Teaching How to Code Online and in Person

I just finished the carpentries instructor training, which allows a potential instructor to join the Carpentries community. What does the Carpentries community do? one might ask. The Carpentries “teach foundational coding and data science skills to researchers worldwide.” Their data science teaching workshops operate mostly through enthusiastic certified volunteer instructors.

I still need to complete two more steps in the “checkout” requirements, including doing a 5-minute teaching demo, and attending a teachers’ guided discussion online in order to be certified as an instructor.

How did I hear about the Carpentries? A mentor at Hunter College attended the training last summer, and mentioned it in passing last summer. The name piqued my interest. I went online, learned more about the program, and filled an application to attend an instructor’s training. It took about seven months since I applied until I heard back that I could attend an instructor’s training workshop either online or in person.

Because of the lockdown, many of my regular activities have been canceled, or postponed. I found that this is the right time to get the certificate. So I registered for a  two-day online workshop.

My experience? Very positive. I learned a lot about coding, and how to teach people to code both online and offline. I spent two days to learn how to teach coding with more than twenty people from around the country. Participants came from diverse backgrounds. They were professors, librarians, PhD students, post-docs, and educators. I found that I benefited from learning from their diverse experiences. Specifically, during many breakout sessions, I had a chance to learn from a statistics professor, a post-doc in neuroscience, a few computational linguists, a geographer, and a couple of librarians. This group of professionals really made my being at home more interesting.

Learning about Teaching: The workshop made me consciously think about building blocks of teaching another person a set of skills. The workshop provided a mix of education, psychology concepts for instructors to understand how people absorb information, and learn new skills. It was empowering to learn about what makes students learn well, and what prevents them from learning.

Learning about Participatory/ Live Coding: At this point, I am still conflicted about participatory coding pedagogy. What it means is that instructors demonstrate live coding in front of a group of participants. On the one hand, it helps learners participate in the thought process, and engage with the instructor’s programming process. On the other hand, it feels pretty taxing on the part of the instructor. There are many variables that the instructor has to control for. Unlike having a code that is already written in advance, the instructor has to improvise on the fly at times. I find this to be cognitively demanding, unless the instructor is very experienced at talking about technical steps.

I want to know why this is a good pedagogy for teaching beginners to code. In my experience, doing live coding with students often distracts students from the fundamental statistical concepts that I want to convey to them during the class. In my Data Mining class, I used to do live coding. But then I realized that I had to compromise on the materials that I wanted to teach them. The entire time, my focus was on whether my students were able to type correctly a line of code, or whether there was any execution issue in the process. It was not effective in the sense that many of those issues might have nothing to do with the class materials. Thus I decided early on in the class that live coding was not helpful for the purpose of my class. Instead, I provided students with the Rscript in advance, and they could use it to run while I was giving them a lecture on random forests, or support vector machine.

Now reflecting on the instructor training workshop that I just attended, and my own experience in teaching people to code, and use the R programming language, I realized a few things. One, live coding is helpful for beginners. In other words, it would be beneficial if I organized workshops to teach my students concepts at the beginning of the class. Maybe I could use one or two lab sessions to demonstrate how to use various lines of code. Then in the second and third parts of the course, I could provide already written scripts to demonstrate statistical techniques, concepts.

In other words, the instructor training workshop highlighted the different emphases that one would want to teach. The experience was indeed refreshing because I was challenged to ask questions about my own personal practices, and what would be considered as ideal in teaching novice learners how to use programming languages.

The workshop also piqued my interest in conducting a workshop to show people how they could use different programming languages to achieve their research goals. Once I get certified as an instructor, I would love to contribute to the carpentries community by offering my own workshops on text analysis in R or in python.


Github for Teaching Social Science

I never thought that Github was a great teaching tool, until I attended a few workshops that strictly used Github to teach participants data analytical skills. Then I recognized that when fancy powerpoint’s were not the main focus, and my aim is to teach students skills, I can simply use Github to present the same amount of information. That was quite an epiphany!

I love git. It is one of the most simple, and elegant tools that developers have come up with. On Github, I can learn how to write nice codes from other people. My current goal is to learn Python, and I have been learning quite a bit from Github. Whenever I run into an R problem, or not knowing how to implement certain machine learning techniques, I explore Github.

Now my exercise is to include Github in my teaching repertoire. This is quite a new experience. This semester I am teaching a data mining class. I want to see how much I can teach my students to use Github in their own work.

Following are five reasons why I think Github is a suitable pedagogical platform for my class.

Interface: Before I used Blackboard to organize the materials in my class. Every professor I talked to, made it clear that Blackboard was such an insufficient tool for any kind of teaching. It is old like stale bread. It’s difficult to use, and it’s not catered to specialized information. It’s designed in the Web 1.0 era for information organization, many features and tools have now become absolutely obsolete. Now in the Era of Web 2.0, students demand more interactive tools for their educational purposes. And for the purpose of my class, I think Blackboard is a ill-fitted choice. 

Furthermore, critics of Blackboard would say that it is a proprietary platform where students information disappears into their database. Students do not own their information, but the company does. I feel a need to give back students’ ownership of their intellectual property. In my class, I want students to create something, and this is totally theirs.

After Github  being acquired by Microsoft, critics started to talk about whether user-generated content on Github belongs to the individual contributor, or to the platform. However, for now, I am ignoring this problem, and let my students learn about the platform’s utility first. Then at the end of the semester we will talk about the implications of Github being acquired by Microsoft.

For an educational purpose, my Github class project is sufficient. It is affiliated with my name, and I could carry it from one institution to another without being afraid that it would disappear into a private company’s database.

Platform for self-discovery: What I love about Github and coding is that Github is a place where beginner coders can learn from experienced coders. I want to make it available for students to do their own self-discoveries. For this learning how to code purpose, Github is obviously superior to Blackboard. Students can start learning how to code here, and the platform will be with them after the class is over.

Organizational: I organize the materials based on weekly reading, and assignment. This is very helpful for me because my class page GitHub is what my students can follow, and implement on their own time.

Interconectivity:  Hyperlinks are essential in my class. My philosophy is that I would make the materials as cost-effective as possible for my students. All of the textbooks are free, and that whatever they need to know they are all online. Using this philosophy, hyperlinks are important because materials freely available on the internet are actually very good, and useful for my students’ data science journeys. In this sense, Github is great because not only it is a self-contained platform, it can also be linked to many other online resources.

Archivability: Teaching is also a creative activity. During the process of teaching, my students and I generate so much content, which should be considered as important creative content of the Web 2.0 Era. We need to preserve this content for future use. Most of teaching activities that I had engaged with before did not take in to consideration this archiving aspect. Professors and educators were never asked to perform archival work. It was a historian’s job. However, I would argue that as we live in an info glut world, and that we generate so much information, we need to archive what we produce properly, especially when the content has educational and informative value.

For this purpose of archiving teaching content, Github is my own archive. I will not enter the grind of creating such materials, and then they would disappear down the rabbit hole of Blackboard, or some other companies’ databases.

In principle, one needs to do three copies of the content: in one’s one computer, on the cloud, and in another external hard-drive.  As of now, I have at least backed my class materials in two places: my laptop and Github. Eventually, I will have to save my teaching materials in an external hard-drive. But as of now, I think I can delay this backing step until the end of the semester.

In conclusion, Github is a great platform for teaching how to code. It is and simply as a place to keep information about science, and teaching science. In many ways, Github represents the future of education, where students instead of being confined in the walls of educational institutions, they are plugged into a field of studies and practice.


Thinking aloud: An Inquiring Technique

While taking a walk with a friend in my neighborhood, I lent him my ears, listening to various problems that bothered him at that moment. Issues ran from a mathematical equation, to his relationship with his advisor, to his various job applications. Naturally I offered my thoughts on each of those issues. However, at the end of the conversation, both of us recognized that he didn’t really need any of my advice because at best I had partial information. There was no way that my thoughts or advice could be of any use to him. As an opinionated young woman, my impulse was to sprinkle my opinion on anything that I hear, while my friend only wanted to think aloud.

The incidence nudged me to inquire further into think-aloud as a thinking, writing, and teaching technique.

What is think aloud?

Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the phrase as to say one’s thoughts so that other people can hear them. For example, No, I wasn’t talking to you. I was just thinking aloud/out loud.

Collins Dictionary suggests that  if you think aloud, you express your thoughts as they occur to you, rather than thinking first and then speaking.

Both definitions suggest that first, the speaker instantaneously articulates a thought that occurs to him/her rather than carefully processing it before giving the information to the listener. Furthermore, the role of the listener is not so much as to listen tentatively and engage passionately in a conversation because the other person might not be in a dialogue mode. In other words, the listener was just there for companionship instead of being a co-thinker.

Thinking aloud could also be referred to a research protocol, where researchers gather data in usability testing in product design and development. My conception of the “thinking aloud method” relies on the same strategy:

Think-aloud protocols involve participants thinking aloud as they are performing a set of specified tasks. Participants are asked to say whatever comes into their mind as they complete the task. This might include what they are looking at, thinking, doing, and feeling.

Research participants simultaneously perform a task and verbalize how they cognitively perform the task in their head. In other words, in contrast to explaining how one does something after one thinks through the issue, one is articulating immediately how the thought process goes. As a perfectionist, I often think through an issue before articulating how I think about it. The idea of spontaneously coming up with a solution is foreign to me.  However, I have encountered this method in various situations.

The first time when I took a calculus class in college, the professor suggested that whoever could solve the problem could go up to the black board, show the class how  the equation could be manipulated, and articulate along what she did. I was able to quickly figure out how the equation could be manipulated on a piece of paper at my seat. However, when I got to the board, while showing my classmates visually how each step should be performed, I was tongue-tied. No word came out of my mouth even though I knew the perfect answer. The reason wasn’t that my English was bad. Simply solving a mathematical equation was a quiet and thinking endeavor for me. My prior grade school education in Vietnam taught me that mathematical thinking was individual thinking. The only thing one needed to do was to get an answer right. I was never asked to show anybody verbally how the equation could be manipulated step by step as I solved it. Mathematics was not supposed to be social. However, in an American college classroom context, learning was social. Simply it was a different learning exercise that I encountered. I was dumbfounded by my silence.

Apparently, in the two above situations, thinking aloud was a social exercise to help one think through a problem. In my friend’s situation, he was trying to think through his various professional and personal problems, however he preferred to think through the problem by verbalizing it. While in the second scenario, I encountered a thinking-aloud exercise that required students to articulate their thought processes while solving a problem. I didn’t understand it so much as a thinking aloud exercise, what I did was really thinking fully, and then re-telling, and justifying each step. In a way, thinking aloud is used in various contexts to stimulate one’s thought processes. As a scholar, I see that this technique is very helpful for many purposes. One can utilize it in at least three situations in the academe where this technique would be useful: formulating a research project, solving a problem, and teaching students a concept.

Formulating a research project

How can one articulate one’s thought processes to form a meaningful research project? The problem with graduate school is that it’s a lonely process. Many a times, one conceptualizes that it’s one’s own journey. However, it is not true. Most research projects are team efforts. Of course, the author of a dissertation is responsible for most of the work. But without a whole crew of advisors, peers, editors, and other scholars, the work could never be materialized. In this process, many experienced researchers would help a junior researcher to formulate a project by asking probing questions. These questions trigger various thoughts, dormant knowledge, and working hypotheses. In other words, the thinking-aloud method is already implicitly used in graduate school. Formulating a dissertation research is similar to formulating a novel. In writing either document, an author has to make millions of decisions. Thinking aloud brings in the social aspect of this seemingly solitary process.

Solving a problem

Creative thinkers solve problems that might not have answers, or nobody has yet figured out the answers. Therefore, in order for them to push the boundary of knowledge, they need an extra push, and support. Thinking aloud makes this process more humane. Instead of hiding oneself in the woods, and thinking through a problem. It is more productive to talk to people who share the same passion. They might be able to offer some insights, and nudge one along with one’s creative thinking. Thinking aloud is particularly helpful when an idea is vaguely forming in one’s head. Like a sculpturist, the thinker’s job is to add contours to this idea: that is, to add depth to a two dimensional object, or to add shape & substance to a non-material one. Thinking aloud adds vocabulary to this idea. The more one does it, the more the idea becomes more complex, and grasp-able.


In many ways, teaching involves reverse engineering. I often find myself explaining what the author of a particular research did to my students. However, the better part of the teaching process is to explain what could have been done differently, or what could have not been done right, or whether there are alternative explanations.  This pedagogical imagination stimulates both my own thinking, and my students’ desire to learn more. In teaching, sometimes I ask students what the author does, and how could they do things differently. I let them talk, and come to their own conclusions. Instead of giving a lecture, I let other students wait until a particular student can think through the very question they ask, and give them counter-questions to complexify the issue, until they reach their own conclusion. This feels so satisfying when a student feels that they grasp a concept or knowing how to solve a problem. However, obviously this method would not work for a classroom of 100 students. It is very much a seminar style, where I can pay attention to each student’s thought processes. In other words, this method is appropriate for a small-class setting.

Potential conflict

The relationship between the speaker and the listener in the process of thinking aloud is symbiotic, yet this form of thinking could cause conflicts if both parties are not aware of what their role is in the relationship. The speaker is processing some thoughts, and trying to give an idea some flesh, and structure while the listener’s role is to facilitate this process by asking clarifying questions. In many ways, the speaker is not interested in the listerner’s opinions or advice about a particular topic of interests. Most important to the relationship for the listener is to ask questions. However, this subtlety is difficult to detect in daily interactions because as human beings we think our opinions matter. Having our opinions discounted hurts our feelings. Sometimes the first party, the speaker is simply not aware that they are thinking aloud. Hence the listener, the sidekick in this scenario has to do the work, figuring out whether they are playing the sidekick roles for a brief period of time. In order to avoid this confusion, and potential conflicts, the speaker should be aware that they are interested in exploring some questions, and would like to get some ideas, feedback from the other party. If this is clear from the beginning, the interaction would be meaningful and productive for both sides.

In conclusion, thinking aloud is a technique that anyone can employ for daily problem solving. To a knowledge producer, scholar, and a pedagogue, it could be utilized to formulate a problem, solve it, and teach others how to solve it.

Soziopod: Sociology Podcast from Germany

In the past, I have reviewed two sociology podcasts from the United States and the United Kingdom, namely The Annex Sociology, and Thinking Allowed (Than 2017). Still an avid listener of both channels, I am constantly learning about new ideas and the development in my field on the two sides of the Atlantic. Yet, the previous blog post reveals that my consumption of sociological knowledge is very Anglo-American centric. That is, outside of what is available in the English language, I almost never tried to read sociological knowledge written in another language. While in Berlin, I discussed this issue with a good friend, Herrmann Königs, a sociologist in training at Humboldt University in Berlin. He suggested that I should listen to a sociology podcast in German. It’s called Soziopod. I took a listen, and was pleasantly surprised by its content, the quality of the debates, and the number of episodes available. This blog post summarizes my overall evaluation of the podcast.


One can find more information about the podcast here. According to Wikipedia, it is dedicated to sociological and philosophical topics, and started in 2011. The podcast is unfortunately in German, which means that it is non-accessible to many. Unlike the two podcasts mentioned above, which focus mainly on sociology and other related social sciences, this podcast brings philosophy to the center of all social debates. This element in itself is very refreshing.

The podcast is hosted by Dr. Nils Köbel and Patrick Breitenbach. Dr. Köbel is a trained sociologist of children, youth, and religion, and Patrick Breitenbach is an expert in digital media. They make a good pair of hosts because both of them are invested in various topics. Since one of them is a media expert, he could translate abstract concepts into layman’s language. Many a times, the podcast avoids sociological jargon, which only insiders could understand.  The purpose of the podcast is to make sociological knowledge accessible to everyone. Dr. Köbel stated that they try present the topics in a manner of general understanding to “bring Sociology to the streets, where it belongs.”

A typical episode lasts around one hour. It is structured around a topic such as social inequality, migration, power, right-wing extremism, religion, or the Frankfurt School of social theory. That means, it’s a wealth of knowledge for anybody who is interested in social debates in Germany. Every once in a while, they also air a special episode where the hosts discuss an issue with a body of audience, and interact with them. Sometimes they invite experts to comment on certain topics. That means listeners could directly raise a question to the hosts/moderators, and sometimes debate with the two hosts as well. Since its inception in 2011, the program has produced more than 70 episodes, a few public forums for an audience to interact with the hosts, and they have published one book. This is quite impressive!

After the topic is being introduced, the hosts would define an important concept or concepts. Then they introduce the different social theorists who have written about the topic, and elaborate more on how these theorists are in conversation with one another. More importantly the discussions are situated in the context of contemporary Germany, which makes abstract scholarly debates relatable to daily life experience.

The discussions have a lot of pedagogical values. During the course of one hour, one can learn many important social theory concepts, and could look for appropriate examples to make sense a particular concept.  Each episode contains lots of knowledge about social theory.  The hosts often highlight theoretical concepts which have been invented by German theorists such as Jürgen Harbamas,  Thomas Luhmann,  or Theodor Adorno. I found these discussions fascinating because I have never really read these authors closely, nor used any of their works before. What is even more intriguing is that the hosts would relate sociological concepts to philosophical concepts. In other words, they acknowledge the foundation of sociology: philosophy. When unearthing the genealogy of a particular term, one could trace it back to some philosopher who wrote about similar topics. This is a contrast to my current sociological training in the United States, which as a field has developed into something that has been moved quite far from philosophy, or social theory.

Even though the podcast is a great pedagogical channel, as an American trained student of sociology, I cannot help but point out some of its shortcomings. First, its main topics would be categorized under the umbrellas of social theory or political sociology in American sociology terms. According to the recent sections that are listed on the American Sociological Association’s website, social theory and political sociology are two among its 52 official sections. In other words, the podcast covers a very small fraction of all possible sociological topics that one can study.

Given the nature of its leaning toward social theory, and philosophy,  most discussions stay on the abstract level. The discussions are centered around a topic, relevant sociological concepts, and different possible directions that could be taken to deal with the topic. What is barely discussed is empirical evidence to test whether the theory actually works on the grounds. The general structure of one episode is organized as follows:

  1. Definition of a concept
  2. How to operationalize the concept?
  3. Can one use the concept in a particular context in relation to the given topic?
  4. Who else has talked about the concept and this phenomenon since ancient philosophy?
  5. What else can we learn about the phenomenon?
  6. Is there any unresolved contradiction?

The hosts barely cite new research conducted in contemporary Germany. They often talk about big thinkers, who came up with concepts that could be applied universally. There are almost no discussions about methodology and data, which in my opinion are the strength of sociology. We are a pluralistic bunch of scientists who employ a variety of methods, theories, and data to study the social world. The podcast’s main focuses are concepts, and argumentation. As a student of immigration, work, and the urban, I find the podcast lacking because those fields are by definition not the main focus of the podcast. Because of its emphasis on theory, the podcast is also not paying enough attention to the lived experience of a particular group, which quintessentially showcases how a person inhabits their living environment, and reveals their social world.

When I brought up my observation about the lack of empirical research discussions in the podcast, my friend, Herrmann Königs, commented that this illustrates what is valued and emphasized in sociological research and pedagogy in Germany. In his words: “German sociology emphasizes intellectual history of a concept, and whether the concept could be applied universally.” We then went on to debate the question: Is it necessary to learn about the historical context, through which the concept arose in order to understand a contemporary social phenomenon? We couldn’t come up with a consensus whether it is productive to learn about intellectual history of a concept, or whether it is more productive to learn how to apply it in a contemporary situation. However, our discussion highlights the differences in our training on the two sides of the Atlantic. American sociological training tends to emphasize the empirical; the German, the theoretical.

Due to their training, my German counterparts impress me with their expertise in close reading of original texts, and the logic of their argumentation. However, I find their main interests on formal institutions such as the church, the school, and the state to be limiting. Sociologists can also study sub-cultures such as that of the urban squatters, Punk Rock culture, the Fusion (the equivalent of the Burning Man), the proliferation of Yoga, and the immigrants. All of those marginal groups might one day become mainstream, and by studying these subgroups, sociologists could reveal social transformations.

One could criticize that I am too American-centric, and that I cannot impose an agenda set by my profession on one side of the Atlantic to the other. I agree that I am an American trained sociologist, but I also think that as a profession, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have much to learn from each other. German sociology provides rigorous theoretical training that I wish American graduate programs could provide. I would like to see students from day one to engage more with theoretical texts, and learn how to do it properly rather than seeing people like myself scared of social theory, and opt to do empirical research from day one. Thus, many a times sociology papers read a-theoretical to me. However, American pragmatism is much to be praised. With this pragmatic orientation in mind, we are looking for mechanism of why something is the case, and using our sociological imagination to reveal it. The two papers that I have read lately that showcase how a mechanism-focused researcher could be done are “When two bodies are (not) a problem” by Lauren Rivera (2017), and “All that is Solid” by David Peterson (2015). They exemplify some of the best contemporary sociological research that American academia has to offer.

Another aspect that I find not satisfactory is that the main (if not only) geographical focus of the podcast is Germany. It doesn’t give any air time other German speaking countries such as Switzerland, Austria, and Lichtenstein. If the social concepts are so universally applicable, why are they not applied in other cultural, sociopolitical contexts? According to Jaeeum Kim(2017), the field of sociology is openly anti-area studies. In other words, American sociologists tend to study American society; Germans study German one. Despite all odds, many sociologists travel across nation-state boundaries to study a particular social phenomenon. A few great books that I have read in the past two years include Jaeeun Kim (2016)’s Contested Embrace, where the author examined immigration from the Korean Peninsula, and their diasporic politics in the 20th century. Another example is Kimberly Hoang (2015)’s Dealing in Desire, which is an excellent ethnography that looks at the co-production of gender and capital in the sex market place in the context of globalizing Vietnam. Two growing subfields of sociological research are China Studies and Asian Studies. The 21st century has been dubbed as the Asian Century. It would be a mistake to not pay any attention to this important geographical area. In other words, only paying attention to social phenomena that occur within the geographical boundary of the German nation is a disadvantage for German sociologists in the context of increasing interdependence and interconnections of different areas of the world.

In conclusion, Sociopod has provided me with a substantial vocabulary to talk with my sociology colleagues on this side of the Atlantic. If you’re comfortable with social theory, political sociology, or pedagogy, you should give it a try. It is packed with bite-size discussions of theoretical knowledge. Its ability to reach a popular audience is aspiring. Bringing sociology to the street is such an inspiring goal, and it ought to be supported. In the context of the increasing emphasis of public sociology, I wish that all academics could use some of the hosts’ techniques to mainstream sociological knowledge to the wider audience. Sociology indeed belongs to the street, and that the knowledge of the profession should not be contained within the walls of the academe.




May book reviews: Trans, Contemporary Theory, Mixed Methodology, and Professionalization

At the beginning of the academic year, I asked Larry Liu, a blogger, and a sociology graduate student  about how he chose books to read. From the discussion, I realized that as a social scientist in training, one is often overwhelmed with the amount of books one ought to read. In addition, one ought to walk a fine balance between depth and breadth. Depth means that one ought to read works within one’s sub-field to make sure that he/she is indeed becoming an expert in certain topics. Breadth refers to the fact that more sub-fields are created, which means that one needs to read some of the most cutting edge research from other sub-disciplines to get a feel of what is going on from other corners of the sociology research world. My friend, Larry Liu, suggested that one also needs to remain as humanistic, and intellectual as possible. That is to say, one should also read writings from literature, and other related disciplines. At the end of the day, a sociologist is an intellectual, not just a researcher of some social inequality phenomenon.

In generally, I read eclectically. My three sub-fields of concentration are immigration, urban sociology, and organizations/work. I often pick up books from those sub-disciplines within sociology. This month, I read books that mostly deal with social categories (theory), a book that provides an overview of contemporary sociological theories, and a book that shows how to do mixed methods for a qualitative research project, and a book that deals with how to get a job in an increasingly difficult academic labor market. In short, the readings focused on theory, method and things grad students need to know other than books. I will go through each one of them in this blog post.

The first book is Rogers Brubaker (2016)’s Trans: Gender and race in an Age of Unsettled Identities, published by Princeton University Press. It is a sociological take of a popular debate of two different “trans” phenomena: transgender and transracial. Brubaker takes the two trans affairs one about Rachel Dolezal, and the other is about Caitlyn Jenner both in the summer of 2015. Whereas the former was criticized because of her inauthentic identity as a white person claiming black identity. Her claims were perceived to be not genuine. The latter, an athlete, and celebrity was approved by the public as a trans-woman. Rogers interrogates these public discussions, and use them as a lens to examine different social categories in American society. The book is about systems of categorization, and how they are being changed, challenged, altered, or reinforced. From the outcomes of the two cases, one could see that the American public is less militant in policing the gender boundaries than it is to racial boundaries. One important take-away from reading this book is the three different ways that one can think about individuals who transgress social categories: the trans migration, the trans of between, and the trans of beyond. These three distinct analytical frameworks help us to understand how each case is being evaluated.  Brubaker is a great writer, and a great theorist. He shows how one could think about social categories in a systematic way. In a lot of ways, the discussions mentioned in the book have underpinned American social life for decades. Increasingly they have become daily discussions at a dinner table. Though full of theoretical arguments, typology, and critiques of social categorization, the book is relatively accessible because of Brubaker’s clear writing. Unlike other heavily theoretical books, this is one of the books from Brubaker that I would recommend to my undergraduate students who want to engage in thinking categorically.

The second book that makes me feel equipped with teaching, and using sociological theory in the classroom is Rojas’s Theory for the Working Sociologist (2017). I officially became a fan of Rojas after having read his guide through graduate school for a sociology student, Grad Skool Rulz. I like how Rojas writes his books: he’s really honest! He doesn’t try to frame everything beautifully. Instead he frames everything logically and pragmatically. Maybe I’m biased in assessing the book Theory for the Working Sociologist because I like the other book. Maybe it’s the halo effect whereby I mistakenly judge Rojas’s academic writing based on some un-academic publication written a long time ago. In terms of the target audience, it is very suitable for early graduate students.  Because of its theoretical pluralism, sociology tends to attract students coming from different academic backgrounds, who might not take any sociology class until graduate school. I myself am an example of this type. I came to sociology from economics. And oh god! I was confused, lost, and couldn’t understand a single word that my Marxist classmates were arguing back and forth in my entire first year.  Classical and contemporary sociological theory texts barely make sense on the first read, and they don’t seem to be in conversation with one another. Rojas point out that the problem of graduate school teaching pertaining to theory is that students often read original texts, apply a theory to maybe their lived experience, or a social phenomenon without learning how the same theory is related the general contemporary research agenda of the entire field. That is to say, there is a disconnect between theory and contemporary research in graduate training. His book does precisely just that: connecting theory with contemporary research. This is the missing link that I had during my first year graduate study. I wished the book was published two years ago before my theory exam. It would help me make sense of jargons, so I could apply them correctly. Furthermore the book provides an nice list of references on contemporary research in education, racial and gender inequalities. My particular take away is that one could group classical and contemporary theories into five main groups: Theories of power and domination (Marxism); Strategic action (Weber); Values and social structures (Durkheim); Social constructionism (Goffman). Rojas shows how contemporary research could elaborate, challenge or expand those theories. At the end of the book, I became more appreciative of my field: an accepting field that has different foundations. In a lot of ways it helps consolidate my professional identity as a working sociologist albeit still in training. I’d highly recommend this book to early graduate students in sociology, who are struggling with making sense of theories that they are reading, and asking how the field has used them. In many ways, becoming a sociologist means one is forming one’s habitus in a professional field.

Unlike the first accessible book from Brubaker, I read a challenging book co-authored by him and his colleagues. It is Nationalist politics and everyday ethnicity in a Transylvanian town (2006). Again I’m such a big fan of Rogers when it comes to discussions on social categories. This book is not about sex and race categories, but about national and ethnic categories. I was motivated to read this book not for the subject matter: nationalism, and ethnicity. I was looking for an answer to the question: how can one combine two different methodologies: ethnography and comparative historical analysis? These two methodologies are very different in terms of how they are being done, and what objects of analysis should be. When one reads comparative historical analysis, one feels like reading documents written by great men to show how great they are. It oftentimes talks about institutions such as the state, religion, or school. Most of the texts don’t show individual agency because individual agency is often lost in historical archival materials. Sometimes I wonder how historians can attribute agency to individuals when they uncover some documents in an obscure archive somewhere. They must use their “historical imagination” to fill in the juicy details of social life based on some dispassionate administrative documents. Historians are known for their story-telling; sociologists are not. I bet we’re not trained in the tradition of making people believe in our stories. We make people believe in “our concepts.” The other methodology, ethnography, gets at social interactions. Among five categories that Rojas in Theory for the Working Sociologist (2017) came up with to group sociological theoretical traditions, ethnography is very good at conducting project that uses theories coming from the “social constructionism” tradition.  This method captures agency real well because the researcher meticulously documents what is being done in the field by the subjects. They could therefore show how the subjects defy or conform with the police enforcement officers or not. In other words, this book shows how one can combine the two very different methodologies together: ethnography, and comparative historical sociology. However, one word of warning is that it reads like an encyclopedia of Cluj, the Transylvanian town that the book studies. I got lost very often in the discussion of Hungarian/Romanian history, and various techniques whereby a Hungarian could recognize who’s Hungarian or not. It takes a lot of effort to get through.

Last and not least, I read the book The Professor is in: The Essential Guide to Turning your Ph. D. into a Job (2015) by Karen Kelsky. It’s a must-have book for all graduate students from day one because it outlines what one has to do in order to get a job in a job-scarce society for professors. The book is full of actionable items that every graduate student like myself can start working on such as applying for fellowships, grants, have a professionally looking CV, and start thinking about having a website, attending conferences, etc. It makes me hyper aware of the fact that in the prestige economy of academia, “branding” oneself has become increasingly important. Her advice has become so popular now, Kelsky now has her own advice column on The Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Those are the books that I have finished this month. From now one, I’ll try to summarize the books that I’ll read each month.


On Teaching

It is only a few days away from the first day of class for the spring 2018 semester. As I am revising my old syllabus, deleting irrelevant materials, and adding new materials, I could not help but think about how teaching has given me so much anxiety, but at the end it always turns out to be a good experience.

Teaching your own class as a graduate student is not easy. One is faced with tremendous pressure from both the academic community, and from students. In my case, anxiety comes strictly from the vague idea that I am in charge of conducting a class of 30-40 undergraduate students. I am often afraid that I am not up for the task because I am not equipped with enough knowledge to answer their questions.

The first day of teaching my own undergraduate class, I took a blood test. Sensing that something was occupying my mind, the nurse asked what I was up to that day. I told her  I would be standing in front of a class room the first time in my life and talked for 75 minutes straight. I was panicking! The nurse assured me that things would go well. She suggested me to look around in my audience, make eye contact with the friendliest looking students in the lecture hall, and talk to them. It’s the advice that I still follow until today.

In my first semester, I did not know many concepts that I actually had to teach because I personally never encountered or used those concepts before. At the same time, I was still struggling to myself to explain to myself exactly what sociology was all about. What did it mean by “sociological imagination?” Why many social relations were described as processes? I was still utterly confused about how I ended up studying sociology. Should I just say that I stumbled upon the discipline at the graduate level? It did not sound too convincing.

In my second semester, I was teaching a class that was policy-oriented, and American-centric that it at times scared me at times excited me. How could I explain the concept “political machine?” Sometimes, I felt that I had neither authority nor credentials to explain some concepts to my students. I was again panicking. My sleep was deeply affected by anxiety. I could never go to bed on time the day before class, and then would wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning to go over the materials again. I often ended up just sitting at my desk, and reading. I read whatever was on the table.

When I am panicking, I read. Reading quiets my mind. Reading calms my anger, and isolates my imagination from reality.

Why is reading so therapeutic? I discovered the power of reading when I was in college. Then I majored in mathematics and economics, with a minor in history. Math and econ required one to sit down, and solve problem sets. My experience showed that I could solve problem sets because mathematical notation did not differ from Vietnamese to English. Yet, words were my academic trouble. I never had enough vocabulary to articulate my thoughts and feelings both inside and outside of academic contexts. The first history class in college taught me that reading gave me power of articulation. Books provided me with interesting ideas to connect with others, who have been more often than not fictional rather than real.

Reading gave me power! I still quite do not understand why it is so therapeutic. It is the act of reading that gave me a moment of tranquility, of happiness. It does not matter what I read at the moment, what matters is that I am going through the act of reading. It is the process that matters. My reading habit falls under the concept bibliotherapy, which is “an expressive therapy that involves storytelling or the reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing” (Wikipedia). While reading any text to calm myself down, I automatically engage in doing bibliotherapy without having any bibliotherapist.

The New Yorker article “Can Reading Make You Happier” suggests that reading more novels makes you more sympathetic to others. Fictions have never been my first choice of books. I prefer ethnographic monographs or non-fiction. It has mainly to do with how a book is being structured. As an academic, I have learned to see the structure of a academic book. Ethnography makes perfect sense, where I get the novel-like quality of writing, while acquiring knowledge about a social phenomenon. In contrast, I am utterly unfamiliar with the terrain of fiction writing. When I start a novel, I do not know how the story develops, how many characters are involved, etc. It’s a journey of discovery, where the structure of the story is rather obscure for an uninitiated mind.

Despite having taken a couple of English literature classes, reading fictions still takes way more energy than I can afford. Metaphors and subplots often make little sense to me. I never get the tree metaphor in Beloved by Toni Morrison, or the parallel love story between Konstantin Lëvin and Princess Kitty, which runs in tandem with the love story of Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina.  Because my mind could not make sense of them, I never know what to do with them, let alone connecting them with my daily lived experience. To my impulsive mind, the journey of discovery through fiction is not deliberate enough, and does not guarantee any concrete reward. I, thus, stick to my books of choice: ethnography, and non-fictions.

Going back to my teaching experience, after 1.5 years of teaching, I am thankful for the opportunity that I have had. I feel more confident now about my public speaking ability. My students are often receptive of the various assignments that I give them. They are in general cooperative because they know that I want them to perform well in my class. I have learned that I do not have to know everything. I have learned to say: “I don’t know;” “I was wrong the other day;” or “I changed my mind.” Chamath Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist, and founder of Social Capital, in an interview with Stanford MBA students, claimed that being able to realize one’s own limitations is empowering. Academics and educators, such as Adam Grant(2014), a professor of management at University of Pennsylvania, also suggest that when one acknowledges one’s shortcomings instead of trying to be over-confident in front of a crowd, the audience is generally more receptive to the speaker (Grant, 2014). The humbling experience of being able to tell my students that I do not know everything makes me recognize that actually making my intellectual self naked to the public, I give them the authority to raise good discussion questions, and pursue their own research. Regardless of how much I know, I learn much more from those young adults more than they learn from me.

During the winter break, I gave a talk on professional development to a group of high school and university students at the US embassy in Hanoi. They belong to a generation that I call the lucky generation, which could be likened to the Baby Boomer generation in the U.S. and the U.K. (Than, 2017). Again, I was panicking because I did not know how to approach this audience. I was not familiar with the venue. I knew little about professional development. I knew next to nothing about the labor market in Vietnam. Yet the event turned out well, and students asked great questions. Every time when I give a lecture or a presentation, I learn more about the materials after having given the presentation than during the research phase/ the preparation phase of the presentation.

Teaching is still difficult. I never say that it is not. However, I think that my attitude about how to make the experience beneficial to both me and students is rather different.

Teaching is definitely beneficial for any academic particularly graduate students. Even those who go on to work for corporations, appreciate the teaching experience for it provided them with an opportunity to practice public speaking for several years (Alumni Aloud Podcast, 2017). Regardless of all the benefits, teaching is very time-consuming. I always feel that my day is totally gone because I have to teach. Teaching is physically exhausting. This feeling will not go away anytime soon. I feel extremely unproductive in the past 2 years in terms of doing research. My excuse has been that I have to teach. I block myself out of thinking intensively about research when I prepare for classes. I do not have to think about any research question, or to write 200 words to elaborate on one interesting idea.

Now as I have become more familiar with teaching, the question has become: how can I juggle simultaneously researching and teaching as a graduate student? Will I be able to manage to produce good writing in addition to teaching?