facing the fall with empathy

The following is a guest post by Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana.

In March, universities across the country shifted to online learning and adopted policies to account for students’ lives in the midst of a global pandemic. Many administrators asked professors to consider students’ circumstances and to teach with compassion. My university advised that “Our students’ lives are already complex, and shifting instructional modes in the middle of the semester will increase complications. Some students may also, unfortunately, become ill. Be prepared to provide more flexibility than usual.” While there were debates about what that should look like, the message was universally one of empathy and compassion. Yet the tone around decisions about the fall has been business as usual. Instead of compassion, the implicit message became one of returning to normalcy. As one university President stated of the decision to go online in the fall, “we will focus our attention on perfecting remote learning, teaching and working. It will not be the same, but it will be good.” This despite that it seems unlikely that anything about the fall will be normal for students or any other university employees for that matter. We can all hope for normal operations by September, but it is imperative to enter the fall with the same compassion with which we finished out the spring. COVID continues to affect Americans’ lives and the frustration and anger of recent BLM protests remains unaddressed.

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15,000+ academics oppose international student ban

Earlier this week, the US government announced a new policy that would prevent international students from staying in the country if their universities offered entirely online courses. This policy was designed to force universities to reopen, even if doing so is unsafe and against public health advice. Harvard and MIT have already sued to prevent the policy taking effect and other universities have condemned the policy.

Sociologist Heba Gowayed organized the below open letter for faculty to express their opposition to this cruel policy. More than 15,000 academics have signed the letter so far. You can sign the letter here and view the list of signatories here. Another petition (for anyone, not just faculty) has garnered almost 200,000 signatures and can be signed here.

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colleges are more like cruise ships and bars than kindergartens and elementary schools

The following post is co-authored with Jessica Calarco.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, policymakers at the national, state, and local level are scrambling to decide what can reopen while limiting the virus’s spread. In some sense, we can think of the overall rate of infection of the virus as a kind of budget constraint. As long as the rate of spread is kept below 1, the virus is under control. If too much opens up, and the rate goes above 1, the virus will begin to overwhelm the healthcare system, as we’re currently seeing in Arizona, South Carolina, and Texas. Keeping everything closed would certainly help avoid that outcome. But keeping everything closed also comes with costs to the economic and social/emotional well-being of individuals, organizations, and society as a whole. Thus, the question that policymakers face – at least assuming they want to avoid massive, unnecessary deaths – is what to reopen given that some things have to stay closed? Or, put differently, which institutions are so critical to society that reopening them for in-person use is ultimately worth the risk? 

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levels of racism: individual, organizational, institutional, and systemic

Discussions of racism tend to get tangled up in issues of level of analysis.1 Sociologists (e.g. Bonilla-Silva) and critical race theorists (e.g. Haney-López), among others, have long argued that we need to understand racism as something that works “beyond” or “above” the individual, building on arguments that go back to Stokely Carmichael’s distinction between individual and institutional racism. In talking through these ideas with friends and students, I’ve found that the terminology can be confusing – in part because sociologists (and non-sociologists) have used terms like institution and structure to mean so many different, overlapping things. In this post, I outline my idiosyncratic terminology for characterizing different levels of racism when trying to explain these interwoven concepts. For me, it’s been useful to break down racism into four levels that are at least partially nested: individual, organizational, institutional, and systemic.2

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anti-racist research practices and the value of teach-ins

The following is a guest post by Nabila Islam.

On Friday, June 12, 2020, fourteen[1] sociology graduate students at Brown University held a teach-in on how to support BLM in academia at the Population Studies Training Center (PSTC), an interdisciplinary center for the study of population issues. The teach-in evolved from the invitation that sociology graduate students (with support of staff and faculty) had extended in the department’s statement in support of BLM. The letter had urged members of the sociology community to have conversations with and beyond each other on how to combat anti-black racism and to produce anti-racist research. Susan Short, sociologist and Director of PSTC, asked graduate students if they wanted to hold an event or a meeting at the center as a follow-up. The students decided on holding a teach-in on race and racism in the academy. In the tradition of teach-ins and public sociology, the event mixed theoretical discussions with conversations about praxis and centered the coming together of the PSTC community to discuss recent political events and possible futures. During the second part of the teach-in, the attendees were invited to participate in facilitated breakout sessions to brainstorm anti-racist practices in research, as well as in institutional and interpersonal situations within the academy. The suggestions below are the result of those collaborative conversations. Recently there have been discussions on how professors in all disciplines can talk to students about race and racism. Teach-ins potentially provide a way to challenge status and generational divides between students, staff and faculty on campus while offering opportunities to rearticulate the meaning of community and to create anti-racist publics within the academy.

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sociologists against systemic racism and anti-black police violence

Today, the graduate students of the Brown Sociology department, with support from faculty and staff, put out a statement in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the ongoing protests against police violence. The text of the statement is reproduced below; the full statement including signatures is available here. This statement joins those from the American Sociological Association, Sociologists for Women in Society, and other sociology departments including Temple University, UCSD (in the comments below), University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, and Wake Forest University. Please post links to any other statements by sociology associations or departments that you come across in the comments below, and I’ll add them to this list.

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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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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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social and economic aspects of the coronavirus pandemic

It’s hard to even begin blogging about something so vast and ever-shifting. This post is just going to be a short pointer to a couple of the best pieces I’ve seen covering the social and economic angles of the pandemic.

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doing things with bags-of-words

The following is a guest post by Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra.

Topic models are fast emerging as a workhorse of computational social science. Since their introduction in the late 1990s as part of a larger family of classification and indexing algorithms, they have grown into one of the most common and convenient means for automated text analysis. Not too long ago, using topic methods confronted scholars unfamiliar with programming with steep learning curves: even the simplest implementations required some familiarity with coding in addition to a good deal of patience. Today, by contrast, topic modeling is available as part of point-and-click desktop applications (e.g. Context) and can be installed in widely used statistical analysis packages (e.g. Stata). The relative ease, scalability, and intelligibility of topic models explains, perhaps, their quick adoption across sociology, political science, and the digital humanities. Indeed, to say that topic models are the OLS of text analysis wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration.

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to tweet or not to tweet? tips and tricks for sociology grad students

Earlier this week, I was asked to help organize an event for graduate students seeking advice on the “responsible use of twitter for grad students.” Of course, my first instinct was to crowdsource advice from #SocTwitter itself. In this post, I gather together some of the advice suggested by others, including a list of already published or posted resources and guides.

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learning and teaching actor-network theory

Actor-network theory (ANT) is one of the most interesting and controversial recent-ish movements at the intersection of science and technology studies (STS) and social theory. (By recent-ish, I mean that it’s too new to be included in some “contemporary” social theory syllabi which stop in the 1970s or 1980s and also that the earliest writers in the movement are still active). ANT is probably most famous for its claims about the agency of non-humans actors, which is an example of its assertion of several radical forms of “symmetry”. On a few occasions, I’ve been asked for suggestions about to understand actor-network theory, or what to assign when teaching it. The following is a list of some of the pieces that have been most useful to me, and which together serve as a pretty good overview of the approach along with some pieces I think teach particularly well. There are other existing exhaustive resources and some nice overviews with extensive bibliographies (some of which are mentioned below). My goal here is not to duplicate those resources, but just to idiosyncratically note which pieces have “clicked” for me and might perhaps work for you as you try to read up on ANT or look for readings to assign in a course or add to a prelim list.
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tips and tricks for running a workshop

As a graduate student in Michigan, I benefitted from attending and participating in multiple subfield-specific workshops. As at many sociology departments, many of the most important substantive conversations and professionalization discussions happened in these workshops. I learned a ton in my graduate seminars on economic sociology or classical theory, but I learned just as much in the econ soc and theory workshops that I participated in for years after I’d stopped taking courses. As a faculty member, I’ve tried to export some of that model to Brown (which did not have as strong of a workshop culture). More recently, I’ve also had the opportunity to participate in a couple of different interdisciplinary workshops (for science studies students and for an interdisciplinary humanities group). Traveling across these different settings led me to reflect on some of my favorite practices that seem to make a workshop run well. Below, I’ll list a few small practices I’ve seen deployed to make workshops more engaging for participants and useful for presenters.

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