Battling the Cell Phone Menace in Class for a Decade Now

Facebook’s wayback machine (“On this Day” app) reminded me this morning that I have been battling students using their cell phones in class for a long time now.

I know some professors don’t care if students use their phones in class. Fine by me; their class, their rules. And some are just unaware. Many Wake Forest students, including my now graduated son Paul, text me from their classes. But I find it distracting. So, I have tried to dissuade students from using their phones in class for some time.

I put a special note in my syllabus, highlighted in red(dish) so it cannot be missed (above). And I make clear in the grading rubric for class participation the penalty for using phones in class.

And still students use their phones in class, and then complain to me at the end of class when I penalize them for doing so. (Among other things they complain about with respect to their class participation grades.)

So this year I’ve decided to try to triple reinforce my expectations by having students sign and initial that they have read and understand the class expectations. We’ll see what difference it makes.

Putting Grading and Grades in Perspective

The quickening of life due to technology is a blessing I depend on daily. But it is also a curse at times, especially at the end of the semester when it comes to grades. I submitted my fall grades today at 11:45am (they were due at noon!). By 4pm the first grade complaint had arrived in my email. No more waiting a week for the printed report card to show up in the mail or having weeks before the start of the next semester for the student to cool off before being in touch!

Exceptional RatingI never worry about “getting in trouble” for the grades I give. My syllabus is usually a dozen pages long, reading like the legal document that it has become, spelling everything out in meticulous detail. I also use grading rubrics handed out in advance so students know the grading criteria for individual assignments.

I don’t even get frustrated by the grade complaints. What I mostly get is sad. I feel badly that they are under so much pressure to get certain grades, whether the pressure if from their parents or themselves.

I feel especially badly for students who invest so much of their sense of self in their grades that they see an “A-” and they do not experience happiness. They only see what is not there.

Or, worse, they have a sense that if they do their best, that it must be worth an “A.” They do not understand a world in which THEIR best does not equal THE best.

Case in point, a very good student I had in class this semester saw an “A-” only for what was not there, rather than what was there. S/he wrote to me:

I’ve never had a professor say that an A is a 95 or above which is why I’m concerned about this because I worked incredibly hard in this class and feel like I deserve an A and to any other professor I have ever had at wake a 94 would be an A.

So if you could provide me with clarity on why you choose to grade this way and why it isn’t standardized across classes that would be helpful because I am concerned about this.

My response:

I am happy to clarify, though I doubt given your state of mind about this that this is going to make you feel any better. But hopefully I can give you both some information and some perspective (my view at least) on the grading in general and your grade in particular.

The syllabus, which I reviewed at length at the beginning of class, specified the following grades according to points earned:

“The scale for grades based on the number of points earned over the course of the semester is as follows:
A         96‑100
A‑        92‑95
B+        89‑91
B          86‑88
B‑         82‑85
C+       79‑81
C         76‑78
C‑        72‑75
D+       69-71
D         66-68
F          Less than 65”

So, in fact, 96 and above is an A in this course (and all of my courses).

The bulletin of Wake Forest College (p. 33) specifies only that A represents exceptionally high achievement, A-, B+, and B represent superior achievement, B-, C+, and C represent satisfactory achievement, C-, D+, D, and D- represent passing but unsatisfactory performance, and F is failure. There are no instructions nor is there any standardization in grading within or between departments beyond these broad frameworks.

So, although you may have never had a professor say that a 95 (or a 96) represents an “A”, it is certainly the case that professors grade very differently. In some cases most students get A’s and in other cases few students do. In some classes (accounting, biology, math) many students fail, and in some (com, soc, religion) none do. So, grading varies enormously from class to class, such that what a 94 means in one class — and what it take to earn a 94 — is not the same in another class.

I am very sorry that you do not feel that being at the high end of “superior” is adequate. I wish that you would look at an A- and think, “Awesome, I performed at a superior level.”

I am also sorry that you feel if you work incredibly hard that you “deserve” an A. It is absolutely possible for people — myself included — to work incredibly hard an not attain “exceptionally high achievement,” a grade that is reserved — in my class, at least — for truly exceptional (rare, unprecedented, extraordinary, remarkable, phenomenal — some synonyms) work. Your work was at the high end of superior, and in the case of your class participation, it was exceptional — hence your getting 100% of that component.

You have probably already figured this out, but for the record let me put this in some perspective for you. If you take 120 credits to graduate from Wake Forest, you will have the opportunity to earn 480 grade points. For this 3 credit course, the difference between an A (4.00) and an A- (3.667) is 0.999 grade points (p. 33 of bulletin). Or, in the context of your college career, 0.2% of your total grade points.

As I said at the outset, I am sure that nothing short of “ooops, I made a mistake, you get an A” will put a smile on your face and give you a sense of satisfaction in a job well done. But that is my hope for you.

A Letter to My Future Students

I am participating in a faculty Writing Associates Seminar, in which we are learning to integrate writing more intelligently and productively into our courses. For an upcoming retreat, our seminar leader asked us to write a letter to our future students about what we hope they will get out of our class. I wrote the letter below for a course I am developing — related to my new research project on American gun culture — on “Guns in American Society.” Enjoy!

Photo credit: Lauren Carroll/Winston-Salem Journal

Photo credit: Lauren Carroll/Winston-Salem Journal

11 July 2014

Dear Students –

I am excited for this opportunity to spend some time together learning about the place of guns in American society. I have very high, perhaps even unrealistic, expectations for what I hope you will take away from this course.

First of all, I hope you will cultivate a scholarly approach to understanding guns. That means you will be able to take an issue that is contentious and complex, and approach it in as objective and nuanced a manner as possible.

This is easier said than done. As sociologists, we are a part of, not apart from, the social worlds we study. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because we bring a great deal of personal experience and understanding to our studies. It is a weakness because our personal experiences and understandings can be partial, biased, uninformed.

Therefore, we need to inform our personal experiences and understandings with broader sociological theories and more rigorous sociological studies of the phenomenon of interest. In other words, we need to develop our sociological imaginations. As C. Wright Mills put it decades ago, “it is by means of the sociological imagination that [people] now hope to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as minute points of the intersections of biography and history within society.”

This passage from Mills also points to a second objective of this course. I hope you will come away from the course with a better understanding of yourself with respect to guns. This includes your personal relationship to and personal beliefs about them.

Finally, although we will cover the good, the bad, and the ugly of guns in American society, there is much more to understand than we will be able to cover in the short time we have together this semester. Therefore, I hope to encourage you to develop an attitude and the tools necessary to continue to develop your sociological imagination with respect to guns for the rest of your life.

I am looking forward to getting started on this sociological enterprise with you.

Until then, best wishes,

David Yamane

Contemporary Application of Bourdieu’s Distinction in Musical Taste

In his famous book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu reports findings from a French survey of cultural tastes fielded in 1967-68. Of particular note is a figure showing the distribution of preferences for three musical works by class fractions. Bourdieu reports that Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” represents “legitimate taste” and is favored by “those fractions of the dominant class that are richest in economic capital.” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” stands in for “middle-brow taste” favored by the middle classes. And Strauss’s “Blue Danube” represents “popular taste” — which Bourdieu characterizes as “so-called ‘light’ music or classical music devalued by popularization,” and also “songs totally devoid of artistic ambition or pretension” such as works by Petula Clark. This taste “is most frequent among the working classes and varies in inverse ratio to educational capital” (p. 17).

I do a mini-version of Bourdieu’s survey in my sociological theory class, playing these three songs for my students and asking them to indicate which they like. There are often very seemingly idiosyncratic patterns in the responses to these songs. Strauss is generally pretty popular overall, though, which is exactly the opposite of what Bourdieu would expect from my generally well-educated and fairly affluent student. Discussion of this often highlights the fact that the music in Bourdieu’s study is too old to allow for meaningful interpretation of the relationship between American social class, educational capital, and taste. So, I field another survey for my students.

I am assisted in my choice of songs by a student who sent me a link to the following chart, from an on-line story called “Does Your Taste in Music Reflect Your Intelligence?”

MusicthatmakesyoudumbLargeThe results bring together the most popular songs at 1,352 American colleges and universities and the average SAT scores at those same institutions. Of course, this is not a sociological study, though the person who did the work, Virgil Griffith, is a PhD student at Caltech studying the “information-integration theory of consciousness” (not exactly a rocket scientist, but close to alot of rocket scientists at Caltech).

Bourdieu talks about “educational capital” rather than intelligence, but we do know that one of the things that the SAT measures is the economic and cultural capital of the students taking the exam, so the SAT is not a terrible proxy for what Bourdieu is talking about.

In my reduced version of Bourdieu’s study, I chose three songs that appear high, middle, and low in the SAT spectrum: Radiohead’s “Karma Police” (high), OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” (middle), and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” (low). I asked students to indicate which of the three songs was their favorite. The results were as follows:

HIGH (Radiohead): 21%
MEDIUM (OutKast): 38%
LOW (Beyonce): 41%

I welcome any comments on the results of this exercise!

 

Evidence Shows The Fraternity Experience is The Problem

Posted by John D. Foubert, Ph.D. , Author, The Men’s and Women’s Programs at Ending Rape Through Peer Education on April 29, 2011 at 7:15am EDT

In 2007 I published a study of men who join fraternities, comparing their rates of sexual assault before they join and after they join. Before they join, their rates were statistically equal. After they join, men in fraternities commit much more sexual assault. This provides, at a minimum, preliminary evidence that the fraternity experience and culture that helps contribute to rape (Foubert, Newberry & Tatum, 2007). Furthermore, two different longitudinal studies have shown men in fraternities to be three times more likely to rape than other men on college campuses (Foubert, Newberry, & Tatum, 2007; Loh, Gidycz, Lobo, & Luthra, 2005). That is startling.

It is time for the national fraternity community to take responsibility for this data by doing something about their culture and the actions of their members on a broad scale, not just taking action against a chapter or two when an incident gets media attention. Not since the 1990s have I seen a shred of responsibility taken by a national fraternity organization for this problem. I have presented my research, cited above, repeatedly at national fraternity conventions and not a single organization in the national fraternity community has stepped forward to make a serious commitment to do anything to take responsibility for ending sexual assault using a research based rape prevention approach. Occasional lip service? Perhaps. It is time for a serious commitment, real change, and if it means that some national fraternities need to go bankrupt through litigation in the process through Title IX lawsuits, so be it. Wake up.

Drinking in Exam Week Hurts College Students’ Performance

Stop the presses! This shocking news from “Inside Higher Education”:

Drinking in Exam Week Hurts College Students’ Performance

College students who drink before and during their final exams show a “statistically and economically meaningful reduction in academic performance” — “of approximately the same magnitude as being assigned to a professor whose quality is one standard deviation below average,” say the authors of a new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study, by economists at the University of California at Davis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the U.S. Air Force Academy, take advantage of the Air Force Academy’s vigorous enforcement of the drinking age to compare the performance on exams of students who turn 21 before the exam period begins with the performance of those under 21, to “distinguish the effects of drinking from confounding factors.” The lowering of performance they discover is “largely driven by the highest-performing students,” the authors write.

Why are my students so DOUR?

Dour. If I had to use one word to describe my students, that would be it. Maybe I’ve already blogged about this. I can’t remember. But it bears repeating.

On more than one occasion, I have looked out at a room full of students and yelled, “Why are you so DOUR? You have EVERYTHING!”

I met women selling bags of water on the streets of Accra, Ghana who were happier than these students. Students who watch TV on plasma screens in their dorm rooms, then drive their BMWs to eat sushi for dinner, before getting a couple of hours of studying in between IMing, BBMing, texting, and Facebooking their friends. OK, so that’s an exaggeration. Sort of.

I thought of these dour students recently when I was listening to an old interview with David Foster Wallace on “Fresh Air,” the NPR show. Wallace has recently committed suicide at age 46. I haven’t read his fiction, most notably his novel “Infinite Jest,” but his essay on “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience” in the New York Times magazine a couple of years ago was amazing.

In any event, in the interview with Terry Gross, he talks about the inspiration for his novel “Infinite Jest” being his realization at age 30 that despite having been grotesquely privileged their whole lives he and his friends were also extraordinarily sad. He attributes this in part to the fact that “success” in our culture means: make alot of money, have an attractive spouse, and become (in)famous in some way — i.e., experience as much pleasure as possible, which ultimately is empty.

Viewed through this lens, binge drinking and random hooking up (for example) is a symptom, then, not a cause of a generation of college students who are privileged, sad, hollow, and dour.

Correct me if I’m wrong.

Work Hard, Play Hard?

Many students at elite colleges and universities in the United States adhere to the motto, “Work Hard, Play Hard.” I tell my students applying this motto to higher education creates a false dichotomy between work and play. I insist that my courses will require them to work, to be sure, but that we will have fun at the same time. So, in my version of the motto – which I give it to them in Latin, Laborate valde, ludite valde – I unify what they dichotomize by insisting that learning itself is fun.

Whether I’m successful or not, that’s a good question. I like to think so.

No Poor Folks at Wake Forest

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, of the 75 wealthiest private universities in the United States (those with endowments of $500 million or more), Wake Forest University ranks 74th (second to last) in the proportion of undergraduates who receive Pell Grants. This is a rough measure of the proportion of students who are low income. And the proportion is dropping, from 7.9 percent in 2004-5 to 6.3 percent in 2006-7.

See the article and related table.