Archive for April, 2013

ASA Upgrade

When I received notice that my paper had been accepted for this year’s ASA conference in New York, it included the following statement, “As a Program Participant you must pre-register by May 15, 2013 to avoid your paper being removed from the program.” Today, the ASA sent an e-mail to members informing them that “Online access to the member portal, meeting registration, the ASA online bookstore, the TRAILS online database of teaching resources, and the ASA Job Bank will be unavailable from May 6 until approximately May 15” (bold and italics in original!). Visiting the ASA website reveals the same information via the notice above.

Thankfully, the ASA extended the preregistration deadline to May 30 although, since this is the ASA we’re dealing with, the odds that the website will not be functional on May 15 and the preregistration deadline will be further extended are good. Whether the website is back on the 15th or not, is there another professional organization that would schedule to shut down online access to meeting registration during its prime meeting registration time? I would guess that there is not.

For conspiracy theorists, there is also the fact that the ASA announced plans to shut down its website just days after the Canadian Prime Minister warned us all that “this is not a time to commit sociology.” Hmm… I guess that if the database upgrade fails the ASA can always blame Canada!

Read Full Post »


When you don’t know the answer, draw a picture! Unfortunately, there are some students who would probably earn more points with a picture than their actual answers.

Read Full Post »

Muslims have a history of causing Americans to think about race. Following his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X wrote a letter to the members of his organization back in New York in which he talked about the impact of seeing white Muslims. He said, in part:

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world.  They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans.  But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.

America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.  Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white – but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam.  I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.

You may be shocked by these words coming from me.  But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions.  This was not too difficult for me.  Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it.  I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.

During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept on the same rug – while praying to the same God – with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white.  And in the words and in the deeds of the white Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana.

We were truly all the same (brothers) – because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude.

Following the bombing in Boston and the death and capture of the two suspects, Americans have again been shocked to discover that there are white Muslims. As Edward Wyckoff Williams wrote at The Root:

“a blatant display of Islamophobic rhetoric and racial profiling became a benchmark of many reports, proving what some had already suspected — that xenophobia and racially tinged, anti-Muslim sentiment have become tacitly accepted byproducts of post-Sept. 11 American society. Most disturbing was that these attitudes were readily articulated by standard-bearers of credible news outlets, whose profession it is to disseminate “facts” without bias.”

(Of course, “credible” news outlets can handle things pretty poorly, as Jon Stewart pointed out.) Later, he states:

[T]he Tsarnaev brothers offer a much-needed challenge to America’s antiquated ideologies on race. Hailing from Dagestan and Chechnya, nation states of the former Soviet Republic in the Caucasus region, the Tsarnaevs are quite literally “Caucasian” — and, by any racial trajectory, are simply considered “white.”

Salon’s Joan Walsh pointed out how some conservative news sites have claimed that the brothers’ Chechen heritage makes them “nonwhite.” Ironically, Walsh notes, the same logic was used with respect to Italian, Irish, Jewish and Eastern European immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. Over time, and with assimilation — including the collective oppression of African Americans — “whiteness” became more loosely defined.

Indeed, a story at The Onion highlighted Americans’ lack of knowledge about world geography while highlighting our anti-Muslim sentiment. That the associated stereotypes could be applied, however, to those who are white seems to be hard for many to accept, which makes it ideal for class discussions about the social construction of race.

Read Full Post »

It seems very likely that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has done terrible things. He and his brother were suspected of the bombing at the Boston Marathon and the events that have transpired since their photos were released on April 18 have done nothing to ease this suspicion. Still, seeing media coverage of the events between the time his photo was released and his subsequent capture, I couldn’t help but feel bad for him.

Lots of people have probably fantasized about violent acts, even if few carry out those acts. Watching the media coverage I couldn’t stop thinking about Dzhokhar as somebody whose fantasies had become real in the worst possible way. He and his brother seem to have carried out the bombings at the Boston Marathon without much of a plan. Afterward, they did not flee the city, they appear to have carried on as if nothing had happened. Dzhokhar attended class, went to the gym, and even went to a party.

It seems unlikely that the weight and ramifications of what he had done were “real” to him at this point. The fact that he stayed in town seems to indicate that he underestimated the ability of the police to identify him based on video and photos before and after the shooting (the sheer amount of data that police combed through to identify the suspects was, indeed, staggering). But three days after the bombing he was identified, looking like a frat guy, as the suspect in the white hat.

This is where I suspect that things started to get real. With no apparent plan (or, at least, no good plan), the Tsarnaev brothers shoot and kill an MIT police officer, hijack a car when they apparently already had one, allow the driver of the car to flee, and engage in a firefight with police. Likely injured, Dzhokhar gets in a car and attempts to escape, running over his own brother in the process, before eventually abandoning the car and escaping on foot. He and his brother had been identified. Things had gone awry. His brother was dead. Dzhokhar was alone.

Waking up on Friday the 19th and reading about the shootout in Watertown, I wondered how Dzohkhar felt. His brother was dead but the entire city of Boston was at a standstill because of him. If he had access to TV or the internet I surmised that he either  felt very powerful or completely out of options. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, as they say. Based on his eventual capture, though, I suspect that the latter is closer to how he actually felt.

Having been shot by the police, Dzhokhar spent Friday the 19th bleeding and hiding in a boat in somebody’s backyard. The world knew his name and what he was accused of doing. The entire city of Boston was looking for him. He knew that his brother was either dead or in police custody. Escape was impossible. His own capture or death was inevitable. He was as alone as a person can possibly be in this world, bleeding, lying in a boat in a stranger’s backyard. I felt bad for him.

Read Full Post »

A large number of students failed a statistics exam that I gave recently. Comparing their grades to previous times I’ve taught the course, I noticed that students typically do the worst on this exam. Because a few students needed to take makeup exams, I had a few extra days between grading and giving the exams back to consider what had gone wrong. To me, the exam seemed fairly simple and straightforward. To my students, it seemed nearly impossible. Thinking about this led me to what I have decided to call the divergence of memory and understanding.

I am fairly certain that the courses students deem “difficult” are the courses that require them to retain knowledge and build on it as the semester progresses. Foreign language, natural science, and statistics courses all require an understanding of the information discussed in week one for success in week nine. Unfortunately, students tend to postpone studying until the last possible moment, which privileges memory over understanding and prevents them from building a foundation of knowledge that they can use later in the semester. As I’ve said before, this is like waiting until the night before a dentist appointment to start brushing your teeth. For most students, the results will not be pretty.

On earlier statistics exams, then, students were able to remember the required steps of calculating, say, standard deviation when studying, which allowed them to do fairly well on the exams without ever developing a knowledge of how standard deviation works. Toward the end of the semester, however, the amount of information that they would need to remember includes information stretching back to the beginning. For a student who understands the basic concepts, doing well is like adding a few bricks to the top of the house they have been building all semester. For a student without this understanding, though, doing well is like remembering the instructions for building a complete house and then trying to build that house during an hour and twenty minutes. Their memory is no longer able to make up for their lack of understanding and the task itself seems incredibly daunting.

As an instructor, the most frustrating aspect of this realization is that it is difficult to gauge real understanding in a statistics course using standard statistics-type assignments. If students do well on assignments and exams early in the semester, it seems like they are understanding when they may simply be remembering. I have always thought of statistics courses as a bit of respite from the long-hours spent grading papers and essay exams. It seems, though, that I might need to change my own approach in order to help students change theirs.

Read Full Post »

Sometimes, car commercials depict drivers doing things that would be illegal on public roads. These commercials always feature a small-print disclaimer stating “Professional driver on closed course.” The fact that drivers can legally utilize very little of a car’s potential during their daily commute doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is that the potential is there. (In Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson speculates that people drive BMWs like idiots in order to experience more of this potential and justify the purchase price.) Recently, however, I’ve noticed that car commercials are providing this disclaimer when cars are depicted doing things that are perfectly legal, like driving down a straight, empty road or leisurely taking a curve. A recent commercial for the BMW 5-Series is guilty of this but it also takes fine-print warnings to a whole new level. Note the fine print in this image:

BMW Window

It says: “Sticking your hand out the window is dangerous. Caution children not to engage in this activity.”

Seriously?! Is BMW really afraid that they are opening themselves up to a lawsuit from somebody whose kid sees this commercial and decides to open the window and stick his or her hand out, receiving some kind of injury from a bug or other flying debris? On second thought, somebody probably would file that sort of lawsuit, but fear of a ridiculous lawsuit does not justify making ridiculous statements.

Here is the entire commercial to demonstrate that I am not making this up:

Read Full Post »

My favorite response to the n+1 article claiming that there is “too much sociology” (as if that is even possible!) is by Nathan Jurgenson at The Society Pages.  Jurgenson focuses on the ridiculousness of writing an article using critical sociology that is critical of critical sociology and concludes that critical sociology should be abolished. He writes, in part:

Too Much Sociology” is the essay equivalent of hipsters making fun of hipsters, seemingly unaware that their anti-hipster position is the height of hipsterdom. The essay discusses “the Sociologists” as if they are separate from what the essay is itself doing, going on and on about critical sociology seemingly unaware of itself as a critical sociology essay. Doing reflexive critical sociology of critical sociology is a well-worn tradition within critical sociology. The strategy the article uses and arguments it wants to make are for more critical sociology, but, instead, incoherently and illogically, asks for less. And, yes, I fully understand that my critique here is also critical sociology, the difference being that I am aware of that and won’t then develop an illogical conclusion. My response here isn’t as much a disagreement with their argument; I’m saying that it simply doesn’t make sense on its own terms. Trying to create a theory that interrogates the links between power, discourse, and identity has as much of a chance of being outside of critical sociology as trying to put on an outfit that is outside the system of fashion.

So meta. So good.

Also see the excellent response by Jenn Lena at Whatisthewhat.

Read Full Post »

Once in a while for the past few years, I have received “An Invitation to Connect on LinkedIn,” typically from a former student. These invitations arrived in my inbox despite the fact that I did not actually have a LinkedIn account. Recently, however, I started receiving invitations from former students and decided that LinkedIn might actually be a better way to keep track of what sorts of professional lives my former students are leading than Facebook. The obvious benefit is that I can keep track of these professional lives without being inundated by information about the associated private lives. Since joining, I’ve made over 20 “connections,” some of which are with former students while others are with friends and former colleagues.

So far, it has worked well for keeping track of occupations, etc., but I was shocked by how intrusive LinkedIn is. (I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised since I received such a large number of requests before I even had an account.) Most surprising was the fact that LinkedIn wants very badly to access my e-mail accounts so that it can suggest possible connections. In fact, it reminds me of this every time I log in. Although I understand that the site is designed to keep track of professional contacts, LinkedIn’s “Endorsements” in a wide variety of things seems unnecessary to me. I don’t care if somebody has endorsed me for higher education!

In all, I hope that LinkedIn will be useful but I would appreciate if it did so without being so annoying.

Read Full Post »

In my last post I supported the idea that textbooks are generally not very good. In the past I’ve said that student reading is generally an illusion. A recent experience clearly demonstrated how the first is related to the second.

A month or so ago I received an invitation to review a introduction to sociology textbook chapter. For doing so I would receive a small amount of money and the required questionnaire did not look particularly daunting, so I agreed (I have received these invitations several times over the years but this is the first time since grad school that I have actually decided to complete a review). I was assigned the chapter on research methods. After printing the chapter, I realized the problem with agreeing to review a textbook chapter on research methods: I was going to have to read a textbook chapter on research methods.

While I have several introduction to sociology textbooks on my shelf, I personally do not use one when I teach the course. Reading this chapter reminded me why. The chapter was long and dull. I didn’t want to read it, even though I was only reading it to assess the information it contained. I can’t imagine a student wanting to read it in order to learn the information it contained.

I suspect that when faculty members assign textbook readings they skim the chapters to ensure that they include the concepts that they want to discuss. Maybe they think of textbooks as a sort of reference book that will introduce students to a topic so that they are prepared for class discussions or that students can use when they need an extra example to help them understand a concept. The problem is that I don’t think that many college students, or at least students at my college, see them this way.

Students come to college having gotten used to reading things front-to-back, starting on page one and reading until the end. Doing this with the textbook chapter I reviewed would probably solve any trouble that students have sleeping, but it is not a very effective way of gaining information. Unfortunately, this is the type of reading that CourseSmart’s “engagement index” seems designed to track. Students who are able to glean the key topics and some examples may fare better.

Maybe professors need to follow a sort of Golden Rule of reading assignments: do not assign your students anything that you would not personally enjoy reading. If you assign a textbook, when is the last time that you read it? I don’t mean “glanced at a few definitions before class,” I mean really read it, from front to back, like a beginning student would. If it has been more than a few years, I challenge you to do so again. Feel free to send your findings to socslac [at] gmail [dot] com. I triple dog dare you.

Read Full Post »

Your students aren’t reading, what are you going to do about it? If you teach a class with an online textbook linked to CourseSmart, you may soon have the option of checking up on them, whether you use this ability to assign grades, decide whether you’ll answer their questions, or just give helpful advice on study habits. Technology from CourseSmart that is currently undergoing testing at eight schools will allow professors to see a number of things about their students’ reading habits, including an “engagement index” based on whether students had opened each page, how often, how long they’d spent on it, and whether they’d taken electronic notes.

Slate plays up the Big Brother aspect, while Ars Technica focuses on students’ ability to game the engagement index. Perhaps the most telling quote comes at the end of the New York Times article:

After two months of using the system, Mr. Guardia is coming to some conclusions of his own. His students generally are scoring well on quizzes and assignments. In the old days, that might have reassured him. But their engagement indexes are low.

“Maybe the course is too easy and I need to challenge them a bit more,” Mr. Guardia said. “Or maybe the textbooks are not as good as I thought.”

I vote for that.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »