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the one where fabio stands up at the end of jess calarco’s job talk and yells, “j’accuse!!”

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pacino-court room

I was looking for trouble. I’d been drinking ginger ale all day and reading Andy Gelman blog posts. Then, the department email said some hot shot job candidate was giving a talk.

Jess Calarco strolls in Philly stlye and gives her job talk. A forty five minute talk on, of all things, ethnography. Give me a break! Little kids raising their hands, exercising their fancy-schmancy cultural capital. Don’t believe me? Go read it yourself – it’s in a new Oxford University Press book, called Negotiating Opportunity: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School. All the gory messy detail in 272 gripping pages of field work. Don’t buy the hardback for $99. Total rip-off. Get the more affordable paper back edition for $24.95!! Those publishers are total con-artists. You gotta be careful.

For the entire talk, Calarco goes on and on about how children from wealthier families negotiate the classroom in small incremental ways through student-teacher interaction. Asking for time on tests, arguing about assignments. What happens at the end of the talk has now become legend at IU soc. This is how Calarco remembers it:

Here is how I remember it. I straightened out my bow tie, I stood up, and asked: “The motivation for your field work is to understand how class based difference in class room interactional style might be linked to learning outcome or status attainment. What evidence do you have from field work that the association is present or explains the variation in outcome, much in the same way a quantitative researcher might use an R-squared to measure a model’s goodness of fit?

You could hear a pin drop. Children cried. Snowflakes started melting. Then, after taking a few notes, Calarco calmly explains that she was collecting data on the student’s performance to examine the link between classroom behavior and achievement and then she summarized some initial thoughts.

FOILED AGAIN! My plan to undermine the discipline of sociology failed! I went back to my office and vented my frustration on anonymous job rumor websites.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 17, 2018 at 4:01 am

winter book forum 2018, part 2: what do people actually get out of college?

This Winter, we are discussing Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. The main issue: We invest a ton in education and it seems to do good. But is that because schooling acts as a filter or because schooling gives your concrete skills or better ways of thinking? If education is mostly a filter (the signalling model), we should probably cut back on education a lot.

In this post, I’ll discuss the types of evidence that Caplan reviews. His book is empirical in that the strength of the argument relies on what other researchers have found. A short blog post does not do justice to this work. For example, he asks – how much do people learn in college? How much do people use specific skills (like algebra) in the workplace? Is there any evidence that learning is transferable – that people acquire “critical thinking?” Each of these topics commands one’s full attention, but we can only skim through the best here.

As you can expect from the title of the book, the direct benefits of education are pretty sparse. Probably the most damning evidence are studies that show that people don’t learn that much in college to start with. Another important fact is that few people ever use the skills – the few they may remember  – in work. Thus, it is very hard to argue for the simple human capital argument – educations makes you better because you learn valuable things. This can’t be right because people don’t learn or retain much in college.

Two related points: In response to those who argue that education imparts critical thinking, he points to evidence that learning is actually domain specific. Learning one area doesn’t seem to help in most others. This is called “transfer learning” in psychology and it’s been rejected for a long, long time. Another fascinating point – if education improves you via human capital development, we’d expect your income to increase for every year of education you get. Instead, Caplan reports that studies of income show no increase in income until you hit 4 years of college – a classic sign of signalling – which economists call sheepskin effects.

Of course, no single study seals the deal and it may be that Caplan has misread some, or even a lot, of the studies. But is is unlikely he misread it all and it is consistent with the everyday view that formal education is not a particularly good way to impart skills. Thus, we should be very skeptical of claims that education is a great way to train people for the labor market. Next week: So what?

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

February 19, 2018 at 5:01 am

winter 2018 book forum: bryan caplan’s the case against education

This month, I will write a series of blog posts about Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. Normally, I will summarize a book, then praise it and then offer some criticism. In this case, I will deviate slightly. A lot of people will criticize the book, so I will focus on describing the core argument and explain why sociologists should care about it. If Caplan’s main point is even partially correct, it has big implications that any educational researcher should care about. In this first installment, I’ll provide a little background and then lay out the main argument. Later this month, I’ll describe the nuts and bolts of the argument in more depth.

I’ve known Bryan for many, many years and I’ve grown a deep appreciation his style of thought. The way he approaches an academic topic is to first boil down the main claim. Then, he will massively research the claim to find out how much of it is true. When I say “massive,” I mean massive. He’ll read across disciplines. He’ll read flagship journals and obscure edited volumes. He’ll even email the authors of papers to make sure that he got their main point correct. Once he is done this obsessive review, he’ll summarize the main points and the then re-assess and redevelop the original claim. He re-estimates models and the draws out the conclusions, which often cut against common opinion.

The Case Against Education proceeds in this same way. Caplan starts with a simple idea that a lot of people believe in: education improves you and that is why it should be subsidized and supported. This basic idea comes in a few flavors. For example, in academia, economists believe in human capital theory – education gives you valuable labor market skills. Other people may believe that education improves you because it makes you a better citizen or it otherwise improves your critical thinking skills. Caplan then contrasts this with another popular theory called “signalling theory” – education doesn’t make you better, but it works as an IQ/conformity test. In other words, people who do well after getting an education aren’t better in any concrete sense. Rather, the college degree is a signal that you are smart to begin with.

Why the emphasis on the human capital/signalling distinction? The theory that you believe in has huge policy implications. If you believe that education gives you a lot of skills and benefits, then it may make sense to pay for a lot of education or to subsidize it. In contrast, you believe it is mostly signalling, it is a sign that you should scale back education.

Then, Caplan delves into hundreds of studies in education, economics, sociology, psychology and other fields to actually see if education actually makes you better, or if it is merely a hoop you have to jump through. For example, is it true that education makes you a better “critical thinker?” It turns out that there is psychological research on “transfer learning,” which means that learning a skill in field A helps you in field B. Answer? Nope, not much transfer learning. Is it true that college graduates learn alot? he reviews work like Richard Arum and Josipina Roska’s Academically Adrift, which shows that people don’t learn a lot in college. The list of debunked effects of education goes on and on.

As you can sense from my thumbnail sketch, Caplan (correctly, in my view) arrives at the conclusion that education doesn’t really make you better in any direct sense. If that is true, then much of education might be a costly and inefficient signalling game and maybe we should seriously consider cutting back on it and that entails a massive change in policy.

Next week: What education does and does not do to a person.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

February 9, 2018 at 7:15 am

should stata just give up and die?

I love Stata. I use Stata. I make my students use Stata. But I’ve got a problem and it’s called R. The problem is that R is also amazing. My friends use it. My students use it and a lot of social science/data science is now R or Python.

Why is Stata cool? Simple – it is built for stats. Regression is simply reg y x. Weights, clustering, and using subsamples is easy. The manuals and tutorials are cool. It is also way, way stable and there are great libraries that archive algorithms and commands. There is a Stata journal showing you you how to implement the latest models.

But while Stata is amazing, it lacks two major advantages over R: Stata is not free and Stata is not consistent with the broader computer science world (i.e., once you know how to program in general, it is easy to get R and Python, while Stata has it’s own logic).

What should I do? The answer is pretty simple. Learn some R. But the deeper question is what should we do with Stata? Should we continue to use Stata in teaching? Why not dump Stata entirely and make all social science students learn R? What reason do social scientists have in continuing to use Stata, or SAS, or SPSS? Why not just make statistical education and computer science education come together? Why not just say, “look if you want to get a degree in economics, or sociology, or political science, or any field where statistics is common, you will just have to suck it up and learn a little about computer code?” It would be cheaper and prepare students better for a world were statistical programming is now subsumed into basic computer programming. The world of SAS specialists, or COBOL or FORTRAN specialists, is coming to an end. Maybe we should admit it and move on.

As every Marine is a rifleman, every social scientist is an R coder.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome

Written by fabiorojas

September 8, 2017 at 4:01 am

who took my affirmative action program?

Sociological Science just published “The Partial Deinstitutionalization of Affirmative Action in U.S. Higher Education, 1988 to 2014” by Dan Hirschman and Ellen Berrey. The abstract:

Since the 1990s, affirmative action opponents have targeted colleges’ and universities’ race-conscious admissions policies and secured bans on the practice in eight states. Although scholarly and media attention has focused on these dynamics at a handful of elite institutions, little is known about race-conscious admissions across the broader field of higher education. We provide a descriptive, quantitative account of how different types of colleges and universities responded to this political context. Through analysis of almost 1,000 selective colleges and universities, we find a dramatic shift in stated organizational policy starting in the mid-1990s. In 1994, 60 percent of selective institutions publicly declared that they considered race in undergraduate admissions; by 2014, just 35 percent did. This decline varied depending on status (competitiveness) and sector (public or private). Race-conscious admissions remain the stated policy of almost all of the most elite public and private institutions. The retreat from race-conscious admissions occurs largely among schools lower in the status hierarchy: very competitive public institutions and competitive public and private institutions. These patterns are not explained by implementation of state-level bans. We suggest that the anti–affirmative action movement had a diffuse impact whose effects varied across different strata of American higher education.

The interesting thing will be to connect this data to the racial composition of campuses. One hypothesis is that this is myth and ceremony. You remove public statements about affirmative action but find other ways to work it into admissions office practice.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

August 30, 2017 at 12:01 am

racism at harvard and student protest

Jamile Lartey of the Guardian wrote an article addressing campus protest at Harvard and what students of social movements have to say current activists (see my post earlier this week):

For 80 years the family crest of the brutal slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr served as the official seal of the prestigious Harvard Law School.

Royall, whose endowment founded HLS in 1817, once instructed that 77 enslaved Africans be burned alive at the stake for an insurrection on his family’s Antigua sugar plantation.

In March, student protesters at Harvard notched a decisive victory in their fight to “decolonize” their campus, when administrators announced they would retire the Royall family seal, citing “the prospect that its imagery might evoke associations with slavery”.

Two months later, many of the students who pushed for the change say the decision is bittersweet. The removal of the seal sends a message, they say, but it doesn’t do enough to address the currents of racism on campus.

The article has a nice overview of current protest. Lartey also discusses From Black Power to Black Studies in some detail:

In his book From Black Power to Black Studies he chronicles how black activism and demands in the late 1960s led to the creation of new academic departments and disciplines like black studies, and later Chicano and women’s studies that exist to this day.

“Students are so into the adrenaline of protests and screaming at people but then you have to know when there’s an opening, when do we have a moment to actually get something reasonable in. You have to be prepared with something that will really work in the context of that institution,” Rojas said. “Social movements do not win by merely being expressive, they have to have a plan.” This, Rojas said, is different from simply having demands.

Rojas cited the protests at San Francisco State College in 1968 as an example of the tenacity and organization required to effect meaningful change. A coalition of students of color demanded the school open a black studies department along with more ambitions demands like free tuition for all students of color. Students forced the issue with a “guerrilla campaign”, which included mass rallies spawning hundreds of arrests, physical intimidation and even small-scale bombings. They also threatened a strike. Ultimately administrators and students arrived at a compromise.

These demands were considered radical in 1968, but compared with the standard of some of last autumn’s student protests, they are comparatively mild. Students at the University of North Carolina, for example, demanded the “elimination of tuition and fees for all students” and the defunding and disarming of campus police.

Will today’s student protesters marshal the same leverage, patience and intensity to force these kinds of concessions? “Students can make change to these institutions,” Clayborne said. “It comes from small groups of committed people coming together and building it.”

Interesting.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

April 15, 2016 at 12:01 am

advice for black student movements today

I recently had a long discussion with a journalist about the current state of black student activism and we spent a lot of time thinking about what can be learned from the past. I started with two major points:

  • Have specific and achievable demands. One of the big lessons of movement research is that you need to present ideas that make sense within the institutional context of the protest. Hire more minority faculty? Achievable. End all micro-aggression? Not achievable.
  • Clearly link protest tactics to outcomes. A lot of protest is highly expressive and it is not clear how it is linked to some concrete social change. One of the brilliant tactics employed by the students at Missouri was having football players boycott an NCAA game. The penalty was $1 million per game. The protest mattered.

Then, we got into more subtle issues:

  • When possible, student activists should be deeply involved in activism off campus. In my study of the Third World Strike, I was deeply impressed with how much help campus activists got not only from “protest groups” (like the Oakland based Black Panthers) but also from religious leaders, attorneys, and politicians.
  • Learn to cultivate alliances with institutional insiders. In my book on Black student protest and Black studies, I discuss numerous instances where students relied on deans, consultants, and lawyers to help push their case.
  • Know when to fight and when to compromise. Assuming that one has a well planned protest, there may be a point when you can get something. Social change is not about eternal fighting, it’s also about knowing when to claim a victory and get something.

Feel free to use the comments to discuss more lessons from research for activists.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

April 11, 2016 at 12:01 am