What can a political sociology class do? Perhaps change a highway name

Many highways and roads in the United States have local honorary names and one political sociology class wants to change who a nearby road honors:

University of Mary Washington students are all familiar with Jefferson Davis Highway, the road that leads to campus, Mary Washington Hospital and even Carl’s. Students walk over it to get to Giant, Eagle Landing and Home Team Grill but many students do not know the origin of its name. Students in the Political Sociology Class want to change that…

“The ultimate goal of our class project is to get the City Council of Fredericksburg’s approval to rename the Jefferson Davis Highway in the Fredericksburg area,” Greene said. “We are doing this project to show the public that we care about what our community represents, Jefferson Davis was a Confederate leader who owned approximately 100 slaves, why should we honor a leader who stood for inequality and the superiority of one race over another?”

Jefferson Davis was the owner of at least 113 slaves in his lifetime and was the president of the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865, and an embodiment of the values of the planter class. The United Daughters of the Confederacy decided to honor his memory by naming the highway after him…

For students who wish to get involved, Greene suggests showing support by “attending City Council meetings with our class, spreading the word amongst the campus and Fredericksburg community to help promote our mission by word of mouth and our Facebook page, and signing a petition that we plan to create in the near future. The more support we have from UMW, the more likely we are to make a change.”

I bet an analysis of all the honorary names in the United States would turn up a lot of figures who could be controversial. Take Chicago as an example: this helpful website helps makes sense of all of the honorary streets in the city. Given that roads and highways are built with taxpayer money, it makes some sense to have honorary figures who can appeal to everyone.

I like this class idea as a tangible goal for a political sociology course. Undergraduate students often ask how they can make an actual difference and this seems like an attainable goal. Along the way, the students will get opportunities to interact with local officials, the public, and other students and learn how to make such appeals.

“The Sociology of Harry Potter” course about culture

Taking advantage of student’s knowledge of the Harry Potter series, one sociology instructor is using “The Sociology of Harry Potter” to teach about culture:

“The basic idea is to have students use sociology to analyze the society of the wizardly world to be able to understand and compare and contrast between the Muggle world and the witching world,” Vandivier said.

About 30 students are taking the course, which Vandivier said is a large number for an online course, but she is glad for the active participation.

“Many of them are big Harry Potter fans. They get into arguments — not online, but when I’ve talked to some on campus — who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy and who’s the Hufflepuff, and what that’s got to do with anything. It’s just so fun listening to them, and they are really emotionally invested in the different houses, in the different characters, in the different circumstances that happened and where they think things came from. Just all the ideology; it’s almost like a religion,” she said…

“If I were to teach a class on say, the cultures of India, I would first have to educate them on what the culture of India is. But in this situation, they already know, they already have it down,” she said. “And I’m just facilitating a compare and contrast, what’s the theme, what’s the difference, and what does that mean for each society? So that’s the great thing about Harry Potter.”

Why not use what students already know in order to demonstrate sociological concepts? And with the new Harry Potter play in the works, this might be a good time to capitalize on continued interest.

While the sociological study of pop culture may have been taboo decades ago, it is increasingly common today. The impact of such narratives are hard to deny, even as other traditional institutions (nations, families, race and class structures, education systems, etc.) draw ongoing attention.

A Sociology of Disney course makes sense because Disney itself claims an influential legacy

I recently saw a story about a new Sociology of Disney course. Is such a course helpful or a good use of time? Some might see this as frivolous, perhaps the same people who sound the alarms about sociology courses about celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, or Jay-Z. I would argue otherwise: not only is it a good means to introduce students to sociology but Disney itself claims it is an influential factor in American life.

First, a quick description of the Sociology of Disney course:

A classroom case study: A young woman stuck in an abusive home escapes her family through marriage. Fast forward 60 years: Another young woman calls off her wedding to a deceptive fiance and focuses her time on her older sister and a new partner from a lower social class.

If these two fictional examples came from the same writer, what does this say about how the author’s attitude toward women changed?

They may sound like a classic comparison of gender roles, but they’re actually the plot of two Disney movies — “Cinderella” and “Frozen.”

Heather Downs, a Jacksonville University sociology professor, is using such examples in her “The Sociology of Disney” summer course, which she created last year as a way to get students interested in common sociology topics. The course has gained popularity since, and 16 students completed their final Friday by running around the Magic Kingdom and taking photos of examples of sociology topics discussed in class.

Second, I recently saw the Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Lots of people know Disney and like Disney but I was particularly interested in how Disney itself was presented. And the legacy-building was thick. It included: the early life of Walt Disney in the heartland of America (Chicago, small-town Missouri); his early forays in Hollywood with interesting cartoon work and new ideas; the formation of the Disney company; all sorts of new techniques in animation (matching sound with drawings, coloring, a multi-plane camera, reintroducing fairy tales); innovative work matching animation and live-action (think Mary Poppins); the construction of iconic characters and theme parks; and best-selling movies. All throughout, there were videos and quotes from Walt Disney talking about what the company was trying to do and how they accomplished it.

Connecting this to the Disney course, it is worth studying Disney because this successful international corporation itself recognizes its influence. Walt Disney is held up as an American success story, a Midwestern boy who followed his dreams and helped enrich the lives of millions. Individuals don’t have to like the films or themes or what Disney stands for but it is hard to refute that most, if not all, Americans have interacted with Disney in one form or another. While people are certainly influenced by other sources, Disney capitalized on a number of trends – generally, adapting to new mass media forms – and is worth examining.

Should you study love in a sociology course?

I’ve seen multiple stories about a new sociology course on love at a university in India. Here is one such story:

The battle of superiority between natural and social sciences is being played out at one of India‘s oldest universities and good old Love may just become a casualty.

Among general education courses to familiarise humanities and science students with each others’ disciplines, Kolkata’s Presidency University is offering unique optional papers like “Digital Humanities”, “The Physics of Everyday Life”, and “Love” – likely to be option number 1 for most undergraduate students!

The subject of Love, hitherto the premise of departments of English and Philosophy, will be addressed for the first time by a department of sociology in an Indian university. The only other known precedent is the Sociology of Love undergraduate course offered at the University of Massachusetts in the US…

Roy hopes to cover several elements of Love – from Love-as-romance to Love-as-industry. He is hoping to bank on Love theorists like Anthony Giddens, Zygmunt Bauman and Eric Fromm, who have enriched sociological discourses with “The Transformation of Intimacy; Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies” , “Liquid Love” and “The Art of Loving” respectively.

My first thought is a line that I have provided to Introduction to Sociology students: if humans are involved in any way, sociologists can and will study it. Considering there is not a shortage of writing and commentary about love, sociologists should study it.

But, several articles, including this one, seem to hint at a different sort of issue: by applying social science methods to love, do social scientists change what love is? If it is shown to be influenced by social forces and norms, does this demean love? This sounds a bit silly to me: we know there is a more individual component to love (emotions, though this individualistic idea ), we know there is a physical dimension (the response of the body), and we know there is a social dimension (what love is and how it is expressed differs). Sociologists often “pull back the curtain” on social behavior but this doesn’t necessarily mean it ruins the experience of love. On the contrary, it may just enlighten people about the social dimensions of love.

Another idea. A number of social scientists have been behind the creation of popular dating websites (great phrase: “algorithms of love”): a psychologist is behind eHarmony.com, a sociologist is behind perfectmatch.com, and an anthropologist developed the algorithm behind chemistry.com. These social scientists have helped develop the idea that love can be scientific, that there are patterns that can be applied in a waiting market where plenty of people want such “Scientific” matching.

Update on sociology becoming part of the MCAT in January 2015

ASA’s Footnotes for December 2012 includes an article with more details on sociological material being included on the MCAT in upcoming years:

An important change in the MCAT® (the Medical College Admission Test) has the potential to have a significant impact on sociology departments across the country. In February 2012, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) “approved changes… that will require aspiring doctors to have an understanding of the social and behavioral sciences.” (Mann, 2012). The new version of the test, which will be in place by January of 2015, includes an entire section on the social and behavioral sciences. One implication of this change is that pre-medical curricula across the country may start requiring that students take an introductory sociology course (as well as an introductory course in psychology) in preparation for taking the MCAT (see, for example, Brenner and Ringe 2012)…

The exact content of sociology and psychology test questions is not yet finalized. Starting in January 2014 the new social science section of the MCAT will be included as an “optional” section. The cohort of students who take that first updated version of the MCAT are already enrolled in college. Students who choose to complete it will be compensated in some way. These trial runs will be used to modify the section before it “counts” as part of the MCAT score. Starting in January 2015 the test will include the required section on social and behavioral sciences.

The new section of the MCAT that tests sociology and psychology is described in a Preview Guide to the MCAT2015 Exam. The descriptions contained in that guide detail specific content areas within sociology (including “understanding social structure,” “demographic characteristics and processes,” “social stratification,” and “social inequality”) that will be covered on the test (AAMC 2012:12).

Two quick thoughts:

1. I’ve mentioned this change in my Intro classes a few times and I think some pre-med students were aware of what was happening. I can’t say for sure that I’ve had an uptick in students interested in medical fields but this article suggests this could happen in coming years.

2. While I think this makes a lot of sense for medical practitioners to have some knowledge of society and social life, I am amazed at times that more fields don’t explicitly train their students or ask them to take classes in social life. For example, isn’t business often about interacting with people as well as managing employees? Wouldn’t sociology provide insights into this?

Earn sociology credit by volunteering at Illinois’ new 2-1-1 info phone number

A new information phone number, 2-1-1, is close to being available to northeastern Illinois residents and sociology students at a few Illinois colleges can earn credit for volunteering at the call centers:

The number is a free, nonemergency option for information on health and human service agencies, spearheaded by United Way. More than 30 states have coverage for 100 percent of their residents, as does Puerto Rico. Illinois and Arkansas are the only two states with less than 20 percent of residents able to dial 211, according to United Way Worldwide 2011 statistics…

Now though, David Barber, executive director of the United Way of Greater McHenry County, is working with six other local United Ways to create a similar collaborative across McHenry, Kane, Kendall and Lake counties. Barber is on the board of 211 Illinois and was the chairman for the committee that issued a request for information from potential 211 operators for downstate counties…

Local college students studying sociology or psychology could get real-world experience helping people in need by volunteering at the call centers for class credit — as Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan students already do. A single call center could serve the entire region or multiple call centers could be formed.

And data about the content of calls will be available to constantly improve service.

This is interesting that this service is making its way to more suburban areas. Chicago has had a popular 3-1-1 number for years. The Chicago number had 4.2 million calls last year. According to the FAQs, here are the “most requested city services in Chicago“:

  • Street Lights – All/Out
  • Graffiti Removal
  • Garbage Cart Black
  • Rodent Baiting/Rat Complaint
  • Shelter Request
  • Building Violation
  • Pot Hole in Street
  • Abandoned Vehicle Complaint

I would be interested to know what these sociology (and psychology) students encounter when answering these phone calls. How much could their sociological training come into play?

I am intrigued by the last idea quoted above: the phone number operates as a sort of voluntary needs-based assessment. On one hand, the phone number is not a representative sample of needs in an area and people may not call the phone number about certain issues. On the other hand, if a subject continually comes up, it could be some indication that services in that area are needed.

Positive results for teaching statistics by computer

A recent study shows that students taking an online statistics course utilizing software from Carnegie Mellon do better than students who take a hybrid course with a classroom classroom:

The study, called “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities,” involved students taking introductory statistics courses at six (unnamed) public universities. A total of 605 students were randomly assigned to take the course in a “hybrid” format: they met in person with their instructors for one hour a week; otherwise, they worked through lessons and exercises using an artificially intelligent learning platform developed by learning scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative.

Researchers compared these students against their peers in the traditional-format courses, for which students met with a live instructor for three hours per week, using several measuring sticks: whether they passed the course, their performance on a standardized test (the Comprehensive Assessment of Statistics), and the final exam for the course, which was the same for both sections of the course at each of the universities…

The robotic software did have disadvantages, the researchers found. For one, students found it duller than listening to a live instructor. Some felt as though they had learned less, even if they scored just as well on tests. Engaging students, such as professors might by sprinkling their lectures with personal anecdotes and entertaining asides, remains one area where humans have the upper hand.

But on straight teaching the machines were judged to be as effective, and more efficient, than their personality-having counterparts.

As someone who regularly teaches both Statistics and Social Research (a research methods course), these findings are intriguing. I understand the urge to curb costs while still providing a good education. However, I have three questions that perhaps go beyond these findings:

1. Are there any benefits for students from being in a classroom for three hours a week beyond learning outcomes? Is there a social dimension to the classroom setting that could enhance learning? For example, it is common for professors to have students work in groups or with each other, sometimes with the idea that being able to teach or effectively help another student will increase a student’s learning. Also, I wonder about learning becoming strictly an individualistic activity. Sure, there are ways to do this online (discussion boards, using Skype, etc.) but does this replicate the kind of discussions faculty and students can have in a classroom?

2. Are there any professors in the United States who might secretly welcome not having to teach statistics?

3. Is there a point in a discipline, like statistics, where the difficulty of the subject matter makes it more helpful to have a live instructor? This study looked at introductory stats courses but would the findings be the same if the courses covered more advanced topics that require more “intuition” and “art” than pure steps or facts?

h/t Instapundit