Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Consumer-Oriented Research Methods Class?

I am contemplating a heresy is sociology teaching: a "Research Methods" class aimed at educating consumers, rather than producers, of sociological research.

(I mean, of course, consumers of research - people who read statistics in the newspapers, for example - not consumers of commodities.)

This fall I will be teaching "Research Methods" for the first time.  I have been able to avoid this task for so long because my excellent colleague has borne that duty.  Alas, she is moving on.

I have always been skeptical of a free-standing methods class.  Looking at methods textbooks and beginning statistics texts confirms my sense that studying methods at a distance from a real problem that you are researching is impossibly dry.

On the other hand, I am a firm believer that half the job of teaching is helping students become culturally literate about what they should already know, and discerning consumers of what new knowledge they meet in the future.

So I have been thinking about teaching "Research Methods" aimed primarily at understanding the research that others have done and are trying to persuade us with.  This applies to classic studies as well as to the avalanche of election statistics flowing over us.

We would, of course, do some actual number crunching to get the hang of it.  I am thinking of giving each student a year of the General Social Survey to answer questions with.

But I would welcome your help in thinking about what a consumer-oriented research methods class would look like.


Brendan said...

I think this is a great idea, especially as a low-level requirement (if it is one). The use case of a research-consumer class seems to me to be about teaching skepticism. That in turn would require a reasonable level of statistics--standard deviations, expected values, what a margin of error actually is, etcetera. I'm sure you already cover the problematic nature of primary sources in other classes, but this year in particular, a week on cases like Mike Daisey and David Foster Wallace would be appropriate too.

Sister Edith said...

I've been teaching RMethods for a few years, but for the PSY Dept (ignominy: a sociologist teaching experimental designs!) there are so many concepts that social scientists take for granted but which my students have a hard time even grasping. I do teach using a number of actual studies, especially when I can get video or audio to bring them to life. Andrew Harrell's studies about parents' care for attractive vs less attractive children is just great for many of the concepts of measurement, and NPR has the clip of an interview with him.

I do spend quite a bit of time on survey methods. Just about every educated person will eventually want to do some small informal survey - community needs, school issues, job settings. Most of them are terribly done - no decision should be made on the basis of the data. I try to innoculate against it by snagging whatever dreadfult survey has most recently gone by at our College and working with the class to improve it.

I do like the idea of a free standing RM course just because there are so many related concepts. But without using a lot of actual studies, the textbooks are like studying anatomy but only having the bones.

May it go well for you!

Kerri said...

I think that would be great! I think the number crunching is important, but it's also important to be able to process and analyze other sorts of info.