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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imagining sociology’s theorists as contestants on a home design show

A while back, I made a joke on Facebook about panopticons and open floor plans, and a friend commented that she’d love to see a version of the television show House Swap featuring Goffman and Parsons. That gem of an idea (thanks Carolyn Chernoff) then became this Twitter post, imagining various sociological theorists as contestants on a home design competition show (I was bingeing Ellen’s Design Challenge at the time).

I ended up sharing the thread with my Intro Soc students, and I thought I’d share it here, too. It’s a clever way to help students compare key points from each theorist, and it could also work as inspiration for a creative class assignment. You could have your students apply the same concept and imagine various theorists as contestants on food competition shows or quiz shows or as popular athletes or musicians.

Here’s the setup: Imagine that some of Sociology’s theorists are contestants on a home design competition show. Each theorist has been asked to choose a chair to complete a particular room. 

chairs

Host: Welcome to Soc Theory Design Challenge! First up, we have Talcott Parsons. Tell us about your design.

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the first day of school

Wednesday was my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten. And I managed to get through the whole day without any tears. I got through Thursday’s drop-off, too, even when my daughter stopped me outside the school and said: “You don’t need to come in, Mom. I know where to go.”

As I walked back home, I scrolled through Twitter on my phone. And that’s when I first saw the articles.  On Wednesday, hundreds of immigrant workers in Forest, Mississippi had been detained, taken away without warning when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers raided the food processing plants where they worked.

The children of those workers came home from school to empty, locked houses. They were crying and looking desperately for their parents. It was their first day of school, too.

Wednesday was my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten. And I managed to get through the whole day without any tears. I got through Thursday’s drop-off, too, even when my daughter stopped me outside the school and said: “You don’t need to come in, Mom. I know where to go.”

As I walked back home, I scrolled through Twitter on my phone. And that’s when I first saw the articles.  On Wednesday, hundreds of immigrant workers in Forest, Mississippi had been detained, taken away without warning when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers raided the food processing plants where they worked.

The children of those workers came home from school to empty, locked houses. They were crying and looking desperately for their parents. It was their first day of school, too.

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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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“whole milk or two-percent?” mommy shaming in the doctor’s office

*cross-posted at parenthoodphd.com*

Last week, I took my son to the doctor for his 15-month check-up. I tried to keep my son entertained while the nurse went through the standard battery of questions, entering my answers on her laptop:

Is he in a rear-facing car seat? Yes.

Are there smoke detectors in the home? Yes.

Does anyone in the house smoke cigarettes? No.

Is he exposed to wood smoke? No.

Is he still breastfeeding? Yes.

Does he drink cow’s milk, too? Yes.

But then she followed up with one that required more brainpower.

Does he drink whole milk or two percent?

If I had been on my A-game, I probably would’ve gone with the “right” answer (whole milk). But I was trying to keep my son from catapulting himself off the exam table, so I went with distracted honesty: “Uh, a mix of both.”

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