Can sociology classes keep up with the latest happenings in society?

A recent analysis of the top assigned sociology texts in the Open Syllabus Project has a number of interesting findings including a large number of texts from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s:

Sociology is a dynamic discipline, so the inclusion of many texts published in the past 30 years is not surprising. Nor is the continued importance of the foundational sociology texts published between 1850 and 1950. But perhaps we can see another kind of generational dynamic at work here. Most of the OSP collection comes from courses taught between 2006 and 2014. Perhaps the emphasis on works published from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s reflects a process of canonization that takes roughly 10 or 15 years, as faculty in their 40s become senior faculty in their 50s or 60s, balanced by the need to assign material that is still feels relevant to the analysis of contemporary problems, which may have a roughly similar temporal horizon. Again, the OSP offers only some data points, at present, toward an understanding of contemporary sociological knowledge. But they are suggestive ones and worth further exploration as the data set matures.

This argument makes sense: sociology faculty will tend to assign texts they are familiar with and that is likely material they know from graduate school as well work that informs their own.

But, it does raise some interesting larger questions:

  1. Certainly, it takes some time to put together good research that involves theory, data collection and analysis, and thinking about the implications. Yet, this lag in texts and current events means that individual faculty have to find ways to bridge the gap. I’m not sure the answer is to significantly speed up the publication process with journal articles and books – as it can often take years – as this limits the times needed to develop good analysis. It does suggest that other outlets – like blogs or op-eds or more popular books – might offer a solution and this may mean such work should count for something in the discipline.
  2. How much does the knowledge of faculty “freeze” in what they learned in their training or from their early career? I remember hearing that sociologists may know the most when they were doing their comprehensive exams. How well can people keep up with all the literature that arises, particularly if they have heavy teaching loads?
  3. This suggests that a lot of sociological classwork involves historical analysis as the texts used as typically from enough years ago that students don’t know all of the details of the context. How good are sociologists at doing historical analysis with undergraduates?

Haidt argues Anthro and Soc are the worst academic monocultures

Jonathan Haidt discusses the monoculture of academia and names two disciplines that may be the worst:

JOHN LEO: To many of us, it looks like a monoculture.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. It is certainly a monoculture. The academic world in the humanities is a monoculture. The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.

JOHN LEO: And why would they be hostile?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to look at the degree to which a field has a culture of activism.  Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.

Interesting view from the outside as Haidt says later in the interview, “Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists.” From the inside, a lot of sociology faculty and students seem to be at least partly motivated by wanting to address particular social issues or problems. Whether that clouds their research judgment more than social psychologists – who just want to understand the world, as any scientist would claim – would be interesting to explore.

If you haven’t read it, Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is fascinating. He argues that opposing sides – say in politics or academic disciplines – have different narratives about how the world works and this causes them to simply talk past each other. In a 2012 piece, Haidt describes the moral narratives of the American political left and right:

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

Holding so tightly to different understandings of the world means that compromising is very difficult.

Debate over data on the mental fragility of college students

A recent study suggests there is a need for more data to claim that today’s college students are more fragile:

The point, overall, is that given the dizzying array of possible factors at work here, it’s much too pat a story to say that kids are getting more “fragile” as a result of some cultural bugaboo. “I think it’s not only an oversimplification, I think it’s unfair to the kids, many of whom are very hardworking and tremendously diligent, and working in systems that are often very competitive,” said Schwartz. “Many of the kids are doing extraordinarily well, and I think it’s unfair to portray this whole group of people as being somehow weakhearted or weak-minded in some sense, when there’s no evidence to really support it.”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed among those who study college mental health that there’s an interesting divide at work here: College counselors are so convinced kids’ mental health is getting worse that it’s become dogma in some quarters, and yet it’s been tricky to find any solid, rigorous evidence of this. Some researchers have tried to dig into counseling-center data in an attempt to explain this discrepancy. One recent effort, published in the October issue of the Journal of College Student Psychopathology, comes from Allan J. Schwartz, a psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester who has devoted a chunk of his career to studying college suicide. Schwartz examined data from “4,755 clients spanning a 15-year period from 1992-2007” at one university, poring over the records to determine whether students who came in contact with that school’s counseling services had, over that period, exhibited increasing levels of distress in the form of suicidality, anxiety and phobic disorders, overall signs of serious mental illness, and other measures. (The same caveat I mentioned above applies here — such a study can only tell us about rates of pathology among kids who go to counseling centers. But it can at least help determine whether counselors are right that among the kids they see every day, things are getting worse.)

Schwartz found no evidence to support the pessimistic view. With the exception of suicidality, where he noted a “significant decline” over the years, every other measure he looked at held stable over the study’s 15-year span. In his paper, Schwartz rightly notes that there are limitations to what we can extrapolate from a study of a single campus. But he goes on to explain that four other, similar studies, published between 1996 and 2007, also sought to track changes in pathology over time in single-university settings, and they too found no empirical evidence that things have been getting worse. This doesn’t definitively prove that kids who seek counseling aren’t getting sicker, of course. But statistically, Schwartz argues, it’s unlikely that five studies looking at different schools would all come up with null findings if, in fact, there was a widespread increase in student pathology overall.

I don’t know this area of research but it sounds like there is room for disagreement and/or need for more definitive data about what is going on among college students.

A broader observation: claims about cultural zeitgeists are not always backed with data. On one hand, perhaps the change is coming so quickly or underneath the radar (it takes time for scientists and others to measure things) that data simply can’t be found. On the other hand, claims about trends are often based on anecdotes and particular points of view that break down pretty quickly when compared to data that is available.

The best ranked online sociology programs

I am not familiar with many online sociology programs but TheBestSchools.org has a ranking of the top options:

New Mexico State University’s distance education bachelor’s degree in sociology was ranked 10th in the nation for 2015-16 by TheBestSchools.org, an independent organization that focuses its ranking system on quality of programs, types of courses provided and faculty strength as well as school awards, rankings and reputation…

NMSU was listed on among the top 10 on TheBestSchools.org’s top 25 list for online sociology undergraduate programs behind schools such as Arizona State University, University of Colorado Denver and Oregon State University…

“Most of the faculty members are doing work on social issues that reflect life on the border or in the desert Southwest. So a student who lives in Toronto, Canada will take courses, not only on the basics of Sociology, such as social theory, methods, statistics, deviance, the family, etc., but they also will have an opportunity to take courses that reflect a part of the world that is so politically relevant. And they are taking these courses from faculty members who are living in that place of study. We are here.”

NMSU’s distance education bachelor’s program in sociology has grown since it began in 2003 and now serves approximately 120 majors.

See the full list of top sociology programs according to TheBestSchools.org here. There is an interesting mix of research schools (including several state system flagship schools) alongside other public and private options. The programs were selected according to these criteria:

We selected the degree programs based on the quality of the program, types of courses provided, and faculty strength, as well as school awards, rankings, and reputation.

Not surprisingly, there is not much overlap between this list and rankings of sociology programs according to sociologists and other academics. Yet, this second set of rankings is typically based on Ph.D. programs which is not going to be of use to many undergraduates. Is this list then that unusual if solely focused on sociology bachelor degrees?

“The Sociology of Harry Potter” course about culture

Taking advantage of student’s knowledge of the Harry Potter series, one sociology instructor is using “The Sociology of Harry Potter” to teach about culture:

“The basic idea is to have students use sociology to analyze the society of the wizardly world to be able to understand and compare and contrast between the Muggle world and the witching world,” Vandivier said.

About 30 students are taking the course, which Vandivier said is a large number for an online course, but she is glad for the active participation.

“Many of them are big Harry Potter fans. They get into arguments — not online, but when I’ve talked to some on campus — who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy and who’s the Hufflepuff, and what that’s got to do with anything. It’s just so fun listening to them, and they are really emotionally invested in the different houses, in the different characters, in the different circumstances that happened and where they think things came from. Just all the ideology; it’s almost like a religion,” she said…

“If I were to teach a class on say, the cultures of India, I would first have to educate them on what the culture of India is. But in this situation, they already know, they already have it down,” she said. “And I’m just facilitating a compare and contrast, what’s the theme, what’s the difference, and what does that mean for each society? So that’s the great thing about Harry Potter.”

Why not use what students already know in order to demonstrate sociological concepts? And with the new Harry Potter play in the works, this might be a good time to capitalize on continued interest.

While the sociological study of pop culture may have been taboo decades ago, it is increasingly common today. The impact of such narratives are hard to deny, even as other traditional institutions (nations, families, race and class structures, education systems, etc.) draw ongoing attention.

Patterns in college major by parent’s income

College students with parents with higher incomes study different subjects:

Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/college-major-rich-families-liberal-arts/397439/
The explanation is fairly intuitive. “It’s … consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment,” Weeden says. With average earnings for different types of degrees as well-publicized as they are—the difference in lifetime earnings among majors can be more than $3 million, one widely covered study found—it’s not hard to imagine a student deciding his or her academic path based on its expected payout. And it’s especially not hard to imagine poorer kids making this calculation out of necessity, while richer kids forgo that means-to-an-end thinking.

Another trend expressed in the data, Weeden notes, is that lower-income families and higher-income families tend to send their children to schools with different options for majors: Most of the priciest, top-tier schools don’t offer Law Enforcement as a major, for instance. There is also the possibility that children from higher-income families were more exposed to the sorts of art, music, and literature that colleges deem worthy of study, an exposure that might inspire them to pursue those subjects when they get to college…

From this angle, college majors and occupations start to look more and more like easily-interpreted, if slightly crude, badges doled out to people based on the wealth and educational levels of the parents they were born to. There’s a reason that the first question asked at parties is often “So, what do you do?” “If we tend to avoid asking acquaintances about their income,” four prominent sociologists wrote in the 2011 anthology The Inequality Reader, “it’s not just because doing so is viewed as too intrusive and personal but also because we suspect that querying about occupation will yield more in the way of useful information.”

Four quick thoughts:

1. Of course, what majors actually lead to what jobs is not as clear as people might make it out to be. Just because someone has a particular major doesn’t mean that is where they will be working in 10 or 20 years. At the same time, some majors might lend themselves to particular jobs right after college.

2. Outside of an associate’s degree, the majors with the lowest parent incomes (top of the chart) are helping professions. This might indicate a bigger interest in wanting to work with people or directly give back to the community. Reading uncharitably, do the majors with higher parent incomes lend themselves to a certain distance from people?

3. It is interesting that sociology, political science, and anthropology are higher up on the list of parent’s incomes. Students sometimes seem to suggest that these are luxury subjects – interesting perhaps (if they don’t think it is just common sense) but too difficult for finding a career.

4. This would all make sense in Bourdieu’s ideas about social class. Those with less economic capital tend to favor more functional items while those with more capital lean toward the abstract. Why should college major be exempt from the powerful organizing forces of social class?

University press releases exaggerate scientific findings

A new study suggests exaggerations about scientific findings – for example, suggesting causation when a study only found correlation – start at the level of university press releases.

Yesterday Sumner and colleagues published some important research in the journal BMJ that found that a majority of exaggeration in health stories was traced not to the news outlet, but to the press release—the statement issued by the university’s publicity department…

The goal of a press release around a scientific study is to draw attention from the media, and that attention is supposed to be good for the university, and for the scientists who did the work. Ideally the endpoint of that press release would be the simple spread of seeds of knowledge and wisdom; but it’s about attention and prestige and, thereby, money. Major universities employ publicists who work full time to make scientific studies sound engaging and amazing. Those publicists email the press releases to people like me, asking me to cover the story because “my readers” will “love it.” And I want to write about health research and help people experience “love” for things. I do!

Across 668 news stories about health science, the Cardiff researchers compared the original academic papers to their news reports. They counted exaggeration and distortion as any instance of implying causation when there was only correlation, implying meaning to humans when the study was only in animals, or giving direct advice about health behavior that was not present in the study. They found evidence of exaggeration in 58 to 86 percent of stories when the press release contained similar exaggeration. When the press release was staid and made no such errors, the rates of exaggeration in the news stories dropped to between 10 and 18 percent…

Sumner and colleagues say they would not shift liability to press officers, but rather to academics. “Most press releases issued by universities are drafted in dialogue between scientists and press officers and are not released without the approval of scientists,” the researchers write, “and thus most of the responsibility for exaggeration must lie with the scientific authors.”

Scientific studies are often complex and probabilistic. It is difficult to model and predict complex natural and social phenomena and scientific studies often give our best estimate or interpretation of the data. But, science tends to steadily accumulate findings and knowledge more than a model where every single study definitively proves things. This can mean that individual studies contribute to the larger whole but often don’t set the agenda or have a radically new finding.

Yet, translating that understanding into something fit for public consumption is difficult. Academics are often criticized for dense and jargon-filled language so pieces for the general public have to be written differently. Academics want their findings to matter and colleges and universities like good publicity as well. Presenting limited or weaker findings doesn’t get as much attention.

All that said, there is an opportunity here to improve the reporting of scientific findings.

The Economist highlights grade inflation and data from gradeinflation.com

The Economist talks a quick look at grade inflation in American colleges and universities:

Stuart Rojstaczer, a critic of grade inflation, has estimated average grades over time by combining dozens of unofficial and official sources. The results are startling (see chart). In 1950, Mr Rojstaczer estimates, Harvard’s average grade was a C-plus. An article from 2013 in the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, revealed that the median grade had soared to A-minus: the most commonly awarded grade is an A. The students may be much cleverer than before: the Ivies are no longer gentlemen’s clubs for rich knuckleheads. But most probably, their marks mean less.

Universities pump up grades because many students like it. Administrators claim that tough grading leads to rivalry and stress for students. But if that is true, why have grades at all? Brilliant students complain that, thanks to grade inflation, little distinguishes them from their so-so classmates. Employers agree. When so many students get As, it is hard to figure out who is clever and who is not.

This is a big change in a relatively short amount of time. For more information, see Rojstaczer’s work and data at gradeinflation.com.

Northeastern University moved up 113 spots in the USN&WR rankings in 17 years

Northeastern University successfully moved itself up the US News and World Report college rankings in a relatively short amount of time:

Figuring out how much Northeastern needed to adjust was one thing; actually doing it was another. Point by point, senior staff members tackled different criteria, always with an eye to U.S. News’s methodology. Freeland added faculty, for instance, to reduce class size. “We did play other kinds of games,” he says. “You get credit for the number of classes you have under 20 [students], so we lowered our caps on a lot of our classes to 19 just to make sure.” From 1996 to the 2003 edition (released in 2002), Northeastern rose 20 spots. (The title of each U.S. News “Best Colleges” edition actually refers to the upcoming year.)

Admissions stats also played a big role in the rankings formula. In 2003, ranked at 127, Northeastern began accepting the online Common Application, making it easier for students to apply. The more applications NU could drum up, the more students they could turn away, thus making the school appear more selective. A year later, NU ranked 120. Since studies showed that students who lived on campus were more likely to stay enrolled, the school oversaw the construction of dormitories like those in West Village—a $1 billion, seven-building complex—to improve retention and graduation rates. NU was lucky in this regard—not every urban school in the country had vast land, in the form of decrepit parking lots, on which to build a new, attractive campus.

There was one thing, however, that U.S. News weighted heavily that could not be fixed with numbers or formulas: the peer assessment. This would require some old-fashioned glad-handing. Freeland guessed that if there were 100 or so universities ahead of NU and if three people at each school were filling out the assessments, he and his team would have to influence some 300 people. “We figured, ‘That’s a manageable number, so we’re just gonna try to get to every one of them,’” Freeland says. “Every trip I took, every city I went to, every conference I went to, I made a point of making contact with any president who was in that national ranking.” Meanwhile, he put less effort into assessing other schools. “I did it based on what was in my head,” he says. “It would have been much more honest just to not fill it out.”…

In many ways, Aoun tries to distance himself from Freeland. He resists talking about the school’s meteoric rise over 17 years—from 162 to 49 in 2013—and plays down the rankings, brushing them aside like an embarrassment or a youthful mistake. “The focus on the ranking is not a strategy, for a simple reason,” he says. “You have thousands of rankings. So you will lose sleep if you start chasing all of them.” While it’s true that U.S. News no longer appears in the university’s strategic plan, it does appear in NU’s portrayal of itself: The school has no qualms using its high ranking in recruiting materials and publicity videos. Yet multiple Northeastern administrators expressed concern over this article’s focus on the rankings. One vice president telephoned Boston’s editors in a panic.

Despite Aoun’s carefully crafted image, the school’s actions undercut his words, as gaming U.S. News is now clearly part of the university’s DNA. And Aoun is a willing participant. “He may not admit to it, but that’s definitely what’s going on,” says Bob Lowndes, who is retiring as vice provost for global relations. Ahmed Abdelal, provost under both Freeland and Aoun, says the two presidents have shared “the same goal: further advancement in national ranking.”

These rankings clearly matter and few schools can ignore them completely. A few parts of this that I found interesting:

1. There are some indications in the article that some faculty resisted this rankings push. It would be interesting to hear more. At the same time, doesn’t being ranked #49 now mean faculty would also benefit?

2. The article suggests but doesn’t say exactly how much Northeastern was able to budge the reputational assessments. These can take take a long time to move. Another difficulty is that for a school like Northeastern to move up, others have to move down. But, it sounds like the gladhanding campaign had some effect.

3. Articles like these suggest that gaming the rankings is a bad thing. Lots of academics would talk about how this goes against the true values of a college education. Yet, the rankings matter to the public. The success of the US News & World Report Rankings has helped lead to a whole cottage industry of other assessments based on the best financial value schools, the best schools for public service, and so on. And, it is hard to imagine that once you introduce a quantifiable system like this in any industry that is highly based on status – and academia is perhaps a status industry par excellence – that one of the outcomes will be that different actors will want to work their way to the top.

A college education as another object of conspicuous consumption?

A law professor argues the price of a college degree is related to seeing it as part of conspicuous consumption:

More than a century ago, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the practice of buying luxury goods in order to display social status. In its purest form, conspicuous consumption involves purchasing expensive goods precisely because they are expensive, which means that the true conspicuous consumer will have what economists call an inverted demand curve.

Normally, when the price of a good rises, demand for it will fall. Demand for a Veblen good, by contrast, goes up as it becomes more expensive. The purpose of buying it is to display wealth, so the fewer people that can afford to buy a good, the more valuable it becomes to conspicuous consumers…

In economic terms, higher education is a positional good: It is valuable to have a college degree because other people don’t have one. It is also to a significant extent a Veblen good: Sending one’s children to college, and most especially a prestigious (meaning expensive) college, is a way of signaling social status via the conspicuous consumption of a luxury good.

All of this helps explain why college tuition has increased three times faster than the cost of living over the past three decades. University administrators have discovered that, to a remarkable degree, the more they charge for what they’re offering, the more people will want to buy it.

This reminds me of the argument Mitchell Stevens makes in Creating a Class. After a prolonged study of college admissions, Stevens suggests prospective college students tend to select the school they will attend primarily based on status (my note: which is often tied to price). The emphasis is not on learning but rather on the economic benefits this can lead to (better jobs, better social networks) as well as the status the college confers to its graduates.

I encountered a bit of this with my graduate education at the University of Notre Dame. While Notre Dame does not have one of the highest ranked sociology programs, people who heard I was at Notre Dame expressed they were impressed since it is viewed as a good school. The implication was that I must be a good student if Notre Dame thought highly of me – a transfer of status from the university to the individual. However, I suspect their claims were based on the undergraduate ranking (usually between #15-20 in US News) and not on the specific of the sociology graduate program.