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Easy for YOU to play!

The video above from the “Kids React” series is a great demonstration of the way that people often describe something as “complicated” when they really mean “unfamiliar.” I doubt that anybody who has owned a Walkman (or similar portable cassette player) would describe it as hard to use, but these kids can’t even figure out how to open the door to insert a cassette*. It is also interesting that, for some of them, familiarity with its labels occurs only after they are told that it plays music. In that context, it makes sense that the arrow pointing to the right means “play.” Without that context, they didn’t have a clue. I bet there are also a large number of people who can easily use a Walkman but have no idea how to listen to music using something like an iPhone.

*It is also interesting that they expect to be able to listen to music on a portable device without headphones, since headphones were a requirement until the rise of smartphones after most of these kids were born.

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I’m not sure what causes the popularity of things to spike on the internet, so I don’t know why this three-year-old article about Rachel Tudor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University has been making the rounds recently. Tudor was denied tenure by SOSU’s administration despite the support of her colleagues and her stellar publication record (the same semester she was denied tenure, she received an award for outstanding scholarship), apparently because she is trans and “Douglas N. McMillan, interim vice president for academic affairs reportedly said that Tudor’s “lifestyle” offend[ed] his Baptist beliefs.”

Tudor currently works at Collin College and a bit of internet sleuthing (i.e. spending three minutes on Google) revealed that the Equal Employment Occupation Commission found that her denial violated the Civil Rights Act and that when SOSU refused efforts at conciliation the case was forwarded to the Department of Justice, which is currently conducting an investigation. The fact that it has been three years and the case is still not resolved demonstrates how damaging the decisions of administrators can be for faculty members given the difficult job market (not to mention any geographic requirements that a faculty member may have after six years at an institution). McMillan, on the other hand, still works at SOSU as the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs (a title that could cause his job to be eliminated if he worked at the University of Southern Maine). I hope that he continues to work there long enough to take the fall for his decision.

Among the many infuriating statements in the original article about Tudor was the fact that she was not allowed to reapply for tenure in her seventh year, stating “He said it would be a waste of the faculty’s time — although they were on board,” she said. “And it would enflame tensions between faculty and administration.” Although I understand that administrators sometimes need to do what they think is best for an institution despite disagreement from the faculty, administrators could reduce a lot of tension if they would just listen to faculty when they make recommendations that do not have a negative impact on a school’s bottom line. Supporting the hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions of the faculty would seem to be an easy way for administrators to show that they value the perspectives and expertise of the faculty. Refusing to do those things and then blaming members of the faculty for contributing to tensions on campus is inexcusable.

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This year Alpha Kappa Delta, the sociology honor society, put on teaching and learning preconferences at a number of regional conferences. I was fortunate to attend one of these and I came away with a lot of new ideas for things to try in my courses. This experience also provided a reminder that there are great people everywhere. While there were people present from all kinds of institutions, the most interesting discussion I took part in was led by a professor at a community college who had a lot of great ideas for engaging students both inside and outside of the classroom.

I have written a lot about the academic job market over the years and my experiences going on the market twice have reinforced the notion that you are not the status of your institution. Institutional resources and departmental norms may influence the amount and type of work that somebody is able to do, but we should not assume that those things influence the quality of somebody’s work, much less their intelligence. It is frustrating when sociologists overlook the structures that lead to differences in status and it is important to remind ourselves from time to time that at a conference the name of somebody’s institution is not as important as the name above it.

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On my record

One of the biggest questions that I had when deciding to go on the job market again as an advanced assistant professor is how my record would be perceived in comparison to other candidates. Although I was wary of of lowering my publication expectations to meet the requirements at my current institution, I also faced the reality of life as an assistant professor with a 3-3 teaching load and high advising and service expectations. As a result, I had several concerns:

My first concern was how my record compared with the records of candidates who were ABD. Although I taught a lot of courses as a graduate student, my teaching experience since that time coupled with strong course evaluations was likely hard for ABDs to match. On the other hand, I have only published a few peer-reviewed papers since graduate school, so it is likely that many ABD candidates had stronger publication records than me.

My second concern was how my record compared with the records that search committees imagined candidates who were ABD having by the start of their fifth years. Again, my teaching probably compared favorably (or at least was not a liability), but it would have been easy for search committees to imagine the publication possibilities that awaited a freshly-minted Ph.D. Comparing my “real” publication record to the “potential” of another candidate (whether or not the candidate would ever reach this potential) was probably not in my favor.

My final concern was how my record compared with the records of others who were going on the market again. Because the job market was bad for a number of years after I obtained my current job it is likely that there were a lot of people who were attempting to improve their situations. For example, of the 124 hires currently listed on the Sociology Job Market Forum, 46 are clearly identified as people who had been tenure-track faculty, post docs, or visiting assistant professors. Again, my teaching likely looked fine, but there was the familiar question about my publications.

In the end, the extent to which these comparisons mattered probably depended on what the department was looking for. There were a lot of schools that I did not receive interest from, but I have no way of knowing why they weren’t interested. In some cases, these sorts of comparisons may have come into play. In others, they may have disliked the font that I chose for my CV or had a grudge against one of my graduate school advisors. As I’ve argued in the past, there is nothing one can do about these sorts of mysteries of the job market, so it is best to focus on the things that can actually be affected.

As a point of comparison, the institution that I will be joining in the fall has a ranking that is very similar to an institution where I interviewed when on the market the first time. When I compared my record to the person who was hired by that institution instead of me, I found myself lacking. Comparing our records today reveals an even larger gap, suggesting that they may have made the right choice (or that the lower teaching load and higher levels of institutional support allowed that person to focus more on research…).

Interestingly, though, the institution has hired several other people since that time and none of them have a record that is comparable to the person who was hired instead of me back in 2008. At the time, I thought that I was not qualified for the position. In hindsight, it appears that it would have been hard for anybody to compete with the candidate who was hired and in another year I might have gotten the job. I also don’t know what stood out to the search committee that decided to hire me over other candidates this year.

Idiosyncrasies like these are of no comfort to those on the market who do not get jobs. Neither is the statement that “there were many qualified candidates” that I have seen in so many rejection e-mails. At the end of the day candidates are left to do the best they can and hope that one of these idiosyncrasies tilts the opinions of a search committee in their favor.

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Money vs. mission

At my current institution, there is a constant battle between faculty members who are interested in preserving the mission of the school and administrators who are interested in preserving the financial stability of the school. Unfortunately, the perspectives of these parties are often at odds. For example, although the creation of programs for non-traditional students several decades ago essentially saved the school financially, there are some faculty members who feel that this move took our institution down a path from which it cannot return. These tensions were present when I visited five years ago, but they have increased recently as continued financial struggles require faculty members to take on more responsibilities without the possibility of raises.

As a result of these tensions, during interviews (whether phone, Skype, or campus) one of the questions that I asked nearly everybody concerned the relationship between the faculty and administration and my questions for administrators always focused on their goals for the institution and how they saw their institution fitting into the changing landscape of higher education in the next few decades. Answers to these questions differed dramatically based on the institution’s financial stability. Those at wealthier schools focused on their vision for the college and ways that they were trying to improve student experiences while those at schools with fewer resources talked about how “every school” experiences financial difficulties that cause tensions between the faculty and administration.

Even at the most elite private schools, with endowments measured in the billions, financial resources affect academic decisions. I am interested in seeing, however, how these tensions will play out at my new, more financially stable institution in the fall. Although there are no special programs for nontraditional students, there is certainly a large number of underpaid adjuncts teaching important courses that allow the school to function. It will also be interesting to track my own perceptions of these differences, such as whether I will see things as less problematic than faculty members who have not worked at schools with fewer resources. In any event, raises will be nice. (Clearly, this is proof that I have already sold out!)

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McGlynn TypologyAbove is what I have decided to call the McGlynn Typology of Faculty Jobs. Posted by Terry McGlynn at Small Pond Science, I think it does a great job of demonstrating the different elements that are emphasized in different types of institutions and, especially, the variation within institutions. As such, it should help graduate students think about the characteristics that they most value so that they can aim for a particular type of job (the title of McGlynn’s post is “What kind of faculty job do you want?”).

Perhaps the best thing about it is that if you think of it as a dart board, it reflects the reality of the job market in that you may end up at an institutional type adjacent to the type that you were targeting. Lots of people who would like to work at research universities, for example, end up working at regional comprehensives. The likelihood of ending up at an institution different from the one you are aiming for, though, probably decreases as you move away from your initial target.

Overheard:

-Did you know that you can “Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed?

-Totes, yo!

From small to selective

Over on the Sociology Job Market Forum, people use SLAC to mean both small liberal arts college and selective liberal arts college. I have never heard somebody say the latter in person, probably because saying that makes you sound like an asshole (add it to the list of terms I don’t like…). Of course, using the word “selective” when explaining what I mean by SLAC has also never made much sense because my school is not particularly selective. If it were, I’m pretty sure that the admissions office would select students who could pay a higher percentage of the sticker price. Next year, this will change.

From my current outsider’s perspective, there are some clear advantages to working at a school where the “selective” label actually applies. According to the venerable US News rankings, my current institution is ranked roughly 100 positions below the institution that recently hired me. At the most basic level, this means that my new institution has a lot more financial resources. These resources translate into a higher salary and lower teaching load (3-2). I am told that my new institution also has something called “raises,” where one’s salary increases in some accordance with the cost of living. I have only experienced this phenomenon once at my current institution, so I’m not entirely sure how it works, but it sounds like something that is nice to have.

Financial stability is nice, but selectivity also affects other aspects of the institution. I anticipate that the average ability level of my students will be higher and that the range of abilities will be lower. These are good things, since one of my constant struggles has been figuring out how to challenge the students at the top of my classes without losing the students at the bottom. It also means, though, that my own workload will be higher because of the increased expectations for course readings and assignments.

The biggest downside to this selectivity, though, is less student diversity in terms of race and social class. If the diversity of my students’ abilities has been one of the worst aspects of my current job, the diversity of their backgrounds has been one of the best. I’ve found that sociological concepts are given added weight when students regularly interact with those from backgrounds other than their own. Class discussions also benefit from a diversity of experiences. Unfortunately, in addition to reduced racial diversity, my sense is that the social class diversity that does exist at my new institution is less visible as students try to “pass” as wealthier than they are in an attempt to meet the standards of their peers.

Despite the fact that as a white, middle-class male (actually, I’m probably upper-middle-class now…) I decrease diversity wherever I go, I hope to work with others on my new campus to increase diversity among students, faculty, and staff. I also hope that, as a sociologist, I can help others see that bringing in students (and faculty and staff) from different backgrounds also requires that you welcome and support those students once they arrive.

I once said that applying for a different job helped me focus on how I could make my current job more like the mythical “ideal” position. While taking a different job has helped me move closer in some areas, it is clear that I have some ground to make up in others.

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