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All MA students in my graduate program (social sciences) are required to take a course titled 'Thought and Theory'. Ostensibly, the course should serve as an in-depth introduction for students to the contemporary debates and prevailing theories and schools of thought in our discipline. (This is particularly important as there are many students in the program who are new to the discipline, and because the discipline is very broad-reaching.) Students should, at the end of the course, be able to situate their thinking in the overarching disciplinary conversation.

For the first time, this course is being taught not by a social theorist, but by a professor who's specialization is more technical. Instead of assigning foundational texts or the significant thinkers in our field, the professor downloaded the past 20 years worth of publications in one of the field's journals, ran a textual analysis of it, and calculated the articles that had the highest 'centrality score'. We are reading only those articles, most of which have been highly technical, not theoretical, and which offer only a very narrow view of what is going on the discipline.

The students are extremely upset, and feel like we are losing out on an important educational experience. The professor has been unwilling to budge from his pedagogical position, despite many students expressing their exasperation and confusion. He told one student that she was wrong for feeling exasperated and confused.

My question is -- how should we as a current cohort of students in the department address this? The professor himself has been unreceptive to criticism (criticism which has been very polite and often at least trying to be constructive). Do we write a joint email to the department chair? I have close working relationships with other professors in the department, but feel uncomfortable complaining to them about one of their colleagues. What is the etiquette and best course of action here?

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    What is the difference between "theoretical" and "technical"? – Drecate Nov 4 '15 at 3:01
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    @Drecate To me it sounds like the difference between Kant's "Critique of pure reason" and the OSHA Technical Manual. – zibadawa timmy Nov 4 '15 at 3:11
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    which offer only a very narrow view of what is going on the discipline. As opposed to what you expect Instead of assigning foundational texts or (sic) the significant thinkers in our field ... you mean that narrow view? Are you paying to learn, or rebel with emails and become the proxy prof? – Drew Nov 4 '15 at 3:24
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    this course is being taught not by a social theorist, but by a professor who's specialization is more technical I have the very same question as @Drecate does. What's the difference between a social theorist and a more technical person? By technical do you mean natural (hard) science? Or something else? – scaaahu Nov 4 '15 at 3:38
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    Ultimately I think the lesson you should learn here is that there is no one universal consensus for any topic on what's important; or what's foundational; or what's fundamental; or what's significant; or what's relevant; or what's interesting; or what's right; or what's wrong. Interestingly, the last two remain true even in the hard sciences and mathematics (where one can question the choice of axiomatic system, invoke incompleteness results, or have results so complex it takes many decades to evaluate their correctness, etc.). – zibadawa timmy Nov 4 '15 at 6:31
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You might have a good case if this course is manifestly not meeting the department's stated requirements or failing to cover the prerequisites for further courses. However, it's not clear from what you've written whether either of these is the case. The methodology for selecting the readings sounds unusual, but not obviously unreasonable, and seeing this sort of cross section of the field could be a really valuable experience. You complain that the readings are narrow and technical, rather than foundational or significant, and that might be true. On the other hand, the professor presumably feels this is a better use of time than the way the course used to be taught. The fact that the readings are less comfortable and harder to get a handle on could be seen as evidence that this version of the course is what the students need, even if it's not what they want.

The students are extremely upset, and feel like we are losing out on an important educational experience.

This seems to be the crux of the matter: you wish you could have taken the previous version of the course instead. That's a perfectly legitimate desire, and it's worth making it clear to the department in some way (student evaluations, comments to faculty afterwards, etc.). However, that is not the sort of complaint that will lead to any short-term action. Faculty have considerable freedom in crafting courses, and departments are generally reluctant to intervene unless there are serious problems. It's not enough if you just don't enjoy a course or feel that a different course would have been more useful.

So I'd recommend setting aside the issue of regret over not getting to take the previous version. You can register your unhappiness about that later. In the meantime, it's worth formally complaining only if you have objective evidence of something wrong with this course in its own right, and not just in comparison with what could have been.

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    "The methodology for selecting the readings sounds unusual, but not obviously unreasonable" - the description of how the readings were chosen sounds like bibliometrics run amok. I fully agree with the OP that this algorithm is an extremely peculiar choice for an introduction to contemporary debates in the discipline. +1 nevertheless, because your answer is unfortunately completely right. – Stephan Kolassa Nov 4 '15 at 8:39
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    I agree that it's bibliometrics run amok if the professor maintains that these papers are the most important ones because the algorithm says so. That would be a difficult position to defend. On the other hand, one could say "These papers are not necessarily the most important or influential, but their high degree of network centrality means they reflect the zeitgeist in this field. By reading them instead of just the most famous papers, we will get a new perspective on what sort of work is being published and how the field is reacting to new ideas." Still eccentric, but possibly worth trying. – Anonymous Mathematician Nov 4 '15 at 13:52
  • Those are all good points. My concern isn't just with the peculiarity of the algorithm/pedagogy, but that it seems to be broken. The professor has admitted that he doesn't look at what the next weeks' readings are, and so hasn't been able to provide context. At a certain point, if an entire cohort of MA students with diverse interests all agree that they cannot figure out how to extract meaning/value from the coursework, wouldn't you say something is broken with the course? If one student is floundering, then it may fall on that student, but if the feeling is unanimous? – GabeFS Nov 4 '15 at 15:44
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    @GabeFS It sounds like a poorly taught course, and complaining could be a good idea. But I'd still focus the complaint on the deficiencies of this course, rather than comparison with the previous version. (The actionable issue isn't how much worse it is than that course would have been, but rather whether it's a competently taught and professionally respectable course. If it's not, then that's a problem that could get the department's attention, but keep in mind that there's a high bar for intervening in a course.) – Anonymous Mathematician Nov 4 '15 at 18:51
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Many universities have a 'representative' elected for each class and subject. Those representatives have access to teaching committees and appropriate academic staff outside of the specific class. If you have such a person, he or she could seek input from all the students, then talk to the professor and also talk to the broader departmental staff about what the course is expected to teach. It may be that the concern is unfounded, and the representative can allay the concerns, or it may be that the concern is warranted and the teaching committee or similar body can correct the problem.

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I might approach someone on the department's curriculum committee to ask (with an open mind) what role(s) this course is intended to fill within the larger curriculum. There's some chance it may not be what you think!

If you do learn, however, that yes, the instance you're taking is out of whack and not accomplishing the goals it's supposed to, this would be a respectful way to open that discussion with someone who is in a reasonable position to pursue the matter further.

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Frankly, I don't see how the course could be revamped for the fall semester. So in principle, you could wait until course eval time comes around to let the department know what's going on.

You could request that the original version of the course be re-offered in the spring semester.

You could use the syllabus of the previous version of the course to do a study group version of the course.

You could make an appointment to talk with the appropriate department administrator, and offer to your classmates the opportunity to go with you.

See if you can find a big discrepancy between the course description in the catalog, and the focus given by this instructor.

Of the points you mentioned, "The professor has admitted that he doesn't look at what the next weeks' readings are, and so hasn't been able to provide context" would be the type of point to focus on in the meeting.


Try to find something worthwhile doing in this guy's version for the remaining what -- six weeks of class?

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