Writing in the Major Spotlight: Urban Studies 203 & Sociology 204: Modeling Excellence in Disciplinary Writing (and Teaching)

Writing in the Major Spotlight: Urban Studies 203 & Sociology 204: Modeling Excellence in Disciplinary Writing (and Teaching)

[Pictured above: Matthew Desmond and students.  All photos courtesy of Michael Kahan]

In the Writing in the Major courses in both Sociology and Urban Studies, students produce original arguments based on new research. In Urban Studies, students write a proposal in their junior year either for an academic paper or a synthesis project, which can be directed toward an audience of practitioners (designers or community partners, for example). They generally come to the senior seminar with research. By contrast, in Sociology, most students conceive, research, and write a paper in a quarter, which for some will be rolled into their honors thesis. Even though the students in Sociology and Urban Studies come to their WIM courses with diverse goals, the instructors who teach these courses have devised ways to help all students succeed as researchers and writers in their chosen disciplines. All students work toward writing excellence defined by clear learning outcomes and modeled through class analysis of exemplary scholarship.

In Urban Studies, some students follow an ideal trajectory from grant proposal to original research (for instance, interviews or surveys) and analysis before moving to interpretive argument. In other cases, students who don’t get a research grant their junior year or find themselves dissatisfied with their research may opt to change direction and start over from the beginning. How does Dr. Michael Kahan, Director of Urban Studies, accommodate these varied learning needs? Students in US203 all complete a twenty to thirty-page research paper by the end of the quarter, designing their own assignment sequence to align with the course’s learning goals. Kahan sets interim deadlines, and students decide what they need to do for each deadline. For example, by the end of week three, some will have transcribed all their interviews or reviewed the secondary literature; by the end of weeks five and seven, some may have written a memo that explores the themes they’ve observed in their data or they may have drafted their results.

Nicole Phillips, Class of 2018, wrote a creative non-fiction thesis on the graffiti and street art of Sydney, Australia. Over the summer before senior year, she conducted dozens of interviews and took hundreds of photographs. She needed time to process her findings and a space for experimenting, for “trying things out and failing.” Of Dr. Kahan’s class, she says, “People could be honest about where they were.” She deeply appreciated the flexibility in the assignment sequence, the fact that she could say “what her path would look like.” She elected to design a poster for her first big deadline, which gave her a bird’s eye view of her research findings from which her thesis chapters eventually emerged. She ultimately showed how gentrification—and the larger legacy of colonialism—contributed to the cultural erasure of aboriginal and indigenous people.

 Dr. Kahan has devised a number of activities that support all writers at different stages of their process. For example, he asks his students to freewrite for at least five minutes, addressing without stopping and without self-censorship where their project is at. In another class period, he rolls butcher paper across the desks and then scatters markers, stickies, pens, and index cards so that students can visualize their arguments. Toward the end of the quarter, all go to the Hume Center for a mini-boot camp.

Michael Kan with two of his studentsDr. Kahan also assigns an important chapter from Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists, “One Right Way.” Becker works to convince readers that they can be paralyzed if they focus on a single right way to write. He embeds this advice in a sociological analysis of academic life: schools teach you to think this way! Learning to become a writer, then, is about unlearning that training; there are many valid ways to succeed in any writing situation. Becker’s advice can be particularly helpful to US203 students writing in varied disciplinary settings and to diverse audiences. Students often work with an outside thesis advisor who may be from anthropology, political science, or history, so Dr. Kahan talks about diverse disciplinary expectations. He encourages his students to ask their advisors explicitly about things such as registers of certainty as well as citation style or use of the first person. Those writing synthesis projects must consider yet another set of audience needs. For example, students writing a white paper for a city council will adjust their style, organization, presentation of findings, and citations to suit that audience.

 At the University of Pennsylvania, where Dr. Kahan attended graduate school, he received a fellowship for advanced graduate students who taught their own writing intensive courses. He learned a philosophy that aligns with WIM: to name the conventions of a discipline, meet students where they’re at, and treat writing as a process with an emphasis on revision. He was also encouraged to teach transferable concepts such as audience and purpose. Kahan believes this experience taught him more about writing than working on his own writing or taking classes in which writing was not addressed explicitly; too often his courses not only failed to address what writing is but also what good writing is in a disciplinary context.

To remedy that shortcoming, Dr. Kahan asks all students to engage with the writing of “a model scholar” during the quarter. A committee of Urban Studies students selects the exemplary scholar during the prior academic year. Matthew Desmond, William Julius Wilson, and Mary Pattillo have all served as model scholars for Urban Studies, their writing incorporated into the senior seminar. For example, as Dr. Kahan’s students contemplate their own literature reviews, introductions, and conclusions, among other rhetorical elements, they assess the writing of the model scholar, asking “What are they doing? What are they doing well? What could they do better?” The scholar also comes to campus to meet privately with class over lunch and gives a public talk, helping students think about research in new and exciting ways. This year, the model scholar is meeting with students individually to give feedback on their work in progress.

For a time, the Urban Studies and Sociology WIM courses were taught together. In fact, Professor Jackelyn Hwang took Dr. Kahan’s Urban Studies class as a Stanford undergraduate! When she returned to Stanford as a professor and the WIM instructor in Sociology, she adapted much of what she had learned from Dr. Kahan to write the SOC204 syllabus. As in Urban Studies, some students in Sociology complete a research proposal class their junior year, but most who come to Professor Hwang’s class have not yet collected data, and some come in with no prior training in social scientific research. For these students, her WIM has become a crash course in research design. All must work to align their questions with their data, which they begin collecting in week 3; most go to the Social Sciences Resource Center at Green Library for help analyzing their data. Students sometimes wonder why they have to do an original research project in a writing class. That’s because in Sociology, writing is research, Professor Hwang explains, which is also why the course learning outcomes link research methods, inquiry, and analytic writing. She refers back to the learning outcomes consistently. Beginning in week seven, for example, class periods are devoted to each of the four learning goals. She puts the learning goal up on the board (as articulated in the grading rubric) to keep disciplinary standards in mind as students workshop various aspects of their papers.

The assigned readings focus on writing about writing: for example, students read a number of chapters from Charles Lipson’s How to Write a BA Thesis, Robert Alford’s The Craft of Inquiry, and Booth, Colomb, and Williams’s The Craft of Research. Some students may also be required to read chapters on ethnographic field notes or survey research, depending on the nature of their work. In addition, everyone picks their own model article, Hwang’s revision of Kahan’s “model scholar” teaching approach. She specifies that the model article be from one of the top three sociology journals and relevant to students’ methods. She makes these stipulations because students need to see how to present their results, what kind of question can be asked of a particular data set, and how sociologists frame a contribution to the conversation both theoretically and empirically.

 Peer review is important. Students work in the same groups of three all quarter. And self-assessment has a role in SOC203, as in Dr. Kahan’s class. For example, all students attach a cover memo to their final paper describing their revisions, achievement of the course learning objectives, and citizenship in the course. Professor Hwang dedicates 10% of the quarter grade to the student’s revision efforts and achievements. Citizenship counts for 25% of her final grade and includes, among other things, the student’s participation in peer review, timely completion of interim assignments, and contributions to discussion, all of which make for a thriving community of scholars-in-training.

Nicole’s work in US203 resulted in the longest piece of creative nonfiction she had ever produced, a “huge growth experience,” in her words. Dr. Kahan’s WIM class was a great place “to learn to be a writer and an urbanist and a sociologist,” she says. She also appreciated the invitation to assess her work, which helped her reflect on what she originally wanted out of her thesis and her progress toward that vision. But her most “valuable takeaway” was “learning how to give agency to others in giving feedback,” which she says she learned from Kahan. Now that Nicole manages interns, she uses this lesson and is grateful for the “life skills beyond writing and academic study” that her WIM course gave her.

For Dr. Kahan, teaching WIM is “a roller coaster” because the “projects are so individual and so real life. Some students will do so much better than they imagined they could. But for others, expectations aren’t met and they struggle to pull something together.” Professor Hwang loves watching students learn how to collect data, which they don’t get to do in many other classes in Sociology. And while she doesn’t think of herself as a writer, writing is a part of her disciplinary identity. As she says, “writing is the most important part to getting your work out,” a lesson that she is committed to imparting to the next generation of researchers and thinkers about social dynamics.

Works Cited

Alford, Robert R. The Craft of Inquiry: Theories, Methods, Evidence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Becker, Howard S, and Pamela Richards. Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Booth, Wayne C, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Desmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Crown, 2016.

Lipson, Charles. How to Write a BA Thesis: A Practical Guide from Your First Ideas to Your Finished Paper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.