science classes to help her continue to medical school.

“I really want to help underprivileged kids as a pediatrician or surgeon” in Haiti or Africa, she said.

A nice story. I’ve wondered how much introducing younger kids to sociology might help boost the discipline’s profile before students enter college as sociology is one of few disciplines that new college students don’t know much about. Or, perhaps this would help imprint sociology on the nation’s consciousness in a way that it isn’t now. This reminds me of Jane Elliot’s famous “blue eyes, brown eyes” experiment in a third-grade classroom. As Elliot has showed, this experience was formative in the lives of her small-town Iowa students. Perhaps the route to public sociology should begin with children rather than adults?


What a sociology class can do: help develop a minimum wage initiative for San Jose

I’m always intrigued by sociology class projects that go beyond the classroom. Here is an example from San Jose of a class project that will be on the ballot this November:

The proposed San Jose measure would raise the hourly minimum wage in the city from the current $8 state requirement to $10 with yearly inflation adjustments. It is modeled on San Francisco’s 2003 minimum wage law, which includes annual inflation adjustments that raised the floor this year on that city’s pay rate 32 cents to $10.24 an hour.

The idea behind the San Jose ballot measure originated among students in a San Jose State sociology class taught by professor Scott Myers-Lipton.

In late March, the students, together with labor leaders and community organizers, submitted 36,225 signatures to the registrar’s office. Proponents needed at least 19,161 valid signatures of registered city voters to qualify for the November ballot, and at least 19,518 were found to be sufficient.

“The students and I are thrilled that it qualified and that we received the support of the community at large, from labor, faith and community based organizations in this effort,” Myers-Lipton said Tuesday.

I can imagine some of the public conversation about this: college students in a sociology class (already considered a liberal discipline) team up with local activists to introduce this bill? At the same time, might this be considered good experiential learning as students are learning about local politics and how they can get involved?

Here is some more information on how the class got involved:

As part of Myers-Lipton’s Sociology 164 course on Social Action, students studied President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proposal for an Economic Bill of Rights. As student activist Elisha St. Laurent explains, “The economic bill of rights guarantees everyone a job, a living wage, a decent home, medical care, economic protection during sicknesses or old age or unemployment.” The minimum wage campaign is a practical way of making some of these guarantees more attainable for San Jose residents. “We’re trying to link the economic bill of rights to inequality in the San Jose area,” she says.

As the mother of a five-year-old boy and someone who is working to pay for college, St. Laurent has experienced the realities of the low-wage economy directly. “Especially as a single mother,” she says, “you know I’m continually struggling. I’m always working minimum wage. Right now I make $9.25, so it would be a 75-cent increase for me. But an extra $100 or $200 in my check would make a difference. It’s making sure that I have gas in my car so that I can take my son to school, and then still being able to pay my bills.”…

As the students moved forward with the idea, they found significant partners such as Working Partnerships USA, a think tank for public policy that affects working class families, the NAACP and the local faith-based group Sacred Heart Community Service.

Myers-Lipton explains, “Early on, there was a discussion that occurs in any campaign asking, ‘Is this winnable? Is it worth putting in all the effort.’ At that point [Sacred Heart Executive Director] Poncho [Guevara] said, ‘You know, win or lose, we need to put forward a vision of what we stand for. We need to be putting our vision forward rather than  always being on the defensive. So even if we lose, we’re going to win in the long run.'”

It sounds like these students are taking their readings and trying to put some of the ideas into practice. It would be interesting to hear how much they have learned about sociology or a sociological perspective throughout this process.

Sociology student thesis on “Live Below the [global] Poverty Line” challenge

A sociology undergraduate at the University of South Florida put together an interesting Honors College thesis based on living on less than $1.50 a day:

Sagal, a sociology student at the University of South Florida, brought the “Live Below the Poverty Line” challenge to USF via her Honors College thesis.

Sagal put up a Facebook page, visited classes, and posted fliers to enlist students in her journey to spend only $1.50 a day on food.

“Many people thought it was impossible to live off of such a little amount per day,” Sagal said. “Others thought I was crazy for trying to get people to join in, since it would be so difficult.”

Three other students participated in the challenge, which required participants to live off $1.50 a day, the current equivalent of the accepted global figure used to define extreme poverty and set by the World Bank as US$1.25 per day in 2005. The $1.50 figure represents the amount someone living in extreme poverty in the U.S. would have to live on…

Some of the food students ate, which they either bought individually or pooled their money together to purchase, was rice, oyster crackers, eggs, cheap bread, and Ramen noodles.

“I learned how much a lack of food can really impact every aspect of your life,” Sagal said. “I was also constantly thinking about food. It was extremely difficult to concentrate on anything and focus because all I could think about was what I had left for the day and when I can eat next.”

Sounds like a revealing experiential learning experience.

One note: shouldn’t the students also have to factor in other costs besides food such as paying for water, electricity, tuition, etc.?

What happens when Tim Pawlenty comes to your sociology class

Courtesy of modern technology, you could have been following a live Twitter stream chronicling what happens when former Minnesota governor and former Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty visits a sociology class at the University of Kansas:

“23 minutes later and I have no idea what he’s talking about,” tweeted Ray. “Freedom, drugs, a kickass pool, meatpacking, MLK.”

It sounded interesting, so I called Ray for an after-action report. The room, he said, was somewhat full and somewhat interested.

“A few hundred students are enrolled in class,” he said, “but maybe a hundred show up. I figure that a lot of the people in the class are freshmen who are just taking it to take it. They probably know Romney, they know Santorum, but Pawlenty dropped out so early that they might not know him.”

But what did the great man say? “Somebody asked him what he thought about Santorum’s victories yesterday,” remembered Gray. “He congratulated him, but he brought up the fact that John McCain lost 19 states and still won the nomination.” Gray paused. “It sounded like a backhanded compliment. And he referred to Minnesota as one of the smaller states, in terms of political power.”

A few quick thoughts:

1. Should we trust a single student’s report in a large 100-level lecture class where roughly half the students don’t attend? I always find it interesting to hear what students remember or find noteworthy.

2. Politicians are now tracked at almost every turn.

3. What exactly does Tim Pawlenty know about sociology? The class is titled “American Identity”…was Pawlenty talking about what he thinks this identity is? I would be really curious to hear (1) what Pawlenty thinks sociology is and (2) whether he thinks sociology has any value.

4. It sounds like Pawlenty was on campus to talk about how the still-to-be determined candidate for President will run a campaign and govern.

Movie “Abduction” based on discovery in a high school sociology class

Sociology courses aren’t featured much in movies or television shows. However, the recent movie Abduction begins with a discovery a high school student makes in his sociology class:

Taylor Lautner shines as an action hero in Abducted.  Surrounded by top veteran actors Sigourney Weaver, Jason Isaacs, Alfred Molina and Maria Bello, Taylor Lautner delivers a fast paced and physical performance as a young man whose entire existence has been turned upside-down.

Engaging and entertaining, Lautner fans should be pleased with this film and the Blu-ray extras.

While working on a high school sociology assignment Nathan (Lautner) makes the discovery that he may be an abducted child, that his parents are not really his parents.  He loves the people he knows as his father and mother (Jason Isaacs and Maria Bello) and is shocked and scared when immediately after his online acknowledgement of the missing child picture someone breaks in and both “parents” are killed…

Follow the link to read the rest of the plot though critics were not fans of this thriller: it is only 4% fresh (4 fresh out of 95 total reviews) on RottenTomatoes.com. Let’s hope the low rating was not due to a poor or boring portrayal of what a sociology class can be.

This premise could be used in a lot of plots: a sociology professor asks their students to do something unusual and the student finds out/stumbles upon/discovers something really strange that ends up leading to the student being threatened by people desperate to cover something up. Do you want your thriller to hinge on some weird sociological phenomenon? Just stick your protagonist in a sociology class where they are supposed to be studying weird things!

Two quick conjectures:

1. Most sociologists would not want their discipline tied to Taylor Lautner and Twilight.

2. Yet sociologists might like being portrayed in films as long as they aren’t portrayed as neurotic academic types.

Sociology class on social change leads to amendment to Illinois law

I noted this story last year but here is an update: Illinois passed a bill last year that originated in a sociology class at Northern Illinois University.

Sophomore students at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) in Aurora were given an opportunity Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, to hear firsthand how doing their homework could lead to state-wide social change.

State Representative Kay Hatcher, NIU Sociology instructor Jack King and NIU student Gayle Deja-Schultz shared the story of how a class project at NIU’s Naperville campus led to a 2011 amendment to House Bill 180, The Let Them Rest in Peace Act, which further restricts protesting during funeral and memorial services.

However, the impact of the course taught by King, Sociology 392: Organizing for Social Change, extends beyond state legislature.

The NIU project was the inspiration for EnACT, a new IMSA program that teaches students how to address legislative issues and how to advocate change in a hands-on learning approach.

I would guess this is an educational experience these sociology students won’t forget.

Read more details about how the bill was signed into law on August 14, 2011 here. The key part of the process seems to be that one of the students had interned for an Illinois House member and this started the ball rolling beyond the class. The power of social networks…

Are there other sociology classes that have led to similar change?