Archive for March, 2009

Though the long-term benefits remain to be seen, one positive aspect of the current economic crisis may be a reduction in conspicuous consumption:

In just the seven months since the stock market began to plummet, the recession has aimed its death ray not just at the credit market, the Dow and Detroit, but at the very ethos of conspicuous consumption. Even those with a regular income are reassessing their spending habits, perhaps for the long term. They are shopping their closets, downscaling their vacations and holding off on trading in their cars. If the race to have the latest fashions and gadgets was like an endless, ever-faster video game, then someone has pushed the reset button.

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There is an interesting post on Inside Higher Ed about Michèle Lamont’s How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment, which examines peer review panels.  As a graduate student, I’ve been curious about peer review processes in general, as I’ve experienced successes and failures in peer-reviewed publications and grant competitions.

I suspect that little will change in regard to these processes in my future life as a junior faculty member, but I wonder how my choice of institution will affect my desire to run the publication gauntlet.  Coming from a “publish or perish” department, I have a strong desire to get my work published in order to contribute to the body of sociological knowledge.  I also want to publish in well-regarded journals in order to increase the chance that others will actually be aware of my contributions.  At the liberal arts school where I will be employed, however, expectations for publication are much lower than for junior faculty in my current program and the fact that a paper went through peer review is more important than the name on the front of the journal.

Higher expectations for research often come with fewer teaching obligations and graduate student collaborators, allowing faculty to maintain multiple projects and submit a lot of papers for review.  At most liberal arts schools, teaching loads are higher and there are no graduate students with whom to collaborate, which I expect results in fewer concurrent projects and fewer submissions for review.  As a student I have watched papers go through numerous review cycles at multiple journals before receiving an R&R or conditional acceptance.  In one case, this process took years.  A large part of the reason for this was that the authors submitted their paper first to a top generalist journal, then to highly-ranked specialty journal, then to another specialty journal, before being accepted at yet another specialty journal that, while still good, does not have as much cachet as the earlier destinations.

Although I want to publish in highly-ranked journals, I am unlikely to have years to devote to the publication of a single paper as a junior faculty member at a liberal arts school.  In time, I wonder if this desire will fade in favor of running a more forgiving gauntlet that is equally supported by my tenure review committee while fewer outside of my institution are aware of my contributions to sociological knowledge.

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Recently, some have wondered whether the current economic climate means that it is time for those “who believe in productivity, personal responsibility, and keeping government interference to a minimum” to “go John Galt.”*

In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt leads the striking captains of industry to a private utopia until the “looters,” who want to ruin everything with regulation and the exploitation of their ideas, self destruct and clear the way for their triumphant return.  Part of this self destruction involves a train accident.  Rand’s description of the first person who died:

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that individual effort is futile, that an individual conscience is a useless luxury, that there is no individual mind or character or achievement, that everything is achieved collectively, and that it’s masses that count, not men (560).

While a sociologist is the first to go (one who appears to rely a bit more on structure than agency), he is not the only academic to face Rand’s wrath.  Professors of economics and philosophy also meet their demise, along with a journalist, a school teacher, a newspaper publisher, a financier, a worker, a lecturer, a mother and her two children, a playwright, a housewife, a lawyer, an heir, and unnamed others.  While the deaths of innocent individuals might cause other authors some anguish, Rand dismisses their deaths with the statement that “there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas” (562).  In Rand’s world, only the industrial leaders are worthy of life.

Rand’s background makes the extreme position she takes a bit more understandable.  She was born in Russia in 1905 (the brief biography in the back of Atlas Shrugged states that she taught herself to read at age six!) and witnessed the Karensky Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution.  Her father’s pharmacy was confiscated by Communists and in college at the University of Petrograd (to study history and philosophy – her professors must have been so proud when she killed one of them off!) she “experienced the disintegration of free inquiry and the takeover of the university by commmunist thugs.”  In 1925 she left the USSR for a visit to relatives in the US and never returned.

Despite understanding Rand’s point of view, I still prefer critiques of the USSR in the form of Animal Farm to those in the form of Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead.  Besides, Animal Farm is only 139 pages long, while Atlas Shrugged is 1,074!  These issues are also explored in the video game BioShock, which features an art style similar to that of Atlas Shrugged‘s excellent cover by Nick Gaetano.  Finally, there is the refusal of a nine-year-old genius to go Galt in Rodent Mutation.

*Of course, there is reason to question how many of these people actually understand the situation.

-Rand, Ayn.  1992 (1957).  Atlas Shrugged.  Signet.

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A recent article on ABCNews.com quotes individuals who are interested in reducing their incomes by just enough to avoid earning over $250,000 this year because they fear the tax increases (a.k.a. repeal of Bush tax cuts) that Obama plans to implement.  Of course, families earning less than $250,000 will see “not one dime” of additional taxes, as anybody who has seen Obama speak in the past year or so knows.

Obviously, earning nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year does not mean that you understand the tax code, since the US has a marginal tax rate, meaning that only earnings over $250,000 are taxed at the higher rate.  Thankfully, a new version of the article explains this.

Possibly because of the arcane procedures for filing taxes in the US, issues such as these are not easily understood.  It will be interesting to see how my own taxes are affected by the process of going from a barely-paid graduate student to a reasonably-paid assistant professor.

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I have attended a number of talks over the years focused on getting a liberal arts job.  Because I did not attend a liberal arts school as an undergraduate, I took every available opportunity to learn about the expectations and intricacies of these jobs, from applications to faculty meetings.  There are several sociological liberal artists who have a tendency to appear at these talks, among them Ed Kain from Southwestern University and Keith Roberts from Hanover College.

Because I have seen him give several such talks there have been several times that I’ve heard Roberts tell an audience of grad students that he does not consider applications from students that include syllabi less than 20 pages in length because he takes this as a sign that the applicant does not care about teaching.  I remember sitting dumbfounded the first time I heard this, wondering alternately what would fill a 20 page syllabus and why I thought I cared about teaching when my longest syllabi were less than ten pages.  Inevitably, Roberts disclosed in the Q&A that his syllabi include all course assignments and that students with shorter syllabi could add an appendix with their assignments and class exercises so as not to end up in the “I will not even look at your application” pile when applying for a position at Hanover.

Unfortunately for me, the sociology department at Hanover was not hiring this year.  If it were, I feel confident that Roberts would have placed my application in the “to be considered further” pile based on the number of times I’ve heard him speak.  For every other job application, however, one cannot be so sure what the hiring committee is looking for in a syllabus.  A good way to avoid this problem is to write good syllabi in the first place and then include assignments and exercises when sending them with your application packets on the job market (just in case!).

With this in mind, Rob Wier has written a brief guide to a good syllabus on Inside Higher Ed.  The most important part is this:

A good syllabus is the organizing structure of a course, an unambiguous statement of expectations, and a professor’s first line of defense in disputes over policy, procedure, and grades. Your syllabus should lay out what you expect students to do, why you want it, when you want it, and what happens if students don’t comply. Assume nothing and spell out everything. The more you put in your syllabus up front, the less you’ll have to negotiate or explain later.

Update: Amelia at the Contexts Blog has posted some resources from the University of Buffalo.

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It turns out that just as Candide is an allegory for the academic job market, Frodo’s journey in The Lord of the Rings mirrors dissertation writing:

Like many a dissertator, Frodo’s terrible and treacherous mission has a dual nature. He cannot, and does not, accomplish the goal without the help of others, but ultimately, he must bear the great load alone.

One question: if Frodo’s fellowship “includes family, friends, dissertation groups, fellow doctoral students, professors, undergraduates, and archival and administrative staff members,” why do these people keep trying to take his dissertation from him?

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A post on the Contexts blogs includes a discussion of teaching introductory courses as a form of public sociology, prompted by a post on Inside Higher Ed:

In other words, if you really want to be a community organizer or an “organic intellectual,” give up tenure and embed yourself in a grassroots organization for a decade or so. If not, then perhaps a more humble definition of public sociologist is in order. While there are a variety of venues for a modest public sociology, Michael Burawoy has identified a skill that perhaps best suits the vast majority of sociologists seeking a more public voice: “Students are our first public.” Anyone aspiring to be a public sociologist must first dedicate themselves to the craft of teaching as a Weberian calling.

One thing that I have enjoyed about my graduate program is the opportunity to share sociological insights with a wide range of students at a large public university.  While I have made a choice to turn away from my large public university in favor of a small private one, a major factor in this decision was the desire to maximize the effectiveness each dose of the sociological imagination.

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As spring approaches, I am the missing link between the second and third phases.

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As the job market season approached last summer, those in my department who were planning to go on it gathered to discuss the process.  One of the topics was the Job Market Rumor Mill blog, which looks, for 2009, to become a job market forum.  Regardless, opinions varied from “it is a worthless time waster” to “it is a pit of negativity that will consume your soul.”  The consensus was that it should be avoided and, quite possibly, LeechBlocked.  Nevertheless, I visited the blog daily before successfully getting off the market.  Recently, Drek unwittingly described why I visited the blog, and why I still check in on it from time to time in its dying days:

Recently, I have noticed some rather lengthy threads here on [the Job Market Rumor Mill] that are filled to the brim with misunderstandings, false attributions, hurt feelings and general foolishness, mixed in with nuggets of true wisdom.

Besides, I like to procrastinate.

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