Jessica at Scatterplot recently posted some good advice about imaginary “perfect” jobs. She writes:

There’s a tenure-track academic job I hear students talk about – one with work-life balance and a forty-hour work week and at least two weeks (but hopefully an entire summer) of carefree, completely unplugged vacation; one where you have all the autonomy and prestige of a professor, along with job security and a professional level paycheck, but there aren’t external pressures on your time except for those that you select because they’re consistent with your values and life goals…that job – that does not exist. And, even if it did, you would not increase your chances of landing such a job by eschewing the professional advice of faculty or colleagues because they are seen as somehow biased toward a different kind of job, one that just doesn’t fit you or your life goals.

As I said above, I think this is good advice but the “do what senior scholars tell you to do in order to be successful” line of reasoning falls apart when so many senior scholars don’t understand other types of jobs or have outdated ideas of what various types of jobs entail (or even what is required to get jobs like theirs). If you want to work at a SLAC, for example, especially a high-ranking SLAC, publications are essential, so advice that a student will fade to obscurity in one of those jobs is ridiculous. Too many advisors still want to see their students replicate their careers, acting as if other types of careers are beneath them.

One could argue that Eric Grollman’s success in getting an excellent liberal arts job after initially aiming for an R1 is a strong example in favor of the idea that there is only one track, but the pressures that he reports facing from his committee members about even interviewing at liberal arts jobs show that this system still has flaws. I was fortunate not to receive these sorts of messages from my committee members, but a current colleague reports that her dissertation advisor neglected to provide her with any advice on negotiating her job offer from our institution because the advisor hoped that a “real” job offer would come along. That some students know early on what type of job they would like to pursue but still receive these sorts of messages undermines the value of advice in other areas.

In some ways, I could be seen as an example of the type of grad student that Jessica mentions in the comments, where she says, “This is about the students who don’t aspire to a life like the faculty in their grad programs – people who they (erroneously) believe work 80 hours a week all year long and have no life outside of work.” I started grad school around the time that a large number of junior faculty members were hired and watched them go through a grueling tenure process that included the very real threat of being denied tenure unless they could publish in ASR or AJS. I knew that I did not want that kind of experience, but this doesn’t mean that I didn’t think I would have to work to get a job or afterward or that I didn’t seek a strong grounding in theory and methods, as I took more than the required number of courses in each.

Just as Jessica provides advice for students, I would like to provide some advice for faculty who deal with graduate students: listen to them. Consider their career goals and give them advice that will maximize the chances that they will realize those goals while necessarily keeping an eye on their general marketability given that few of them will end up at the types of institutions they seek. If you start your mentoring by assuming that they want to emulate your career, though, and criticizing any desire to do otherwise, be aware that you are discrediting any future advice you will give.

Oh, and one more thing: When your graduate students are on the job market, get your damn letters of recommendation done early and often. There is no excuse for mentoring somebody throughout the entire academic process only to hang them out to dry by not fulfilling your duty as an advisor.

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Starting over (as an advisor)

In most areas of my transition to a new institution I have been able to draw on my previous experience as a tenure-track faculty member. This has been similar to my mostly-smooth transition from graduate school to life as a tenure-track faculty member. There is one area, though, in which my years as a tenure-track faculty member have not left me feeling any more prepared than I did during my last transition: advising.

Although I’m still part of a sociology department, there are some major differences between my current institution and my former when it comes to advising. The primary difference is that my current department has many fewer majors than my previous department, so while I had 40-60 major advisees at my previous institution, I currently have seven non-major advisees. This is an area in which I have no experience.

Previously, I was challenged with learning the departmental curriculum and the institution’s general education curriculum in order to advise students to complete all of the necessary graduation requirements. Currently, I need to know both of those things as well as enough about each of the other majors on campus to advise students until they officially declare, which must be done by the spring of their sophomore year. Although there is a lot of guidance available in the form of quick-reference sheets, lists of courses to start with, etc., it feels like the risk of screwing up somebody’s academic career by giving bad advice is magnified.

I’m sure that I will eventually get used to this, like I did at my previous institution. Until then, I’m glad that I don’t have many advisees to ruin the futures of!

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Free TRAILS (finally)

Reading the September “ASA News and Notes” e-mail, I noticed that TRAILS, the ASA’s online database of teaching materials, will finally be free to members, as it always should have been. As stated in the e-mail:

At its meeting in August, ASA Council approved a proposal to make full access to the TRAILS online database of teaching resources a new benefit of ASA membership for 2016. Pending the launch of the 2016 application and renewal system on October 15, paid member subscriptions have been discontinued in advance of the transition to free access. However, any member may sign up now for free access through October 15 using a special promotion code. Active your free subscription today!

This will hopefully encourage faculty members who can’t (or don’t want to) pay extra to access teaching resources when preparing syllabi, assignments, and class exercises. Better late than never!

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Last year, Target stopped me from making a huge mistake by labeling which Halloween cards were for boys and which were for girls. This year, though, Target has stated it will move away from gender-based signs for toys and children’s bedding. Because gender differences in Target have been completely obliterated for kids, I worried that adults shopping at Target would have a hard time deciding which Halloween costumes to buy for themselves. What if this year’s “sexy” costumes were gender neutral?! What if there were no “sexy” costumes at all?!

Given these legitimate concerns, you can imagine how relieved I was to see that Target had not failed me after all. Although fans have apparently been concerned for years about the fact that there may not be any female stormtroopers, this confusion was caused by the fact that they wore the same armor as their male counterparts. Target has eliminated the need for confusion by revealing a new stormtrooper uniform that does away with those pesky masks and pants that led people to conclude that they were all men:(Female) StormtrooperGender equality in the Star Wars universe doesn’t stop at the lowly stormtroopers, though. Even the leaders of the Empire have the possibility of being women once we remove all the clothing they’ve been wearing. Darth Vader, for example, might not be a crusty old white man. Maybe Darth Vader is a woman. To find out all we have to do is remove that pesky mask and those damn pants. Ta da! Darth Vader is a sassy woman and she will force choke you (if you’re into that sort of thing)!

(Female) Darth VaderWith stormtroopers and Darth Vader upping the sexiness ante this year, I was disappointed to see that sexiness appears to be reserved for those on the dark side of the force (though I guess it makes sense, since Yoda warned: Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to sexiness). Those who want to dress as Princess Leia’s are stuck with this full-length gown, even though she unleashed her sexiness all over Jabba the Hutt’s palace in the movies:(Female, apparently) Princess LeiaHow are we supposed to know she has legs under there? Her lack of sexiness is surely the reason that nobody trusted her with a “sold separately” blaster or lightsaber like the women in the other costumes. Target knows that a hand on your hip doesn’t cut it. You need to show some skin if you want to be taken seriously as a sexy badass!

Keep your head up, Leia. Maybe next year you’ll be able to take on sexy stormtroopers and sexy Darth Vaders in your sexy slave girl costume and they’ll give you more than a finger gun to do it. Until then, use the force, I guess.

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Microsoft Wedge Mobile KeyboardIn my reflections last spring on a semester of electronic grading I noted that, “At the end of each assignment I typically used the iPad’s on-screen keyboard to type some longer comments, the speed of which would have been greatly increased with the purchase of a Bluetooth keyboard.” A new academic year has brought new assignments and I did not want to spend another semester fumbling with the iPad’s on-screen keyboard, so I went online to search for a Bluetooth keyboard. I settled on the Microsoft Wedge Mobile Keyboard, largely because it was cheap (about $30).

Opening the box, I was surprised at Microsoft’s advances in presentation. Apple seems to have had a positive influence in packaging design. Although the specs don’t specifically mention that it works with iPads, I was able to pair it just fine and haven’t had any problems with operation. They keyboard itself is fairly small and thin, probably too small to comfortably type on for a long period of time but still infinitely better than an on-screen keyboard for a paragraph or so of comments at the end of an essay. The design also resembles Apple’s older iPhones and current iPads, with its metal sides and chamfered edges (it would match my iPad even better if the front of my iPad were black). Most of the keyboard is roughly the same thickness as an iPhone. The only awkward part is the bump:

SideAs you can see, the back of the keyboard has a significant bump, which holds the two AAA batteries that power it and helps it stand at a nice angle. This makes storage more difficult but I’ve found that I can place it on top of my iPad with the bump overlapping the edge to sit relatively flat in my bag.

In terms of functionality, the only downside is that there is no dedicated power button, so turning the keyboard on and off (which I do frequently since I only use it to write comments at the end of papers, not throughout) requires holding down the function and escape keys for several seconds. Otherwise, the keyboard works well for what I require of it.

CoverOther than the bump, the only other issue is that the keyboard’s cover is a bit of a pain to line up. The cover is made of a thick rubbery substance, with tabs that lock over the keyboard ends. If Apple had designed it it probably would have been held on by magnets, making it easier to align and quicker to put on and remove. The cover does have a useful feature: it can be folded and the tabs can be used to hold up a tablet:

Cover StandI have an iPad cover and don’t need to stand it up to type a few sentences anyway, but this could be convenient for those who don’t have a separate tablet stand. I’ve never actually bent my cover like this because there is actually quite a bit of resistance but it is a nice option to have as long as the bending mechanism can stand up to heavy use.

Overall, I think that this is $30 well spent, as the number of mistakes I make while typing has been greatly reduced compared to last semester and it is easy to use the keyboard only when needed. Now all I need is for my students to actually read the comments that I write!

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Last week, US News released the annual rankings for liberal arts institutions. It also released a bunch of other rankings, including “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” “Wait,” you may be thinking, “How different can the best liberal arts schools and the best liberal arts schools for undergraduate teaching be?” The answer is, “More different than you would think.”

You may recall that the overall rankings for national liberal arts institutions are strongly correlated with endowments. Apparently, the things that make a school good at teaching in the eyes of US News differ from those that make a school good overall. Interestingly, the methodology for determining best teaching is similar to that for determining the best graduate programs. Namely, they ask people about their perceptions: “College presidents, provosts and admissions deans who participated in the annual U.S. News peer assessment survey were asked to nominate up to 10 schools in their Best Colleges ranking category with a strength in undergraduate teaching.”

Like the graduate school rankings, then, the undergraduate teaching rankings reflect others’ perceptions rather than a formula that schools might try to game. It turns out that, unlike the national liberal arts rankings, these perceptions are not strongly correlated with a school’s endowment (only .226 vs. .78 for the national rankings). Although there are similarities, some schools are rated much differently in the rankings for undergraduate teaching. Hendrix College has the largest difference between its overall ranking (82) and its teaching ranking (29). Other schools that are at least 40 spots higher in the teaching than overall rankings include: Beloit, Wheaton, St. Olaf, Lawrence, Berea, and Wooster.

Of the schools appearing on both lists, Bowdoin looks the worst, with its overall ranking of 4 and its teaching ranking of 29. Many high-ranking schools in the overall rankings, though, don’t appear on the list of the top 30 teaching schools at all. Eleven schools in the top 30 national rankings do not appear in the top teaching rankings, the highest-ranked of which are the US Naval Academy and Claremont McKenna, tied for 9th in the national rankings.

The takeaway from all of this seems to be that a school’s reputation for teaching is not nearly as dependent on financial wealth as its overall rankings. I think that the different methodologies for different rankings are also interesting, since graduate programs are essentially ranked by those in similar programs, who would seem to know best. Undergraduate teaching is ranked in the same way, but US News is not willing to allow these peer-nominated rankings to make up its most publicized rankings like it is for graduate programs.

Of course, both types of rankings are probably connected only tenuously to actual student experiences at various schools, but by publicizing their overall rankings, US News ensures that they will keep schools focused on the small things they can do to try to climb the rankings, while an emphasis on the perceptions of others may allow schools to shift their foci to the bigger picture, considering what is best for students instead of for US News.

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Students, get your shit together

The Add/Drop deadline for students at my school is two weeks into the semester. It was roughly the same at my previous institution. I’m not sure whether it is something about the students at my new institution or just the fact that I’m teaching Introduction to Sociology again for the first time in several years, but this year I received more requests to enroll in my class during this time period than I ever remember having before. About 2/3 of them came in the second week of the Add/Drop period, some at the end of the week, which meant that they wanted to enroll after missing two of 15 weeks, the first assignment, and over 100 pages of reading. I nicely explained this to them as my reason for denying their requests.

I know that some students cannot register when they are supposed to due to payment issues or academic probation, but it seems that at least some students must be treating the first two weeks of class as a trial period for their courses before determining if they will commit to a full semester. A few advisors also seem to be dropping the ball, suggesting that students change courses long after the spring advising sessions, though it is possible that students just didn’t show up for spring advising. The annoyance of all of this is probably increased by the fact that I never changed my schedule after the beginning of the semester during my own college days.

Of course, the most likely explanation is that the sheer awesomeness of sociology and, beyond that, my teaching of sociology spread like wildfire through the campus in the first week of classes, causing the huge number of requests to join my course.

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