This short exchange with Michael Burawoy offers some thought-provoking reflections on teaching social theory. He identifies the major traditions of teaching theory within American sociology, before outlining his own ethnographic approach:

  1. The Survey: surveying extracts from a comprehensive range of social theorists, each one treated as an instance of a broader category. Essentially disconnected and decontextualised. Teaching theory in an essentially general way.
  2. The Interpretative: placing theory and theorist in their life and times, seeing the specificity of their work as a response to equally specific circumstances. Teaching theory in a essentially particular way.
  3. The Synthesis: selecting extracts based on a distinctive theoretical vision, using those selections to articulate a theoretical approach which presents itself as grounded in the classics. Teaching theory in an closed but generative way.
  4. The Ethnographic: using shorter extracts from a selected range of limited texts in order to facilitate reconstructive critique. The students are gradually encouraged to situate themselves in relation to the theory, criticise it from the inside-out, learn to apply it to the world around them and relate it to other such theories.

There are interesting critiques that can be made of how this approach works in practice (see the response from Alan Sica in the attached article) but I love the exercise he uses:

Apart from the classroom discussion, there are also discussion sections, 20 students in size, led and organized by brilliant, devoted and above all creative teaching assistants who have collaborated with me in developing this approach to theory. Along with one-page reading memos due every week, each semester we assign a ‘‘theory in action’’ paper (no more than a thousand words) that requires students to choose current events or their own experiences to illustrate a theorist of their choice. In addition mid-term and final exams consist of three short 750-word take-home papers (once again less is more) that assume the form of an exegesis of a given theorist, a comparison of theorists, or an application of theory to real live situations as defined by an article from a newspaper or magazine.

The course culminates in a 20-minute oral examination with their teaching assistant in which each student has to reconstruct the entire course as a conversation among the theorists, again in answer to a specific question given ahead of time. They are encouraged to include images, pictures, drawings, in what essentially is a poster presentation. The posters they produce amply demonstrate to what extent the various theorists have become part of them, whether theorists have become different mindsets that they will take with them into their future lives

Then read through the comments that have accumulated on this morning’s Anonymous Academic post on the Guardian. Or don’t actually. Perhaps I just want others to share in my misery after having read through the whole set. Possibly the most depressing thing I’ve read all year.

As I made my way to my office at 7.30am last Thursday, I noticed an A4 poster stuck to the lift door. Then I noticed one on the wall. And one on the notice board. Then one on my classroom door. In fact, they were tacked to nearly every available surface along the corridor. And they all bore the same statement: “All I’m asking for is a little respect seeing as I pay you £9,000 a year.”

I still don’t know what prompted this flyer campaign – rumour has it that it’s linked to a group of students who were denied assignment extensions – but I could not help but become annoyed at the blunt, consumerist language.

I started to think about the ways that my students act and speak, and the way I acted and spoke during my time at university. I will admit that I didn’t do all of the readings, and yes, I may have missed a couple of lectures throughout the year, but I completed all assignments, followed the guidelines presented to me and understood the consequences of disengagement, without expecting my lecturers to chase after me like I was back in school. I wish I could say the same for my students.

As I walked through the car park with a colleague at the end of the day, we discussed the unrest that the posters had caused: “If you ask me,” he said, “all universities are going to need a customer services department before long.” And there it was, plain and simple, the issue that I hadn’t been able to articulate: these young people weren’t behaving like university students, they were behaving like customers.

http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/dec/18/my-students-have-paid-9000-and-now-they-think-they-own-me#comment-65320043

An excellent, though rather depressing, analysis of the TEF on Wonk HE:

There is a remarkable contradiction in all of this. The government is proposing a substantial apparatus of scrutiny, surveillance, intervention and interpolation, which will occupy untold hours of academic staff time. It involves delegating new powers to the minister and to BIS and creating a new regulatory landscape that will take years to bed in. In total it represents a very substantial incursion of the state into universities, even if the paper insists that the TEF will be administered at arms length from government. In the name of creating a dynamic market the green paper proposes to build a glorious state bureaucracy.

http://wonkhe.com/blogs/remember-remember-the-tef-of-november/

I’ve found some lovely snippets from this book of Richard Feynman’s letters after only a few pages:

  • “Work hard to find something that fascinates you”
  • “study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible”
  • “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong”
  • “Don’t pay attention to ‘authorities’, think for yourself”

In their enthusiasm for the pedagogical uses to which social media can be put, academics sometimes don’t stop to question whether students actually want to interact with them on social media. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the creepy treehouse problem’: requiring students to interact with you on what they perceive as a private platform, or at least one divorced from their involvement in the university. It’s this perception which also creates problems for institutional social media policies that incorporate all student social media use within their remit. This is a good overview of the temptations of pedagogical social media and the risks inherent in it:

The problem with just jumping into Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace, and forcing your students to be your friend/follower/contact/etc is a perceived invasion of their online privacy.  Now it may seem like a good idea at the time, especially since these tools are already populated by the majority of your students, have a low impact learning curve, and have built-in communication tools, and contact management that may rival most commercial Course Management Systems.  However, these tools started out and are perceived by students as their personal social playground and bending the tool to make it fit into an educational framework may cause panic, and discomfort from the student perspective.

https://www.purdue.edu/learning/blog/?p=210

The problem is that building a propriety platform is unlikely to succeed, at least if success requires sustained engagement by students who log in regularly. This to me is why social media platforms are so pedagogically attractive. The author of the above post suggests a couple of alternatives and offers interesting examples of how this can work:

Ning.com – Ning is a social networking site that allows users to create their own communities based upon their interests and needs.  These communities are user created, and managed with permission control options allowing read/write access by the whole world, or just a select group determined by the creator.  Ning has seen a jump in adoption in education circles due to ease of use, and potential.  Best examples – http://www.classroom20.com/ & http://education.ning.com.

Elgg.org – Elgg is a similar platform to Ning, in that it allows users to create their own social network, monitored, maintained, and updated by individual users.  However, Elgg is completely community driven in development, and offers the ability for users to personally host their network.  Best examples – http://eduspaces.net/ & http://community.brighton.ac.uk/

https://www.purdue.edu/learning/blog/?p=210

I’m still sceptical but actively reflecting upon it at present. It seems self-evident to me that the creepy treehouse effect is more likely to be operative with Facebook than Twitter. But unfortunately more students will be regular users of the former than the latter. Furthermore, as Emma Head recently told me, her recent (not yet published) research with Keele students found some students with an explicit preference for engagement on Facebook. It’s a complicated picture. Jason Jones at ProfHacker offers some helpful suggestions for good practice:

We both think that there are spaces that have less “creepy treehouse” aspects than others: wikis, for example, or certain uses of blogs.  Twitter, as Alex says, “is a weird space,” since people tend not to dabble in it–they either avoid it wholesale, or go all in. One way I’ve tried to minimize the creepy treehouse aspect in some of my social assignments is to encourage class-related personas, and to have assignments be a kind of game.  That way, there’s never a sense that I’m trying to elicit information about their lives and so forth–which does seem creepy.

Alex came up with four best practices for faculty who want to use social media (and we should!) and who want to avoid this problem:

  • Be transparent.  Explain why it’s required, what students will be graded on, etc.  Explain the tool’s ownership and logistics.  If you’ve set up a class Twitter account, consider sharing it with at least some students.
  • Encourage self-organization.  There’s no need for you to create that Facebook group!  Let them do it.  (In my experience, Facebook groups I’ve created haven’t gotten much participation, but ones students have created about my classes have often gone well.)
  • Deputize worthwhile ad-hoc groups.  This encourages the perception–which hopefully is accurate!–that the class’s social media usage is bottom-up, and not top-down.
  • Be nimble.  Notice how students are interacting with your course material, and put resources where they feel most comfortablehttp://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/the-creepy-treehouse-problem/2302

Along with Cheryl Brumley, I’ve been producing ‘virtual dayschools’ for the Centre for Social Ontology. They’re intended to provide accessible introductions to difficult topics by mixing up text, image and video. They’re intended as a preliminary to engaging with what is often difficult literature rather than as a replacement for it.

The first draft of the first day school is now online: An Introduction to Social Ontology. Any feedback would be much appreciated! There’s another three in production that I’ll have finished by the end of this month. I’d like to add an interactive component to them but I’m not really sure how that would work. Perhaps a hashtag for each dayschool?

80% of new teachers in 2005 were still teaching after their first year. In 2015 that has shrunk to just 62%, coupled with record numbers leaving mid career. In the intervening period, we’ve seen successive governments seek to transform schooling in a way that has left the “profession monitored to within an inch of its life”: increasingly teaching can’t retain its new recruits and given 76% of new teachers report having considered leaving the profession, it’s possible the retention rate will continue to collapse over time.

Can you blame them? David Cameron recently pronounced that “if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change” and that “If you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you” – with ‘good or outstanding’ constituted through the unreliable judgements of an audit regime utterly disconnected from the realities of teaching. The result is a ratcheting up of situational demands amidst a climate of fear, leaving teachers drowning in assessment, terrified of negative assessments and increasingly prone to illness, as a recent survey found:

  • 83% had reported workplace stress.
  • 67% said their job has adversely impacted their mental or physical health
  • Almost half of the three thousand respondents reported they had seen a doctor because of work-related mental or physical health problems
  • 5% had been hospitalised, and
  • 2% said they had self-harmed.

This has produced a situation which the general secretary of the ATL describes as teaching having become “incompatible with normal life”. This is what audit regimes do when they’re pursued as an instrument of workplace control. How far behind is higher education? Will the greater sunk costs of newly qualified PhDs preclude a mass exodus from the profession? The analogy is far from perfect, not least of all because of the much lower ratio of available jobs to newly qualified academics, but there seems to be a similar direction of travel in both professions.

This expression by Will Davies has stuck with me since I read it a few months ago. Teaching is a disturbing example of the process Will is alluding to: ratcheting up demands on staff to the point where many are unwilling to continue. In fact increasing numbers seem unable to continue:

The BBC has also seen a survey of 3,500 members of the Nasuwt teaching union which shows more than two-thirds of respondents considered quitting the profession in the past year.

Workload was the top concern, with 89% citing this as a problem, followed by pay (45%), inspection (44%), curriculum reform (42%) and pupil behaviour (40%). In addition:

  • 83% had reported workplace stress
  • 67% said their job has adversely impacted their mental or physical health
  • Almost half of the three thousand respondents reported they had seen a doctor because of work-related mental or physical health problems
  • 5% had been hospitalised, and
  • 2% said they had self-harmed.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-31921457

Much of the issue here stems from the demand for ‘excellence’: as David Cameron recently put it, “if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change. If you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you”. For head teachers a bad Ofsted report can mean the end of their career and this tyranny of excellence mutates into something ever more brutal as it works its way down the hierarchy.

Replace ‘heads’ with ‘HoDs’ and ‘Ofsted’ with ‘REF’ and we can see the same trend at work in higher education. Meanwhile the VCs fly around the world, creating strategic partnerships to actualise latent synergies. Here on the ground, one in six universities refuse to answer freedom of information requests about their expenses.

Across both spheres, we can see people breaking the professions, one personal tragedy at a time, while rewarding themselves extravagantly for doing so.

A few years ago when I was running the Twitter feed for the Sociology department at Warwick, I noticed how readily first year undergraduates tweeted practical questions to the account during their first few weeks of the first term. Students tweeted questions intermittently throughout the year but it was particularly marked at the start of their time within the department. As someone who spent 6 years studying the undergraduate experience, it’s not hard for me to understand why this would be so: the organisation the student has joined tends to seem rather large and they often feel they have only a superficial grasp on how it works.

What I find harder to answer is why universities haven’t seized upon social media as tool for improving the ‘student experience’. As well as the aforementioned questions, I noticed a few instances of forthcoming students tagging the department on Twitter prior to starting their degree. As a part-time PhD student with little practical involvement in the department beyond my role maintaining the twitter feed, I often found myself unable to answer the questions undergraduates had and struggling to welcome forthcoming students to the department in any meaningful way.

I find it easy to imagine how this could be done with social media in an effective way: inviting forthcoming students to engage with the department prior to joining it, encouraging them to address any questions they have to the twitter feed and checking in with the students on a semi-regular basis throughout their first year. It would require an investment though not a particular significant one – perhaps it could be factored into the workload allocation of an existing administrator? The work involved would be regular but fairly unsubstantial, necessitating that someone knowledgeable about the day-to-day life of the department were to prioritize twitter as a communications channel alongside e-mail.

My experience of the ‘back channel’ that Twitter provides at conferences is that it makes large and impersonal events feel friendly and accessible. Could the same effect be achieved with the student engagement project I’m outlining?

  1. Are you clear about what the question is asking? If you’re uncertain about what the terms mean or how they fit together then it’ll be difficult to know how to start writing. Try and clarify issues like these before you start planning the essay.
  2. Try getting everything you think about the topic down on paper before you start working on the essay. Don’t self-censor, just write down everything that comes to mind in relation to the question. Try doing this with pen and paper or with a whiteboard if you have access to one. Afterwards think about how these points fit together & hopefully the structure of the essay will become a little clearer.
  3. If you’re struggling with expressing yourself in writing, find someone else from the module to discuss the question with. If you’re able to discuss the topic then you’re able to write about it, even if talking about it comes more easily than writing. You could even try recording the conversation to play back when you’re planning the essay.
  4. Is there a particular point you want to make? Even if it’s just one small thing, finding an argument you’re committed to making can help give you a route into writing the essay.
  5. Don’t feel you need to write in a linear way from start to finish. If there are particular points you want to make then try writing these as individual fragments. It’s probably easier to start with the aspects of the essay that are clearest to you. If you are able to write a few hundred words each for two or three points that you want to make then you’ll have made a good start on the essay. Try combining the fragments at this stage and then start thinking about the essay as a whole piece of writing.
  6. Writing introductions can be hard! If you’re struggling with this then just move straight on to the main body of the essay and go back to write the introduction once you’ve got a big chunk of the essay written. This makes it easier to know what you’re introducing exactly.

BSA TEACHING GROUP CONFERENCE
Saturday 15th June 2013
Nottingham Trent University
Sponsored by the Higher Education Academy 

The BSA’s Teaching Group is pleased to announce a regional conference hosted by the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University. This event is aimed specifically at sociology teachers and will bring together a variety of guest speakers in an interesting and informative programme.

THEMES COVERED AT THE CONFERENCE WILL INCLUDE; DIGITAL METHODS, STUDENT TRANSITIONS FROM A LEVEL TO UNIVERSITY, SOCIAL THEORY, GENDER STUDIES, TEACHING SOCIOLOGY WITH BOXING IMAGERY, CRIMINOLOGY AND A SERIES OF MICRO-LECTURES FROM THE NEXT GENERATION OF RESEARCHERS.

Alongside this programme time will be allocated for networking opportunities over lunch and during an optional evening social event. There will also be an opportunity for feeding back to representatives of the BSA about the ways in which the organisation could help and support the teaching of sociology in schools and colleges more fully. 

Confirmed speakers:

Prof. John Holmwood (Nottingham University), Roger Hopkins-Burke (Author, An Introduction to Criminological Theory, principle lecturer, NTU), Dr. Jason Pandaya-Wood (Head of Sociology, NTU), Dr Emma Head (School of Sociology and Criminology, Keele University), Mark Carrigan (Department of Sociology, Warwick University), Helen Jones (Higher Education Academy), Dr Alex Channon (School of Education, University of Greenwich), Dr Julie Scott Jones & Dr John Goldring (Department of Sociology, Manchester Metropolitan University), Dr Christopher R. Matthews (School of Social Sciences, NTU).

Lunch will be provided, along with tea & coffee throughout the day.

Delegate fees:

BSA Member £40

BSA Teaching Group Member £50

Non-member £60

For further information and registration, please go to: http://portal.britsoc.co.uk/public/event/eventBooking.aspx?id=EVT10272

Email: bsatg@britsoc.co.uk or Tel: (0191) 383 0839 

For academic enquiries please contact: Dr Christopher R. Matthews, Nottingham Trent University

Email: christopher.matthews@ntu.ac.uk