University of California-San Diego
Zoom office hours: Tu Th 8:00-9:20am and by appointment
Teaching Assistant: Eunchong Cho
Zoom office hours for section A01: M 10:00-10:50am
Zoom office hours for section A02: M 11:00-11:50am
Additional Zoom office hours by appointment
Teaching Assistant: Germano Ribeiro
Zoom office hours for section A03: M 2:00-2:50pm
Additional Zoom office hours by appointment
This course explores key issues in contemporary America and how social scientists — as well as journalists, advocates, and policy makers — approach them. We’ll also consider what can be done to make things better.
The course will be entirely online and asynchronous.
Readings and lecture videos are on Canvas. The course has 20 modules. We will cover two each week. For each, beginning with the third, you will take a 10-question quiz, accessed via Canvas, on the readings and lecture videos. There will be 18 quizzes; only your highest 14 grades will count. We won’t meet during the scheduled class time, but I’ll be available via Zoom during that time to answer questions and discuss.
Once per week, beginning in week 2, you’ll write a short comment on assigned readings/videos and post it to a discussion board on Canvas. These are due at 11:59pm on Tuesdays. You will also respond to the comments of two other students; these responses are due at 11:59pm on Thursdays. The discussion sections won’t meet during the scheduled time, but a teaching assistant will be available via Zoom during that time to answer questions and discuss.
There will be two open-note take-home essay exams.
All times listed in this syllabus and in Canvas are California time.
- Course aims
- Course materials
- Zoom office hours
- Discussion boards
- Academic integrity
- Special needs and accommodations
- Subject to change
Here are the topics we’ll cover. The full schedule is in Canvas.
March 29-30 (M Tu of week 1)
March 31 and April 1 (W Th of week 1)
How do we know?
Quizzes and discussion boards begin in week 2
April 5-6 (M Tu of week 2)
In what ways is the United States exceptional?
April 7-8 (W Th of week 2)
Why isn’t there less poverty in America?
April 12-13 (M Tu of week 3)
Why is there so much gun violence?
April 14-15 (W Th of week 3)
Why don’t Americans live longer?
April 19-20 (M Tu of week 4)
Is income inequality ruining everything?
April 21-22 (W Th of week 4)
Should marijuana be legal?
April 26-27 (M Tu of week 5)
Why don’t more Americans get a four-year college degree?
April 28-29 (W Th of week 5)
Why don’t more Americans live in cities?
May 3-4 (M Tu of week 6)
Are Black Americans catching up with whites or falling farther behind?
May 5-6 (W Th of week 6)
What’s gone wrong with non-college-degree whites?
Exam 1 due: Friday, May 7, 11:59pm
May 10-11 (M Tu of week 7)
Are we near gender parity?
May 12-13 (W Th of week 7)
How far have we come on LGBTQ inclusion?
May 17-18 (M Tu of week 8)
Should the US have higher taxes?
May 19-20 (W Th of week 8)
Is work-family-leisure balance a thing of the past?
May 24-25 (M Tu of week 9)
Does America have a loneliness epidemic?
May 26-27 (W Th of week 9)
Should America end its “endless” wars?
May 31 and June 1 (M Tu of week 10)
Is America too polarized?
June 2-3 (W Th of week 10)
Who wins elections and why?
Exam 2 due: Thursday, June 10, 11:00am
The course aims to improve your
- Knowledge and understanding of key social issues in the contemporary United States.
- Ability to approach social issues scientifically: identify significant questions; identify testable hypotheses; identify and assess relevant evidence, including quantitative data presented in graphical form; evaluate counterarguments; reason from evidence to conclusions.
- Ability to write concise analytical comments and essays evaluating explanations of social processes and outcomes.
Let me elaborate a bit on the things you can expect to get from the course:
- Substantive knowledge. The course aims to improve your understanding of the issues we cover.
- Approaching issues scientifically (this is often called “critical thinking”). This means examining evidence and reasoning from that evidence rather than relying solely on theory, ethical beliefs, or anecdotes. Social science often is similar to detective work, with the social scientist more like Sherlock Holmes than like a chemist in a lab. Seldom is the story simple, and rarely do we have the exact evidence we would need in order to be strongly confident about our conclusion. So we use various types of data, and we may deploy a mixture of analytical methods. We ask: “What would we expect to observe if a particular hypothesis were true? Is that what we in fact observe? If so or if not, what does that tell us about the answer to our question?” Then we piece together a conclusion from multiple imperfect and incomplete bits of evidence. For each topic we cover in the course, there will be one or more readings and videos. Focus on the question(s) being posed, the answer(s) given, the key pieces of evidence, and the way the author reasons in reaching a conclusion.
- Good argument. The course is designed to improve your ability to develop and convey 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.
- Written communication. Good writing usually comes from two things. The first is clear thinking. But writing isn’t just a way to express what you’re thinking; it’s a way to clarify your thinking. Don’t wait until you have it all figured out before beginning to write. Start writing; doing so will help you develop your thoughts. The second key is extensive editing. Write a draft. Then edit it. Then edit it again. And again. (For a helpful guide to good writing, see this.) If you struggle with writing, you’re like virtually everyone else. The course aims to help you improve, by practicing. There are weekly written discussion posts and two take-home essay exams.
- Concision. Information and opinion are plentiful these days, so brevity is a valuable skill. The discussion posts and exams for the course are short, so you’ll need to focus on the information and argument that is most relevant or useful.
- 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.
Here are a few things you won’t get from this course:
- It’s not all awful. 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. 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 we could be doing better and yet things have been improving.
- We won’t focus on sociological concepts such as norms, roles, socialization, habit, groups, community, systems, networks, structure, social reproduction, stratification, status, power, deviance, discrimination, segregation. We’ll come across some of these, but I won’t attach any special importance or centrality to them.
- We won’t make use of the functionalist, conflict, and interactionist theoretical perspectives that are prominent in some sociology textbooks.
- We’ll pay little attention to influential theorists. For this, consider taking a sociological theory or history of sociology course.
- In some social science and humanities courses, a key objective is to learn how to decipher complex or abstract texts — to convert them into understandable terms and concepts in order to gauge their usefulness for analyzing contemporary issues. We won’t spend time on this.
Most of the readings are from a digital textbook: Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society. It’s online and free. Direct links to the chapters, and to additional required readings and videos, are in Canvas.
The readings from the digital textbook are the centerpiece of the course. I use lecture videos to supplement these readings — to highlight certain points, to clarify, to add a little extra. For conveying information, and also for modeling how to evaluate evidence and how to reason from evidence, written text (with graphs, tables, pictures) is the best medium. This type of learning often involves a large amount of information. It benefits from multiple re-readings, and from constant back-and-forth between prose and tables or graphs. This is harder to do with a video than with written material. With video, the learner has to constantly rewind and replay. That’s why scientists continue to convey findings mainly via articles and books rather than videos. It’s why rules and procedures are written rather than documented in videos. (If the aim is to improve students’ ability to solve math or physics problems, the best instructional format may be the short Khan-Academy-type video, because seeing how to work through the process is more helpful than reading about it. And for some types of learning, longer videos are quite effective.) So while the lecture videos and the additional readings and videos are important, you should emphasize the readings from the digital textbook.
A note on readings from the New York Times: The Times allows non-subscribers to access a certain number of articles for free. If you exceed that number and they cut off your access, I suggest you get a student subscription for $1 per week ($11 total for this 11-week course). You can cancel the subscription at any time.
ZOOM OFFICE HOURS
During the scheduled class time (see above), I will be available to answer questions and discuss via Zoom. These meetings are optional. To connect, click on the Zoom meeting link in Canvas.
During the scheduled discussion section time (see above), a teaching assistant will be available to answer questions and discuss via Zoom. These meetings are optional. To connect, click on the Zoom meeting link in Canvas.
Course grades will be determined as follows. See below for details.
- 30%: quizzes
- 30%: discussion board comments and responses
- 20%: exam 1
- 20%: exam 2
Each of these will be graded on a scale of 0 to 100. So your numerical course grade is calculated as: (quizzes average grade x .30) + (discussion board grade x .30) + (exam 1 grade x .20) + (exam 2 grade x .20).
Your letter grade for the course will be determined as follows:
- 96.67 to 100 = A+
- 93.34 to 96.66 = A
- 90 to 93.33 = A–
- 86.67 to 89.99 = B+
- 83.34 to 86.66 = B
- 80 to 83.33 = B–
- 76.67 to 79.99 = C+
- 73.34 to 76.66 = C
- 70 to 73.33 = C–
- 60 to 69.99 = D
- below 60 = F
There will be no extra-credit projects or assignments.
For each module, beginning with the third, you will take a short quiz on the readings and lecture videos. There will be 18 quizzes; only your highest 14 grades will count. Each quiz will have 10 multiple choice or true/false questions. There will be 18 quizzes; only your highest 14 grades will count.
The quizzes will be posted on Canvas. Each quiz will be available for 48 hours, from 12:01am on the first day until 11:59pm on the second day. Once you begin a quiz, you’ll have 30 minutes to complete it.
The quizzes are open-note open-computer.
If you have the Canvas app, you can take the quizzes using your phone.
You can skip a quiz, which will reduce the number of quizzes that count for your overall quiz grade, if you have to miss it 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). I will need written verification of the circumstances.
Once per week, beginning in week 2, you’ll write a short comment on assigned readings/videos and post it to a discussion board on Canvas. These are due at 11:59pm on Tuesdays. You will also write brief responses to the comments of two other students. These responses are due at 11:59pm on Thursdays. You have to post your own comment before you’re allowed to see the comments posted by other students.
Comments should address something in the course materials for that module, should engage with evidence, and should be written well. Here are a few examples, just to give you a feel. You don’t need to follow these examples; this is just to give you some ideas in case you aren’t sure what is expected.
- The op-ed for this module was interesting, but I wasn’t convinced, because the author didn’t consider ….
- The textbook reading for this module says that Figure 3 supports gun control. But it seems to me that’s wrong because ….
- In the movie, the narrator argues that women’s freedom increased because more were entering paid work. If that were true, I think we’d expect to see …, but there’s no mention of this.
If you have the Canvas app, you can post your comment and responses using your phone. But don’t write as though you’re texting or tweeting. Write real sentences and use proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Grading for each discussion board comment and responses:
- 100: comment and responses submitted on time, good quality, well written, comment includes evidence
- 75: comment and responses submitted on time but low quality or poorly written or comment doesn’t include evidence
- 50: comment or responses submitted late, or only a comment but no responses
- 25: comment or responses submitted late and low quality or poorly written or no evidence
- 0: no comment submitted
There will be 9 discussion boards. Only your 8 highest grades will count.
Each exam will have one question. The question will be posted on Canvas one week before the exam is due.
Write your answer in a word processing document (Microsoft Word, Google docs, Pages, etc.).
The exams are open-note open-computer.
You should draw on the course readings and videos. You can also use outside sources if you wish, but that isn’t required.
Grading will be based on the following:
- Answer the question.
- Refer to relevant evidence. If you include charts and/or tables, put them at the end and don’t include them in the word count.
- Address potential objections. What would a critic say are the weak points in your case? How do you respond?
- Write clearly.
- Use proper grammar and punctuation (“I,” “me,” and contractions are fine), and adhere to the following length, formatting, and citation instructions. Length: No more than 1,000 words (excluding charts, tables, and footnotes). 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. 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 Hub.
The due dates are listed in the schedule above. An exam turned in late but within 48 hours of the deadline will be penalized 25 points (out of 100). An exam turned in more than 48 hours late, or not turned in at all, will receive a grade of zero.
Upload your exam answer on Canvas. Emailed or hard copy exam answers won’t be accepted.
Submit your answer 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.
SPECIAL NEEDS AND ACCOMMODATIONS
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.
If your access to the internet is limited, please let me or a teaching assistant know.
SUBJECT TO CHANGE
Information here, other than the grade and attendance policy, may be subject to change with advance notice, as deemed appropriate by the instructor.