galloway and the perpetually-to-come disruption

What is transmitted in higher learning?… Limiting ourselves to a narrowly functionalist point of view, an organized stock of established knowledge is the essential thing that is transmitted. The application of new technologies to this stock may have a considerable impact on the medium of communication. It does not seem absolutely necessary that the medium be a lecture delivered in person by a teacher in front of silent students, with questions reserved for sections or “practical work” sessions run by an assistant. To the extent that learning is translatable into computer language and the traditional teacher is replaceable by memory banks, didactics can be entrusted to machines linking traditional memory banks (libraries, etc.) and computer data banks to intelligent terminals placed at the students’ disposal. Pedagogy would not necessarily suffer. The students would still have to be taught something: not contents, but how to use the terminals.

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what I’ve learned: chairing unc’s general education curriculum redesign

From 2016-2019 I had two positions that have taught me a lot about academic leadership and organizations. I led the process of redeveloping UNC’s General Education curriculum, “IDEAs in Action,” which was approved in April 2019; and I sat on the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) elected Council. These two blog posts are intended to explain some of the things I’ve learned from both of these experiences .

This first post will deal with what I’ve learned from three years chairing the curriculum redesign process.

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the milgram study and the suppression of violence research

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In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a study on conformity to authority that is now infamous among social scientists. The study was relatively straightforward. Participants would be asked to administer shocks to another human who had performed poorly on a test. They were told that doing so could help the poor performer learn to do better. If a participant resisted administering the shocks, a member of the research team would insist that the participant continue for the good of the research. The shocks increased in intensity over the course of the study, reaching a level that could be lethal. In reality, there was no one receiving these shocks, but a paid actor would pretend to be hurt, leading the participant to believe that they had caused real harm to another real person. As a surprise to the researchers, over half of participants administered the final “lethal” shock. The findings from this study are commonly used to explain how genocides are perpetrated. Milgram and his team argued that ordinary people are willing to commit incomprehensible acts of violence so long as someone in authority assures them it is the right thing to do.

I first encountered the Milgram study as an undergrad in an introductory psychology class. By the time I graduated, I learned about the study in at least three other classes. Each time, the discussion was essentially the same. Our professor would insist that the findings from the study are important, but that the study is unethical due to the harm it caused participants. That harm was described as the emotional trauma of walking around with the knowledge that you could—and would—murder another person if someone asked you to do so. There are other ethical issues as well, including the deception used by the research team and how difficult it was for participants to withdraw their consent to be in the study, but they were also tied back to that main concern: the weight on the conscience of a participant who administered that “lethal” shock.

As a professor, I was prepared to have the same discussion with my students in Science, Power and Diversity as we discussed research ethics. But when it came time to do so, I had a different perspective on the Milgram study that comes from my own work with perpetrators of sexual violence—and how hard it is to research them.

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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.

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

why the liberal arts? the value of general education

This post comes out of my work chairing UNC’s General Education Curriculum Revision effort. I’m posting it here on Scatterplot instead of on the Curriculum site because it represents my own view, not a formal statement from the committee. 

Unusual among our public-flagship peers, Carolina requires all undergraduate students to enroll first in the College of Arts & Sciences, even if they ultimately major in one of the professional schools. This reflects a core commitment to the liberal arts as the foundation for all undergraduate education at Carolina. Implicit in this organization is the claim that broad, serious education in the liberal arts is the best way to prepare students for future study as well as for leadership, citizenship, and professional life.

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on carolina contextual transcript policy’s woes

Some background: since 2009 I’ve been working on grade transparency as one policy response to grade inflation, grade compression, and grade inequality at UNC. (See here, here, here, and here, among others.) After many, many meetings, conversations, presentations, and discussions, at last week’s Faculty Council meeting the Educational Policy Committee delivered a report on the policy that may well signal its demise. Below are the comments I made at the Faculty Council meeting in the discussion on that report. Continue reading “on carolina contextual transcript policy’s woes”

on the fetish character of theory and the regression of reading

The seductive power of sensual charm survives only where the forces of denial are strongest. If asceticism once reacted against the sensuous aesthetic, asceticism has today become the sign of advanced art. All “light” and pleasant art has become illusory and false. What makes its appearance esthetically in the pleasure categories can no longer give pleasure. The musical consciousness of the masses today is “displeasure in pleasure” — the unconscious recognition of “false happiness.”

–Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” 1938

Jeff Guhin innocently posted to Facebook that “doing a lecture on Habermas is ridiculous.” He may well be right, for many different kinds of reasons. But in the (lengthy!) conversation that followed, two critiques were raised that I think deserve separate treatment. They are:

  1. That much theory, including Habermas and, all the more so, his Frankfurt predecessors, is too difficult to read to make it worthwhile; and
  2. Reading theorists like Habermas is really mostly about the history of social thought and has no payoff for empirical or analytical sociology.

I think both of these are wrong.

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social defense systems

I started teaching Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy in my class last week. Despite being a mathematician by training (she goes by the moniker mathbabe online), the book makes a strong case for the importance of social science generally and sociology in particular.

O’Neil looks ouweaponsmath-r4-6-06t at the land of big data and its various uses in algorithms and sees problems everywhere. Quantitative and statistical principles are badly abused in the service of “finding value” in systems, whether this be through firing bad teachers, targeting predatory loans, reducing the risk of employee turnover by using models that incorporate past mental health issues, or designing better ads to sniff out for-profit university matriculates. Wherever we look, she shows, we can find mathematical models used to eke out gains for their creators. Those gains destroy the lives of those affected by algorithms that they sometimes don’t even know exist.

Unlike treatises that declare algorithms universally bad or always good, O’Neil asks three questions to determine whether we should classify a model as a “weapon of math destruction”:

  1. Is the model opaque?
  2. Is it unfair? Does it damage or destroy lives?
  3. Can it scale?

These questions actually eliminate the math entirely. By doing so, O’Neil makes it possible to study WMDs by their characteristics not their content. One need not know anything about the internal workings of the model at all to attempt to answer these three empirical questions. More than any other contribution that O’Neil makes, defining the opacity-damage-scalability schema to identify WMDs as social facts makes the book valuable.

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want to live somewhere diverse? find a suburb

I hope that you will forgive the shameless self-promotion, but I recently published a paper in Sociological Science (yay open access!) that examined neighborhood racial change in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston metropolitan neighborhoods with an amazingly talented colleague, Siri Warkentien.

We find mixed results related to future racial integration. On the negative side we find that recent estimates overestimate the stability of long-term racial integration. Previous studies don’t really examine the pace of neighborhood change, which reveals many integrated neighborhoods are in fact resegregating.

On a more positive note, we find that some neighborhoods really do maintain multiethnic segregation over many decades. We call those neighborhoods “quadrivial neighborhoods,” which, in Latin, means four roads coming together. These neighborhoods emerged during the 1990s and seem to make up the fastest-growing category of neighborhood in the past couple of decades (though they are not coming about as fast, nor are they as common as some have estimated).

One of the contributions that I hope we make is showing the geography of neighborhood change. Unlike previous studies, we map where different types of neighborhood changes occur. The model assigns the probability of membership to different types of neighborhood change for each neighborhood (which we defined as Census tracts); we then mapped the results. You can look for yourself on the website which we built for the project. These might be helpful if you are teaching about neighborhood change or segregation, particularly in one of the four metro areas that we studied.

The big take-aways? The black “ghetto” — that area created by malign and benign neglect of black neighborhoods — has expanded out into the outlying suburban communities (places outside of New York and Chicago that are akin to Ferguson in St. Louis.). Increasing Latino and Asian segregation looks more like a checkerboard. Pockets of increasing Latino population are surrounded by neighborhoods experiencing less or slower racial change. And finally, those quadrivial neighborhoods? Not in central cities where we focus on the diversity of the creative class. Almost all are in the suburbs or, at the very least, outlying neighborhoods in the city.

The moral, as far as I can tell from out study: racial segregation will continue to be a problem; and if you want to live somewhere really racially diverse, start looking in the ‘burbs.

(And a huge shout-out goes to Neal Carren who introduced me to d3.js on this very blog.)

cost-cutting in higher ed

In the Washington Post earlier this week, Steve Pearlstein published a piece promoting four things universities should do to cut costs:

  1. Cap administrative costs
  2. Operate year round, five days a week
  3. More teaching, less (mediocre) research
  4. Cheaper, better general education

The next day, Daniel Drezner responded with four things columnists should do before writing about universities.

  1. Define what you mean by “universities.”
  2. Don’t exaggerate the problems that actually exist.
  3. Don’t rely on outdated data.
  4. Be honest that you’re using higher ed reform as an implicit industrial policy.

Continue reading “cost-cutting in higher ed”

fun with musical taste and identity

In my intro theory class yesterday I did an exercise using PollEverywhere to evoke associations between musical taste and identity. I played four musical pieces and asked the students to type free-text responses to “What kind of people like this song?”. Their responses were lots of fun, and I present them below in raw form for your enjoyment, interest, and comment.

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mastering sociology

What purpose does a terminal MA in sociology serve and what purpose should a terminal MA in sociology serve?

These questions have come to my mind after spending three years in a department with a terminal masters program (and no Ph.D. program). To partially answer the first question, I can say that there seem to be three kinds of students who enter our program:

  1. Students who want to pursue a Ph.D. program and either don’t have the credentials to be accepted currently or don’t feel like they have the credentials to be accepted;
  2. Students who receive some kind of promotion or pay for holding a Master’s degree; and
  3. Students how liked undergrad and want to continue in school with a vague idea that they want to do non-academic research (e.g., in think-tanks) who might also be, possibly, maybe-in-the-future, considering a Ph.D. program.

For the first group, the terminal MA seems to serve a defined goal. The information to make the decision is "knowable," though I am not sure how many follow solid advice not to enter Ph.D. programs. The second group probably makes the most sense since everything is on the table. The benefits seem clear for those in the second category since one could evaluate what one would pay in tuition or student loans against the expected future return in increased salary.

It is the third group which concerns me.

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your dissertation is as important as your dog.

I just wrapped up a two week course for graduate students on effective and engaging teaching in the social sciences and humanities. The first day of class, as we talked about issues we’d like to cover over the session, one student asked how to ensure that teaching doesn’t take up all her time so that she can actually finish her dissertation.

I outlined my core belief when it comes to teaching (don’t reinvent the wheel) and a handful of strategies I had discovered worked well for work-life balance in general: have a strict schedule and clearly outlined goals, and be sure to block out time for your non-student self.* I made an off-hand remark about how, in my research on graduate students, I found that students with children were much better at all three of those things than students without, but particularly the last one, because they felt they had a good excuse for “turning off” their grad student role.

The student who originally asked the question piped up, “Oh, I get that. I’m great at calling it a day to go take care of my dog.” I asked her to pretend, for just a moment, that her dissertation was as important as her dog. If she could stop herself from writing too many comments on her students’ papers or tweaking the reading list again or over-preparing for the next day’s lectures because she knew she had to go home to take her dog out, surely she stop herself from doing all those things because she had to take care of her own research.

Bottom line: Setting aside time for your research while you’re teaching isn’t neglecting your students, it’s taking care of you and your career (and ensuring you can still afford dog food when you finish your PhD).

– –

*It can be tough, because of all the immediate reinforcement that teaching and the classroom provides, but as Jeremy illustrates, anything (including research or ones dissertation) can be turned in to a game that offers similar psychological incentives.

 

gradebook rant

I use what seems to me to be a very logical grading system. I grade papers on a letter grade scale and then calculate grades as a weighted average of these letter grades. Say there are three papers weighted 25%, 25% and 50% that got BC, B, and A respectively. The grade would be 2.5*.25 + 3*.25 + 4*.5 = 3.375, a grade I would then interpret as a low AB. Clear, logical, fair.But as far as I can tell, the course software cannot handle this kind of grading. It assumes that everything is percentages or points. So I cannot use it as an online gradebook. And I have had over the years a large fraction of TAs who cannot quite understand the logic grading papers with (gasp!) grades. To me this seems only logical. Ultimately we will give letter grades, why not set the standards for the grades and grade that way from the beginning? But, instead, they set up their own 10-point or 100-point schemes for grading papers, and then I have to ask them, well, so how does this translate into grades?

For things like tests or homeworks that are more point-like, I use linear equations to transform the points to the 4-point range and put those into the grade calculations in the same way. This is a little more outre and would not have been possible back in the days of paper gradebooks, but after all, you have to take algebra BEFORE you get to college, and we have had computers with spreadsheet programs readily available on college campuses now since the mid-1980s.

So I ask you, why is my university still assuming that everything will be calculated on a percentage basis and then curved to grades? For that matter, why are most of you just blindly assuming that everything should be done in percentages even though virtually every school in the US reports grades on a 4-point letter grade scale? There are a lot of reasons why the percentage-point system has problematic properties, but even if you have a good reason to like it, is it really that hard to understand why I’d like my system, or understand why I prefer it? Is it really that crazy to expect that to be an option in campus course software?