Size Matters

October 8, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bigger isn’t better. In fact, it’s worse, at least when it comes to large classes.
large class sizes and higher student loads are correlated with less critical and analytical thinking, less clarity in class presentations, and lower ratings on the instructor’s ability to stimulate student interest
That’s the main finding of a nicely designed study by James Monks and Robert Schmidt. (pdf of the study is here ; the Inside Higher Ed summary is here) . They looked at student evaluations in nearly 2000 sections of undergraduate business courses at “a private, highly selective university on the east coast” over a 12-year period. Their findings have a clear policy message:
Reducing class sizes and the total number of students that a faculty member is responsible for teaching in a semester will lead to significant improvements in student outcomes.
Will that happen?

At the regular meeting of department chairs, the dean passed out a very handsome chart with dozens of columns (it measured about three feet in width) showing various ratios for each department. Mostly, these were ratios of students to faculty – with different breakdowns for, on the student side, majors and course enrollments, and on the faculty side, tenured, untenured, adjunct, and so on.

The message was clear: what resources the university has will flow to departments with a high ratio. If you want more goodies, get more students in your courses.

Back in July, I said that thinking of summer school as “education” was a less useful model than thinking of it as “buying credits.” Students are looking for a bargain – the greatest number of credits for the least expense of time, effort, and money. Things may be different at private, highly selective schools, but here at a public and less selective university, that consumerist model of student demand seems to work for the regular semesters, not just summer school.

Are things different over here on the faculty side, i.e., the supply side? The highlighted column in the dean’s chart is a measure of “productivity.” And what we are producing is not education, it’s student hours.

Oh yes, we like good teaching. Teaching, along with Scholarship and Service, is part of that triptych that we fill out in all our personnel paperwork. But is it more important the productivity? Here is one way to tell:

In the movie “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” a schoolgirl loses in some school writing competition.* She’s upset, and her mother or some other grown-up tells her that winning isn’t really the important thing. The girl looks up and asks bluntly, “Then why’s that what they give the prizes for?”

Or as Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men” said, “Follow the money.”

*I’m working from memory here, and I saw the movie probably twenty years ago. I have neither the movie nor the book at hand, and I can’t find anything useful on the Internet. So I may be wrong about the specifics.

The New York Walk

October 6, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

We had our semi-annual (or is it annual?) Sociology New York Walk on Saturday. We started at the flea market on W. 39th St., where one of the vendors had a box of typesetters sorts and slugs. I should have taken a picture since in class the previous week I had mentioned the Gutenberg revolution, and many of the students had no idea what movable type was. The Gutenberg era was a nice five and a half centuries while it lasted, but it’s over. Gutenberg is now a large source of e-books, fee of charge and free of metal. Those movable-type letters are quaint relics that you find in a flea market not far from the old Lucky Strikes placard.

We walked over to Grand Central Station. The Whispering Gallery is always a crowd-pleaser. After lunch at the food court (so much better than the typical mall food court), we took the subway to Astor Place and wandered the Lower East Side – gentrification happening as you watch. A community garden on Avenue B was having a harvest festival, with barbecue and salads (pay what you like) and a trio playing Indian-style music, and it was like walking back into the sixties.

It was a beautiful day, and there was much more to see and eat and drink. Join us next time.

Here we are. The picture on the left is just outside the Library at 42nd and Fifth. The one on the right is down on the Lower East Side.

(Click on the picture for a larger view.)

Leave the Name, Take the Accent

October 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a post a while ago, I said that it seemed to me that far fewer actors are changing their names. Not like the old days, when Margarita Carmen Cansino became Rita Hayworth. I was reminded of this again reading the obits for Tony Curtis, born and raised in the Bronx as Bernie Schwartz.
If a kid named Bernie Schwartz today wanted to be an actor, would he change his name? It’s a ridiculous question, of course. Nobody these days names their son Bernie. Bernard is barely in the top 1000 names for boys. When Curtis, er I mean Schwartz, was born, it was #46.

He may have changed his name, but he never lost his accent, as the obits were quick to point out, quoting famous lines like, “"Yondah lies the castle of my fad-dah,” which Snopes says is for real, from “The Black Shield of Falworth.” The obit and has a version from a different film, “ Son of Ali Baba”: “Dis is duh palace ah my fadda, an’ yonda lies duh Valley ah duh Sun.”

You wouldn’t hear that today. My impression is that although actors now retain their ethnic names, they lose any ethnic or regional accent they might have, at least they do if they want to play big roles. With comedy roles and character parts, a regional accent adds “color” even if it’s the wrong color. (Cab drivers in movies often have a working-class New York accent, even if they are driving their cab in Chicago or Atlanta.) But if you want to be a star, it’s best to be able to sound like a generic, unplaceable American.

Maybe that has always been true; maybe even fifty or seventy years ago, Curtis would have been a glaring exception. Can you think of stars from whatever era who, like Curtis, spoke with an identifiable ethnic or regional accent yet played roles outside of those boundaries?

Rock the Casbah? - The Clash of Civilizations

October 1, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Henry at The Monkey Cage linked to this article (his ironic subject line: "this will change a lot of people’s minds"). It’s behind a paywall, but if anyone wants to ante up and then report on the method and sample, we impecunious (or just cheapskate) bloggers would be mucho grateful.

Here’s the abstract. I wonder if Rodney Stark was one of the peer reviewers. Probably not.

Islam and Large-Scale Political Violence: Is There a Connection?

M. Steven Fish
Francesca R. Jensenius
Katherine E. Michel

Are Muslims especially prone to large-scale political violence? From Montesquieu to Samuel Huntington, prominent modern analysts of politics have regarded Muslims as unusually inclined to strife. Many other observers have portrayed Islam as a peace-loving faith and Muslims as largely pacific. Yet scholars still lack much hard evidence on whether a relationship between Islam and political violence really exists. Precious few studies adduce empirical evidence on whether Islamic societies are actually more or less violent. This article assesses whether Muslims are more prone to large-scale political violence than non-Muslims. The authors focus neither on terrorism nor on interstate war. Instead, they investigate large-scale intrastate violence. The article makes three contributions. First, it offers useful data on Islam and political strife. Second,it investigates whether Muslims are especially violence prone. Relying on cross-national analysis, the authors find no evidence of a correlation between the proportion of a country’s population that is made up of Muslims and deaths in episodes of large-scale political violence in the postwar period. Third, the authors investigate whether Islamism (the ideology), as opposed to Muslims (the people), is responsible for an inordinate share of the world’s large-scale political violence. They find that Islamism is implicated in an appreciable but not disproportionate amount of political violence.