Amanda McMillan Lequieu is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In this post, Professor McMillan Lequieu explains how she used case studies to anchor a keystone course in her department.

I designed my Sociology of the Environment course around the concept of environmental case studies. Since this 200-level course draws an interdisciplinary group of students from across colleges in the university. I anchored the class in a multi-stage assignment that would embrace the varied interests of my students while training them in skills and knowledge central to environmental sociology. Over our ten-week quarter, students prepared a high-quality, well-researched paper in the format of an article that could be submitted to the journal Case Studies of the Environment. The goal of this assignment was to enable students to systematically analyze and professionally communicate some aspect of human-environment interaction. 

By the end of week one of class, I encouraged students to consider three approaches to guide their selection of a case. Cases could be 1) place-specific, analyzing local relationships, impacts, and conflicts, 2) process-specific, focusing on a system or other flows of a commodity, migrating animal, plant, or insect, or movement of water and air, or 3) problem-specific, involving a multi-site issue concerning a policy, for instance.

In detailed instructions for this assignment, I asked students to do more than simply summarize information. They needed to present their case as a “case of” a broader human-environmental process, problem, or conflict and situate their case in response to at least one concept learned in our Sociology of the Environment course. The task of locating a specific case study within wider patterns, histories, or processes is core to the sociological approach; it is also a challenging skill for students to master.

To equip students to produce a polished final product, I broke this assignment into four components—all of which were graded, but only two requiring individualized instructor feedback. First, students “reverse-outlined” one published case study from CSE. Rather than reverse-outlining students’ drafts, we opened the black-box of published writing to trace the decisions made by authors concerning organization, argument, and evidence. Outside of class, students selected a CSE article to summarize in their own words, outline paragraph-by-paragraph, and discuss the paper’s organization. I prompted them to select at least one of the following questions to spur reflection: How did this paper present its argument? Why might the authors have made certain organizational choices? What worked, what didn’t work in this paper? Is there an imbalance in the ratio of paragraphs/treatment of themes? Could the authors have combined or separated ideas to communicate their main point more clearly? I graded this assignment pass/fail.

Next, students submitted a topic and basic outline for their own case studies. Since for the purposes of the course these essays would be based on existing research rather than original data, this step required students to conduct initial research outside of class to determine whether or not there was sufficient information available for their paper concept. Students summarized their case study idea in one paragraph and proposed an organization and argument through a one- to two-page outline. I offered feedback on the topics and outlines.

The most popular portion of this assignment was the third component—our in-class presentation day. In the final week of the course, students prepared speed slide shows—five minute, five-slide presentations (modeled after this format) explaining the key points of their case study to be presented in conference-style breakout sessions in the classroom. The brevity of the presentations created energy; they had to be concise and yet also thorough. Crafting a concise talk forced students to hone in on the most important and exciting aspects of their research. I broke the class (thirty students) into thematically-related groups of five based on their paper topics. In advance of their presentations, students submitted their 5-slides to our online learning platform for pass/fail grading. The true purpose of this assignment, however, was to enable students to help each other think through their arguments and make sure they addressed all components of the CSE final paper rubric.

In small groups of five, students presented their slides to each other on a laptop or tablet. Following each five-minute, five-slide presentation, each speaker received five minutes of questions and constructive suggestions from the group. Students rotated presenting within the group, with another student watching the clock and the remaining students taking notes on a form based on the learning goals of the final paper assignment. As I circulated through the classroom, it was evident how much students were enjoying learning about each other’s case studies and how engaged they were in offering each other feedback. 

This assignment sequence can work well even in a hybrid or online-only format. Maintaining the thematic conference-session model, instructors can break students into small groups to present pre-recorded or live speed talks to classmates, and students can use chat functions to offer feedback. 

The final stage of our case study-centered course was the submission of completed papers in the last week of the quarter. Students modeled their case study organization based on the format of CSE’s Article Case Template. Students were enthusiastic about this assignment and demonstrated exciting growth in their environmental knowledge and writing skills. I am currently working with several undergraduates to submit their particularly well-developed papers to CSE.

Case Studies in the Environment is a journal of peer-reviewed case study articles and case study pedagogy articles. The journal aims to inform faculty, students, researchers, educators, professionals, and policymakers on case studies and best practices in the environmental sciences and studies.
Twitter: @CaseStudEnv