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

A justification as to why a leave is essential to complete the proposed project

I am completing an application for a university funded one-semester research leave at full pay to work on a book related to my ongoing research with Katie Day on church security (generously funded by the Louisville Institute).

As much as I enjoy teaching, I am grateful for the opportunity to take a leave from teaching periodically in order to focus my complete attention on research and writing. At the same time, our teaching responsibilities at Wake Forest are 9 courses every 4 semesters with no graduate student advising on top of that. Which leaves plenty of time for research and writing under normal circumstances.

Because of this reality, as I was working on my leave application this past Saturday, one of the pieces of information requested rubbed me the wrong way. Although I subsequently re-wrote my response to remove the snark, below is what I originally wrote.

(4) A justification as to why a leave is essential to complete the proposed project, included justification for the timing of the leave relative to the proposed project.

Of the 27 semesters I have completed at Wake Forest, I have had 2 semesters of research leave. During that time I have published two books, completed two revisions of my sociology of religion textbook, edited a major handbook in the sociology of religion, served 7 years as editor and associate editor of leading journals in my field, published 15 articles and book chapters, and written countless reviews and other occasional pieces.

Clearly, a leave is not “essential” to completing this project or any productive faculty members’ projects. I will complete the project with or without the support of a research leave. However, there is no question that without the gift of time and space a research leave provides it will take longer to complete, create more opportunity costs in terms of other work I can do as a teacher-scholar, and (perhaps most significantly) extract a greater toll on my personal health and relationships.

Letter of Support to Parents and Loved Ones of Wake Forest Students

Although the university’s response to threatening emails sent to 7 individual faculty and staff associated with the sociology department and 5 other units on campus was slow, the response of our department was not. In addition to the email noted in my previous post, drafted by our department chair Joseph Soares, our newest faculty member, Brittany Battle, took it upon herself to write a letter of support to parents and loved ones of Wake Forest students.

I am grateful that she did. The letter appears below.

As a two-time parent of Wake Forest undergraduates (including one currently), I was happy to co-sign.

The early morning sun rakes across the side of Kirby Hall, on the campus of Wake Forest University, Friday, January 11, 2019. Photo by Ken Bennett

Dear Parents and Loved Ones of WFU Students,

Over the past week, the university has been experiencing the aftermath of hateful emails sent to members of the university community. We have spoken with many students and many have described their fear and anger. We can completely relate to those feelings, which are shared by many associated with the university, including parents. As faculty and staff members at Wake, we want to assure you that we are here on campus to support your children and to advocate for their safety and security. We are committed to making sure that the most marginalized students on our campus–students of color, LGBTQ+ students, first-generation students–have faculty in their corner who are speaking on their behalf. We are committed to doing our very best every day to make them feel welcomed and valued here. The most rewarding part of our job is teaching and supporting your children, a job that we all hold in the utmost regard. We know you trusted the university in sending your child to get their education at Wake, in many cases hours away from home. We hope that knowing your child has the support of faculty and staff, across departments and individual backgrounds, provides you with some comfort.

In Solidarity,

Brittany P. Battle, Assistant Professor of Sociology

Saylor Breckenridge, Associate Professor of Sociology

Hana Brown, Associate Professor of Sociology

Amanda Gengler, Assistant Professor of Sociology

Amanda L. Griffith, Associate Professor and Associate Chair of Economics

Kristina Gupta, Assistant Professor, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Marina Krcmar, Professor, Communication, WFU Parent (‘17)

Jayati Lal, Visiting Associate Professor, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Jieun Lee, Assistant Professor, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Tanisha Ramachandran, Associate Teaching Professor, Department for the Study of Religions

Don R. Shegog, II, Instructional Technologist for Economics, Politics and Sociology Departments

Robin Simon, Professor of Sociology

Joseph A. Soares, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology

Alessandra Von Burg, Associate Professor, Communication, WFU Parent (‘14)

Ron Von Burg, Associate Professor, Communication, WFU Parent (‘14)

David Yamane, Professor of Sociology and Wake Forest Parent (‘17, ‘22)

Mir Yarfitz, Associate Professor, Department of History

Tanya Zanish-Belcher, Director—Special Collections & Archives, ZSR Library

Sociology Department Response to Hostile Emails Sent to Wake Forest Faculty and Staff

My academic home, Wake Forest University, is not innocent of the open and blatant racism of the past or the more hidden and subtle racism of the present. Many on campus, including members of my home department (sociology), have pressed for the university to address this.

Recently, Wake Forest became the target of open and blatant racism (and homophobia and anti-Semitism), particularly members of the sociology department. As has been reported in the media, sociology faculty and staff received 7 of 12 hateful emails that were recently sent by an (as yet) unknown sender.

Although the university was slow in its official response, the department responded more quickly in an email to our majors and minors. That email, written by our department chair and co-signed by the members of our department, is copied below.

An exterior view of Wait Chapel, on the campus of Wake Forest University, Thursday, August 29, 2019. Photo by Ken Bennett

Dear Sociology Students:

This letter comes to you from the entire department of sociology, faculty and staff, because we believe you have a right to know the truth about the hate emails that were sent to members of our community last week.

Wednesday, September 11, the University Police told you that there were “investigating reports of inflammatory emails [sent out Tuesday night] with racist, homophobic, and discriminatory content sent from an unknown source … to various faculty and staff members.” That’s true. But what wasn’t spelled out is that the only individuals who received these emails were faculty and staff in our department. Seven people who work in our department were singled out for a hate email that praised the white male founding fathers, dismissed our undergraduates with ugly vile language, and called for our land to be “purged” of people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.  We take this hate email as being not just racist, homophobic, and misogynistic but also as a threat of violence. The call to “purge” categories of persons, is a white supremacist call for genocide.

The safety of everyone in our community is our top priority, but we also promise you transparency and the truth. We live in a society plagued by racism, sexism, and gun violence. We will do all we can to carry forward our scholarship, teaching, and our public engagement for social justice.  And we will do all we can to keep you and us safe from harm.

All classes will be canceled for the rest of this week to enable us to fully organize our security. Our building will have for the foreseeable future a police presence and all classrooms will be on auto lock. Only faculty will be able to unlock classroom doors.

If you have questions, reach out to your faculty.  If you have information, reach out to the Wake police.

Sincerely,

Joseph Soares

With Brittany Battle; Ken Bechtel; Saylor Breckenridge; Hana Brown; Rob Freeland; Amanda Gengler; Steven Gunkel; Catherine Harnois; Robin Simon, Erica Talley; Ian Taplin; Ana Wahl; and David Yamane.

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.

“The Sociology of U.S. Gun Culture” Article Published and Available Free Online

In case you missed the announcement on my Gun Culture 2.0 blog, I am very happy to report that my second academic article on gun culture was published recently in the journal Sociology Compass (my first was on religion and gun ownership).

Thanks to a generous grant from Wake Forest University’s ZSR Library and the Office of Research & Sponsored Programs, “The Sociology of U.S. Gun Culture” is available as a free download from the journal’s website.

In the paper I argue that social scientists have been so concerned with the criminology and epidemiology of guns that there is no sociology of guns, per se. To help develop a sociology of guns that is centered on the legal use of guns by lawful gun owners, I give a brief historical overview of gun culture in the United States, review the small research literature on recreational gun use, highlight the rise of Gun Culture 2.0, and offer some thoughts on directions for future research.

Reason Requires That You Accept You May Be Wrong

Wake Forest University’s Commencement ceremony was particularly special this year because my oldest son graduated (with a B.S. in Finance, Summa Cum Laude, if I may brag on him just a bit). It is always exciting to be present to the symbolic transition of students from their pasts into their futures. All the more so when that student is your kid and you have a front row seat and can snap a quick selfie.

This year’s commencement speaker was Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian (books on Jefferson, Jackson, FDR, and George H.W. Bush). In the era of celebrity commencement speakers — e.g., Stephen Colbert at Wake Forest in 2015, Will Ferrell at USC this year — choosing a scholar to give your commencement address can inspire reactions from yawns to disappointment (among students, especially).

Of course, choosing someone as your commencement speaker because they are smart instead of well-known or wealthy has the benefit of producing smarter commencement addresses. To wit: In my time as a faculty member, David Brooks gave one of the smarter commencement addresses I’ve seen.

Monday, May 21, 2007. Wake Forest professor David Yamane hoods David Brooks with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

I thought Jon Meacham’s commencement address this year was smart, too. In particular he talked about partisanship, reason, reflection, truth, and error in a way I found compelling. I’ve bolded the sections I found most significant in the extended excerpt below:

The great fact of America today is pervasive partisanship. Too many of us are given to reflexively reacting to whatever unfolds in the public square – not according to our reason but to our ideological and even tribal predispositions. Now I want to be very clear about this. Partisanship is not an intrinsically bad thing. The middle way is not always the right way. It’s in the nature of things and in the nature of human beings to hold fast to views and allegiances, to heroes and to creeds, to the exclusion of other views and other allegiances, other heroes and other creeds. Such is politics, which is both an emotional and a rational undertaking. What is worth avoiding, however – and too many of us are doing too little to avoid this – is reflexive, as opposed to reflective partisanship.

The point of America is not for all of us to agree. That is impossible and undesirable in any event. Autocracies are about total agreement. Or at least total submission. The American republic is founded on the notion that even the person with whom I most stridently disagree may have something to say worth hearing and heeding and that the only way I can figure out whether that’s the case is by listening to that person and by weighing the relative merits of what is said and then –only then – making up my mind.

The danger – and this is all too pervasive at the moment – lies in my reflexively dismissing a point made by a person simply because that person is the one making the point. That’s a foreclosure of reason. I’d argue that’s a sin because the human capacity for judgment – however flawed, however fallen – is the great gift that distinguishes us above the beasts of the field and the trees of the forest and the creatures of the sea. So I beg you, truly: Be reflective about our public life. Make up your mind based on facts, not alternative facts or alternative evidence.

Be open to the very real possibility that you might be wrong from time to time and people you thought were beyond redemption might be right.

I’ve learned alot about myself and others by hanging out with people whose social and political views are different from mine, so Meacham’s comments definitely resonated with me. Try it. You may not like it, but it is good for you.

My view of Jon Meacham’s commencement address at Wake Forest University, May 2017

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.

Religion on the PGA Tour

Although I am not a sociologist of sport, I have enjoyed those times when my work in the sociology of religion comes into dialogue with the world of sport.

Here is some material I am working up for the 6th edition of my sociology of religion textbook:

When Webb Simpson won the 2012 U.S. Open – one of professional golf’s four major championships – he joined an illustrious group of golfers who played collegiately at Wake Forest University. But unlike his fellow Wake Forest alumns and U.S. Open Champions, Arnold Palmer and Curtis Strange, Simpson (born in 1985) is a “digital native.” So it is not surprising that he maintains a regular presence on social media, including posting from his Twitter account @webbsimpson1.

What may be surprising to some is that Simpson (a religion major in college) is well-known for his Twitter posts of Bible verses, quotes from religious thinkers, and other faith-related content. A quick sampling of his Tweets reveals statements such as: “Where sin runs deep, Grace is more.” “#Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance, the only thing it cannot be is moderately important” (C.S. Lewis). “Hebrews 4:14-16 is more than comforting to the Christian.”

In a November 2012 story in Golf Digest magazine, “The Soul of Pro Golf,” writer Max Adler observes that Simpson is not alone in making his Christian faith very public. Although the story begins with Simpson telling interviewer Bob Costas how much he prayed during the final holes of the 2012 U.S. Open, Adler goes on to discuss a dozen other professional golfers for whom faith is central to their identity.

As sociologist of religion Mark Chaves notes in the story, the visible religion in golf, as in American sport generally, is distinctively evangelical Protestant. Through their fellowship with one another and a strong theology rooted in “Muscular Christianity,” evangelical Protestant golfers maintain a strong plausibility structure which supports them in their public expression of their faith.

Thus, Christianity on the various professional golf tours is not free-floating. It is supported by formal sport-based ministries like FCA Golf – run by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (fcagolf.org) on the minor league Web.com Tour – the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour Christian Fellowship, and the PGA Tour Players’ Bible Study, led for over 30 years by “tour chaplain” Larry Moody. Attendance at Moody’s Wednesday night traveling fellowship can range from a dozen to over 100, depending on the size and location of the tournament, but the largest and most consistent attendance is at the Champions (Senior) Tour fellowship, which was led by Tom Randall of World Harvest Ministries from 2000-2013.

Perhaps because it comes from a particular religious point of view, the public sharing of that faith is not embraced by all. A Golf Digest survey asking people their “reaction when you hear a tour pro in an interview thanking God after winning a tournament” found:

  • 8% Completely fine with it. Tells me who this player really is.
  • 4% OK, but move on.
  • 1% It’s a little awkward.
  • 7% I’m offended by it. Doesn’t belong in a sports contest.

Although not a scientific survey, these results show the very different perspectives people have on the issue of religion in sports. [If anyone knows anything about this survey, please let me know. Max Adler won’t Tweet back at me!]

Golfers like Bubba Watson, who thanked his “Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” after winning the prestigious Masters Tournament, are sometimes ridiculed for thinking that God has nothing better to do than to get involved in a mere sporting event. But the theology that animates many athletes, including professional golfers, is more subtle than that. “The Lord couldn’t care less whether I win or lose,” Adler quotes Watson as saying. “What matters to Him is how I play the game.”

SOURCE: Adler, Max. 2012. The soul of pro golf. Golf Digest (November), 102-108.