Shopping Harvard students flock to “Sociology 109: Leadership and Organizations”

Harvard has a tradition that students can spent the early days of the semester “shopping” among classes before settling on what they will take throughout the semester. A sociology class, Sociology 109: Leadership and Organization, was apparently quite popular during this shopping period:

Peter Chen ’13 had shopped the perennially popular Sociology 109: “Leadership and Organizations” last fall, so he expected the course to be somewhat crowded when he visited it again Wednesday on the first day of shopping period.

But when he arrived at the start of the class, student shoppers were already overflowing out the door, blocking Chen’s entrance into the lecture hall.

“I tried to push in a little bit and funnel into the room,” said Chen, who was forced to stand outside the lecture hall for about 10 minutes before wiggling his way into a newly empty chair.

Another Sociology 109 shopper, Stephanie L. Grayson ’14, said she showed up a full 20 minutes early to ensure a seat in the class, which she suspected would be crowded because it was taught by popular sociology lecturer David L. Ager. The course—which will be lotteried down to 80 students by the end of shopping period—drew about 180 shoppers, according to Ager.

What I am interested in is this: why is this particular class so popular? The article hints at a few reasons that certain classes are overflowing in the shopping period: they fulfill certain general education requirements or, as indicated regarding Sociology 109, has a popular lecturer. These are not unusual reasons.

But looking at the title of the course, I wonder if another factor is at work: this sociology class has direct implications for business. The professor has “a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior, a joint degree granted by Harvard Business School and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.” Additionally, he has worked with both businesses and governments:

Ager has consulted and taught for several large multinational firms from different industries including finance, high-technology, hospitality, consumer products, bio-technology, bio-energy, telecommunications, and wholesale distribution. In addition, he has advised large, family controlled businesses around the world. His list of clients includes companies such as Mars, Inc., Rockefeller & Co., Inc., Caterpillar, and Morgan Stanley. His consulting activities include leadership development, strategic planning, talent management, change management, M&A, team building and succession planning.

Prior to coming to Harvard, Ager worked as an adviser to Cabinet Ministers in the Fisheries and Oceans and the Employment and Immigration portfolios of the Canadian government. He also served as a member of the finance organization at Nortel and as the Director of the Mexico Research Initiative at the Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario.

While students might have difficulty seeing how sociology classes directly relate to business settings, this class seems uniquely positioned to attract business majors, entrepreneurial types, and others who might otherwise think sociology is impractical.

Or perhaps there is a growing demand among sociology students for organizational theory. It does seem to be growing within sociology itself.

Harvard Crimson makes a case for sociology

In an editorial about hiring more sociology faculty, the Harvard Crimson discusses the interest in and usefulness of sociology:

[T]his seems to indicate that the increase in sociology concentrators is based on actual interest in the subject matter rather than the perceived ease of the concentration or “herd” mentality—as seems to be the case with economics, in which the increase in concentrators has not corresponded with an increase in tutorial applicants.

Additionally, students across the college are increasingly interested in pre-professional studies—witness the popularity of the global health and health policy secondary and the new interest in a social innovation secondary. Although The Crimson Staff believes that the intent of the College experience is to provide a liberal arts education, sociology is nevertheless the best way to explore pre-professional interests within that framework. In the concentration, one can focus on topics such as “work, organizations, and management” or “health, medicine, and society,” which are good fits for students with a definite career interest in business or healthcare.

Is this increased interest in sociology among Harvard students mirrored elsewhere?

I also agree with this idea that sociology is a great preparation for “pre-professional interests,” particularly when students know they are going on for advanced degrees.

Sounds like a decent pitch to me – and it even has a dig about economics…

Quick Review: The Social Network

Much has been written about the movie The Social Network since it was released earlier this year. Adding to the positive buzz about the movie, commentators think it will be up for some Oscars and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was recently named “Person of the Year” by Time (more on this shortly). While sagescape has already offered his views (from Harvard itself), I have some thoughts after finally seeing this movie in the theater:

1. This story revolves around two primary themes and plot devices: social status and two court cases.

1a. Social status. Zuckerberg is portrayed as a computer genius who is desperate for social acceptance on a campus where the rich, beautiful, and athletic get attention. The movie begins and ends with this as he tries to reestablish a relationship with his one-time girlfriend. He is shown wanting to be accepted into Harvard’s prestigious social clubs and is petty when his friend Eduardo has an opportunity to enter one of these clubs himself. Ultimately, the story is not that different than any film about high school or college: people have cliques and personal vendettas, nerds and the rich/beautiful don’t travel in the same circles, and all of them spend years trying to get a leg up on others.

1b. The two court cases involve people suing Zuckerberg regarding Facebook. On one hand, this is a useful plot device as we see all of the pertinent characters providing testimony at depositions as they retell how Facebook began. On the other hand, this seems to make the court cases out to be particularly important moments in Facebook’s history. These court cases tie back into the issue of social status as those suing Zuckerberg suggest he was out to improve his own status and Zuckerberg still seems interested in knocking them down a peg or two.

1c. As others have noted, these two themes seem to be quite dependent on the book used as the main source for this film. Since this book details one of the two court cases, this is what may be responsible for the plot structure. However, other texts, such as The Facebook Effect, are much more favorable toward Zuckerberg and treat these issues as minor irritants on the way to Facebook’s success. Both court cases were settled out of court with money payouts and non-disclosure agreements so we may not really know what happened.

2. Zuckerberg is not a likable character in this film. But we don’t really learn much about his background or what makes him tick. The most we know from this film: he is eccentric, doesn’t have many friends, likes his own ideas, and tells it as he sees it. This does not endear him to many people in the film.

3. I imagine the story of Facebook’s origins will be up for more interpretation as time goes on. And I think these stories will depend heavily on the angle of the storytellers and the relationship the author/interpreter/commentator has with Mark Zuckerberg.

4. Because of the emphasis on these two issues, we don’t see much about how Facebook grew. We see a lot of the initial work in the dorm and early on in California but not much after Facebook has its one millionth user. Obviously, much has happened since then as Facebook has now over 500 million users and has spread around the globe.

5. Much has been said about Justin Timberlake’s role as Sean Parker. He is an energizing figure but doesn’t play a huge role. In fact, his character has an ignominious end with the company toward the end of the film. And this final stretch of the film featuring Parker seemed to drag on a bit.

6. Without this film, I don’t think there is any way Zuckerberg would have been named Time’s Person of the Year. Yes, he helped found a company that has grown incredibly quickly and become a part of people’s lives. But in terms of being consequential for human events or world history, does Zuckerberg really rank up there? And why pick him out this year as opposed to previous years when Facebook was also gaining popularity? But perhaps once You were named Person of the Year in 2006 (yes, I mean You), Person of the Year lost some of its gravitas.

Overall, this is an interesting film about a popular social phenomena. Whether this is the real story or not, it is an engrossing look at an enigmatic former Harvard student whose website idea has changed how people connect.

(This film received positive reviews from critics: the reviews were 96% fresh, 248 fresh out of 257 total reviews, at rottentomatos.com.)

Quick review: Watching The Social Network at Harvard

This weekend, the movie The Social Network, a disputed origin story about the founding of Facebook, hit theaters to nearly universal acclaim.  I had the opportunity to see the movie on the second day of release and can add my wreath to the many laurels heaped upon this Aaron SorkinDavid Fincher collaboration.  However, since so many others have dissected this film so thoroughly, I will refrain from a typical movie review as I feel I have little to add.  I will instead comment briefly on just how surreal it was to watch this movie at Harvard.

The AMC Loews Harvard Square 5 is located one block off the Yard at Harvard University, and the mood at the 6:30pm showing on Saturday, October 2nd was electrifying.  The audience appeared to be a mix mostly of college students and their professors, and they clearly had come to have a good time.  When the Mark Zukerberg character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, made a crack early in the movie about Boston University students not needing to study, there was a collective gasp.  When the exterior of The Thirsty Scholar made a cameo appearance, there were actual cheers.

This movie was about us–not as representatives of some abstractly-defined generation nor as students coming of age during web 2.0–but as residents of Mt. Auburn Street, two blocks away.  In the men’s bathroom after the movie, I overheard a conversation between two students debating the wisdom of trying to get into one of Lawrence Summer‘s classes now that he is returning to Harvard (after working as director of the White House National Economics Council).

Many of the best movies take us from our own specifics into the universality of the human condition.  While I am sure that The Social Network will do this for many people, it had quite the opposite effect on me.  For me, it took that most abstractly universal of all web phenonmenon–Facebook–and gave it a specific human face.  One that might well have been in the theater with me last night.

More discussion about teaching “The Wire” at Harvard

The class revolving around the television show The Wire in the Harvard Sociology Department continues to draw attention. Here is a quick summary of the some of the public discussion:

In a Boston Globe editorial, Eugene and Jacqueline Rivers, co-founder of the Boston Ten-Point Coalition and Harvard University doctoral student, respectively, wrote in support of the class:

One of the most difficult challenges confronting intellectuals is how to discuss the relationship between race and poverty in Obama’s “post-racial” America…”The Wire” can usefully serve as a non-partisan political resource for engaging the issues of race and poverty.’

The two add that the show is smart and creative, and that it can lead to discussion about programmatic responses to systematic inequality in the inner city.

On the opposite end of the spectrum stands Ishmael Reed, a professor at University of California-Berkeley who also contributed an op-ed on the subject to the Globe.

Reed believes that professors like Wilson are more concerned with using “hot courses built around sensational popular culture like hip-hop and crime shows as a way of filling seats in their classroom,” than with seriously examining race and class relations. Reed contends that the show is riddled with stereotypes, and should not be utilized in a university setting.

I would be curious to hear about the outcomes of the course, both for students and faculty.

What these comments about this particular class are hinting at is that there is disagreement about how to best teach courses about race, poverty, and social class. There are numerous resources professors can draw upon, including a wealth of ethnographic work from the last twenty years.

Reasons for using The Wire in class

Two Harvard professors, one is sociologist William Julius Wilson, explain why they have built a course on urban inequality around the television show “The Wire.” In addition to how the show illustrates how the chances of the urban poor are limited by institutions, the professors argue “The Wire” is unique in its abilities to show the complexities of the real world:

“The Wire” is fiction, but it forces us to confront social realities more effectively than any other media production in the era of so-called reality TV. It does not tie things up neatly; as in real life, the problems remain unsolved, and the cycle repeats itself as disadvantages become more deeply entrenched. Outside the world of television drama, sociologists aim to explain what causes certain social conditions and then assess the merits of competing theories. The solutions, however, are usually less clear. “The Wire” gets that part right, too.

In my experience, television shows and movies are often terrible at depicting the real world. Perhaps it is difficult to avoid following a typical narrative arc or the need to entertain wins out. However, I’ve always thought that real life situations are usually more interesting than created stories.

When reviewing this show back in June, I mentioned about this course at Harvard and added thoughts about the sociological value of the show.

The value of using multiple coders

A well-known psychologist from Harvard is in trouble for allegedly reporting false data from laboratory studies. How the allegations surfaced is illustrative of why researchers should have more than just one person looking at data. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, here is what happened after the psychologist and a graduate student coded an experiment involving rhesus monkeys:

According to the document that was provided to The Chronicle, the experiment in question was coded by Mr. Hauser and a research assistant in his laboratory. A second research assistant was asked by Mr. Hauser to analyze the results. When the second research assistant analyzed the first research assistant’s codes, he found that the monkeys didn’t seem to notice the change in pattern. In fact, they looked at the speaker more often when the pattern was the same. In other words, the experiment was a bust.

But Mr. Hauser’s coding showed something else entirely: He found that the monkeys did notice the change in pattern—and, according to his numbers, the results were statistically significant. If his coding was right, the experiment was a big success.

The second research assistant was bothered by the discrepancy. How could two researchers watching the same videotapes arrive at such different conclusions? He suggested to Mr. Hauser that a third researcher should code the results. In an e-mail message to Mr. Hauser, a copy of which was provided to The Chronicle, the research assistant who analyzed the numbers explained his concern. “I don’t feel comfortable analyzing results/publishing data with that kind of skew until we can verify that with a third coder,” he wrote.

A graduate student agreed with the research assistant and joined him in pressing Mr. Hauser to allow the results to be checked, the document given to The Chronicle indicates. But Mr. Hauser resisted, repeatedly arguing against having a third researcher code the videotapes and writing that they should simply go with the data as he had already coded it. After several back-and-forths, it became plain that the professor was annoyed.

These discrepancies in the data led to indications that something similar had happened in other experiments.

Having multiple coders is good for several reasons:

1. Helping to eliminate or catch problems such as these where someone might be tempted to falsify data.

2. To help interpret ambiguous situations.

3. To demonstrate to the broader research community that the results are more than just one person’s conclusions. (This should also be aided by the review process as other researchers look over the work.)