Soci 10: American Society (2019)

University of California, San Diego
Winter 2018-19
Tu Th 2:00–3:20, Mandeville B-150

Lane Kenworthy
Office hours: Tu 10:00–12:00, SSB 472

This course explores key issues in contemporary America and how (social) scientists — as well as journalists, advocates, and policy makers — approach them. We’ll examine questions such as: Why haven’t we made more progress in reducing poverty? Why don’t Americans live longer? Is income inequality ruining everything? Will marijuana legalization be good or bad? Why don’t more Americans live in cities? Why is there so much gun violence? Why has obesity increased? Are African Americans catching up with whites or falling farther behind? How far have we come on LGBTQ inclusion? Does big government harm the economy? Why are our politics so polarized? Is religion on the decline? Have Americans gotten lonelier? Does US military intervention in other countries help or hurt?

For each issue, we’ll also consider what can be done to make things better.


Jan 8 (Tu)
Course introduction

  • No readings

Jan 10 (Th)
How do we know?

  • Watch before class: Michael Moore, Where to Invade Next, 2015, 120 minutes ($4). LINK
  • Read before discussion section: “America Is Exceptional … and Ordinary,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: “How Do We Know?,” The Good Society. LINK

In-class quizzes begin Tuesday, January 15

Jan 15 (Tu)

  • Read before class: “A Decent and Rising Income Floor,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: Eduardo Porter, “GOP Insists Making Poor People Work Lifts Them Up: Where’s the Proof?,” New York Times, 2018. LINK

Jan 17 (Th)
Life and death

  • Read before class: “Longevity,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: Marcia Angell, “Opioid Nation,” New York Review of Books, 2018. LINK

Jan 22 (Tu)
Marijuana legalization

  • Read before class: “Marijuana,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: Christopher Ingraham, “Why This ‘Horrible’ Idea for How to Legalize Pot Could Be Worth Voting For,” Washington Post: Wonkblog, 2016. LINK

Jan 24 (Th)
Income inequality

  • Read before class: “Is Income Inequality Harmful?,” The Good Society. Read the introduction, the first four sections, and the last four sections. LINK
  • Watch before discussion section: Robert Reich and Jacob Kornbluth, Inequality for All, 2013, 91 minutes ($3). LINK

Jan 29 (Tu)

  • Read before class: Edward Glaeser, “How Skyscrapers Can Save the City,” The Atlantic, 2011. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: Eduardo Porter, “The Hard Truths of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy,” New York Times, 2018. LINK

Jan 31 (Th)
Exam 1
This exam will cover material from readings, videos, and lectures plus numbers 2, 8, 9, 15, 18, 20, 25, 26, 28, and 33 of 100 Things to Know.

Feb 5 (Tu)

  • Read before class: “College Education,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: Catharine Hill, “Free Tuition Is Not the Answer,” New York Times, 2015. LINK

Feb 7 (Th)

  • Read before class: “Guns,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: Ross Douthat, “Liberalism’s Gun Problem,” New York Times, 2015. LINK

Feb 12 (Tu)

  • Read before class: “Weight Moderation,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Listen to (or read) before discussion section: Stephen J. Dubnar, “There’s a War on Sugar. Is It Justified?,” Freakonomics podcast, 2017. LINK

Feb 14 (Th)

  • Read before class: “Is Big Government Bad for the Economy?,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: N. Gregory Mankiw, “I Can Afford Higher Taxes, But They’ll Make Me Work Less,” New York Times, 2010. LINK

Feb 19 (Tu)

  • Read before class: “Is America Too Polarized?,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira, “California Is the Future of American Politics,” Medium, 2017. LINK

Feb 21 (Th)
Inclusion: women

  • Read before class: “Inclusion: Women,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: Hanna Rosin, “The End of Men,” The Atlantic, 2010. LINK

Feb 26 (Tu)
Exam 2
This exam will cover material from readings, videos, and lectures since exam 1 plus numbers 37, 38, 40, 44, 45, 46, 47, 50, 56, and 57 of 100 Things to Know.

Feb 28 (Th)
Inclusion: African Americans

  • Read before class: “Inclusion: African Americans,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, 2014. LINK

March 5 (Tu)
Inclusion: LGBTQs

  • Read before class: “Inclusion: LBGTQs,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Watch before discussion section: Katie Couric, Gender Revolution, 2017, 92 minutes ($7). LINK

March 7 (Th)

  • Read before class: “Religion,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: Robert P. Jones, “The Evangelicals and the Great Trump Hope,” New York Times, 2016. LINK

Research paper due: Tuesday, March 12, 2:00pm

March 12 (Tu)
Social connections

  • Read before class: “Social Connections,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: David Brooks, “The Blindness of Social Wealth,” New York Times, 2018. LINK

March 14 (Th)
Foreign policy

  • Read before class: “US Military Intervention Abroad,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Read before discussion section: Kenneth Pollack, “Fight or Flight: America’s Choice in the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, 2016. LINK

March 21 (Th), 3:00-6:00pm
Exam 3
This exam will cover material from readings, videos, and lectures since exam 2 plus numbers 61, 62, 64, 65, 72, 73, 75, 92, 98, and 100 of 100 Things to Know.


Here’s what you should get from this course:

Approaching issues scientifically. Many of the issues we’ll look at are front-and-center in popular discussion, journalistic coverage, and political debate. This discussion would be better, and more helpful to policy makers, if it were more informed by science. Approaching an issue scientifically means, among other things, considering empirical evidence rather than relying mainly on theory or ethical beliefs, looking for data rather than anecdote(s), looking for multiple sources of evidence (“If hypothesis A were true, what else would we expect to observe?”), and thinking about whether some types of evidence are more useful, and thus should be weighted more heavily, than others.

Asking important questions. For any issue or topic, there are multiple questions we might want to answer. Many are of interest, but some are more important than others.

Understanding argument and evidence. For each class day, you will do a reading in advance. In class you’ll be quizzed on the information in that reading. Focus on the question(s) being posed, the answer(s) given, the key pieces of evidence, and the way the author reasons from the evidence and other considerations (laws, ethical views, etc) in reaching a conclusion.

Dealing with complexity. The issues we’ll examine are big and complicated. Scientists have struggled to understand the nature of the problem(s), to identify the main cause(s), and to figure out the most useful solution(s). The process is like detective work: seldom is the story simple and rarely do we have the exact evidence we’d need in order to be strongly confident about our conclusion, so we must ask an assortment of questions, use various types of data, and think systematically.

Spotting the progress. Social scientists and journalists often emphasize our problems and shortfalls. That’s helpful, because it spurs us to do better and (hopefully) helps us figure out how to do so. But it can also give us the impression that things are getting worse. Sometimes that’s accurate, but in other instances it’s misleading. In fact, in many areas of life things have been improving and we could be doing better.

Comfort with quantitative data. A generation ago there was a scarcity of numerical data. Now we have an abundance: data are everywhere. That’s a good thing, because data are key to answering important questions about society. You will encounter lots of quantitative data in this course, often in graphical form. If you aren’t already comfortable interpreting such data and reasoning from them, by the end of the course you should be.

Verbal communication. The discussion section for this course is designed to foster conversation about the issues we’ll consider. Your discussion section grade will be based entirely on your participation.

Written communication. You will write a research paper. I expect the quality of writing to be very high. If you struggle with writing, you’re like virtually everyone else. Good writing usually comes from extensive editing. Write a draft. Then edit it. Then edit it again. And again.

Concision. Information and opinion are plentiful these days, so brevity is a valuable skill. The research paper you will write is short, so you’ll need to focus on the information and argument that is most relevant or useful.

Independent research. The research paper is on a topic not covered in the course. You’ll need to do some outside reading, decide on your proposal or position, and assess the degree to which evidence supports it.

Developing a good argument. The course materials and lectures are designed to expose you to ways of developing and conveying effective argument. Keys include focusing on a specific question, formulating a clear proposal or position, making use of relevant evidence, addressing potential objections and counterarguments, and communicating clearly.

Substantive knowledge. Last, but not least, the course aims to improve your understanding of the issues we cover.


The course readings and videos are available via the links in the schedule above. You’ll also need an iclicker, which you can purchase at the campus bookstore.


No laptops, tablets, or phones during lecture. The best available evidence suggests that college students learn more when not using these devices. If you want to take notes, use pen and paper. If you need an exception to this policy, please see me.


Course grades will be determined as follows. See below for details.

  • 18%: discussion section attendance and participation
  • 18%: quizzes
  • 13%: exam 1
  • 13%: exam 2
  • 13%: exam 3
  • 25%: research paper

Each of these will be graded on a scale of 0 to 100. So your numerical course grade is calculated as: (discussion section grade x .18) + (quizzes average grade x .18) + (exam 1 grade x .13) + (exam 2 grade x .13) + (exam 3 grade x .13) + (research paper grade x .25).

Your letter grade for the course will be determined as follows:

  • 96.67 and above = A+
  • 93.34–96.66 = A
  • 90–93.33 = A–
  • 86.67–89.99 = B+
  • 83.34–86.66 = B
  • 80–83.33 = B–
  • 76.67–79.99 = C+
  • 73.34–76.66 = C
  • 70–73.33 = C–
  • 60–69.99 = D
  • below 60 = F

There will be no extra-credit projects or assignments.


Crystal Ben
Teaching Assistant
Section A01, Th 5:00–5:50, Center Hall 207
Section A02, Th 11:00–11:50, SSB 101
Office hours: Tu 11:50–1:50, Intertribal Resource Center (Price Center West, 2nd floor)

Your discussion section grade will be based on your participation.

Attendance can also affect your grade, in the following way: You’re allowed to miss one section meeting without penalty. If you miss two, your discussion section grade will be reduced by 5 points. If you miss three, it will be reduced by 15 points. If you miss four, it will be reduced by 25 points. If you miss more than four, your discussion section grade will be zero.


Each day in class, beginning on our third class meeting, you will take a short quiz on the reading for that day. Each quiz will have five multiple choice or true/false questions. You will answer the questions using your iclicker. There will be 16 quizzes; only your highest 13 grades will count.

Quiz grading: If you answer at least four questions, you will get 50 points (even if you have no correct answers). For each correct answer, you get ten additional points. So if you answer four or more questions, your grade is 60 with one correct answer, 70 with two correct answers, 80 with three, 90 with four, 100 with five.

You must register your iclicker with TritonEd. To do that, go to, log in, choose this course, and click on “Register iclicker” in the blue menu bar. If you get a new iclicker at any point during the quarter, register it immediately.

For technical support with iclicker registration and use, contact Educational Technology Services.

You can take a makeup if you have to miss a quiz for any of the following three reasons: (1) holidays or special events observed by organized religions (for students who show affiliation with that particular religion), (2) absences pre-approved by the UCSD Dean of Students (or Dean’s designee), (3) extended illness (this requires a doctor’s note). If you miss a quiz for one of these reasons, contact me no later than the day of the quiz to schedule a makeup. I will need written verification of the circumstances.

You cannot take a makeup if you miss a quiz for any other reason. This includes faulty iclicker registration, forgetting to bring your iclicker to class, stolen or lost iclicker, iclicker malfunction, dead iclicker battery, needing to arrive late to class or leave class early, oversleeping, minor illness, transportation problem, family or friend’s special occasion, family problems, family illness, needing to study for another course, etc.

Two pieces of advice regarding the quizzes: (1) Evidence is important, but don’t get overly bogged down in detail — exact numbers, precise dates, and so on. (2) Don’t overthink the quiz questions. Don’t assume I’m trying to trick you.


Each exam will consist of 50 multiple choice, true/false, and short answer questions.


Answer the following question: What’s the most useful thing we could do to increase happiness in the United States?

Grading will be based on the following:

  • Answer the question.
  • Refer to relevant evidence. Opinion and logic are fine but insufficient.
  • Address potential objections.
  • Write clearly.
  • Use proper grammar and punctuation (“I,” “me,” and contractions are fine), and adhere to the following length, formatting, and citation instructions. Length: 1,500 words (excluding footnotes), plus or minus no more than 100 words. List your word count on the first page, along with your name and the date. Formatting: single-space, 12-point font size, 1-inch top and bottom margins and 2-inch side margins. Sources and citations: Consult at least five sources of your choosing. Use footnotes (not a reference list or bibliography) to give credit to anyone from whom you borrow evidence or argument. The footnotes aren’t included in the word count. I’m not picky about the formatting of the footnotes, but include the author(s), title, and year rather than just an internet address.

If you need help with writing, consider seeking assistance from the UC San Diego Writing and Critical Expression Hub.

The due date is listed above. A paper turned in late but within 48 hours of the deadline will be penalized 25 points (out of 100). A paper turned in more than 48 hours late, or not turned in at all, will receive a grade of zero.

Upload your paper on TritonEd. Go to, log in, choose this course, and click on “Upload paper” in the blue menu bar. Emailed or hard copy papers won’t be accepted.

Submit the paper in a word processing program format (Microsoft Word, Google docs, Pages, etc.). Don’t submit it as a pdf document.

Don’t plagiarize. If you aren’t sure what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it, see the UC San Diego Library’s guide to preventing plagiarism.


Students are encouraged to share intellectual views and discuss freely the principles and applications of course materials. However, graded work must be the product of independent effort unless otherwise instructed. Students are expected to adhere to UC San Diego policy on academic integrity.


Students who need special accommodation or services should contact the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD). You must register and request that the OSD send me official notification of your accommodation needs as soon as possible. Please meet with me to discuss accommodations and how the course requirements and activities may impact your ability to fully participate.


Information here, other than the grade and attendance policy, may be subject to change with advance notice, as deemed appropriate by the instructor.