In her research, she explores inequality in people’s everyday interactions
Students in Rachel La Touche's “Logic of Social Inquiry” class use the popular dating site OkCupid to test research questions about how socio-demographic traits like age, sex and race influence dating outcomes.
In her own research, U of T's new assistant professor of sociology explores inequality and how it manifests in people’s everyday interactions.
La Touche was recently recruited from Indiana University in Bloomington to U of T's Faculty of Arts & Science. It's still early in her university career, but she's already received awards for her teaching: In Indiana, La Touche 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 sure that material is relevant to students is key.
One way La Touche achieves this is by bridging sociological theory with real-world situations.
“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.”
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.”
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.”