somber thoughts about possible futures: solidarity or exclusion?

The following is a guest post by José Itzigsohn.

The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening the lives of people worldwide. It has certainly increased the level of risk we are all exposed to. Ulrich Beck and others have described our times in terms of a risk society, and the pandemics seem to confirm this view. Of course, exposure  to risk has always been unequal. The marginalized sectors of the world economy have always been exposed to high levels of risk (from illnesses, to violence, to exclusion), while the economic elites and the middle classes have been able to protect themselves and to some extent shelter themselves from risk. And exposure to the coronavirus, access to health care, and the risk of losing one’s life are highly correlated to class and to race in our racialized class system. But the pandemic has increased the risk for all, mounting the risks of people who already live precarious lives, but also putting at higher risk the lives and livelihoods of people who usually enjoy some mechanisms of protection from the “conventional” risks we were used to living with. It is hard to think of a previous crisis that has affected all parts of the world at the same time and in such a radical way (at least within the memory of most living people).

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testing amid turmoil

The following is a guest post by Zach Griffen.

A specter is haunting the U.S. education system—the specter of not being able to carry out the routine administration of standardized tests. While written achievement tests were considered controversial in U.S. schools throughout the 19th century, by the mid-20th century it became acceptable to measure the “merit” of individuals via instruments such as IQ tests. Nowhere was this more true than in the higher education system, where competition between institutions led to shifting definitions of merit and to assertions about the role standardized testing should play in a meritocracy. Today, in the middle of a public health crisis that makes such testing difficult (if not impossible), both critics and advocates of standardized testing are raising new questions about teaching and the measurement of learning in the U.S. What role will academics—and teachers, students, university administrators, and others—play in this process?

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towards a sociology of trolleys: luft on moral cognition

How Michael Schur's The Good Place tackles moral philosophy with a ...
From The Good Place, s2e05, “The Trolley Problem.”

The trolley problem is a classic thought experiment in moral philosophy. A quick version is: should you pull a switch to change the tracks of a moving trolley to hit only one person when it’s currently on a set of tracks that will lead it to hit five?

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adjusting expectations for empathy and equity in the wake of COVID-19

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, college and university instructors have been asked to keep teaching. Faced with that mandate, some instructors have to tried to stick as closely as possible to “business as usual”—transitioning to online instruction but otherwise keeping their expectations for students the same. That could mean required, on-time attendance, maybe even with checks on active engagement. It could mean keeping all the original assignments and deadlines in place, and maybe even adding new modules and assignments. It could mean online exams held during the normally scheduled times, maybe even with identity verification, browser controls, and live proctoring to keep students from cheating.

Now, I understand that those “business as usual” expectations might give some instructors the sense of normalcy they need to keep teaching in the face of so much uncertainty. At the same time, though, and as I argued in a recent webinar for Indiana University’s Office of Diversity and inclusion, those “business as usual” expectations are no longer equitable—if they ever were at all.

If our students signed up to take in-person classes this semester, then we can’t expect that they’ll be able to seamlessly make the switch online. We can’t expect that students will have consistent access to internet or to a personal laptop or tablet they can rely on to make Zoom calls, download video, take exams, or do assignments online. We can’t expect that students will have a safe place to live, enough food to eat, a distraction-free environment where they can study, or enough time to show up for classes. And we can’t expect that the students who need help will feel comfortable enough to ask.

Given the challenges students are facing, many instructors—myself included—have abandoned “business as usual” and radically shifted their expectations for students. That decision, however, is likely to be easier for tenured faculty—myself included—than it is for grad student instructors, adjunct faculty, lecturers, and tenure-track junior faculty. That decision is also likely to be easier for instructors from more privileged groups—myself included—than it is for instructors from systematically marginalized groups.

If you’re an instructor with a more tenuous status, lowering expectations in the wake of the coronavirus might feel risky. You might worry about being judged—by advisors and colleagues, by hiring committees, award committees, and tenure committees, or even by your own students. You might worry about how those judgments will affect your course evaluations or your chances of getting hired, promoted, tenured, or picked for a teaching award.

My goal in this post is to give you language you can use to justify choosing equity and empathy over “business as usual” in the wake of COVID-19. First, I’ll offer a few general suggestions for instructors on adjusting expectations and avoiding further harm. Second, I’ll share the message I sent my undergraduate students explaining how I would be adjusting my expectations for the remainder of the semester. Finally, I’ll share a template you can use in teaching statements for job applications, tenure dossiers, or other materials to explain how you’ve adjusted your own courses during this challenging time.

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rector, actor, other (oh and also…modernity)

The following is a guest post by Isaac Ariail Reed and sketches the framework from his new book, “Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King’s Two Bodies.”

A recurrent feature of game-theoretical economics, political science and sociology is the principal-agent problem. Many phenomena in the social world can be described in terms of the (various) theories of principals and agents. Want to understand how Southwest Airlines broke into the industry? Why presidents do not exit losing wars? Why it was an advantage for Kennedy in his standoff with Khrushchev to have a “rogue” general who favored nuclear war? Why corruption is not only a collective action problem? Principal-agent theory is here to help! A principal sends an agent to do a task, under some kind of contract or agreement, establishing a relationship subject to certain constraints, and open to certain possibilities. If we can describe these constraints and possibilities, we can explain a lot.  Does agent know more than principal? Does principal have the capacity to punish agent, reward agent, or both? And so on.

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don’t sacrifice college to the pandemic

I wrote a letter to the NY Times in response to Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens’ “What is a College Education in the Time of Coronavirus?“. Unsurprisingly, the letter was not published, so I offer it here as a conversation-starter on lessons we should and shouldn’t learn from higher education’s current situation.

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2008 & the sociology job market

It looks like we’re in another “economic downturn,” and many PhDs are understandably worried about what it means for the future of the sociology job market. I haven’t been to Delphi or stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, but I am knee-deep in historical ASA reports. Here’s what the data look like for how the 2008 recession affected the sociology job market in the US. Spoiler: I don’t think the market ever recovered, and more hopeful estimates say it took 4 years to recover.

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