Ethnography: Duke’s Sophomore Year Experience (SYE) Program

June 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

One thing I have been looking into in my study of the sophomore year experience is the university response to increased scholarship on how to help sophomores succeed. For most institutions, the “transition initiatives” predicated on studies of student development, are driven by the desire to increase retention rates (Hunter et al., 4). Scholars and student affairs staff at universities have increasingly recognized that second year issues such as decreased administrative support, and selection of an academic major,  are significant to retention efforts because of their impact on student success and persistence to graduation (Tobolowsky and Cox, v). As a result, the number of colleges with initiatives dedicated to second year issues more than tripled between 2000 and 2007 (Tobolowsky and Cox v).

Duke University has had a programming initiative called Sophomore Year Experience (SYE) for the past five years. However, according to Jenni Davidson, the SYE Coordinator at Duke whom I have mentioned in a previous post, the University has high retention rates meaning that retention is not the priority of Duke’s second year initiative. However, good retention does not mean that there are not similar second year issues faced by Duke sophomores and I was interested to hear how Jenni identified the goal of SYE.

Jenni responded that “each year in college is a different transition,” and she went on to outline the “typical” four-year time line of a Duke student’s career and the university organizations that typically offers support during each year’s transition. First year students are making the adjustment to college—First-year Advisory Counselors (FACs), First Year Experience (FYE), Devil’s After Dark, and academic resources provide a highly specified support system for freshmen. Juniors are most likely to study abroad and therefore have a smaller presence on campus. Additionally, juniors who are applying for summer internships are often getting support from the career office. The career office also offers support for seniors who are looking for post-graduation employment. But the alumni association also starts planning events for the seniors throughout the year. That left the sophomores. And the purpose of SYE Jenni said, was to provide a university presence for the sophomores, and be a service for students looking for something different.

The program funds events exclusively for sophomores to help reinforce a sense of class unity. Events include major panels and faculty lunches, but also tickets to see plays at the Durham Performing Arts Center, or Full Frame Film Festival. One thing I noticed was that while SYE works towards connecting sophomores with other sophomores, and connecting sophomores to faculty, it does not currently make an effort to forge connections with students in the other classes, though Jenni did mention hopes of expanding SYE to better facilitate peer mentoring between upperclassmen and sophomores. In other aspects of my research, I have found that upperclassmen prove to be valuable resources for sophomores whether it’s during their major considerations, or simply drawing them into greater involvement in campus organizations.


Works Cited:

Hunter, Mary Stuart, Barbara F. Tobolowsky, John N. Gardner and Associates. Helping Sophomores Succeed: Understanding the Second-Year Experience. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

Tobolowsky, Barbara F. and Bradley E. Cox. Shedding Light on Sophomores: An Exploration of the Second College Year. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition., 2007).


Ethnography Project: Sophomore Experience Survey

June 26, 2011 § 2 Comments

In the last week I have been collecting the answers to an electronic survey I sent out to a number of Duke students ranging from the class of 2010 (graduated a year ago) to the class of 2013 (just completed their sophomore year) about their experience sophomore year. I sent out the survey last Saturday after receiving the suggestion while presenting my progress on my project, and I closed it yesterday, after a week.

Part of the survey was adapted from a large-scale 2007 Sophomore Experiences Survey discussed by Laurie Schreiner in “Factors That Contribute to Sophomore Success and Satisfaction.” This survey collected responses from 2,856 sophomores at twenty-six four-year institutions. While Schreiner addresses the reasons limitations for generalizing the findings to all sophomores across all institutions, I thought that this would be a good starting point for describing the Duke sophomore experience.

However I did not use the entire survey, nor did I use only this survey. I selected the questions I thought were most relevant, added some Duke specific questions, and added some text box follow up questions which I thought was appropriate given my smaller sample size.

While I recognize that a survey is less than ideal, and personal interaction and observation is preferable, I think that it will have been helpful to me in expanding my subject pool and increasing my access to the thoughts of a variety of people. In addition, I asked respondents who were willing to provide me with contact information—email—to meet me for follow up questions individually or in focus groups. I did not get as many volunteers as I may have hoped for this week, but I also recognize that those who were unwilling to meet may have been deterred by the lack of anonymity.

When constructing my survey, I considered asking subjects to email me outside of the survey so that I could speak to them in person, and also be able to promise anonymity for their survey responses. Instead, I chose to request people who were willing to meet to provide their email address in the electronic form, because I thought this had two advantages—it allowed me to tailor follow up questions to interesting survey responses in individual follow up meetings, and it left me with the responsibility of contacting them rather than waiting for emails, which in my experience, can drastically decrease volunteers.

There were a few questions, which I chose to keep exactly word for word as they were listed in survey Shreiner analyzes because they had qualitative answer styles, which I am interested to compare to the national averages according to the 2007 survey. I don’t intend to perform any sort of critical comparison of the responses to the two surveys, but I still thought it would be interesting to see how my respondents compared to the respondents to the national survey on a few questions which ask you to place yourself on a numbered scale signifying your level of satisfaction, or sense of achievement.

Review: “Disciplining Addictions”

June 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

I found Philippe Bourgois’ discussion of methadone treatment for heroin addicts quite interesting. The methadone clinics Bourgois describes provide methadone maintenance drug treatment programs which consist of daily doses of methadone, a prescribed psychoactive drug that blocks the sense of pleasure at the level of an individual’s brain synapses. Methadone is intended to end patients’ cravings for heroin and prevent a pleasurable experience should the patient continue his/her heroin use.

Bourgois attributes this style of drug treatment to the discourse that defines heroin addiction as a metabolic disease, which opens up the possibility of a pharmacological treatment. Bourgois contrasted this theory with what he called the “just-say-no-to-drugs” discourse, which relies on the notion that one has a choice and can abstain through willpower. There is a clear moralization in the eyes of the “just-say-no” theorists because the choices made by “patients” are explicitly recognized. However, this is not to say that the “metabolic disease” theorists have not moralized heroin addiction. The conditions under which patients seek treatment are unlike the treatment one seeks for any other illness.

In particular, I was shocked by the lack of informed consent in several instances: the fact that Primo wasn’t informed that there was no precedent for quitting LAAM before starting the treatment; the fact that Primo’s methadone dose was increased without his consent because of dirty urine; employees who refused to tell the addicts their methadone dosage. All of these point to a lack of agency on the part of addicts/patients which supports Bourgois’ statement, “Even the best of intentions to help serve the socially vulnerable can also simultaneously perpetuate—or even exacerbate—oppression, humiliation and dependency of one kind or another. “ Although I’m inclined to question “even the best of intentions.”


Ethnography Project: Major Declaration

June 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

In a few of my interviews I was able to delve into the topic of major declaration—an important deadline during sophomore year. Beginning my project, I had identified this process as a distinguishing transition for second year students. At Duke, the deadline to declare your major is during your 4th semester—traditionally, March of the spring semester of your sophomore year.

According to Virginia N. Gordon, author of “Academic Advising: Helping Sophomores Succeed,”

Choosing an academic direction is one of the most important decisions students make while in college. Students’ choice of major will lead them down a path that incorporates contacts with faculty and peers, exposure to academic content, and the type and depth of academic experiences that might affect later decisions involving the identification of career alternatives or post-college education. (84)

While I was intrigued by the emphasis placed on the choice of an academic pathway, it sounded unmistakably “advisory,” and I wanted to find out more about how students perceive the decision.

One student I spoke to, who just completed her sophomore year described a sudden shift from feeling that there was plenty of time to take a variety of classes and try everything out to feeling that there was not time before the looming decision deadline. She responded by making strategic class selections in order to narrow down between the handful of departments she was considering, taking one class from each department the first semester of her sophomore year in order to facilitate picking one. When asked how she felt she had handled the process in hindsight, she commented that the advice she had received from upperclassmen had been an important resource.

But what about students who aren’t so strategic? Or don’t have the same relationships with upperclassmen? Jenni Davidson, program coordinator of Sophomore Year Experience (SYE) touched on major declaration as one of the primary transitions faced by the students she serves. Picking a career, Jenni observed, feels like a big burden for most students. In an attempt to help alleviate this burden, SYE plans several events for sophomores such as major discussion panels and faculty career luncheons prior to the March deadline. Jenni added that students can put a lot of pressure on each other as well; students who are unsure or undecided sometimes perceive a stigma about not knowing and feel as though they are facing the question “why not?”

Considering my own experiences and many of my acquaintances experiences, I wondered whether this decision making process was simply a rite of passage for college students, because those students who showed up for move-in on the first day with a major picked out often reconsidered. But an enlightening conversation with a junior Mechanical Engineering student reminded me that I couldn’t take the differences between Pratt and Trinity for granted. When I posed my first question about choosing a major in our interview, she seemed to brush it off saying that other than writing it down on paper, nothing else seemed to change. She continued of fulfill some general requirements during her first semester, and then progressed with the course sequence for mechanical engineers during her second semester.

I was amazed during my first look at the Pratt advising website after our meeting ended, by the extent to which course selections were predetermined and how clearly outlined they were for engineering students. The only hint that students may have a decision to make is the course EGR10, an optional half credit course recommended for first semester students who are unsure of what type of engineering they are interested in studying.




Review: Everyday Neoliberalism in Cuba

June 13, 2011 § 2 Comments

In light of our ongoing discussion of ethnographic work, and particularly participant observation, I found Dr. Harrison’s “Everyday Neoliberalism in Cuba: A Glimpse from Jamaica” quite intriguing. Despite later trips to Cuba, Harrison’s social analysis of the impact of the “Special Period” on Cuba, began during a stay in Jamaica—hence, “A Glimpse from Jamaica.” In what she describes as a serendipitous redirection of inquiry in her fieldwork, Dr. Harrison met a number of Cuban men working for a Venezuelan energy company in Jamaica. Though Dr. Harrison is quite forthcoming about her sources, my first reaction while reading her work was to wonder whether her depiction of Cuba was affected by a sort of selection bias—it seemed that her informants were primarily Cuban men of color, working several month terms in Jamaica. Given the opportunity to pose my concern directly to Dr. Harrison, I was interested by her description of the nature of fieldwork, and the resulting need to compare your findings with a review of the literature.

Actually, the idea of bias has been an ongoing source of concern for me as we discuss the ethnographic methodology of many of our readings in class in order to inform our own ethnographic work. Coming to the table with the public policy mindset of poll design, I wondered about all the ways results of polls and surveys can be swayed—selection bias, response bias, and non-response bias. For example, is ethnographic work representative of the people unwilling to be interviewed?


Ethnography: Sophomore Year at Duke

June 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

My initial idea for my ethnography project was to look at Duke student culture. I was especially interested in looking at the methods of production as well as the product. By this I mean that in addition to the product—student culture at Duke—I was hoping to gain a better understanding of how the actions of residence life and administrative staff, the technologies on campus, and the overall infrastructure of Duke’s campus affect and arguably engineer the student culture at Duke.

One reason that I am interested in including these methods in my research and that I have been viewing student culture as something manufactured is that college campuses are an example of a culture that outlasts its members. Every year the seniors graduate and the freshmen come in. In four years, the student body will have completely renewed itself. Yet, the student culture does not appear to change at this quick pace, which implies that it is something separate from the individual students passing through it.

I have since tightened my focus from the entire undergraduate student body, to considering just the sophomore year. I am hoping that this shift in topic will allow me to make a more in-depth observation than would have been manageable trying to look at the entire Duke experience. For example, there are three campuses—East, Central, and West—that most students will live on during their Duke career in addition to moving off campus; however, almost every sophomore lives on West Campus.

I think that doing this project during summer session will present some challenges for several reasons: only a small segment of the student population is present on campus; those who are present are unlikely to be living in the same housing that they either lived in during the spring semester or will be assigned to live in during the fall semester; during the summer, students either just finished their sophomore year or are about to begin meaning that I will have no access to any students in the midst of their sophomore year experience.

However, I think that a benefit will be the sense of perspective students will have being able to talk to me about their sophomore year experiences as a whole. In addition to speaking to students who have completed their sophomore year and are rising juniors, I hope to speak to recently graduated seniors to get their thoughts on how their sophomore year fit into their Duke career as a whole—what was different, what challenges did they face that were unique to their sophomore year, etc.  And, to recapture some of my original interest in the way campus infrastructure affects student culture, now specifically sophomores, I am also hoping to schedule some interviews with staff members involved in forming and defining the sophomore year—these might include residence life staff who’s work defines the living situation for these students, residence life or student activities staff who cater to sophomores, or academic advisors who guide sophomore students through the major declaration process.

Two Uses of Photography in Anthropology

May 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

In preparation for our discussion of photography and anthropology, we read “On the Use of the Camera in Anthropology,” a discussion between Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, “The Ambiguity of the Photograph” by John Berger, and “Seeing Through Pictures: The Anthropology of Photography” by Jay Ruby. The dialogue between the pieces distinguished between the use of a camera in an anthropological study as Mead and Bateson discussed and an anthropological study of photography as Ruby describes. While Mead and Bateson debated the analysis of photos and film taken by the anthropologist as ethnographic data, Ruby outlined an ethnographic study of the use of photography by his subjects.

It struck me that many of the attributes of photography that Mead, Bateson and Berger discuss that arguably make it an unlikely candidate for scientific analysis, are exactly what make it such an interesting source of study in the context Ruby describes—how people use photography. Though Berger claims the photograph is “weak in intentionality” compared to other methods of communication, the photographer’s choice of subject, angle, zoom, focus, and ultimately the moment at which they take the picture all introduce variation.

This variation, Mead argues, reflects the photographer’s understanding of what’s relevant, and as a result of the photographer’s influence on the product, photos are weak evidence for scientific study. On the other hand, I would argue that this subjectivity and variation make photography an excellent source for anthropologists interested in the interaction of people with the technology of film or digital photography.