An argument for Amazon’s one-star reviews reveals the role of cultural critics

A professional critic praises Amazon’s one-star reviews:

About a year ago, while shopping online for holiday gifts, I became an unabashed connoisseur of the one-star amateur Amazon review. Here I found the barbed, unvarnished, angry and uncomfortably personal hatchet job very much alive. Indeed, I became so enamored of Amazon’s user-generated reviews of books, films and music that my interest expanded to the one-star notices on Goodreads, Yelp and Netflix, where, for instance, a “Moneyball” review notes the movie “did not make you feel warm and fuzzy at the end as a good sports film should.” How true! A rare opinion on a critical darling!…

But there is a visceral thrill to reading amateur reviewers on Amazon who, unlike professional critics, do not claim to be informed or even knowledgeable, who do not consider context or history or ambition, who do not claim any pretense at all. Their reviews, particularly of classics, often read as though these works had dropped out of space into their laps, and they were first to experience it. About “Moby-Dick,” one critic writes: “Essentially, they rip off the plot to ‘Jaws.'” About “Ulysses,” another critic writes: “I honestly cannot figure out the point, other than cleverness for cleverness’ sake.”

Likewise, to seriously dismiss “The Great Gatsby” as “‘Twilight’ without the vampires,” as an Amazon reviewer did, may be glib and reductive, but it’s also brilliantly spot on, the kind of comparison a more mannered critic might not dare. “Whoever made that ‘Twilight’ comparison, whether they know it, is showing their education, that they can connect new media with old works and draw fresh conclusions,” said David Raskin, chair of the art history, theory and criticism department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago…

Speaking of honesty: It should be pointed out here that, in general, online amateur reviews are not mean but usually as forgiving as the professional sort. Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied online reviews — “partly because I was curious if they were real or just someone gaming the system” — told me that 60 percent of Amazon reviews are five-star reviews and another 20 percent are four-star. The information research firm Gartner released a study in September predicting that, within a couple of years, between 10 and 15 percent of online reviews will be paid for by companies — rigged.

It sounds like the argument is this: you can find the average American in the one-star Amazon reviews. Instead of getting the filtered, sophisticated review typically found in media sources, these reviewers give the unvarnished pop culture take. Discussed in this argument is the idea of social class and education. An approved reviewer or critic, the typical gatekeeper, is able to put a work in its context. The educated critic is trying to make the work understandable for others. The educated critic often has experience and education backing their opinions. In contrast, the Internet opens up spaces for individuals to post their own reactions and through aggregation, such as the Amazon five-star review system, have some say about how products and cultural works are perceived.

This new reality doesn’t render cultural gatekeepers completely irrelevant but it does do several things. One, it dilutes their influence or at least makes it possible for more critics to get involved. Second, it also makes more visible the opinions of average citizens. Instead of just theorizing about mass culture or pop culture, we can all see what the masses are thinking at the moment they are thinking it. (Think of the possibilities on Twitter!) Third, it provides space like in this article for reviewers to admit they don’t always want to write erudite pieces but want to have a “normal person reaction.”

Just one problem with this piece: the critic says he doesn’t really read the one-star Amazon reviews for information. Instead, he appreciates the “visceral thrill.” He quotes an academic who says such reviews reveal cultural gaps. Thus, celebrating the one-star reviews may be just another way to assert the traditional reviewer’s cultural capital. Read the one-star reviews for entertainment but continue to go back to the educated reviewer for the context and more valued perspective.

Washington D.C. the wealthiest city/metropolitan area in the country

According to 2011 American Community Survey data, Washington D.C. is the wealthiest metropolitan area in the country:

D.C. area residents have a median household income of $86,680, well above the national average of $50,502.

The large salaries may be attributable to the nearly 47 percent of workers who hold college degrees, making Washington one of the most highly educated areas in the country.

The list also shows more adults in the area were able to find employment during a down economic time. Just 5.8 percent of the workforce were unemployed in 2011.

Only 8.3 percent of Washington homes are living below the poverty line — the fifth lowest ranking in the country.

Here is some common traits of the wealthier cities in the United States:

The biggest factor in determining a city’s income, according to Alex Friedhoff, a Research Analyst at Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program, is the underlying industries that employ the most residents, as well as the type of jobs. High-tech jobs, particularly those related to computers and information technology, tend to pay higher salaries and are more likely to be located in areas with affluent residents. On the other hand, most of the jobs in the lower-income metro areas tend to be in retail, service, agriculture and low-tech manufacturing.

A review of the employment characteristics of the different cities confirms this. Included among the richest cities are the information technology centers of Boston and Boulder, the finance hub of Bridgeport-Stamford, and the San Jose region, better known as Silicon Valley, home to some of the largest chipmakers and computer parts manufacturers in the world. Nationwide, 10.7% of workers are employed in professional, scientific, and management positions. Of the 10 wealthy metro regions, nine have a larger proportion of workers in that sector. In Boulder, 21.9% fall into that category.

In the poorest economies, there is a much higher proportion of low-end manufacturing and retail jobs. In the U.S. as a whole, 11.6% of workers are employed in retail. In the 10 poorest metro areas, eight exceed that number by a wide margin, including Hot Springs, Arkansas, where 17.3% of its workforce is employed in retail.

Based on these listed traits, perhaps we can make this conclusion: cities that have better adapted to the new information age economy based on innovation, computers, and highly educated workers are doing the best in terms of income. Places that haven’t been able to attract this kind of industry are playing from behind.

An important note about these stories: while headlines suggest this data is about cities, it is really about metropolitan regions. So when Washington D.C. is cited as the wealthiest city, this is not quite true; the region is the wealthiest. While some might that the city itself is necessary for the whole region to exist or thrive, a lot of this wealth plus many of the jobs are actually suburban. Don’t confuse the two though this often happens in the media.

Sociologist on bigger issues facing Chicago schools: poverty, demographics, segregation

There has been a lot of commentary about unions in the wake of the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike. But, sociologist Pedro Noguera argues there are three bigger issues that will trouble the Chicago schools and the city of Chicago long after the strike is settled:

President Obama, the teacher unions and all of the other reformers out there would do well to focus more attention on the three huge, interrelated issues that pose the biggest threat to public education and American society generally. These are complex issues that will not be resolved by any contract settlement the warring parties reach in Chicago—but they cannot be avoided if we are to fix what truly ails our public schools…

  1. Youth poverty—Since 2008, poverty rates for children have soared. Nationally, 1 out of 4 children comes from a family with incomes that fall below the poverty line, and 1 out of 7 children lives in a state of food emergency, meaning they frequently go without adequate nutrition. The impact of poverty on schools and on child development is most severe in cities and in states such as Michigan, California and Arizona. Increasingly, public schools are all that remains of the safety net for poor children, and with funding for education being cut back in almost all states, the safety net is falling apart.
  2. Changing demographics—Already in nine states, the majority of school age children are from minority backgrounds. The number of states with majority minority populations will steadily increase in the years ahead even if the influx of immigrants continues to slow due to higher birth rates among Latinos. As the ethnic composition of schools continues to change it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain public support for school funding. Voters don’t seem to understand that today’s school children will be responsible for supporting an aging, largely white population during their retirement years. Economists project that it takes at least three workers to support one retiree who is financially dependent on social security. Since 2010 we have fallen below that critical threshold. Will a less educated, poorer, multiracial workforce be able or be willing to take care of an aging white population?
  3. Growing segregation—According to the Civil Rights Project based at UCLA, 44 percent of schools in the United States are comprised almost exclusively of minority students. Latinos and blacks, the two largest minority groups, attend schools more segregated today than during the civil rights movement forty years ago. Two of every five African-American and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools. Segregation is most severe in Western states, including California—not in the South, as many people believe, and increasingly, most non-white schools are segregated by poverty as well as race. Given that dropout rates and failure tends to be highest in the schools where poor children are concentrated, how will the next generation of young people be prepared to solve the problems they will inherit?

I’m glad a sociologist writes about these; we need the big picture in mind, not just the immediate issues of contracts. There are certain things that can be done in school yet there are a number of other factors in society that also affect schools, children, parents, and neighborhoods. Schools are one lever by which we can affect society but not the only one.

Of course, tackling these issues would require going far beyond schools and instead look at the changes that threaten a number of American big cities. Issues like these are not new and have been at least several decades in the making. Would major candidates, say those running for President, be willing to tackle these three issues? Thus far, it is easier to stick to the ideas of education reform…


Mapping the social network of American colleges by status

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fascinating story and interactive area that shows social networks among American universities and colleges:

Each year colleges submit “comparison groups” to the U.S. Department of Education to get feedback on how their institution stacks up in terms of finances, enrollment, and other measures tabulated in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The groups sometimes represent a college’s actual peers but more often reveal their aspirations.

The Chronicle analyzed the relationships of nearly 1,600 four-year colleges that make up those groups to map out the power players in higher education.

The typical college selected a comparison group of 16 colleges with a higher average SAT score and graduation rate than its own, lower acceptance rate, and larger endowment, budget, and enrollment.

The eight Ivy League colleges among them chose only 12 institutions outside their own number as peers—not surprisingly, often including the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University.

So it looks like colleges themselves act like high school students applying to college as laid out by sociologist Mitchell Stevens in Making a Class: they want to improve their own status by attaching themselves to a higher status institution.

It would take some time to figure this out based on entering different college names but here would be some intriguing queries that could be answered by the interactive graphic:

1. Which colleges are most aspirational?

2. Which college are the best judges of their own level, meaning that they select institutions that also select them?

3. What are the institutions that act as bridges, meaning they join together networks of different kinds of colleges or regions of colleges?

4. Are there any colleges that actually underestimate their own status by choosing institutions “below” them?

Socializing kids in how to do recess at school

An article about the “cognitive and social benefits” recess brings up an interesting idea: kids in schools that haven’t had recess for years will have to be taught how to do recess again.

Despite the cognitive and social benefits of recess, principals still hate it: In the scholarship on recess, they inevitably describe their recess periods as total chaos. In Chicago, recess has been out of the schools so long that principals are nervous about having it back.

That’s the twist in this rebirth-of-recess narrative: In part because of these fears, recess in many schools is now a very different beast. It’s more structured and sports-focused, less dreamy and aimless. Whether it leads to the same cognitive and social benefits is an open question. The nonprofit organization Playworks puts full-time “recess coaches” in low-income schools—currently they’re in 387 schools in 23 cities—who teach children how to play: They organize games; they model how to resolve disputes (rock-paper-scissors); they try to get kids more active and engaged. (A recent study found that schools with Playworks reported less bullying and better behavior.)

“Recess has changed because the times we live in have changed,” says Playworks CEO Jill Vialet. Children no longer know how to play, she says; they don’t run around after school with all the kids on their block. “What we’re doing is creating just enough structure. That same structure that was created by the older kids in the neighborhood in times past—we’re creating that now on the schoolyard.”…

Recess may look problematic to the grown-ups, but for Pellegrini, the value of recess is that the children, not the adults, are in charge. It may not look pretty, but that’s the point. “A very important part of what kids do on the playground is social competence—that is, they learn how to get along with others,” he says. “You have to cooperate, you have to use language, you have to compromise. And that’s not trivial. That is huge, in terms of both academic success and success in life.”

Sounds like there may be some conflict between what the adults want and what might benefit the students the most. How much do liability and public relations issues (even though the article suggests violence at recess is rare, news can spread fast) affect this?

This reminds me of some of George Herbert Mead’s thoughts in Mind, Self, and Society about how children learn. Mead suggests that children at younger ages often learn by playing, acting out adult roles and developing and debating their own rules. This sounds similar to how unstructured recess is described above: together, kids take what they know and apply it to the recess setting, learning as they go along. Vialet suggests kids have lost some of these skills and need to be taught some basic ways to play and act.

I wonder how this might mesh with Annette Lareau’s findings in Unequal Childhoods. In her description of parenting styles that differ by race, it seems like kids who are brought up in the natural growth style might be better off in these unstructured recess times that middle- and upper-class kids. But perhaps technology has subverted some of this; natural growth today may look more like being free to explore one’s own media and entertainment options.

Sociologist: “one-year change in test results doesn’t make a trend”

A sociologist provides some insights into how firms “norm” test scores from year to year and what this means about how to interpret the results:

The most challenging part of this process, though, is trying to place this year’s test results on the same scale as last year’s results, so that a score of 650 on this year’s test represents the same level of performance as a score of 650 on last year’s test. It’s this process of equating the tests from one year to the next which allows us to judge whether scores this year went up, declined or stayed the same.But it’s not straightforward, because the test questions change from one year to the next, and even the format and content coverage of the test may change.

Different test companies even have different computer programs and statistical techniques to estimate a student’s score and, hence, the overall picture of how a student, school or state is performing. (Teachers too, but that’s a subject for another day.)

All of these variables – different test questions from year to year; variations in test length, difficulty and content coverage; and different statistical procedures to calculate the scores – introduce some uncertainty about what the “true” results are…

In testing, every year is like changing labs, in somewhat unpredictable ways, even if a state hires the same testing contractor from one year to the next. For this reason, I urge readers to not react too strongly to changes from last year to this year, or to consider them a referendum on whether a particular set of education policies – or worse, a particular initiative – is working.

One-year changes have many uncertainties built into them; if there’s a real positive trend, it will persist over a period of several years. Schooling is a long-term process, the collective and sustained work of students, teachers and administrators; and there are few “silver bullets” that can be counted on to elevate scores over the period of a single school year.

Overall, this piece gives us some important things to remember: one data point is hard to put into context. You can draw a trend line between two data points. Having more data points gives you a better indication of what is happening over time. However, just having statistics isn’t enough; we also need to consider the reliability and validity of the data. Politicians and administrators seem to like test scores because they offer concrete numbers which can help them point out progress or suggest that changes need to be made. Yet, just because these are numbers doesn’t mean that there isn’t a process that goes into them or that we need to understand exactly what the numbers involve.

Why promote education and reading with stars who make lots of money?

As a kid, I remember seeing posters of Michael Jordan (see here) and other star athletes promoting reading. While watching NBA playoff games currently, you can see plenty of NBA Cares advertisements with NBA stars talking about the importance of school. But, amidst seeing several stories that 13-year NBA player Shareef Abdur-Rahim went back to UC-Berkeley to finish his undergraduate degree in sociology, why do these campaigns feature athletic stars and not feature athletes who thought they had a chance to be a star but then realized they needed their academic degree for the rest of their lives? For example, such campaigns could feature a college star who tried to make it in the pros but had a short career, didn’t make much money or got injured early on, and then realized that he needed his academic degree to work the rest of his adult life. Or going further, perhaps non-athletes with decent adult lives could promote the value of a degree. Or athletes could talk about or promote the valuable contributions to society made by people with high school and college degrees. Either way, the star who makes a lot of money, a dream a lot of kids hold but few can attain, doesn’t end up as the primary spokesperson for education.

(I assume that these reading and education campaigns have some data or studies that show using celebrities is the best way to reach children. However, perhaps this strategy of using celebrities doesn’t work, just as using celebrities to promote organ donations isn’t the only factor that increases donation rates. See the book Last Book Gifts.)


A story of teaching sociology to a young child

At a few points, I’ve thought about how sociology could be taught to young children. One way would be to include it the social studies curriculum but another would be to have kids accompany their parents to college classes in sociology:

Fourteen years ago, Karen Bilodeau was an unusual student at Bates College. She was 33 years old and often took her preschooler, Emma, with her to classes or to meetings with professors…

All that made an impression on Emma, a senior at Edward Little High School. With a goal of becoming a doctor helping underprivileged children, this fall she’ll go to college on the campus she walked as a child…

Between the ages of 3 and 6, Emma remembers going to professor Emily Kane’s sociology classes. “I remember her doing a lot of projects. Kane examined gender equality in ‘The Little House on the Prairie.’ I remember that being fascinating,” Emma said…

When it was time for Emma’s college search, she longed to go out of state. During an overnight visit to Oberlin in Ohio, she said she changed her mind, preferring to be near her younger siblings and longing for Bates.

At age 17, like she did at age 4, Emma sat in on Professor Kane’s sociology class. “It was very much like, ‘This is what I want to be doing the next four years,'” she said.

Emma plans to study sociology and African-American studies. Her adopted siblings are African-American. She also plans to take science classes to help her continue to medical school.

“I really want to help underprivileged kids as a pediatrician or surgeon” in Haiti or Africa, she said.

A nice story. I’ve wondered how much introducing younger kids to sociology might help boost the discipline’s profile before students enter college as sociology is one of few disciplines that new college students don’t know much about. Or, perhaps this would help imprint sociology on the nation’s consciousness in a way that it isn’t now. This reminds me of Jane Elliot’s famous “blue eyes, brown eyes” experiment in a third-grade classroom. As Elliot has showed, this experience was formative in the lives of her small-town Iowa students. Perhaps the route to public sociology should begin with children rather than adults?


Brookings report: zoning laws help lead to school achievement differences

A new report from the Brookings Institution suggests that zoning laws are behind differences in school achievement:

The report found that students from poorer households tend to go to schools where scores on state standardized tests are lower while more affluent students tend to go to schools with higher test scores. The findings confirm what numerous studies and a recent Sun analysis have also found.

The average student from a low-income family in Las Vegas attended a school that tested in the 43rd percentile. The average student from a middle- or high-income family went to a school that scored in the 66th percentile, according to the report, which used state test score data listed on…

Rothwell’s research went further than other studies that looked at socioeconomic data and school performance, however. His report is among the first looking at how zoning policies affect home prices and student access to high-quality schools.

Rothwell argues municipal zoning policies that restrict affordable housing have segregated students from low-income families from their more affluent peers, creating achievement gaps in schools.

Where people can live matters. We tend to have the idea in America that anyone can live anywhere. Theoretically, this is true but economically, this is not possible as it takes quite a bit of money to move to areas with better amenities like high-performing schools. Zoning plays into this by giving local governments control over how land is used. If communities decide that land can only be used for more expensive single-family housing, then housing options are limited. The summary of the full report sums it up this way:

Across the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school. This housing cost gap reflects that home values are $205,000 higher on average in the neighborhoods of high-scoring versus low-scoring schools. Near high-scoring schools, typical homes have 1.5 additional rooms and the share of housing units that are rented is roughly 30 percentage points lower than in neighborhoods near low-scoring schools.

Large metro areas with the least restrictive zoning have housing cost gaps that are 40 to 63 percentage points lower than metro areas with the most exclusionary zoning. Eliminating exclusionary zoning in a metro area would, by reducing its housing cost gap, lower its school test-score gap by an estimated 4 to 7 percentiles—a significant share of the observed gap between schools serving the average low-income versus middle/higher-income student. As the nation grapples with the growing gap between rich and poor and an economy increasingly reliant on formal education, public policies should address housing market regulations that prohibit all but the very affluent from enrolling their children in high-scoring public schools in order to promote individual social mobility and broader economic security.

A fascinating argument: eliminating some of the zoning differences across communities would reduce the educational achievement gap. However, zoning is at the heart of local government and municipalities don’t give this up easily.

Thoughts on the fact that 35% of four-year degree students finish college in four years

Several low statistics about college completion tend to startle my students when I share them in class:

Only 35 percent of students starting a four-year degree program will graduate within four years, and less than 60 percent will graduate within six years. Students who haven’t graduated within six years probably never will. The U.S. college dropout rate is about 40 percent, the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world.

When I’ve shared these figures with my students, they tend to be incredulous: most people they know go to college and complete it. Figures have gone up over the years but only about 30% of American adults have a college degree. For my students, they have never really known a world where they weren’t expected to go to college. While we might hold up figures like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as model entrepreneurs who were able to drop out of college, I would guess few people would counsel young adults to not go to college.

These figures can be taken in two directions. One option: these statistics are cited in an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that calls for rethinking “our obsessive focus on college schooling” and moving toward an educational system like Germany that funnels students into different tracks, college being one of them, after high school. Proponents of this plan like to note that this would increase vocational and technical training, providing the skilled workers than a post-industrial economy needs.

On the other hand, one could argue that there needs to be a lot more support for completing college. This doesn’t necessarily just happen once a student arrives on campus though I think there is much colleges could do to foster a more academic atmosphere that is focused on learning and training as opposed to “having an experience” and jumping on the credentialism train (having a college degree simply so you can get certain kinds of jobs). Aspiring to go to college can be very good but it requires a conducive environment and much work before one gets to college. This whole matter glosses over a bunch of other social inequalities that then play out at the college level. Asking colleges to solve all of these problems is very difficult – one, education is not necessarily the magic bullet we as a culture can solve everything and two, college comes at the end of a long chain of previous experiences.

Another argument to be made in favor of college is that it isn’t just about getting a job. While some will argue this is a luxury, college should be a place where students learn to think and encounter the big ideas that make the world go round. For many students, this will be the only time in life where they will have the time to truly engage with the issues they will then face for the rest of their lives. I do teach at a liberal arts school so I’m betraying some bias here but there is plenty to be gained in terms of human flourishing at college as well as being trained in particular fields or disciplines and I don’t think this should just be available to the wealthy or those who have the time. (Granted, this sort of learning doesn’t have to happen in college but there are few other social institutions that provide this in adult life. And self-learning can be a great thing but you will would want to interact with others in meaningful ways about what you have learned.)

Of course, college can be quite expensive and this influences the debate quite a bit.

h/t Instapundit