8 posts from October 2010

October 28, 2010

My Fascination with Teen Mom

todd_S_2010b By Todd Schoepflin

If someone were to tell me I would watch a reality television show on MTV called Teen Mom at the age of 38, I would have called that person crazy. But it happened. I watched several episodes of the now completed season two. Why was I drawn to the world of teen moms?

First of all, I actually relate to a lot of what happens on the show because I’m a parent too. Obviously I’m neither a teenager nor a mom, but I strongly identify as a father. I consider my self to contain three major identities: college professor, father, and husband (not necessarily in that order). Sure, there’s more to me than those parts, but those are the three statuses that dominate my life. And the father part of me likes to watch how other people parent.

In sociological terms, the teen moms portrayed on the show served as a reference group for me. They provided a host of parenting behaviors to which I could compare and contrast my own style of parenting. I’m not saying they were a highly influential reference group. I’m only saying they were a group of parents that I could use to evaluate my own parenting ability—like when I make note of what parents do when I encounter them at playgrounds, grocery stores, parties, and anywhere else I see other people parenting.

I find it interesting to take a moment to think about the title of the show. The two-word title imagegets right to the point. Though the characters on the show have several statuses (they are females, daughters, girlfriends, friends, students, and employees), the title of the show indicates that “teen mom” is their master status. Above and beyond everything else, they are teen moms. In other words, their status as teenage mothers trumps all their other identities. We watch them in a variety of capacities—on the job, interacting with their families, socializing with friends—but ultimately we viewed them in their societal position as teenage moms.

I’m intrigued by the coverage these young women have received from the magazine industry. Lately I’ve seen them on several magazine covers, including a recent issue of Life & Style. Notice that Amber is described as an “out-of-control monster” who is prone to violent outbursts and someone who associates with a convicted felon. Such disapproval signals that Amber is deviant.

The message is clear: “normal” people don’t date convicted felons and they aren’t violent. The rest of us can distance ourselves from Amber by assuring ourselves that we would never act like her. Though I was appalled by some of her behavior on the show (especially when she repeatedly hit her daughter’s father during one episode), I was perhaps drawn to the Jerry Springer aura she brought to the show.

I find it fascinating that these women have become de facto celebrities for being teen moms—pretty amazing when you think about it. Though in Amber’s case, the fame comes with a price—harsh judgment that she’s the parent none of us would ever want to be.

I should point out that one teen on the show is a different kind of mother. Catelynn gave her baby up for adoption, and so we watched her ride an emotional roller coaster as a birth mother who keeps in touch with the adoptive family and her biological daughter. I have to say I was often impressed with the maturity exhibited by Catelynn and her boyfriend Tyler.

In the episodes I watched, they handled themselves in responsible and dignified ways (regular viewers would probably agree that Catelynn is more mature than her mother). Farrah and Maci are also presented as mature mothers, for the most part. We had a glimpse into Farrah’s life as a working teenage mother who is raising her daughter without a father to help her (as viewers know, he died). And Maci (my favorite person on the show) always impressed me as wise beyond  her years, a usually composed mother who seems to take very good care of her son while being caught in a battle with her son’s father over the visitation schedule.

I also paid attention to the young men who were featured in the show. I’ve already brought up Tyler, depicted as Catelynn’s supportive boyfriend who takes great interest in their biological daughter. He seemed like an all around good guy who wants a life that’s very different from his own father’s (his father was in jail during some episodes).

Another young man featured on the show was Gary, who initially struck me as a lazy and unhelpful father but who later gained my sympathy after enduring verbal and physical abuse from Amber. Over time, he seemed to put more care and concern into being a father. And then there was Ryan, who seemed the opposite of Maci in terms of maturity and parenting ability. Whereas Maci seemed capable and engaged as a parent, Ryan usually seemed to lack passion and energy as a parent.

Part of my fascination with the show comes from the fact that I became a parent for the first time at age 35. I’ve described in a previous blog how parenting is the hardest job I’ve ever had. And so, whenever I watched the show, I was interested in how these young moms dealt with the stress and challenges that accompanies being a parent. I honestly can’t say with certainty what kind of father I would have been in my teenager years. My guess is I would have been overwhelmed and not altogether fit to be a good father. My current vantage point is that of a married man with a secure job and supportive family. I came into parenting in a stable phase of my life with a host of emotional and financial resources. It would have been a very different story in my teens or even in my twenties.

Overall, Teen Mom takes us inside the worlds of women who’ve been impacted by a life-changing circumstance. The experiences of getting pregnant and giving birth at a young age have influenced their life chances.

If you’re a high school student or college student reading this blog, and you don’t have a child, think about this: How different would your life be if a baby came into your life? Would you be able to maintain your current routine of school and work? And if you follow this show, what is your opinion of these teen moms and dads? Do you respect them? Admire them? Dislike them? Feel sorry for them? Does watching the young women influence your thoughts about being a parent? In other words, does watching the show make you more or less interested in having children? Finally, what is your ideal age for having your first child?

October 25, 2010

Positive Peer Pressure

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

Peer pressure has gotten a bad reputation. Typically this phrase elicits anxieties about the possible negative influence teens may have on each other. In reality, as social beings we are all influenced by peer pressure. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Take for example an annual event here in southern California and in many communities around the country: coastal cleanup day. This is a day when people are encouraged to come together to pick up trash from beaches and neighborhoods to prevent trash from draining into the ocean. Divers search for debris in the water and come up with things that clearly don’t belong there: lawn furniture, car parts, and other refuse that can harm marine life.

According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 14,000 volunteers picked up 50 tons of trash across the county recently. This was a really impressive accomplishment that made me think of the power of others to influence our behavior—often in positive ways. While we could all pick up trash that others left behind any day of the year, most people do not.

One woman is a notable exception, so notable that the Los Angeles Times featured her daily efforts to clean the beach in a separate story. Sara Bayles spends twenty minutes a day picking up trash on the beach on her own, catalogues and writes a blog about what she finds. In six months she alone picked up more than 600 pounds of trash. Cleaning up isn’t a terribly hard thing to do, but most of us don’t do it on our own.

The trash story made me think of the ways peer pressure may influence me (individually we tend to think others are influenced by peers, but typically see ourselves as immune). I clip_image002hike regularly, mostly with a group. Being with a group provides safety, but it also makes me hike longer than I would on my own. The social aspect serves as a distraction from feeling tired, and I want to keep going if the group keeps going, trusting the leader to take us in the right direction and avoid getting lost. Finishing in the front of the group makes me feel a sense of accomplishment, and I can admit that I can be a little competitive. I probably hike faster when I am with others for this reason.

You might have heard in the news that our social networks can influence our weight. Researchers concluded that those around us comprise our frame of reference and shape how we evaluate our own weight and health. Being around a lot of fit people can serve as positive peer pressure, which is why weight loss advice often encourages people to find a buddy to workout with.

Social psychologists like Philip Zimbardo have documented how being part of a group shapes our behavior and makes us do things we might never do on our own. People around us influence and shape our behavior, whether we are aware of their influence or not.

image Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass even argues that we interact with computers in a similar way. His book, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us about Human Relationships, is based on his many experiments with people and computers.

For instance, Nass found that common social niceties like using praise or flattery instead of criticism makes people have more favorable attitudes about a computer. Yes—Nass found that people react to the way computers interact with them as though they were human. This is why the old Microsoft Word icon, Clippy, elicited such negative reaction. Clippy would show up and wink at you occasionally, and ask whether it could help you while working on a Word document. Clippy was annoying, and Nass found that people tended to react to the icon as though it were an annoying person.

In one experiment, Nass programmed the computer his subjects used to provide flattery in response to some questions. He told one group that the computer’s responses were very accurate and based on years of research. He told the other group that they hadn’t finished the software yet and the comments they would receive were completely random. A third group received no computer feedback.

Respondents who received flattering comments (like “clever” or “ingenious”) from the computer reported positive feelings, noting its accuracy, regardless of whether they were told the comments were accurate or random. Nass’s subjects—computer science students—might have consciously thought the feedback wasn’t important, but they felt good regardless.

Nass did another experiment in which subjects tested software. One group tested it on a computer they had been working with; another group tested it on a separate (but identical) computer. He found that subjects liked the software better if they used it on the computer they had been using already. He concluded that “they unconsciously felt they had to be polite to the computer” they had a previous “relationship” with. We might feel peer pressure to be nice even when our “peer” is an inanimate object.

Yes, peer pressure might encourage us to do horrible things. Stanley Milgram's famous experiment suggests that people might obey authorities who ask us to harm others. Solomon Asch also conducted a well-known experiment where people were asked to judge the length of a line; when others in the room all agreed with the wrong answer, subjects tended to agree with the wrong answer as well.

But peer pressure can be positive, whether it encourages us to clean up, stay healthy, or think positively about ourselves. How else might peer pressure act as a positive force?

October 21, 2010

Does N Equal One? Random and Nonrandom Sampling

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

In a recent blog post, Karen Sternheimer refers to sociological data collection as “systematic and grounded in theory.” Therefore, reflecting on your own thoughts and opinions does not qualify as “systematic” data collection. First you are—to use sociological lingo—an N of one! In other words, your entire study consists of just one person, total! You. Your experience is not a random sample of experiences; it is not a sample by any stretch of the imagination.

Do you know what a sample is? Before we get to samples, consider that the term population refers to all of the cases that a researcher is interested in; this is true regardless of whether the researcher is interested in individuals, groups, or things. For example, if you decided to do some research on the students in your class—let’s say you wanted to learn about their career plans—then the population of interest to you is your class. What about if you were interested in the same subject, but wanted to know the career plans for all students at your school? In this second case, your population of interest is the whole school.

clip_image002 How many students are there in your class? So collecting data—let’s say you decide on a survey as your method of data collecting—from the entire class might be feasible. Now what about from your entire school? Is it too big for you to be able to collect data from all the students? Maybe you could collect data from everyone if you had help, but usually no one wants to help you unless you pay them. While that is reasonable, what would you do if you still wanted to answer to your research question, but could not afford to get data from the entire population? If you face the problem of not being able to get information from the entire population you’re interested in, you’re sharing a predicament faced by many other researchers.

What do we do? We study a sample—a subset of the total cases in which we are interested. We collect data on a sample of the population, knowing that if every member of the population has an equal chance of being in the sample, we can generalize the information from, for example, your random sample to the entire school (the population).

How will you define your sample? In order to decide, you should know that there are two broad categories of sampling in quantitative research: random and nonrandom. Let’s look at three types of nonrandom sampling. Accidental or convenience samples are those that researchers select based on what or who is convenient. If you are using an accidental or convenience sample, you might hand your survey to whoever you encounter around your school until you get the number of surveys you want completed.

A quota sample means that you would select your sample in proportion to some aspect of the population. For example, if your school is 60 percent female and 40 percent male, you might want that proportion of females to males reflected in your sample. If your school has 600 females and 400 males, and you decide that your sample will be made up of 100 students, your quota sample would include 60 females and 40 males.

clip_image006The final nonrandom type of sample is a judgment or purposive sample. In this case, as the researcher you decide what characteristics are of interest to you and your sample consists of people (in this case) who meet that criteria. If you are interested only in learning about the career plans of students who intend to pursue graduate degrees, for example, these are the only people who would be in your sample.

clip_image004 I’ll discuss three types of random samples here. Simple random sampling is akin to putting all the names of the students in your school into an enormous hat and then drawing names; those people will make up your random sample. Unless you have a tiny school such a process is unwieldy; a good alternative is to use a table or a website of random numbers to select those who will be in the sample. Systemic sampling means that you would select every nth person from a list of every student at your school.

Usually, we divide the number in the population by the sample size to find n: From a school of 1,000 students for which we want a sample size of 100, we would choose every 10th student. (You could use a randomly selected number as your starting point.) If you chose to use a stratified sample, you would divide the student population into subgroups based on one or more variables of interest. You might want to examine career plans by student major; in that case you could group students by major and then take a simple random sample of each major.

Next time you hear someone representing their views as shared by “most people,” consider their sample size. Does N equal 1?

October 18, 2010

Suicide: The Need for Social Solidarity

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Recently, the news has focused on a number of teen suicides, mostly by gay male teens who were bullied and mistreated by their peers and others. These tragedies have prompted a national conversation about how to protect gay teens from bullying.

The debate emphasizes the importance of safe schools, organizations, the impact of hate crime laws and other policies designed to protect people from being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. Many states have anti-bullying laws in place, although these laws may not say more than call for an anti-bullying stance without clearly defining what bullying is. Ellen Degeneres and other public figures have made public statements aimed at teens who are victims of the kind of bullying that those who committed suicide experienced.

clip_image002Organizations like the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) have emphasized that supportive and affirming teachers, parents, and others can make all the difference for young people struggling with being bullied.

National Coming Out Day is October 11th, and so discussions about fostering respect and equal rights for people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity typically increase during the fall. That the news of Tyler Clementi's death would yield so much coverage now is a sad reminder of how much these discussions are still needed.

Will the national conversation result in changes that will prevent such suicides in the future?

The news has speculated that many of those who committed suicide in response to bullying were teenage gay males. Perusing the details of these cases, it is not clear that they all self-identified as gay, but it is clear all were assumed to be gay and/or were taunted with gay epithets. And they are all male. These are not trivial facts.

Our culture (and many others) confers privilege to men over women. Yes, some things have changed over time, but patriarchy still guides the structures our society. With that power comes the need for what sociologists call hegemonic masculinity, which defines men as separate and different from women. Thus our gender traits are identified as dichotomous and opposing, with men as dominant and women as subordinate. Hence, masculine traits revolve around power and dominance while feminine traits center on nurturing and support for others.

clip_image004Heterosexuality is a necessary trait for men within hegemonic masculinity, and men often feel pressure to demonstrate to their male peers that they are sexually active with women. Men who are attracted to other men – or who others accuse of being attracted to men - are likely to be punished more than women who are attracted to other women. Men, as the power group, must adhere more completely to their masculine definitions than women to theirs. Women and their sexual interests are not a target for society since, as the powerless group, what they do matters less.

There are many studies that clearly show that the targets of childhood and adolescent harassment are typically those who vary from our society’s norms, including norms of gender.

The teasing, taunting, harassment and bullying that the kids in the news experienced are, unfortunately, not unique. There are young people who experience this every day who have not and will not commit suicide. So, why did these people commit suicide?

To explain this, we can take it all the way back to Emile Durkheim’s dissertation, Suicide, and the importance of social connection. Durkheim identified different types of suicide, including altruistic suicide, egoistic suicide, anomic suicide, and fatalistic suicide.

What most of these types of suicide have in common is a problem with social bonds. Altruistic suicide, the exception, is a death intended to benefit the social group. The others all have some detachment from social groups. Egoistic suicide is committed when people are not highly integrated into a social group and society is characterized by individualism. Anomic suicide results from disappointment amidst the lack of any social bonds and eroding social norms. Fatalistic suicide occurs when people are so oppressed by society that they see no other escape.

All of these types could be used to explain the suicides of these teenagers as the result of social forces.

What, then, is the solution?

Connectivity and societal acceptance would be logical solutions to the problem. Schools and families need to work harder to be respectful of the variation of humans and provide safe environments. Happy, healthy, and productive people should be the goal.

Having safe schools and adults who are “allies” is crucial. Equally important is educating people about sexual orientation so that they do not perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation.

It’s likely that the more we know about sexual orientation, the more accepting we will be of variation, and this greater knowledge may lead to the erosion of the imperative to create identity based on sexual orientation. Linking identity to sexual orientation, as we currently do, is a relatively new phenomenon and many societies have existed without it, including our own.

Forming community and social supports are the effective techniques to lower the rates of suicide. What else might be effective strategies, especially when considering the sources of the problems?

October 14, 2010

Trendspotting: Poverty

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

You might have heard that the poverty rate went up in 2009, from 13.2 percent of Americans to 14.3 percent.

What does that mean? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, living in poverty in 2009 meant earning $10,830 for a single person, $14,570 for a two-person household, and $18,310 for a three-person household (the threshold rises by $3,740 for each person in the household; the rates are slightly higher for those living in Alaska and Hawaii).

The government calculates the poverty rate based on a measure some consider outdated: triple the estimated cost of food. When the measure was first constructed, a family’s food budget comprised about one-third of basic expenditures. But today, with the costs of housing and health care relatively higher and the abundance of cheap food, critics argue the measure is limited.

In any case, we can compare changes poverty rates over time by using a stable (although flawed) measure. It’s not a surprise that poverty rates would rise during a time when unemployment rates remain high. As you can see from the graph below, the number of people living in poverty tends to rise during recessions (the shaded bars).

Although poverty rates today are a bit lower than they were in the early 1980s and much lower than before 1964 (when President Johnson launched the “War on Poverty”), poverty rates are at a fifteen-year high, and they are likely to continue to rise as unemployment remains near ten percent.


Poverty’s effects are not distributed evenly. In 2009, the poverty rate for female-headed households was nearly 30 percent, compared with just under 6 percent for married couples and 17 percent for male-headed households.

Children are the age group most likely to live in poverty: 20.7 percent of those under eighteen lived below the poverty line, compared with about 13 percent of adults eighteen to 65, and just under nine percent of those over 65. Thanks largely to Social Security and Medicare, elder poverty has become much rarer. In 1960, before Medicare, the poverty rate for those over 65 was 35 percent. A big part of the reduction in the overall poverty rate is likely the result in reduced levels of poverty for the elderly.

You might be surprised to learn that many people living below the poverty line have jobs. In 2009, nearly three percent of full-time workers lived in poverty. Many people who work part-time would like full-time jobs but are having trouble finding them in this rough job market. Of those working part-time, 14.5 percent lived below the poverty line in 2009.

Those in the south are more likely to live in poverty than those in other regions: 15.7 percent compared with 14.8 percent in the west, 13.3 percent in the Midwest, and 12.2 percent in the Northeast.

There are also major differences based on race. While whites comprise the largest impoverished group, other racial ethnic groups are disproportionately likely to be poor, as you can see from the table below:

poverty table

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Table 4, People and Families in Poverty by Selected Characteristics: 2008-2009

This means that 9.4 percent of all whites, for instance, live below the federal poverty line, and that blacks and Hispanics are more than two and a half times more likely to live in poverty compared with whites. According to a joint study between the Federal Reserve and the Brookings Institution, in 2000, more than a third of blacks and Hispanics lived in areas of concentrated poverty, compared with about six percent of whites.

Beyond higher poverty rates, these groups are more likely to live in areas where more than forty percent of their neighbors are also in poverty. According to Rachel Bogardus Drew, a research analyst at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University:

Beyond the abandonment and disinvestment that follow, concentrated poverty isolates residents from services and opportunities that are available in the rest of the metro area, including retail and food options, adequate transportation, as well as jobs and financial services.

Being a resident in a poor neighborhood can make it more difficult to improve one’s circumstances because of the mismatch between where people live and where jobs are available. Center city residents need either a car or reliable public transportation to access the new jobs being created in the suburbs and on the urban fringe. But low incomes often preclude auto ownership, and disinvestment in the neighborhood certainly does not encourage improving or expanding public transportation. Furthermore, being a resident of a poor neighborhood can hinder some from finding jobs because of an employer’s negative perception of the neighborhood.

While the number of Americans living in areas of high concentrated poverty declined between 1990 and 2000 after decades of sharp increases, a 2008 Brookings Institution report concluded that concentrated poverty rose between 2000 and 2005.

Poverty impacts more than the individuals who struggle to manage in their day-to-day lives. Poverty reflects and reinforces other forms of inequality, and it also has broad implications for communities. While it is common to think of poverty through the lens of individual effort or failure, the economic downturn serves as a reminder that poverty is tied into our social structure. It’s not just a personal problem.

October 11, 2010

Driving, Social Norms, and Social Structure

new sally By Sally Raskoff

I am reminded of the structure of society and social norms every time I drive.

Have you ever noticed how our roads serve as a reminder of the structure of society? The markings and organization of roadways and freeways are an apt metaphor for society in many ways.

Roadways have lines marked on them intended to guide us in the “right” direction. Social norms are guidelines for expected behaviors thus they also point us in the direction that our society has as the “right” way.

clip_image002Driving on the freeway, the cars line up in the lanes, all traveling the same direction. In society, people follow the norms by creating families, going to work, and attending to their personal and community’s needs.

Whether one looks at rules of the road or norms of society, most people follow these guidelines, although not everyone conforms to every rule-- by accident or intention. Most people break some rules at some point in their lives and some deviate from them habitually.

clip_image004On the road, breaking a rule may cause an accident, some chaos, or nothing at all. Cars traveling outside the lanes or going too fast can run into other obstacles causing breakdowns or accidents and stopping traffic in that area.

Breaking norms in extreme ways—such as hurting another person-- can disrupt society. Norm-breaking can affect many different lives in much the same way that a traffic accident can.

Just this morning, a car abruptly pulled out from a store parking lot in front of me and proceeded to go through a crosswalk and onto the freeway, ignoring the red signal in their path. Since I saw this car in time to avoid meeting it physically (I put on my brakes), this caused some discomfort but not an actual accident. Seeing this car zip onto the freeway through the red light, I wondered what other rules that driver didn’t follow.

When people break social norms, we often think negatively about them. Deviance in one area often leads us to expect deviance in other areas.

A car running a stop sign when no other cars are present may not impact anyone else and, because no one witnessed it, there is no sanction for that act. (Unless there is a camera at that intersection but then there are witnesses of a sort!)

clip_image006If someone breaks a social norm in a private way, does it still have the same impact as when it is broken publicly?

When someone does break those rules or breaches the norms, it causes some havoc in that social or road space and people work to get that rule breaker on track. People try to repair the breach so that things can get back to an orderly state. People stare or use verbal and physical gestures at the rule-breaker.

How many times have you seen someone yell at another car when they drive outside the lines? I once witnessed two men get out of their cars and get into a fist fight in the middle of a three lane road. Talk about breaking norms!

When the roads and rules are not fair or well designed, widespread deviation from them can signal the need for change.

clip_image008Driving on a road that has poorly designed or timed signals can prompt drivers to ignore those signals or divert their path from the expected one. This may prompt the transportation authorities to re-design that intersection or pathway.

In society when the norms privilege a few, or otherwise are not fair to the majority, people can organize to challenge those norms. That’s a pretty simplistic description of many social movements, which strive to change society in some way.

So, if we consider roadways as a metaphor for society in general and for social norms in particular, how might something like road rage be described? It might be a variant on repairing these breaches but it also might be another example of breaking the rules or norms. The context of the road rage would be telling.

Social structure is one of the hardest things to understand, so finding some concrete things to compare it to can be useful. Can you think of any other metaphors for social structure?

October 07, 2010

Who is Responsible for Student Learning?

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

Exactly how far do students expect their instructor to go to help them get it? How far should we go to help students learn? And is it true that you can lead a horse to water, but not make it drink?

The students who stand out to me as a teacher are those at either end of an achievement continuum: those who excel and those who passively take up space in the classroom. For the purposes of this discussion, I will overlook those in the middle.

At one end of the continuum are those students who do everything they can to do well; they excel—I’ll call them the Excel Students. They don’t just want their teachers to give them a good grade; they understand that their effort is tied to the grades they earn.

The Excel Students read all assignments, do their homework, and follow every suggestion teachers make about how to succeed in class. For example, in my statistics classes, Excel Students take to heart the tailored suggestions I made about how to achieve success. That means that when I teach a new concept, they already have a good idea about the topic and can respond to simple questions I pose to the class, because they have read ahead. Excel Students will ask teachers for additional work, just to test their mastery over the material!

clip_image002Like proverbial birds of a feather, Excel Students flock together. They study together. They explain concepts to each other. Those in statistics classes work on problems together. When one has trouble coming up with a solution, another in the group chimes in and explains the correct method; teaching, of course, deepens that student’s understanding of the concept. Excel Students expect to get 100% on tests and papers. And when they don’t, they ask me where they went wrong; Excel Students thirst for knowledge and are anxious to know what they don’t know. They may apologize for asking many questions, but these are the students who utilize my office hours and willingness to assist them by email and telephone. Impression management is not their motivation, but Excel Students can’t help but impress teachers. Often former Excel Students ourselves, many teachers love Excel Students.

clip_image004At the other end of the continuum are Passive Students. These are not students concerned about impression management! On learning, their demeanor says, “I’ll pass!” These students sleep in class. They text, engage with Facebook and other social networking sites—all during class. Passive Students do not prepare for class by reading nor are they likely to respond to teacher questions of the class. Unlike Excel Students, their hands don’t shoot up when I ask, “Any questions?” And even if they’re clueless about material being presented, Passive Students don’t ask questions to help themselves. Passive Students never come to my office during office hours. They never send me a note asking about their abyssal scores on tests and papers. In fact, Passive Students miss assignments with nary an explanation; they take a zero quite easily while Excel Students worry about scoring 96% on an assignment! Passive Students don’t seem to care what grades they earn.

Clearly, Excel Students are, in many ways, gratifying for teachers. But where do my responsibilities lie with engaging a Passive Student? How far should I go to try to engage a student who displays these behaviors? First, how would I speak with a Passive Student? Should I ask him to come to my office and hope that he will show? Passive Students don’t seek out their teachers so we have to find them. I’ve tried to schedule appointments with Passive Students and been put off with comments about their “busy schedules” or have them miss repeatedly scheduled appointments. What do I do then? Should I care more—apparently—about the education of my students than they do themselves? Learning is an active process, isn’t it?

Many schools have instituted programs to assist Passive Students. For example, there are Alert systems that mandate or recommend that faculty trigger alerts for Passive Students. At some schools, those alerts trigger a support system designed to assist the Passive Student. Alerts notify other relevant professionals such as academic advisors and then faculty, advisors and other professional design a plan to help such students, utilizing campus services devised for such situations. At some schools, these alerts come with very specific demands of students, such as requiring them to attend study skills and take advantage of other campus resources.

How well do these systems motivate Passive Students? Are they too heavy-handed? Do such interventions impact either value or expectancy –the product of which equals motivation, according to Vroom’s motivation theory? (Value refers to the value of the material to the student, while expectancy refers to student expectation of being a successful learner of the material.)

Being rewarded as a teacher requires extending very different kinds of effort for Passive versus Excel Students, effort I am happy to exert with the hope that it will at least be eventually matched by my students. As a student, how much responsibility for your learning do you share with your teachers?

October 04, 2010

Michel Foucault: Power, Discourse and 9/11

image By Joshua Munns

Newcastle University

Second Year Sociology Student


Imagine it's the year 2000.

Walking down a busy street you hear someone shouting two numbers, '9' and '11'. Chances are no one understands what he's referring too, so they simply carry on with their day.

Replay this scenario today and the results would be very different. Hearing the numbers '9' and '11' brings the tragic events of September 11th, 2001 to people's minds. On that day, those two numbers went from being fairly meaningless to having huge significance across the globe. They have entered what Michel Foucault calls discourse.

Michel Foucault is a French twentieth century postmodernist thinker. A prolific writer, he covered a wide range of topics including sociology, philosophy and history. While largely criticized by his peers, he is now widely respected and his ideas are used in numerous disciplines from sociology and philosophy to government policy and medicine.

Foucault describes discourse as the language, ideas and values held by disciplines, institutions and society. 9/11 greatly impacted on our discourse, effecting such institutions as the law, government and the military to name just a few. One example of how it affected our language can be seen in the phrase ”war on terror.”

Coined by the Bush administration in response to 9/11, the phrase is a good example of Foucault's belief that a problem doesn't exist until it enters our discourse. Before 9/11 there was no “war on terror” and with its birth came huge implications. The western world now had the task of invading foreign countries to root out terrorism in attempt to "win the war".

Yet according to Foucault, this turn of events wasn't inevitable. Influenced by the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Foucault saw history not as a linear progression but a battle of ideas. For example, the invasion of Afghanistan was not an unalterable outcome of 9/11; rather it was an idea that won out against other possibilities.

Foucault argues that the ideas that win out over others are made to appear inevitable to establish their credibility. For example, if the Bush administration had started publicly suggesting alternatives to invading Afghanistan, it would damage that particular idea’s value because it would suggest that other credible options exist.

According to Foucault, statements are the building blocks of discourse as they provide context and relate to one another. Foucault believed that a small number of statements make up most discourses and are repeatedly referred to.

Take the following statements for example: “Terrorists are dangerous;” and “We have the right to protect our country.” How do these two statements relate to one another? Simple, put them together and you get: ”We have the right to protect our country against terrorists (because they're dangerous).”

Foucault claims that we accept these statements almost unquestioningly. Have you ever questioned your country’s right to self protection? Some might consider it silly to even think about. Yet both Iraq and Afghanistan were invaded on the basis of this statement. It's our acceptance of these statements that allow institutions to justify their use of power.

Furthermore, these ideas aren't normally directly referred too, rather they are expressed in other forms. Our previous two statements are often communicated by the term “national security.”

The power given to governments by the concept of “national security” is phenomenal. After 9/11 it was used to justify numerous actions. For example, more information is now gathered on individuals, airport security has greatly increased, and Afghanistan was invaded. By claiming to have knowledge about what threatens our country and how to protect us, government legitimizes its use of power.

Foucault argues that institutions follow rules and procedures that provide a particular set of results, or what he calls ”games of truth.” Foucault isn't claiming that institutions fabricate research. He's highlighting their use of specific research methods to provide answers.

Foucault calls this production of knowledge “discursive formation.” This knowledge is then used to justify the actions of social institutions. Before the Iraqi war, America claimed the Iraqi government was helping Al-Qaeda. This “truth” was then used to help justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Although Foucault's work is abstract and not backed up with research, it remains highly relevant. His ideas are used to look at numerous aspects of society: from the after effects of a particular event, such as 9/11, to social institutions such as the law and education to society in general. His ideas and theories are also important to sociology because of the great influence they had on subsequent social theorists and thinkers.

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