Helping undergraduates be more successful at academic writing

As an English teacher, I spent years helping undergraduates improve their writing skills. As a sociology teacher, I have seen the differences in education and college preparation between college students. It’s important to me to “pull back the curtain,” so to speak, on academic writing, so that understanding how to write well, at the college level, is not limited to undergraduates whose high school education was able to provide this training.

I’ve started a new blog, called Undergraduates Write!, aimed at making academic writing expectations understandable to a wide range of students with a wide range of academic experience.

My goal is 1 post per week, beginning in January. It’s a fledgling blog right now, but I hope that as it grows it will become useful for a lot of students. Please follow, like, and share if you agree.

My most recent post explains how to read an assignment sheet and rubric. Check it out here.

What I Learned from Playing Pokemon GO

I play pokemon GO when I walk to and from bus stops, to lunch, around campus, and on the busses. I’ll play while eating lunch. On the weekends, we might spend a few hours walking around the zoo or the arboretum. And can you guess what happened?  Without making any special effort whatsoever, I can now name the majority of 400 some-odd pokemon, know if they evolve, what they evolve into, and where the local pokestops and gyms are located.

I’ve been thinking about writing this for some time, and apparently tonight, after managing to complete a fairly major piece of writing, is the night.

If you don’t already know, Pokemon (poke-ee-mahn) GO is a virtual game that you play on your cell phone. It’s modeled after a game I never played and a cartoon I only rarely saw bits of, so the whole Pokemon universe is still fairly new to me. Essentially, Pokemon GO uses your phone’s GPS and video capabilities to give you a “window” into a virtual landscape where cute (well, usually cute) little critters “spawn” around you and you try to catch them with “pokeballs” that you collect by spinning “pokestops” that are anchored in real-world locations – often public art, landmarks, and buildings. I’ve learned more about my geography in the past few years than I knew I was missing.

If you catch enough of a certain type of pokemon, you earn enough “candies” to power them up or evolve them into an often more angry-looking new version of the poke-critter (that’s my own slang, right there). You can install your pokemon in a “gym” along with other players in one of the three teams you chose to align yourself with, and you can have battles to knock other player’s pokemon out. Walking a certain number of kilometers (it’s an international game, after all) earns rewards as well.

When Pokemon GO was first released in the United States, it was a huge hit. People were out on the streets in droves, comparing what they’d caught, sharing information on where certain pokemon were spawning, and just in general having a good time with strangers in public. Now, a couple of years later, more people smirk and say “oh, I used to play that . . .” but that’s ok. Smirk away. This is the way that I let my brain have a rest – but I’ll be darned if my brain didn’t sneak into the fun anyway and teach me a thing or two using those silly little poke-creatures.

As an academic, and for a very long time as a student, I was always told that I needed to work on research or writing projects a little at a time. Instead of waiting for large blocks of time, or for “inspiration,” studying and writing should be done in smaller, regular sessions. Progress comes from consistency and repetition, and not very often from the muse.

I’ve always been much more of the absent-minded-professor-muse-type, personally, but it’s pretty clear that I need to change my act if I’m going to publish regularly. My brain-break, it turns out, just hammered home what happens when I repeat an activity in small chunks, consistently, over time.

I play pokemon GO when I walk to and from bus stops, to lunch, around campus, and on the busses. I’ll play while eating lunch. On the weekends, we might spend a few hours walking around the zoo or the arboretum. And can you guess what happened? Without making any special effort whatsoever, I can now name the majority of 400 some-odd pokemon, know if they evolve, what they evolve into, and where the local pokestops and gyms are located.

If Pokemon GO was just a foreign language, I’d be haltingly fluent by now.

On top of that, I keep leveling up. In another 4 1/2 levels, I’ll have topped out. I only wish my bank account grew that fast.

So to recap, playing Pokemon GO in small, regular increments, over time, I have learned a fairly large amount of information without even intending to and have made clear progress toward repeated small goals.

Now, every time I accomplish something in the game, those cute little critters remind me that I can be just as successful in the real world. Playing Pokemon GO has finally hammered home a lesson that an awful lot of well-meaning people tried to help me learn for years. To my now and former students out there that might actually read this far: don’t let that lesson be as difficult for you to learn as it was for me.

Nothing we do, my friends, has to be a waste of time – we can learn from just about anything. Or, to borrow from the Grateful Dead:

Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.

“I’ll tell you I love you”

This one’s from back in January.

I went to Sam’s Club today to get a box of the Atkins shakes that I have for breakfast on the way to work. When I got to the checkout, I had just that box and a bag of cheese sticks in my cart. I had to wait a while in the checkout line, and when I got to the point where my cart had just reached the conveyor belt, an older man – maybe late 70’s, mid 80’s, approached the end of the conveyor belt. Instead of getting in line behind me, he looked instead like he was planning to cut in front of me. I hesitated for a few seconds, but he didn’t move to get in front of me, so I pushed my cart forward. He continued to stand next to me until I got along enough that I could put my things on the conveyor, but he stayed way too close.

He gestured with his package of steaks and said “I’m glad to see I’m not the only one that comes to Sam’s for just one or two things!” I smiled and agreed. That wasn’t the problem.

Then he poked the box of Atkin’s shakes and said “what’s that?” Annoying, but also not the problem. I had to repeat myself several times because he seemed to not hear me. Again, not the problem. He was still *right there* – right up against my cart, his package of steaks just a few inches from my stuff.

The cashier tossed the conveyor divider down the belt, on the other side of his steaks. I moved it between.

He said “You need to move that…unless you want to pay for them!”

I demurred.

Then he said “I’d tell you that I love you!”

That’s when I froze. That was an . . . odd . . . and intrusive thing to say. Sure, if we were friends, that would be funny. But he was a stranger and he was creeping me out, and I didn’t know what to say. How does one gently play off a comment like that?

When I got to the cashier, I had to surrender my cart so she could pull it around to the end, and once again he was right next to me. When I took one step over after running my credit card, he immediately stepped up to the register with his checkbook.

As I turned to leave, the cashier asked for the Sam’s card for him . . . and looked at me. She read his body language as being *with me*. That’s how close and assuming he’d been.

I wasted no time getting out of there. The entire way to the parking lot, I looked to make sure he wasn’t behind me. It doesn’t make a difference that I’m a grown woman and he appeared to be old enough to actually cause me any physical harm. But I don’t want to be the crazy lady who yells at a “nice” old man in the parking lot. I don’t need that emotional load and I didn’t ask for it.

Encounters like this are difficult to explain to someone that’s never experienced anything like it. On its face, it doesn’t sound that bad. But we deal with crap like this every day. The construct “If you do x, then I’ll do/say y” where the speaker thinks that “y” is something the woman wants to hear . . . . And women, who are supposed to be “nice,” smile and nod and hope they aren’t followed.

Tonight at the Y

Tonight at the Y: I was headed to the women’s locker room after Yoga class in a safe, well-lighted space. I got about 10 feet from the hallway (wide and also well-lighted) when I noticed three muscular young men turning into the hallway. My immediate first response was to stop (although I’m sure it was barely noticeable to anyone who may have been watching me-just a hiccup, not a breaking of stride) and think quickly about whether or not it was “safe” to enter the hallway with three unknown men. The barely noticeable hiccup was because it’s a safe, well-lighted space with room to move.

This is what it’s like to be a woman.

The women’s locker room was pretty deserted and I had my pick of showers. As I was shampooing my hair with my eyes closed, I heard someone moving around a few feet away, and although I knew it was probably someone that was supposed to be there, I quickly washed the soap off of my face so that I could see and be able to defend myself.

This is what it’s like to be a woman.

It’s not like I walk around looking furtively into every dark corner; I don’t. I don’t worry incessantly about being attacked and distrust everyone I meet. But society has taught me that if something *does* happen to me, I’d better make damned sure that there’s no way I can possibly have been construed to be at fault for not being careful enough. It’s my job to make sure I’m not vulnerable in any situation. You can’t make that kind of demand of a human being and then expect them to not live this way.

This is what it’s like to be a woman.

This is what it’s like to be a woman.

I’d love to be able to write some kind of brilliant intro, but I’m more interested in giving myself enough time to work on the article I’m revising, so instead I’ll get right to it:

a lot of good men don’t understand what the big deal is.

They get that rape is bad. They get that rape is complicated. But they can’t understand why women sometimes agree to sex that they don’t really want to have, why a woman might engage in other forms of sexual activity and feel violated, or why – god help them – women go to the bathroom in groups and otherwise travel in packs. They have absolutely no idea what it’s like to walk around in a female body.

I realized shortly after #metoo started trending and so many women started sharing their stories that I am so used to being vigilant about my safety that I’d stopped noticing it. I started saying things like “I’ve never experienced . . . . well, wait a minute.” It’s so much a part of my daily existence as a woman that it’s become part of the wallpaper.

So this thread is my chronicle of those simple, everyday little moments that would otherwise sink below the surface of consciousness in my daily routine. This is mostly for me . . . but if it helps someone else, that’s a great bonus.

Stupid, trolling, nasty, and abusive comments will not be tolerated. I just don’t have time for you.

Gender Stratified Monopoly

In April of this year my first publication went into print in Teaching Sociology – very exciting! Like most people who publish in academic journals, I had to shorten the paper to meet the editor’s expectations, which means that a painful amount of material had to be left out. This included details on how to play, and never mind appendices that provide details on how to set up the game.

A few days ago I received an email from a professor in Kentucky, asking if I had any of those details that I could share. After pillaging old drafts and sending what I could, it dawned on me . . . . most likely, other people would like to have that stuff as well. Teachers are busy people – if someone has already done it, why do it again?

So here are my resources that will make your life a little easier if you decide to use Gender Stratified Monopoly in the classroom: Setting up Gender Stratified Monopoly. If you’re brave and just want to jump to the downloadable version, here it is: Setting up Gender Stratified Monopoly.

Also VERY exciting – a month or so ago I decided to have a look at the ASA job bank, hit the ASA home page, and found this staring back at me:


ASA Screen Shot

So that happened. Of course I posted about it on Facebook, told all my friends, and in between all of that, stared at the computer with my mouth hanging open. Then the department gave me a research award for writing a dissertation and publishing an article in ASA’s flagship teaching journal, all while teaching 4/4 and being a mom and partner. Don’t ask. I don’t know how I did it, either.

The article was live online last fall, and as I write this, it has an “above-average attention score” for an article of it’s “age.”

That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

Interaction Ritual Chains and the 2016 Election Cycle

If we want to have less volatile, emotion-laden election seasons, then we’re going to have to find a way to build intersubjectivity, entrainment, and consensus across the divide, and to reach for symbols that appeal to what we have in common . . .

I commute to work and so have a lot of time in the car to think about things. It just so happens that I am teaching on the day after our 2016 general election, so of course that has consumed my thoughts this morning. And here I am, in between classes, with some time on my hands.

First, let me say that this is NOT a partisan blog post. I’m not going to tell you how I voted. I firmly believe that how I voted is nobody’s business but my own. I won’t ask you; don’t ask me.

To say that our world is changing rapidly is cliche, but true, and it is leaving large numbers of people behind. The internet and social media have fundamentally changed how people communicate and how they consume and share information. Decades of labeling the media as “liberal” – as well as increased corporate ownership – have eroded public trust in media outlets of all kinds. Studies have shown that most students don’t get their news from news outlets anymore; most of my students don’t even have cable TV and increasingly just watch Netflix or Hulu on their phones. Information travels through social media or they don’t see it at all.

The currency of social media is click-throughs (when you click on an advertisement or link), not honesty, and certainly not good web design.Language use has changed remarkably, becoming extreme; absolute: instead of

“Candidate x edges ahead of candidate y in the polls,” we have

“Candidate x DESTROYS candidate y in the polls!”

Clickbait tells us what to expect and how to feel about it before we even move the mouse:

“Woman opens a box and you will be SHOCKED at what she finds inside!”

Every day we scan past who knows how many headlines encouraging, even demanding, extreme emotional responses. Very often these emotional “calls,” if you will (think computer programming) are negative. Satire sites have exploded, and I’ve lost track of the number of times that an article from a satire site has been re-published as “news.” Extremely partisan news sites are everywhere, and confirmation bias is rampant.

Why is confirmation bias so prevalent….and so persuasive?

One answer to this question may come from the Sociology of Emotion and the study of rituals. Randall Collins developed a theory he called “interaction ritual chains.” What Collins proposes is that when you interact with someone, you perform a small ritual. If you’ve ever had the following exchange with a cashier at a grocery store, then you’ve participated in an interaction ritual:

Cashier: “Hi, how are you today?”

Customer: “I’m good.  How are you?”

Cashier: “I’m great, thanks.  Did you find everything you needed?”

Customer (thinking about the sales item they were out of): “Yes, I did, thanks.”

The exchange above is pretty polite, right? Pretty nondescript, common, and not necessarily honest. Now think back to a time when you got terrible customer service. Maybe the cashier was so busy talking to the bagger that s/he never looked at you, thrust your receipt at you with a grunt, or was just surly. How did you feel when you left the store? Irritated? Angry?

You had an emotional response to that interaction.

Now let’s think more positively. For my dissertation I studied Deadheads and the Grateful Dead culture. Deadheads have been going to shows for 0ver 50 years. They bring their spouses, friends, and kids; they share music and burritos and grilled cheese, and they typically embody a pretty upbeat perspective. When they get together for a show and the music starts playing, sometimes they experience what Durkheim called “collective effervescence” as they dance and sing together with the crowd. Show attendance and all of its minutiae are also interaction rituals.

Deadheads get a “charge” out of this interaction, just like your car battery gets charged  as you drive down the road. This charge gets “stored,” so to speak, in an object that comes to symbolize the group or culture and the experience that people had that created that energy in the first place. That charge is then used to “spark” a new interaction ritual – perhaps a conversation with another Deadhead on the subway, or a high level of positive energy at the next show, etc. Within Deadhead culture, fans make use of dozens of such symbols – icons like the “Stealie” (the skull with a lightning bolt), Jerry Garcia, or song lyrics. It’s not uncommon for a Deadhead to drop song lyrics into a conversation in an effort to express a sentiment. For example, “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile” reflects an acknowledgement of poor circumstances and a determination to keep going with a positive attitude. Quoting the lyric is far more efficient, and as a bonus, that moment of intersubjectivity – where both people know that they are thinking the same thing – results in another little zap of emotional energy sustaining that symbol.

Another example, taken from western Christianity, is the cross or the western portrayal of Jesus; for adherents, the objects themselves are imbued with such meaning and energy that they can provide a “booster” charge of sorts from wearing a cross as jewelry. Or you might relive your favorite team’s victory through branded merchandise. Just look how many fans turned up to celebrate the Cubs’ victory recently. Think there was some collective effervescence there, maybe some renewed positive emotion toward the team and what the team represents (which, by the way, makes the team a symbol, if you didn’t catch that)? Over time, these single incidents combine to create long-term general feelings about an organization, culture, etc.

Now, Collins argues that people really need to be co-present (physically in the same space) in order for this to happen, but he wrote his book just as social media was really beginning to take off. From what I’ve seen of Deadhead Facebook groups, although these groups don’t “recharge” people the same way that being co-present at an event does, they can still bump the meter up a bit and may serve to “top off” people’s reserve of emotional energy.

How does this relate to the election? Well, go back and look at footage from the rallies – I’m going to look at Trump’s in particular, because it’s a little easier to see what I’m talking about. Look how much energy people are generating, watch when they boo and cheer together (thus synchronizing their behavior and achieving what Collins calls “entrainment”), and especially when they chant together. The slogan, “make America great again,” calls on powerful symbols and emotional energy stores – patriotism, for example – and ties those existing stores to the euphoria his followers no doubt felt at those rallies. It’s no accident that political candidates wear red, white, and blue. You get a double whallop, then – new symbols imbued with emotional energy, “sparked” from older, powerful and charged symbols.  Clinton built an advertising campaign on showing video of Trump altering his position; whether he truly changed his mind or not (and I’m not in a position to know), ultimately, he landed on tropes  and symbols that triggered high levels of emotional energy in his supporters.

A full analysis of the election, in terms of emotional energy and interaction ritual chains, would take me far longer than I have to give today. We could look at the people visiting Susan B. Anthony’s grave yesterday, or wearing white to honor suffragettes who fought for women’s right to vote, and many other things. We could compare positive and negative energy and symbols. We could compare levels of emotional energy. We could talk about the emotion language employed in campaign ads. There are a hundred different ways to turn this event to learn something from it.  Wanting to do that is what makes me  a sociologist.

One important thing that we can take from this election cycle is this: in a culture where technology has left a large part of the electorate behind and provided others with a steady diet of often questionable – or downright inaccurate – material, and where mainstream media is no longer trusted by many, it seems logical to me that when people can’t trust what they read, they’re left with another, very powerful option: to go with what they feel and with what makes them feel good. With so much information and misinformation flying around about both candidates, it seems reasonable to me that self-confirmation bias was inevitable. If we want to have less volatile, emotion-laden election seasons, then we’re going to have to find a way to build intersubjectivity, entrainment, and consensus across the divide, and to reach for symbols that appeal to what we have in common, rather than emphasize the ways in which we are different. And with our current political climate, that seems like a tall order.

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