- phase completed
- phase in-progress
The Department of Sociology, composed of 32 faculty members, 60 TAs, and more than 500 undergraduate student majors, began its engagement in the WEC process in 2013 with the goal of creating a more cohesive writing program that develops students' analytic writing abilities across the wide range of course topics, levels of abstraction, and types of qualitative and quantitative data they will encounter in their coursework. The departmental goal is for students to both develop and apply critical writing and thinking abilities in assignments throughout the sociology curriculum, in their senior theses, and into their post-graduation lives.
Writing in Sociology
The Sociology faculty generated the following list in response to the question, “What characterizes academic and professional communication in this discipline?”
Sociological writing marries broad intellectual vision and insight with precision and rigor. This diverse field is held together by what C. Wright Mills once called a “quality of mind” rather than a narrow set of topical interests. This same quality of mind marks all good sociological writing. Sociologists must pay close attention to method and carefully connect their claims to data. At the same time, sociologists seek to interpret their findings within broader theoretical frameworks that reach beyond the data and help to make sense of complex human relationships, institutions and societies.
The faculty agree that all good sociology builds from some combination of descriptive, analytic/interpretive, and critical modes of writing.
Descriptive mode: Most concretely, sociological writing is descriptive. The maxim “show, don’t tell” points out that persuasive writing must accurately outline and elucidate the basis of claims that are being made. In particular, descriptive writing seeks to:
- Clearly and accurately summarize prior theoretical or empirical work;
- Describe data and methods being used;
- Summarize data by showing key relationships (as in quantitative work) or central themes (as in qualitative work).
Analytic and interpretive mode: Good sociological writing also seeks to make sense of the facts being described. Sociologists bring an analytic eye to their work by connecting the “trees” of individual facts with the “forest” of broader trends and patterns in the social world. Additionally, analytic thinking fosters a synthetic vision by asking how ideas, events or cases may be related to each other. Sociologists employ this analytic mode of writing to:
- Note where a finding needs to be explained or does not fit with existing knowledge (“setting up a puzzle to be explained”);
- Note common patterns or trends and apply sociological concepts and theories to name and explain them;
- Break down broad social phenomena into smaller parts and making sense of how those parts work together (functions) or fail to do so (conflicts);
- Compare and contrast cases, events or theories;
- Connect related claims or findings in past research;
- Apply existing theories or concepts to new situations;
- Build on past research and link to new discoveries.
Critical mode: Finally, good sociological writing is often critical. It tries to see the limits of common knowledge or existing social arrangements. Instead, sociological writing tries to also see the implications (both positive and negative) of existing arguments or a given state of affairs, asking how it came to be, and what alternatives are possible. It does this by:
- Evaluating strengths and weaknesses of positions and claims;
- Seeing the broader implications of theories and claims;
- Examining the limitations of existing data, methods and theories;
- Connecting our own lives and experiences with the social realities we write about, and how they came to be;
- Reflecting upon more just ways of organizing societies and social institutions,and participating in the imagination and design of such alternatives.
Writing Abilities Expected of Sociology Majors/Menu of Grading Criteria Used in Sociology Courses
These criteria have been developed by the Sociology faculty to express the desired writing abilities first identified by faculty in 2014 with the hope that instructors will emphasize particular criteria for different assignments. Over the course of their major, students should become familiar with the different criteria and internalize their underlying principles.
- Evaluates the implications of existing knowledge or social arrangements.
Argumentation and Structure
- Includes a research question or thesis of reasonable scope for the paper/project.
- Thesis is well aligned with the evidence presented.
- Organizes points clearly and persuasively with a logical paragraph structure, building an argument throughout the paper.
- Develops an argument towards a logical conclusion.
- Summarizes main argument(s) in conclusion.
- Identifies where important ambiguities or limitations exist in data or theory.
- Cites relevant literature.
- Draws on fieldwork or secondary data to test theoretical or substantive scholarly claims. If necessary, suggests modifications to those claims.
- Conveys cases, examples, and/or contexts with enough depth to persuade readers of their character or significance.
- Interprets and explains the meanings of patterns found in data accurately and succinctly.
- Interrogates why or how patterns occur.
- Addresses an educated lay audience, communicating important sociological concepts and insights with accessible language.
- Is free of errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling that seriously interfere with comprehension.
- Avoids repetition and minimizes unnecessary and vague language.
Highlights from the Writing Plan
In its third-edition Writing Plan, approved in December 2017, Sociology has identified three key areas of focus:
Supporting relevant writing instruction throughout their curriculum—from large-enrollment introductory courses to senior seminars—by expanding and promoting widespread use of its comprehensive Writing for Sociology website. This rich and evolving set of student-facing and instructor-facing resources is designed to support the infusion of field-relevant writing and writing instruction into Sociology courses.
Building community around locally-relevant writing and writing instruction by expanding its thematic teaching lunches every semester and continuing the annual teaching demonstrations by faculty members and teaching assistants.
Supporting valid and equitable assessment of student writing by offering (and where needed, revising) a menu of faculty-generated grading criteria (see above), developing model rubrics that can be adapted across courses, and offering instructional workshops focused on grading student writing in Sociology.