Thursday, November 29, 2007

Liberal Craziness

I don't usually enjoy writing about rifts between conservatives and liberals. I realize that the rifts are out there (and my husband gets particularly incensed about conservative Christian bias, which he shares with me often). However, I choose not to concentrate on such differences too much, because, quite frankly, it makes me too upset inside.

Luckily, I inhabit a world primarily composed of other liberal individuals (if not always liberal-minded). I am surrounded with other sociologists and highly-educated people, and even if they disagree with me, we usually have quite similar views of big social issues.

This week, however, I have been pulled out of my safe little world three different times. And, as I have predicted in the past, thinking about these issues has caused quite a deal of stress.* I'll let these anecdotes speak for themselves.

To start, on Monday, a student of mine walked back to my office with me after class. Along the way, she was telling me how much she liked my class (which was nice to hear!), and how much she had hated taking a required freshman survey class that happened to be taught by an anthropology professor. Apparently, she didn't like this class because he made her memorize the fossil history of mankind. The nerve!

I was shocked because this student is quite bright and works hard, but I tried to use this as a teaching moment. So I said, "Well, maybe people in the U.S. would better understand each other if they understood each other's views. So, you had to learn about evolution, and perhaps it wouldn't be so bad for your professor to have to learn about creationism." She dismissed this with a "Yeah. It did make me more open-minded, though." Thank god for small favors.

This attitude was reinforced by an NPR story I heard yesterday afternoon. A reporter had gone to a Republican meeting in some small town in South Carolina. The members had representatives from different G.O.P. campaigns come talk about their candidates' platforms, and then there was a "fake" primary election. The leading candidate was Mike Huckabee, followed by Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson (I think McCain may have gotten a vote or two, but Giuliani got none). When asked why he "voted" for Huckabee, one man said (this is paraphrased), "Huckabee doesn't just say that he's going to consider his religion when creating policy. He says that his policy will be based on his faith. He's a strong Christian, and so am I."

Okay. I used to be a fundamentalist Christian (I'm not actually proud of that time in my life; I see nothing wrong with Christianity the way Jesus taught it, but I do take umbrage at how fundamentalists have bastardized the inherent good in the religion). I get what he's saying. But does he care at all about the separation of church and state? I would normally not worry too much about this, since there are some fiscal conservatives who I know are disillusioned about the Christian Right. But I also know that there are a lot of people like the man I quoted above (probably including my student!). I'm pretty much scared ****less.

So, that gets me to my next story, about the man who believes liberals are ruining the country. I sent out a letter about my dissertation study to a bunch of people yesterday. It included information about the study and the fact that subjects were chosen "randomly," etc... So, this man called this afternoon and wanted to know about the study. I basically repeated the information already included in the letter. Then he asked how his name came to be selected (in a nutshell, he believed that he had been chosen because he had a negative value on the dependent variable). I then explained to him how random assignment works (which he finally equated to a lottery, a good comparison, and one I will probably use in the future). So, after all of this, he finally said, "Well, I don't want to participate. If you ask me, this is just a bunch of liberal craziness. That's what's wrong with this country. Too much liberal craziness."

I feel privileged to have a job that allows me the freedom to "be a liberal." But, these three situations helped me remember that the United States is not as "free" as Thomas Jefferson hoped it could be (Habits of the Heart gives an excellent description of Jefferson's views of America, most of which I agree with). People cling so desperately to their own points of view, and confirmation bias allows such views to be perpetuated.

And I'm tired. I am tired of fanatical conservatives and fanatical liberals. If we truly want to understand the world, we're going to all have to be "liberal-minded," regardless of our political and religious convictions. Listen to others. You don't have to agree with them. Just please, for the love of god, listen.

*To be fair to myself, my dissertation has been going really badly this week, so I'm more prone to stress in general.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dear Student

Dear Student,

I care a lot about your education. I may even care more than most of your other professors; I am young, and still idealistic. Yet, my propensity to care can only go so far. I am a busy person, and don't have all the time in the world to give to you personally.

I want you to understand the material in my class. I spend a lot of time preparing for my classes, and I am quite willing to answer questions in class (provided you've actually read the material before attending class). I am also quite willing to answer specific questions that you email to me.

However, I will not answer emails that boil down to "I don't get it." If I get this type of email from you, I will tell you to reread the article and take thorough notes (not just highlight ad nauseum).

If you do not understand an article after reading it, and have gone back over the article to try to increases your comprehension and still don't understand it, here is what you must do for me. Email me with a specific question about a particular point. If your problem is that you don't comprehend the general ideas of the reading, then email me with a synopsis of what you think the reading is saying, and then ask me whether you're on the right track or not.

You see, emailing me a synopsis of your interpretation indicates to me that at least you have done the reading and are trying to understand it. This information goes far in my book.

I just can't stomach the "I don't get it," primarily because the message I get is that you don't want to have to do the heavy lifting of understanding Berger, or Mead, or Simmel. We discussed impression management in class. Please seriously consider the impressions you're projecting before you hit the "send" button.

Your Frustrated Instructor

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


I have been corrected. Astrosociology is not an official section of the American Sociological Association. definitely wants to be!

The section for Animals and Society is an official section of the ASA.

And, just to clear everything up, the section for Women Who Have Cats is completely made up, and not an official ASA section.

The Sociology of Women...Who Have Cats!

Yesterday, I was speaking with two members of my cohort, and we came up with a new section for the ASA. You've got it, the Sociology of Women Who Have Cats.

This was pretty funny to us for awhile, I have to admit. There are so many random sections of the ASA now that this did not seem any more random (although I do admit that it is stranger than Astro-sociology and the Animals and Society sections). Here, we're bridging the study of gender with the study of animals in society. Woo-hoo!

What's interesting to me a lot of times is how compartmentalized we like to be in sociology. I think this is actually to our detriment. So, for example, instead of having the Sociology of Organizations, of which Education, Religion, Work, the Space Program, etc. are subcategories, we have five different sections. I believe that every one of them is important, and deserves credit, but if we're really trying to create general theory about organizations, wouldn't we want to test our theory on the wide variety of organizations there are in order to find out generalizable patterns about organizations as a whole?

You may think I've veered off topic here, but the point is that creating artificial distinctions between subdisciplines in sociology is not helping to foster cross-subdiscipline discussions of general patterns. The super-macro people may disagree with me here, but doesn't all sociology ultimately boil down to three things: organizations, networks, and social psychological processes? And, if I'm correct, wouldn't we all want to be working towards better understanding those areas by testing our general theories on more spheres, which just means expanding our scope conditions?

I don't think we're ever going to be treated as a "real" science until we can come up with universal theories about social behavior that are as robust as the theory of evolution and the theory of gravity. We won't do that by stomping our feet and camping out in our own corners of "Sociology Land."

So, to get back to the Sociology of Women Who Have breakfast, I was speaking with my husband about where we might study such women and their cats. We came up with the following places, and research questions we might want to answer: the work environment (What happens when women bring their cats to work?); in the home (Are cats part of the family network? What role-identity would cats have?); at the park (What happens when women with cats bring their cats to the park and there are lots of dogs?); and my personal favorite, in space (How do women with cats interact with men with dogs on a spaceship?).*

*This last one, actually, reminds me somewhat of the old Muppets sketch, "Pigs in Space," only here we would have "Women Who Have Cats in Space."**
**Just pretend a woman is there - the picture was too funny not to use it.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Practicing Idealism

I find that I often take time to report about my bad students on this blog, and neglect to point out the awesome students that I do have. I think we all have a tendency to do this from time to time, and unfortunately, the general trend in education is not necessarily towards "bad" students, but definitely tends towards lazy, unmotivated students who aren't used to taking responsibility for their education.*

However, this past week and a half, I have had students making excellent points and asking thought-provoking questions (I also had almost an entire room full of 55 students who didn't do the reading the day their paper was due, but that's a different story). The two comments that stick out the most follow. I long to teach roomfulls of such students someday.

This comment came the class after my students were asking me where stratification comes from (which is cool in and of itself):

"Don't you think that stratification is so ingrained into humans that it's probably just a result of our evolution?"

"Yes, yes, yes!!!" said Practicing Idealist, jumping up and down (I didn't actually jump up and down, but I was inside).

This comment came during review for an exam:

"So, I understand how Marx thought the structure of society (i.e., capitalism) was the cause of all other social consequences, but how does culture fit into his theory? Or did he discuss culture at all?"

These comments both clearly showed that some of my students are thinking about the material in my course, and I'm trying to remind myself to remember the proportion of students who are motivated to learn on the days when I despair. The are out there.

After teaching for awhile I've come to the conclusion that being a good teacher is one of the hardest jobs in our society (it's easy to be a bad teacher - we can all come up with multiple examples of them). This means, however, that bad students can lower the morale of good teachers faster than anything else. So, my new plan is to teach to the students who meet me halfway and are motivated to learn. In class discussion, therefore, beyond cursory review of the day's article, I start asking the students to talk about what interested them in the readings. This means that the students who haven't done the readings are probably left in the dust quite quickly, but it's not my job to hold their hands. I would much rather teach to the students who are thinking about the material, and have thoughtful, intelligent conversations with them.

Perhaps this makes me insensitive to the needs of the whole class, but I can only be as effective as my students are prepared.

*I blame two major things for this trend: 1) policies like No Child Left Behind, which encourage teachers to teach to the test if they want to keep their jobs, and thus promote a culture of non-creativity and non-curiosity in the classroom from a young age; 2) the "self-esteem movement" that started roughly 20 years ago, and promotes feeling good about yourself as the end-all/be-all, rather than encouraging students to achieve in order to reap the rewards of high self-esteem. We know that it's easier to change behaviors than it is to change beliefs, so it should come as no surprise that teaching students that they are incredibly awesome, without the substance to back it up, is going to lead to some disastrous consequences when they are actually asked to perform in order to get an "A."