Category Archives: teaching

mastering sociology

What purpose does a terminal MA in sociology serve and what purpose should a terminal MA in sociology serve?

These questions have come to my mind after spending three years in a department with a terminal masters program (and no Ph.D. program). To partially answer the first question, I can say that there seem to be three kinds of students who enter our program:

  1. Students who want to pursue a Ph.D. program and either don’t have the credentials to be accepted currently or don’t feel like they have the credentials to be accepted;
  2. Students who receive some kind of promotion or pay for holding a Master’s degree; and
  3. Students how liked undergrad and want to continue in school with a vague idea that they want to do non-academic research (e.g., in think-tanks) who might also be, possibly, maybe-in-the-future, considering a Ph.D. program.

For the first group, the terminal MA seems to serve a defined goal. The information to make the decision is "knowable," though I am not sure how many follow solid advice not to enter Ph.D. programs. The second group probably makes the most sense since everything is on the table. The benefits seem clear for those in the second category since one could evaluate what one would pay in tuition or student loans against the expected future return in increased salary.

It is the third group which concerns me.

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your dissertation is as important as your dog.

I just wrapped up a two week course for graduate students on effective and engaging teaching in the social sciences and humanities. The first day of class, as we talked about issues we’d like to cover over the session, one student asked how to ensure that teaching doesn’t take up all her time so that she can actually finish her dissertation.

I outlined my core belief when it comes to teaching (don’t reinvent the wheel) and a handful of strategies I had discovered worked well for work-life balance in general: have a strict schedule and clearly outlined goals, and be sure to block out time for your non-student self.* I made an off-hand remark about how, in my research on graduate students, I found that students with children were much better at all three of those things than students without, but particularly the last one, because they felt they had a good excuse for “turning off” their grad student role.

The student who originally asked the question piped up, “Oh, I get that. I’m great at calling it a day to go take care of my dog.” I asked her to pretend, for just a moment, that her dissertation was as important as her dog. If she could stop herself from writing too many comments on her students’ papers or tweaking the reading list again or over-preparing for the next day’s lectures because she knew she had to go home to take her dog out, surely she stop herself from doing all those things because she had to take care of her own research.

Bottom line: Setting aside time for your research while you’re teaching isn’t neglecting your students, it’s taking care of you and your career (and ensuring you can still afford dog food when you finish your PhD).

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*It can be tough, because of all the immediate reinforcement that teaching and the classroom provides, but as Jeremy illustrates, anything (including research or ones dissertation) can be turned in to a game that offers similar psychological incentives.

 

gradebook rant

I use what seems to me to be a very logical grading system. I grade papers on a letter grade scale and then calculate grades as a weighted average of these letter grades. Say there are three papers weighted 25%, 25% and 50% that got BC, B, and A respectively. The grade would be 2.5*.25 + 3*.25 + 4*.5 = 3.375, a grade I would then interpret as a low AB. Clear, logical, fair.But as far as I can tell, the course software cannot handle this kind of grading. It assumes that everything is percentages or points. So I cannot use it as an online gradebook. And I have had over the years a large fraction of TAs who cannot quite understand the logic grading papers with (gasp!) grades. To me this seems only logical. Ultimately we will give letter grades, why not set the standards for the grades and grade that way from the beginning? But, instead, they set up their own 10-point or 100-point schemes for grading papers, and then I have to ask them, well, so how does this translate into grades?

For things like tests or homeworks that are more point-like, I use linear equations to transform the points to the 4-point range and put those into the grade calculations in the same way. This is a little more outre and would not have been possible back in the days of paper gradebooks, but after all, you have to take algebra BEFORE you get to college, and we have had computers with spreadsheet programs readily available on college campuses now since the mid-1980s.

So I ask you, why is my university still assuming that everything will be calculated on a percentage basis and then curved to grades? For that matter, why are most of you just blindly assuming that everything should be done in percentages even though virtually every school in the US reports grades on a 4-point letter grade scale? There are a lot of reasons why the percentage-point system has problematic properties, but even if you have a good reason to like it, is it really that hard to understand why I’d like my system, or understand why I prefer it? Is it really that crazy to expect that to be an option in campus course software?

who is the public face of sociology?

The 101 class is the public face of our discipline. Every year there are roughly a million students in the United States who take Soc 101, that is, if my publisher friends’ estimates are to be believed. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, 101 will be their only exposure to our discipline. Sure, they might hear about our research findings in the media, but chances are they’ll have no idea that it was a sociologist who produced the research.

So, who’s teaching the 101 courses at your institution? In many places 101 is taught by a hodgepodge of grad students, adjuncts, lecturers, and assistant professors.[1] In every one of these situations we position on the front lines our least experienced educators (many of whom have never received any formalized training on pedagogy). Now, don’t let me be misunderstood. I reject the idea that years of experience correlates with excellence in the classroom. I’ve been cutting my grass since I was 10, but I’ve always done the bare minimum to avoid the ridicule of my neighbors. My neighbor’s yard, on the other hand, is the stuff that would make the angels cry. Wisdom in the classroom certainly has its advantages, but an inexperienced teacher who is passionate and focused on honing their craft can quickly make up for a lack of experience.

How do the faculty in your department think about 101? Is it something to be avoided like the plague? Is it a hazing ritual that you put newbs through so that senior faculty can get to teach their “real classes” (i.e. their upper division classes within their area of interest)?

Why Does It Matter Who Teaches 101

First, it matters because the introductory classes serve as the on ramp to the major. As reported by InsideHigherEd.com in their forth coming book How College Works, Chambliss and Takacs find that,

Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.

Second, it matters because of Krulak’s law which posits, “The closer you get to the front, the more power you have over the brand.”[2] Put simply, if the 101 class is the frontline of sociology, then the 101 teacher is the ambassador for us all.

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becoming a master student.

I often tell my students that the course that changed my life was Introduction to Sociology. Today I realized that I’ve been lying to them, or to myself, all this time. The class that truly changed my life was Human Development 100.

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the nas’s hundred great ideas

A couple of months ago, the right-wing National Association of Scholars pulled together and published a list of “100 Ideas for Reforming Higher Education.” The ideas are presented, one per contributor (with a few exceptions), organized alphabetically by the last name of the contributor, which makes the compilation seem even more haphazard than it is (and that’s plenty). Little information is presented as to who was asked to contribute, or how the contributions were solicited. The fact that each person gets one shot, though, implies that the problem each one targets is what that person sees as the biggest problem in higher education. There are some strange entries and some conventional ones. Many, though not all, are from conservative commentators. Below the break I’ve sorted them into categories, with some comments thrown in here and there. A few interesting points overall:

  • Given the NAS’s obsession, there is relatively little about liberal indoctrination.
  • There is virtually nothing about STEM at all: what to teach, how to teach it, whether to focus on it. This is particularly interesting given current conservatives’ focus on tying education to employment.
  • For a conservative organization, supposedly opposed to regulation, they’re really into requiring things!
  • Several of the suggestions are conservative in the oldest sense: seeking to reclaim a sense of privilege and exclusiveness that has (in the writers’ eyes) been lost. These include suggestions for student behavior and conduct as well as straightforward suggestions about keeping the rabble out.

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too much sociology…?

The magazine n+1 recently published an article about the rise and inefficacy of critical sociology. It’s a strange piece which, i think, accords sociology way too much influence. but it does have some salient points, particularly relating to the balance between structure and agency in sociological writing. The editors write:  “In spite of the strenuous attempts by sociologists to preserve some autonomy for the acting subject — Bourdieu’s “habitus,” Latour’s “actor-network” theory — popularization has inevitably resulted in more weight being thrown on the structuring side of things, the network over the actor.” I teach at Lehman College in the Bronx where the majority of students are working class. To put it simply, they are fed up with the overemphasis on structure, they find it deeply tiresome and profoundly disempowering. Continue reading

dog bites person; right winger endorses ignorance

North Carolina is “blessed” with a statewide center dedicated to right-wing attacks on higher education, the John W Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. One of their more prolific commentators is Jay Schalin, a small-time journalist with no credentials, experience, or expertise in education, research, or scholarship, but who apparently feels entirely qualified to present himself as an expert on higher education policy.

Some of Mr. Schalin’s gems in the past have included calls for less education overall, and a thoroughgoing plan for redesigning “essential education” to match Mr. Sahlins’ personal preferences. Yesterday’s entry, though, was particularly revealing.

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the chronicle’s wasted opportunity

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a reader contest recently, inviting readers to design their ideal college, from the ground up. The results are here (sorry for the paywall).

This could have been a great opportunity to rethink what’s best and worst about current higher education. (In truth, I thought about suggesting a scatterplot combined entry but didn’t get around to it.) It sure didn’t turn out that way! The five finalists include three that are just silly: proposals like “Costco University” in which “delivery” is the final say and there is literally no institutional capacity – everyone does what she can raise money for and nothing more.

Most importantly, though, there’s no real consideration on the synergies involved in the contemporary university: research and teaching, humanities and sciences, basic and applied, undergraduate and graduate, as examples. The proposals are largely about undergraduate education, isolated from all the other functions of the university. And they are focused on the things that make liberal-arts colleges (justifiably) proud: small classes, global focus, broad thought. But even if these are the kinds of things that make all higher education better (I’m not convinced they are) they’re certainly not feasible on the scale of today’s higher education.

bad decisions and fairness

I have often discussed in class an example from Lani Guinier’s 1994 book, The Tyranny of the Majority, that deals with notions of fairness and rules of the game. Consider a road race in which the first-place finisher wins $10,000, and all other participants are banned from future competition. Consider, by comparison, a road race in which the first-place finisher wins $1,000, the second-place finisher $999, the third-place $998, and so on down the line. Continue reading

students helping students.

As academics we know that the way that a class goes, how much students get out of a class, and their evaluation of the course or the material depends heavily on the students themselves. How much effort do they put in? Are they prepared to learn? Do they contribute to discussions and take the material and assignments seriously? What are their previous experiences and biases? Despite the student-centeredness of learning, most of us grossly neglect student insight. When we do ask for it, it takes the form of evaluations – of our classes and teaching, which can devolve into fashion critiques – where we (our teaching, our course) are the focus.

I wanted to briefly introduce two way that I turn the spotlight to the students themselves and then use student insight to improve my courses (and students’ experiences in them) without (necessarily) having to make a single change of my own.

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a brave new world.

This weekend the NY Times ran a story on 32 innovations that will change your tomorrow. Some are cool, others are a little scary, and more than a few are completely unnecessary (e.g., a Jetson-esque machine exclusively for washing and drying your hair). This weekend I also got an email from a textbook publisher telling me about their own innovation, or at least efforts to advance one: computer-graded writing assignments. Here are relevant excerpts from the email: Continue reading

relevant reading assignment.

This semester, I’m teaching the second iteration of a senior seminar I created last year. The class, Socialization and the Life Course, explores social influences on our lives from before birth to after death. The class was wildly successful last spring and it’s shaping up to be just as good – although quite different – this time around. One of my favorite additions to the class is what I call the “relevant reading assignment.” I thought I’d share it here for others to consider.

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difficult dialogues

I’m teaching a new first-year seminar this semester, entitled “Difficult Dialogues.” Essentially it’s my attempt to instantiate a public sphere at the undergraduate level. I got them talking this morning, the first day of class, about what’s hard for them to talk about, and it worked great! Take a listen:

Cacaphony

The syllabus is here in case you’re interested.

Enjoy the semester -

a beautiful method

Steven J. Tepper sent out  a request to various people looking for advice on “particularly good and
compelling examples of creative, parsimonious scholarship.” Here’s what he and those who responded came up with.

(compiled by Steven Tepper: Thanks to Shaul Kelner, Heather Talley, Karen Campbell, Eszter Hargittai, Terry McDonnell, Charles Kadushin, Kieran Healy, Bruce Barry, Larry Isaac, and Brian Steensland)

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