Course: SOC215
Instructor: Janet Vertesi
F 2020

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

SOC 215 highlights the ways in which modern sociological theory can be applied to the internet. The semester was divided into 4 units, titled “Self and Society,” “Stratification,” “Networks,” and “Mobilization.” Though each unit focused on separate themes, as the semester progressed topics from earlier weeks were applied to new content. The primary goal of this course was to demonstrate the impact of the internet on society and to learn how to view the internet through various sociological “lenses.” This course also aimed to demonstrate how the internet and the modern technological world still reflect the ideas discussed in sociological literature, despite their digital characteristics. Broadly, this course serves as an introduction to many branches of sociological theory and uses the context of the digital world as a setting to explore these theories. Each week, the course combined traditional texts with contemporary cases, covering topics such as social media, data privacy, propaganda, protest movements, or the online work economy. This course expected no prior background in sociology and all knowledge expectations of the course were directly tied to lecture content and readings. Familiarity with internet platforms, social media, and modern social movements was helpful for supplementing and engaging with course content, but the course did not rely on specific external knowledge. Students demonstrated knowledge of course content through weekly quizzes and unit tests, two short papers/projects, and a written final exam or final project.  Throughout these forms of assessment, the course emphasized the details of studies, readings, and examples discussed in lecture and the development of analytic skills to apply social theories to new settings and original data sources related to the internet.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

In Fall 2020, this course was primarily taught asynchronously, apart from the weekly 50 minute precepts. Each week followed the same structure: students watched the lectures uploaded each week, completed readings and weekly quizzes, and attended precept. At checkpoints throughout the semester, students submitted short written assignments. The final for the course provided students with the option to take a traditional written exam on course content or to submit a research paper/video lecture on a topic related to the course.   This course was taught through pre-recorded, online lectures. Each week, a series of lecture videos were uploaded, which divided roughly an hour and a half of lecture content into 7-9 shorter segments. These lectures began by covering the sociological theory/theories of the week, and then highlighted modern applications of the theory to the internet. Content discussed in the lectures were directly related to the weekly quizzes and the four unit quizzes, which asked about specific details and terms used in lecture. Lectures also covered the weekly readings. Students had the opportunity to add comments and questions directly to the lecture videos, which served as a helpful tool to clarify lecture content and to participate in the course asynchronously.   Readings for the course were split up into two categories: theory readings and empirical readings. The theory readings were more abstract and applicable to sociology as a whole, while the empirical readings focused on specific case studies related to the internet from research literature, excerpts from books, and journalistic writing. Though the key points from readings were highlighted in lecture, the readings were essential for developing a full understanding of the material.   The quizzes and unit tests were open book and open note, meaning that students could prepare by watching the lecture content and taking notes on key topics, terms, and themes and by completing the readings. This format meant that rote memorization was not required. Instead, students were expected to be familiar with the specific details of the course and be able to recall the major takeaways of the week’s lecture.   Understanding of the major themes and theories of the course was assessed through short papers, called “problem sets.” In these assignments, students were asked to draw on their personal experiences and connect them to one of the provided sociological topics. The problem sets included both an interactive aspect, where students produced their own research, and a written reflection. Students were provided with four options over the course of the semester for these problem sets, with one based on each unit. Each student selected two assignments to complete during the semester. This course structure adapted to the coronavirus pandemic by allowing all work to be submitted at any of four checkpoints in the semester, up until Dean’s Date. It was especially key to spread the timing of these problem sets over the course of the semester, as they required planning when to complete the interactive research phase, which at times involved other individuals, and when to write the paper itself. Additionally, preceptors offered to provide feedback on drafts, making it more beneficial to complete drafts ahead of one of the assignment submission checkpoints. In order to complete these assignments, it was best for students to review key ideas from lectures on the chosen theory topic and to determine how to best highlight the themes of this theory through their chosen source. The ability to draw parallels and connections between the abstract theory and specific details in one’s paper was the most essential for successful completion of the assignments.   Precepts served as a time to discuss themes in the lecture and readings. Precepts were entirely discussion focused, and students led the conversation by bringing up comments and questions on the reading. Often, this included discussions of new examples and settings to which a theory could be applied. For this reason, it was key to have completed all weekly work before precept, in order to be best prepared. Since the course was primarily asynchronous, students needed to manage their own engagement with the content. It was helpful to schedule a set time each week in advance of precept to watch the lecture videos and then complete the readings.   Along with traditional class participation through precept, students could engage with the course asynchronously by posting comments on a Slack channel or the lecture videos, or by annotating the theory readings. This third form of engagement was especially useful for ensuring clear understanding of the theory.

Learning For and From Assignments

The most important aspect of this course is the ability to map an abstract, theoretical concept to a specific digital phenomenon/case study. Each lecture demonstrated this skill through specific examples, and students were expected to learn to apply this skill to new contexts. The short papers prioritized student-driven data collection through methods such as personal reflection, interviews, and immersion into online social settings. The selection of a data source which interested the student was the best way to facilitate the theory application, as students could draw more on personal experiences to improve understanding of the theory in practice.   The other expectations of this course mostly focused on student familiarity with course content - students were not expected to memorize information but needed to retain the major ideas and takeaways for quizzes and tests.   The final exam required the same skills needed to prepare for the unit tests and the short papers - an understanding of the factual/detail elements of the course and the ability to apply social theories to online settings. Like the other assessments in the course, the final exam was open note/open book. Again, this meant that strict memorization was not required, and instead students were expected to have an understanding and fluency about course topics. Along with review resources provided by the course, it was helpful to consider how the course themes connected to new examples and scenarios other than those discussed in class.

External Resources

The best resources external to this course were readings from newspapers and other media sources, as well as videos, discussing topics related to the themes of the course. When reading an article that reminded me of a topic from the course, I tried to see how I would frame the article in the context of one or more of the sociological theories from the course. These resources were similar in style and content to some listed in the course syllabus. Along with using these sources to assess my understanding of course content, I often found them to be useful for preparing for precepts and short papers. In precept, we were often asked to discuss new applications or examples for the theories being discussed, and having an article to reference resulted in productive discussion. Additionally, as the short papers assessed the ability to express a social theory and apply it to a personal experience or set of data, it was useful to observe how reporters and other sources discussed social data and internet phenomena in their own writing.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

This course provides a unique and fascinating view with which to view elements of life on the internet – a familiar setting for college students that serves as an excellent backdrop for introducing broader ideas about society and social behavior. Whether students approach this course from a background in social science, technology, or any other field, this course has applications to social events that affect all students in some way, such as the impact of a global pandemic on online behavior or the role of the internet in supporting protests and social movements. After taking this course, students can expect to better understand the social world around them in tangible ways, through a variety of sociological perspectives. For students interested in pursuing sociology further, this course serves as an introduction to important topics and authors in the field, providing a foundation for future courses. Students in other departments, such as politics, history, and computer science, can often draw direct connections between course content and their academic interests, which could expand opportunities for independent work.
The Sociology of the Internet

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