Social Inquiry Course Closes First Year Urging M.A. Students to Stick to Their Questions

| August 2, 2016
Professor Bill Gaudelli, center, with students from the Social Inquiry class. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.

Professor Bill Gaudelli, center, with students from the Social Inquiry class. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.


On the eve of their final for the Social Studies and Education M.A. program, students gathered to listen to and give presentations for an intensive course that spanned the Fall and Spring semesters.

The Social Inquiry course, which is now a required component of the Social Studies and Education program, was developed and instructed by Chair of the Department and Associate Professor of Social Studies and Education, Bill Gaudelli, Christine Baron, Assistant Professor of Social Studies, and Sandra Schmidt, Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education.

The first half of the course dealt with the theory and processes for engaging in social inquiry, using Central Park as the focal point and laboratory. In the second semester, the focus shifted toward students collaboratively inquiring in small groups about New York City through a question they develop and examine on their own. For their final projects, students engaged in inquiry-based projects that are explored some element of the social life and constructs examined in the first half of the course.

The first of eight presentations of the evening focused on the inequality of sports in New York City Public Schools, where the two presenters found that some schools fund more sports teams than others. The Public School Athletic League (PSAL), which has a fund of $28 million, is the larger and more influential program, while the Small School Athletic League, with a $2 million budget. The Small School Athletic League (SSAL) funds mostly black and Latino students as well as students who qualify for free and reduced school lunch. THE SSAL sued PSAL for not funding sports teams based on race and, which led the PSAL to absorb the SSAL. However, the SSAL has still not received funding from PSAL, and the staggering difference between the two leagues is still a cause for contention.

A student watches his peers give their presentation. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.

A student watches his peers give their presentation. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.


A second group took on the New York City Subway as their site for social inquiry, riding the full length of the 1 line and getting off at each stop to collect different themes. After compiling and coding all of their data, the pre-service teachers rationalized that the subway serves as a “microcosm of the city” where trends of art, expression, history, microbes, and access all intersect.

Other presentations included an analysis of television shows set in New York, which highlighted the need for critical media literacy. Others included “a mixed methods” inquiry (or the use of both quantitative and qualitative research methods) into parent involvement and student achievement in the South Bronx, and an analysis of the domination of white male monuments in Central Park.

Three MA students explored social uprising, looking at the possibility of social media as a space for public discourse in the 21st century by creating a fake online persona. They attempted the uprising by using hashtags, provocative blog posts and a variety of social media platforms. Although they ultimately concluded that social media has a limited sphere of influence, they found that the most compelling aspect of their project may have been the process of attempting to create the uprising.

While it was clear from the presentations that New York City is a rich resource for any line of inquiry, the process of formally incorporating the often difficult research method into lesson plans was not yet a part of the teaching arsenal of Jonathan George and Elijah Cho, two-thirds of the social media/social uprising group. “I think you kind of include social inquiry unintentionally… I think it’s something you do as part of your process when creating a lesson,” said Mr. George. “I did,” said Mr. Cho, “leave little threads out there for [students] to catch onto and try to unravel.”

Each of the groups brought forth a sense of dynamism in their projects and presentations.The final group, which considered public and private spaces, delved into social inquiry in a more eccentric manner.  After a predominantly comedic video, entitled, “Welcome to the Abyss”, parodied an embattled yet somehow commonsensical Werner Herzog, viewers were faced with the sobering question upon conclusion of their yearlong enterprises, that the very nature of inquiry only leads to more questions. Whether posed in jest, as a nod to the complex first half of the course, or as a serious contemplation, this group of presenters obliged all three faculty to sit forward and respond to the somewhat defeated sentiments.

Three students collaborate before delivering their final presentation on social media uprising. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.

Three students collaborate before delivering their final presentation on social media uprising. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.


“You’re right,” Professor Baron said. “Just because something is not new to you, as the teacher, doesn’t mean it isn’t inquiry. Through that discovery process, it is new to your students.”

Professor Schmidt also noted that these types of interrogations are good inquiry. “While inquiry as a process informs and teaches us, if we are truly open to inquiring, we don’t ever reach that end.  It is the struggle that this class presented to students.  So often, we talk about doing research or a project where the endpoint is the findings or resultant answer.  With inquiry, the more we learn, the more questions we have and the more we need to learn,” Professor Schmidt said.

Each of the projects were applicable to the classroom setting. With coordination and planning, it would not be implausible to take a junior high or high school class on an investigatory mission of the New York City subway as the group of Social Studies students did.

Alison Dorfman, an M.A. student who participated in the presentation on New York City subways, “It was really wonderful forming relationships with all three faculty, in a different setting; a class setting but also [an informal one] where we all got to sort of talk and get to know each other and learn at the same time.”

“It’s changed how I think about things,” Ms. Dorfman added. “The best part about the class was I started thinking about things that I take for granted in my daily life as New Yorker, the subway, and trying to think about them in different ways. What are we seeing? What are we ignoring? And what can we learn from that?” she asked.




Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a graduate of the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.