no more accommodations: how operation varsity blue changed my approach to in-class exams

There are so many horrifying pieces to the recent college admissions scandal. Dozens of celebrity and CEO parents have been indicted for lying and cheating to get their kids into “top” colleges. Some created fake athlete profiles and paid off coaches to get their kids in. Others paid for fake test scores. And still others had their children fake learning disabilities to get extra time on the SATs.

That last part. The fake disabilities part. That’s the part I can’t let go. And that’s how I found myself digging through the details of the affidavit, looking for an explanation.

There are so many horrifying pieces to the recent college admissions scandal. Dozens of celebrity and CEO parents have been indicted for lying and cheating to get their kids into “top” colleges. Some created fake athlete profiles and paid off coaches to get their kids in. Others paid for fake test scores. And still others had their children fake learning disabilities to get extra time on the SATs.

That last part. The fake disabilities part. That’s the part I can’t let go. And that’s how I found myself digging through the details of the affidavit, looking for an explanation.

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flexible coding for field notes

As I tell my grad students, almost no one does “pure” grounded theory. It’s technically impossible (we can’t forget everything we’ve read before going into the field). And, as Nicole Deterding and Mary Waters explain in their recent Sociological Research & Methods article, it’s a poor fit for twenty-first century qualitative research (often large-scale projects with fixed protocols, as required by IRBs and grant funding agencies).

Given the limitations of grounded theory, Deterding and Waters offer a different approach, which they call “flexible coding.” I won’t go through their method in detail, but the basic approach has a couple of steps:

  1. Organization
  2. Indexing
  3. Memoing
  4. Data Reduction

The whole point of this approach is to allow for a more systematic analysis of qualitative data. And Deterding and Waters lay out what these three steps can look like with semi-structured interview data. It’s a terrific, hands-on guide to qualitative methods. But it left me wondering – what does flexible coding look like with ethnographic data, instead?

Reflecting on that question, I realized that I actually did a version of “flexible coding” with my research for Negotiating Opportunities. So I thought I’d share here in case it’s useful for other students and scholars embarking on ethnographic projects (or trying to climb their way up the mountain of ethnographic data they’ve already produced).

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“it’s not fair”

“It’s not fair.”

If you spend time with kids, you probably hear those words a lot. And for adults, it’s easy to respond with “Life isn’t fair.” But if your kid is growing up with privilege, that response is problematic.

It’s problematic because when a privileged kid says “it’s not fair,” what they almost always mean is “I’m not getting what I want.” So if an adult responds with “life’s not fair,” what the kid hears is “You’re not getting what you want, and that’s not fair.”

That response teaches privileged kids to see fairness only through their own eyes. To ignore the real injustices that exist in the world, or, maybe worse, to see their own inconveniences as equally “unfair.”

So if your privileged kid says “it’s not fair,” acknowledge what they’re feeling, but challenge their meaning of “fair.”

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holiday office party: soc theory edition

It’s that time of year again – time for colleagues to gather in office conference rooms, drink a little punch, and maybe swap tactfully dull gifts. And that got me thinking – what would sociology’s theorists bring to a holiday gift exchange?

Here’s what I’d guess:

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the new digital divide on college campuses

It’s easy to look around a college campus and think – there’s no digital divide here. While waiting for class (or even walking to class) students pass the time by scrolling through Instagram or checking email on their phones. After class, students retreat to the library or to their dorm rooms to do homework on their laptops. These devices are ubiquitous to the point where some college professors have opted to ban them or relegate them to certain corners of the classroom.

And yet, despite that ubiquity, today’s college students are still very much divided along digital lines. In a new article published in the journal Communication Research, my co-authors—University of California Santa Barbara Communications Professor Amy Gonzales and Ohio State Communications Professor Teresa Lynch—and I argue that the digital divide on college campuses has shifted from one of technology access to one of technology maintenance. In a survey of college students at a large, midwestern university, we find near-universal ownership of cell phones and laptops. That said, we also find big gaps in the quality and reliability of the technology students own. Specifically, we find that students of color and students from low-income families typically rely on older, lower-quality devices that are more likely to break down over time.

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go the f* to sleep

Travel with kids is rarely a vacation. But the trip we took last week left me utterly exhausted. And that exhaustion left me angry and on-edge. Which in turn sent me down a late-night rabbit hole into the research on parenting and sleep.

To give you the bleary-eyed backstory, we were visiting my in-laws in Florida for Thanksgiving. And my one-and-a-half-year-old went on a sleep strike. He’d go to bed fine around 7:30pm. But sometime between 10pm and 1am, he’d wake up screaming. And refuse to go back to sleep. My partner would try his best to soothe him, but kiddo would just scream and scream. And with a condo full of people (including a sleeping four-year-old down the hall), we couldn’t risk letting him get too loud. So I’d scoop him up and try my best to get him back to sleep. Sometimes I’d nurse him. Sometimes I’d walk in circles and sing to him softly. That almost always stopped the screaming. And most of the time I eventually got him back to sleep. But, inevitably, thirty minutes or so later, he’d be awake again. One night, he woke up more than ten times.

When I couldn’t take it anymore, usually sometime between 3am and 5am, I’d bring kiddo in bed with me. I’d tuck him into the crook of my arm, his head resting softly on my shoulder. And, almost immediately, he’d settle into a quiet sleep.

Now, that might sound like a sweet solution (and it’s not an uncommon one), but it was far from slumber-full. Because babies don’t actually sleep like babies. They sleep like wriggling worms. Kiddo would start off all curled up beside me. But then, thirty minutes later, he’d want to be on my other side. Then on my chest. Then, his favorite, with his face pressed up against mine. So even when he slept, I rarely did.

And the less sleep I got, the more the normal frustrations of parenting grated on my nerves.

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notes from the field: show how you know what you know

Let’s say you’re working on an ethnographic project. And you just spent an hour – or three – in the field. Now you’re sitting at your computer. And you know you’re supposed to write fieldnotes based on what you saw. But where should you start? And what should you write? And how should you write it?

It’s easy to assume that fieldnotes are just a running log of everything that happened during your visit to the field. But that running log approach is problematic, at least on its own.

As a reviewer, I’ve read countless studies where the methods section describes how the author conducted both interviews and observations. But then only the interview data appear in the text. The fieldnote data are nowhere to be found. My hunch is that, in most of those cases, the fieldnotes just weren’t useful. Because they weren’t detailed enough for a reader to make sense of them. Or, worse, because they weren’t detailed enough for the author to make sense of when they went back and looked at them six months later.

How do I know this? Because when I first started my dissertation, I wrote my fieldnotes as a running log of everything I saw. And the stuff I wrote in those first few weeks of data collection ended up being almost completely unusable. Because it lacked detail. And because it lacked context.

So, why not write a detailed, contextualized description of everything that happened? Because there aren’t enough hours in a day.

And that means you’ll have to make choices about what to include in your fieldnotes and what not to include. But that’s okay. Because the point of ethnographic fieldwork isn’t to describe in detail everything you saw. Rather, the point of ethnographic fieldwork is to gather the data you need to answer your research question.

So here’s what I tell my students:

  1. After you leave the field, write a brief, running log of everything you saw.
  2. Circle the three events or interactions most relevant to your research question. And definitely circle any incidents that don’t fit your hypotheses or the larger patterns you’ve seen.
  3. Write up each of those three events as a short story, with clear context, characters, action, motivation, and resolution.

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