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OkCupid is just one of the teaching tools in new sociologist’s kit

Photo of Rachel La Touche standing in front of an ivy-covered wall

Sociology professor Rachel La Touche’s research explores inequality and how it manifests in people’s everyday interactions.

Rachel La Touche may be in the early stages of her university career, but her willingness to take risks in the interests of learning has already garnered her several teaching awards.

A new assistant professor in U of T’s Department of Sociology, La Touche was recently recruited from Indiana University in Bloomington, where she received the Lieber Memorial Teaching Associate Award for outstanding teaching by a graduate student.

Part of her success is in departing from the “sage on the stage” stereotype of the university lecture. “Research shows that lecturing doesn’t lend itself to the type of deep learning, critical thinking and application skills that many instructors like myself hope to instill in students,” says La Touche.

“While I don’t think it’s always necessary to reinvent the wheel, there are some topics and learning processes that require more creative techniques than merely lecturing from PowerPoint slides.”

Making course material relevant to students is a must

Making sure that material is relevant to students is key. One way La Touche achieves this is by bridging sociological theory with real-world situations. For example, students in her Logic of Social Inquiry class use the popular dating site OkCupid to test research questions about how socio-demographic traits such as age, sex, and race influence dating outcomes.

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“To be blunt, the OkCupid project answers the ‘who cares?’ question that so many undergraduates have when instructors are lecturing about particular issues,” says LaTouche.

“It lets students conduct hands-on research on a topic that interests them and that many have experience with personally.”  And while dating outcomes may seem like a “lightweight” consequence, the students quickly gain a sense of how the same socio-demographic characteristics that influence dating outcomes can influence other reward opportunities and life chances.

La Touche first experimented with using OkCupid as a research tool in Indiana where her students examined public data from the site to determine who is more likely to lie in online dating profiles males or females, individuals of high or low income, old or young?

Once each group had formulated their answers, they then explained them using a sociological theory covered in class. For example, if a group of students determined that older individuals are more likely to lie on dating profiles than their younger counterparts, they were asked to posit some explanations as to why this is, using a sociological theory.

La Touche notes that there are a number of limitations of this exercise OkCupid data, for example, do not satisfy the conditions of rigorous, scholastic work – but it does encourage students to use critical thinking and analytical skills and engage in collaborative discussion about theory and methods.

“If students think that all scholars do is philosophize about the world, the majority of them won’t take an interest. And while their perception of scholars may not be accurate, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What it reflects is the fact that students have diverse interests and backgrounds as well as different educational and career goals.”

Exploring inequality in everyday interactions of people

In her research, La Touche explores inequality and how it manifests in people’s everyday interactions.

“I’m starting work on a study that will examine how racial and gender biases play out in university classroom settings both from students towards professors and professors towards students. There is some insight about how this works from elementary and high school settings, but far less at the university level.”

Some might expect to see a difference in a university setting where there is a more highly educated and generally more liberal population — “but I have my doubts,” says La Touche.

While details of the project are still being worked out, La Touche hopes to take advantage of the large and diverse student and faculty pool at U of T to explore whether racial and gender bias might impact things like student evaluations of teaching. Some U.S. studies have shown that student evaluations disadvantage female instructors, for example.

“I’m curious about how both students and instructors come to the classroom setting with biases about the other, and whether this impacts not only evaluations, but also classroom conduct and climate in general.”

Down the road, La Touche’s research might shed light on the relatively poor tenure rate of instructors from marginalized backgrounds across higher education or suggest changes to the way tenure profiles are evaluated for instructors.

“But, the first step here is really understanding what’s going on.”