more on text analysis

Laura Nelson has an excellent discussion of topic modeling on badhessian, which in part takes me to task for my comments on the Poetics issue on topic modeling. Unfortunately the diqus system that handles comments there doesn’t like me, and so has eaten my comments twice. So I’m posting them here, and perhaps someone smarter than I am can make them into a bona fide comment on the site.

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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 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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