Interview with TRAILS editor for Science, Knowledge, and Technology Alecia Anderson, PhD.

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Alecia Anderson, Ph.D.

Dan Morrison, Vanderbilt University

Recently, Dan Morrison corresponded with Dr. Alecia Anderson, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In an email interview, Dr. Anderson described her work with the TRAILS database, its strengths in science and technology, and her desire to see many more resources — of all types — in the database. The interview has been lightly edited.

Morrison: How did you get involved in TRAILS?

Anderson: I’ve only been the editor for the Theory, Knowledge, Science area for a few months so I’m actually pretty new to TRAILS. The current editor, Julie Pelton, is a colleague, and she recruited me. I teach courses on theory for the Sociology Department at UNO so she thought my teaching interests in theory and my dedication to active learning in the classroom would make a good fit for the area editor position. I’ve been using TRAILS activities in my classes for a while, too, and had colleagues from grad school who published their activities so I’ve had a long connection to TRAILS. It’s fun to be a part of it as an area editor now!

Morrison: What areas do you oversee, and how do the area editor roles get distributed?

Anderson: Theory, Knowledge and Science includes a couple of areas – the history of sociology and social thought, sociology of knowledge, and science and technology. If you look at the areas in TRAILS you can kind of see that they mirror the ASA sections. So my areas are probably most closely aligned with your section, Science, Knowledge at Technology, as well as History of Sociology, and maybe Rationality and Society.

“…TRAILS has recently started to work more closely with some of the ASA sections to recruit nominations for area editors from those sections.”

Most of the area editors are recruited or apply for the positions. I think that they take teaching and research expertise into account to make sure that the editors are qualified to edit those areas. We have to send a CV before we are appointed to the position.

Sometimes, interested people contact the editor directly but I just found out that TRAILS has recently started to work more closely with some of the ASA sections to recruit nominations for area editors from those sections. This will give section members an opportunity to take a more active role now that TRAILS an ASA member benefit. SKAT might be able to work with TRAILS when my term is up in three years.

Morrison: Do you have any favorite resources in the Knowledge & Tech area that SKAT newsletter readers should know about?

Anderson: We published a syllabus in 2010 for a course entitled “The Sociology of the University”, by Daniel Kleinman, that is pretty cool. The course explores the social organization and also some of the cultural components of modern universities. It is actually from the Science Knowledge and Technology syllabi set so it is one of the original resources in TRAILS.

“… it would be great if people from your section would submit some of the innovative things they do in their courses. I would love to see more resources for people who teach about these topics.”

We also published a research paper assignment, developed by Kristin Holster, which uses science fiction novels to flesh out the impacts of technology on society. The assignment requires that students evaluate both technology in the novel and technology in present day society.

Honestly, though, there really aren’t that many resources in these areas so it would be great if people from your section would submit some of the innovative things they do in their courses. I would love to see more resources for people who teach about these topics.

Morrison: What areas are you most interested in reviewing/where is the most need?

Anderson: We really need everything! When you search through TRAILS resources, there are about 30 syllabi under Science and Technology but those are from the syllabi set, like I mentioned, and that was published in 2003 so we could really use some up-to-date syllabi. There aren’t very many activities or assignments either – in all of the areas, really. There are some resources that focus on history of sociology, knowledge, and rational choice published in other subject areas (i.e. Introduction to Sociology or Theory), but we do not have current resources in the Theory, Knowledge and Technology area specifically. So, I’d love to review submissions for any of those areas.

“Having a citation and being able to say that your syllabus or assignment went through the peer review process gives authors the ability to say there is good evidence of their teaching excellence – especially if they are going through the promotion and tenure process.”

Morrison: Are there any downsides to contributing material to TRAILS, and what do people misunderstand about the process?

Anderson: I don’t know that there are any downsides to publishing in TRAILS. I guess you could make the case that because the database is only accessible to people who have a subscription that your materials wouldn’t be totally publicly available. But like you say in your piece on the SKAT website, the fact that TRAILS doesn’t cost ASA members more money now that it is a member benefit is a good thing. And there is definitely an up side to publishing in TRAILS. Not many disciplines can say that they have a way to publish peer reviewed teaching innovations. Having a citation and being able to say that your syllabus or assignment went through the peer review process gives authors the ability to say there is good evidence of their teaching excellence – especially if they are going through the promotion and tenure process. Another thing that sets TRAILS apart is that as area editors, we are really encouraged to be supportive of authors as we are reviewing submissions and giving feedback. I’d definitely consider that to be an upside too. The process of contributing to TRAILS is more like mentoring, which isn’t always how you feel when working with reviewers for other types of publication.

In terms of the process, we get a lot of submissions that are high quality and that shows that a lot of people really understand the process and what TRAILS submissions are supposed to look and feel like. I would say that the thing I am talking about the most when I write up a review is the learning goals. Each syllabus or activity or assignment is supposed have a set of student learning outcomes and ways to assess those goals. I think we all have learning goals and we all know when we see students accomplish them but it’s hard to put them into words or to make sure that they are really about measuring learning in specific ways. I guess that’s not really about misunderstanding the process but more about how to write up that cool thing you do in your class for a TRAILS publication. The other tricky thing is making sure that you provide enough detail for anyone who teaches sociology to be able to use your resource in their own class. Area editors are really trying to make sure that there are good instructions that are easy to follow when we read over a submission.

“… we have a two stage peer review process which guides the selection of resources is also very unique – there are a lot of places to turn when you are looking for teaching ideas but very few can say that the activities or assignments have been vetted by individuals who are experts in their field”

Morrison: TRAILS has an intriguing “I” in the title — innovations. What do you think this means for the project? In what ways has TRAILS been innovative or fostered innovation in teaching and learning?

Anderson: The innovation piece of TRAILS refers to new and creative ideas that the publication presents and shares. A major emphasis of TRAILS is to be part of the public conversation about what are considered to be best practices in teaching, which includes showing how the teaching innovations help students learn. The fact that we have a two stage peer review process which guides the selection of resources is also very unique – there are a lot of places to turn when you are looking for teaching ideas but very few can say that the activities or assignments have been vetted by individuals who are experts in their field. The kinds of resources that you will find in TRAILS also makes it an innovative database – we don’t just have syllabi and class activities, which are definitely what most users are looking for when they search in TRAILS of course; we also have lists of films that can be used in classes, powerpoint presentations, essays or lectures, semester long projects, etc. We are always looking for new and creative submissions – if it could be useful in the teaching of sociology, we are open to looking at whether it makes sense to publish!

Morrison: Can you say something about where TRAILS is going and what innovations it could provide in the future?

Anderson: Well, like I mentioned before, the fact that TRAILS is now a member benefit is really changing how we see the library and is opening up new and innovative directions. One of the things that has worked really well is to created edited collections – there are collections created by ASA past Presidents, for example that are used a lot. The increased collaboration with ASA sections means that we can start to work with them on created edited collections too. So, for SKAT that could mean that your members submit resources and we put them together into a collection or a member goes through TRAILS and pulls together resources that have already been published. If anyone is interested in this kind of opportunity, they should get in touch! We really like the kind of work that we are doing with you right now – publishing about TRAILS on section websites and in turn seeing if there are ways that TRAILS can advertise about the great teaching innovations going on in sections. For examples, we could link to your page through our Facebook page. We’d love it if all of the SKAT members who are interested in teaching followed our Facebook page of course! We are also looking to strengthen our ties and the kinds of resources we have available to high school instructors as well as people teaching community colleges. In terms of the future of innovations, we see a need to have more resources dealing with the use of technology in the classroom and online teaching methods, which might be of interest to SKAT members too.

“I think teaching innovations libraries can be a place where we challenge those mainstream assumptions that good sociology only comes out of the top schools and from groups of people who are privileged by the system of publish or perish.”

Morrison: Sociologists of science and knowledge have investigated the social structuring and inequalities that can play a role in peer review. How does TRAILS try to avoid some of those pitfalls, such as a regression towards the mean, privileging prestigious and/or “mainstream” voices over emergent and less popular perspectives?

Anderson: Let me start to answer that question by tying it back to what I just mentioned in terms of doing more to support teaching in high school and community college, I think it is important to note that TRAILS resources already come from a really diverse group of sociologists. They include people who are well recognized in the scholarship of teaching and learning, for sure, but when we look at their respective institutions there is a lot of diversity – community colleges, urban universities, etc. This is true of area editors as well. So, one way that TRAILS can avoid some of those pitfalls in the peer review process is to make sure that the people who are making decisions about what is publishable come from a variety of experiences and backgrounds and that we don’t reproduce those inequalities that you are referring to. And like I said, there is a diverse representation of publications that are aimed at diverse audiences, ranging from high school through graduate/ professional courses included in TRAILS. So, I hope that there are [not] any voices that are being privileged in the process of publishing resources. TRAILS feels pretty open to a variety of voices, not like we are only publishing work from the most prestigious or mainstream institutions or voices or perspectives. I think teaching innovations libraries can be a place where we challenge those mainstream assumptions that good sociology only comes out of the top schools and from groups of people who are privileged by the system of publish or perish.

Daniel Morrison is a Research Fellow at the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and he is a member of the SKAT Publications Committee.