I first heard about Princeton University on the famous TV show – Fresh Prince of Bel Air. To be honest, my impression of the university was not helped by the idea that Princeton was somewhere that Carlton Banks wanted to go, and felt welcomed – but my man Will Smith didn’t blend into. I mean, we all identified with Will, did we not?
Fast forward many years later and I just finished an Introduction to Sociology course taught by the extremely intelligent and interesting Mitch Duneier on Coursera and it was a thoroughly gratifying experience. The course started by examining C. Wright Mills idea of the ‘sociological imagination’ – essentially the means by which an individual may connect his personal troubles (ergo biography) to larger public issues of society (ergo history) and use that to make sense of their situation. Essentially, every time we explain a situation we are facing in the context of a larger trend in our society, we are applying the sociological imagination. Consequently, by the application of scientific principles to such questions – we can have faith in the quality of our inferences and be more certain of the relationship between our imagination and reality.
Afterwards, the course examined the role of bias in the social sciences. It was enlightening to explore a more academic interpretation of bias – beyond the quote I wrote down years ago from Dale Carnegie when he said “When dealing with people remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice, and motivated by pride and vanity.” The course also took a look at Becker’s ‘Hierarchy of credibility’ and how that plays out in political and apolitical situations. A lot of that resonated with my readings of Saul Alinsky and other social theorists and activists.
One of the intellectual high points of the course for me was the examination of the impact of ethnocentrism and situationalism in understanding the prisoner torture and abuse by US Soldiers in Abu Ghraib. It was great to read from The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardio, a book I had added to my Amazon wishlist a couple of months ago, but failed to purchase. I commend Prof Duneier’s attempt to address such a sensitive topic purely as a sociologist, especially in a class of 40,000 people from all over the world.
In the final two weeks, we examined attitudes to and the verifiable impact of extreme social isolation, learning about feral children such as Amala and Kamala – the famed Indian twins purported to be ‘raised by wolves’ as well as Kingsley Davis’ investigation of Anna. Also, we read and discussed the impact of groups on individual decision making and also social networks and the ‘strength of weak ties’. Finally, ending the course with a brief exploration of microsociology and its concepts according to Erwin Goffman and the exceedingly humorous – but serious discussion of ‘civil inattentions’ and ‘tie-signs’ by Prof Duneier during the final lecture.
It was a great privilege and honor to be invited to participate in the final live seminar with a handful of other students out of the 40,000 enrolled in the class, especially after the blooper that made me miss Week Five’s seminar after I had agreed to participate and logged into Google hangout for the event. But thats another story.
One thing that has been clear to me over the course of participating in yet another online course over the past few months is – online models for teaching courses in the social sciences and humanities have the potential to be very effective over the next couple of years. For instance, the use of peer grading on both the mid terms and the finals not only made the grading of such a large number of submissions possible, but extended the learning experience in ways that most traditional courses are incapable of. Consider the power of repetition and allowing students to review their peer’s submissions as means of reinforcing concepts learned and enabling them to see things from other individuals’ perspectives. One of the people that reviewed my midterm actually left me a message thanking me for sharing my personal experience – just as I had done for one of the five papers I reviewed. Debbie Morrison who was my classmate also thinks that it worked as well.
In summary, my ‘once upon a course in Princeton’ has ended satisfactorily. I submitted my final exam a few hours ago and proceeded to write this post – and now I await the chance to peer grade in a few days. In fact, I did not even bother totaling my score on midterm because I do not feel the need to verify externally whether or not I gained from the course or grabbed the concepts. The gratification that a student would usually get from receiving a grade at the end of a course has been spread evenly over every aspect of the six week event leaving me, thoroughly, totally onlinetened.
Onlinetened: combination of ‘online’ and ‘enlightened’
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