Discourses in Education Policy – My Independent Research

This past semester of school was the final semester of school as an undergraduate student. The past two years have been devoted to completing my Bachelor’s degree in Sociology. To complete the degree, students are required to complete a senior project. The driving idea behind all of my schooling for the past six years has of course been an interest in education, education policy, and education research.

During my time at the University of Minnesota, I discovered a fascination with the study of discourse in society, which is a field within sociology. By combining these two interests, I decided utilize the resources around me and do an Independent Senior Research Project, instead of taking the Senior Project class. This allowed me more flexibility in the kind of project I did. The main question my paper asked was: What impact is the free-market ideal having on the relationship public school districts have with charter schools and how do those in charge of making policy decisions frame opportunities for collaboration?

The result was a a 20-page paper that detailed some recent trends in education policy in Minnesota, laid out my process for collecting data, and explained my findings based on 6 interviews I conducted with school board members from Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Richfield. Overall I found two frames, a pro-competition frame and pro-collaboration frame. Within the individual contexts of competition-based policy approaches versus collaboration-based, I found other important frames that seem to help facilitate a favoring for one approach to the other.

Here’s a short quote from the paper:

Within the pro-collaboration frame, I found a focus on how to best teach to the individual student, a focus on class as a factor that disadvantages students, and an emphasis on equal opportunity for every student. Within the pro-competition frame I found a focus on how to provide the best learning environment and a focus on race as a factor that disadvantages students, then emphasizing the importance of diversity. Alternately, while Minneapolis school board members were more wary of charter schools, they were also more open to working with them, while St. Paul school board members were generally approving of charter schools existing as competitors to public schools but were hesitant about working collaboratively with them.

This was a massive project, I’ve never done anything like it before. What’s even more exciting, though, is that I got an A on my paper!

I’ve gone through and made a few edits to it, and I have made it available to download as a protected PDF file if you are interested in reading it.

Download the PDF

If you do download it, let me know what you think in the comments section.

Posted in Blogging, News, Sociology by Preston on June 22nd, 2014

Snowy Night

Just felt like sharing a little of the Minnesota winter with the world. It’s also about damn time I write a poem.

Posted in Blogging, Diversions by Preston on February 11th, 2013

Concerning the Legality of Human Levitation

I recently began a course called the Sociology of Sexualities, one of the books assigned for the course is Sexuality written by Jeffrey Weeks. In it, he discusses a new way of talking about sexualities.

Nothing is sexual, Plummer suggested, but the naming makes it so (Plummer 1975). If this is the case, it follows that we need to move gingerly in applying the dominant Western definitions to non-Western cultures. Both the significance attributed to sexuality and attitudes to the various manifestations of erotic life vary enormously… 

As a I free-associated for a moment, after reading that, I arrived at the notion of the legality of homosexuality in certain regions of the globe. First, I set aside my emotional response to the existence of these laws, and examined them passively for a moment. I do not believe it is too controversial an argument to say that the existence of these laws is the result of homosexuals being perceived by the general culture, and those in power, as being a deviant minority, which threaten certain aspects of the cohesive society where all members reside. I began to think about the homosexual members of this society, and how they must feel when they first exhibit desires to perform actions that they’re society considers punishable by death.

One important aspect of this class is that we are considering sexuality to be socially constructed:

…the forces that shape and mould the erotic possibilities of the body vary from society to society. ‘Sexual socialization,’ Ellen Ross and Rayner Rapp wrote in the early stages of this historicizing of sexuality, ‘is no less specific to culture than is socialization to ritual, dress, or cuisine.’ …

Weeks continues:

I do not wish to deny the importance of biology. The physiology and morphology of the body provides the preconditions for human sexuality. Biology conditions and limits what is possible. But it does not cause the patterns of sexual life. We cannot reduce human behavior to the mysterious workings of the DNA… I prefer to see biology in a set of potentialities, which are transformed and given meaning, only in social relationships.

So in returning to this hypothetical homosexual man, living in a society that punishes homosexuality by death, I began to wonder what social forces led to his homosexuality. His existence seems, in this way, to provide evidence for a biological cause for his state of being homosexual. But then in all cultures, to my understanding, all people are subject to variability, not just biologically speaking.

But I am not so much concerned with this person’s homosexuality, as much as I am with the notion of his homosexuality being illegal. This, I believe is really the heart of the issue. People may be whatever they are, inherently or otherwise, but this only becomes significant when it bumps up against the construction of our society. So, I started to think, what if something were illegal that no-one was even physically capable of. There have been a few documented cases of levitation that some monks are able to accomplish through intensive meditation, but for the most part the laws of gravity are pretty definite for the rest of us. Nevertheless, what if a state were to pass a law that banned levitation? The question is more or less rhetorical because what I really mean to point to is the idea of deviance to begin with. I think I may have had this idea in my head that laws were made for breaking, which translates to the idea that social pressures against any sort of behavior lead to the existence of those behaviors through an unconscious, almost Freudian, kind of rebellion against society.

There is also a reason the idea of making human levitation illegal is inconceivable, and that is because we all understand the purpose of laws. On the surface, it seems that they exist to regulate and organize society, but in fact all of us do that on a daily basis without need for a law-book in our back-pocket. The laws exist to collectively organize the understanding of the values held by those in power. Of course, I don’t really mean to say that with such force, I am speaking specifically of what Emile Durkheim would call Repressive Law. In other words, we can get a glimpse at the nature of society by looking at the laws the society creates. Because there is no-one in the society who levitates, there would never be any laws concerning levitation.

I guess I’m not really sure what I am arguing then. Mostly I’m just trying to combine my reading on Emile Durkheim with my reading on Sexuality, but I’m not sure where this leaves me. Does all this mean that by creating laws that outlaw homosexuality, those governments are in a way affirming the existence of homosexuality and thus participating in its continuance? Or does it mean that homosexuality is innate, and no social construct can successfully repress it? Or perhaps, rather, it means that by creating this notion of deviance, the society is actually creating rigid, categories that create a psychological profile for this hypothetical ‘homosexual’ as the result of simple variation in his biological sexual preference. In reality, the truth of his biology is probably much more complex and amorphous, or maybe it isn’t.

I guess, really, what I am left thinking is how absurd the idea of determining “deviance” truly is. It does not take the ordinary web-searcher very long to find contradictions to today’s notion of deviance in the world’s history. Was Lincoln gay? Pederasty in ancient Greece? Anal-sex between heterosexual couples in ancient Chile? When it comes to social mores, to make the “popular” opinion the gold-standard only makes sense because that’s the unfortunate fact of how power works.

I guess deviance is kind of a paradox. Nothing is really “deviant,” but, like sexuality, the naming makes it so.

Remembering what it means to be an undergrad. Yes, I’m an amateur Sociologist, sue me.

Posted in Blogging, Sociology by Preston on January 24th, 2013

Transnational Activism and Invisible Children Inc.

This semester, as part of a class titled Transnational Activism, I wrote a 20-page paper that detailed the shifts in strategy, tactics, and goals of Invisible Children Inc. in order to determine my prognosis for future outcomes for the organization. I have to admit I started out being really skeptical and pessimistic about the organization, and I ended rather optimistically, which is not at all like me. Overall I don’t think Invisible Children Inc. will have a negative impact on society, but there’s a lot of things the organization could be doing better and this paper illustrates all of them. This was a massive project, I’ve never done anything like it before. What’s even more exciting, though, is that I got an A on my paper!

I’ve gone through and made a few edits to it, and I have made it available to download as a protected PDF file if you are interested in reading it.

Download the PDF
If you do download it, let me know what you think in the comments section.
Posted in Blogging, News, Sociology by Preston on January 1st, 2013

Please share.

This is a plea by Naderev M. Sano of the Phillipines at the Doha Climate Summit. This all happened shortly after the Philippines was struck by deadly Typhoon “Pablo,” which left over 1000 dead and hundreds missing. According to scientists, disasters like this are going to become more frequent as ocean temperatures rise and the ice-caps melt, causing more water to enter the atmosphere. And third-world countries have the greatest risk of being effected more by these disasters. Making the decision to reduce emissions, or pursue alternative forms of energy is not simply about saving ourselves, but about helping one another. This is not one person, one nation, or one region’s problem. This is a global problem. Please watch and share.

Here is a link to more information about the Philippines: Philippines among Asian nations worst hit by disasters in 2012

Posted in Blogging, Soapbox by Preston on December 8th, 2012

Population Control

This is a blog-post that I’ve been wanting to write for a very long time because it has confused me for over a year. I have an anthropologist friend, and shortly after I announced to her my decision to become a Sociology major, I was met with a cold look. Apparently, anthropologists take umbrage at the pursuits of us Sociologists, and finally, at last, I think I may understand why. To describe this phenomenon, I will use as an example, the “problem” our planet seems to be having with population. Our population is increasing at an exponential rate, we are running out of clean water for all these thirsty people, we are running out of places to put all of these people’s waste, and we are running out of room to grow food for all of these hungry people. Many scientists are afraid we truly are approaching a Malthusian catastrophe.

Like many fields a young person like myself can study at a great big University, Sociology believes it has a solution. That solution comes out of studying society and the organization of people in society. When we do this we notice a couple of very interesting things. We notice that when literacy rates go up, birth rates go down. This is noted as one of the initiators of the Arab Spring, young people who had more access to education were forgoing raising children and turned instead to the streets and the local politic, to interact with global society, to make their voices heard. These were democratic revolutions . While whether they will sustain that way is yet to be seen, they nevertheless demonstrate a kind of pattern that could be reproducible in other parts of the world. As literacy rates increase, birth rates decrease, and citizen involvement in democratic international politics increases.

Literacy is certainly one effective method of dealing with birth-rates, and indeed it is a sociological one. Another method, however, could be seen as more controversial by some, though I am hesitant to say that. This is because I am talking about Women’s Rights and an increasingly modern perspective of a woman’s relationship with her body. Initially, it would seem that this notion of “Feminist” thought is a particularly Western one, whether that’s true I really don’t know for sure. But it is that fact, which I believe to be the point of contention between Sociologists and Anthropologists.

If women in the world were more empowered to see their body as theirs than they will be less likely to give in to the whims of male sex-drives. This is the theory, and we see this theory’s efficacy when we look more specifically at how women’s literacy rates effect birth-rates. On the one hand, I would initially wish to argue the point of “what’s wrong with empowering women?” Isn’t empowering women a good thing? At first this argument seems to be moot. Of course! Furthermore, if it’s a movement towards a sustainable population, then its even better. However, there is another philosophy, which I am still not sure I agree with or not.

This new mode of thinking would involve a change to already existing cultures, cultures which have long-rooted traditions, ceremonies, and beliefs. History is nothing if not an excellent source of stories of one group of people trying to change an already existing culture in the name of righteousness. This is central to the argument about Islamic women wearing the traditional hijab, it is not simply a matter of western religion clashing with Islam, but also of western notions of femininity clashing with another culture’s relationship to the female gender. If we go out into the world saying, women need to be empowered to be in control of their bodies (which is a much haughtier claim than simply that women should be educated the same as men) then we are bumping right up against another culture and that, my Anthropologist friend would probably say, is absolutely not okay. Who are we to say that the practices of one culture are better or more sustainable than another? We should leave other cultures alone.

But what about the sustainability of our entire planet? What are we going to do? Is it okay, is it ethical, to say that certain cultures should change in certain ways in order for all people on the planet to survive? How much do we really value culture?

That’s the question I leave with you, let me know what you think!

Posted in Blogging, Soapbox, Sociology by Preston on November 30th, 2012

Surprised by Fraternity-Related Sexual Assault?

Well, are you?

Most of the people I talked to about the recent article concerning the alleged sexual assault at Sigma Chi fraternity said, “No big surprise there.” A few were ambivalent, many were angry and disappointed. But when I asked people why they weren’t surprised they appeared uncertain before explaining generalized ideas about how it’s our society, or that it’s typical of men and so on.

When these kinds of things happen, I feel too much attention gets focused on why the individual event happened, which in this case was explained by irresponsible or underage drinking. In my opinion, the more important question should be why this isn’t surprising, even if it is shocking, because it tells us that this kind of behavior is common and expected to a degree in our society. And as a sociology major, that’s a major concern of mine.

Looking at the structure of a fraternity through the prism of sociology, it becomes clear how fraternities are in many ways like a perfect storm for sexual violence. To be clear, I do not mean that the assailants were victims of our society or that their actions were in any way justified, but rather I’m arguing that their actions are symbolic of a society that is androcentric and heteronormative and that it’s really important to remember this when we talk about sexual assault. While the university sanctions that have been placed on Sigma Chi may have the effect of stopping these assaults temporarily, they do not take into account how what happens in fraternities is situated within a greater social context.

Fraternities like Sigma Chi often include residences where large groups of young men cohabitate. For new members it will often be the first time living away from home, and away from a female presence such as a mother and/or sisters. Here we find an amplification of androcentric thought, where the often alternative views of women are almost entirely missing. And in the context of a society that fears and hates homosexuality, this male-centeredness creates another problem. Fearing that this close cohabitation exclusively with other men may cause some to doubt their heterosexuality, many young men may feel pressured to continually re-assert and prove their straightness to their peers. Combine these factors with irresponsible drinking and/or drug abuse, peer-pressure, and we begin to understand why fraternities commit 55% of all gang rapes on college campuses. This is a major problem. Clearly, these sanctions are hardly enough. Perhaps fraternity members should be required to take a class in Women’s Gender Studies.

The fraternity is of special interest because it is where these ideas and norms become highly concentrated, but it is important to remember that these ideas and norms exist outside of fraternities as well. I do not intend to denounce fraternities in general, though I do think they should be looked at critically from a social and contextual perspective. Instead, I mean for this article to ask us to take a step back and look at the broad social structures that guide our lives.

It upsets me to see people sigh and role roll their eyes when these kinds of events are printed. In service of the young women who were affected by the sexual assault I hope to open the discussion further, beyond fraternities, to the harmful implications of a society that devalues women and hates homosexuals. It is crucial that we take our whole society into account; otherwise these sad occurrences are nothing more than another shocking headline.

Since it’s taken the Minnesota Daily over 3 weeks to get back to me about printing this editorial I wrote, I decided to post it here.

For more reading on the problems associated with masculinity in our society, I highly recommend reading this short, 4-page article by Michael Kimmel, Masculinity as Homophobia

Please comment and tell me your opinion on this issue. And please share this among your friends!

Posted in Blogging, Soapbox, Sociology by Preston on November 7th, 2012

Bass Monster’s Bad Day

Just made a new song that was partially inspired by the bass sound in Inception. It isn’t my greatest, but I like build-up at the end. It was mostly an experiment with heavy bass sounds, to see what worked and how it worked. Bass noises are much more complex than I thought, I still have a lot to learn. Probably sounds better with headphones that speakers.

Posted in Blogging, Music by Preston on October 26th, 2012