Why I am excited to teach in Fall 2020

Starting up college classes in Fall 2020 is a difficult and uncertain task. Many decisions and much planning has gone into schools starting up or getting close to starting again. Here is why I am excited to be back in the classroom to start classes this next week:

Image capture from “Why Study Sociology and Anthropology at Wheaton?
  1. I am always excited for learning to begin. There is much for all of us to learn; the well-worn phrase “the more you learn, the less you know” (or some variation) is true. The start of a new class marks the beginning of a process by which an instructor and students learn together. There are a lot of other things that colleges and universities are now about but learning is at the heart of the mission. Teaching many classes at the undergraduate level means that the courses are just the start of what could become life-long conversations or projects yet there is potential to spark new interests or paths or epiphanies. Even though I have taught each of my two classes this fall semester more than ten times each, I am excited to share the material, ways of thinking, and skills with new sets of students. We have minds and bodies and we are called to put them to use in learning and then applying or living out that knowledge.
  2. Learning together. Learning is not only a solitary task; it comes to full fruition when done in community. Over sixteen weeks of classes, we will get to know each other a little better, hear alternative perspectives, and consider what it all means. Since my institution is smaller, I can know every student’s name, run into people on campus, and find opportunities to link broader or structural concepts to individual experiences. Even with masks this semester or going virtual for the second half of the Spring 2020 semester, we can build relationships during class discussions, through assignments, and outside of class. By the end of the semester, it is hard to let go of a class as an instructor prepares to start the process all over again the next term.
  3. This is a critical time to address issues in society and in our world. One of the reasons I enjoy sociology is that is always applies to current circumstances and now is no different with COVID-19, a presidential election cycle, conversation and action about race, changing economies and cultures, and more. Classrooms provide spaces to explore what is happening from a particular disciplinary lens and since sociology examines all aspects of human behavior, there is much to consider (much more than we can do in any 16 week semester!). There is much for us to apply the sociological imagination to. And with a shared faith commitment on our campus, we can connect sociology’s (or other disciplines) approach to the world to our religious beliefs, belonging, and behavior.
  4. Getting back to some sort of routine. COVID-19 has disrupted a lot of daily patterns. As my campus gets back to on-campus classes, we hopefully we be able to settle into a rhythm and structure that helps us nudge us in positive directions. Living in chaotic or uncertain times is difficult for humans; we need routines and patterns. The academic calendar is one such pattern that does much to structure my own life through my own educational experiences plus now teaching. By the time August starts, I am ready for the school year to start up even as I am grateful for the change that summer brings with a more flexible schedule and time for research.

Basic sociology in the story of a fancy burger from cattle breeding to plate

The story of a $20 hamburger in Washington, D.C. reminded me of several basic sociology concepts from Introduction to Sociology:

ham burger with vegetables

Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels.com

But for months, the burger had been traveling through a complex supply chain crippled by the novel coronavirus. Now it was about to end up in a takeout box…

On the burger’s journey from a Kansas farm to the engineer’s dinner plate, every person had a story like Solano’s. A rancher with five children who lost thousands every week. A factory worker who brought the virus home to her son. A courier who calculated the true cost of every delivery not in profit, but in the risk it required her to take.

To follow the burger is to glimpse the lasting toll of this pandemic: on the beef supply chain, on the restaurant industry, on the people who were struggling before this catastrophe began, kept going to work throughout it and are still waiting to see what their lives will become when it ends.

A few of the sociological concepts in the story:

  1. The miracle of modern systems. The number of people involved, the travel, and the meanings and social policy it play all hint at the complexity and ability of rationalized processes to bring a burger to the home of city residents. Reminds me of Durkheim’s organic solidarity and division of labor as well as Ritzer’s McDonaldization.
  2. The human involvement and costs all along the way. Producers and workers struggling, consumers eating the product with little idea of how it all happened, and an economic and social system that tried to make it as profitable as possible. Furthermore, many of the people are faceless and their personal and collective circumstances – whether race, class, or gender – are obscured or ignored. Reminds me of Marx and alienated workers as well as consumption patterns within modern capitalism.
  3. I am struck by two additional factors that perhaps could be hinted at during Intro to Sociology: does this story illustrate urban-rural divides? The city residents, young 30-somethings order fancy burgers after a week of white-collar work, ranchers raise cattle in the middle of the country, and faceless workers in between facilitate the exchange. And does this illustrate how broad social change is within the United States over the last century? Some aspects of this story could fit 100 years ago – the shipment of beef and other agricultural commodities helped make Chicago and other places – while other aspects would be unheard of. People need to eat and make money but how this happens evolves over time.

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?

Sociologists hosts campus radio show to help students review

I like sociology and I like radio but I never have thought of hosting a radio show that offers opportunities for students to review class material:

Social Sounds airs every Thursday from 7-8 p.m. on the campus radio station, KXUA 88.3 FM. Students are invited to send text messages with questions regarding class material to a Google Voice number and he calls out to students. This allows Adams to have a record of messages and to keep track of participation rates. He has also tracked student listeners through mentioning a secret word on air. During an exam, he had students write the secret word on the back of their scantron and found that 30 percent, or about 110 students, were listening to his show.

“I started the show at the end of the fall 2014 semester when students wanted a review session for the final exam,” Adams said. “Now that it’s on weekly, we cover one chapter per week and stay ahead of what other professors are teaching in their sociology classes. This way students in other general sociology classes can also follow along with the show.”

All of the content is student generated and gives students in Adams’ class the opportunity to earn extra credit for the course. Adams plans to continue Social Sounds as long as it’s successful. While he has encouraged other professors to be involved with the show, none have so far.

Students like having innovative ways to learn and review the material though it is a bit humorous that this innovative way involves a medium with nearly a century of mass use. (Listening for a secret word? Can’t that word be shared on social media with those who don’t listen?) I would want to know how much this improves learning – outside of the extra credit, does the radio review work as well as other review methods?

Sociology class on Malcolm Gladwell suggests his books communicate sociology better than academic texts

The University of Houston is offering a new class on the sociological writings of Malcolm Gladwell:

Who and what is a sociologist? A new undergraduate course taught by Shayne Lee, associate professor of sociology at the University of Houston, will focus on the writings of journalist and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell in order to delve into the nature of the scientific study of human social relationships and institutions through the lens of popular culture consumption…

Lee says Gladwell’s ability to shape and redirect popular understanding of sociology concepts makes his work an excellent framework for exploring how human action and consciousness shape and are shaped by cultural and social structures.

“Students will assess how the ‘Gladwellian’ perspective confirms and challenges established social theories and offers intriguing new insights for the discipline of sociology,” said Lee. “It places the contributions of a pop cultural superstar like Gladwell in conversation with prominent sociologists of the past and present, posing new questions concerning who and what is a sociologist.”…

“Scholar texts don’t have nearly the same impact on teaching students to think more sociologically than ‘Outliers,'” said Lee. “Hence, it is my contention that Gladwell’s works make people more informed about the nuances and complexities of the human condition.”

Gladwell’s communication abilities are the reason he won an award from the American Sociological Association.

Two thoughts:

1. Gladwell communicates better than many sociologists in his books through: (1) the use of stories and narratives as opposed to data and (2) not too many references to academics and their work. In other words, it doesn’t read much like a typical academic text using lots of sociological terms and full of statistics.

2. Gladwell is indeed a good introduction to sociology. At the same time, I wonder how many college students would read his books and then dig into the academic work behind it. The same features noted in #1 that make his work interesting to the general public also mean that the academic work is buried behind the stories and he is not testing and refining theories rather than summarizing existing work.

Architecture students also required to take sociology

If pre-med students have to take a sociology course, why not architecture students?

FOA principal Jagbir Singh told TOI that the need for study of sociology was felt to inculcate sensitivity among students to better understand needs of the society.

“Students should not merely understand the needs of the client but also be sensitive towards the latter. The psychological aspect should also be covered while talking to the client,” said Singh.

The 50-mark paper is divided into two equal parts comprising session and main examination. The course will carry two credits. The objective is to familiarise students with basic concepts, theories and issues of sociology and its relevance to architecture. The course curriculum will have six modules covering the basic concepts and teaching students about the social aspects.

Architecture is more than just creating a beautiful space or a functional design. Real people use buildings and spaces so considering their beliefs and behaviors a bit more could lead to designs that work better for people’s lives.

It would be interesting to then see how architecture students use the sociological information in their architecture studies and in their careers. What exactly do they retain and put into practice? It would also be interesting to compare buildings and spaces constructed with explicitly sociological ideas versus those motivated by different ideas.

Getting around the anger or apathy students have for taking a sociology qualitative research methods class

In a review that describes how a book’s author practices “stealth sociology,” one sociologist describes how he tries to get his students excited about a qualitative research methods class:

Every semester, I teach a course in qualitative research methods. Revealing this at a dinner party or art opening invariably prompts sympathy, no response at all or variations on “Yuck! That was the worst course I ever had.”

Teaching what students dread and remember in anger robs my equilibrium. I tell students qualitative methods happen to be about stories, not numbers and measurements. And who doesn’t love a story and need one—many—daily? I merely teach ways to collect people’s stories, how to observe everyday life and narrate the encounter, and ways to discover stories “contained” in every human communication medium, from movies and tweets to objects of material culture, cars to casseroles.

Hearing this, students perk up. Momentarily. I continue in the liberal arts college spirit and urge students, “Bring to our class discussion and your research planning the skills you developed in English, literature and art classes.”

Hearing this, spirits deflate. Although some take to the freedom in narrative research methods, many students can’t give up the security they find in objective hypotheses, measured variables and reassuring numbers.

“How can we be objective about ourselves?” I argue. “How can anyone?”

Today in the wake of so-called identity studies, we sociologists and anthropologists expect each other to write ourselves into our research. We reveal our social addresses, identify our perspectives, and justify our intent. Sociologists and women’s studies scholars call it standpoint theory. No more pretense of the all-seeing-eye. No more fly on the wall invisibility.

As I think back on my experiences teaching lots of Intro to Sociology, Statistics, and Research Methods (involving both quantitative and qualitative methods), I have found the opposite to often be true: undergraduates more often understand the value or stories and narratives and have more difficulty thinking about scientifically studying people and society. Perhaps this is the result of a particular subculture that values personal relationships.

At the same time, sociologists collect stories in particular ways. It isn’t just about one person making an interpretation and other people can see very different things in the stories. This involves rigorous data collection and analysis by looking across cases. But, this is done without statistical tests and often having smaller samples (which can limit generalizability). Coding “texts” can be a time-consuming and involved process and interviews with people take quite a bit of work in crafting good questions, interacting with respondents in order to build rapport but not doing things to influence their answers, and then understanding and applying what you have heard. We know that we might bias the process, even in the selection of a research question, but we can find ways to limit this including utilizing multiple coders as well as sharing our work with others so they can check our findings and help us think through the implications.

Sociologist explains why her course “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” is needed

The new class “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” at Skidmore College has garnered a lot of attention and the sociologist behind the course explains why it is needed:

With all the very real problems we’re facing as a nation, right — violence against women and children in communities of color, the collapse of the public education system, ongoing poverty and wealth stratification — it’s a convenient distraction to say that a barely post-teen girl or woman is a moral apocalypse. So on one hand, it’s a convenient distraction.

On the other hand, I think that the things that get people so incensed about Miley are the same reasons that I’m trying to teach this course — to help people deconstruct and better understand media, systems of representation, and ideas of power and privilege in the contemporary U.S…

All the best, most inflammatory stuff — all of the pearl-clutching about “Oh, the liberal arts are a cesspool; oh the social sciences are a cesspool! Can you believe that someone would do something so silly!” — is more grist for the mill. It’s more data about why we need to rigorously study media and representation. If you look at the flyer for my class that got tweeted, and if you look at the content of that, this is, you know,  serious sociology. This is rigorous stuff, looking at understanding the world. So in some senses, all of the hubbub in the blogosphere sort of proves the need for a class like this…

I mean, officially, anything that lets me remind people why sociology as a discipline is a rigorous and relevant, why this is useful, why what happens in a liberal arts school is helpful to society? That’s great. I can talk about that all the live-long day.

This is not new criticism – courses about Jay-Z and other parts of popular culture draw similar attention – but it misses the point. Sociologists study social behavior and interaction so theoretically anything is fair game for sociological instruction. Classes can work even better when using current examples, like the attention Miley Cyrus gets for her actions, to illustrate important sociological points. In this case, it sounds like the course will look at how the media presents celebrities and women, to think about how all that media (roughly 11 hours a day for American adults) affect our viewpoints of the world and reflect power dynamics between different groups. The purpose of a sociology course isn’t to psychoanalyze Miley Cyrus or to judge the morality of her actions but rather to think through what she represents and what it reveals about American society.

Saudi Arabia counsels militants, Al Qaeda sympathizers with sociology courses

Saudi Arabia just released some militants but only after they went through a counseling program that included sociology classes:

Saudi Arabia says it has released 272 former militants and Al-Qaeda sympathisers after putting them through a “long-term counselling program”.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said the militants had undergone Islamic, professional, technical, psychological and sociological courses at Prince Muhammad bin Naif Counseling Center in Riyadh and Jeddah.

The rehabilitation program was designed to encourage the hardliners to adopt the moderate path of Islam. He did not specify the length of the programs.

They were released after showing “positive signs of benefiting from the counselling programs”, the spokesman said.

It would be fascinating to know what was said in those sociology classes…

Sociology professor who taught class on Lady Gaga becomes “Gaga sensei” and celebrity himself

Read about the fame a sociology professor who taught a class titled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” has himself found:

Deflem’s entry into the world of celebrity began quietly enough. He had an idea for a course looking at Lady Gaga’s rise to fame – and examining it from a sociological point of view – in the summer of 2010 and got the go-ahead to design it. In October, 2010, the course was announced to the university newspaper. From there – to the astonishment of many – the course suddenly became news across the globe.

In the weeks that followed, Deflem was swamped by interview requests and media appearances to discuss the course. They came from the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, MTV, Billboard, Elle and USA Today. Media from countries including Italy, Germany, Ireland, Slovenia, India, Vietnam, Lebanon, Oman and even Zambia ran pieces about it. He fended off accusations that he had cynically designed the course and its title just to get such attention. “There is no way I could have planned this. I am not that smart,” he said.

But that was just the beginning. Soon he got an avalanche of criticism from figures like conservative firebrand Ann Coulter as well as Christian fundamentalists. His course even became an answer on the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Lady Gaga herself noticed the course and talked about it on radio interviews and a chat with broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper on the flagship news programme 60 Minutes. Saturday Night Live did a skit about Lady Gaga featuring a fan of the star who was dressed to look like Deflem…

He was also amazed at the lack of agency he had over his own fate and image as it spiralled out of control in the hands of hundreds of journalists. “You kind of undergo it. You experience it. You do not really have any control,” he said.

Does this then count as participant observation?

The course did indeed get a lot of attention, see an earlier post here, but it sounds like it has been worthwhile in the end: it allowed a sociology professor to take a current topic and use it to teach sociology as well as learn on the inside about the nature of celebrity.

I still think it would be interesting to hear sociologists discuss their opinions about courses like this or Michael Eric Dyson’s courses on hip-hop. The names and subject matter of the course can stir up controversy but it helps draw attention to a discipline that doesn’t generally receive much. Plus, what is the difference between giving a course a provocative name and then using it to teach sociology well versus the current events and examples lots of sociology professors use in the classroom?