Salient. Victoria University Students' Newspaper. Volume 39, Issue Number 11. 31 May 1976
[Letter from A Long-Time Sociology Student published in Salient Volume 39 Issue 11. 31 May 1976]
I have been following the Sociology debate with interest but I am disappointed that only Charles Crothers has attempted to raise a voice defending the Department's actions and policy. However his defence has been thorough - he has supported not only its past and present actions but also ones it plans for future students.
Unfortunately for such a thorough defence, he fails to refute any specific points of criticism, instead basing a counterattack on asking what he hopes will be embarassing questions for the critics. The object of this letter is to show that the answers to his questions embarass only himself and the Sociology Department.
In his last letter he outlined reasons why another theory and methodology course was necessary. His position appeared to be that more of the same-type course would raise students' understanding of theory and methodology. He suggests that the quantity not the quality of courses is the problem. He is wrong. I offer my proof with the following examples.
Sociology 301 was and still appears to be taught in two halves. In one of the first years of its operation this division provided a good commentary on the position of the department. The first half was taught by staff who made great efforts to get across the fundamental points of what they had to teach and to explain them clearly so that students would be in the best position to critically analyse these themselves. They openly encouraged students to take a critical approach approach to what they were being taught, not only in that course but in others too (Mr Crothers felt this to be the crux of university education).
In the second hall, different staff following the suggestion of a higher staff member veered from this teaching approach to the uncritical "shopping list" approach already described in Salient. The approach which implied students could actually criticise theorists rather than merely choose from a "shopping list" of high-and-mighties was frowned upon and openly criticised within the Department by top staff while the teaching style of the staff who taught in the second half of the year was actively praised and used as an example.
Sociology 501 has also been characterised by highly variable lecturing and the almost maniac desire of the Department to make lecturers' teach things they have either never studied in sufficient depth or which they do not understand. There are man) examples of this.
Nearly every theory-type course or theory section of a wider course taught in the Sociology Department contains some amount of material on Weber. Lectures on Weber are to be included in the planned theory and methodology course. In 1974 a member of the Department confided that neither he nor any other member of the Department then claimed to, or actually did, understand Weber's sociology (most because they found it of little use). Yet, naturally, undergraduate students must strive for degrees on the basis of their understanding of Weber (measured by whom?).
One lecture by a newish lecturer to a 301 class showed the contempt of Students that is encouraged within the department. The lecture was ostensibly on a vague and fairly crackpot theory (like most taught in sociology only more so) but was so incoherent and illogical to be an insult to the intelligence of the Students there. At the half way stage about 1/3 of the students left (mainly keener students) and attendance at the rest of lectures in this series was dismal. The lecturer had obviously felt that he could bluff his way through the series of lectures luckily knowledge in this area was not essential to passing 301 that year. While his lecturing has improved somewhat since then his attitude to students appears not to have. He is one of the lucky few to have been promoted in the Department in the 1970s.
The student attitude towards Sociology 301 has generally been one of 'passing through endurance'. The theory, which is born out in reality, says that as long as you do the work, attend some lectures and resist the overbearing temptation to drop out you will be passed.
Staff have failed to convince students that 301 is necessary for them.
While 301 is ostensibly on theory and methodology what is taught is a variety of mutually exclusive theories and a armful of methodologies. No real attempt is made to do more than lay out an array of theories and methodologies and say 'choose one of these' - of course for different situations you choose different ones. Very fine, you might say; unless you actually asked what social science should be about.
At the very least it should be about the understanding of social reality, ideally it should be playing a part in remoulding that social reality on the basis of that understanding. The understanding you are taught in Sociological 301 is one which says that depending on which side of the sociological bed you woke up on, the world is upside down or right way up, that Muldoon is a charismatic leader of the New Zealand people, that Muldoon is a representative of the small minority ruling class in its current attack on working class living standards, that taking rolling strikes against Muldoon's government is deviant behaviour, that being the Muldoon government is deviant behaviour, or as in Durkheim the whole society is deviant! Hardly the way to understand social reality! And putting up new theory cloudlands is not the way to solve it.
There is no codified theory and methodology in sociology. Sociologists are still arguing over whether a science of society is possible or not. But displaying a variety of run down and worn out theories and asking you to choose is not the way to solve that impasse. Far better that the Sociology Department teach courses students are interested in and that have practical application. There are far too few courses like this at present and far too much opposition to them among top staff.
In fact the other 300-level courses have been forced to devote time to 301 concerns because of student pressure. Often these discussions of 301 concerns elsewhere yeild far more to students because of differing approaches (i.e. lively) and the more critical atmosphere. Students aim to do their learning in the other 300-level courses which are mostly their chosen interests and treat 301 as compulsory but strictly low-yield in learning terms. If something comes up in 301 which they don't understand or are actually interested in they will tend to discuss it outside 301 in their other courses. While 301 and the planned theory course are seen as the core of a Sociology degree by top level staff, students and (I suspect) quite a few lower level staff see them solely as a necessary drudge.
I must point out that it is not my belief that all of 301 is irrelevant and useless all the time to anyone seeking to understand society. However, is in my first example these 'problems' are dealt with or discouraged. Mr Crothers himself would know of the almost uniform hostility of staff to some of the things his practical group in 301 did last year. One of the things it did do was have the temerity to consider giving the results of a survey on Council tenants to the tenants themselves.
Mr Crothers says that to see if turnover was exceptionally high in the Department one would need to know "The average likely length of stay etc. etc." He should have checked this figure before he made his comments. A check made a year or two ago showed that in two indices of staff turnover the Sociology Department had significantly higher turnover than comparable Departments at this university. And this despite the fact that it was gaining a large number of its staff from overseas and part of their contracts stipulated that their fares to N.Z. would be paid in full conditional on their staving with the Department for three years.
Exceptionally high turnover is bad for students, it tends to perpetuate understaffing, leads to continual text changes, confuses students with differing approaches etc Now that the department appears to have settled down a bit compared with its life in the period 1970-75 in particular I would like to comment on why there was so much turnover. I think there were two main reasons why staff left the Department. The first was the opposition to the 'critical approach' Mr Crothers lauds, and the second was in personnel policies; over-working, the fitting of stall to courses, the allowances made for stall's interests and specialties to be taught Error! Hyperlink reference not valid, don't mean more demography courses), and a lack of promotion on merit.
I have cited above one case of promotion in the Department. I will now cite a case which did not result in promotion. One person who was more on the rotten side of the department than the half-alive side was given to believe he would be promoted. He was widely published and it appeared a normal case of promotion. Somehow he got on someone's bad side, he was not promoted, he left the Department.
Other staff were also driven away from the Department by antipathy to their teaching approaches and sociological positions and by the sure knowledge that they would not be considered for promotion..
The standard Department explanation for turnover is that all sociologists (except themselves) are incredibly careerist and all who leave the Department do so to further their own nests. This position is no more man distortion. The original decision to leave the Department was arrived at in most cases because of events within the department not opportunities outside it. I know this and so do many of the staff still in it. Only after the decision to leave had been forced upon them did they look to further their careers. The difference in factors influencing the decision to leave as opposed to the decision where to go has been shown in a reliable American study. The book 'Academic Marketplace' says on page 55 "Only 18% of the departed men were reported to have been dissatisfied with their salaries when in the place, but 58% of them reported to have been attracted by a better salary".
It is ironic that now the problem of turnover has been seemingly solved by the increased uniformity of the Department and not by basic changes in the top staff and the organisation of the department.
I hope that I have answered a fair number of Mr Crothers questions indirectly in the comments on theory courses and turnover. I hope someone in the Department is going to have the guts to argue against these points in public - I have no doubt that they will call it a tissue of lies in private - because if they don't dispute this then they are letting it stand as a public record of their malpractices.
Lastly, I would like to assert that I have nothing against the majority of Sociology staff except their silence. They have no real say in the direction of the Department and are on the same end of the anti-dissent hammer as their students. It is my belief that no real changes can take place in the Sociology Dept. until the staff start to openly air their gripes (including Mr Crothers who has many) and/ or the top leadership is radically changed. The latter would lead to all sorts of blood letting but can only be avoided by staff reasserting democracy within the Department and in particular re-examining the whole academic and pedagogic outlook of the Department. Unless something happens the Sociology department will become a pedagogic desert within the university
Yours sincerely,A long-time sociology student.