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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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Six months after obtaining an iPad Air 2 with the hopes of digitizing the majority of my workload, I have completed my first semester of nearly all-digital grading. Students still took their exams the old-fashioned way, but I graded every essay, assignment, and final project digitally. Although there were times that I wanted to go back to grading with pen on paper, I think that the benefits generally outweighed the costs.

The Process

I’ve dabbled in electronic assignment submission in the past, but this semester I required students to submit all of their assignments electronically to my institution’s course management program (similar to Blackboard, Moodle, etc.). They were instructed to submit their work in PDF format and most did, but after downloading the assignments I had to spend a few minutes converting the assignments that were submitted in other formats. These few minutes were just the first of the extra time that working electronically added to the grading process.

After ensuring that everything was in the correct format, I uploaded the files to Dropbox, then imported them into Goodnotes 4 on my iPad for grading. Grading itself also took longer because of the need to zoom in for writing legible comments with a stylus. 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. After grading, I exported the files back to Dropbox, transferred them to my computer, opened each file to record the grade, and uploaded them back to the course management program so that students could receive my feedback. I know that some course management programs allow electronic grading on PDFs from within their interface, so the ability to do that would help streamline the process.

The Negatives

The biggest drawback was the added time necessary both before, during, and after grading. It was during grading for my largest classes that I often considered just printing the students’ papers and grading them by hand. Aside from the added time commitment, though, I also found that electronic grading interrupted my normal process of handing work back. In the past I have always given assignments back at the end of class, prefaced with an overview of what generally went well and what needed work. Electronic grading prevented me from returning things at the end of class (the course management system provided no option to hold feedback for release at a particular time) and divorced the receipt of my feedback from my contextualizing overview. It also led to at least one class period where students were noticeably disengaged after receiving relatively low grades on an assignment shortly before class started. In the future I’ll probably switch to providing context at the end of class and uploading student assignments immediately afterward.

The Positives

Saving paper was an obvious motivation for changing to digital grading, but it was not the only benefit that I noticed. During grading, the ability to copy and paste some of my end-of-assignment comments allowed me to write a bit more than I might have otherwise (a Bluetooth keyboard will hopefully make this even better). The larger benefit for me, though, and what ultimately made this process worthwhile, was the ability to have a copy of each student’s work with my feedback even after I had given assignments back. If one assignment built on another, for example, I could look back at the student’s previous work to see if they had followed my suggestions. The ability to pull up a student’s previous assignments during office hours was also helpful. Finally, I could also see whether a student’s ability to cite things properly progressed over the course of the semester (unfortunately, the answer was usually “no”).

Another major positive was that students liked it. My comments were not really any less legible than they would have been otherwise and students did not have to worry about misplacing their assignments for future reference since they were always available on the course management page. Whether students saved the files with my feedback for future reference is still undetermined. One worry that I had is that students would not read my feedback if I did not physically hand them an assignment, since they could see their grade online without opening the file with my comments. There is obviously a question of whether students read my feedback when I do physically hand them an assignment, but at least the likelihood seems higher.

Despite the added time and other drawbacks, I consider this semester’s trial run a success. Over the summer I hope to get a Bluetooth keyboard to make typing a little more efficient, and I should probably look into ways to streamline my overall process, but I plan to continue my electronic grading in the future. Maybe with penalties for assignments that are submitted in the wrong format…

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I recently watched the new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on HBO, which has gotten good reviews since its premier (currently 98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). As a child of the ’90s and fan of Nirvana, I was interested in a viewing experience that reviews promised would allow me to feel like I had gained some insight into Cobain’s life and death. Afterward, like trying to understand how people can argue that “Sliver” is a great song, I was confused.

The first thing I thought of when the movie was over was The Passion of the Christ. Like Mel Gibson’s movie about Jesus’s last days, I don’t think that Montage of Heck would work for somebody who isn’t already familiar with its main character. Also like viewers of The Passion, I suspect that the positive reactions are due less to the quality of the story than to the ability to see a beloved figure’s private life. The fact that video footage of Kurt Cobain as an innocent little boy exists is amazing, but seeing it doesn’t really inform us about what happened later. As a result, my second thought was of Boyhood, which I doubt would have received as much acclaim if the exact same story were told but the adults were aged with makeup and the kids were played at different ages by different people.

Like Boyhood, Montage of Heck may be getting by on the process of its creation. That director Brett Morgen was provided unfettered access to these private materials, even if they are not flattering for those involved. Still, it would have been nice if he had provided a stronger link between those materials and the interviews in the present. When the fallout from the Vanity Fair article accusing Courtney Love of using heroin while pregnant is discussed, for example, headlines are shown stating that Cobain and Love were being investigated by Child Protective Services and that Cobain’s mother fought for custody of their daughter, Frances. Not a single interview, however, touches on whether any of these headlines were true. If they were, wouldn’t a statement from Cobain’s mother about the decision to fight her own son for the custody of his child be fairly important to the story?

The lack of these connections is problematic, but could be written off as a director not wanting to ask difficult questions of the people who are providing him with access to his most important material. The lack of another connection, though, is inexcusable. Throughout the movie it seems clear that Cobain’s passions were music and heroin, yet Morgen never addresses how one affected the other. Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bass player who is featured heavily in the movie, never talks about whether the band was angry with Cobain about his addiction or whether they confronted him about it. He doesn’t talk about whether his creativity was increased or decreased by his drug use. The movie doesn’t even make a clear connection between Cobain’s drug use and his suicide.

In the end, I was left feeling like I didn’t understand Cobain any better than I had before. Maybe, as a Nirvana fan, I just knew most of these things from reading interviews and news stories. I suspect, though, that despite Frances Cobain’s assertion that she didn’t want the movie to focus on her father’s mythology, those who participated in interviews largely didn’t get the memo. For example, Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s mother, claims that she nearly started crying the first time she heard Nevermind, Nirvana’s breakthrough album, “Not from happiness. It was fear” that “this is going to change everything. And I said ‘You’d better buckle up…because you are not ready for this'” seems a bit too convenient. Novoselic’s lack of complaint about the cancelled shows also doesn’t do much to chip away at the myth of Cobain.

We’re left, then, with a look at Cobain’s life from his perspective. (I will say, though, that I really liked the way that Cobain’s journal pages were recreated in layers.) “Read my diary,” he writes to an early girlfriend. “Look through my things and figure me out.” Morgen has looked through his things, but we’re no closer to figuring him out. Maybe the real myth about Cobain, like anybody who has committed suicide, is that we can ever understand the reasons.

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In addition to my own advice for faculty mentors, here are some recent posts on mentoring at every level of the academic system:

“‘I Just Do It': Mentoring & Honoring our Undergraduates” by Trina Smith

“The Top Five Traits of the Worst Advisors” by Karen Kelsky

“Faculty Mentoring Faculty: Relationships that Work” by Maryellen Weimer

The first and third are from the perspective of the mentor while the second focuses on the perspective of the mentee (similar to my post on mentors and anti-mentors), though that can also be helpful for mentors who are trying to avoid screwing things up.

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