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.


dunning-kruger, and more…

academica, pedagogy

Cognitive Biases

I enjoyed this chart a great deal and thought that I should share it. I usually start my semesters teaching about the Forer Effect, and last week’s grading reminded me of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I’ll have to remember to fold in a few other biases next term…

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.

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…


culture, pedagogy, tech

DIY is something that recently bridged the gaps between my teaching and my research. Clau recently reminded me of the old saw that ethnographies are often about the ethnographers themselves, and I guess that there is an element of that in my own musings. I always thought that the walking guides I have been writing about are a little like ethnographers themselves, but that’s not too far removed. Anyway. I’ve been thinking about music as well, and DIY tools to make everyone more musical in a fashion. (Being on a MFA thesis committee on mass-participatory/social networking technology dance certainly prompted these thoughts as well.) It brings up Benjamin, of course, and a student in the Media, Technology, & Sociology class is hard at work on Garageband (both in theory and practice). But here are a few more of those sorts of programs (via ‘I Am Robot and Proud‘ website): Audacity, Processing, Chocopoolp, and Renoise.

Speaking of student projects (and DIY), here’s a part of someone’s final:

And also.

technology and pedagogy

culture, pedagogy

My best-blog friend (BBF?) kristina b linked to a video by Michael Wesch’s Kansas State Mediated Cultures website (a part of his Digital Ethnography course) a while ago, and as I keep on teaching my class on ‘Media, Technology and Sociology’ I’ve been mulling over these issues… We’ve done a pretty good job discussing doing hands-on wikis, blogs, audio, and film, but the hybridity of the course makes it all a little too compact. Grr.

It’s a little like the reverse of the digital divide that Attewell and Battle research: they find that when you just throw technology at students those who have the cultural capital to use them excel and those who don’t, don’t–further exaggerating inequalities and masking them in a techno-utopic vision… can the flip be said about faculty? I could be wrong but that classroom looked HUGE, and I wonder if diminishing class size rather than adding the expectations of techno-wizardry would have a larger impact on a class like that. Whoosh. And I’m wondering about how to be more effective in folding over media-criticism, reflexivity on media/technology and sociology, while also doing hands-on workshops with these technologies… With 21 students. Any more than that, and the transaction costs are too large…

On related notes of technology in the classroom, Erik Olin Wright podcasts all of his lectures here. Discussion of the use of ‘clickers’ at Scatterplot here. It makes me think that I may want to work on creating movies for the use of technology so that students can learn these things outside the classroom… Maybe over the summer.

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.

first lines…


Sometimes I say things in class and I don’t know where they came from. A mixed bag of good and bad, usually. Today, after a long discussion of all the issues raised in the first eight words of a book, I said:

‘I was forced into crack against my will’ is the ‘Call me Ishmael’ of the social sciences.


punk + emile


A student passed along this old piece from The Onion. I guess the upshot is that getting students to connect social theory to everyday issues is out there in the zeitgeist, which is a good thing. Parody from The Onion, however, less so. There’s even a nice echo of what I have to write in the margins every week:

Basile, who has not yet decided on a grade for Hoyer’s paper, said he encourages “thinking beyond the textbook” and has no problem with students expanding an assignment to incorporate non-traditional subjects like punk rock. He noted, however, that he “would ideally like to see at least a 50/50 ratio.”

“Look here on page 6. This long section on the anti-societal statements punks made by wearing torn clothing and dyed hair is an obvious place to work in something about Durkheim’s distinction between societies maintaining mechanical versus organic solidarity,” Basile said. “But instead, he just keeps hammering home the same point about Malcolm McClaren’s ‘Sex’ shop.”

shock doctrine

culture, pedagogy

I like to teach Economics and Politics together in my 101 courses, and for pretty obvious reasons: Corporate contracts, corporate welfare, etc. It’s usually a pretty rowdy discussion and a good thing to end the first half of the semester on. I usually show the first few minutes of The Corporation, wherein they detail how corporations were the dominant users of the 14th Amendment in their claims of ‘corporate personhood’ rather than individuals and newly freed slaves. (This, by the way, is not a old argument: Just a few years ago, Wal-Mart made the same case in court.)Now Naomi Klein and the fabulous Alfonso Cuaron have put together a clip that will bump my earlier one: The Shock Doctrine. Check it out:

things to read in class


I try my best to nurture critical thinking though ‘outside’ readings in my classes: by matching up newspaper articles with theories and class assignments. It’s not always a perfect fit, but I like it. I call it the ‘Law & Order’ (cha-chung!) part of the course, because it is ‘ripped from today’s headlines.’ If interested, here are some of the readings for my Theory class:

General: ‘The Black Swan,’ First Chapter, New York Times
W/Marx: ‘CEO pay: 364 Times More Than Workers,’ CNN Money
W/Marx: ‘Should We Globalize Labor Too?,’ New York Times
W/Marx: ‘Captive Labor,’ The American Prospect
W/Weber: ‘Catholic Spirit and the Ethic of Consumerism,’ Jenn Lena’s Blog, What is the What?
W/Weber: ‘Review of A Farewell to Alms,’ New York Times
W/Weber: ‘Inside Scientology,’ Rolling Stone
W/Durkheim: ‘System Failure,’ Boston Globe
W/Durkheim: ‘Increased Suicides on Indian Reservations,’ New York Times
W/Durkheim: ‘The Politics of God,’ New York Times
W/Simmel: ‘The Real Transformers,’ New York Times
W/Veblen: ‘Rich Countries, Poor People,’ New York Times
W/Veblen: ‘Are Your Jeans Sagging? Go Directly to Jail,’ New York Times
W/Veblen: ‘We’re All Freaks Here,’ New York Times
W/?: ‘Haven’t You Heard? Men Gossip Too,’ The Seattle Times

For my SOC 101, I am using a slightly more dowdy set, opting for the heavy hitters (i.e., Twain, Mencken, Stein, Stephen Jay Gould, Langston Hughes, T. S. Eliot, etc.) and forgoing timeliness by using The Best American Essays of the Century. The Twain reading, ‘Corn-Pone Opinions‘ paired with C. Wright Mills’ ‘The Promise,’ made for fantastic first week discussion.

getting excited to teach again


When the weather gets a little colder and the August heat mellows, I begin to get happy for the new school year. New books. New friends. New ideas. Now that I am a teacher I think I am even more eager. At the beginning of summer, just as I finished grading a stack of papers and endured a less than perfect ending of my first year post-graduate school I returned to an old Harper’s article called ‘The Uses of a Liberal Education‘ by Mark Edmundson. I don’t know why, but with a summer filled with fun rewrites, a research project with students to Newport, a relaxing Quixote-infused stint in Madrid, and a part-research part-adventure mini-tour playing bass through Scandinavia, I almost felt like skipping over it all for the new term. Almost.

Edmundson gets at the heart of the ‘edutainment’ problems of teaching, and student feedback. (I made a muddied attempt at a ‘humor’ piece on student evaluations here.) My humor and semi-entertainment value is often a concern. Should I ‘act’ like myself while teaching? Even if I could do it, should I mute my own ironic jabs? Making people laugh (with me? at me?) in class is a way to get students interested, but it is an unintentional side-product of my personality. I also recognize that for every handful of students who enjoy it, there will always be one who would prefer it if I were more somber.

Upon reviewing his overwhelmingly positive teaching evaluations, which repeatedly describe him as ‘entertaining’ and ‘enjoyable,’ Edmundson notes:

Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind. The off-the-wall questions and the sidebar jokes are meant as lead-ins to stronger stuff — in the case of the Freud course, to a complexly tragic view of life. But the affability and the one-liners often seem to be all that land with the students; their journals and evaluations leave me little doubt.

I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read. It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? The hand that framed that question was surely heavy. But at least it compels one to see intellectual work as a confrontation between two people, student and author, where the stakes matter. Those Columbia students were being asked to relate the quality of an encounter, not rate the action as though it had unfolded on the big screen.

Why are my students describing the Oedipus complex and the death drive as being interesting and enjoyable to contemplate? And why am I coming across as an urbane, mildly ironic, endlessly affable guide to this intellectual territory, operating without intensity, generous, funny, and loose?

I might be flattering myself to think that I am viewed similarly, but whatever that judgment might be, this gets me pumped up.