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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brecht predicts twitter

I’m reading an old article by Oskar Negt, and what should be the epigraph but a prescient quote from Brecht’s Radio Theory (1927):

If I believed that our present bourgeoisie were going to live another hundred years, then I would be certain that it would continue to babble on for hundreds of years about the tremendous “possibilities” that the radio, for example, contains…. I really wish that this bourgeoisie would invent something else in addition to the radio — an invention that would make it possible to preserve everything the radio is capable of communicating for all time. Future generations would then have the opportunity to be astounded by the way a caste made it possible to say what it had to say to the entire planet earth and at the same time enabled the planet earth to see that it had nothing to say. A man who has something to say and finds no listeners is bad off. Even worse off are listeners who can’t find anyone with something to say to them.

I daresay he has just described Twitter.

some thoughts on the american studies israel boycott

I do not agree with the American Studies Association (hereafter oASA, for “other ASA”) boycott of Israel, nor with the broader BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement of which it is a part. I say this recognizing that Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and especially Gaza is appalling; I believe the Israeli rejection of Palestinians’ human rights and national ambitions is a disaster, not just for the Palestinians but ultimately for Israel as well. I think it’s particularly telling that, a generation ago, defenders of Israeli policy argued that Israel was a bastion of democracy and freedom in the Middle East; now the party line has become: Israel is not as bad as Egypt. Or Syria, Saudi Arabia, China, etc. All of which is true, and relevant (more below)–but not exactly a standard to be proud of.

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52 works that inspired sociologists this year

  1. Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press, 1984.
  2. Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Transaction Books, 2009.
  3. Putnam, Robert D. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster, 2001.
  4. Raudenbush, Stephen W. Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods. Vol. 1. Sage, 2002.
  5. Massey, Douglas S. and Nancy Denton. American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass. Harvard University Press, 1993.
  6. Goffman, Erving. The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY (1959).
  7. Steensland, Brian, Lynn D. Robinson, W. Bradford Wilcox, Jerry Z. Park, Mark D. Regnerus, and Robert D. Woodberry. “The measure of American religion: Toward improving the state of the art.” Social Forces 79, no. 1 (2000): 291-318.
  8. Swidler, Ann. “Culture in action: Symbols and strategies.” American sociological review (1986): 273-286.
  9. McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M. Cook. “Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks.” Annual review of sociology (2001): 415-444. Continue reading

free speech, kansas, and duck dynasty

Two big free-speech matters are making headlines today. First, Phil Roberts of the show Duck Dynasty made some truly ugly comments in an interview with GQ, which prompted A&E to suspend him from the show. Predictably enough, the right-wing meme has become “the left is tolerant of everything as long as you agree with them.” Second, the Kansas board of regents adopted an exceedingly broad policy on social media use that could provide authority for employees (presumably including faculty) to be disciplined for comments that harm or insult the university.

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long live the fact/value distinction

Phil Gorski’s argument that the fact/value distinction is bankrupt is out in Society, along with a marquee of big-name responses. Phil and I had an interesting and productive exchange on the article this fall. The exchange follows here, with Phil’s permission. I still think I’m right!

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separate the ick from the harm

The controversy over Colorado’s response to Patti Adler’s exercise, in which undergraduate teaching assistants role played various types of prostitute to consider the stratification of deviance, has produced a wide variety of opinions among academic sociologists. Many here on the blogs and on twitter have raised questions about the appropriateness of this exercise, which is a fair point, but one that requires a bit more scrutiny, in my view.

Sexual topics of all kinds have to deal with the “ick” factor. Many forces in our culture encourage us not only to be critical of, but also to be viscerally repulsed by, sexuality. So, I worry that the administration’s reaction, as well as that of my colleagues, is magnified, triggered, or made more extreme by the ickiness of the topic, rather than by the actual harm done. I am not saying that it is not possible for lectures/exercises on sexuality to harm students or teaching assistants. Of course it is. Sexism, as well as sexual violence and exploitation and harassment, are real phenomena and should be concerns of university campuses. Students and employees should be considered and cared for, and not subject to harassment. Period.

However, I am concerned that the sexual nature of the lesson itself makes it highly suspect to administrators, and I fear that the ick makes it seem obvious that such a topic must therefore be harmful. If the sexual nature of the topic–and our repulsion to it–gives us permission to skip the step where we weigh the benefits against the harms, then we are heading down a road to total censorship of sexual topics in sociology. And it is my view that, as sensitive as these topics can be, more harm comes from being silent about sexuality than discussing it openly. So, that is why my response to the news–which of course hasn’t yet been fully fleshed out–is to express great concern for administrative intrusion in the classroom and academic freedom. I am worried that it is all too easy for everyone to agree that this exercise is icky and assume, therefore, that it is also harmful.

irb creep watch

More could be said regarding reports of the situation with Patti Adler at the University of Colorado at Boulder, but this part toward the bottom of the Inside Higher Ed story caught my eye:

[A]sked whether there were concerns about the prostitution lecture and whether they were expressed to Adler, [spokesman Mark J.] Miller said: “Yes. CU-Boulder does not discourage teaching controversial topics but there has to be a legitimate educational basis for what is being taught in the classroom. In all cases involving people in research or teaching, whether controversial or not, we want to insist on best practices to ensure full regulatory compliance. In some cases, this could involve review from our Institutional Review Board, which is responsible for regulatory compliance involving human subjects.”

Adler responded that IRBs are for research, not teaching. [...]

Asked about IRBs being for research, not teaching, Miller said,”Students did participate in the lecture. All we are saying is that it is a best practice to go to the IRB.”


some thoughts on mandela and apartheid

I don’t have anything as eloquent as Tim Burke to say about Mandela and the discourse around his death. Like many politically-active people of my generation, I found great inspiration not just from Mandela in particular but from the grand struggle against apartheid.

Apartheid was the great moral struggle of the late 20th century. In part the monstrous last gasp of European colonialism, and in part the oh-so-modern hybrid of capitalist extraction and scientific racism, it was impossible by the early 1980s to form a morally defensible claim for its support. Mandela became the international symbol of the struggle, and deservedly so, but his ANC was but one piece of the struggle that included allies in the trade union movement (COSATU) and the Communist Party (SACP). Remarkably, this coalition was multiracial and fostered a remarkable leadership including Mandela. An important rival was Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement, which looked from outside like a piece of the coalition but was in fact a crucial competitor for ways of thinking about racial justice in South Africa.

It is a huge moral failing of the United States, and an enduring shame, that the Reagan Administration, Congressional cold war hawks, and envoy Elliott Abrams became, de facto, the global sponsor of the apartheid regime. Thousands of people died and thousands more suffered and were brutalized because they considered Cold War geopolitics a priority so overwhelming as to write off the human rights of the subcontinent.

I spent a year or so in Namibia just after its independence, writing for The Namibian and working on my undergraduate thesis. I visited Johannesburg, Soweto (thanks Chris Benner), and Cape Town, as well as Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe while I was there, and came away deeply moved by the imagination, creativity, dedication, and commitment of the people who fought for an authentic vision of democracy and freedom. Mandela certainly was a great man, and the movement he led is one of the triumphs of the last century.

topic modeling and a theory of language

The much-anticipated special issue of Poetics devoted to topic modeling in cultural sociology is now available, and it’s a beaut! Props to John Mohr and Petko Bogdanov for editing the special issue, and to all the authors for an exciting group of articles.

There is, quite appropriately, a lot of buzz about the potential of “big data” and quantitative analysis of text, in particular for cultural analysis since so much of culture seems to make its way into text in one form or another.  The articles in the special issue combine into a grand showcase of the possibilities of quantitative analysis of text.  I’ll comment on most of them below. But I think most of them–like much quantitative analysis of text in general–suffer from some theoretical shortcomings. Specifically:

  • with the partial exception of the Mohr, Wagner-Pacifici, Breiger, and Bogdanov article, the studies lack a well-conceptualized theory of language, which leads to some conceptual slippage.
  • there is little attention to the conditions of production of text: whose words, and which words, are written down, archived, and digitized.

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hypothesis posed, hypothesis tested

Kim Weeden sent me a guest post based on the post I wrote yesterday for Scatterplot.  I include it in full below.  At this rate we are moving toward A Unified Theory Of Sex Differences In Academia faster than most sociology journals can even get something under review.
In Jeremy’s last post, he offered this hypothesis, “Men are more likely than women to submit comments to journals that directly attack a paper that was previously published in that journal.” It so happens that I can offer some data that are relevant to the hypothesis. 

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men are from mars, women are from venus: the sociology edition

Greetings from Australia, where I am on research leave.  I keep meaning to write to y’all about the extensive comparative authethnography I have done by this point of dining out in tipping versus non-tipping societies.  (Hint: anybody who tells you tipping doesn’t make a difference is either unobservant or an ideologue.)

Anyway, wanted to poke my head out of the socblog hidey-hole becuase of the report from Social Problems that included the observation men were more likely to appeal decisions than women.  First, I cannot imagine that this is not a more correct broader generalization about sex differences in likelihood of appeal.  We don’t get many appeals at TESS, but, for every example that comes to mind, it was a guy doing the appealing.  More to the point, though, I want to establish a claim for two ancillary hypothesis that I think are related to the idea that men and women respond differently to disciplinary stimuli, so I can say it was my idea if anybody actually looks at this someday:

Hypothesis 1:  Men are more likely than women to write the blind reviews of manuscripts that prompt authors to appeal.

Hypothesis 2:  Men are more likely than women to submit comments to journals that directly attack a paper that was previously published in that journal.

on teaching durkheim at the high holidays

Many Septembers I find myself teaching Durkheim right around the Jewish high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). I’ve often felt a degree of connection between the two: the juxtaposition between ritual and scholarship that characterizes the high holiday services, the emphasis on separating the holy from the ordinary, the sacred from the profane. My point in this post is not to establish that Durkheim’s work is in some way essentially Jewish, but to highlight this affinity. I also want to emphasize that I am no expert in Judaism; these are impressions I’ve noticed. Continue reading

happy sixth birthday scatterplot!

On this day in 2007 you were born! Time flies. 

junior theorists’ symposium

The Junior Theorists’ Symposium has been a really successful, exciting place to be for a good number of years now. Tell everyone you know to submit and attend!

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