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March 22, 2017

Don’t Ask an “Expert:” Read the Research

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

I regularly get emails from high school students that I have never met, typically asking for help for an assignment where they are supposed to interview an “expert” about a topic of their choosing. The emails often contain a long list of questions that I cannot respond to due to time constraints.

I realize that these students have no control over the assignments that their teachers give them—although I have sometimes wondered if the emailed questions are meant to avoid actually doing some reading—and I can easily gripe about how those of us from the twentieth century never had this option, short of writing a letter if we could somehow find an address.

But the more I think about these kinds of emails, the more I think about the problems with assignment itself. Asking an “expert” is a poor way to learn about social science, which is based on examination of empirical evidence, not from the pronouncements of experts. Unless the students are taking a journalism class, interviewing someone seems like a missed opportunity to learn more about research.

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March 17, 2017

Love and Sociological Theory

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

Earlier this term, I used Larson and Tsitsos’s (2013) “Speed Dating and the Presentation of Self” activity to get students to think about impression management and impression formation. The activity requires that half of the class stay seated, while others are tasked with switching seats/partners every three minutes. During each segment, students talk about anything they want. The activity enables students to practice analysis, participant-observation, and symbolic interactionism.

Partway through the activity, I modified the exercise and, after they switched partners, asked students to stare at the person across from them for one minute before talking. After about 30 seconds of nervous laughter and glances around the room, the students settled into staring. We then proceeded to finish the exercise without additional modifications.

Upon completion, and during our discussion component of the activity, several students mentioned that although staring at another classmate was “weird” and “made them uncomfortable,” it also created a connection between some of the participants. Students said that they felt closer and more trusting of the person they stared at. This trust enabled them to engage in deeper conversation and to feel an instant friendship with their staring partner.

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March 08, 2017

Thinking Beyond the Case Study

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Case studies are singular examples that seem to illustrate a phenomenon. Textbooks would be dull without them, and journalists often use interviews to add color to their stories. But case studies can become so alluring, and seem to illustrate interesting patterns so well that they can encourage us to draw conclusions without further investigation.

Take the case of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman who was stabbed to death in Queens, New York, in 1964. Her case gained notoriety because there were purportedly dozens of witnesses to the attack who did not call the police. This led researchers to study something they called the bystander effect, positing that the more people who observe an event take place, the less likely they are to take action because they presume that someone else will.

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March 06, 2017

The Uses of Outrage

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

There is a hard-right provocateur who has made a name for himself as being willing to say just about anything to get attention, whom I’ll refer to by his initials: M.Y.. He does his best to poke and jab at convention, offend and even hurt those he disagrees with, all while claiming that what he says is protected as free speech. He attacks the left with particular relish, since being shut down by them reveals a certain hypocrisy, in his mind: the left and universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech, yet, M.Y.’s speech at University of California, Berkeley sparked a riot and his talk was canceled over the ensuing brouhaha. (Here’s a riveting account of the event from a journalist who was traveling with this person and his entourage.)

How can we explain outrage in a sociological way?

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February 27, 2017

How to Survive a Plague: Fighting AIDS and Challenging Stigma

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Journalist David France’s book on the history of the AIDS crisis, How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS, provides an important reminder of how the fear of marginalized groups can delay research and treatment of a deadly disease. Effective drug therapies, now in use for more than 20 years, may have made it easier for people to forget—or perhaps never to learn in the first place—the toll that indifference and fear took on so many peoples’ lives. Between 1981 and 1995, before effective treatments existed, more than 500,000 people contracted the disease, and more than 300,000 of those people died.

The disease was first identified in the United States in 1981, when a handful of young gay men in Los Angeles had very unusual symptoms for otherwise healthy men. Reports of gay men with similar symptoms in other parts of the country soon surfaced. The disease was soon called “gay cancer” and later “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” (GRID), suggesting that this was something that could only afflict gay men.

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February 20, 2017

Can Teachers Speak the Truth about Donald Trump?

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

Consider this statement: Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, is a racist, sexist, xenophobic bigot who constantly tells lies and makes wildly misleading claims.

I offer this statement not as an accusation against the President but as an assertion. It is not based on what Trump’s advisors call “alternative facts” but is based on actual verifiable facts. And it is not the subjective opinion of a left-leaning professor but is an objective truth that can be unequivocally demonstrated and proven.

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February 17, 2017

Telling True Stories

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Story telling is not just about fiction and fabrication. Good scholars are gifted at telling compelling true stories using data from research findings.

If you think about a book or article that you have read or a class you have taken that made a big impact, chances are good that the author or instructor had a knack for telling a story that you were interested in hearing. They draw you in, convincing you that their story is important, and encourage you to stick with them to learn what they have learned.

Sociology at its best is good storytelling: researchers who are skilled at convincing us why the issues they investigate are important, how their findings can inform us more about this issue and walk us through the complexities and even contradictions of their research produce work that is exciting to read. They bring to life the cliché that truth is stranger than fiction, or at least more interesting.

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