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Should We Assign Professional Journal Articles to Undergraduates?

My syllabi for undergraduate students almost never include any professional journal articles. In contrast, many of my colleagues choose many of their readings from journals such as the American Sociological Review, Social Forces, or the American Journal of Sociology. When I challenge my colleagues about their choice of reading material for undergraduates, they offer three rationales.

An author's dream wall
Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

First, they argue that undergraduate students ought to get it taste of what our field is like by reading the best articles written by the top scholars in the field. Reading articles written for professionals gives them insights into way sociologist think about problems and the analytic strategies used to answer important social scientific questions. Second, they argue that professional journal articles represent the state-of-the-art thinking in our field, and it is our job to make certain that students read examples of the progress being made in our discipline. Sometimes they object to what they see as the “dumbing down” of material for undergraduates in textbooks, social media, and the popular press. Third, some instructors take a more nuanced position and argue that it’s not appropriate to assign journal articles to lower division classes, but that juniors and seniors in advanced courses are ready for the challenge posed by professional journal articles.

I explain my choice of reading materials by emphasizing why I object to assigning professional journal articles to undergraduates, even those in advanced classes. First, articles in the top journals are written for people who have PhD’s in the field. Published articles are the survivors of a rigorous selection process in which only 5 to 10% of the submitted articles make it through the review process. Typically, two or three people with PhD’s in the field have had to certify that the article meets a field’s highest standards of conceptual thinking and methodological prowess. If our undergraduates can truly understand articles that have made it through this gauntlet, then what is the point of asking people to earn a PhD in the field? If you don’t need a PhD to understand articles published in professional journals, then why not just settle for a bachelor’s degree and save a lot of expense?

Second, my colleagues sometimes answer this objection by saying that they tell students not to bother with the technical parts of the article. Instead, they assign only the non-technical parts of the article and tell the students that the rest will be explained in class. I wonder whether it’s prudent to essentially insult students’ intelligence by telling them that even though the article is important enough to assign in class, the students don’t have enough knowledge – – are too ignorant? – – to understand everything they will be asked to read. The professor, as the expert, will explain it to them. If that’s the case, why not just lecture on what is in the article in the first place, rather than assigning it?

Third, in my observations, I’ve noticed that instructors who assign current journal articles then need to spend significant amounts of class time, explaining the article to frustrated students. Such exercises puzzle me because an instructor who has had five or six years of graduate training must find a way to simplify the story enough that students with no prior background will understand. If that’s the case, why not just lecture on the article from the start and not assign something that we know students can only partially understand? Asking students to read material over their heads seems like too much effort for too little reward.

Rather than try to reconcile these dueling positions point by point, I suggest a better way to think about the issue is to use the backward design approach to syllabus construction. Instructors should ask themselves, “why am I assigning this article? What do I want to achieve? Is there a better way? Is this the only way?” If the goal is to show students state-of-the-art thinking in our field, instructors could choose an article from journals published by professional associations that represent the public face of the discipline to people without PhD’s in the subject.

For example, here is the description of Contexts, a journal published by the American Sociological Association: “Contexts is a quarterly magazine about society and social behavior. Published quarterly as the public face of sociology, it is directed to anyone interested in the latest sociological ideas and research. Contexts seeks to apply new knowledge, stimulate fresh thinking, and disseminate important information produced by the discipline. Articles synthesize key findings, weave together diverse strands of work, draw out implications for policy, and debate issues of controversy. The hallmarks of Contexts are accessibility, broad appeal, and timeliness. By design, it is not a technical journal, but a magazine for sociologists, social and behavioral scientists, and others who wish to be current about important developments in social research, social science knowledge, emerging trends, and their relevance.”

Instructors can assign articles by authors who are excellent at translating social scientific research into accessible prose, such as Malcolm Gladwell. For example, rather than assign technical articles on social networks by authors such as Mark Granovetter, Brian Uzzi, or Ron Burt, I assign Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.” Through his superb analysis of what made a Chicago activist a powerful figure in local public policy debates, Gladwell illustrates most of the important concepts in social network analysis. The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, and news analysis articles in papers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, provide excellent content that can generate well-informed classroom discussions as well as providing as examples for instructors’ lectures.

Seen through the lens of a backward design approach, the choice of undergraduate reading material is made with course goals in mind. What are the instructional objectives of the course? What are the goals for each day within the course? How will an assigned reading enable an instructor to create a context in which students can learn course concepts and principles?

If a primary course goal is to get students to think like professional sociologists, then I would expect to see a staged sequence of lesson plans in which students are gradually brought up to speed so that they can read and understand the current literature. Course content will probably be subordinated to learning new analytic techniques. If, however, the course is described in the course catalog as designed “to help students understand the causes and consequences of social inequality in advanced capitalist societies,” the readings should be chosen with that goal in mind. Textbooks, nonprofit organizations’ websites, blog posts, magazine articles, and so forth are all possible vehicles for supplying the material needed for such a course. I suggest reframing the debate about whether to assign professional journal articles. Instead, we should think about how assigned articles help instructors achieve course goals. There may be some specific conditions under which it makes sense to assign current journal articles to undergraduates, but that choice should be made with course goals in mind, rather than a general desire to “show students the current state of the field.”

POSTSCRIPT: My colleague, Neal Caren, told me that he recently learned that the MCAT social sciences section has students read and interpret article summaries. He likes them because he can get a sense of what they are like from the practice ones on the Khan Academy website.

https://www.khanacademy.org/test-prep/mcat/social-sciences-practice/social-science-practice-tut/e/socioeconomic-gradients-in-health

In Neal’s opinion, these passages strike the right balance by introducing students to research and theory testing without overwhelming them. 

What To Do When Lesson Plans Blow Up

To show the students in my first-year seminar that nonhuman technologies are used to control humans everywhere on our campus, I constructed a lesson plan that included having students go on a scavenger hunt. I gave each team a sheet of paper on which to list every example they found and asked them to report back in 15 minutes. I said that the team that found the most would get a small prize. I had already made a list for myself of what I expected them to find, picking seven or eight things that I thought they would probably find.

Purple flowers on rose bowl float

Rose Bowl float in Pasadena City Park

After 15 minutes, the teams began trickling back into the classroom, with a surprising message. They had found lots of stuff! How much wasn’t clear to me until I asked the teams to report their observations and I began recording them on the board. I had a column for each of the five teams and had left space for more than enough reports, I thought.

However, I quickly ran out of space! As I went serially around the room, with each team reporting one thing during their turn, my initial excitement turned to dread as I realized that their interpretation of what constituted “nonhuman technologies” was far more expansive than mine. With the inclusive definition that they were working with, they’d come up with at least 30 examples.

I looked at the clock – – 45 minutes to salvage what I was hoping they would take away as the lesson for the day. Or, not.

I thought back to the last time a lesson plan had blown up on me. I remembered that I had candidly told them that things hadn’t gone as I’d planned. That’s what I did this time. Without going into more detail, I can report that it turned out to be an eye-opening and enlightening 45 minutes.

What lesson did I take away from this? First, don’t abandon ship when things move in a direction other than what you had planned. Instead, see what you can salvage. Second, using open-ended questions, find out how the students interpreted the assignment. Rather than lecturing to them on what I’d expected, I listened to their interpretations of the readings and their explanations of why their views fit the conceptual scheme of the text. I found myself agreeing with them. I recognized that their explanations were a valid and logical extension of what they read, whereas I’d had a preconceived notion that was narrower than it should’ve been.

Third, to give yourself time to think through how to deal with the unexpected answers, record their answers on the board. I wrote each answer in the student’s own words, as much as I could, and stopped often to make sure that I was getting it right. This gave me time to recover my composure. As I probed to make certain I’d understood what they were getting at, it also showed me their thought processes.

Fourth, after listing their observations and hearing their explanations, repeat what you had expected and explain why you were surprised. And by “surprised,” I mean in a good way. In my class, I explained that I found their more inclusive view a better way to read the text than what I had prepared.

Fifth, follow up the “blown” lesson with a posting on the course management system, going into more detail on what you said in class.  This shows students that you take their views seriously.

Six, and perhaps most important for the future of the class, after returning to your office, make detailed notes on what you’d planned, what “went wrong,” and how you can change things the next time you use that lesson plan.

I still haven’t decided whether I will give them more expansive instructions, anticipating that next year’s class will otherwise go in the same “wrong” direction as the class this year.  That is, I could “fix” the lesson plan to deliver the expected outcomes. Another option, and likely the one I will take, is to give them the same instructions as this year, prepare to be surprised, and just go with whatever happens!

Ask, Don’t Tell

During a recent class, after hearing presentations by my students, I considered doing a summary evaluation myself. I had made notes on what I’d observed, organized them, and had a few points I wanted to make. I rose to go to the whiteboard, prepared to jot them down and then tell the students what I thought I’d learned.

But then I stopped.

Harvey Littleton

Harvey Littleton glass sculpture (Courtesy of Steven P. Aldrich)

Why tell them anything? They had done the preparation for the presentations. They had sat through all of them. Each presentation was between 10 and 15 minutes long, and so there was quite a bit to observe. During the presentations, I noticed they were taking notes, just as I was. I recognized that by this point in the semester, they had surely developed their own critical eye and should have the ability to judge the presentations for themselves.

So, instead of telling them what I thought they should have learned, I just said “okay, what did you learn from your preparation for your own presentation and from listening your peers?” I then went around the room, soliciting responses, and wrote on the board – – in their words – – what they said.

As usually happens when I follow this format, I learned a few things. First, compiled, their list was longer than mine. They had noticed more than I had. Second, some of the things they noticed had never occurred to me. Thus, I learned something new. Third, I was much more relaxed, just listening to responses and writing them down than I would’ve been had I tried to perform my authority role and tell them what I thought. Fourth, through this process, I reinforced the principle that “talking is not teaching,” and that sometimes we play the role of teacher best when we just listen.

Setting Assignment Due Dates: Early, Late, or In-Between?

Students often complain that they can’t get enough sleep because they have too much work to do (Hershner and Chervin 2014). My first response has been to suggest that they are just not managing their time well. I seemed to have found evidence for my view when I taught a first-year honors seminar in the fall of 2016 with 24 students. Because I had the students submit their assignments through Sakai, each two-page paper came with a timestamp and I could see exactly when they were submitted. Following my customary practice, the papers were due at 9 AM in the morning, right before class met at 9:30 AM. Most of the assignments were turned in after midnight: 71%, on average, across the four assignments. Some students clearly stayed up most of the night, as for example with paper three, when seven assignments came in between midnight and 2 AM and three came in between 2 AM and 5 AM! For the last paper, eight came in between 2 AM and 5 AM. I was stunned, but what could I do?

Ghosts in the trees

Ghosts in the trees

In the fall of 2017, for the same course, I tried a simple modification: papers were “due” at 9 PM the night before and then “accepted” until 9 AM the next morning, before class. Papers that came in “late” were not penalized. The difference between the two semesters was dramatic: across the four papers, only 15% on average came in after midnight. And that number was inflated because on the fourth paper, six of the students chose to review their papers once more before turning them in, and so they came in between 8 AM and 9 AM, not during the midnight hours. For the first three papers, 85% of the papers, on average, were turned in by 9 PM the night before.

With this simple modification in the due dates and times, students stopped “maniacal binging” (Boice 2000), completed their work well before midnight, and presumably got a good night’s sleep in the bargain. Using a simple tactic of signaling that papers were “due” at 9 PM, I gave the students a hard constraint that they used in planning how they allocated their time. They didn’t want to be “late,” even though “late” carried no penalty. (And no one ever asked me if there would be a penalty.)

I now use this technique on all my assignments, whether they are graded or just checked off when submitted. Having assignments due the night before not only gives students the opportunity for a good night’s sleep but also, if I so desire, gives me an opportunity to review their work and to make modifications in my lesson plan, if the submitted papers reveal any misunderstandings that I need to clear up. What is particularly attractive about this technique is that it works without the imposition of any penalties for “late” assignments. Following Lowman’s (2000) lead, I behave as if there will no such a thing as a “late” assignment and the students make my words come true.

Interested in learning more about late assignments? See this post.

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Assignments: better late than never?

A few days ago, a colleague came to me for teaching advice. On his syllabus, he had written that he did not accept late assignments. One of the students, a young woman who was struggling in the class, had turned in a paper that was woefully incomplete and he told her that it did not meet the assignment requirements. However, rather than rejecting it outright, he took account of her struggles and accepted that she hadn’t decided to order essay online cheap to get it finished, telling her that if she turned in a finished version by the end of the week that completely met the basic requirements of the assignment, he would give her partial credit. At the end of the week, she turned the paper in again, but it was still well short of what he would accept as meeting minimal requirements.

Angry instructor

Get that assignment in on time or else!

He asked what I thought he should do. He told me that the assignment counted 15% of her grade, and thus giving her a zero on the assignment would immediately knock her down at least a grade and a half, before taking account of her other less-than-stellar work in the course. But, because he had announced that he didn’t accept late papers and then had recanted on that rule by inviting her to submit a revised version, he felt he had to give her some credit.

After suggesting that yes, it made sense to give her some credit, under the circumstances, I went on to make a more general point about putting strict rules and regulations in a syllabus. I reminded him that in my syllabi, I never say that I will not accept late assignments. I have no list of punishments or points that will be taken off if assignments are turned in late. My friend, Joe Lowman, and I have had many conversations about this & I’ve benefited greatly from his wisdom. Indeed, when it comes to such matters, I usually find myself asking, “what would Joe do?”

On the first day of class, students often ask me, what are your penalties for late assignments? I tell them I don’t expect late assignments, as all the due dates for assignments are in the syllabus they’ve just been handed. In that case, why would any assignments be late? I find this logic impeccable, but some aren’t satisfied with this answer and persist in questioning me. All I will say is that if they find themselves having difficulty, prior to an assignment being due, they need to talk with me and I will try to help them. I never speculate about what I might do with the late assignment, preferring to deal with each of them on its own merits.

I do this to avoid being put in the situation of my colleague: announcing a hard and fast rule which extenuating circumstances may well require me to break. Over my 45 years of teaching, I have heard about plenty of emergencies, some of which were devastating to the students involved. What would I do if a student told me about a family emergency which gave them no choice but to rush home? I would feel really heartless in telling a student that I was very sorry about the accident and I hoped the victims would recover, but I stood firmly by my policy.

My colleagues are typically astonished when I tell them about this policy. Typically, they raise two objections. First, won’t I get a lot of late assignments? Second, if I do accept late assignments, isn’t that unfair to the students who turn their assignments on time? My answer is “no” to both objections, as I will explain.

First, in my syllabus and on my webpage, every assignment is clearly described with its due date. I use Sakai, which sends out automated notices, reminding students of due dates. The assignment is also noted on the website’s course calendar. For larger assignments, such as term papers, I have multiple milestones that students must meet: reporting their chosen topic, submitting a one paragraph description of their theme, a preliminary listing of references, a rough draft, and so forth. These milestones give me many opportunities to intervene when students show signs of falling behind. I also take a very active role in keeping track of how students are doing, sending emails to students who miss class and asking students to come in and talk with me about assignments, if they have difficulties.

When students approach me about the possibility of a late assignment, and what I would do, the first thing I always say is, “What is interfering with your turning in an assignment on time?” I don’t say, ”Remember the penalties.” If, after working with them, it is clear that they will not get the assignment in on time, the next conversation I have with them goes something like this:

Student: “okay, when can I turn the paper in?”

Me: “when do you think you will have it finished?”

Student: “well, will I be penalized?”

Me: “you realize that the reason I ask for assignments to be turned in on time is so I have enough time to read them properly, so I can be sure that I will give each assignment its proper due. Late assignments make that more difficult. However, I will grade it as fairly as I can.”

Student: “okay, I’ll turn it in on Monday.” [Students almost always pick a date earlier than I would have chosen, if I had picked the date!]

Cutting flowers for Rose Bowl Floats

Cooperative learning means you’re always coming up roses!

One of the consequences of this approach is that I almost never get late assignments! And, my syllabus is not cluttered up with pointless draconian rules that I have no intention of enforcing.

Second, what about the “fairness” issue? Isn’t it unfair to the conscientious students, who get their work in on time, to allow some students to turn assignments in late? I have three responses to this alleged violation of some perceived moral principle. (In what philosophical system is taking account of extenuating circumstances equivalent to a moral failure?)

(1) for students having problems getting assignments in on time, extra time almost never makes a difference in the quality of what they do. The best students in a class are not the ones asking for extensions.

(2) students who get assignments in on time can put that assignment behind them and get on with their lives. By contrast, students who are struggling to complete a late assignment will find they have to forgo other things that they would’ve enjoyed doing, with their assignment-free peers, but instead they are stuck indoors, completing an assignment. Being allowed to turn something in late is no free pass to scholastic heaven. It is a burden.

(3) my goal in assessing my student’s work is to try to figure out what they have learned in my class, and knocking off points from a student’s score because a paper was a day or two late completely muddies the meaning of a grade. I’m not teaching “discipline,” I’m teaching sociology. I want to give students every opportunity to show me what they’ve learned, and if this requires me, every few semesters, to accept a late assignment, I’m quite willing to do so.

Interested in learning more about what to do about late assignments? See this post.

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