I greatly enjoy teaching this course as it enables me to get to know the students well and guide them through some exciting projects. From the pedagogical perspective, however, the course is unlike anything I had taught before in my teaching career. About half of the sessions are co-taught with a parallel course “Research Projects in Sociology” (SOC439), when the two classes meet together with two instructors. As a result, I was able to learn much from my UTM sociology colleagues Hae Yeon Choo and Kristin Plys on research methods and student mentoring. Selecting the right readings, however, is a difficult task as the purpose of the readings is different in every class. As a strong believer that the best academic writings speak for themselves, I did not use any textbook but assigned 2-3 journal articles in those sessions that focus on how to frame a research question, how to write a literature review, how to discuss data and methods, etc. Some readings are in the area of crime and law, while others are more general articles in sociology to accommodate the co-teaching needs. Students are told to pay attention to the form rather than the content of the readings and asked to write a reading response reflecting upon the topic of the session. As the class size is limited to no more than 15 students, class discussions are informal and focus on situating the readings in the context of the topic of the day (e.g., literature review).
But the most exciting and enjoyable part of the course is to guide students into the field. Many students were interested in the criminal justice system and thus they picked research topics such as racial profiling in policing, attitudes towards capital punishment, the production of space in prisons, job satisfaction of correctional officers, gender and racial discriminations in the police force, and so on. As a sociologist of law, I was also delighted to see some students study classic sociolegal topics such as lawyers and the jury. While a few students used archival research, survey, or experiment as their primary methods, the majority of them conducted in-depth interviews and/or participant observation for their projects in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
Fieldwork presents many challenges. Some parts of the legal system are simply inaccessible to undergraduate researchers. For example, one student originally thought she could go into prisons for interviews or at least speak to prisoners on the phone. Not surprisingly, she had to adjust her research design and focus on ex-prisoners and family members instead. Another student tried hard to contact police officers in multiple offices, including the campus police, for interviews without much success, as most police officers were very busy when on duty. Eventually, through her contacts in the police force, she complemented her small number of interviews with a survey via email, which enabled her to reach a larger sample of officers.
There is also the issue of research ethics. While a course-based ethics approval is obtained for the whole class every year, due to the large variety of student projects, how to make sure undergraduate researchers stick to their ethics protocols in the field is a major challenge. This requires not only introducing the ethical requirements of human subject research to students as a group, such as the importance of informed consent and confidentiality, but also many one-on-one consultations on specific issues arising in the process of research. There were even two occasions when I, as the faculty supervisor, received complaints from community organizations or residents about student behavior – fortunately, both turned out to be misunderstandings.
After fieldwork, data analysis and paper writing present additional challenges. Like in any class, there is a range in the students’ ability in research and writing throughout the year. One student conducted a survey smoothly, only to realize that she forgot most of her statistical training and did not know how to analyze the data. In this situation, I asked a classmate of hers, who was the stats wizard in the class, to help her out. Another student did some extraordinary ethnographic work, but the first draft of his paper was mostly theoretical and philosophical discussions and presented little data from the field. I had to walk him through some of his field notes to figure out how to tell a good story and be truthful to the research subjects. These surprises kept reminding me of a general weakness in our undergraduate education, that is, the curriculum often gives the social science majors very little hands-on training in both empirical research and writing. This Research Project course is one of the few opportunities for some of them to develop these practical research skills.
As this course is part of UTM Sociology Department’s Peel Social Lab (PSL), a research platform aimed to develop a repository data on the Peel region (where the UTM campus is located) that can be used by researchers and the community, students are encouraged to write a blog post for the PSL’s blog in addition to their final papers to disseminate their findings. I was delighted to see some creative and thought-provoking essays written by my students posted on the PSL’s blog Peel Urbanscapes and reached the general public in the past two years. It was a great way to showcase the quality and potential of undergraduate student research in UTM’s Criminology, Law and Society Program and the Sociology Department.