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Stores in the United States often helpfully designate the items for sale as “for girls” or “for boys.” These designations are particularly helpful when the only difference is the color of the items, since in those cases color-blind people might make a mistake. Gift card sections are typically not much different, though the labels get a little redundant when there are also images of ponies or robots, since even color-blind people can recognize the difference between super-feminine ponies and super-masculine robots. Shopping in Target recently, I noticed a section of Halloween cards that were labeled not only “For Kids,” but “for “for a boy” and “for a girl.” You can see the cards below:

photo 1Since both cards appeared to feature the color orange, which is neither pink nor blue, I wondered about the distinction between the two and got them out to look more closely:

photo 3The card on the left is clearly a poorly-wrapped mummy (if it had been better-wrapped its skin may not have turned orange) while the card on the right is an orange owl (which is apparently possible). Based on its hat, the owl is possibly also a witch (or maybe a pilgrim). So maybe the mummy is for boys because it is a boy and the owl is for girls because it likes to wear pilgrim witch hats? Those don’t seem like strong reasons for gendering these cards, so let’s open them up and see if the inside of the “boys'” card is blue and the inside of the “girls'” card is pink:

photo 2Nope, just more orange. So the lesson Target has taught us this Halloween is that poorly-wrapped mummies are for boys who are “totally awesome” while owls wearing pilgrim witch hats are for girls who are “very special.” It is a good thing that Target labeled them for me because otherwise I may have thought that each was equally suited to both boys and girls, which would have been a huge mistake. Now I know how color-blind people feel (which explains why they get so upset about it).

Passing the buck on graduates

At new faculty orientation this summer an administrator was talking about sustaining excellence on campus in difficult economic times. One example of excellence was the high number of recent graduates who were either employed or enrolled in graduate or professional programs. This accounting method is not unique to my new institution, but as graduate degrees in many fields become less likely to lead to employment in academia, I couldn’t help but feel that the administration was passing the buck on our graduates by making their future unemployment somebody else’s problem.

This is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It would be easy to report the percentage of recent graduates who are employed, the number in graduate schools, and the number in professional schools. In fact, these numbers are available if you dig around on the school website (at least as basic “employed” vs. “grad school” stats). For the past several years, about a quarter of recent graduates have gone to grad school. I suppose, though, that focusing on those who go to graduate school is similar to pointing out a flat tire on a car with no engine since the category of “employed” itself is not defined in any way that lets readers know if these graduates have full-time jobs related to their degrees or are working part-time at a local coffee shop.

On the other hand, my previous institution provides no data about graduate outcomes other than the fact that roughly 1/5 of graduates apply to graduate programs. I guess that some data are better than no data, even if those data are vague.

Signs of autumn

-Shorter days

-Cooler temperatures

-The return of students to college campuses

-Endless calls for additional members from ASA sections trying to increase the number of sessions they get at next year’s annual meeting

Slightly larger bureaucracy*

When I arrived at my previous institution there was a miscommunication about my moving reimbursement that caused my check to be sent to the moving company instead of to me. Rather than waiting weeks or months for the check to come back from the moving company, I was able to arrange for the original check to be cancelled and a new check was made out to me, which I had in a matter of days. This was my first experience with the potential speed of a small bureaucracy after spending my grad school years at a huge public university where this sort of thing would have been impossible. (I thought I wrote about it at the time but after spending quite a while looking for the post I have to conclude that I didn’t.)

Since starting my new job this fall, I’ve noticed that more money leads to a slightly larger bureaucracy. The biggest difference so far is that there is more paperwork involved in financial reimbursements and it is examined in greater detail. For example, at ASA I split a number of meals with others and noted my portion on my travel receipts. After submitting my receipts for reimbursement I received an e-mail asking about a few receipts that looked like they could have been for more than one person.

In the past five years I had never been asked about my travel receipts, but from a few other conversations it seems like this level of attention is the norm here. I’m not sure if the school pays more careful attention to money because it has more of it coming in and going out or if the administrative assistants have the luxury of paying more careful attention because they aren’t spread as thin. I don’t necessarily mind the scrutiny, and it is definitely worth the increased financial stability of the institution as a whole, but it is interesting and something I’ll have to pay attention to.

*A.K.A. mo money, mo problems

Finding friendship

A Facebook friend recently asked for advice about how to make friends after grad school. Because this is something I’ve struggled with since starting my first job five years ago, I couldn’t respond with any sage advice. In the few weeks I’ve been at my new institution, however, I’ve noticed a number of differences that have led me to wonder if it is possible for institutions to do a better job of fostering these relationships among faculty and staff. So far, these are the differences I’ve noticed:

-I previously lived in a town with a college but my new location better fits the definition of a college town. The town is also much smaller, meaning that there are not that many places for faculty to go. At dinner the other night, for example, I saw two different groups of faculty getting drinks. I can’t remember any chance encounters like this in my previous city.

-My new town is not only smaller, it is also more isolated. There are still faculty members who live in other cities and commute, but there are a lot of faculty members who live in town. Institutional practices also make it easier for faculty members to live in town. A large number of faculty spouses and partners have also been hired in some capacity, whether as visiting faculty, adjuncts, or staff members.

-The institution also makes other efforts to promote interaction between faculty during business hours. One of the biggest is a course schedule with a common lunch hour, allowing faculty members time to have lunch together. There is also a faculty dining area, which my previous institution did not have.

-The final major difference I’ve noticed so far is in the composition of the new faculty cohort. At my previous institution, my cohort was fairly small and was also heterogeneous in terms of age and location. At my new institution, my cohort is quite a bit larger (the institution itself has about 1000 more students, leading to a larger number of incoming faculty members, but orientation also included new administrators and adjuncts) and the age of full-time faculty members is more homogenous, with more young-ish people who are interested in making friends in their new town.

Together, these factors have resulted in a completely different experience as a new faculty member. I am not exaggerating to say that I have done as much with colleagues off-campus in the past few weeks as I did in the previous five years at my former institution. Colleges and universities obviously can’t change their locations so that faculty members can more easily make friends, nor can they force faculty to live nearby or refuse to hire employees who aren’t in their early- to mid-thirties.

On the job market, these factors are largely influenced by luck. Institutions can, however, do things to encourage faculty and staff to engage with each other on campus through social gatherings and in faculty dining rooms. Unfortunately, social gatherings are probably among the first to go when schools face budget constraints since they don’t clearly contribute to the bottom line. Common lunch hours are probably also related to budgets, since schools with cramped facilities don’t have the luxury of leaving their classrooms unused for five or more hours per week.

So far, these changes have made me hopeful for my social life in this town. I have to remember, however, that finding and keeping friends still demands effort. Rather than sitting and waiting for people to contact me, I need to be proactive about inviting people to get lunch or coffee on campus and dinner or drinks off campus. We’ll see how it goes.

Life at a Lego R1

Lego recently launched a line of female scientists, and according to Slate, archaeologist Donna Yates bought a set and started the “Lego Academics” Twitter account to chronicle their adventures. It is nice to see depictions of female scientists experiencing the highs and lows of academic lives (unfortunately, the set is now sold out), but they must be at an R1 because as far as I can tell they never teach.

For the past few years I have been requiring students to answer discussion questions about the readings before coming to class. The purpose of these discussion questions is to make sure that students do the reading (obviously) but also to ensure that students think about the readings and their connections to other course topics. After a trial run in one course I have adopted the practice in nearly every course with small variations (in lower-level courses, for example, I provide the discussion questions while in upper-level courses I combine my own questions with those written by students). When preparing my syllabi for the fall, I again included discussion questions even though I wasn’t entirely sure what students at my new institution would be like. In the days after completing my syllabi, though, I began to feel uneasy.

Using discussion questions in a course I’ve taught a number of times does not contribute much to my workload outside of class. Since I know what lass discussions have focused on in the past I can be sure to include questions on those elements of the readings. For a new prep, however, writing discussion questions involves reading a week or more ahead to anticipate the direction of class discussions while allowing my students enough time to use the discussion questions to complete the readings. The more I thought about it, the less I looked forward to writing discussion questions in addition to preparing for one new course and one course with substantially-revised readings. Higher publication expectations were also a factor, since reading ahead to write questions, preparing for class, reviewing readings before class, and grading would have left me with little time for writing.

In the end, although my syllabi had already been posted to Blackboard, I decided in the interest of my sanity and productivity to delete the discussion question requirements before handing them out on the first day of class. This will also give me a chance to see how I might use discussion questions most effectively with my new students. My decision isn’t particularly groundbreaking since my students likely won’t even know what they’re missing, but ten years into teaching it is important to remember why I was advised not to try too much in my first semester of teaching: it is easy to get overwhelmed when starting something new.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed. You should also appreciate a post about labor for Labor Day.

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