Archive for February, 2010

As much as I enjoy telling students what not to do, I find that they tend to perform better on class assignments when I carefully tell them what to do.  Because of this, I would like to follow up my recent post on how not to write with a detailed description of what good writing looks like.  Thankfully, Henry at Crooked Timber has taken on this task so that I don’t have to and, as a result, has produced an interesting take on what good writing in political science consists of.  Of course, I don’t teach classes in political science but this document could be tailored to a sociology class rather easily.  An excerpt (not coincidentally the advice that has large benefits for readers but that I find difficult as a “naturally good” writer):


This is perhaps the most commonly neglected element of structured writing. It concerns the paragraphs into which your prose is organized. Each paragraph should focus on one main point. The point of each paragraph should build on that in the previous paragraph, and create the foundations of the next. Each paragraph should be a necessary part of the overall structure of your essay.

I find that a useful mental exercise is to boil down the arguments of each paragraph, one after the other, into single sentences. Then, put all these sentences together into a consecutive narrative, looking to see whether each sentence can be made to flow naturally from the sentence previous to it, and into the sentence following. This will highlight any major structural problems. If you are not able to boil down each of the paragraphs into a single sentence summary (however simplistic), then the offending paragraphs most likely need to be rewritten more clearly. If there are gaps or non-sequiturs when you put the one sentence summaries together, then the meso-structure of your essay needs to be re-organized, by cutting and pasting paragraphs, or by introducing new paragraphs to fill the gaps, or deleting old paragraphs that detract from the flow of your argument.

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Update: The current version of the article goes into much more detail, so this appears to be a case of “publish something first to beat the other news outlets, fix it up later so that it actually makes sense.”  An example of poor writing and the effects of the 24-hour news cycle!

For writing assignments I am constantly imploring my students to anticipate questions that readers may have and answer them in the text of their work.  “Don’t assume that the reader knows what you’re talking about,” I tell them.  Maybe the following news story will help them see that I am not making this up (the linked story is from the Denver Post but, as this is from the AP, the same story is repeated with different headlines all over the place).  Can you guess the sport?  The complete text:

Canadian men improve to 8-0, beat US 7-2

By JANIE McCAULEY AP Sports Writer

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In planning to teach three classes at the same time last semester I was careful to space exam dates and deadlines in order to avoid having more than a few things to grade at any given time.  As the semester went on, however, I realized that by spreading things evenly over the course of the semester there was no point at which I didn’t have grading hanging around my neck like an albatross.  Still, I was able to grade most assignments within a week so from the standpoint of my students this approach was probably a success.

Preparing for this semester two of my classes remained the same so I left their deadlines and exam dates alone.  For my third class, however, I didn’t think to coordinate with my other courses.  As a result, I inadvertently had essays due in two classes on the same day.  It turns out that I appear to deal with constant grading much better than a periodic onslaught.  While neither assignment on its own was particularly burdensome their combined weight (and my ever-present disorder) prolonged the amount of time that it took me to grade them by a number of days.  I doubt that my students noticed but I can only imagine the delay that a buildup of longer papers or exams might cause.

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Anybody who has ever sat down to construct an assignment for students knows that it can be time consuming and difficult work.  Trying to balance the amount of work that students have to do with the goals you want them to achieve and the assignment’s proportion of the course grade often takes me much longer than I anticipate.  Grading assignments is similarly time consuming.  Both of these factors add to the frustration associated with a stack of assignments in which many of the students seem to have forgotten that the assignment had any guidelines at all.  If I may, allow me to address the college students out there:

Students, if your instructor puts the time into constructing an assignment the least you can do is read it!  I have also heard from numerous sources that there is a high correlation between following the guidelines of an assignment and doing well on said assignment, partially because so many of your peers will fail to follow these guidelines that whatever you turn in will look like a masterwork by comparison.

I should note that this has been true of students at each of the institutions where I have taught but I sometimes wonder if the students in one of my courses have conspired to rid the planet of grade inflation one requirement at a time.

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After another rash of first-exam failures, this time in another course, I have identified what I am calling the “wait-and-see approach to exams.” In this approach, students view the first exam as an unknown entity.  Because they do not know what to expect from a professor in terms of exam style, difficulty, and grading they apply minimal effort in their studying.  “Maybe,” they think, “this professor writes easier exams and grades more leniently than all prior professors, in which case spending three or even four hours studying would be a monumental waste of my time.  By waiting to see how the first exam goes after 10 minutes of studying I can minimize my effort and in the event that it is unwarranted.”  (An alternative approach would be to over-study for the first exam in the event that a professor writes harder exams and grades more stringently than all prior professors.  I suspect that these students exist in much smaller numbers than their wait-and-see counterparts.)  Alternative explanations for this performance are that “they just don’t care,” that “Dr. Smith doesn’t show enough videos to keep students interested for an entire 50 minutes,” that “like this year’s East coast snowstorms, this class of poor students is an anomaly and is likely never to be seen again,” and that “Dr. Smith is a poor professor.”  The final option has been rejected in the interest of mental health.  Besides, at least I’m trying.

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One of the great things about teaching sociology is that students can connect with some of the subject matter.  Of course, one of the downsides to teaching sociology is that students may decry research findings that do not match their personal experiences as “not true.”  As an instructor, I have stressed the fact that the experiences of individuals differ based on their differing locations in various social structures (it’s like some sort of sociological imagination…).  Public debates on climate change indicate that this problem is not limited to the social sciences.

The claim that global warming is bunk can probably be heard on any relatively cold summer day but the recent snowstorms on the East coast seem to have riled up hordes of people who forget that the global climate is not necessarily reflected in the readings of their backyard thermometer.  This has resulted in coverage of the issue by the New York Times, which reminds us that:

Climate scientists say that no individual episode of severe weather can be attributed to global climate trends, though there is evidence that such events will probably become more frequent as global temperatures rise.

Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who writes on the Weather Underground blog, said that the recent snows do not, by themselves, demonstrate anything about the long-term trajectory of the planet. Climate is, by definition, a measure of decades and centuries, not months or years.

But Dr. Masters also said that government and academic studies had consistently predicted an increasing frequency of just these kinds of record-setting storms, because warmer air carries more moisture.

“Of course,” he wrote on his blog Wednesday as new snows produced white-out conditions in much of the Eastern half of the country, “both climate-change contrarians and climate-change scientists agree that no single weather event can be blamed on climate change.

“However,” he continued, “one can ‘load the dice’ in favor of events that used to be rare — or unheard of — if the climate is changing to a new state.”

Of course, this is unlikely to prevent your neighbor (or an entire blog) from pointing to a winter snowstorm as a sure sign that years of scientific research is invalid.  It’s too bad your neighbor has never heard of sociology.

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John Gruber on the glut of middle managers at Microsoft:

They’ve evolved a powerful, deep bureaucracy that has lost any sort of focus on creating great products. Worse, for obvious reasons Microsoft’s management is unlikely to see itself as the problem. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

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When I received my course evaluations for my first semester as a real professor, my previous experiences with the differences between my current and former students caused some concern.  Due to the amount of things I had to do near the end of the fall semester I had never even looked closely at the evaluation form until the registrar returned the completed forms to me.

Looking at the evaluations, I was struck by two things:  1) my teaching looked good numerically; and 2) these numbers told me next to nothing about the way students perceived my courses.  The item related to class discussions provides a good example.  I have always considered class discussions to be one of the weaker areas of my teaching, no matter how many teaching seminars on the topic I attended (maybe my students didn’t discuss things because they weren’t doing the reading).  Items asking students about the quality of class discussions reflected this (in the subtle way that a difference of .03 on a five-point scale can reflect something).  Looking over my newly opened evaluations, however, I was struck by the fact that the only question about class discussions was related to whether I encouraged them.  I did well on this item, having spent several minutes of each class prodding students to discuss things as a class.  There was no corresponding item, however, about whether my attempts at promoting class discussion were successful.  Any student assessments of the quality of class discussions would have to be offered spontaneously by students on the qualitative portion of the evaluations.

As a result, what I feel was the weakest portion of my courses received an apparently strong quantitative evaluation and a nearly-nonexistent qualitative evaluation.  While I was nervous before opening my evaluations, my feelings afterward were closer to apathy.  Nearly every semester I need to remind students that, no, merely showing up does not count as class participation.  Based on the current evaluation form, though, it seems that professors at my school are being held to this sort of “A for effort” standard.

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Steve Wozniak has had some trouble with his Toyota Prius.  Given the recent recalls, the fact that somebody might have a problem with a Toyota is not particularly surprising.    Like any concerned consumer, Wozniak tried to solve his problem through normal channels, stating:

The NHTSA online reporting form doesn’t fit my case. It asks things like the date of an accident. On the phone they refer me to a second number. At that number they need my VIN and mileage before they’ll listen. The person on the phone sounds like a typical very low paid clerk who can ask specific questions to type things into a database, and have no interest in the urgency and connection of my problem to the crashes/deaths/recalls/halted sales. In fact, they make it clear that they are just taking data and not doing anything themselves to remedy a safety issue. That’s the government.

Toyota is difficult too, but after some phone calls I managed to express some of my situation. Unfortunately my iPhone dropped the calls twice and I never got a reference number but they may have some sort of ticket open.

It’s been 2 months trying to have all the data and freedom, trying to get to someone high enough up to give this some attention. You can’t easily find phone numbers to companies online. I’d give anything to have had the phone number of Toyota’s legal department. They’ll see that I stated my discovery in writing 2 months ago but a local dealer couldn’t understand the significance of it and sort of thought my wife was nuts.

And that is where things would have stayed, with Wozniak slogging through the Toyota bureaucracy trying to get somebody to listen to him.  Except he’s Steve Wozniak, a.k.a. the Woz, co-founder of Apple.  He mentioned his Prius at a talk he was giving, somebody let somebody else know, Gizmodo reported on it, the higher-ups at Toyota were informed, and have agreed to take a look at Wozniak’s car.  The author of the Gizmodo report states:

What I find amazing is that someone—being Steve Wozniak or John Doe—is having these problems, and nobody in the company is doing anything about it, pronto. It may not be deadly, as the Woz puts it, but two months to get a response from a car company on an issue that affects the safety of their cars is inexcusable.

Maybe the solution to all of the world’s problems is to make sure that famous people also experience those problems so that the parties involved will make an effort to solve them.  For some problems this should be pretty easy – famous people eat food and drive cars – but I guess that we’re stuck with poverty and poor health care.

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I have taught Introduction to Sociology at a large university and a small commuter campus, during the spring, summer, and fall, with classes ranging from 15 to 65 students.  In each of these settings I followed the same basic format and in each of these settings I achieved what I considered to be success based on the performance of my students.  As a result, my intro class was the least of my worries heading into my first semester at a liberal arts school.  Then 1/3 of my intro students failed the first exam.

Beyond the fact that I try to maintain an even temperament, the fact that I had successfully taught intro in all of those different places is probably what prevented me from freaking out (I guess that point number 3 here is important to note).  As a result, I ended up writing the performance of my students off as another symptom of their freshmenness.  Of course, blaming the freshmen will not get you very far if you don’t work to help them.  Before the second exam I spent quite a bit of time going over student answers to questions on the first exam, making my expectations even clearer, and talking about studying techniques.

In the end, students did much better on subsequent exams and their final grades were only slightly lower than in all of those other settings.  Without my teaching experience I don’t know if I would have blamed myself or my students.  As usual, the reality was somewhere in between.

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