Summer Travels and Teaching Overseas

PassportLast summer I taught at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey and this summer I’ll be headed to the University of Gondar in Ethiopia. As I get ready for departure, I want to do a blog post on teaching overseas.

Although, I cringe when people call me a “teacher” (since I’m a researcher as well), teaching is very important to me. I enjoy being at a teaching oriented institution. However, I’m often jealous of friends and colleagues at research institutions who have resources and schedules that make going abroad easier. In the absence of those resources, teaching overseas during the summer is a great opportunity to both develop myself as a teacher and conduct research. Importantly, working with students overseas makes me something other than a tourist. While, I don’t horribly mind being a tourist (sometimes), being one certainly limits you. As a social scientist, it’s important to have first hand knowledge that isn’t filtered through pre-packaged vacations. I don’t want to just visit places, I want to get to know as much about a society as possible.

I teach and write on globalization and cities, as such, being able to live and work in other parts of the world (even if briefly) is vital to my intellectual and professional growth. As Donald Hall writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the benefits of teaching abroad include “important pedagogical, research-related, and life lessons.” It allows me to bring experiences back into the classroom and it informs my research writing. Overseas teaching not only gives me intimate knowledge of places and people, but forces me to critically think about the material I teach or write about.

From the standpoint of research, I was able to meet with colleagues (old and new) to share ideas last summer in Istanbul. I also learned a great deal from my students. My time there led to two article manuscripts and a new perspective on the city’s dramatic growth since my first visit in 2006 (and subsequent visits in 2008 and 2011). Perhaps most interesting was being able to teach an environmental sociology course amidst the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul.

This summer, I’ll be visiting Ethiopia for the first time. This trip will greatly support my ongoing work on global urban development issues. While most of my time will be in Gondar, I’m looking forward to seeing Addis Ababa. As an urbanist, it’s always interesting to see different types of cities. I’m hoping to learn about the city and the country, as well as examine the connections that shape different types of urbanism around the world.

Follow my trip via this blog and my twitter account.

Prepping for Fall 2014: Visualizing School Closures

Splatter Compass

compassIn my previous post, I mentioned that I spend a lot of time during the summer prepping for academic year. This fall requires extra work because I’m changing textbooks, and re-organizing a lot of material. I’m not doing this just to improve the content or my teaching, but I do this to “exercise” my other skills – things like playing with Google Fusion Tables, Photoshop, HTML, etc.

This fall I’ll be teaching urban sociology again and I’m currently updating material for the course. New on the syllabus for this year is Robert Sampson’s book on Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Reading the book the past few weeks inspired me to think of examples to help students make comparisons/connections between Chicago and Philadelphia.

Perhaps the most obvious example is that were both hit bad with school closures in 2013 affected whole communities.

Chicago Philadelphia
School Closings 2013 47 23
Students Displaced 12,700 10,000
Layoffs 2,000 3,700
Charter Schools opened 15 9

The Chicago Tribune has an excellent map that illustrates some of social and economic dimensions of neighborhoods affected by the closures. Since, I’m very much in favor of visualizing data for my statistics-adverse students, I’ve decided to make my own map in Google Fusion Tables to help me with my lesson plan in the fall. I can always use Social Explorer, but it’s also useful and fun for me go through the effort of downloading U.S. Census data and making my own map.

The below is a color coded map of census tracts based on the percent of those with high school diplomas or higher based. The purple flags are where the schools closed in 2013 are located.

[Click for Map w/ Race & Income]

In particular, the consequences for school closures have dramatically affected communities of color. The Root reports that while African-American Students represent 58% of the students in Philadelphia, they made up 81% of the students affected by the closures. In Chicago, black students account for 43% of all students, but 87 of those affected. In this map, I’ve set it up so that you can toggle layers to look at race, income, and education attainment, so that you can see the connection between race and school closures. Setting up the toggle was fun it required playing around with JavaScript. For more simple layered maps, I use the Fusion Tables Layer Wizard. However, I wanted to create something that was more interactive that students could play around with. This required trying to find a color scheme for the maps so that when you toggle layers, they interact with one another in a way that is visually informative.

I’ll continue to work on this throughout the summer, but I wanted to blog on how summer “prep” work isn’t just revising lectures and reading. It can be an opportunity to develop other skills.

They are not the same: MLA versus APA (or ASA)

Splatter Checksheet

checksheetIn my last post, I talked a bit about social science writing. Although I am trained as a sociologist, my work is interdisciplinary. My work draws on art history, cultural studies, geography, history, and media studies. As such, I often have to adjust my writing and reference style for different journals. In some cases, I’ve actually chosen not to submit my work to journals because it would require a massive revision of my work to change it from a social science style (APA, ASA, etc.) to MLA. This is one of the reasons why I cringe when someone says that all citation styles are the same. I think this is because most faculty simply refer to students to style guides that show the differences between MLA, APA and Chicago, but do not explain why the styles are different.

In this post, I want to highlight the key differences between MLA and social science references and try to explain why they’re different. First, of all I don’t want get into the difference between nomothetic social sciences and idiographic humanities. I’m more interested in the actual technical difference of citation and the function they serve. My goal is to use examples to show readers that there’s a reason the styles are different.

I’ve chosen an article from PMLA, the Modern Language Association’s flagship journal. Also, I’ve chosen American Sociological Review (ASR) an American Sociological Association (ASA) journal (because I’m a sociologist). Both touch upon similar topics: prisons, incarceration and its consequences. However, the goals are different. In PMLA, Robert Waxler is telling a story about his program Changing Lives through Literature. In this piece, he discusses his experiences with teaching literature to criminal offenders, and discusses Nathaniel Hawthorne’s description of prisons. In ASR, Matthew Desmond and Nichol Valdez are discussing the rise of third-party policing in poor neighborhoods using empirical evidence.

MLA is a style that is very closely associated with the type of textual analysis found in the humanities. The way one references text in that style, is very much tied to the practices and goals of the fields that use it.  Waxler writes in the 2nd paragraph of his article:

Nathaniel Hawthorne had another idea. He offers three terms – community, cemetery, and prison: “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earlier practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison” (47). We cannot escape the cemetery anymore than we can escape necessity, as Hawthorne well knew. It marks the boundary for us, the radical limitation, the body without voice or movement, the corpse. The prison reminds us of a difference, the possibility of return to the community, to the voice and movement of lives restored-the call to freedom, to possibility.

Here it’s very clear that Waxler is writing about Hawthorne. Moreover, his use of Hawthorne is to help him define Waxler’s own understanding of mortal, physical and social boundaries. When he references William Wordsworth in the following paragraph, it’s very clear that he is now talking about Wordsworth. In addition to naming names, it’s also far less common in work that uses MLA to pack in references. References such as: (Ayling, Grabosky, and Shearing 2009; Braithwaite 2000) found in Desmond and Valdez’s article are not commonly used in this type of writing.

Here is the introductory paragraph from an article by Matthew Desmond and Nichol Valdez:

The United States has witnessed a prison boom of colossal proportions, fueled in large part by intensive policing of inner-city neighborhoods (Western 2006). At the same time cities were hiring more police officers and states were building more prisons, another far-reaching development was unfolding within the field of criminal justice. Across the Anglophone world, crime control was becoming decentralized and diffused throughout the social space. The police began convincing and coercing community actors (landlords, business owners) to assume some responsibility for correcting misconduct. Identified by a number of designations—here, we use the term third-party policing—this approach constituted “a new crime control establishment” (Garland 2001:17). “The most significant development in the crime control field,” according to Garland (2001:170), “[is the development of] a third ‘governmental’ sector . . . poised between the state and civil society, connecting the criminal justice agencies with the activities of citizens, communities and corporations . . . [and extending] the field of ‘formal’ crime control and its potential for organized action.”

While both articles define the concepts they will be using via quotes and references, the style and function of the references are different. In the sociology journal, Western’s name and publication year is the reference.  Typically, in the text of an MLA paper, Bruce Western would already be referenced to show who came up with the idea. This means the reference in MLA is telling the reader where it came from. In ASR, the reference quickly tells us who and when the idea of the prison boom came from. The where, or the textual is absent unless one chooses to look it up. Even then, the writing suggests that we are not particularly interested in Bruce Western either. Rather, the goal is to quickly give attribution to Western’s research on the prison boom to set up factual information before moving on to David Garland’s discussion of control to explain third-party policing. In short, the references obviously provide the reader with different information. This means readers from different backgrounds expect different information.

I want to go a bit further and illustrate how different the first sentence would be if re-written as MLA.

According to David Western in “Punishment and Inequality in America,” the United States has witnessed a prison boom of colossal proportions, fueled in large part by intensive policing of inner-city neighborhoods.

This MLA version makes the prison boom as an offshoot of David Western’s work. However, what is Western’s work? Is it opinion or is research? Even if one where change the sentence to “According to research conducted by criminologist David Western…,” it still implies a degree of subjectivity because it emphasizes the author. Sometimes this is useful, but in many cases it is not. In the social and natural sciences, the reference and writing style emphasizes the research behind the statement (or at least that it is credible and reliable). On some level, it does not matter who came up with the idea, because another researcher should be able to replicate the result.

This barely scratches the surface of the differences between two very excellent pieces of writing. However, I hope this begins a discussion of why styles are different. Or at least move away from statements like “MLA and APA are pretty much the same thing.”

Before I conclude, I want to mention another thing. If Waxler had been a sociologist, his article could be considered unethical. Prisoners are classified as vulnerable subjects. The inclusion of quotes from those he worked with for in a publication without informed consent and human subject approval could mean trouble for him. There is no discussion of this in the paper at all, whereas in a social science article there would be a mention of this. This means that the process and final result of writing for the humanities and social sciences are as different as their reference styles.

Adding Visualization to Your Course

Visualization, or more specifically data visualization, is currently a major trend in communicating information in business, news media, and increasingly academic research and teaching. A 2013 white paper produced by the Intel IT Center, notes how visualization-based data discovery tools can aid businesses analyze, interpret and present data. In 2014, Wired Magazine noted the relationship between data and visualization for a variety of different purposes from policy research to augmenting news articles on NASA programs and projects.  An article in the journal Visual Studies (associated with the International Visual Sociology Association) discusses the different applications of data/information visualization for humanities and social science research.

While data has always been visual, perhaps the most significant software package that made visualization “easy” at work and in school is the release of Microsoft Office in 1990. For almost a quarter century, PowerPoint has dominated how we think about visually presenting information. A fantastic thing that PowerPoint does, which too few people make use of, is importing or create from scratch charts and tables from Excel. This allows for a more visually appealing (and more legitimate) presentation, than if you were to download an image from online, or use a scanned image from your textbook.

However, PowerPoint is not without challenges. While PowerPoint and its integration with Word and Excel makes for excellent in-class presentations of visual information, it is not particularly good online without the help of Adobe Presenter or Camtasia to turn the PowerPoint into a “screencast.” There are cloud based solutions such Google Docs, Office 365 and Prezi that can make presentations animated and clickable in an online environment.

In the world of the Internet, concise and visually appealing graphics are king. This is why infographics are very popular online.  As the name suggests, they graphically represent information, data or knowledge quickly and clearly. There is no single type of infographic. It could be a chart, map or timeline. It could be a word cloud. Sometimes a well-designed infographic is better than a PowerPoint. There are a number of online tools that can help you create an infographic.

Infographic Tools

The above links allow to create either static images or embeddable infographics that summarizes a lot of information. It can contain a combination of text, charts, maps, and other images that communicate a point or idea with (hopefully) hard data.

It is important to recognize that web-based infographic need not be the only way in which you visualize information. There are a number of useful tools, applications, and scripts that can make the way in which you present information online aesthetically appealing, dynamic, and interactive. Moreover, this can be just as useful in person or online. It can also be an additional resource that is posted on D2L.


Timelines can help you organize information chronologically. Dipity is an easy tool for creating a timeline. If you are building a webpage or site outside of Desire2Learn, I personally like TimelineJS. Specifically, I like it because of how it uses Google Docs. Because it uses JavaScript, it will not work on D2L. However, if you are using WordPress on your own site, there are TimelineJS plugins that allow you to easily embed it into pages and posts.


In addition to organizing information temporally, there’s also the spatial aspect of information. I’m a big fan of Google Fusion Tables. It allows you to upload an Excel file with addresses or other geographic information to create different maps. If you don’t have a Google Docs account or want to simplify the process, then I recommend BatchGeo.


For those of you interested in content analysis, you can create a word cloud to visualize word frequency in a website or document, or chart the historical usage of a phrase through history. These word clouds can be dynamic and visually interesting. For instance Tagxedoand Wordle can highlight popular or commonly used words in a website or document. Google has their Ngrams viewer for Google Books. This allows you to see how often various words or phrases appear in books throughout time. In addition to content analysis, there are a number of tools that allow you to see what is “trending” right on the Internet or how various idea are interconnected. Google Trends lets you see what is being searched. While,TwitterSpectrum allows you to look at relationships between trending tweets. Finally, Wiki Mind Map lets you look at how various terms, ideas, or concepts are connected on Wikipedia.

Advanced Charts

For those of you who are more ambitious, you may want to create your own dynamic webpage or content file from scratch. Probably, the easiest way to include interactive charts and data tools for is Google Docs and the many products from Google Labs/Developers.

However, if you have space and time, there are some really neat things that you can do. For instance, you can upload an Excel spreadsheet to Google Docs and use Google Charts to create an aesthetically appealing and interactive chart for your website. For pre-existing charts, you can browse Google’s Public Data Explorer.

If you do not want to use Google Docs, IBM’s Many Eyes does essentially the same thing without requiring an account. In addition to the material on Many Eyes, Better World Fluxhas beautiful and socially relevant data for social scientists.

For those of you with a bit more web development experience, here are two jQuery Chart Libraries to make an interactive chart for your website.


This is by no means an exhaustive description or listing of resources for visualizing information. However, I do believe the existence of different types of infographics and visualizations reveal the ever changing relationship between visual culture and knowledge. This is a change that I believe educators need to be sensitive of as we engage 21st century learners.

Originally published on KU Converge: A Journal of Faculty Collaboration for Distance Education