Syllabus under Construction: Involving Students in the Creation of Class Assignments Author(s): Suzanne S. Hudd

Syllabus under Construction: Involving Students in the Creation of Class Assignments
Author(s): Suzanne S. Hudd
Source: Teaching Sociology, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 195-202
Published by: American Sociological Association
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Collaborative teaching techniques are designed to alter the relationship between the professor and the students in order to share the process of learning
class materials. In a collaborative classroom, students are encouraged to participate in the design and implementation of class materials. This paper presents an exercise in which the students are required to develop the assessment criteria for a class in introductory sociology. In the first class session,
students are given a syllabus including only topical headings and are charged
with constructing the list of graded assignments. It is noted that, by and
large, students respond positively to being included in the design of the class
syllabus, and some of the logistical concerns and pedagogical constraints of
implementingthis exercise are described.
Quinnipiac University
distinguishedby a numberof uniquefeastudentsdevelop a set of assignmentsto tures:learningis activeratherthanpassive,
assess theirperformancein an introductory the teacheractsas a facilitator,teachingand
sociologyclass. Studentsare engageddur- learning are shared experiencesbetween
ing the first few classes in creatingtheir studentsand faculty, lecture is balanced
assignmentsfor the semesterwith the goals with small-groupactivities,and both social
of setting a tone of collaborativelearning and team skills are developedthroughthe
from the first day of class and enhancing give-and-take of consensus building
participationand studentownershipof the (Matthewset al. 1995). In a collaborative
class. In the wordsof Rinehart(1999), this learningmodel,teachersand studentswork
exerciseis designedto shift studentsfrom as a teamto createa learningenvironment
the role of educationalconsumersto "co- characterized
by interdependence
creatorsof a common life" in the class- sharing. This model acknowledgesthat
room. In providinga frameworkfor this knowledgeis a socialconstructin whichthe
exercise, Haynes (2001) notes that such teacher'srole is to create an environment
can lead to increased wherethe studentscan createmeaningfrom
motivationand participationand improved classcontent(SmithandWaller1997).
Muchresearchhas been done on the efproblem-solving
Collaborativelearning classrooms are fects of collaborativelearning. This research notes that collaborativeclassrooms
"*Iwould like to thank Lynne Hodgson and tendto be associatedwith moresubstantive
the anonymousreviewers for their comments on
coursecontent,higherlevels of studentsatearlier drafts of this paper. Please address all
isfaction, increasedstudenteffort, higher
correspondenceto the author at the Department levels of academic
persistence,and the deof Sociology, College of Liberal Arts, Quinnipof
interpersonalrelaiac University,275 Mount Carmel Avenue,
Hamden, 06518;
e-mail: [email protected]
1999; Marx 1998). Collaborativelearning
Editor's note: The reviewers were, in
techniquescan also buildtrustbetweenstudents and faculty. Brookfield(1999) dealphabetical order, Janet Bogdan, Martin J.
an exercise in which
Malone, and Allen Scarboro.
Teaching Sociology, Vol. 31, 2003 (April:195-202)
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scribes "takingstudentsseriously" as an theirperformance
is assessed.
essentialprerequisiteto creatingeffective
Sweet (1998) argues that such radical
learning relationships. Clearly, the in- shifts in powerare rarelyfully achieved,in
creasedopportunitiesfor studentinput in part due to institutionalconstraintsthat
the collaborativeclassroomsignal to stu- serve to limit instructionaloptions. The
dentsthattheiropinionsmatter.As a result, exercisedescribedhere demonstrates
collaborativeclassroomsare characterized shiftingin a way thatis immediatelytangiby consensus building (Brufee 1999). ble to students.Studentsare put into an
Throughincreasedinteractionin learning, active role on the first day of class and
studentsobservethatthey are co-creatorsof askedto provideinputintothe coursesyllaof the
knowledge;this observationin turnenables bus (and,arguably,the infrastructure
themto recognizetheir individualways of course).Empowering
studentsin thisway at
discoveryand understanding.In addition, the outsetsets the tone for a participatory
studentsin collaborative
settingslearnsocial learningexperience.
skills (e.g., the abilityto work throughan
issuewitha group).Thesetypesof learning
and skills that extend beyond the content My introductory
sociologyclasses are typimatterof the course(Johnsonand Johnson cally comprisedmostlyof freshmenand a
small percentageof upperclassmen.Most
1997;Vella 1994).
Some researchhas hypothesizedthat stu- of the studentswho enroll seek to fulfill a
dentsarriveon campusfocusedon the so- core requirement,
althougheach semestera
cial aspectof college and need to establish studentor two choosesto majorin Socioland stabilizepeer relationshipsbefore they ogy. I spenda portionof the firstclass sescan concentrateon academictasks (Moore sion discussingthe collaborativetechniques
1998). In this regard, collaborativeclass thatcharacterize
my teachingstyle. I advise
environmentsmay be more effective be- studentsthattheywill be assignedto a small
cause they enablestudentsto addresstheir groupfor the remainder
of the semesterand
social and academic interests simultane- thatin manyof ourclass sessions,theywill
ously. Collaborativeclassroomsmay also participatein an exercise, discussion,or
be popularbecause they accommodatea some sort of projectwith theirgroupmemvarietyof learningstyles (Johnson2001). bers. I also encouragestudentsto consider
techniquesrequirea groupwork as one optionfor gradedwork
certainamountof flexibilityand openness as they beginto constructtheirassignments
on the partof the instructorand they may for the semester.
not be fully effectiveif not employedcareDuringone of the initialclass lectures,I
Anothercrucialcomponentof collabora- niques.The studentsare encouragedto contive learning experiences is overcoming sider both the group's decision outcomes
power relationsin the classroom(Gamson anddecisionprocessesas important
1994).Theoretically,an instructorin a col- experiences.Throughoutthe variousgroup
laborativeclassroommustbe willingto "let activitiesin the semester,I am carefulto
go" andbe guidedby studentinterestsand emphasizeand guide the studentstowards
concernsin sucha way thatthe relationship the applicationof core course conceptsin
between studentsand instructorand between
students and material are primarily studentguided. This shift in power affords the students increased opportunities for input into
course content, the"format in which the material is presented, and the manner in which
the text, but I allow this to happen as the
discussion evolves rather than using a predetermined lecture format. In this sense, I
present the assignment creation exercise
described in this article as an introductory
collaborativelearning exercise-one that sets
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the tone for my expectationsregardingstudentparticipation
for the rest of the semester.
Afterprovidingthe studentswith an overview of my pedagogicalstyle, I distributea
"skeleton"of the class syllabus,includinga
topicfor eachweek alongwith the text and
supplementalreadings correspondingto
each topic. No assignmentsappearon the
syllabus, and studentsare told that their
first task of the semesterwill be to create
the assignmentsby whichtheirperformance
in my class will be assessed.I have limited
the "creative"aspectsof this projectto the
developmentof gradedassignmentsrather
thanthe constructionof the entiresyllabus
for severalreasons.First, since this is an
introductorycourse, many students have
only a vaguesense, if any, aboutthe topics
thatwill be covered.Second,althoughstudents can readilydiscernthe topics to be
studied by looking at the text, teaching
these topics could be cumbersomewithout
considerationof the order and context in
which they would best be presented.Finally, while it mightbe interestingto begin
the class with no text and a randomlist of
topicalareaslisted on the board,the logistics of orderingtextbooksmakes this approachimpractical.
The texts I have generallyused for IntroductorySociologyare Newman,Sociology:
Exploringthe Architecture
of EverydayLife
(ThousandOaks, CA: Pine Forge Press,
2000); Finsterbusch,Sociology00/01: Annual Editions (Guilford, CT: Dushkin,
2000); and Finsterbusch,TakingSides:Social Issues (Guilford,CT: Dushkin,2000).
I use the Newmantextto providea theoretical overviewfor each of the topicswe will
coverandtheAnnualEditionstext as a supplementalreader.It has beenmy experience
thatstudentswho strugglewiththe concepts
as they are presentedin Newmancan often
readilybecomeengagedin a discussionof
social issues related to these concepts. The
Annual Editions text provides the students
with "real" examples of sociology in action
and offers them a potentially broader range
of material from which to create their as-
signments.I also includea secondFinsterbusch text, TakingSides, on the required
readinglist, althoughI do not formallyinclude assigned readings from it in the
"skeleton"syllabus. Instead, the students
are encouragedto examine which issues
from this text interestthem and how they
wish to incorporate
severalof theseintothe
class syllabus.TakingSides presentstopics
in a debate-orientedformat; however, I
have used this text as the basis for a broad
arrayof assignmentsincludingformalclass
debates,papers,and class discussionexercises.
As their first homeworkassignment,studentsare chargedwith independently
usingthe class textsandtopicalassignments
outlinedon the "skeleton"syllabus.I encouragestudentsto reflect on the assignmentsin a numberof ways. First,theymust
considerthe typesof assignmentsthey prefer (e.g., quizzes,oralreports,etc.). Next,
they mustdiscerntheirpreferencesfor content of the assignments.For example,if a
studentindicatesthatshe favorsa series of
exams,shouldthe examsbe multiplechoice
or essay? Studentsare also instructedto
examinethe timingof the assignments.Specifically,theyare askedto look at theircalendarsfor the semesteranddecidewhether
they preferdue dates that are more traditional (e.g., a midtermduring midterm
week) or whetherthey preferassignments
scheduledat alternatetimes. This aspectof
the exercisehas the addedbonusof helping
themto assesstheirworkloadfor the entire
semester.I also encouragethe studentsto
think about diversityin assignmenttypes,
the quantityof work to be performedand
the weightingof the various assignments
on one assign(suchthatpoorperformance
ment does not automaticallyequate to a
poor gradein the class). Finally,I ask the
students to choose the six issues from Taking Sides they find most interesting and to
reflect on how these issues might be incorporated into the class in either a graded or
non-graded format. I provide the students
with a written handout for submittingtheir
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assignmentpreferences(see Appendix),and assignmentlist. My experienceshows that
instructstudentsto returnto the next class after several class sessions with an openmeetingwith their assignmentsheets com- ended syllabus, students are anxious to
pleted,readyto discusstheirchoices.
bringclosureto the assignmentlist. Perhaps
At the startof the secondclass, I immedi- this is due to the fact thatwe are into the
atelydividethe studentsinto theirassigned secondweekof classesat this point,andthe
groupsand give them aboutthirtyminutes students'workloadsfor other classes have
to developa groupconsensuson an assign- beenset.
mentlist for the semester.The membership The performanceof studentsin classes
of each groupis essentiallyrandom;how- using a collaboratively
ways. In my experiI
fail or performpoorlyin
provide a mix of genders in each group classes where they have been involvedin
whenfeasible.To the extentpossible,I also constructingthe assignmentlist. I attribute
try to distributethe few upperclassmen this in partto the opendiscussionof assessamong various groups since in most in- ment and performancethat begins in the
stancesthey offer a more "seasoned"per- very first class session. Thus, the average
spective.I offer the class a brief overview studentgradesfor these classes tend to be
of groupdecision-making
strategies,suchas slightly higher, primarily because the
on a particulartopic or al- grades of the poorestperformersimprove
lowing each memberto speak in turn and under this system. In addition,I tend to
developinga comprehensivelist for discus- have more interactionwith studentsat both
sion, thenchargethe groupswithcreatinga the high andlow endsof the gradecurvein
single list of assignments.Once groupde- thesecollaborative
liberationsare complete,I ask thata repre- studentstypicallywantto discussclarificasentativefrom each group write its final tion of assignmentsandprocess,while stuassignmentlist on the boardfor class dis- dentsperformingpoorly frequentlyrequest
extra credit opportunities.In sum, these
In my experience, the group lists are interactionssuggestthat studentswho have
by a fair amountof overlap. collaboratedin constructingtheir assignWhile students infrequentlygenerate an mentsbecomemore personallyinvestedin
innovativeidea (e.g., an in-class group the course content and the evaluationof
exam),the vast majorityof the assignments theirperformance.
are fairlytraditionaland discussionfocuses
on preferencesfor exams, papers, or oral
presentations,as well as the timing and
weightingof these variousassignments.As The main difficultyI have experiencedin
the instructor,I try to orchestrate
class-wide implementingthis exercise is logistical.
discussionsuch that each memberof the Becausethe assignmentlist is not finalized
classfeels comfortableexpressinghis or her until the third class meeting,the syllabus
mustremaina workingdocumentfor a coupreferences.
Oncethe class has developedand agreed ple of weeks into the semester.Typically,
upon a single set of assignmentsfor the the beginningof the semesteris a busytime
the information
onto andthejob of havingto finalizethe syllabus
semester,I incorporate
a final version of the syllabus. At the start
of our third class meeting, the students are
given one last opportunity to review the
assignments and to ask any outstanding
questions. I have structuredthis session as
the last opportunity for class input on the
while teaching poses somewhat of an added
burden.I have foundit helpfulto construct
the class assignments with due dates as a
separate sheet, to be attached to the
"skeleton syllabus" as an appendix. I also
encourage students to add assignment due
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datesto the class outlineso that these im- the course requiresof them. This is espestudents
cially true for higher-performing
portantdatesappearin two places.
assignmentshas not been terriblyinnova- well in advanceof due dates.As in the trative, employingthe standardtypes of as- ditional class, the syllabus becomes a
signmentstypicallyprovidedin an introduc- "contract"for students'work load, and it
torycourse(e.g., some shortpapers,exams can be unnervingwhenstudentssuspectthat
and oral presentations).While I was ini- assignmentscould be createdor dropped
the courseof the semester.
tially surprisedby this lack of creativity,I throughout
As one studentnotes in her evaluation,
attributeit to the fact thatby the time they
enroll in an introductorycollege course, the mainlimitationof this exerciseis thatit
studentshave been socializedin secondary uses class timethatcouldbe usedfor teachschool to recognizeand accept traditional ing purposes.Some studentsview the creamethodsfor performanceassessment.One tion of assignmentsas the "instructor's
this narrowview job." However,only a minorityof students
strategyfor counteracting
of assignmenttypes might be to leave as- expressthis sentiment.Even studentswho
signmentsoff of the syllabusfurtherintothe indicateconcern over lost class time desemester,conductingseveralothercollabo- scribethe syllabusconstructionexerciseas
rativeexercises duringthe course's initial providingthemwith otherbenefitssuch as
weeks, and then engagingthe studentsin gettingto knowtheirclassmatessoonerand
assignmentcreation.This would give the having an appreciationfor developingasstudentsa chance to become comfortable sessmenttools.
withone another,to experiencethe collaboCONCLUSION
rative classroomenvironmentmore fully,
andto witnessmy encouragement
of student
innovation.Likewise,the delaywouldallow Studentfeedbackin relationto the syllabus
studentsto gain a better understanding
of constructionexercisehas been overwhelmthe coursecontentandthey mightbe better ingly positive. I assess studentreactionsto
preparedto thinkof creativeways to dem- the exerciseboth at the beginningand the
onstrate their knowledge. This strategy end of the semester.Where concernsare
might be more effective in an advanced noted,theytypicallyspeakto the contentof
class, wherestudentsare morefamiliarwith individualassignmentssuch as groupwork.
the "traditional"framework of college Onlya few studentshavedescribedthe task
coursesand so may have less anxietyabout of constructingassignmentsas "confusing"
or "difficult."Manystudentsalso comment
needingto finalizethe assignmentlist.
Anotherdifficultythatcan arisefromthe that their class participation
increasedas a
collaborativeassignmentexercise is some resultof being engagedin this process.As
students'perceptionof the course syllabus one studentnotes: "I enjoyedtakingan acas a document that can be negotiated tive part...[Theexercise] affectedmy perthroughoutthe entire semester.In particu- ceptions,as I enjoyedthe class and took a
lar, I haveobservedthatstudentswho have moreactiverole."Thesecommentscontrast
helpedcreatethe assignmentlist are more with my observationsthatno dramaticdiflikelyto seek new extra-creditopportunities ferenceexistsin the level of classdiscussion
midwaythroughthe semester.For this rea- and participationbetween regular classes
son whenI handout the finalsyllabusin the andthose wherethe assignmentsare develthird class, I stress to students it represents
the final list of assignments for the semester. They will not again be allowed to reconstruct, add to, or otherwise alter the list.
The majorityof students seem to prefer this
closure and the security of knowing what
oped collaboratively.
Why do students perceive that their participation is enhanced? It may be that certain students are, in fact, more active than
they might have been in a traditionalclass-
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room, while the participationof others is
more subdued. Perhaps when students recognize that their participationis welcomed,
they actually perceive that they participate
more. It would be interesting to implement
this exercise in conjunction with more specific techniques targeted to enhance discussion and class participation such as "buzz
groups" or the creation of an "inner circle"
(McKeachie 1994). The inclusion of such
techniquesmight yield a more fully studentdriven class in terms of both content and
Studentcomments suggest that the assignment construction exercise enhances their
learningexperience beyond the content matter of sociology. As one student describes:
"It was like giving us the power which was
a different thing. Instead of just walking
into a class and receiving an agenda, we
made our own." Many students express
feelings of being "in control" or that I was
"interestedin their opinion." In this regard,
the exercise provides an importantopportunity to reinforce the sociological concepts of
inequality and power and the extent to
which such structural arrangements constrain behavior. Presented in this context,
this exercise could be used to demonstrate
the notion that power can be shifted, and
the class might be engaged in an assessment
of how behaviors can change when power
gradientsare altered.
As a result of this exercise, studentslearn
at the outset that their opinions matter and
thus they are more immediately immersed
in the learning process. One student summarizes this perspective quite well: allowing
studentsto "...choose their assignments is a
way to earn their respect and by doing that
they'll listen." Listening is an essential first
step in the process of engaging students
more fully in the classroom experience.
What Will Your Assignments for the Semester
Whatis the process for deciding on class assignments?
The syllabusliststhe topicsandreadingswe will
cover this semester.We will begin our second
class with a small groupexercise.Duringthis
exercise,you (as a class) will decidethe assignmentsfor the entiresemester.Youwill beginthis
processin smallgroupdiscussions.We will then
bringall thegroupstogetheranddecideas a class
on a finallist of gradedassignments.
I will make
to thesyllabus(e.g., addan
of the syllabus-with the gradedassignmentswill be presentedfor yourreviewandapprovalin
How do I begin to preparefor the group exercise
on January 25?
Therearea seriesof stepsyou shouldgo through
to prepare
1. Readthe introductory
chapterin thetextand
the readerto get a very generalsenseof the
2. Thinkaboutwhattypesof assignmentsyou
wouldliketo haveduringthe semester(e.g.,
exams, quizzes,shortpapers,gradedgroup
andmakea roughlist.
3. Considerthe contentof these assignments
(e.g., If you want an exam do you prefer
essayor multiplechoice?If you havelisteda
paper,whatwill the topicbe andhow long
will the paperbe? Will it involveresearch?)
Detail is importantfor this section of the
Finally,considerthe timingof the assignmentsyou have developed.Lookat the semesterschedule,and think about the due
dates for your otherclasses,midterms,etc.
whenyou considerduedatesforyourassignments.Pleasenotethatthesyllabusdoes not
includeany readingsfromthe TakingSides
text. Witha copy of this book,you should:
1) identifywhich readingsare of greatest
interestto you;and2) considerwhetheryou
wish to includesome sortof gradedassignmentusingthistext.
I haveattacheda copy of the class schedulethat
you can markup withassignmentsalongwith an
assignmentplanningsheet that you can use to
andlistthe TakingSides
issuesin whichyou aremostinterested.Cometo
class with the assignmentpreferencesheet completed so that you are preparedto discussthis
What criteria should I use to create a list of assignments?
Instructorstypically use a numberof criteria
whenthey arecreatinga set of assignmentsfor a
classduringthesemester.Thelist belowprovides
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you with some of the goals professors have when
they develop assignments. Think about which of
these is most importantto you.
to the final withdrawaldate.
How will we make our final decision on assignments?
Comprehensionof the readings and in class We will use a group process for deciding upon the
class assignments. Once your groups have met,
Ability to write and speak about the subject we will come together as a class and discuss the
matterpresentedin class.
assignment lists each group has created. I hope
Multiple types of assignments to demon- that throughdiscussion, we can achieve a consenstratewrittenand oral comprehension.
sus on the assignment list. If we cannot reach a
Adequate assignments so that poor perform- consensus, however, we will take an anonymous
ance on one assignment does not mean poor vote in class on the various options being considered. The assignment list for the semester will be
performancein the class as a whole.
Timing of assignments-i.e., it is important presentedon during the third class for your final
for me to be to able to give you a sense of review and approval.
your grade in the class at midtermand prior
Assignment Planning Sheet
Bring to Second Class Session
Assignment Choices
Assignment Type
Assignment Content
Due Date
Mix essay and multiplechoice questions
Preferred Readings in Taking Sides:
a. Would you like to use the Taking Sides book to create a graded assignment? (Ifyes,
use the space at the bottom of the page to describe the assignment.)
Please list the factors you considered in creating the assignment list. You can choose from the
criteria listed on the bottom of page 1, or identify other factors that influenced your thinking.
Bring the completedsheet to class-it will be collected!!!
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Problems Often Follow." The Chronicle of
Baker, Paul. 1999. "CreatingLearning Communities: The Unfinished Agenda." Pp. 95-109 in
Matthews, Roberta S., James L. Cooper, Neil
Davidson, and Peter Hawkes. 1995. "Building
Bridges Between Cooperative and Collaborative Learning." Change 26:34-40.
McKeachie, Wilbert J. 1994. Teaching Tips:
TheSocialWorldsof HigherEducation,edited
by Bernice Pescosolido and Ronald Aminzade.
ThousandOaks, CA: Pine Forge.
Brookfield, Stephen. 1999. "Building Trust with
Students."Pp. 447-54 in TheSocial Worldsof
Higher Education, edited by Bernice
Pescosolido and Ronald Aminzade. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.
Bruffee, KennethA. 1999. CollaborativeLearn-
Strategies,Researchand Theoryfor College
and UniversityTeachers.Lexington,MA:
D.C. Heath.
Moore, Robert L. 1998. "TeachingIntroductory
Economics with a CollaborativeLearning Lab
Journalof EconomicEducation
ing: HigherEducation,Interdependence,
the Authorityof Knowledge.Baltimore,MD:
Rinehart, Jane A. 1999. "Turning Theory into
Johns Hopkins University Press.
Theorizing:CollaborativeLearningin a SocioGamson, Zelda F. 1994. "CollaborativeLearnlogical Theory Course." Teaching Sociology
ing Comes of Age." Change 26:44-49.
Haynes, Ada. 2001. "Student Empowerment: Smith, Karl A. and Alisha A. Waller. 1997.
"Afterword: New Paradigms for College
Student-Designed Syllabus: A Group Exercise." Pp. 215-20 in Sociology ThroughActive
Teaching." Pp. 269-281 in New Paradigmsfor
College Teaching, edited by William E.
Learning:StudentExercises,editedby Kathleen McKinney, Frank D. Beck and Barbara
Campbell and Karl A. Smith. Edina, MN:
S. Heyl. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge
InteractionBook Company.
Sweet, Stephen. 1998. "PracticingRadival PedaJohnson, David W. and Roger T. Johnson. 1997.
gogy: Balancing Ideals with InstitutionalCon"Academic Controversy: Increase Intellectual
straints."TeachingSociology 26: 100-111.
Conflict and Increase the Quality of Learn- Vella, Jane. 1994. Learning to Listen, Learning
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and Karl A. Smith. Edina, MN: Interaction
SuzanneHudd is a 1981graduateof Yale UniverBook Company.
sity (B.A., psychology),whereshe also receivedher
Johnson, Diane Elizabeth. 2001. "Teaching for Ph.D. in sociologyin 1997.She alsoholdsan M.P.H.
Mastery: Focus on Social Theory." Teaching from the Universityof Connecticut(1985). She is
Sociology 29:163-80.
currentlyan assistantprofessorin the Department
Marx, Paul. 1998. "When Students Collaborate, Sociologyat Quinnipiac
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