Sunday, September 30, 2007

Reflexive Thought #1

The words, numbers and images we use to describe reality are not reality itself. They are social constructions used by people to construct further social constructions with the purpose of convincing others that our perception of reality is correct.

Latest On The Sabbatical Front

I sent in my revised proposal to my department chair, dean, and Faculty Development Committee. Most of the responses have been favorable but they mostly have focused on the pedagogical, sociological, and methodological issues of the proposal and very little on bees. Interestingly though, I continue to get offers of help from faculty in a number of different disciplines. There is something about this idea of raising bees that has resonance for people here at my university.

When the proposal is approved, I will not wait for two years to begin my ethnographic research. (I have started already in little ways.)I plan on starting to attend beekeeper's meetings at the closest club I've found, some 20 miles from my home. I will also be applying for a grant so that I can travel and attend various national beekeeper's conferences and perhaps visit with a number of beeks I've been in contact with over the internet. The use of the internet as a resource in doing ethnography fascinates me. That means this week I must make some contacts.

The other news to report is that Monta and I have purchased some wooden fence sections for creating a protective barrier around the beeyard. When we finish putting it up we will leave photos here.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sabbatical Proposal Revised Again

I received some comments from the Faculty Development Committee concerning my sabbatical proposal and have revised it. (see below) I am going to let my department chair read this before I send it back to committee since he didn't understand why any changes were called for in the first draft to begin with.


Sabbatical Proposal for Spring Semester 2009
Wesley E. Miller
Department of Social Science
September 2007

1. Synopsis

I teach the interdisciplinary course called Global Issues and every semester I am faced with the same problem: How do I engage students to consider important macro-structural global issues without losing them? An understanding of the problems and benefits surrounding economic and environmental globalization is a must for any informed citizen, yet for many students, these issues are too abstract and distant from them. Their eyes glaze over with each discussion of IMF policy, or the impact of neo-conservative ideology. I do well enough on my evaluations so I could ignore this problem and coast to retirement, but I have this gut feeling, not found in any of the “positivist” assessment tools used to evaluate the course, that my students are just not getting it. Developmentally, my students are very concrete thinkers, so I am left with the problem of getting them to somehow ponder very abstract concepts and processes.

One approach to my dilemma is to get my students to cultivate what we sociologists call “the sociological imagination”: the ability to perceive that one’s inner and day-to-day life is very much connected to the larger macro-structures we live within (Mills 1959); the concrete mundane problems that we can easily grasp are very much related to those larger global issues and policies which we see as distant. From this pedagogical approach, students would start by focusing on an engaging, concrete activity and slowly broaden this focus during the semester, learning how this activity is impacted by a complex web of larger national and global structures that seem so distant to them at first.

After doing some initial reading last summer on the complex issue of “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) amongst honey bees (Apis Mellifera), I think that a Global Issues course that centers on honey bees as the proverbial “canaries in a coal mine” would help students understand and engage in the global issues that impact their own lives as well. The problems (e.g. CCD, organic vs. conventional husbandry) that beekeepers and their bees face are not simply biological issues, but are influenced by macro structural forces as well.

The effective construction of any such course will demand a retooling on my part. A course with this focus will demand knowledge outside my disciplinary expertise. Besides a hands-on understanding of day-to-day apiculture I will need to become more familiar with global economic and political policy, ecological issues, agribusiness practices, and the cultures and philosophies in the beekeeping world.

In sum, then, I request a sabbatical leave for spring semester 2009 in order to pursue the following objectives:

1. To understand how the day-to-day lives of honey bees and beekeepers are impacted by the larger macro-forces produced by globalization.

Underlying this objective is the theoretical orientation in sociology called “structural constructivism” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1988). Like ‘normal’ social constructivist theory, this approach recognizes that as individuals interact they collaboratively construct “typifications” or representations of reality (Berger and Luckmann 1967). Structural Constructivism argues that the “social materials” used in the social construction of reality come not only from the external social environment of individuals, but that these materials systematically vary with the structural/historical position of the actor. For example, a middle class, 21 century, US citizen from the Midwest will produce a different social construction than an upper class, 19th century, Irish citizen from Cork simply because their social/geographical/historical coordinates have placed them in different environments where the “social materials” at hand are different.

The chief advantage of this approach in both sociological research and problem-based pedagogy is that it avoids the false opposition between human agency and structural determinism. Actors “improvise” and create but always within the limits of the structures at hand; they internalize the external, while externalizing the internal, all with some “improvisational” control on the part of the agent. As they externalize they also reproduce, and creatively adapt to some degree, the structures they originally internalized.

As a proponent of the Conflict paradigm in sociology, I tend to shy away from the use of systems theory. From my viewpoint, systems theory tends to overly exaggerate the integration of cultural artifacts and the functional interdependence of societal structures, while casting conflict and cultural contradiction as “abnormal”.

2. To distill the above information into concepts and activities that would effectively engage students in understanding global issues.

Admittedly, at this point, I only have vague notions of what a “bee-focused” Global Issues course might look like. I would like to explore the possibility of combining a problem-based pedagogical approach (Delisle 1997) with a grounded theory-based (Glaser and Strauss 1967) research methodology (see more about grounded theory under objective 3). In problem-based pedagogy, students learn not by reading or listening for the teacher’s “correct answers”, but by creating and answering their own questions. The grounded theory methodology would provide the students with an environment to do this in, not simply as students, but as research collaborators elaborating on and clarifying the work I’ve already begun in my ethnography through their collection of data from new theoretically chosen comparison groups. Course activities might well include experiences interviewing beekeepers and observing different apiaries, content analysis of internet “bee” forums and email lists, attending to the current research on bee management and bee ‘problems’ in various apicultural publications, examining economic, environmental and political policies that might impact bees and/or beekeepers, and hands-on experiences in bee management and care. All these experiences would be recorded and reflected upon by each student in a detailed journal of field notes.

While the sociological perspective of the instructor will no doubt be a guiding influence here, the course should offer an interdisciplinary (rather than “other disciplinary”) perspective on “bees in a global context”.

3. To produce an ethnography of the beekeeping world including those more “esoteric” movements like “biodynamic beekeeping” and “apitherapy”.

Methodologically, this ethnography will be guided by two meta-sociological approaches: reflexive sociology and grounded theory.

In a nutshell, reflexive sociology (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992) recognizes that the same types of social forces that impact the social constructions of ordinary actors in day-to-day life also impact the scientific observer and her instruments when doing research and analysis. The scientific method does not provide the observer with a “magic bubble,” giving the researcher a “god-like viewpoint” on reality, thus exempting her from the influences that her social/historical position exerts on her. The reflexive sociologists rejects the “futile attempts to eliminate the effects of (and on) the researcher” (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983:17), but instead calls on the scientific observer to examine those effects in order to produce a richer understanding of the phenomena under study. Ignoring these social forces or claiming to control them doesn’t make the knowledge produced any more valid.

This proposed sabbatical project could serve as an institutional model for doing reflexive research. Whether we are discussing our positivist approach to assessment or Bloom’s taxonomy at SMU, we lack any general acknowledgement or analysis of reflexivity in the knowledge we produce. To paraphrase Schuman (in Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983:17), artifacts (or numbers) are produced in the minds of their socially positioned beholders.

The ethnographic study will also be informed by what is called Grounded Theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). According to Glaser and Corbin (1990: 21) “the grounded theory approach is a qualitative research method that uses a systematic set of procedures to develop an inductively derived grounded theory about a phenomenon”. Through “theoretical sampling” and strategic comparisons, the researcher produces substantive theories that fit the data observed well. The beauty of such a methodology for problem-based pedagogy is that the theories produced are always open-ended, allowing others (both students and faculty) to clarify and possibly add to the theory through their own systematic observations, strategic comparisons and analytical clarifications.

2. Activities Description

The following is a tentative timeline of the activities I propose to do during this sabbatical. The spring semester was chosen since it coincides with the beginning of beekeeping season in Minnesota.

a. January

1. Library research with a focus on bee biology and apiculture.
2. Begin interviews with apiculturalists of all types. It will include interviews with large and small-scale intensive honey producers, apiarists who practice “organic” or “sustainable” beekeeping, and backyard beekeepers who have one or two hives.
3. Attend the American Beekeeping Federation annual meeting.

b. February

1. Library research and interviewing with a focus on the philosophical “esoteric” side of beekeeping. This includes examining the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, Gunther Hauk, and other members of the “biodynamic” movement. Also, time will be spent studying the ideas of Charles Mraz and other proponents of “apitherapy”. This also might include attendance at an American Apitherapy meeting and a visit to the apiary founded by Charles Mraz in Burlington, Vermont.
2. Attend the Organic Beekeeping Society meeting.

c. March

1. Library research on global agricultural policy and practices.
2. Take a short course on apiculture at the University of Minnesota extension from Dr. Marla Spivak, breeder of the “Minnesota Hygienic” bee.
3. Prepare two hives: one using conventional Langtroth boxes and frames, the second using a Kenyan Top Bar hive.
4. Continue interviews

d. April and May

1. Begin construction of a Global Issues syllabus using materials collected thus far. Syllabus will include readings and activities in and out of class.
2. Participant observation conducted at local apiaries of different sizes and philosophies. Observations will go beyond simply husbandry concerns to attitudes towards bees and global concerns.
3. Add bees to the two hives set up last month.
4. Library research with a focus on global environmental issues that may impact bees.

e. May to Summer

1. Begin the writing and continue research for the ethnography.
2. Summer management of bees.

3. Contribution Description

a. Professional Development – Sociology has a long tradition of ethnographic studies describing the subcultures of occupations. Back in the 1920s, Robert Park (1983) analyzed the social world of news reporters. In the 1950s, Howard Becker (1963) examined the lebenswelt of Chicago jazz musicians. More recently, French sociologist Loic Wacquant (2006) did a participant observation study as an apprentice boxer. These studies looked underneath the manifest, official descriptions of these occupations found in organizational flow charts or career services materials to a complex world of meanings and rituals. This ethnographic examination of the world of beekeeping is my first attempt to add to this body of materials.
b. Academic Program – I think that the activities of this proposed sabbatical, brought into the classroom environment, will enhance our students understanding of global issues. If other faculty find this approach engaging and/or successful, it might inspire others to approach other courses in this manner.
c. Sharing Results with Other Faculty- Besides doing a post-sabbatical presentation on some relevant issue growing out of my research, I will be keeping a daily blog which will be accessible to faculty, students, and administration during and after the sabbatical. This blog (“Canaries in a Coal Mine”) will document my sabbatical’s day-to-day activities and discoveries. The use of a blog in this fashion is something rather unique.

5. Assessment Description

Four types of evidence will be used in assessing this sabbatical project.

a. Scholarly Publications- I will produce some body of work that will be submitted either in article or book form. I can envision the research producing a number of possible publications in sociology, pedagogy, environmental studies, and apiculture.
b. Presentation at the Midwest Sociology Convention.
c. I will use the comments left on my blog to assess the accuracy and clarity of what I am discovering. I will also share the assessment of my work to my blog readers as well.
d. I will produce a new syllabus for my Global Issues course that uses honeybees as a concrete focus for examining the problems and benefits globalization.

Works Cited

Becker, Howard S. 1963. The Outsiders. New York: Free Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Loic Wacquant. 1988. “Social Space and Symbolic Power”. Social Theory 7:18-26.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Loic Wacquant.1992. Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Delisle, Robert. 1997. How to Use Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Glaser, B. and Strauss, A. 1967. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Chicago: Aldine.

Hammersley, Martyn and Atkinson, Paul. 1983. Ethnography: Principle in Practices. New York: Routledge.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Park, Robert E. 1983. “The Natural History of a Newspaper”. The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment. Edited by Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Strauss, A. and Corbin, J. 1990. Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wacquant, Loic. 2006. Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. Oxford: Oxford University.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Stage One of the Approval Process

Yesterday, I received an initial response from the Faculty Development Committee on my sabbatical proposal . They seemed excited enough but it is often difficult for me to judge. These days, educational institutions have a tendency to try to preserve people's "self-esteem", so everything you do as a student or faculty member is "great". (I'm cynical enough not to buy into it.) The committee did make some reading recommendations, however, mostly about fleshing out some of the pedagogical and research issues in the proposal. So I'm off to the library this morning to borrow a stack of books. At 9 a.m. I have an appointment with one of the committee members who will clarify any ambiguous points in their recommendations.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Uninvited Guests

Last week, my partner was asked to take photos at the bridal shower of our step-daughter. In between taking pictures of the happy bride-to-be and her loyal friends and sisters, Monta was able to take some beautiful photographs of some "other guests" at the get-together, namely, a nest of European Paper Wasps hanging from a corner of our step-daughter's house.

The wasps were all well-behaved, only occasionally begging for a piece of cake. I'm very proud of my step-daughter as she refuses to destroy the nest as long as the wasps remain "tolerant" of her family's existence. Now I have another recruit for my beekeeping project.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Sabbatical Proposal Submitted

I submitted my sabbatical proposal to my Dean and Department Chair and now it is just a waiting game. Next week I will be going to our "grant guru" and try to find a place to apply for some research money. Hopefully, sometime next week I might even begin work on a top bar hive.

I am cautiously optimistic about getting all this approved. I'll still keep bees and do some careful observations irrespective of what happens though.