Archive for the ‘education’ Category

conflict vs. consensus theory: another bogus teaching distinction

In a lot of old textbooks, and a few newer ones as well, you get this argument that social theories can be divided up into theories of conflict vs. theories of consensus. Marx is a conflict guy because his theory revolves around class divisions. Durkheim is consensus guy because he talks about social solidarity.

Sad! Social theory is not built in this way. Usually, consensus and conflict are dependent variables that are explained by other independent variables. Let’s take Marx. Did he *always* claim that there would be class conflict? Nope! Example: the theory of false consciousness describes the conditions under which people do not resist capitalist institutions. So, for Marx, the degree of conflict is a variable that is driven by other things. Same for Durkheim. The degree of social solidarity varies in Durkheim’s theory and is affected by things like urbanization and the division of labor.

The conflict/consensus distinction is not a horrible idea, but it is not one that supported by further examination of sociology’s major theories. It conflates dependent and independent variables.

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

Written by fabiorojas

June 8, 2017 at 12:02 am

contemporary vs. classic social theory: another bogus teaching distinction

A while back, I was telling a friend on the phone about my book, Theory for the Working Sociologist. He asked me about it and I said, “it’s social theory but illustrated with modern research.” He then said, “oh, that could be a book for a contemporary theory theory course.” I mumbled, “sure,” but soon as we were done, I was like, “no, that’s not right.”

In this post, I want to explain why I don’t buy into the “classic v. contemporary” distinction in theory. Let’s start with a statement of what I do and do not argue:

  •  Claim: Breaking up social theory courses into “classic” and “contemporary” is not a great way to teach. It misleads people about the basic nature of sociology and it is not an optimal way to teach *average* undergrads and grad students about how sociology works,
  • Do not claim the following: Sociology/social theory has no historical phases. A historical treatment of theory has no value. The humanities (e.g., close readings of classic texts) has no place in sociology.  Older texts have no value. I reject these claims.

Let me lay out the argument in a number of steps:

  1. The purpose of a social theory course is to teach undergraduates and beginning graduate students “theory,” by which I mean some set of broad applicable ideas that relate to the empirical investigation of society.
  2. The history of social theory and social theory are different things. History of thought is about understanding specific ideas and texts in relation to the biographies of authors and their institutional and historical context. Social theory is a body of thought that motivates thinking throughout sociology. Overlapping? Sure. But theory and history are distinct. For example, a wrong idea can be important for history of thought, but now irrelevant for theory.
  3. Advanced students can learn social theory in any format (historical, mathematical, sign language, you name it!). *Average* students, at the B.A. and Ph.D. level, are confused by historical approaches. By teaching theory in a historical format, most students take away the lesson that “theory” is synonymous with “history.” Nice to know, but not relevant to research.
  4. Historical approaches to theory are sup-optimal for learning because older texts tend to be written in a highly verbose fashion and refer to a lot of things that even modern educated people may not know about. Example: In Weber’s description of bureaucracy, he alludes to Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, as a foil. Just explaining that single reference to undergrads took me about 20 minutes. Now imagine doing that for all of Weber’s references!
  5. Finally, historical approaches make it hard for typical students to transfer what they learned in theory class to another class, and thus undermine the entire purpose of theory class!

Also, I’d add that no other discipline, except philosophy, teaches its core theory in a historical classic/contemporary format. Economists teach it in terms of scope conditions – micro an macro-economic theory. In political science, it is also broken down by topic (“American politics”) – only the political philosophers (“theory” in poli sci) do it by time period, E.g., classic political theory (Greeks) vs. modern (1500 and beyond). Literary theory (“criticism”) gets its own course while historical groupings are used for specific subjects (“early American novels”). Theories of art courses are different than art history courses. The physical sciences pretty much separate all historical scholarship into a few highly specialized courses. You learn proof writing in math either in a proof writing course or in real analysis, which is the modern theory of calculus. The history of math is its own course. The same goes for physics – you learn physical theory (stripped of history) in classical mechanics (not time period – classic means stemming from Newton’s laws; classical mechanics is still a real area of physics) and quantum mechanics. If you really want mechanics the way Newton did it, you can take a course in that. But no one pretends it is teaching you how to do physics in general. You get the modern, better presentation in your basic physics course.

I think that the classical/contemporary approach to teaching theory comes from a desire to be an old style humanist. I suppose there is nothing wrong that. But for most students, this is an incredibly inefficient and misleading way to teach theory. Even if they do learn some of it in your class, I guarantee many will forget everything you said once grades are submitted. Instead, boil down sociology’s main arguments, illustrate them with modern research and move on. If you want to assign my book, that would be great. If not, that’s ok. Just teach social theory, not history.

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 

Written by fabiorojas

June 7, 2017 at 12:01 am

class and college

When awareness about the impact of socio-economic class was not as prevalent among the public, one exercise I did with my undergraduates at elite institutions was to ask them to identify their class background.  Typically, students self-identified as being in the middle class, even when their families’ household incomes/net worth placed them in the upper class.  The NYT recently published this article showing the composition of undergraduate students, unveiling the concentration and dispersion of wealth at various higher education institutions.

As a professor who now teaches at the university listed as #2 in economic mobility (second to Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology ), I can testify to the issues that make an uneven playing field among undergraduates.  Unlike college students whose parents can “pink helicopter” on their behalf and cushion any challenges, undergraduates at CCNY are supporting their parents (if alive) and other family members, bearing the brunt of crushing challenges. (In a minority of cases, students’ parents might help out, say, with occasional childcare – but more likely, students are caring for sick family members or helping with younger siblings.)

To make the rent and cover other expenses in a high COL city, CCNY students work part-time and full-time, sometime with up to two jobs, in the low-wage retail sector.  They do so while juggling a full load of classes because their financial aid will not cover taking fewer classes.  For some students, these demands can create a vicious cycle of having to drop out of classes or earning low grades.

I always tell students to let me know of issues that might impact their academic performance. Over the years (and just this semester alone), students have described these challenges:

  • long commutes of up to 2 hours
  • landlord or housing problems
  • homelessness
  • repeated absences from class due to hospitalizations, illness/accidents, or doctor visits for prolonged health problems
  • self-medicating because of fear about high health care costs for a treatable illness
  • anxiety and depression
  • childcare issues (CCNY recently closed its on-campus childcare facility for students), such as a sick child who cannot attend school or daycare that day
  • difficulties navigating bureaucratic systems, particularly understaffed ones
  • inflexible work schedules

These are the tip of the iceberg, as students don’t always share what is happening in their lives and instead, just disappear from class.

For me, such inequalities were graphically summed up by a thank you card sent by a graduating undergraduate.  The writer penned the heartfelt wish that among other things (i.e., good health), that I always have a “full belly.”  Reflecting this concern about access to food, with the help of NYPIRG, CCNY now has a food pantry available to students.

Written by katherinechen

March 22, 2017 at 5:18 pm

global resistance in the neoliberal university

Those of you who are interested in fending off growing neoliberalism in the university might be interested in the following international  line-up at CUNY’s union, PSC.
You can watch a livestream of the conference via fb starting tonight, Fri., March 3, 6-9pm and Sat., March 4, 9:30am-6pm EST:
…an international conference on Global Resistance in the Neoliberal University organized by the union will be held today and tomorrow, 3/3rd-4th at the PSC, 61 Broadway.  
Scholars, activists and students from Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Greece, India and the US will lead discussions on perspectives, strategies and tactics of resisting the neoliberal offensive in general, and in the context of the university in particular.
You can visit this site for a link to the conference program:
Due to space constraints, conference registration is now closed. But we’re thrilled by the tremendous interest in the event! You can watch a livestream of the conference here:  If you follow us on our Facebook page, you will receive a notification reminding you to watch.  
We look forward to seeing some of you tonight and to discussing the conference with many of you in the near future. 



Written by katherinechen

March 3, 2017 at 11:29 pm

free college: not dead yet


I’m not dead yet.

While higher ed has certainly been under attack since the election, Donald Trump hasn’t said too much about his agenda for higher education, and with Betsy DeVos, charter school aficionado, at the helm of the Department of Education, it seems like K-12 issues may be at the forefront of the new administration.

What’s pretty clear, though, is that “free college”, a la Bernie or, more reluctantly, Hillary, is not on that agenda. But free college, it turns out, has not disappeared: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a free college proposal of his own, to apply to SUNY and CUNY schools.

Cuomo’s proposal would make SUNY/CUNY tuition-free for families with incomes of up to $125,000. It would require full-time attendance, and be “last-dollar” aid—i.e., the fee waiver would kick in after federal Pell grants, NY state Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants, and any scholarships were already used up.

New York is not the first state to set forth some kind of “free college” proposal—see Tennessee and Oregon. However, it is the first to take it beyond the community college level. And the mere size of the NYS system—enrolling a million students—makes it impossible to ignore.

So, some caveats. “Free tuition” probably doesn’t cover fees, which at my SUNY, at least, are nearly $3000 a year. And it definitely doesn’t cover living expenses. New York also has low tuition, compared to most states—it is still only $6470 at four-year SUNYs. And it has a decent—though not as generous as California’s—state grant aid program in TAP. If your income is low enough—I’d guess below $50k, though that’s just a ballpark—between Pell and TAP you’re not paying any tuition anyway. As Matthew Chingos accurately points out in the Washington Post, families with incomes between $80,000 and $125,000 will benefit most.

And the fact that living expenses are still, at SUNY/CUNY, larger than tuition costs means that it’s also not going to make that much dent in student loans, which are lower-than-average (about $20k for four-year degrees) for SUNY graduates anyway. Cuomo’s headline about “alleviating crushing burden of student loans” is hyperbole.

So what this is, is a significant, and expensive, expansion of grant aid for the middle-class, and a reframing of what college costs (nothing! I know, I know) that may encourage lower-income students to go to college. And tying the benefit to full-time attendance may encourage more full-time enrollment, which evidence suggests (though there are a lot of selection effects here) facilitates completion.

And, of course, this is just a proposal. It’s not yet legislation, and there are a lot of steps between here and there. Nevertheless, despite its limitations, if this became a reality I think the implications for higher ed would be huge—for the symbolic value of committing to the idea that students should not pay for tuition, if nothing else.

Several commentators have explored the policy and student effects of Cuomo’s proposal. But what would the organizational impacts look like? Here, there are a couple of things to think through.

One is the question of whether this would be resource-neutral for SUNY and CUNY. There’s no indication it’s not intended to be, but a lot will depend on the details. For SUNY, at least, funding has only been loosely linked to tuition levels. Sometimes New York State has raised tuition to plug its revenue gaps, without SUNY ever seeing the money.

A second is how it intersects with the push for larger enrollments, which has been a pounding drumbeat over the last three or four years at SUNY (not sure about CUNY). Right now, additional students—even in-state ones—bring marginal benefits, but would that still be the case if many of them weren’t paying tuition? I don’t think the enrollment push has been particularly good for the institution, but it’s also been sold as the path to financial solvency. If free tuition means no benefits to larger enrollments, SUNY will have to find a new strategy for achieving long-term fiscal stability.

This could also affect who gets to enroll. Free tuition might make selective schools more competitive—which is probably good for them as institutions. But it also might encourage an even heavier focus on out-of-state and international students who can bring more revenue. That, in turn, could lead to battles over who gets the seats—New York residents or non-New-Yorkers paying full freight—which have been brutal in California, but largely absent in New York.

Finally, this clearly affects the complex organizational ecosystem of higher ed. It’s bad for private institutions in New York, especially small struggling colleges like Albany’s Saint Rose, which cut two dozen tenure lines last year in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. It’s probably also bad for for-profit colleges—largely because of the symbolic value of making college “free” rather than real changes in relative cost, since for-profit students are disproportionately in the lower-income group that wouldn’t benefit anyway.

But I’d hold that the biggest impact of such a plan would be the symbolic one. Is it ideal that it’s basically a middle-class tax benefit that does nothing material for lower-income families? No. But the institutional details of the New York State system—its relatively low tuition and preexisting state grant aid—make it possible to create “tuition-free college” here for less money than it would cost in many places. Showing that it can be done will make free college more than a pipe dream. SUNY/CUNY is the 500-pound gorilla of public higher ed. Where New York leads, others will follow.

Written by epopp

January 5, 2017 at 6:05 pm

Posted in academia, education, policy

telluride thoughts 2: what i learned from my students

Telluride Thoughts 1

In this post, I want to tell you about what I learned from my students. To review, last summer, I taught a six week long seminar on “The Black Struggle for Freedom” for uber gifted high school students. We read everything from abolitionist writings to Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred.

First, of all, I really learned to trust students. Normally, teachers assume that students know nothing and that you are here to set things straight. I was constantly surprised at how creative students could be and how much they will engage if you give them the chance. These students were enormously gifted and it showed. One student did a presentation where he communicated what he learned through monologue in the format of a talk show. And yes, he interviewed himself! Probably the funniest class presentation in my career. Others put together films about Creole speech, tribal disputes in Eritrea, and negative stereotypes of Black women in popular culture.

Second, I learned that students are human beings with ups and downs. In a normal college class, you see people in large groups, maybe two or three times a week. In a Telluride seminar, you meet every day, for a minimum for three hours. Instructors also have one on one meetings and they may have meals with the students. There are also field trips (which did happen once, when the class went to see Sweet Honey in the Rock). With this much exposure, I could see the ups and downs, the good and the bad. I see a more complete profile of the person.You don’t love them less. You love them more. They aren’t warm bodies in chairs. They’re complete people, warts and all.

Third, I learned that it’s ok to let students take control. Not too much control, but more control than is normal in a college class. We began with two weeks of normal college style “let’s discuss the readings.” Then we let students do debates, class presentations, and other activities. There was even a spontaneous dance one day, Footloose style. Not everything worked. Some of it didn’t work at all. But that’s ok. Students have access to the readings and they were beginning to absorb the major points, which is appropriate for their age. The bigger point is to encourage people to be active in their lives. And if that included a few in class debates that melted down, that’s ok.

Next week: what I learned from the readings.

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

PS. I haven’t mentioned our courageous TAs. The Telluride Association hires two young adults (usually graduate students or late career undergrads who are program alumni) who operate as resident assistants/coordinators/class facilitators. They were fantastic, but I won’t delve into it here. Just want to recognize their awesomeness.

Written by fabiorojas

December 13, 2016 at 12:15 am

telluride thoughts 1: what i learned from dr. abegunde

This past summer, I had the opportunity to teach a six week long seminar called “The Black Struggle for Freedom,” sponsored by the Telluride Association. The seminar is aimed at gifted high school students who want to immerse themselves in a particular topic. I taught a seminar that was an interdisciplinary exploration of how African Americans fought for their rights.

Telluride summer seminars are co-taught and my partner in crime was Maria Hamilton Abegdune. She’s a very accomplished individual – the first person to receive a Ph.D. in African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana, a published poet, a collector and curator of art, a counselor for doctoral students, university administrator, and a health care provider. Even this enumeration is a woefully incomplete account of my colleague. So I want to dedicate the first of my posts about teaching the Telluride seminar to what I learned from my partner in the classroom.

First, Abegunde, as she prefers to be called, has a completely different classroom presence than I do. I do a lot of lecturing in large classes and my small classes tend to be technical, like network analysis. As a result, I am either a “transmitter” of information or I have to be an entertainer, where I try to encourage students to be comfortable in class and not be scared of the material. In contrast, Abegunde has a much more interactive classroom presence. She can have students do close readings of texts while opening up a very personal dialogue. The result is that her classroom is a very emotionally open space that is simultaneously rooted in the slow and laborious task of textual interpretation. That’s very hard to accomplish.

Second, Abegunde is extraordinarily attuned to the emotional contours of the classroom. This turned out to be extremely important since the class  was composed of high school students. To give one example, our class met the day after Philando Castile was shot and the class was devastated. In my view, Abegunde helped manage the conversation in ways that allowed people to express their frustration in constructive ways. Not surprisingly, Abegunde is adept at allowing people to fully feel the emotions that emerge and then channeling that in a constructive way.

Third, Abegunde represents a very different intellectual model than I do. As a trained humanist and creative writer, she approaches her teaching in a very “thick description” way. Her class discussions are full of allusions to pop culture, African culture, diaspora culture, literature, and a whole lot more. I am a bit more positivist in my teaching in that I focus on social science theory and method. I think we make for an interesting contrast that shows how you can be intellectual, rigorous, and engaged in two very different ways.

I think that Abegunde’s teaching method emerges from her varied experiences. Her graduate work in the humanities and active poetry career provide her with a rich language for contextualizing reading. At the same time, her work with traumatized populations allows her to fully appreciate the emotional depth of her students and the work they need to do that will help them get the most from the class and their lives. Spending a lot of time with Abegunde has also taught me a lot. As a teacher, I try to more fully understand where my students are emotionally. On an academic level, I am much less hesitant to fully jump into a more humanistic presentation of the material.

Next week: what I learned from the students.

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

Written by fabiorojas

December 6, 2016 at 6:13 pm