Considering the Audience

August 10, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Historia de un Letrero (The Story of a Sign) won best short film at Cannes. The director is Alonso Alvarez Barreda. It’s hard to talk about this video without spoiling it. Take the four and half minutes to watch it (six minutes if you sit through all the credits)

(A two-minute knock-off version is here.)

I think it has a lesson for teaching. It’s the same lesson I get from a story Nora Ephron tells about the teacher in her high school journalism class. The problem for the class was to come up with the lead (or as we say nowadays, the lede) for a story in the school newspaper.
He dictated a set of facts that went something like, “The principal of Beverly Hills High School announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento, Thursday, for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, and two other people.”

So we all sat down at our typewriters, and we all kind of inverted that and wrote, “Margaret Mead and X and Y will address the faculty in Sacramento . . ..” Something like that.

We were very proud of ourselves, and we gave it to Mr. Simms, and he just riffled through them and tore them into tiny bits and threw them in the trash, and he said, “The lead to this story is: There will be no school Thursday!
The challenge is not just to present the relevant facts, or in a sociology class the relevant data and ideas. The problem is to present them so that your audience immediately grasps their relevance. Both the ad man (or whatever he is) in the film and the journalism teacher come up with the brilliant lede by asking not, “How does this look to me?” but “How does this look to the audience?”

Fortunately, as teachers we do not depend so utterly on the response of our audience. We’re not begging, and some teachers get away with ignoring the audience altogether. But a department facing a decline in majors may not be so different from a newspaper struggling to maintain its circulation.

I think I want the dude in the shades and pink necktie to go over my lesson plans.

Timely Furniture

August 8, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Not sociological, but for 08-08-08 (at 08:08 a.m.), I thought this was too cool to pass up.

It's a sofa, designed by Emmanuel Laffon de Mazieres. Photos from other angles here.

Hat tip to Cecile, from whose blog I copied both the picture and the idea.

Omission / Commission

August 5, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I haven’t checked XKCD’s data, but it seems right. Think of all the regrets in your life. Which do you have more of
  • things you didn’t do but wish you had
  • things you did do and wish you hadn’t
My graph would probably look like the one in the illustration – a skyscraper stack of sins of omission dwarfing a low bungalow of actions taken and forever regretted. How many times do we say, “If only I had . . .” compared with the times we say, “If only I hadn’t . . .”?

Psychologists probably have lots of explanations for this (is there a “psychology of regret” section in the APA?). The sociological explanation starts with norms. We all greatly overestimate the cost of breaking norms. “I couldn’t do that,” we think. But of course we could.

The power of the norm diminishes the farther we get from the actual situation. When Stanley Milgram asked his students to ask subway riders for their seats, he could not imagine that such a simple assignment would be so difficult. Milgram was speaking from the comfort of a seminar room miles from the city. When he actually went to the subway, he understood.

So when we think back on the norm not broken, the road (or kiss) not taken, we forget how it actually felt to be there.

The reality is that breaking these norms seldom results in anything more than temporary embarrassment, not the nagging regret that lingers for a lifetime.

Update (Aug. 7, 7:45 a.m.): The awesome Anomie has refined XKCD’s data by breaking it down by sex, comparing “kissed her” against “kissed him,”* and posting a more graphically sophisticated chart. For both sexes, regrets over inaction far outnumber regretted actions, but it looks as though the ratio is much higher for men.

*I assume, Katy Perry notwithstanding, that the “kissed her” regretters are male, and the “kissed him” regretters female.

Methods and Madness

August 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Every so often I find myself thinking that sociology isn’t really so different from journalism. We both look for cultural and social trends, we base our conclusions on questions (or questionnaires) and interviews.

Then a column by Maureen Dowd or someone like her slaps some sense into me. Today, Dowd maintains that women who supported Hillary in the primaries may stay away from Obama because he is like Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice – “clever, haughty, reserved and fastidious.” And slim.

Dowd cites a Wall Street Journal article “Too Fit to Be President?” by Amy Chozick, who writes: “Hillary supporters — who loved their heroine’s admission that she was on Weight Watchers — were put off by Obama’s svelte, zero-body-fat figure.”

What evidence did Chozick offer? One comment posted to a Yahoo discussion board. And how did that comment come to be there? Chozick went fishing for it. She posted:
Does anyone out there think Barack Obama is too thin to be president? Anyone having a hard time relating to him and his “no excess body fat”? Please let me know. Thanks!
Most of the responses made fun of the question itself. But one person created a user ID of onlinebeerbellygirl in order to say, “I won't vote for any beanpole guy.” That was the evidence Chozick chose and Dowd repeated.

I’m saving this as an example for research methods. The Yahoo discussion has been taken down, but Sorry No (who gets a big hat tip) documents the whole thing and links to a cached copy of the Yahoo board.