Teaching Sociology

Songs are better than sociology

Jason Isbell’s lyric “Is your brother on a church kick? Seems like just a different kind of dopesick” is everything I’d like my sociology to be.

It’s critical without being uncaring. It points out that religion is mundane – that it’s just like a lot of other human salves.

The next lyric, “Better off to teach a dog a card trick than try to have a point and make it clear” clearly makes a point I’ve never been quite able to communicate. This is that any successful human communication is pretty remarkable given how difficult it often is to get across the most basic things like what ingredients you want on your sandwich.

The whole song, “Relatively Easy” on his album Southeastern is an excellent portrayal of privilege, a concept social scientists know matters a lot but seem never to be able to share without producing mass confusion and angry backlash. Listen to it:

Research Methods Resources: quantitative analysis

Here at Le Moyne I regularly teach a research methods course that serves criminology, sociology, and political science students. It is a survey course, by which I mean I cover a broad range of topics. I typically start with the epistemology of the social sciences, move into research design issues like measurement and connecting empirical work to theory, and then spend the second half of the semester focusing on specific analysis procedures. The course covers both quantitative and qualitative methods, so very little time is allowed for each.

I spend about 3 weeks on quantitative methods, hoping that by the end students are relatively comfortable with understanding and producing descriptive statistics, crosstabs, t-tests, correlations, and regressions. This year I covered logistic regression in more detail than normal. It’s a lot to cover in that time, so over the years I’ve created some handouts meant to help students do the work we have limited class time to practice.

I’m going to put two handouts here. One is meant to help students work in SPSS to do some basic quantitative analysis. The other is meant to walk them through using the SDA resource from Berkeley. One year I taught SDA exclusively because it’s free and gives students access to some high quality data with lots of social science applications.

I offer these resources ‘as is,’ and am confident that there are mistakes – I catch some every year and surely make more as I expand them. It’d be great if others found these useful, and I’ll only be reasonably embarrassed if you point out errors I’ve made (hopefully nothing super-serious!).

SPSS handout (MS Word)

Brief.SPSS.Guide.2015

SDA handout

SDA.Handout (MS Word)

Teaching Weber’s concepts of Class and Status with The Washington Post and Todd Snider

Here’s an article that would be useful for a range of sociology and political science courses (What is the ‘Middle Class’? It depends who’s using the term, and why). I could see using it in a social theory course, a social inequality class, or the public opinion seminar I’m teaching this semester.

For Social Inequality, I’d use it early in the semester when I’m providing an overview of income and wealth distributions in the U.S. One of the things I’ve learned teaching inequality over the years is that students really don’t have a working knowledge of the income distribution and where they or their families fall in the spread. Many of the students I teach are relatively privileged, and don’t seem to understand it. This partly because even the relatively privileged stress over paying for the American Dream. The article illustrates both of these issues quite well.

In Public Opinion I’d use it to illustrate good use of public opinion data and to show how public opinion often doesn’t match very well with other sorts of data. I’d use it to start a conversation about why that’s the case.

In Social Theory I’d use it when I was teaching Weber’s “Class, Status, Party.” In this case I’d use it not because it’s a good example, but to demonstrate why Weber thought it was important to distinguish class and status. Read this paragraph:

The problem with that emerges immediately. In New York County, N.Y — that is, Manhattan — the median household income in 2013 was almost $69,659. In Tuscaloosa County, Ala., the median was $45,408. That’s a function, among other things, of cost of living differences. But someone making $55,000 in Alabama is above average. Making that in New York, below. The status conferred by income is relative.

Do you see what I see? The author starts by making a good point about how cost of living differences across the U.S make national numbers somewhat misleading at the local level. But, that last sentence conflates class and status. When I look at cost of living differences I read those as indicators of how the distribution of material goods works in a place. An income of $45,000 in Tuscaloosa County, Ala. is going to allow a relatively decent standard of material living, while that’s much less likely in Manhattan. But, in Weber’s analysis, that’s not a perfect predictor of status – the esteem granted to you by others. You can have low income and high status, so the author shouldn’t have equated the two.

Of course, Weber tells us class and status are often closely related to one another, but seeing how the two are different helps us better understand the complexity of social life. I might then move the conversation to a discussion of the status of a Manhattan banker in Manhattan and Tuscaloosa. One can imagine ways the ‘banker’ might have different statuses in the two places, even with the same income. Maybe I’d use Todd Snider’s song “New York Banker” to make the point with a little soulful humor.

The locker room as sexualized space?

Today’s ‘Sports in America’ discussion was about 2 recent articles related to Michael Sam and the details of his pre-draft coming out, draft result, and experiences with the Rams and Cowboys afterward. Here are the two articles we read, both by Dave Zirin:

After the Press Conference: Michael Sam and “The Man Box

Michael Sam gets drafted and the NFL has issues

These were great conversation starters, but I couldn’t have predicted the way the conversation went. Early on one of the students asked if Michael Sam being openly gay would be a problem in the locker room, and if so, why? The class was in general agreement that while, morally, it shouldn’t be a problem, sociologically, it almost certainly would be. Why?

While our 50 minute conversation took many twists and turns, we spent a good bit of time talking about locker room norms and culture. The male students, most of whom are athletes now or have high school sports experience, told stories of ‘life in the locker-room.’ One said, basically, ‘in the locker room everyone is 12.’ I said, but why would homosexuality matter, in that case? It turns out that the locker room must be a very sexualized space. To hear my students tell it, the locker room is a place where straight men engage in a range of behavior, some of which mimic sex, and sexualized dancing. One student said it really was expected if you are to be part of the team. So, everyone should be sexual, but no one should take it too seriously. The fear (yes, it’s homophobia) is that a gay teammate might ‘take it too seriously.’

Obviously there is much here to explore, but I was surprised to learn that the locker room may in fact be a very sexualized place for male athletes. I shouldn’t have been surprised that performances of masculinity would be different in a locker room than elsewhere, as Tristan Bridges points out here. Bridges writes that locker rooms are “often presented as a cultural “safe space” for men—a space in which they can talk and act however they want without fear of reprisal.” I would have imagined hyper-heterosexuality, not ‘blurred lines’ between heterosexuality and homosexuality that would generate homophobia because ‘gay guys might not understand.’ The female student athletes seemed to know this, too, but said the female locker room isn’t the same. Nonetheless, there was discomfort at the thought of lesbian athletes in the women’s locker room. What explains it there?

On not caring about students getting jobs

Like most college teachers at this time of year I’m thinking about my fall semester courses. Most of these thoughts are about details – choosing readings to assign, revising class policies that prove inadequate every semester, shifting last year’s M/W/F dates by one and remembering to schedule in the vacation days, etc. The details, however, are really only worth fussing over if you are trying to design a course that reflects what you think is important about teaching as a craft. I had a nice conversation with a friend tonight about exactly that.

I’ve never been eager to teach to the job market. Yes, social science students end up with skills employers will value – don’t worry mom and dad – but taken to its logical conclusion, teaching to the job market would require us to bring in employer-consultants when we design our curricula. I mean, reading Mills’ critique of the fourth epoch probably isn’t going to directly translate to a good performance evaluation or an annual bonus. But it is valuable. Feel free to read any current defense of a liberal arts education you can find, probably something about how critical thinking and comfort with diverse cultures and ideas are valuable in the workplace.

So, even these common defenses are really ceding the argument to those in control of the job market. Saying that what we are doing is valuable because of its marketable byproduct doesn’t really give me the inspiration I need to worry about test dates and policies about line spacing.

After saying basically this to my friend and colleague, he asked (out of curiosity, not dismay) ‘if you don’t care about your students getting jobs, then what do you teach for?’

I think my answer was basically “First I want students to be good citizens, next I want them to be compassionate, and third I want them to be ready for graduate school. And then, maybe, I care about job readiness.” No administrator at a school living and dying on enrollment and selling its ‘real world’ applicability is going to want to hear that, I imagine.

Nonetheless, the basic question ‘why do I teach’ and the tension between teaching to the market versus teaching what I hope is at least a little bit of a ‘critical’ social science are things I hope I never stop thinking about. To that end, I’ve spent the last few hours trying to articulate it a bit more.

A good social science class ought to be oriented toward civil society, not the job market. I want students to recognize the value of being curious about the world around them for the sake of living a richer life. I want students to be thoughtful about how they live in relationship with others; who recognize that the decisions they make as members of society have consequences beyond their own lives. I want students who take my classes to believe that it is important to be an informed citizen who thinks not only about how they make their own way, but also how we might make a different society that works for everyone.

The Dolphin Dolphy Day Interview

As I wrote last week, after a series of Dolphy Day tweets, I was contacted by Le Moyne’s student newspaper to be interviewed about my Dolphy Day opinions. The nicely done story, by Editor-in-Chief Aubrey Zych, appeared in today’s Dolphin, and here is a related student response also published today. It’s clear there are varied opinions about Dolphy Day at Le Moyne, but since I’ve been here, I don’t recall this much discussion or recognition that there are people, including students, who have problems with the tradition. It’s good that we are talking about it, and I hope we continue to do so. If the tradition goes like usual, however, no one will think much about it until next spring, and it will continue to be as disruptive, dangerous, and exclusionary as ever. One thing is certain, I’ll continue to tweet freely about the things I want to see changed, as well as the things I love about Le Moyne.

With Aubrey Zych’s permission, below I’ve posted my complete responses to the emailed interview questions.

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The Pledge of Allegiance and Interaction Ritual

Per Smith wrote a short response to a Salon article about a court case in Massachusetts challenging the inclusion of ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance. Per is right to note that ritual is about action and the solidarity it potentially creates. I believe the arguments about ritual and solidarity, and in this case I believe the Pledge of Allegiance can effectively foster an imagined national community (if it did or does is another question). I believe it probably fails for a lot of people who don’t feel particularly included or excluded, that it actively excludes a good number of others, and that the 1950’s addition of ‘under God‘ made the ‘indivisible’ that follows a happy irony for anyone teaching sociology of religion in this day of increasing ‘nones.’

One of my favorite exercises when I teach sociology of religion is to have the students recite the Pledge as they know it, including “under God,” and then in its pre-1954 language, without the phrase. Some students do hesitate. It makes them uncomfortable. The thing is sacred, after all, and I’m asking them to profane it (for science!). Once we’ve done it, we then talk about how this national prayer establishes religion in our culture, and about how it is potentially as divisive as it is unifying.

I’m not even sure why, but yesterday in my Research Methods course I started to recite the Pledge from somewhere in the middle, right before indivisible (oh right, we were talking about the individual as an indivisible unit of analysis). I said something like, “you know what indivisible means, right, like in the Pledge of Allegiance, one nation, something, something, indivisible…” Probably half of the students gave me a funny look and said, “under God!” One student, I think joking, said to me, “that’s un-American!”

Per suggests we focus on the efficacy of the Pledge rather than its meaning, and argues that daily recitation bound generations of Americans into national community. I agree*, and here I want to apply his argument about the efficacy of the ritual to the interaction ritual I just described. All those years of reciting that pledge, of saying “under God” in the context of affirming patriotism resulted in our classroom interaction. The student didn’t say, “what are you, an atheist?” She said, “that’s un-American.” My skipping over “under God” started our own little interaction ritual because of the meaning she (as a joke or not) attributed to my mumble. I focused on the student, the class focused on us, and I riffed for a minute or two from my sociology of religion lecture about the addition of that divisive phrase. But this was a Methods class, so I assure you we got back to our discussion of units of analysis right away (i.e. This is no dispatch from the front lines of the culture war).

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*l also think we need to focus on the contested meanings of rituals, especially of those rituals supported by the state. I doubt very much that Per would disagree with me on that point as he was arguing against those who might call ritual meaningless, which it clearly isn’t (hence the court case).

 

Professor to Professor on Twitter

Yesterday at Le Moyne we had a discussion about uses of Twitter in academic work. We focused primarily on how it might be used for teaching, but talked a little bit about how it might allow professors and students to be part of a larger research and professional community, beyond the college. I’d say our conversation was skeptically received by most of those in attendance, but then again they were in the room on what was by far the most beautiful Friday afternoon of the semester.

My colleague Lara Deruisseau, a bio prof here at Le Moyne, made a very interesting point about Twitter and community. I had commented about how Twitter might help us overcome the tyranny of small departments at liberal arts colleges by connecting to professionals all over the planet. Lara, however, drew our attention to the fact that, over the last year, several of us have come to know our Le Moyne colleagues from various departments and offices on campus much better because of our Twitter interaction. These web networks have enhanced our local community in important and powerful ways. Our increased collaboration will certainly have (postive) effects on our curricula and pedagogies.

This strikes me as excellent confirmation of claims about the place of computer networks in daily life. I’m reminded specifically of work by Barry Wellman like this essay about computer networks as social networks (notice the date – he was on this early!) or this one about person-to-person communities. In particular, something that is exciting is that networks like Twitter make it possible for communication at the college level to be professor-to-professor rather than department to department, or, more cynically, professor-to-department-chair-dean-chair-department-to-professor. Especially in the context of increased administrative and procedural layers, Twitter might be seen as a place where faculty collaboration/inspiration can happen person to person.

Talking about mass killings, almost every semester

I’ve been teaching at Le Moyne since the fall of 2005. Minus one semester of sabbatical, that’s 15 semesters. If you count the recent Boston Bombings, I have led spontaneous sociological/criminological reflections on mass killings (usually shootings) that occurred during 10 of those 15 semesters. If you count conversation about Jared Loughner’s crime which happened immediately prior to the spring 2011 semester, then it’s 11 of 15 semesters. Most of those conversations were only a few minutes long because the shootings didn’t capture national attention like some others. Some semesters had more than one, or shootings which animated, unplanned conversations taking up an entire class. I recall that our conversations about Nidal Malik Hasan‘s shooting at Fort Hood lent itself to applying ideas we’d been discussing in Sociology of Religion, and that Seung-Hui Cho’s Virginia Tech shooting was particularly frightening for college students. I also note that we barely talked at all about Kurt Myers’ Herkimer shooting that took place just 70 or so miles from here, and that the ambush of firefighters in Webster (just 70 or so miles the other direction) happened in between semesters.

My approach to these discussions is usually to tell the students that they are educated adults and have a responsibility to think carefully about these events. I’ll tell them I don’t have any clear answers, but that together we can think of the right questions to consider if we want to achieve some understanding, and maybe work with others to end these sad events. They sometimes go a little like this post of mine after Newtown, CT. Tomorrow I’ll lead a less spontaneous, but hastily planned discussion about Boston. We’ll start the conversation with this essay comparing the bombings there with other crimes like Columbine. Maybe next time there is a mass shooting to talk about I’ll use this from the The Chronicle. But, I hope not because no matter how powerful these classroom experiences can sometimes be, I don’t want to continue having these spontaneous discussions.

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Edit (4/25/2013): Add this to our discussion of Boston. A danger of the spontaneous conversations is the relatively high likelihood of ignoring the context of the high profile shootings, which includes our violent, racist, xenophobic, American culture.

Student Suggested Readings

On the role of sibling ties in the Boston bombing

Parents Deny Sons’ guilt and accuse U.S. of plot

I’m a man, man: Failed sex categorization in daily life

I’m a man who is quite regularly mistaken for a woman. It has been happening for years, it happens every six months or so, and it happened again just last Friday at the dining hall here at Le Moyne as a female colleague and I paid for our lunch. The cashier was a bit occupied and, seeing the two of us approach said, “I’ll be right there ladies.” She noticed and said sorry; we paid and went on our way. My sociologist colleague and I threw around some possible reasons that I’m so regularly confusing: I’m short; my hair is curly to the point it’s a natural perm; I was with a woman and the cashier saw her first. I don’t recall the first time it happened and I’d guess it probably bothered me, but it happens enough now that when somebody does it I often turn into a field sociologist and ask them why they thought I was a woman. Nobody ever gives a very clear answer, and almost everybody is fairly flustered by their called out sex miscategorization. I may never know why this happens, but it makes me think about some fun sociological questions too: How does it affect the interaction? Why do people say sorry? Can I learn anything about gender identity in daily life?

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