July Message to Intro Soc Students about Class in Fall 2020

This week Wake Forest University is unveiling its new fall course schedule and students will have the opportunity/be forced to re-register for courses depending on their personal preferences/circumstances and availability of courses in different modalities.

Faculty were given the opportunity to teach in one of four modalities: online, blended (traditional and with an online pathway), or face-to-face (descriptions follow). Like many faculty, I wanted to steer a middle course between fully face-to-face and fully online so opted for blended-traditional.

But just two days before students are to re-register, I do not know whether I can be assigned a classroom for my Introduction to Sociology courses that will fit half of my class (35 students total) safely. So, I recorded a video message to my students addressing the current situation as clearly as possible.

Wake Forest’s Our Way Forward site describes teaching modalities as follows:

  • Online: All content and learning activities take place online with no required on-campus activities. All content and learning activities may be delivered synchronously (during any of the pre-existing scheduled class times), asynchronously, or some combination of these.
  • Face-to-Face: All regularly scheduled class meetings occur in-person/on-campus for all students in the class.
  • Blended-Traditional: Core content is delivered online, asynchronously, and is complemented/augmented by in-person/on-campus sessions for faculty-student engagement. All enrolled students participate in all asynchronous online aspects of the course. In smaller cohorts, students also participate in in-person sessions, with these live sessions taking place during regularly scheduled class periods.
  • Blended-With Online Pathway: Core content is delivered online, asynchronously, and is complemented/augmented by a combination of in-person and synchronous virtual sessions for faculty-student engagement. All enrolled students participate in all asynchronous online aspects of the course. In smaller cohorts, students also participate in regular “live” sessions. Blended-online pathway courses must include both in-person/on-campus small cohort sessions and synchronous online small cohort sessions (with the latter constituting the “online pathway” for a cohort of students who cannot be on-campus).

Small Teaching Online Book Summary

Over the past three weeks I have participated in a Wake Forest Center for the Advancement of Teaching summer reading group led by Director of Educational Development Dr. Kristi Verbeke.

Over 30 faculty (IIRC) read and discussed Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and James Lang.

What follows is my reading notes and reflections on the book as originally posted in a long thread on Twitter.

This book applies the original “small teaching” insight of James Lang to online teaching. Basic premise: make small, manageable changes based on learning science rather than major but unsustainable overhauls to our teaching.

Ch 1: Surfacing Backward Design

Begin at the end: Where are we going (learning outcomes)? Then ask: How do we know we have arrived (assessment)? And last: What do we need to get there (work)? Useful but common advice.

In online education especially it is important not just to build these connections but to make them very explicit, surfacing not just the what/how of each activity and assignment but the why in relation to learning outcomes. This gives online students understanding, motivation, and direction.

Example of result of backward design from my Introduction to Sociology class

Ch 2: Guiding Learning Through Engagement

Darby highlights how much PROCESS we focus on in face-to-face classes that is harder to convey in online classes. Online we need to be more intentional about how we guide learning.

Breaking down tasks into discrete parts & even (occasionally) conditioning later tasks on completion of earlier ones helps. But my main takeaway from this chapter is that teachers have to make a point of being there for their online students. This takes time/energy. Darby: online teachers need to be attentive to students in forums & discussions, looking for cues that we would normally pick up in class. And responding “early and often.” “Look for every opportunity to help students know how they are doing in the class.”

Ch 3: Using Media & Tech Tools

First tip here echoes 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos by Karen Costa. Create SHORT lecture videos: <6 mins long and informal (rather than professionally produced) are ideal for student learning.

Because online students are often busy outside of classes, it helps focus their attention & structure their priorities to give short graded assessments after each required video lecture. Don’t look at creating engagement this way as pandering to student “consumers.” Grades help guide priorities.

In addition to video lectures, spontaneous (or planned) video updates can be used to respond to issues emerging from the video lectures & related assignments. At Wake Forest we are transitioning to Canvas LMS which makes it easy to record videos inside the LMS or link to YouTube.

Also, do not feel you are shirking your responsibilities by drawing on other available media resources. Curating course materials is an important part of our job as teachers. E.g., Tanya Golash Boza of UC-Merced has put together some amazing videos on race/racism.

Last, remember the book’s premise: small decisions & actions are key. Don’t swing for the fences and strike out, especially making our students collateral damage by turning our tech struggles into their tech challenges. As Darby writes, “First, do no harm.”

Ch 4: Building Community

Online courses are sometimes treated like old-time “correspondence courses” that each student completes as a solitary individual. But the “Community of Inquiry” model highlights the importance of community for student learning (p. 79).

Of the three “presences” (cognitive, social, teaching) at the core of the Community of Inquiry, the social is the hardest for many to achieve online (p. 80). Darby and Lang argue that teachers can facilitate social presence by helping students see us and each other as human beings.

Strategies for doing this include creating structured opportunities for students to interact with us and others. I.e., “discussions.” I and other faculty dread trying to create discussions online, often only knowing the “post once, comment twice” structure that seems so rote. An alternative is proposed by John Orlando: Require “one or two original thoughts” rather than an original post + replies. After all, a reply could be more substantive, interesting, and productive than an original post. And it encourages group interaction as much as individual action.

A real challenge for faculty teaching online will be requirement that we “show up for class” if we want to build community, because class is no longer clearly delimited in time/space. We can’t treat our online classes like slow cookers (“set & forget”). Rather, we have to be present “on a very regular basis” (p. 87). In a F2F class, we facilitate good conversations. Online teaching arguably requires more facilitation. This may be all the more important for under-resourced and/or underserved students.

Monitoring and being involved in online discussions allows us as teachers to foster cultural inclusion and suppress exclusionary practices. Darby and Lang highlight the Critical Multicultural Pavilion EdChange project as a resource.

Last, it doesn’t hurt to “cultivate and demonstrate genuine caring for your students” (p. 104).

Ch. 5: Giving Feedback

Some good Pedagogy 101 items in this chapter. E.g.,

  • recall the difference between SUMMATIVE and FORMATIVE assessments
  • learning requires assessment with timely feedback
  • focusing on justifying our grades is a “common trap” (pp. 110-11).

We need to give students both summative AND formative assessments. We can use labels like “This Time” and “Next Time” and/or “Strengths” and “For Improvement” (p. 112). These labels don’t just help students, they help US remember what we are giving feedback for.

Giving feedback “face-to-face” can be more effective (& even efficient). Reach out to meet with students who are struggling early. Rebrand the potentially often off-putting and little used “office hours” as “happy hours” or “coffee breaks.” Be inviting!

Ch 6: Fostering Student Persistence & Success

Following the small teaching philosophy, this can be something as simply as a “nudge” – an email to a struggling student with advice/encouragement that can have a big impact.

I think there are some things I may do online that I wouldn’t F2F. Like giving “mastery quizzes” as a prerequisite for moving on in a module. In a F2F class students can better gauge whether they are “getting it”; online a simple, ungraded quiz can give needed feedback & direction.

Scaffolding may be more important online, so thinking about ways of giving students easy wins early on to build their confidence both with the material and the technology/LMS. As always, this will be all the more important for less advantaged students.

Ch 7: Creating Autonomy

This chapter argues that students are more motivated if they have some agency/autonomy in courses. Although “we can’t give people agency” we can “provide the conditions and support for it to flourish.” Online courses require students to take more responsibility. We can facilitate this by taking some responsibility ourselves as teachers for guiding students without becoming dictatorial.

This chapter includes a good discussion of Linda Nilson’s specifications grading as a way to reward students for taking responsibility for doing the work of learning. I do this some, though without appreciating all of the benefits. Will def incorporate more online.

Ch 8: Making Connections

This chapter stresses the importance of helping students connect ideas both within and between classes, as well as connecting class ideas to their own experiences. I do the latter pretty explicitly, but the former varies by the class I am teaching.

We can encourage connections with the abundance of material available in the world outside our classes by, e.g., assigning students to “curate” and evaluate a collection of digital materials that illustrate a particular concept. This type of assignment can be set up in ways that facilitate learner autonomy (recall Ch 7).

Ch 9: Developing as an Online Instructor

This chapter is a bit of preaching to the choir. Anyone who has made it this far in the book is already doing this, though of course more can always be done. The chapter provides some direction on the more that can be done: taking online courses, seeking out exemplars, accessing books/blogs/podcasts.

Suggestions provided in “Small Teaching Online” include (tho not limited to):

Which leads to a final important point: take advantage of your local teaching/learning pros. Teams at WFU CAT and Wake Forest’s Office of Online Education have been working incredibly hard to bring 1,000 teachers at Wake Forest up to speed given the reality of at least some online ed this fall.

Actual final point from “Small Teaching Online”:

“Embrace the challenge of becoming an excellent online instructor. Reflect on the moral obligation to help these learners succeed” (p. 218).

I didn’t sign up for online ed, but neither did my students. Bottom line: do right by them

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.

Data on Gender Segregation in Occupations (2012)

Teaching Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart in my sociological theory class recently, I was looking for data on the percentage of flight attendants today who are male. I found a nice post on the issue by Mona Chalabi (“Dear Mona”) on the FiveThirtyEight blog. Answer: In 1980, 14.3 percent of flight attendants were male; in 2012, 24.2 percent.

Chalabi also provided this really helpful graphic showing the percentage of U.S. workers who are male in a huge number of job sectors, from least male (kindergarten and earlier school teachers – 2.3%) to most male (boilermakers – 99.8%).

chalabi-datalab-flightattendants-2

New Course for Fall 2015: The Sociology of Guns

I am excited to be teaching a new course in the fall semester, related to my new research project on American gun culture: Sociology 384: Special Topics Seminar – The Sociology of Guns. Course description follows the flier.

Sociology of Guns Course Annoucment 3-12-15COURSE DESCRIPTION

Guns often have a spectacular presence in the American imagination, from George Zimmerman to Sandy Hook Elementary to the American sniper Chris Kyle. But guns are also a part of everyday life in communities across the United States. They are used as tools of criminal violence and self-defense, and are one of the mostly commonly owned pieces of sporting equipment in the country.

Clearly, guns are an important part of American society and culture. With more than 300,000,000 guns held by private citizens and a Constitutional amendment associated with gun ownership, the possession, regulation, meaning, and use of firearms reaches into important realms of American society, including: civil rights and liberties, identity and culture, crime and violence, public health and personal safety, and even sport and leisure.

This course explores the multifaceted role guns play in the U.S. from a sociological perspective. From a firm foundation of understanding the history and technology of firearms, as well as the historical and constitutional origins of the 2nd Amendment, the course will focus on a range of topics, including: the prevalence and distribution of guns; attitudes and opinions about gun ownership; lawful possession and use of firearms; illegal and legal gun markets; gun crime and injuries; and the varieties of responses to gun injuries and crime.

I Am a Professor

There, I said it. I am a professor. The description does not exactly roll off my tongue. I am a professor. It somehow sounds pompous to me. So I generally avoid saying it.

T-shirt suggested for me on my Facebook feed

T-shirt suggested for me on my Facebook feed

When I am traveling and a cab driver asks me what I do for a living, or at holiday parties when I am making small talk with people I have just met, I usually say “I teach at Wake Forest.” Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far.

I spend 40% or less of my work time teaching (in and out of class), preparing to teach, or grading. In fact, the 300-375 minutes/week I spend in classrooms (30 weeks a year, not counting summer teaching) is one of the smallest parts of my job.

I spend another 10-20% of my time in department, college, university, and professional service activities (committee work, doing peer reviews).

So the majority of my time I spend reading, researching, and writing for publication. And this, I think, is what most distinguishes being a “professor” from being a “teacher.”

But I don’t think many people get the distinction. Even though a large and growing percentage of the American population today has graduated from college, the majority of college graduates have little contact with professors outside of class. So all they know about the job is that professors teach.

Posted in a dorm common area at Western Carolina University

Posted in a dorm common area at Western Carolina University

And at many colleges and universities, there is no expectation that faculty will do anything other than teaching (and doing institutional service work). In these cases, saying one is a “teacher” is perfectly descriptive of the job, even if the formal job title is “professor.” (This also applies to institutions where faculty are suppose to do more than teach, but do not.)

Still, I get frustrated sometimes when people say “must be nice to have summers off” or “must be nice to work only 3 days a week.” Depending on my mood, this is true even when I know they are joking, as with the guys I play tennis with. I came across the dedication below (for my sociology of religion textbook) recently because I have been working on the revisions for the new edition of the book over this winter “break.” It expresses my frustration.

My acknowledgements for the 5th edition of my religion textbook with Keith Roberts

My acknowledgements for the 5th edition of my religion textbook with Keith Roberts

In fact, I have been working on the textbook revisions for 10-12 hours a day 6 days a week from the moment I turned in my fall grades. And I will be working on it until the moment I step into class for the spring semester. So when people ask me how my winter break is going, I want to channel John McEnroe and scream, “You cannot be serious!” Or at least to say, “Must be nice to have some time off for the holidays. I wouldn’t know.”

But when I settle down and upon reflection I realize that I am part of the problem. I perpetuate it by continuing to say “I teach at Wake Forest” rather than saying “I am a professor” when people ask me what I do for a living.

It still doesn’t roll easily off my tongue, but at least it better reflects who I actually am and what I actually do. I am a professor, dammit.

Concluding note: My lovely wife, who is an occupational health nurse working in manufacturing facilities, will read this post and think, “Quit complaining. You don’t have a real job. The people I work with have real jobs.” To her I say: I would not trade my job for any other. I love my job. It is a great job. But it is a job. A more than full-time job, where you work six days a week, not three, and where you don’t have summers or winters off. That is all. Now I have to get back to my textbook revisions.

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!