Sunday, April 21, 2013

social media and society: a comparison of three syllabi

by Nan Li

The three syllabi I compare are all from college-level courses focusing on various aspects of social media. The Contemporary Technologies instructed by Don Stanley at UW-Madison explores "a variety of communication technologies and their social effects," with a focus on practical uses of Twitter for marketing purposes. The Media 2.0 course taught by Dawn Gilpin at Arizona State University introduces students to "the contexts and forms of social media." As the syllabus illustrates, the class teaches students "what are social media, who uses them, who gains from them, and how are they transforming the media landscape and the way we inhabit the world." The third class, entitled Culture and Social Media Technologies by Laura Portwood-Stacer at New York University examines social media from a cultural perspective. More specifically, this course focuses on how "media technologies figure in practices of everyday life and in the construction of social relationships and identities."

Despite the common focus on social media technologies, the three classes have distinct purposes and explores the uses and implication of social media tools from different perspectives. A thorough look into the syllabi also reveals the differences in reading materialas, assignments, and the teaching style adopted by each instructor. 

Reading materials

Relevant and recent reading materials are one of the most important components of a well-organized class. All three classes provide a list of required readings along a weekly schedule. The Media 2.0 class includes both required and recommended readings for each week's topic. The reading are all posted on the class blog with hyperlinks that allow students to download and read with ease. The Contemporary Technologies class lists one book as must-read texts along with recommended readings posted irregularly on class blog. The Culture and Social class has heavier loads of readings compared to the other two classes and the reading PDFs are only available on class Blackboard site. 

Comparing the content of readings and the way how they are organized, I think it's critical to provide students with sufficient opportunities to choose materials with diverse arguments on the same problem that the class is trying to address. It is always good to make explicit about what are the required readings and what are recommended. More importantly, informing students about the well-written blogs and other information sources that are openly available is also a good way to teach students how to locate information outside classroom. 


Class assignments are always necessary to let students organize their thinkings, improve their understanding of class materials and receive feedbacks from instructors and peers. I think all three classes do a very good job in arranging assignments with emphases on different objectives. For example, the Media 2.0 class requires the students to write blog post and also comment to others' posts on a weekly basis. Students are also required to explore the functions of various social media tools, such as Twitter, Wiki and Foursquare. Similarly, the Contemporary class teaches students hands-on experiences with using a number of social media tools, including Twitter, Facebook and Google plus for marketing practices of actual organizations. The assignments of Culture and Social class is more "traditional" compared to the other two classes, which concentrate on writing and readings. 

For assignments, I think a common purpose of social media classes is enabling students to use actual social media tools for meaningful changes. However, despite the diversity and popularity, social media tools are always changing, thus create challenges for teachers to show students what are the best strategies of leveraging these tools. A meaningful and helpful assignment should not only teach students how to create a Facebook page or how to set up a Twitter account, but also let students explore the "philosophy" underlying social media tools. Why are these tools social? How to connect people using these tools? How to improve the visibility of your products and services via Twitter and Facebook? I think answering these questions with well-designed assignments will be beneficial for students' future studies and career. 

Teaching style

In addition to lecturing, the three classes have adopted alternative forms of teaching and learning within and outside classrooms. The adoption of new technologies, such as building a class blog or creating a class Wiki can help extend the classroom discussion to online space after class period. Again, I think instructors should implicitly show students how to make a class "social" via using various tools they are supposed to learn about in class. For example, The Contemporary Technology class encourages students to follow the guest speakers on Twitter and directly submit their questions with class hashtag so that the conversations are available to all classmates. I think such practices can engage students and help them gain understanding of the social component of online technologies. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Comparison of Five Science Writing Course Syllabi

By Zhengzheng Zhang

As a professional M.A. student with an emphasis on science communication, science writing is definitely one of my most favorite and necessary course. Thus, here I’d like to compare five science writing courses syllabi, including (1) the one taught in Fall, 2010 by Prof. Carolyn Johnsen at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which I have chosen as my selective course in 2009 as a physics Ph.D. student; (2) the one taught in Spring, 2013 by Prof. Sharon Dunwoody at UW-Madison, which is also what I take in this semester (3) “Science writing for media” course syllabus taught in Fall, 2010 by Prof. Bruce Lewenstein at Cornell University; (4) the one taught by Prof. Tom Yulsman in University of Colorado; (5) the one taught by Prof. James Collier in Fall, 2012 at Virginia Tech. You may find the links to these syllabus at the end of the blog.

All of the five syllabi share several common things. Except for the general elements that are normally shown in a syllabus, such as the information of instructors, office hours, textbook recommendation, school and class policy etc, I also find the similarities in other aspects: the first one is the general design of the course content. Since it is a science writing course, reading, intensive writing and in-class discussion and critique are the key components in these syllabi. Almost all of the five syllabi spend large portions talking about the specific requirements and assignments for these key components, which show that instructors have similar criteria and values when it comes to what kind of skills a science writing class should give to students. The second aspect is the writing load. In all of the five syllabi, writing load will take approximately 70-80%. Although instructors may design what specifically students need to write differently, the overall load are quite similar. The third is, the grading criteria have the similar evaluation factors. For example, all of them take whether a story is able to reach the publication level as one of the key judgement especially as “A” papers. The last but not least is all these universities put a high value on class discussion and group critiques. They pay attentions to students’ oral communication and collaborative work, and all put text reading after class, which is a little similar to filpped classroom teaching.

Their differences are very specific. For example, the goal and structure of the course. Although their goals are in a similar direction in a general sense, which is to teach the skills a student needs as a science journalist, each has their particular focuses. For instance, the syllabus of UNL focus on general writing skills, but the professor does not limit science topics. For the stories, the assumed readers are mostly general audiences but students from science background are also trained in writing for expert. While the goal of UW-Madison science writing mainly focus on the journalistic skills of writing, the professor emphasizes on teaching students how to explain things, storytelling skills using words and images, how to make reasonable judgments about evidence and how to ponder and present issues of evidence, which is a very professional “writing” class. And the assumed story readers are general audiences.

Different from the above two syllabi, the syllabi in Cornell University, University of Colorado and Virginia Tech do not that concentrate on “writing”-though their emphasis is still writing-but all of the three more or less include the social context into science writing, professors in the three universities design discussions, debates or invited speakers speech in their classes talking about the how science journalism interact with the society. Also science writing in UC tend to focus on environmental reporting (specific topic in science writing) and pay attention to practical skills, such as field trips and talking to scientists. This outside classroom part is different from all the other four universities, which take more traditional seminar class style.

Among all the five universities, Virginia Tech’s syllabus is quite distinct from others. The writing style tend to be more in a humanized tone, the professor seems to try to explain every “why” behind each of his requirements and the goal of this course. Also, the writing topics are not only natural science, but also include social sciences. The required writing assignments are not like normal science brief or science features in the other four syllabi, but instead, students are trained to learn how to write abstracts, research proposals and journal articles, which make me feel it seems more like technical writing. But the syllabus notes students are trained for general audiences. The course is also designed to train students reflect the science popularization and the role of science in public communication and debate, which for me, sound more like combining science communication conceptual course and a writing skill course. Not superisingly, the structure of this syllabus is quite different from the other four, which can be found in grading criteria, the professor counts the knowledge of science communication and science populization into the grading portions.

The differences in the goal and structure in each syllabus actually have shown the different purpose of teaching in instructors’ mind. Questions like “what kind of things students need to learn from this class?”, “who are my students?”“what do we want them to obtain in this class?”, or “what should a science writing course bring to my students, to their future career?” all influence how instructors would design his/her course. Comparison of these syllabi help me realize the factors behind them.

Syllabus links:
Virginia Tech:

Social Statistics  II: A comparison and contrast of five syllabus
     The course I am interested in the Sociology 360: Statistics for Sociologists I, taught in the Department of Sociology. It is an introductory course to basic statistics for students in the social sciences. The five syllabuses I am going to compare and contrast are: Geoff Bakken(instructor) taught in summer 2011, Nicole Kraus(instructor) taught in spring 2012, Hongyun Han(instructor) taught in spring 2009, John A. Logan (instructor) taught in spring2012 and Chaeyoon Lim(instructor) taught in fall 2010.
     All the five syllabuses shared the same structure of the contents, including the overview of the course, required textbooks, grades information, detailed course schedule and so forth. For example, they all included the information of the instructor and the teaching assistant, including both office hours, contact information, which made themselves approachable to students. Second, they set clear rules on grades at the beginning of the course. For example, all of them included a table, showing what percentage of each components would count in the final grades. The policy of  made-up exams, grading of home works, penalty of late homework assignments, academic dishonesty were explicitly illustrated. These instructions provide guidelines and boundary for students, from my point of view, which is necessary and helpful for students. This course is basically designed for beginners of social science research. Most of students taking this course are sophomores, meaning they already have a sort sense of scientific study after the first year study in university but no doubly, they are still in the early stage of research. The syllabus not only provide the guidelines, expectations and boundaries for these young starters, but also is a mean of avoiding misunderstanding between students and instructor or TAs and further disagreement caused by ambiguity.

     Since this course is a relatively stable course which has been provided for years, there is no significant difference among these five syllabuses. However, they do differ some details, which showing the emphasis of different instructors and evolution of this Sociology 360. One difference is the adding of data analysis projects in the final grades. In the spring 2009, there was no data analysis project assignment; in summer 2011, there was one data analysis assignment; and in spring2012, there were two data analysis assignments. Accordingly, the weight of  exams decreased from 80% to 65% to 55%. The weight of data analysis project increased from 0 to 15% and to 25% of the final grade. Incorporating one or two data analysis projects into the design of the course, has placed higher requirements on students for fully understanding the concepts and integrating the concepts to solve research question. However, this is also a higher requirement for instructors and TAs. As discussed above, most students are sophomores, who may lack sufficient skills to do research at this stage. How to instruct them do a data project which fit their stage and meet the end of teaching this course is a challenge for both course designers, instructor and TAs.  A step-by-step instruction should be provided in the mid-way of the course, and an exemplar can be provided to show the expectation for students.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Russian History: A Comparison of Three

For this assignment, I chose to identify three syllabi that roughly corresponded to the Russian Imperial period, which is something I loved to study in college. The first syllabus is from a school is Turkey, though the syllabus is in English, and it is from Fall 2012. The syllabus can be found here. The second syllabus is from MIT of Fall 2010 and can be found here. Lastly, I also chose a syllabus from Harvard from Fall 2012, and that can be found here.

It was really interesting to see the different ways Russian history is taught. It is easy for one to assume that the way they learned it is the only way someone can learn it. In my own class, we were told that the textbook we used was the definitive guide to Russian history, as if every introductory Russian course would use it. However, I did not see A History of Russia by Nicholas Riasanovsky and Mark Steinberg on any other syllabus. Furthermore, on a deeper level, since Berkeley lacked Russian history courses I began taking a lot of courses that outlined different philosophies in history that finally led me to the study of historiography, or which is basically the history of history. I was the most engrossed when we were discussing not just the stories of people, but the way people chose to tell those stories. Studying the syllabi of three different courses on the same topic is extremely similar: it is a look into how people tell the story.

The first two syllabi I studied followed a linear narrative pattern. They generally follow the path of monarchs and rebellions until it gets to the Russian Revolution. The Turkish syllabus follows sweeping changes that followed because of bottom-up actions (rebellions, revolutions) and top-down changes from the monarchy and bureaucracy. This narrative is further upheld by the course goals, which include identifying and explaining important Russian people and events. Beyond that, the professor wants to teach critical thinking skills and methods to interpret primary documents when writing a long research paper.

The syllabus from MIT sees Russian Imperial history with a little more complexity. The professor asks weekly questions to keep students on track that show me how inter-connected and complicated a society can be; she does not seem to see history as top-down or bottom-up decisions, but an interplay of literature, autocratic decisions, specific peoples' political pamphlets, and ideas. She still follows generally a linear line through history but doesn't just include a rebellion here or a reform there, rather she focuses on literature to emphasize different perspectives of these events, as Russian history has a deep connection to stories. I also appreciated that she highlighted the Russian psyche of its comparisons to the West.

The syllabus from Harvard may be the closest to an expert historian's point of view. It doesn't attempt to view Russian history through events or people as much as it interprets the actions of people through the lens of processes and institutions. The Harvard syllabus stresses strands within a society, such as industrialization, transportation, religion, government, ideas, and so on. More importantly, it also connects Russia to world history and does not consider it as a bubble. The syllabus connects monarchy and rebellion much more to the specific era those people were in rather than how the people or events shaped the era.

The syllabus from the Turkey is the kind of history most people learn: this happened, and then this happened, and so on. The MIT syllabus improved that kind of study to include more perspectives and interpretations. This seems to be the study of history that more university classes want to be like, as much more critical thinking is involved. However, the last one from Harvard tells the story of Russian history like the other two do, but doesn't tell it inside a bubble. It offers explanations of why one movement might take over another. I think it's the way universities should teach history.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Comparing introductory journalism skills courses

I’m a teaching assistant for J202 Mass Communication Practices, the journalism school’s introduction to news writing and strategic communication skills. J202 is an intense experience for students--I know because I took it myself in 2006. Since I completed my undergraduate degree here, I don’t have a very good understanding of how other universities teach introductory journalism skills. So I decided to look at the syllabi of two courses comparable to J202: J315 News Media Writing & Editing at the University of Texas at Austin and Comm 221 Writing and Editing for Media at Ohio State. (To access the UT syllabus, click the link to get to the UT syllabi database, then type "J315" into the search bar. I used David Garlock's syllabus from fall 2011.)

All three courses are designed as intensive introductions to media practices. All three involve various hands on projects and activities related to writing leads, various story structures, interviewing and media ethics.

The differences among these courses stem from their differing credit values. Though the syllabi don’t specify the exact credit numbers, it can be inferred based on the amount of time spent in lectures and lab, as well as homework load, that UW is the largest at six hours, Ohio State is around four hours and UT is either three or four credit hours.

In terms of big picture topics, only the UW course interweaves strategic communication concepts with journalistic ones. The other two courses are streamlined to focus on news writing and journalistic practices. (Continued ...)