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Right now there are a lot of things going on in the world. Tenure is being threatened. ISIS is ISISing. Rachel Dolezal is identifying as black. Donald Trump is running for president. LeBron James is taking on the entire state of California in the NBA finals.

With so many things going on it is easy to spend all of the time you had planned to work on a given day (between the hours of 2 and 4, for example) reading things on the internet instead of actually getting work done. If you, like me, suffer from summer doldrums, it may be that you just need some motivation. Here, then, is the key to fighting summer distractions:

I’m going to take his advice starting first thing tomorrow…

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A recent discussion on Crooked Timber centers on whether higher education is due for a scandal. Daniel Davies argues that scandals typically involve things that are taken for granted in one domain being discovered by the public. Given this, Clay Shirky suspects that low teaching loads might lead to such a scandal. He writes:

What the public doesn’t understand (and what many academics don’t understand that the public doesn’t understand) is that the social compact between taxpayers and selective public colleges has been re-written. Up through the 1960s, state schools committed most faculty to teaching most of the time, while directing only a few institutions to hire and promote based on research. (Clark Kerr, PBUH, designed his famous Master Plan assuming that very few California schools should be able to offer Ph.D.s)

This limitation proved unsupportable. After WWII, research was where both the money and prestige was. This shift in our self-conception coincided with the spectacular but unsustainable support we got from the states after Sputnik. For fifteen glorious years, academies were funded as if we ran missile systems instead of monasteries. We used the money to reduce our teaching loads (in the old Carnegie model, a 4-4 load was considered full time) and allowed course release for anyone who brought in additional research dollars.

When our Cold War funding began to ebb in the mid-1970s, rather than go back to the classroom, our selective institutions began calling up an army of TAs and adjuncts to shoulder the teaching load, a transition so enormous that contingent faculty is now the majority, and we tenured faculty the minority.

As long as college was still cheap, and a degree consistently raised income, the public was largely indifferent to the increased reliance on contingent faculty to fill the gap left when we reduced our teaching loads. That period is ending. Constantly rising tuition and the emergence of a Bachelor’s degrees as a prerequisite for middle-class life is exposing the American academy to a degree of scrutiny and skepticism that little in our history has prepared us for.

Shirky argues that recent events to increase teaching in the North Carolina system are emblematic of this sort of change.

The problem for colleges and universities is that as they have reduced teaching loads for faculty members, they have increased demands for research. Although I have a 3-2 teaching load and small classes, then, the demands for publication are much higher than at my previous institution where I taught a 3-3 load, where they were slightly higher than those at institutions with 4-4 loads (or higher). More publications are associated, somebody must assume, with more prestige (even if this is more closely related to endowments), making our institutions worth the high cost of attendance. I would argue, though, that publication expectations and teaching loads are out of alignment. I teach one fewer course per year than somebody in my position thirty years ago, but my publication expectations are an order of magnitude higher. As I wrote in my post on academic false consciousness:

Because administrators want to increase the rankings of our institutions, they want each generation of faculty to be better than those who came before. They want us to publish more and in “better” journals while teaching more students with fewer resources. They want us to become internationally-known experts in our fields while denying sabbatical requests that would allow us to finish a book. And we do it. … Administrators have continually raised the bar for tenure-track faculty members and rather than refusing to play their games, we buy into the idea that the administration’s view of the world is real and meaningful.

It seems like the logical result would be to reframe the expectations of faculty at many institutions, increasing teaching loads and decreasing publication requirements. It seems that there is room for a college or university to find success by increasing teaching loads but maintaining small class sizes and drastically reducing publication requirements, making its message to parents that their children will always have small classes and never be taught by an adjunct. This sort of change, though, would require faculty and administrators to be on the same page. Anybody who has sat through faculty meetings can also attest to the fact that logic is not always high on the list of things that are on display.

In my view, the institutions that are going to successfully navigate the transition that higher education is undergoing will be those that can most quickly figure out who they are and how they can best fulfill their niches. Those who try to continually operate under the rules of the old system likely have bleak futures.

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I recently saw the movie While We’re Young, which could accurately be described as “self-absorbed assholes of every age” (nearly the entire movie is summarized in the trailer above). I wasn’t particularly thrilled by the movie but I did like the parts that mentioned sociology – specifically, C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite, which is also the name of a documentary that Ben Stiller’s character is slowly working on. His descriptions of his documentary, a sprawling, eight-years-in-the making film in which he attempts to connect nearly everything also reminded me of dissertations in general. Not since Emilie De Ravin told Robert Pattinson that she doesn’t date sociology majors has sociology played such a prominent role in a movie. At least they didn’t describe Mills as a psychologist!

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Sociologists recognize that many things are social constructions. This means that things like gender norms are not based on actual biological differences but on accepted social beliefs – there is no biological reason, for example, that men cannot wear makeup and skirts and women must shave their legs. As is the case with gender norms, social constructions can allow arbitrary ideas to be seen as “normal” representations of the “truth.” This can be harmful, whether by limiting individual expression and opportunity in the case of gender roles or by actually increasing health risks in the case of those who will not vaccinate their children because of now-debunked research. Thanks to the amplifying power of the internet, social construction even affects the way that corporations produce and market our food.

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, Diet Pepsi will no longer contain aspartame not because of scientific research, but because of customer perceptions that it is linked to harmful health outcomes. Similar concerns have been related to the rise of low-carb foods in recent years and, more recently, gluten-free foods. Next up might be protein. I recently saw a commercial extolling the virtues of the protein in yogurt, and the aforementioned Atlantic article states that Coke is introducing a new milk with 50% more protein than regular milk.

With information more easily accessible than ever, it is important to spend a few seconds seeking out the research the posts we see online. Otherwise, we might find ourselves skipping cancer screenings because we eat bananas.

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First parental contact

In my first ten years of teaching I had no shortage students complaining about their grades. In one instance, a student who had earned a B+ was so sure that his grade should have been rounded up to an A- that he sent me a series of e-mails with quotes from his parents’ friends, who were professors, stating that they would have rounded his grade up if they had been in my position (including one who said, “Honestly, the guy sounds like a jerk”). Eventually, despite threats to appeal the grade, the student relented. Later in his academic career, the student asked me for a letter of recommendation. I suggested that another faculty member might be able to write a more positive letter (jerk status confirmed!). This is a rather long way of saying that I have had many students complain about grades, but I have been lucky not to have any direct contact with their parents. Until now.

This semester, a student earned a grade that was less than ideal. I did not, however, receive an e-mail from her asking me to change it. No, the first message I received came from her mother. I did hear from the student after I explained that FERPA prevented me from responding to the mother’s questions but that I would be happy to discuss the issue with her daughter. My explanation to the daughter was apparently not sufficient, because the next e-mail I received was from her father. The issue has not yet been resolved, but I am appreciative of the people in Academic Affairs who have taken the matter over. Since it is largely out of my hands at this point I’m not sure if I will receive the forthcoming e-mails from the student’s siblings and extended family.

Aside from the idea that students (and their parents) think that my grading practices are so arbitrary as to be easily changed, these situations are the most frustrating to me when I have given students multiple opportunities during the semester to work with me to improve their grades and they have not taken advantage of these opportunities. Since I do not foresee myself providing a mid-summer extra credit opportunity for my spring students, I would advise them to be proactive about their coursework while they are still in the course! Otherwise, their options are: (1) Appeal their grade; or (2) Invent a time machine…

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I recently came across a copy of Durkheim’s Suicide at a used book sale and decided to buy it since it was 80 cents and I didn’t already have a copy. The version I got was published by the Free Press. The front cover looks like this:

Suicide Front CoverThe front cover, though, is not the reason for this post. It was the back cover that was particularly interesting. Here it is:

Suicide Back CoverDespite the fact that the book’s subtitle is “A Study in Sociology” and several of the descriptions identify Durkheim as a sociologist, the upper left corner clearly classifies the book as “Psychology.” Similarly, the quotes describing the book’s importance are from Psychoanalytic Quarterly and American Journal of Psychiatry.

It would have been interesting to hear the discussion that led to such a critical work of sociology being labeled this way, but I assume that the decision came down to marketing. A lot of small bookstores might not have sociology sections, but they probably do have psychology sections, so maybe the Free Press thought that labeling it this way would allow it to appear in more stores. To the slight credit of the Free Press, the newer cover of Suicide appears to be labeled as “Social Science” but the quotes remain the same.

I guess that this isn’t quite as bad as labeling Bill O’Reilly as “Social Science” or Glenn Beck as “Non-Fiction,” but it does indicate that sociology’s quest for legitimacy continues…

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As many faculty handbooks across the country likely state, faculty members walk an interesting line between private citizens and institutional representatives. Things get even more complicated when faculty become public intellectuals, advocating for particular causes. These divisions used to be relatively easy to maintain – what one said in private would not preclude one from being employed. Thanks to technological advances, though, even those who are not typically seen as institutional representatives are regularly fired for things that there is now a digital record of (as I’ve noted several times in the past, there is no backstage on the internet). Although I completely understand the reasons that one might want to have a social media presence as an academic, I have to admit that it seems like a good time to be pseudonymous. (Edit: Fabio also connects these cases to internet shaming.)

In the past year we’ve seen John McAdams get fired at Marquette and Steven Salaita get un-hired by the University of Illinois for social media activity. Twitter seems to be particularly problematic because of the lack of room for context in 140 characters. Twitter isn’t the only problematic outlet for our thoughts, though, and those of us who say that these things are easily avoided may be overstating things. As Tenured Radical stated earlier this year:

Most of us don’t go to the trouble of writing a whole blog post about a graduate assistant to throw our careers into a death spin, but most of us in academia *do* put up thoughtless, reactive things about colleagues, students and political events on Twitter and Facebook. Some of us do it all the time.  Might be time to check that at the door, until we figure out this new American thing of wanting to smash people for saying and thinking the wrong thing?  It might also be time to check what we tweet, re-tweet, Facebook and share to make sure it is true. The law of Internet truthiness means that social media utterances tend to acquire facticity as they trend, and they also become more “about” one thing — racism, free speech, misogyny, the One True God — as they multiply across platforms. In addition, when are the stakes high enough that we are willing to take a risk? And when could we just shut it and everything would be fine?

Most recently, another almost-hired faculty member has come under fire for tweets. This time, it is sociologist Saida Grundy, scheduled to start at Boston University in the fall. It currently appears that she will be allowed to keep her job, but starting a career with a stern rebuke from your new boss seems less than ideal. Grundy’s case highlights the danger of posting things on the internet that don’t seem problematic to friends or fellow academics but that are taken very differently by the public (or Fox News). Many of her tweets would have been right at home on the Facebook pages of my friends from grad school, yet her career has been threatened before it even starts.

This unpredictability is why I am happy to remain pseudonymous and I extend this offer of pseudonymity to you. If you would like to write something about academia without fear of reprisal from colleagues, lawmakers, or TV pundits, send me an e-mail.

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