Difficulty in convincing students of racism and racial inequality

An article about whiteness studies hints at a bigger issue: the difficulty of convincing today’s college students that racism and racial inequality are still problems.

But that progress [end of slavery and Jim Crow plus the election of President Obama] has slanted the mainstream narrative too far into positive terrain, they argue, leaving many to think that racial equality has arrived. Even some young students of color are more skeptical than ever before…

“The typical college student will always say ‘What racial inequality? Look at the White House,’” says Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “I have to first convince them that inequality exists.”…

He says he starts the conversation by pointing to research such as a Pew Research Center report published last fall that showed the typical white family has roughly 20 times the wealth of the median black or Latino family. Thanks to the recession, the report said the gap is the largest it has been in a quarter century.

But some believe the idea of racism is shifting entirely. A 2008 poll by USA Today/Gallup and  showed that 40% of adults in America think racism against white people is widespread in the United States. A study published last year said that bias against whites is a bigger problem than bias against blacks.

While some indicators have improved (such as recent measures of residential segregation), there are still plenty of differences between different races. On the whole, life chances are still significantly determined by race. In Divided By Faith, two sociologists describe this as living in a “racialized” society where one’s race and ethnicity has a large impact on even micro-level decisions.

Part of this might simply be the process of continually teaching a new generation of college students. As their context and culture changes, college students arrive in the classroom with different concerns, knowledge, and passions. It would be interesting to track how incoming freshmen classes rate the importance of the issue of race, particularly compared to other concerns (like being able to find a job, terrorism, etc.). Perhaps this is cyclical, dependent on noteworthy events or political debates.

Of course, the world continues to change and academia will continue to shift toward studying newer trends. While the American case has historically been mostly about black-white relations, Latinos are now the largest minority group and how Latinos view themselves is something worth watching. Perhaps the trajectory of “whiteness studies” will change but the issue of race is still salient and is going to be studied for a long time.

College student survives 90 day “Amish Project” without technology

This is a news story that could only be written in our times: a University of Wisconsin-Madison student voluntarily unplugged from all media for 90 days and lived to tell about it. Here is a quick description of his “Amish Project”:

From October to December, he unplugged from social media, email, texts, and cell phones because he felt that we spend more quality time with gadgets and keyboards than we do with the people we really care about.

During his social experiment, he found that some people he counted among his close friends really weren’t that close after all. He also discovered that taking a break from his relationship with social media and really paying attention to the people around him can revive real-life romance.

And a few short thoughts from the student about his experiences:

[on getting started] I mean, I struggle with that because everyone wants to know about it, and wants to know how different it is. It’s hard, because I was just going to turn off my phone at first. That was the thing that bothered me most, but I realized that if I turned off the phone, people were just going to email me all the time or send me a million Facebook messages. It’s kind of a hard thing, because we’re getting to the point where if you’re not responding to people’s text messages within an hour of when they send them, or within a day for emails, it’s just socially unacceptable. It’s been hard for me since I’ve been back. I’ve been bad with my phone and people are, like, “What the hell? I text messaged you…” So I haven’t been up to social standards in terms of responding and people don’t really understand that, I guess…

[on finishing the project and returning to technology] It’s definitely different, but I catch myself doing exactly what I hated. Someone is talking to me and I’m half-listening and reading a text under the table. For me, it’s trying to be more aware of it. It kind of evolved from being about technology to more of just living in the moment. I think that’s what my biggest thing is: There’s not so much chasing for me now. I’m here now, and let’s just enjoy this. You can be comfortable with yourself and not have to go to the crutch of your phone. For me, that’s more what I will take away from this.

A few thoughts:

1. The author concludes that this means “texts and Facebook wall posts can serve as an attractive veneer making relationships seem more genuine than they really are.” I wonder how many people feel this way and if many do, do they simply keep going along out of habit or because of social pressure?

2. It seems like a lot of things that there possible for this student without technology might be much more difficult for the average adult. At college, it is much easier to find people, run into others, and pass notes, even on a big campus like UW-Madison. Could the average adult who lives alone and commutes to work make this work? Perhaps the key here is living near or very close to people one cares about.

3. What if it becomes “cool” to unplug from technology or turns into a status symbol rather than a reasoned choice about paying more attention to the people that mater?

4. I find the set-up to stories like these to be humorous: how in the world could people have survived without the technology we have today?!? Somehow they managed. The comparison here to the Amish is funny as well – there is a whole lifestyle associated with this that this college student isn’t truly considering.

5. This story presents a contrast between “authentic/real” relationships versus “superficial” relationships. Is it really that easy to categorize relationships? Research suggests most people use technology like Facebook to try to maintain a connection between people they already know – is that necessarily so bad? Perhaps it does detract from the present but it also makes us more aware of our broader social networks.

A quick overview of the liberal world of academia from a sociological study

As a writer looks at the political leanings of academia, much of the factual basis of the story is derived from a sociological study:

That faculties are liberal is beyond dispute. In a rigorous survey, University of British Columbia sociology Prof. Neil Gross concluded, “professors currently compose the most liberal major occupational group in American society.”

Gross got interested in this issue in 2005, when he was at Harvard, where president Lawrence Summers suggested that the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of math and science might be due to “different availability of aptitude at the high end.”…

So Gross and Solon Simmons of George Mason University surveyed more than 1,400 full-time professors at more than 900 American institutions. Only 19.7 percent of professors identified themselves as “any shade of conservative” (compared with 31.9 percent of the general population), while 62.2 percent identified themselves as some flavor of liberal (compared with 23.3 percent of Americans overall).

Gross found variation between disciplines. Social sciences and humanities contained the highest concentration of liberals. Conservatives were as numerous as liberals in business, health sciences, computer science and engineering.

I’ve noted before where sociological studies plus social psychologist Stephen Haidt, who is cited in this article, have discussed this topic. I still think it is a bit odd that Newt Gingrich has so much popularity with Republicans even though he is a former academic (see previous posts here and here).

Of course, the question regarding the politics of academia is “so what?” – how does it matter in the long run? The author of the piece cited above offers this conclusion:

Unfortunately, the estrangement will serve only to reinforce the lopsidedness of university politics, undermine the confidence of a large share of the public in expert opinion, and jeopardize the role of the university in public life whenever conservatives are in power.

These are not small matters, particularly as college costs continue to rise and students are told they must go to college in order to succeed in a changed world. In a world where we are told that everything is or could be considered political, this affects how researchers go about finding about and reporting on the truths they are discovering about the social and natural world. And this also must have an effect on how students view the learning process and the purposes of a college education. Does it simply reduce everything, from the perspective of all sides, to a naked struggle for power?

Why more Americans are living alone

A new book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg tries to explain why more American are living alone:

Despite these risks, more and more people all over the world have decided that living alone is their best option. In the United States, 31 million people—one in seven adults—live alone, accounting for a remarkable 28% of households. That’s up from just 9% in 1950. Americans may think of themselves as uniquely self-reliant, thanks perhaps to Emerson, but the trend is even more pronounced in other affluent countries…

Why are people making this choice? For the many women who outlive their husbands, healthy single older men are scarce. Young and old alike, meanwhile, recognize that family togetherness, when it is not wonderful, can be conflict-ridden and downright awful. Roommates, at any age, hold little appeal. Not least, people go solo because they can afford it. Living alone is a luxury good that, like the purchase of a car or the increased consumption of meat, flourishes in societies that have become affluent.

But people also seem motivated by a loss of faith in the very idea of family. Mr. Klinenberg quotes Joseph Schumpeter’s observation that, as soon as people stop taking traditional arrangements for granted, “they cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail.” Or as the sociologist Andrew Cherlin puts it, today “one’s primary obligation is to oneself rather than to one’s partner and children.”…

Most important, perhaps, is the increased value we place on autonomy. Since Dr. Spock, mothers and infants have departed from the age-old practice of sleeping together, and middle-class babies are now often placed in their own rooms. Swelling home sizes made this possible; from 1960 to 1980, the ratio of bedrooms to children in the average U.S. family rose to 1.1 from 0.7, so that nowadays parents and kids are rarely together in the same room—even for eating. Students increasingly expect a private room at college. Assuming that they do share quarters for a while after graduation, the move to an apartment of one’s own is now, writes Mr. Klinenberg, “the crucial turning point between second adolescence and becoming an adult.”

The review suggests Klinenberg thinks is a lasting trend but we’ll have to wait and see. What would it take for people to reverse the trend and have more people living in households or to want to take on the responsibility of having a family?

Perhaps Klinenberg doesn’t have the data to address this but I wonder how much people living alone interact with others – are they more involved in organizations, have higher levels of civic engagement, are more involved with others online, etc.?

It is interesting to think about this on college campuses – does anyone have numbers about how many college students do live in single rooms or how many would like to? Of course, few college students have ever lived with others in the same room when they arrive on campus so outside of marriage, this may be the only “normal” time for this to happen. If living in single rooms becomes a norm on campus, does this significantly alter the college experience?

Study: people tend to make friends on Facebook with people of similar tastes

A recently published study of college students argues that people become Facebook friends with people of similar tastes:

“The more tastes that you and I share in common, the more likely we are to become friends,” said study author Kevin Lewis, a graduate student in sociology at Harvard University.

The findings seem to contradict the conventional wisdom that people are easily influenced by those around them. Instead, “we’re seeking out people we already resemble rather than learning new perspectives and liking new things,” Lewis said…

The goal of the study was to understand how people choose friendships, Lewis said. The researchers started with 1,640 students at an unnamed U.S. college in 2006 and tracked their Facebook friendships and tastes — in popular music, movies and books — until they were seniors in 2009…

The study found that “students who share some tastes in movies and music are more likely to become friends,” Lewis said. Shared tastes in books were less influential.

Sounds like an interesting study. I haven’t read the full study but there are two other things I would want to know:

1. The study is restricted to college students. Might this influence the results? Of course, these college students will become the adults of the next few decades.

2. How does this fit with existing research that shows that people tend to be Facebook friends with people they already know? Things are a little different in college where students are more willing to friend people in these classes (actual academic courses and year in school). But, most Facebook users are not going online to find new friends with whom they don’t previously have a connection.

3. The last paragraph I cited above makes me think of branding. Younger people in particular define themselves by some of their tastes and it doesn’t shock me that this is done more through music and movies than books. So are books more private tastes or are very few people in college reading?

College students rent cheap but luxurious McMansions

Here is another use for McMansions (and much better than one California option from last week): rent them to college students.

While students at other colleges cram into shoebox-size dorm rooms, Ms. Alarab, a management major, and Ms. Foster, who is studying applied math, come home from midterms to chill out under the stars in a curvaceous swimming pool and an adjoining Jacuzzi behind the rapidly depreciating McMansion that they have rented for a song.

Here in Merced, a city in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley and one of the country’s hardest hit by home foreclosures, the downturn in the real estate market has presented an unusual housing opportunity for thousands of college students. Facing a shortage of dorm space, they are moving into hundreds of luxurious homes in overbuilt planned communities.

Forget the off-to-college checklist of yesteryear (bedside lamp, laundry bag, under-the-bed storage trays). This is “Animal House” 2011.

Double-height Great Room? Check.

Five bedrooms? Check.

Chandeliers? Check.

Then there are the three-car garages, wall-to-wall carpeting, whirlpool baths, granite kitchen countertops, walk-in closets and inviting gas fireplaces.

This article provides an overview of an interesting situation but asking a few more questions would reveal a lot more:

1. If students live in such nice homes during college, what does this do to their expectations when they return home or after they graduate? If you are used to living in a nice McMansion, how do you move up after that?

2. In what condition do these students leave these McMansions?

3. The story paints these students as helping desperate homeowners. At the same time, homeowners in nice suburban subdivisions may not always look favorably at college students who can tend to be loud and unruly. Are all the town and gown relationships here all good as the story suggests?

4. Might some of these students stick around in these neighborhoods after college? If so, how would this change the neighborhoods?

To sum up, is this a long-term solution or a temporary solution to issues in one of the foreclosure capitals of the United States?

A new way to do the college search process: one comprehensive website to match students to colleges

The policy director of an education think tank writes in Washington Monthly, itself a purveyor of college rankings, that the future of college admissions will come in the form of a single, comprehensive website that will match prospective students and colleges:

This is the future of college admissions. The market for matching colleges and students is about to undergo a wholesale transformation to electronic form. When the time comes for Jameel to apply to colleges, ConnectEDU will take all of the information it has gathered and use sophisticated algorithms to find the best colleges likely to accept him—to find a match for Jameel in the same way that Amazon uses millions of sales records to advise customers about what books they might like to buy and Match.com helps the lovelorn find a compatible date. At the same time, on the other side of the looking glass, college admissions officers will be peering into ConnectEDU’s trove of data to search for the right mix of students.

This won’t just help the brightest, most driven kids. Bad matching is a problem throughout higher education, from top to bottom. Among all students who enroll in college, most will either transfer or drop out. For African American students and those whose parents never went to college, the transfer/dropout rate is closer to two-thirds. Most students don’t live in the resource-rich, intensely college-focused environment that upper-middle-class students take for granted. So they often default to whatever college is cheapest and closest to home. Tools like ConnectEDU will give them a way to find something better.

We can think of getting into college like this: students need to be slotted into the appropriate school. At this point, students can do certain things to improve their fit and colleges use certain information (though it often comes in a form of a narrative about students that admissions officers construct – I highly recommend Creating a Class). Our current system is highly dependent on students doing the initial legwork in searching out colleges that might fit them but as this article suggests, there are a number of students, particularly poorer students, who don’t do well in this system.

If this website idea catches on, wouldn’t it create more competition within the college market for students? If so, would middle- and upper-class students start complaining?

Also, while the article suggests a website like this is the answer to helping kids who can’t currently play the college game, doesn’t it rest on the idea that (1) people have equal access to this website and (2) that users have the ability or “cultural capital” to sort through the information the website presents? Neither of these might necessarily be true.

h/t Instapundit

Sociologist uses Twitter for class but are the students learning more?

Stories like this are not uncommon: professors utilizing technology to engage their students (and here is another one about clicker use).

Wendy Welch is incorporating the use of the social networking site Twitter into her cultural geography class this semester. The adjunct instructor said she decided to use the social networking site in her class after having problems with students using their phones in class for less-than-appropriate purposes.“If you can’t beat them, get ahead of them,” Welch said. “That’s the way the world works now.”…

Each student was assigned a country in Africa and asked to tweet facts about their country, such as languages and population, using designated hash tags, or categories. That way, each student only has to research one country but has access to all the information they may need from other students.

Welch also plans to have students use their mobile devices or laptops to research information during class sessions, she said…

She said she hopes to “get students to understand and participate in their own education.”

Perhaps this does increase the engagement level of the students. All professors want their students to be engaged and we don’t want to be seen as being behind the times. But, I think there is often something missing from discussions about student engagement and the use of technology in the classroom: does this actually lead to higher levels of student learning or student outcomes?

I suspect professors will always try to keep up with technology as it changes and each of these changes will be accompanied by hand-wringing. However, we need to be able to distinguish between engaging students with technology versus helping them learn. Take this Twitter example from class: do students do better on tests? Do they retain the knowledge better? Can they apply their knowledge from this particular class to other settings, particularly if the technology is not present? Does technology itself help students think more deeply about the big questions of our world?

If technology alone becomes the answer in the classroom, we will be in trouble.

Syllabus bloat: the ever-lengthening college syllabus

A professor discusses the reasons why college syllabi keep getting bigger:

Nowadays my course syllabi tend to run to many pages and always include a punctilious day-by-day calendar of the semester stipulating, for example, precisely which pages in what book students need to have read for class.  My instructions to students concerning formal written work have also become replete with prescription in a way that I would not have thought necessary even ten years ago.  Colleagues concur that instructors at the state-college level can take little or nothing for granted about student preparedness and that everything, absolutely everything, must be spelled out in advance.  Without abundant guidance and prescription, students complain of being lost, as perhaps they are, or of “not understanding what the professor wants,” as is perhaps the case…

First-year college students have a drastically diminished vision of what higher education portends for them.  The idea of discipline that enabled my UCLA instructors to assume procedural competency in their students, and that enabled most students to acquit themselves during the term with only a minimal syllabus, no longer exists…

The enlargement of the syllabus also stems from the need to define, explain, and insofar as possible justify the course itself, something that no syllabus from my undergraduate career ever bothered to do.  The syllabus of my survey of ancient literature (“Western Heritage”) addresses the basic notion of historical indebtedness, the idea of continuity of insight, and of the dignity of knowledge as opposed to ignominy of ignorance.  The syllabus also addresses the difficulty of reading; it tells students that an epic poem by Homer or a philosophical dialogue by Plato is not like a TV drama or a movie, in which in the first few minutes, one can predict the remainder…

Some of this effort—and much of the hypertrophied syllabus—is precautionary. It is precautionary on behalf of students, who, from day one, will know in advance every requirement and assignment of the course. It is also precautionary on behalf of the syllabus-writer, who seeks protection from petulant students claiming they never knew the schedule or failed to receive procedural knowledge concerning the semester.  Syllabus in hand, no one can plead ignorance.

The general idea is this: today’s college students need college explained to them, point by point. This could quickly turn into a generational argument that is bigger than just college classes: the role of college has changed from a place of learning to four years of job training. Society, and consequentially, college students simply don’t know what college is about when they should and professors have to do the extra work to explain it. This could also be tied to the issue that a number of college students are not ready to do college-level work.

There may be some truth to this but, as the article hints at, there could be good reasons to have longer syllabi:

1. Expectations are made clear from the beginning. This could cut down student’s anxiety as there is less “guesswork” involved. If a relatively short document (compared to books/journal articles) can help eliminate ignorance, why not?

2. Why not have a short part of the syllabus that explains what the class is about? Certain subjects, like sociology, are relatively unknown and a one or two paragraph introduction can give students a engaging foundation.

3. I like having the day-to-day calendar for myself so why not provide it for the students as well? Perhaps this is just because I like to be organized.

4. I wonder if a detailed and longer syllabi just by its thoroughness conveys to students the importance of the task. Some students may groan at seeing how much there is to read but others will feel the gravity.

We could transfer these ideas to another context: would many employees find it acceptable if they came to work each day with little idea of what to expect? On one hand, we should promote internal motivation but some structure is helpful. We can rue the loss of “gravity” and “mystery” that students have or feel regarding college or we can try to convey these ideas in our syllabi and what we say and do in the classroom.

h/t Instapundit

College students don’t know how to use Google

I recently heard about this study at a faculty development day: college students have difficulty understanding and using search results.

Researchers with the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries project watched 30 students at Illinois Wesleyan University try to search for different topics online and found that only seven of them were able to conduct “what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search.”

The students “appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school,” Lynda Duke and Andrew Asher write in a book on the project coming out this fall.

At all five Illinois universities, students reported feeling “anxious” and confused when trying to research. Many felt overwhelmed by the volume of results their searches would turn up, not realizing that there are ways to narrow those searches and get more tailored results. Others would abandon their research topics when they couldn’t find enough sources, unaware that they were using the wrong search terms or database for their topics.

The researchers found that students did not know “how to build a search to narrow or expand results, how to use subject headings, and how various search engines (including Google) organize and display results.” That means that some students didn’t understand how to search only for news articles, or only for scholarly articles. Most only know how to punch in keywords and hope for the best.

Such trust in technology. Wonder where this came from?

I like how anthropologists were involved in this study. Including an observation component could make this data quite unique. I don’t think many people would think that ethnographic methods could be used to examine such up-to-date technology.

Several other thoughts:

1. How many adults could explain how Google displays pages?

1a. If people knew how Google organized things, would they go elsewhere for information?

2. Finding and sorting through information is a key problem of our age. The problem is not a lack of information or possible sources; rather, there is too much.

3. Who exactly in schools should be responsible for teaching this? Librarians, perhaps, but students have limited contact. Preferably, all teachers/professors should know something about this and talk about it. Parents could also impart this information at home.

4. I’m now tempted to ask students to include all of their search terms in final projects so that I can check and see whether they actually sorted through articles or they simply picked the top few results.