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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.

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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.


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

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How Much Do Students Have To Know?

The graduate students in my teaching seminar were excited by the concept of “backward design” in constructing syllabi but also concerned about whether they needed to explain the concept to their undergraduate students. They asked, “how much do students need to know about why an instructor chose a specific path for course? If we describe the overall trajectory of a course, do we have to do that for every unit? Do we have to explain our lesson plans for every day we meet?” They had seen their own undergraduate instructors talking about course structures and lesson plans as if they were playing a game with the students called “I’ve got a secret.” They had kept students in the dark until the last possible moment, when all was revealed.

As I reflected on this dilemma, I thought back to an issue that we previously discussed as an impediment to student learning: the curse of expertise. “The curse of expertise” is a classic problem someone faces in trying to explain something to another person who is much less knowledgeable about a subject. Where to begin? The person doing the explaining not only needs a plan for what to tell the novice but also for what to leave out. Because novices may have little substantive knowledge about the phenomenon, they don’t know where the expert is going next and whether they are getting closer to the goal of learning the new concept or principle.

The curse of expertise is rooted in the way that experts develop their store of accumulated knowledge. Eventually, much of it is implicit, consisting of hidden assumptions, taken for granted principles, and buried knowledge of the paths not to be taken because they don’t work. Such expertise was won through years of experience and they have forgotten the difficulties on the road to their current privileged status. The curse causes experts to move too quickly through foundational knowledge so that they can get to their strengths – – state-of-the-art knowledge of the field. But their students were not on that long journey and so they missed out on the intermediate steps leading up to expert status. Consequently, experts often have a hard time teaching novices, especially in introductory courses. They find it hard to put aside all they have learned and put themselves in the position of someone starting afresh in their field. But what if they were forced to look back on the route they had taken?

The concept of backward design in syllabus construction as well as in course design more generally calls our attention, as experts, to the need for conscious reflection on why we are doing what we are doing. Although it is impossible for experts to purge themselves of their expert knowledge, it is feasible to ask them to start at the end of the journey, with course goals, and then be analytical about how those goals can be achieved. I suggest that the issue be framed as one of building transparent structures whose purposes can be explained to students as enabling them to achieve course goals. The course goals, in turn, need to be stated as things that students will be able to do, rather than as abstract lists of facts, concepts, and theories. Stating goals as things students will be able to do enables them to see for themselves whether they are making progress and gives experts an external indictor of whether they are being understood.

To be clear: the reason for asking instructors to reveal the structural principles of the course is that it explicitly acknowledges the role that students’ comprehension of the design will play in their performance. The principle of revealing the intentions behind the elements of course design extends to daily lesson plans and assignments, as well as the overall structure of the course. For example, when students ask, “why are we doing this reading,” the answer will have to do with how the reading relates to the explicit goals for the day, such as providing a context-rich example permitting structured discussion. The instructor will have already shared with the students the benefits of such discussions orally, on the syllabus, or both. When students ask “why did you put us into cooperative learning groups,” the answer will involve the instructor reminding students of the theory of learning underlying the structure of the course and how group work is an application based on that theory.

The curse of expertise can be overcome when experts are willing to pull back from focusing solely on final destinations.  Instead, they need to consider the many steps required to complete the journey. By working through a design that transparently reveals to students why each stage of the process has been chosen, it becomes easier for experts to recognize the extent to which they have overlooked the implicit knowledge underpinning their expertise. Moreover, considering how to reconstruct that knowledge and make it explicit to students can be a rewarding activity, as it may remind instructors of how much they enjoyed developing their expertise.