by Eric Geller
Sociology majors preparing for their senior exercises this year found themselves in uncharted territory following their department’s decision to change its comprehensive examination (comps) process. Sociology was the only one to alter its senior exercise this year, and the shift to a new evaluation process has exposed the challenges of altering any curriculum while preserving the department’s appeal for the students most devoted to the particular field.
In previous years, sociology majors took a senior seminar course that prepared them to write a research paper of approximately 25 pages. Students would then present and defend those papers in front of the sociology faculty.
Last fall, under the new system, majors submitted sociological questions to the faculty, who discussed them in front of students during two forums. In January, students submitted and then prepared responses to four new questions, categorized as “Methods,” “Theory,” “Culture and Society” and “Institutions.” On April 13, each student presented a response to one of the topics and answered faculty members’ questions.
Professor of Sociology Howard Sacks, chair of the department, listed several reasons for the new process: under the old system, he said, students were “developing independent topics [for papers] that weren’t being done within the context of courses.
“What resulted was almost an elaborate system in which every single major was doing a mini-honors project,” Sacks said. “That became a serious time-burner for students and faculty alike, because you didn’t have the context of the course in order to do it.”
In addition, because the number of sociology majors has doubled in recent years and now hovers around 20, a single senior seminar course preparing students to write research papers is no longer practical. Splitting the capstone seminar into several sections, Sacks said, would “take opportunities away to teach other courses.”
The sociology department held a dinner meeting with majors on Tuesday, April 29 to gather feedback on the new process. Prior to the meeting, Sacks told the Collegian, “I think everyone is generally satisfied with this new comps,” but added, “I’ll know that a lot more clearly after we have dinner.”
Several sociology majors expressed disappointment with both the new senior exercise and the way the faculty communicated their expectations to students.
“The professors didn’t really know what to expect, we didn’t know what to expect [and] it was very much our class being the guinea pigs for it,” Hannah Beckerman ’14 said. “I think a lot of majors felt a lot of anxiety all year about this change.”
Becca Guttentag ’14 also said that she felt like a guinea pig. After she missed one of the mandatory faculty forums in the fall, she had to write a 15-page paper and lost the ability to receive distinction on her senior exercise.
“I don’t think that the punishment was equal to the crime,” Guttentag said. When she and several other students raised the issue with the sociology faculty, they were told that nothing could be done for them, but that the rule would be changed next year.
“I’m glad that they were able to figure out some of the problems with the major,” Guttentag said, “but I almost wish it hadn’t come at the expense of my own progress.”
Sacks said that the department attempted to “accommodate those [situations] as they came up in a way that we thought was fair and reasonable to everybody.
“There was a degree to which we were trying to respond to things that we hadn’t fully anticipated,” he said.
Beckerman and Guttentag were also dissapointed that the senior exercise no longer involved an extensive research paper. “I really do wish I would have had the chance to do my own independent research,” Guttentag said, “because, really, that’s why I chose the sociology major.”
Beckerman said that she had been looking forward to writing a paper “that was a culmination of everything [she] had learned in sociology.”
To preserve that aspect of the old system, the department has expanded the number of advanced seminars classes it offers, and the main requirement in each of those seminar is a substantial independent research paper.
“The majors this year understand that we were all creating something,” Sacks said. “The majors next year will be inheriting something that existed beforehand.”