Do you still use closed book exams? Why or why not?

A question from The Chronicle:

 

Do you still use closed book exams? Why or why not?

 

Yes and no.

 

I do not believe that closed book exams are necessary for most courses. For most people, it is a far more important skill to know where to find the information they need to answer their question and to have the skills to evaluate the information.

 

At the same time, I teach a 5/5 load with six different preps in rotation. To devise  a course that does not rely on closed book exams at all seems overwhelming at the moment.

 

I have different rules depending on the course. In an online course, the exams are timed and multiple choice, yet students can use their books and notes (just not each other). In upper-level face-to-face courses, I prefer giving students essay questions ahead of time and then randomly selecting from those questions, the questions they get on exam day. I really like this exam method. This strategy combines open book with closed book. Students have all the informationt they need to prepare, yet, have to rely on memory at the time of the exam. These are essay exams, however, and I have to account for grading time. My final exams are typically scheduled over the same last two days of exam week without a full 24 hours for me to get final grades submitted for the last scheduled exam. Due to the time crunch, I opted for multiple choice, closed book exams again this semester.

 

Honestly, exams in most sociology courses make very little sense. I would much rather students spend time writing well-developed research papers that draw on the material we cover in class. Perhaps phasing out exams should be part of my five-year teaching plan?

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Broken Links and OER

The problem with OER…

 

Broken links

 

And students who don’t tell you a link doesn’t work…

 

One of the examples I use in Intro to Soc when we talk about gender is the John/Joan case. I had a lovely reading linked from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. I asked my class to tell me about hte John/Joan case. Crickets. I remind them that it was one of the readings. A couple of minutes later a student tells me that the link is broken to that article.

 

This tells me a couple of things:

 

  • Most students are doing any of the reading and never encountered the broken link.
  • Those students who did encounter the broken link chose not to report it to me.
  • OER that relies on linking to websites is risky. I’m not going to go back and assign a new reading at this point to account for that particular broken link. The reading will be missed. I’ll have to reevaluate what reading should be used in its place.

 

Supplementing an OER textbook with articles linked from the web is necessary to maintain coverage, but the risk of broken links has to be taken into account.

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Arial? Times New Roman? Which Font to Use to Increase Accessability

Over the summer, I read somewhere that Arial font is the ideal font for online media for readability and accessibility issues. I have since opted to use Arial for everything. My preferred font to this point was Times New Roman. Times New Roman just looks so grown-up! I typically only used Arial when I was an undergraduate and needed one more paragraph to make my page length requirement.

Of course, I can’t find the original article that prompted my switch to Arial, but I wanted to read a bit more on the topic. In typical fashion, now I’m more confused and second-guessing my use of Arial based on articles such as this one.

 

I came across a post expressing hatred towards Verdana, but the author’s main point is that Verdana takes up more space in print, therefore uses more paper (like my Arial font strategy I used as an undergraduate).

 

I’m not sure how scientific this study is (I did no digging to find out), but I like the post because it lays out examples of different fonts side-by-side, so that you can see what the difference looks like.

 

Finally, I found a document about accessibility for both online and print documents that is useful.

 

Beyond readability issues, I had no idea that some fonts simply are not viewable on both Macs and Windows computers. While most of my students are using Windows, some are using Macs.

 

Why does this even matter? I’m thinking about my students. My students who have documented disabilites, but also those who don’t. Some students have undocumented disabilities. Some refuse any accomodations, while others simply do not know what accomodations are available to them. Moreover, I want to make sure my classes (both online and in-person) are accessible to all students. It is much easier to be proactive and make them accessible from the start rather than to revise in rush because of one student with a documented disability.

 

 

I’m still torn with which font works best for which setting. I’m sticking with Arial for now, but plan to do a bit more research on the topic.  Before I do that, I need to figure out how to change the font on this website…

 

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Government Shutdown Snag Using OER

As I was finalizing my presentation on getting started with open education resources for tomorrow’s ICCFA conference, it dawned on me that under my list of potential resources a teacher could use, I include government sources (yes, I realize this is not strict OER). Uh oh! I am using government sources this semester. I reviewed my syllabus for the rest of the semester and found six readings that are linked to government sites. Fortuntately, only two are at shutdown links and I have printed copies of the readings. So this morning, I had them scanned so I can add them as .pdf files to Canvas.

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In-Class Topic Brainstorming: In Action

Each time I assign a research paper, I require that topics be submitted for my approval early in the semester.  Most students submit a topic, but they are often very broad and poorly developed (i.e., I have an idea, but I have no idea what my research question might be). I read about in-class topic brainstorming at The Society Pages over the summer and decided to try it out this fall. I think it worked well. The topics students turned in were much more developed. Students also benefited in that I walked around the room and sat down with some of the groups to help them brainstorm, which they did not get from me under my previous method (i.e., turn it in and I’ll approve it or not). I had a better idea of what kind of topics students were interested in before I sat down to review their topics and could help guide them at an earlier stage. In-class topic brainstorming is definitely staying in rotation as a regular feature of any course with a research paper. 

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What Does Universal Design have to do with Starbucks?

Reading about Starbucks’ plan to now offer braille gift cards year round, reminded me of universal design. I clicked around on the links to the Starbucks’ story and came across a checklist for web accessability. While the checklist is useful for a site such as this, I thought it is probably more pressing to make sure my online courses meet the guidelines. As usual, course revisions are a work in progress, but I plan to slowly work my way through the document.

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Men & Clothes Age, but Women Stay Forever Young

this post was originally published at Sociology In Focus on September 9, 2013.

In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how aging is portrayed in a fashion magazine to explore the norms of aging in popular culture. 

I picked up a copy of the August issue of Vogue at the newstand. This particular issue is “The Age Issue.” The cover proclaims: “Fall Looks for Everyone.”

I saw advertisements with Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, and Jennifer Aniston completely wrinkle-free. No surprise here, but disappointing, considering the issue’s theme is aging. I’m younger than all these women, yet I have more wrinkles than them. Of course, I have never found myself accurately reflected in the a fashion magazine.

Very quickly, I realized this issue of Vogue is not about growing old gracefully or even looking good at any age. The magazine was chock-full of advertising promising “younger looking skin in 15 minutes” or “fighting 7 signs of aging.” One advertisement was for some sort of serum that has “complete age control concentrate” on the packaging. Age control in a bottle. What? What does that even mean? The message I got from all of this is that the appearance of age can be controlled.

Shortly before reaching the mid-point of the magazine is an advertisement for cigarettes. Absent from the ad was any indication that smoking cigarettes causes wrinkles. For an editorial message completely bent on “controlling” aging, one would think that accepting advertising for a product that accelerates the appearance of aging would have been refused.

I read on (let’s be real, I skimmed). The writers of Vogue ask the tough questions:

  • “Can you wear grunge when your kids are wearing it” (p. 106)?
  • “Is traditional [plastic] surgery passé” (p. 120)?
  • “Is height loss inevitable as we age” (p. 134)?


That last question deserves a bit more attention. Importantly, one risk factor associated with stunted height, loss of bone density, and osteoporisis is smoking cigarettes. The cigarette company R.J. Reynolds has three full-page ads in this issue. While Vogue does mention the link between cigarettes and osteoporisis, it is hidden under the subheading of “Skip the Soda.” I’m sure this underemphasis on cigarette smoking is just an oversight on the part of Vogue’s editors and has nothing to do with the advertisers or the lack of medical credentials on the part of the writer, Jancee Dunn. Dunn is a former MTV2 VJ/host, without any medical or health background.

The most interesting feature in this “age” issue (note, “age” not “aging”) is the “All-Ages Show” fashion spread. The magazine labeled each spread for the age-appropriateness of the outfit: 20-something, 30-something, 40-something, 50-something, and 60-something.Vogue, however uses the same model for each layout! The only difference is the clothing. The 60-something is nearly covered from head to toe, while the 20-something wears significantly less clothing.

Looking one’s age is about the clothing one wears, not the biological processes of aging. Vogue consistently denies the biological facts of aging. In this world, women do not shrink, gray, or wrinkle as they age. Only the clothing changes.

Vogue reinforces the mainstream American value of youth over age. In fact, while the cover proclaims, “Fall Looks for Everyone,” the reality is that no one over a certain age can be found in this issue. And then, when older people are portrayed, they are made invisible through the substitution of a younger body (e.g., a young model dressed as a 60-something) or are only written about but not photographed (e.g., “Points of Pride,” which is about 50-year-old former hand model, Nancy Hass). Upon further investigation, the young model in the photo spread is barely 21-year-old, Karlie Kloss–just old enough to portray a 20-something.1 Though it might be tempting to brush this off as typical of a fashion magazine, a similar phenomenon exists in Hollywood. Kyle Buchanan at Vulture finds,leading men age, yet their love interests don’t.

Women, then, are not supposed to age beyond the clothing they wear. Men, on the otherhand, are free to gray and wrinkle.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Visit this link. View the slideshow of the “All-Ages Show.” There are ten photos. Specify which photo is illustrating clothing for a 20-something, 30-something, 40-something, 50-something, and a 60-something. I’ll give you a hint: three are 20-something, one is 30-something, three are 40-something, two are 50-something, and one is 60-something. Be prepared to provide a rationale for each categorization.
  2. Vogue uses the same model for each age category. What does this communicate about how age is valued in the United States? Do you agree with the author that youthfulness is valued over aging? Why or why not?
  3. Watch 30 minutes of TV (e.g., a sitcom, the local news, a reality show). Note the age of everyone portrayed in the show and also in the commercials that air during the show. How does the portrayal of age on TV vary compared to that described by the author? In class, work with 2-3 other students and discuss what you watched. How are your findings similar and different from one another? Why?
  4. There is a discipline that studies aging, called gerontology. Visit The Geronotological Society of America website to learn what geronotologists do. Summarize what a gerontologist does in 3-4 sentences.

1Kloss turned 21 on August 3, which means she was at most 20-years-old in the photographs!

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Learning Demography with the Guess Who? Board Game

This post was originally published at Sociology in Focus on August 14, 2013. 

What can a board game teach us about demography and the U.S. population? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the board game Guess Who? fails to accurately reflect the U.S. population.

I realize that board games are supposed to be “fun” (at least that is what non-sociologists say), but as a sociologist, I feel the need to ruin everything.

My child was super-excited to find Guess Who? at the thrift shop last week. I recall this game existed when I was child, but I don’t recall ever playing it. So when we got home, my daughter immediately showed me how to play. My first observation about the game was that while it does a  semi-acceptable job of portraying racial diversity, it does an especially poor job at portarying gender or age as it actually exists in the United States.

As I examined the people on the board, I began thinking about how representative this board game is of America. While my daughter asked me if any of my people had “eyeballs looking to the side,” I was busy doing a census of the demographics portrayed on the board.

Here’s how race, gender and age demographics (or characteristics) are represented in the game:

  • White = 19 (79.17%)
  • Black = 5 (20.83%)
  • Men = 19 (79.17%)
  • Women = 5 (20.83%)
  • Elderly (or those who have gray hair) = 5 (20.83%)
  • Children = 0
  • Adults (18-65) =19 (79.17%)

Based on this board game, the typical American is a white man aged 18-65. Hmmm….sounds a lot like Hollywood. So how far off is Guess Who? from the American population?Let’s look at the actual percentages from the U.S. Census:

  • White = 77.9%
  • Black = 13.1%
  • Men = 49.2%
  • Women = 50.8%
  • Elderly (or those 65 or older) = 13.7%
  • Children = 23.5%
  • Adults (18-65) =62.8%

Analysis

Black men and women are overrepresented on the board game. White people are slightly overrepresented on the board game compared to their numbers in the U.S. population overall. The overrepresentation of black people on the board game is a result of the lack of other types of racial diversity. None of the people appear to be Asian American, Latino, Native American, or multiracial. Two of the spaces should be filled with these other groups.

Of the black people on the board, four are men and one is a woman. None are over age 65.

The same gender pattern found among black people on the board holds true regarding age. Four of those over age 65 are men and one is a woman. The Scientific American reports

  • Women outlive men by about five to six years. By age 85 there are roughly six women to every four men. At age 100 the ratio is more than two to one.

A more realistic portrayal would mean that three of the older Americans are women and two are men.

Speaking of gender, Guess Who? does an appalling job of representing men and women as they actually exist within the U.S.  To be representative on gender, the manufacturer would need to replace 7 men with women. Women are portrayed as a numerical minority, which they are not.

Dig Deeper:

  1. In your own words, explain what is meant by the term demography.
  2. A board game is just a board game, right? Why might a sociologist argue that board games do matter in how representative they are of the actual population?
  3. Now it’s your turn to ruin something. View a television show or movie, read a magazine, or play a different board game than I did. Find something with people in it and start counting. Create a table with the number of people in the item and make note of race, age, and gender. Compare your results to the U.S. Census. How close does your item come to being representative of the U.S. population?
  4. Visit the U.S. Census website. To the left and middle of the page, you will find QuickFacts. Select your state. How does your state’s demographics on age, race, and gender compare to the U.S. population? Does your state “look like” the nation? If not, how does it differ?
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Website Problem

For some reason, my recent posts are not appearing here. This is a test post to see if this shows up first.

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Universal Design: PowerPoint Accessibility

Years ago I learned to avoid red, green, and yellow on PowerPoint presentations because these colors are difficult to distinguish for color-blind viewers. And, let’s be real, yellow font should never be used on a presentation and green and red are often hard to see on a presentation even for those of us who can see the full color spectrum. This is just good advice all around. Actually, this fits right into the idea of universal design.

 

I attended the 2013 ASA Section on Teaching and Learning Pre-Conference Workshop, “Universal Design: Interrogating Inequality in Learning.” The theme of the workshop was centered on moving from accommodating students with disabilities to making the classroom accessible to all. For example, avoiding red, green, and yellow on PowerPoints isn’t just accommodating color-blind students, but makes the PowerPoint presentation accessible to all. I don’t have to work so hard at reading your yellow font and can instead focus on your message. The goal is to move beyond accommodations by focusing on accessibility and therefore, reaching more students almost by default.

 

Universal design emerged from architecture. My favorite example from architecture has to be drinking fountain placement. By placing drinking fountains at an appropriate height for someone in a wheelchair, children also benefit because they can now more easily reach the drinking fountain, too. The original intent may have been to accomodate one type of person, but the unintended benefit is that other groups are also better able to reach the drinking fountain.

 

So, back to the PowerPoints. I must admit, that my PowerPoints are only accessible based on color-scheme. That’s it. I didn’t realize that there is more to having accessible PowerPoints until I attended this workshop. In my notes, I scribbled “black & white/high contrast” and “test access in ppt.” So, I found information on how to Check for Accessibility Issues. The PowerPoint presentation I made on Friday fails the test. I have an image on every slide without alternative text and no titles. To be fair, this presentation should actually be a screencast video, but I have not figured out how to do that on my Android tablet (which students are using in the class). The PowerPoint presentation was a compromise. I took screenshots of each step and then typed out what I would have said in the video. It isn’t perfect, but it will do for now. I know what I need to do to fix it, and that is now on my to-do list. (The alternative text will be an easy fix. The titles are trickier on this particular presentation or this would be done already because I almost always use titles. I might even just do an audio recording over a slideshow of the photos.) Of course, some will say that I should just do away with PowerPoint altogether. I disagree. PowerPoint can be useful, though most often PowerPoint is just misused.

 

While using the Check for Accessibility Issues feature is useful, this is after the presentation has been created. I’m all about doing things right the first time. So, Creating Accessible PowerPoint Presentations (also PowerPoint tips from Penn State) is helpful reading to make beneficial adjustments from the start.

 

Why is universal design important? I have students (and you do to) who may not realize they have a disability. Or, they know they do and do not want to be treated differently so refuse some or all of the accommodations they have a right to. Making the classroom accessible to all helps you reach these students. Moreover, it makes you better able to reach those students without disabilities, too. Think about it. Titles on PowerPoints not only help you reach those students who are having the slides read to them, but also those who are reading the slides themselves. Titles help the listener/viewer to follow the logic of the presentation. I really like the idea of making the classroom accessible from the start rather than layering in accommodations after the fact.

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