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?

College change: syllabi requiring students to check email every day

As technology shifts, college syllabi must as well: there are syllabi that ask students to check email each day.

How to get students, some of whom consider their school e-mail accounts so irrelevant that they give their parents the passwords, to take a look?

At the University of Southern California, Nina Eliasoph’s Sociology 250 syllabus reads: “You must check e-mail DAILY every weekday,” with boldface for emphasis…

When job offers arrive, Ratliff often has excited students turn up in her office only to realize they have forgotten a form they need to send to the company. Using e-mail to get the form or to send it apparently does not cross their minds.

“Some of them didn’t even seem to know they had a college e-mail account,” May said. Nor were these wide-eyed freshmen. “This is considered a junior-level class, so they’d been around.”

That is when he added to his course syllabuses: “Students must check e-mail daily.” May said the university now recommends similar wording…

 

The next step would seem to be having students and faculty and college staff all start using text messages or social media. However, this leads to other issues. Asking people to switch to new technologies which could then require training and practice. Privacy concerns could arise, particularly compared to more impersonal emails. There might be the argument that doing this means getting on a technology treadmill that goes faster and faster – students switch to the next big thing and everyone else must follow.

Another interesting question to ask is what kind of interaction aided by technology best leads to improved learning outcomes? Needing to communicate information is important but what exactly boosts learning? In The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein argues new technologies don’t typically boost learning even as they might improve engagement. Yet, colleges are moving to moving to more online learning. This can lead to learning at different paces, cuts down on costs, and makes classes available to more people. But, does it lead to more learning?

How to improve the graduate student-faculty adviser relationship

An English professor has discovered that there are a lot of graduate students (and former graduate students) who are upset with what they perceive to be lack of information given to them by their graduate advisers. The professor suggests how this relationship between graduate student and adviser could be improved:

That failure rests absolutely on us. We’re the teachers, and the initiative is ours. The communication gap between graduate teachers and graduate students is an intramural version of the crisis facing academe writ large: Professors are only lately waking up to the need to take their assigned part in the continuing and necessary discussion of the role of the university in society today.

We need likewise to rethink our role in the education of our graduate students. Professional-development seminars, which I discussed last month, help stake out common understanding between professors and graduate students, but communication only starts there. Advisers need to advance it. We shouldn’t wait for students to ask what’s out there careerwise. It’s part of our job to tell them. To mend the gap, we must mind the gap—or else corrosive anger will widen it…

I’m not sure I’d let the teachers off the hook so easily, but we should pay attention to the reader’s larger point, namely: Graduate students, as well as their professors, have responsibility for the choices they make.

School is a place where teachers tell students what to do. At the same time, school is supposed to prepare students to make choices for themselves. In between those two realities lie a lot of teaching and learning—and professional development. Both professors and students have to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions before us: We both must learn how to work together so that our students can leave us with every possible advantage. We all need to keep our eyes open.

On the whole, it sounds like there simply needs to be more conversation within graduate schools about the possibilities and pitfalls that graduate students and practitioners of particular disciplines will face in a changing world. The experience a faculty member might have had 20 years ago may not repeat itself but at the same time, the graduate student shouldn’t take that past experience as a factual story about how things always work.

A missing part of this conversation seems to be the interests of the graduate department and the school/university at large. Graduate departments generally want to produce students who go on to good jobs at Research 1 institutions. These departments are rated on this productivity, particularly by their peers at other Research 1 institutions. Would a department who puts a majority of PhDs in private industry when the norm for the field is Research 1 jobs be punished or be looked down upon? What incentives could be put into place so that departments would promote a broader range of options for students with advanced degrees?

Something might be said here as well for students building close relationships with several faculty. Advisers are important, particularly for the thesis and dissertation stages. But it is helpful to have other perspectives as well, something that is not possible if a student is tied to only one faculty member.

An example of statistics in action: measuring faculty performance by the grades students receive in subsequent courses

Assessment, whether it is for student or faculty outcomes,  is a great area in which to find examples of statistics. This example comes from a discussion of assessing faculty by looking at how students do in subsequent courses:

[A]lmost no colleges systematically analyze students’ performance across course sequences.

That may be a lost opportunity. If colleges looked carefully at students’ performance in (for example) Calculus II courses, some scholars say, they could harvest vital information about the Calculus I sections where the students were originally trained. Which Calculus I instructors are strongest? Which kinds of homework and classroom design are most effective? Are some professors inflating grades?

Analyzing subsequent-course preparedness “is going to give you a much, much more-reliable signal of quality than traditional course-evaluation forms,” says Bruce A. Weinberg, an associate professor of economics at Ohio State University who recently scrutinized more than 14,000 students’ performance across course sequences in his department.

Other scholars, however, contend that it is not so easy to play this game. In practice, they say, course-sequence data are almost impossible to analyze. Dozens of confounding variables can cloud the picture. If the best-prepared students in a Spanish II course come from the Spanish I section that met at 8 a.m., is that because that section had the best instructor, or is it because the kind of student who is willing to wake up at dawn is also the kind of student who is likely to be academically strong?

It sounds like the relevant grade data for this sort of analysis would not be difficult. The hard part is making sure the analysis includes all of the potentially relevant factors, “confounding variables,” that could influence student performance.

One way to limit these issues is to limit student choice regarding sections and instructors. Interesting, this article cites studies done at the Air Force Academy, where students don’t have many options in the Calculus I-II sequence. In summary, this setting means “the Air Force Academy [is] a beautifully sterile environment for studying course sequences.”

Some interesting findings both from the Air Force Academy and Duke: students who were in introductory/earlier classes that they considered more difficult or stringent did better in subsequent courses.

The story behind those who write papers purchased online

Cheating is common in schools and the opportunities to purchase papers online seems to be on the rise. The Chronicle of Higher Education features a testimonial from a “shadow scholar” who tells his story of writing dozens of papers and theses:

You’ve never heard of me, but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work. I’m a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can’t detect, that you can’t defend against, that you may not even know exists.

I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students. I’ve worked there full time since 2004. On any day of the academic year, I am working on upward of 20 assignments.

In the midst of this great recession, business is booming…

Of course, I know you are aware that cheating occurs. But you have no idea how deeply this kind of cheating penetrates the academic system, much less how to stop it. Last summer The New York Times reported that 61 percent of undergraduates have admitted to some form of cheating on assignments and exams. Yet there is little discussion about custom papers and how they differ from more-detectable forms of plagiarism, or about why students cheat in the first place.

Sounds like we need some more research and figures about how often this particular type of cheating occurs.

There are some interesting thoughts in the comments about who is responsible for all of this and what professors can do about it. The “shadow scholar” suggests that certain segments of the college population are let down by the system and faculty must be burying their heads in the sand when a student can’t express themselves coherently in class and then comes up with an excellent paper. Some of the solutions presented in the comments: get to know your student’s writing very well so you can spot the gaps between their in-class writing and their suddenly strong papers; have students go through a number of drafts that theoretically makes it more difficult to purchase a paper (though “shadow scholar” gives some examples of writing and then revising papers); emphasize writing in schools so students aren’t put in this position where they can’t write.