Literacy for 2008

I think that every semester, without fail, I am bound by karma to have one student who says that a perfectly acceptable survey sample is too small. I harp on this over and over in class, and so I think that the Universe will forever stick me with one such student to ensure my humility.

This semester, it was on a survey of high schoolers across the US. Sample size was 2,000 – which I thought was enviable. The result? 49% of students believed… something about creationism, I don’t even remember what. Plus or minus 2.5% at 95% confidence. Sounds pretty damn good to me. I wouldn’t want to argue that one side or the other had a majority based on that survey, but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to say that half felt one way, and half the other.

Nevertheless, my student declared that 2000 was a tiny fraction of all students and therefore couldn’t possibly be representative. That, and the onslaught of other dubious crap presented to me as criticism or fact in my students’ papers, has led me to believe that Intro to Soc needs its own introductory class. Let’s call it “Social Facts”. In Social Facts, students learn what constitutes valid, reliable knowledge about society. All the theories are set aside. All that matters is learning all the ways in which information is presented to us in the world, and what to trust.

I honestly think I could make a semester out of that. And I think it would be far more valuable in a gen-ed sense than Intro to Soc, or any intro social science class. My engineer students are probably not going to remember any theory from my class a year from now, or at least not well enough to apply it competently (just look at the rampant misunderstanding of many of the most basic ideas of economics for proof). But a whole course devoted purely to identifying what is good information – that might stick with them. That is something you can easily use on a daily basis. Just turn on CNN.

The same course could be set up to be THE intro course for all of the social sciences, even. Take Social Facts, and then you can branch out into any of the social sciences you like. I think all of the disciplines (except maybe anthro?) would benefit from having students who knew how to interpret surveys, who knew everything that GDP is and is not, who could identify a crappy sample when they saw one, and who knew that poverty can be measured in about five hundred different ways.

I can’t remember where, but I’ve heard statistics referred to as “the fourth literacy” – after reading, writing and arithmetic. I think that is profoundly true. Regardless of what field you’re in, statistics is a damn powerful tool (even for English scholars – see page 10 of this PDF). And yes, even I will consent that qualitative research – done well – has tremendous power to explain social phenomena. As someone who has to live in this society, I think a citizenry that knows how to spot a fact when they see it is a great thing. And as someone who will one day teach intro to soc and methods classes, I think that it’s a TOTALLY FUCKING AWESOME thing.

So can we, uh, make it happen before I resume grad school in 2010?



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8 responses to “Literacy for 2008

  1. Nope. Sorry. We are gonna wait for you to fix that one.

  2. Yeah dude, it’s on you. Hurry back.

    Isn’t it weird that 2010 is not that far away? That freaks me out.

  3. summihi

    Isn’t that the sort of thing students should be learning in intro stat classes? Or maybe it was Psych 301 (stat for psych) that we learned about sample sizes. Anything over 1000 is pretty decent, assuming your sample was nice and random. Anyhow, it is taught, maybe just not learned.

  4. 2010 is too far away. Grr.

  5. Part of it they should learn in intro to stat classes, yeah. But there are three problems with that, which aren’t really brought up in the example I used:

    1. Lots of students don’t take intro to stats before they take their first social science class (worse yet, they might take it the last semester of their senior year in order to graduate with their social science degree, like me…). And waiting until they start taking 300-level classes is just too long. Then you’re only teaching social science majors, when really, the ability to identify a social fact is the most universally valuable thing we have to teach.

    2. Intro to Stats doesn’t address many of the other quantitative measures that people have to deal with on a regular basis (e.g. GDP, GNP, trade balance, poverty lines, and so on). Students really need to know how these measures are defined and where the numbers come from. Not a huge issue in Psych, granted, but it is in all the more macro-level soc sciences.

    3. Not all social facts (or supposed social facts) are quantitative. A competently educated person needs to be able to address qualitative arguments, as well. While I think that our ultimate goal should be quantification, good qualitative research is far, far better than crudely quantified information. Especially when it comes to surveys. Man, I hate surveys.

  6. It’s not quite the same, but I have this n of 1 policy that I lay out in my classes when we talk about the research method (which I do in all my introductory classes). I show them the steps – choose a topic, research question, etc. all the way through to share your results – but then I draw a big arrow back to choosing a topic.

    I talk about how research is not a finite process, but an ongoing one, and that we’ll inevitably talk about things in this class that they might have an exception for (the n of 1) or that they are skeptical about. However, a true social scientist wouldn’t take that as a sign that the results were wrong and therefore the research would be ignored. A true social scientist would take that surprising, counterintuitive result, or the n of 1 exception to the rule, and figure out what explains that by formulating a new research project (or replicating the last one with different data, measures, etc.).

    I’m pretty sure I picked up the idea from a Henslin reader when I first taught Intro to Soc.

    I have to admit, though, that as far as I get with teaching intro students how to be critical consumers of survey data is sampling strategies, reliability and validity, and the differences between the mean, median, and mode.

  7. Hey Jessica,

    Thanks for your feedback. I am all kinds of tingly to have a comment from someone other than my three musketeers.

    That’s more or less the approach that I use, and I think (ever so humbly) that it’s the best you can do in the typical Intro format. I mean, I’m impressed you even have time to cover more than one sampling strategy.

    Also – nice blog. It was a pleasant surprise to see a non-soc one, all full of lovely images of domestic bliss (which are a bit surreal to me as I swelter in my grungy efficiency).

  8. It’s a pleasant surprise to have a visitor to my own blog who’s not related to me or someone close to me. 🙂

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