Textbook review – Sociology in today’s world (Furze et al. 2012)

I was asked to review an introductory sociology textbook recently, called Sociology in Today’s World (Furze et al. 2012, Cengage) and I thought I’d post my thoughts and comments up here. The reviewer form also asked some broader questions on the challenges associated with teaching introductory sociology, managing assessment, and so on. It’s a great textbook that I’d certainly recommend to sociology students and instructors. Very thorough, accessible writing style, and full of good examples. The review itself on specific chapters might not make a lot of sense without having seen the textbook.

The review is after the jump.

1.5 What do you feel is the biggest challenge you face in teaching introductory sociology?

At Griffith, we have students from a wide variety of backgrounds taking sociology as an elective. Only a small number of students in our intro sociology classes are taking the sociology major. Thus, making the material we cover useful for this wide variety of students can be a challenge, but we meet this challenge by focussing on the sociological imagination as a useful toolkit that will be valuable in many different career trajectories.

1.6 What changes to the content or approach of your sociology teaching do you feel will occur in the next two to three years?

We will be building on what Alf Lizzio (2006) describes as a ‘sense of purpose’ in our undergraduate students. This involves building their ability to conceptualise themselves as ‘sociologists in training’, not necessarily for a career in sociology, but for a more personal career of thinking critically and applying sociological theory to everyday life.

1.7 If you prescribe a text, what elements do you take into account when choosing a text? Please specify

First, it has to be one that doesn’t intimidate students. I teach lots of ‘first in family’ students with low levels of academic capital, so a heavy/dense textbook can be very intimidating (and heavy to lug around!). So it must be very accessible. Second, it must attend to that issue of ‘purpose’ I identified above. The student must regularly be reminded of the value of sociology for understanding their own everyday life and place in the world, and how they fit into a broader set of institutions and power relationships.

1.8 How closely do you link your lectures and assessment to your chosen text?

Quite closely. Currently, each lecture is matched to a single chapter of the textbook we use. All assessment is linked to the textbook – one mid-sem quiz on chapters from the first half of the course, one in-class presentation based on one chapter, an essay that begins with an essay question proposed at the end of one of the chapters, and a final exam that covers all content from the text.

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2.1 What do you consider to be the major strengths of your current text or resources?

It is very accessible and the students always comment in course evaluations that it is easy to read and compelling – they actually want to read it rather than seeing it as a chore.

2.2 What changes, if any, would you like to make to your current text or resources?

I would like to see a more extensive text added as a recommended reading. The current text is good because it is brief and accessible, but it doesn’t offer very much to the students who want to be challenged. Each chapter does end with recommended further reading, but only the most keen students will pursue those readings. Having something more substantial as a recommended purchase for the keener students would be useful.

2.3 What do you like about Sociology in Today’s World and its resources?

As with the text I am currently using, it is written in a very accessible style that makes regular connections to popular culture (sociology at the movies sections are great – very similar to the sections in Think Sociology by Carl et al.). Most pages have some visual elements, which I know the students appreciate.

2.4 How does Sociology in Today’s World compare to the text or resources you are currently using?

It is a more thorough textbook, which is both an advantage (for students looking for a longer read or a challenge) and potentially a disadvantage (for students with less time).

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Chapter 11 – The mass media

3.3 What do you consider to be the key strengths of this chapter?

This chapter begins with a very thorough history of ‘the media’, while also introducing key concepts like imagined communities. The second section on theories of media effects is also very thorough, written in an accessible style and contextualised with good examples.

3.4 What changes, if any, would you recommend to the content and/or approach of this chapter?

The final section on the internet and social life probably deserves a whole chapter in itself, but the author does a good job of attempting to address an array of issues here. As it is though, I would love to see some more Australian research on social network sites in here – there is so much out there, but this is my own area of research so I’m probably a bit biased. The bit on Goffman (p. 265) and the presentation of self could do with one of the ‘key concept indents’ in other sections (ie. soft power and digital divide on p. 258) to single it out as a central idea.

3.5 What recent major issues or references do you think could be included in the chapter?

The section on Twitter could be bulked up substantially by looking at the work of Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess. They do a lot of work on twitter and journalism, too, which would map into the earlier themes in this chapter on the traditional media: http://mappingonlinepublics.net/publications/

3.6 Any further comments on this chapter for our authors?

I’m very glad to see importance placed on the internet for sociologists, here. I think it’s essential that more textbooks do this.

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Chapter 16 – Sexuality and gender

4.3 What do you consider to be the key strengths of this chapter?

As with chapter 11, this is a very well-written and thorough chapter. I think the way this chapter starts off with a very complex example of how messy sex, gender and sexuality can be (the case of Joan/John) is excellent. Whereas most gender chapters might set out the basic distinctions between sex, gender and sexuality, this chapter jumps right into a really powerful example of how complicated the reality can be. I think this opening really challenges students to re-think their conceptualisations of gender, then the chapter moves into the definitions and theories to give the student some scaffolding. After the theoretical material, the chapter then goes on to explore sexuality while regularly asking the student to reflect on their own experience: Where do you fit in? What do you think of same-sex marriage or civil unions? etc. The final two sections are closely related – gender inequality and the feminist movement – and do a good job of walking the student through this material.

4.4 What changes, if any, would you recommend to the content and/or approach of this chapter?

I can’t think of any changes I would make to this chapter, aside from a couple of minor additions that I recommend below. This chapter already does so much, and addresses many of the issues that my students seem most interested in when we discuss gender, that I’m reluctant to suggest any substantial additions or changes.

4.5 What recent major issues or references do you think could be included in the chapter?

I may have missed it, but I didn’t notice a reference to Judith Butler’s seminal work in this chapter? Perhaps the author was unable to include a reference to Butler’s work due to chapter length (or maybe Butler is out of fashion now?) but I’ve always found my students gravitate towards Butler’s notion of gender performativity and find it quite useful. I think even a paragraph on performitivity would fit well in the constructionism section (p. 358 – 361).

4.6 Any further comments on this chapter for our authors?

A wonderful read, thank you!

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5.2 How do you assess your students’ progress and performance?

Through ongoing assessment, especially a mid-semester quiz, but also informal discussions and regularly asking them questions in the lectures and tutorials.

5.3 What do you feel are the major challenges in assessing student understanding and progress in sociology?

Formal exams can be intimidating and do not always properly gauge a student’s comprehension or ability to apply knowledge. On the other hand, informal discussions do not always give students the opportunity to collect their thoughts and articulate a position effectively. Classroom discussions can also be intimidating for shy students. My solution is a range of assessment types to give students the opportunity to work with their strengths. We have an in-class informal presentation, a mid-sem multiple choice ‘quiz’, a 1500 word essay, and a final exam with multiple choice and short essay response questions.

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