Sarah Nell

Sarah Nell is assistant professor of sociology at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She specializes in teaching Intro to Sociology and training graduate students in teaching. Her areas of interest include social inequality, symbolic interaction, identity, and sociology of work.


“Hey Teacher Lady” or How Not to Email your Professor

Have you ever been unsure of how to address your professors when you email them? Are you unsure of what to call them? You are not alone. In this post, Sarah Nell provides a few stories and some advice for how to avoid awkward communication so you can get this important communication right.

When my nephew started college, he told me he overheard a peer say, “The professor insists that we call her doctor, but she doesn’t even wear a white coat. I don’t get it.” While I didn’t have the chance to help this student get it, I do have the chance to help you. It may seem like a small, insignificant detail, but trust me: it is worth getting this right.

I have received too many inappropriate emails from students. I don’t think most students mean any disrespect, but not knowing proper greetings has made for some uncomfortable electronic communication. I have gotten emails from students, that begin with “Hey Sarah” or even worse, have no greeting at all. Hopefully this explanation will help you develop a positive professional relationship with your college professors by avoiding some common communication blunders.

I understand that, probably, most of the teachers you’ve had throughout your pre-college education have been women that you called Mrs. Last Name. Because that was her name. You likely also called male teachers Mr. Last Name. However, the people who teach you in college hold, more often than not, doctorates in their fields of study. I will give you the benefit of the doubt here. Maybe you don’t know how people become college professors or that you are expected to call them something different. I think it is worth explaining, and important for you to know who is teaching you….

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Student Sees Prof in Swimsuit & Both Learn Something About Sociology

Have you ever seen someone in a wildly different context from where you normally interact with them? Was it awkward? As a kid, did you ever see your teacher at the mall and think, “wow, s/he doesn’t live at school?” In this post Sarah Nell explains how context (or what Goffman called “performance region”) influences our ability to successfully enact our roles.

I teach large sections of introduction to sociology, totaling over 250 students a semester. That’s a lot of faces, and twice as many eyeballs. It’s impossible to learn all of their faces, much less their names. But I try. I need their help, so I tell them: “If you want me to know your name, I will. If you see me on campus or around town, introduce yourself.” I always appreciate the connections when I can make them. With classes so large, it is likely that they will recognize me, but I may not recognize them. After all, there is only one of me, and I am the leader of the activity we share. I see students all the time, everywhere I go. In a small college town, this is an occupational hazard I have come to grips with. This post is not about what happens when students DO introduce themselves to me, but rather, when they don’t.

Spoiler alert: It’s awkward.

Inspired by a student many years ago, I ask students to document, in sociological observation essays, those moments in their everyday lives where sociology jumps out at them “all of a sudden”[1]. Imagine my surprise (horror, really) when I read this: “All of a sudden, I found myself thinking about sociology when I was working as a lifeguard and saw my sociology professor [that’s me] swimming with her children.” Recalling a few times I’d spent swimming, and zero times running into a student, my mind raced, trying to imagine the faces of the lifeguards. Other than the uncomfortable situation posed by a student seeing me in a bathing suit, there was something greater bothering me….

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By the Power Vested in Me, I Vow to Keep my Name

Have you ever done something “because it’s tradition” without really realizing where the tradition comes from? Every culture practices traditions passed down over generations. But few of us examine deeply the sometimes disturbing practices and historical meanings that some traditions reflect.  In this post, Sarah Nell examines the common practice of women changing their names upon marriage.

I got married when I was 25, which 13 years later seems awfully young. Although I had “girl power” feminist leanings at the time, and rejected completely a June Cleaver future, I was madly in love and did not yet consider the feminist implications of my choices. Specifically, I did not see the point of keeping my own last name. I considered it, but at that time in my life taking my future husband’s last name seemed like the right thing to do. It’s what most women do. And more people expected me to change my name than not. In fact, some people would have been dismayed if I didn’t  change it.

The practice of women taking their husband’s last name is an old tradition that goes back to a time[1] when women were viewed as the property of men, just like the cows and chickens given as dowry. Marriage, then, was not an arrangement based on mutual love, rather it was a business transaction. In this context, women were commodities traded or exchanged for debts.

Over the years, the meaning of the name changing practice has changed. That is, my father and husband certainly did not view me as property to be transferred from one man to the other (though the rituals we performed suggest otherwise). Today,  the practice of women taking their husband’s name is a symbolic gesture that reflects a couple’s desire to share a common name for their family unit. That seemed reasonable to me. So I did it. I took his name.

It didn’t take long for me to regret my choice.

I realized I’d given into a historically and profoundly patriarchal tradition.  Like many others, I believed in the idea that marriage was “until death do us part.” As it turns out, my marriage did not last until death. Here I am, no longer married, but still very much alive. And I have a name that isn’t mine.

Why must I be a maiden OR a Mrs.? Must my name depend on my relationship to a man?

Upon the decision to divorce, I considered keeping my married name, or returning to my maiden name. But the more I thought about it, the more questions I had. Why must I be a maiden OR a Mrs.?  Must my name depend on my relationship to a man? Why do we assume that the deep attachment and pride men feel about their names and identities are not also felt by women? What does it say about women’s contributions to the family that only men can “carry on the family name”? Why do we expect women to abandon their names and their identities in ways we would never expect men? How have we internalized this practice, and why do we perpetuate it?

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On Thanking our Feminist Foremothers

Do you know how your life is better because of feminism? If you don’t, Sarah Nell will show you that many of our taken for granted opportunities today are a result of feminist struggles for equality. She will also try to compel you to thank them for what they’ve done for you.

I am a feminist. Lately, I have been thinking about feminists who are much older than I am, and feeling appreciative for the roads they have paved for me.  Gloria Steinem, arguably one of the most prominent and important (white) feminists we have known, turned 80 this year. So would have Audre Lorde, revered Black lesbian feminist poet, if she hadn’t died of cancer in 1992.  There is something about that generation of feminists that is important for us to know. For instance, it is hard sometimes to imagine what it was like when women like Steinem and Lorde were my age; I have grown up taking much for granted. It’s worth noting that I am white and middle-class. I recognize my race and class privilege, and know that these shape my experiences and perspectives.

I was raised in a family with relatively traditional gender values. My dad was the breadwinner and my mom the homemaker. My mom did go to work full-time when I, the youngest child, went to school and I have grown to appreciate the important impact having a working mother had on my own career ambitions. As I got older and developed a feminist- consciousness, I talked to my mom about these things. When I asked why she didn’t pursue a career when she was younger, she would say, “It was just that way back then. You got married and had a family.” She seems to know that her unpaid domestic labor was a valuable contribution to our family economy, but also that she had the potential to be more than this arrangement allowed.  Given the context in which she grew up, it wasn’t a huge leap for her to fall into this pattern. And, for the most part, mom was right. Women had to be willing to withstand the very steep, uphill battle towards a different path, and to believe that it was worth doing….

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How to be Social Even When You’re Alone

Do you do things like sleep or jog or read alone? Did you know that even when you do these things by or with yourself you are engaged in human social behavior? In this post, Sarah Nell explains the sometimes subtle ways we are connected to others, making nearly everything we do, social behavior.

I often start off a new sociology course with the reminder that sociology is the study of human social behavior. Sometimes it can be hard to see how our behaviors are social. In fact, when I ask my students to give me examples of social behavior, they often don’t have much to say other than things related to social occasions like parties. So I usually get the class to give me examples of behaviors that are NOT social to get us going. I start with this so we can weed out some of the things we’re NOT talking about. When I ask my students for examples of non-social behavior, I get examples like this:

  • Jogging alone
  • Reading
  • Breathing
  • Sleeping
  • Showering
  • Studying alone
  • Eating alone

After we get a good list going of so-called non-social behaviors, I select a few of the easier ones to show how they are, in fact, social.

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North Carolina: Home of the Bigots?

We have all relied on stereotypes to explain some people’s behavior or beliefs. But stereotypes of any kind are damaging and dangerous. In this post, Sarah Nell explains how sometimes stereotypes beget more stereotypes – in this case, stereotypes of gays led to the passage of a ban on same-sex marriage, a decision that was met with stereotypes of Southerners. 

Southern doesn’t mean stupid redneck. If you aren’t from the South, and you’ve never lived in the South, you might disagree. And given our stereotype-loving culture, I wouldn’t blame you. I am not a native to the South, but I have lived here for a significant portion of my adult life and I call North Carolina home. I consider myself an honorary Southerner….

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Slow Down, Individualists!

In the U.S., rules for interaction require us to maintain a hula-hoop distance from others in the interest of respecting people’s personal space. But we don’t always follow these courtesy rules on the road. In this post, Sarah Nell shows us how we drive our cars can tell us a lot about social interaction and individualism.

Distracted Driver Just Before Car Crash

My friends call me Captain Safety. It’s endearing and I deserve the nickname. The moments I am on full Captain Safety Patrol usually involve driving, riding in cars, or avoiding them while crossing the street. My friends tease me, but I don’t mind. You see, my concern about other drivers is more than mere paranoia. I am overly cautious because I am overcompensating for all the other idiot drivers out there.[1. I’m not insulting other drivers’ intelligence, don’t get me wrong. Rather, I’m just saying what I think everyone else has said about other drivers before.] I am certain people know the best driving practices. However, what’s interesting to explore sociologically is why do so many people choose not to follow these basic rules of safe driving.

My driver education teacher said using the word “accidents” to describe car crashes is a misnomer. Most crashes can be avoided if everyone drives more considerately and safely. Safe driving experts recommend following a 3-second rule that allows enough distance between you and the car in front of you. If you are too close to the car in front of you, and something goes wrong, things can go really wrong, really fast. Then driving dangerously, all in the name of getting to your destination a minute or two earlier, may in fact lead to an accident. Then you’d be really late… or dead. I’m not being overdramatic. About 35,000 people die every year in car crashes.

You might be wondering, “What is sociological about safe driving?” As someone who studies human social behavior, driving is interesting because it is a kind of interaction….

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I’m not Racist, I’m Colorblind!

In a recent post, Sarah Nell declared that if you are white, you are racist. People – whites in particular – have learned to say (and believe), “I don’t see color when I look at people.” Here, Sarah tells us why we should see color, and how pretending we don’t see color perpetuates racism rather than eliminating or reducing it.

Since the Civil Rights Movement’s slogan “Jim Crow Must Go” became a reality, overt racism has become socially unacceptable. The freedom fighters of the 1950s-1970s challenged that hierarchy of white domination and demanded changes in both law and attitude (though they weren’t the first or the last of such fighters). Some changes were granted, but to think that changing a few laws dismantled the entire centuries-long system of advantage based on race is naïve. As Timothy Tyson remarked in his book Blood Done Sign My Name, it is foolish to think that Southern bar owners and the like said to their black neighbors, “Well, integration done come. Y’all can come on in.” It did not happen this way. In fact, the backlash to these changes was horrifically violent, but that’s another story.

With overt and in your face racism largely a thing of the past, many whites think racism and racial discrimination are behind us too. Sociologists call this the colorblind ideology. The idea of colorblindness supposedly brings Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous Dream to fruition: for people to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. This ideology is based on the belief that the successes of the Civil Rights Movement have removed all racial barriers to success – that race does not matter anymore….

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Got Whiteness? Scholars say You’re Racist

Are you racist? Do you have white privilege? Are you a beneficiary of systemic racism? If you are white, some sociologists argue you should answer yes to all of these questions. In this post, Sarah Nell asks you to reimagine racism as a system of advantages and disadvantages that benefits Whites whether they like it or not.

If you’re white, chances are you don’t think you’re racist. Perhaps you found this title unsettling. I’m not here to tell that you are a bad person, but I am here to show you how to think differently about what racism really is. Racism – from the point of view of many sociologists– is not a set of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors held or committed by individuals. Racism is a system of advantage based on race. And if you’re white, you are racist because you benefit from that system. Even if you don’t want to.

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Boys vs. Girls, Tornadoes vs. Vanilla Beans

Ever wish you could shelter your kids from everything you disagree with in the world? We all have something we would rather not deal with as parents. In this post, Sarah Nell shows how the “battle of the sexes” begins in childhood at a seemingly neutral place: summer camp. 

This past summer, my six-year old daughter attended a large summer day camp. They had a different theme each week: sports weeks where the kids wore their favorite team gear, Christmas in July week, and pirate week, to name a few. To accompany the various themes, each group was given a clever, theme-related name. As I scanned the summer schedule, I became troubled, dreading late July. The theme was “Boys vs. Girls.” I don’t know what bothered me more, the binary distinction deemed significant or the competition implied by the “vs.” The mother in me tried to squash the feminist-sociologist in me, despite my commitment to feminist parenting.

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