back to school

academica, pedagogy

Every semester, I try to begin a class with a bit of wisdom for the students on the process of learning (I’ve blogged about this before, I suppose). It seems like a modest goal. I talk about note taking (the Cornell Note taking Method), how to be an active reader, how to rehearse knowledge, and what are a few good writing habits that I hope will stick. A New York Times article reviews the research on study habits debunks common wisdom and isolates a few good tips:

[M]any study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room.


Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time.

to catch a plagiarist

academica, writing

Every semester I get a few folks who try to sneak some plagiarism by me. Three this term. There are the usual tactics for fending off plagiarism. Creating assignments that are difficult to cheat on, for one. I have been using Wikis for assignments, and there is a nice program that scans the internet for any material that was used to create a single page (Copyscape), which was helpful. Some colleges have TurnItIn , (or CheckForPlagiarism, EVE2 Plagiarism Detection System, iThenticate, LexisNexis CopyGuard, or EssayFraud) but others do not. So, there are a few things folks can look out for. (With at least one caveat: These aren’t guaranteed, just clues to help find evidence.) A few easy clues are: a.) mysteriously changing fonts, or font sizes, b.) radical changes in voice, c.) the out-of-place fancy word or use of a semi-colon, d.) no source material provided, and e.) going very vague when the assignment doesn’t require it (e.g., “Karl Marx was born in…”). A friend became suspicious of a student who had a reference in Russian. Heck, I had a student–a while ago–who turned in a paper that still had the website address in the top righthand side of the paper. (Again, just clues.)

Primes vs. Quotation Marks

But the one that really catches students (and I am really only sharing this because so many colleagues appreciate it when I tell them), is this: Finding ‘Straight’ and ‘Curved’ quotation marks mixed together in the same paper. You see, a word processing program like Microsoft Word knows when you are starting a quote and will automatically curve a quote when you hit the space bar after a word that is preceded by said quotation mark. But when a piece of text is cut-and-pasted out of an internet source (e.g., this blog), Word does not recognize the quotations (which are often ‘straight’ or ‘prime symbols’) and leaves them straight. (Try it.) So, a quote–and most critically, the material around that quote–have been lifted from elsewhere. Plug a chunk of material from around those straight quotes into Google and voila! (Ok, one more caveat: Yes, we all take things from multiple sources and it’s not a guaranteed case of plagiarism. And yes, a quote is by definition a cited piece of text, but I’m saying that one should focus on the material around the quote.)

A great tip from my friend Andy: “If the entire paper is [suspiciously] well-written, check the electronic document properties. It could include references to the paper mill from which they purchased the paper.” Nice!

Other hints? Feel free to pass them along. For more on Internet Plagiarism, see

Update #1:New York Times article on Plagiarism.

Update #2: The Awl has some tips for cheaters. Know Your Enemy!

visual sociology, annotated

academica, tech

For the last two courses, I’ve used images from Douglas Gayeton‘s book ‘Slow: Life in Tuscany‘ as a way to describe how to analyze an image. For some reason, I asked students to take a picture and analyze it, but I didn’t press them to do ape this method as an exercise. I should have. Next time. I also did not make the connection that he is the same artist I use later in the semester, when talking about the fictional (?), second life videoblog of ‘Molotov Alva‘ (which is airing on HBO). I find his work to be very, very effective. I think that this, plus a podcast exercise that students completed this week, will really make the next class better.

For anyone reading this who doesn’t know it–I teach a Media, Technology and Sociology course, which takes the idea of using M&T seriously as a set of sociological tools. For anyone who believes that such ‘alternative media’ for sociological purposes should take a look at what Mark C. Taylor (one of my all-time favorite books) wrote in a recent Op-Ed on ‘The End of the University as We Know it’ (and a critical response from the Chronicle: ‘No More Drivel from the New York Times‘), wherein his fourth recommendation for higher ed is:

Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.

facebook, blogs, studies of note

academica, tech

A few studies that fall in the ‘research that confirms what everyone expects and doesn’t push us to think about it all a little differently’ bin: One on how blog traffic increases on the basis of reciprocation (no real surprise there to anyone who blogs, but also rendering Google’s new ‘Friend Connect‘ of note. Thanks Hepaestus. See how it works?), another on how high Facebook usage is correlated with low college grades, and another on how Facebook affects brain activity. The results of the latter? Here’s what they say: “As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.” Hmmm.

In the ‘oh, that’s actually interesting’ file, the Wall Street Journal now claims that “there are almost as many people making their living as bloggers as there are lawyers’ in the U.S.. That sounds crazy to me, but gathering their data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics they claim that there are 452,000 people who are paid to blog on their own sites, or someone else’s. (As compared to 555,770 lawyers and 394,710 computer programmers.) More from the WSJ:

Demographically, bloggers are extremely well educated: three out of every four are college graduates. Most are white males reporting above-average incomes. One out of three young people reports blogging, but bloggers who do it for a living successfully are 2% of bloggers overall. It takes about 100,000 unique visitors a month to generate an income of $75,000 a year. Bloggers can get $75 to $200 for a good post, and some even serve as “spokesbloggers” — paid by advertisers to blog about products. As


academica, writing

A website, Genderanalyzer, attempts to guess the gender of a blog based on the writing. Its data is trained by UClassify. I figured that it would be interesting to look at a dozen sociology bloggers, half male, half female. The results: Ts’i mahnu uterna (Correct), Kieran Healy (Correct), Kristina B (Wrong), What is the What? (Wrong), Eszter Hargittai (Wrong), Shakha‘s posts on Scatterplot (Wrong), Jeremy‘s posts on Scatterplot (Correct), Tina‘s posts on Scatterplot (Wrong), GradMommy (Wrong), Rachel’s Tavern (Wrong), Chris Uggen (Correct), and Peter Levin (Correct). Now, there appears to be a great deal wrong with this little program, since when I took it, its reported success rate was barely over 50%. But I also thought about what this says about reifying gender… and scholaristic writing in academia. Based on just these few trials within this social field, we see that it was incorrect 100% of the time with the female bloggers, and 16% incorrect for the male bloggers.

things to watch in class

academica, tech

Building off of ‘Things to Read in Class,’ a very incomplete list (with a special shout out to Jessie Daniels, and her ‘Sociology through documentary’ wiki):

Wealth & Privilege: The American Ruling Class (2005, dir. Kirby), Born Rich (2006, dir. Johnson).

Race & Segregation: Big Easy to Big Empty, (2007, dir. Palast), When the Levees Broke (2006, dir. Lee), Trouble in the Water (2008, dirs. Deal & Lessin), Banished (2008, dir. Williams), Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (2007, dirs. Renaud & Renaud)

Poverty: Secrets of Silicon Valley, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, Maxed Out, Born into Brothels (2004, Briski & Kauffman), 30 Days: Minimum Wage (2005, dir. Spurlock)

Tourism: Cannibal Tours (1988, dir. O’Rourke)

Urban: The Philadelphia Story, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1988, dir. Whyte), L.A. Is Burning (1993, dir. Mannes), Mission Hill and the Miracle of Boston, Blade Runner, Dislocation (2006, dir. Venkatesh), Flag Wars (2003, dir. Bryant & Poitras), Slacker (1991, dir. Linklater), The Brickyard (2008, dir. Scott), Hoop Dreams (1994, dir. James).

Global Issues: Favela Rising, (2005, dir. Zimbalist & Mochary), Life and Debt, Mardi Gras: Made in China, (2005, dir. Redmon), An Inconvenient Truth (2006, dir. Guggenheim).

Health Care: The Great Health Service Swindle, Sicko (2007, dir. Moore), Selling Sickness, The Business of Being Born, Medicating Kids (2001, dir. Gaviria), Titicut Follies (1967, dir. Wiseman).

Politics & Economics: The Corporation (2004, Achbar, Abbott & Bakhan), American Blackout, (2006, dir. Inaba), Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? (2006, dir. Popper), Who Killed the Electric Car?, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005, dir. Gibney)

Culture: Style Wars (1982, dir. Silver & Chalfant), Good Copy, Bad Copy (2007, dir. Johnson, Christensen, & Moltke), The Story of Stuff (2007, dir. Leonard)

Gender: Killing Us Softly (I, II, & III), Live Nude Girls Unite (2000, Query), All Different, All Equal, A Stranger in Her Own City (2007, dir. Al-Salami).

Immigration: Cash Flow Fever, The Other Side.

Education: Boys of Baraka (2006, dir. Ewing).

Food: Our Daily Bread (2005, dir. Geyrhalter).

Sexuality: Freeheld, For the Bible Tells Me So, (2007, dir. Karslake), Daddy & Papa (2002, dir. Symons), Gay Youth, Abstinence Comes to Albuquerque (2006, dir. Stuart), 30 Days: Straight Man in a Gay World (2005, dir. Spurlock).

Religion: Born Again (1987, dir. Ault), What Would Jesus Buy? (2007, dir. VanAlkemade), Jonestown: The Life & Death of the People’s Temple (2006, dir. Nelson), 30 Days: Muslims & America (2005, dir. Spurlock), Jesus Camp (2006, dir. Ewing & Grady), Hell House (2001, dir. Ratliff).

Presentation of Self: Darkon (2006, dir. Meyer).

Representation: Sans Soleil (1983, dir. Marker), Reassembladge (1983, dir. Min Ha), The True Meaning of Pictures (2002, dir. Baichwal).

Bureaucracy & War: Conspiracy (2001, dir. Pierson).

horoscopes, habitus, and clemens

academica, culture, pedagogy

I love using horoscopes the first day of class to talk about how we perceive the world around us. I run a variation of the Forer Demonstration. I use the exercise in conjunction with a story about two septuagenarian Finnish Twins (who die on the same day, on the same stretch of road, on bicycles, a few hours apart from each other) and the numerology of 9/11 to talk about the different frameworks we use to analyze the world, and how sociology is different. This year, I’m mulling over Gerd Gigerenzer’s new book, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, as a way to build up to the notion of habitus. (See Scientific American‘s take on horoscopes.) I like it, but it doesn’t address at all how people arrive at their ideas and opinions, something that is done so simply in one of my favorite essays, Twain’s Corn-Pone Opinions. He recalls a maxim he overheard by a slave preacher: “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.” (Corn-pone is another word for cornbread, but it was also used as a derogatory term for a kind of country bumpkin, adding a different layer to the essay.) Well, it’s a great essay to think through Mills’ Sociological Imagination. Twain (to the right, with the ghostly Nikola Tesla) writes:

The outside influences are always pouring in upon us, and we are always obeying their orders and accepting their verdicts. […] A man must and will have his own approval first of all, in each and every moment and circumstance of his life — even if he must repent of a self-approved act the moment after its commission, in order to get his self-approval again: but, speaking in general terms, a man’s self-approval in the large concerns of life has its source in the approval of the peoples about him, and not in a searching personal examination of the matter. Mohammedans are Mohammedans because they are born and reared among that sect, not because they have thought it out and can furnish sound reasons for being Mohammedans; we know why Catholics are Catholics; why Presbyterians are Presbyterians; why Baptists are Baptists; why Mormons are Mormons; why thieves are thieves; why monarchists are monarchists; why Republicans are Republicans and Democrats, Democrats. We know it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies. Broadly speaking, there are none but corn-pone opinions. And broadly speaking, corn-pone stands for self-approval. Self-approval is acquired mainly from the approval of other people. The result is conformity.

Then, there is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which he writes of habit (which is not directly habitus, yes, yes):

As a rule it is with our being reduced to a minimum that we live; most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services.


academica, tech

This is the image produced by ‘wordle‘ when I had it run my entire manuscript. Pretty humbling. After the ASA meetings, where I described my research dozens of times, I perhaps should have just passed out copies of this image. (I don’t know why it’s shaped like New York State.)

Addendum: Interestingly, The Boston Globe offers up a similar analysis of the two presidential candidates’ blogs.

writing and speaking…

academica, pedagogy

Work on good prose has three steps, a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.

-Walter Benjamin

I am always looking to be a better writer and speaker, and some would say I need to work on it more than I do. In keeping with White, here’s Vonnegut’s ‘How to Write With Style‘ and Sociologist Jim Jasper’s ‘Learning How to Write Better.’ ‘Style’ is such an interesting issue… When I worked with Jim we would sit around in a circle and play his ‘Word Elimination Game,’ a game I have been playing on my manuscript this summer. Same with the ‘Reverse Outline.’ More advice:

There is the obsessive use of logical connectors, like “however,” or “thus.” If the relationship between two successive sentences isn’t clear without these, from their internal substance, you’re already in trouble. (I could have said, “then you’re already in trouble,” or “thus you’re already in trouble.”) There are also phrases that mean nothing at all, like “In this regard”…

Guilty as charged.

Here is Jim’s ‘Giving Better Talks‘ too. He obliquely mentions the use of Memory Palaces, or ‘Method of Loci,’ which I’ve tried to teach a bit in class but rarely use…

karl marx, podcasted

academica, tech

One of the highlights of my graduate career at CUNY was learning Capital with David Harvey. It was a page by page, reading, and I used a great deal of what I learned in my Foundations of Social Theory class last term. He has been teaching Volume One for forty years, and now anyone can have the privledge. Find all 13 two hour lectures here. (I would include something pithy and insightful here, but my notes are a few hundred miles away right now…)

higher ed letdown


I’ve been lucky enough to have taught at CUNY and Smith, two places that are very committed to economic inequality. My dad and I just had an interesting conversation about Smith and a place called Berea College this weekend, and it didn’t take long for me to find a new piece from The Chronicle, via a Slate post called ‘What Would Smith Do?’:

Pell Grant recipients account for a quarter of the undergraduates at Florida State University and Smith College, for 35.2 percent at the University of California at Los Angeles, and for 77.4 percent at Berea College, which makes educating the neediest students its mission.

My dad brought me to Berea when I was a teenager, and I have wanted to return at some point. I think that nothing would make him happier for me to teach there. (There’s also a recent New York Times piece on the ‘Ivy League Letdown.’)

dressing up sociology

academica, culture, pedagogy

… or me. I hate having to think about clothes, particularly ‘teaching clothes.’ It occupies my mind very intensely every morning from 7:05-7:07, and it is enough to make me wish I could just wear a monk’s robe to work every day. Well, at least I’m not alone. Someone argues that academics should be more dressed up, a kind of ‘broken windows’ theory of academic attire, I suppose. Then two people respond here and here. No mention of those  expectations as being heavily gendered, by the way. Yes, this is perhaps irrelevant. But perhaps I’ll wear a suit tomorrow and see what happens.

corporate coursework


A Hunter College course was sponsored by the IACC (International Anti-Counterfeiting Commission)–“world’s largest non-profit organization devoted solely to protecting intellectual property and deterring counterfeiting”–wherein students were assigned to design a guerrilla marketing campaign against, you guessed it, counterfeit products. One of the things they did was a blog, which was written by a fictional ‘Heidi Cee.’

Some question why a for-credit college class at a public university should be doing, in effect, discount marketing work for an industry group. Some wonder about a college using some students to fool other students. Others are concerned about the circumstances of the course itself. It was created without any curricular review. The professor who taught it says that he was pressured to do so even though he has no expertise in advertising or public relations (he teaches computer graphics) and had ethical qualms about the course.

Further, the professor — and other professors who have investigated the circumstances of the course — maintain that the professor was required to teach only one side of the issue, had to accept industry officials watching him teach, and had little clout to fight back since he didn’t (and still doesn’t) have tenure.

Read more here.

the future

academica, culture

Save for watching Time Bandits, I almost never think about ‘the future.’ But I was reading danah boyd’s piece on ‘blogging outloud’ wherein she asks:

Although they do exist, very few blogs are about culling knowledge into an archival form. But this does not make them worthless. Why do libraries keep letters from the 18th century? Historical artifacts tell us about the people who lived at a particular time.

Which got me thinking about the ways in which blogs serve as semi-permanent documents of ephemeral thoughts of a certain kind of person. I wouldn’t say ‘the masses,’ but 112 million blogs isn’t exactly chump change either. Reading Natalie Zemon Davis’ ‘Printing and the People‘ and how New Cultural Historians had to come up with creative ways to understand the oral and written culture of the masses in the 16th Century (e.g., death certificates, etc.), I began thinking about the record that may be left behind from today forward… And as Google seeks to cataloge any data it can find, I certainly meditate on the frailty of this medium, and the obvious issues of public and private good… The University of Michigan, in its collaboration with Google, has just celebrated digitally archiving its one millionth book. (Read more about the ‘Googlization of Everything’ here.)