Archive for June, 2009

Sexism sells

There is a long-standing connection between women and cars.  And by “connection” I mean that men seem to like looking at women and cars together, as seen on the covers of many car magazines (incidentally, I’ve never understood this connection and always wished that the models would get out of the way so I could see the cars).  Here are a few of the ways that women can be used to sell cars:

Implying that women, like cars, can be "preowned."

Implying that women, like cars, can be "preowned."

This apparently means that the mechanic needs a new job (like the Maytag repair man).

This apparently means that the mechanic needs a new job (like the Maytag repair man).

Clearly, an ad for toy cars...

Clearly, an ad for toy cars...

What a lucky girl!  First Bob let her stick around even though he bought a new car, then he let her clean it!

What a lucky girl! First Ralph let her stick around even though he bought a new car, then he let her clean it!

Like a spirited woman but better, because it "costs so little to keep happy."

Like a spirited woman but better, because it "costs so little to keep happy."

Via: Jalopnik

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Dissertation defenses are strange to me.  If your chair has done his or her job, there should be no question of whether or not you will pass.*  Even though the defense is discussed as a major milestone like finishing your M.A., completing your prelims, or passing your dissertation proposal defense, the experience itself is anti-climactic.  Like participating in graduation when you are not done with your degree requirements, people will want to call you “doctor” afterward.  Perhaps stubbornly, I still refuse to accept this label.  Of course, this is not out of modesty or a belief that I am no more accomplished than anybody else, it is because I am not done.  I expect that I will have a much greater sense of accomplishment when my revisions have been accepted by my chair and I turn in all of the necessary paperwork.

*I’m sure that there are a few departments that pride themselves on lulling Ph.D. candidates into a false sense of security and then nailing them with ridiculous questions at the defense, but I don’t think this is the norm.

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Although he has always appeared frail, the hospitalization and subsequent death of Michael Jackson surprised me.  Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon had their biggest impacts on older generations, but I was becoming aware of music videos at the peak of Jackson’s fame and have been aware of the trials and tribulations that followed, from declining sales and criminal allegations to baby dangling and financial difficulties.  While the reports of his death that I have seen mention these things, they typically emphasize the tremendous cultural influence that Jackson had from his childhood until the early ’90s.

Jackson’s death made me think of the sociological work on collective memory, such as Fine’s “Resurrecting the Red: Pete Seeger and the Purification of Difficult Reputations,” which appeared in the June 2002 issue of Social Forces.  As noted in the abstract, this work examines “The purification of Pete Seeger’s image, from vilified Communist to national hero,” and:

lets us study both reputational change and the relationship between art and politics. An objectivist model suggests that reputations simply reflect truth. An ideological model claims that Seeger’s redemption is shaped by a biased media. Neither sufficiently explains the competitive nature of reputational politics. Our constructionist model takes into account both the role of reputational entrepreneurs and the structural constraints they face. We chart Seeger’s reputation through four historical periods: recognition among his peers on the Left (1940s), ruin in the McCarthy period (1950-62), renown among sympathetic subcultures (1960s), and institutionalization as a cultural icon.

While Jackson will no doubt continue to be highly regarded for his music, I wonder if the less-desirable aspects of his life will fall away over time.  For Jackson, the historical periods are less easily defined.  Sure, there is the talented but potentially unhappy childhood that appears to have influenced much of the rest of his life, but beyond that there is a confluence of entertainer, perfectionist, chimpanzee owner, elephant man bone buyer, appearance changer, Presley marryer, child bearer, and self defender.  Michael Jackson was extremely talented but also extremely bizarre.  It will be interesting to see how history (not HIStory this time) remembers him.

Update: There is an interesting post at the Double X blog discussing the way that Jackson’s death allows us to shed the baggage of his bizarre life and focus on his music.  It concludes:

Now the bad years, tragic as they were, right up to the end, are over, and we can start to appreciate the good ones, the ones when Jackson created more stupendous hit songs than most musicians could in many, many lifetimes. The weirdness still lingers, but it won’t have pride of place for long. Watch, in a few decades, all the freakishness will be a footnote, and the kids will still be dancing to “Billie Jean” and trying to figure out how to moonwalk.

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I have spent the past 10 years of my life learning about sociology (three years as an undergraduate major and seven years in grad school).  Imagine my surprise, then, when I read this and realized that if I had wanted to know about sociology all I had to do was read a few things by Comte.  This essay (diatribe?  rant?) argues (and by “argues,” I mean “states,” like a less inflammatory Ann Coulter) that the goal of (presumably modern) sociology was stated by Comte over 150 years ago as “the entire systematisation of human life on the basis of the preponderance of the heart over the intellect.”

She goes on to explain:

That’s it! That is basis for the whole sociological dictatorship. Suggest problems for emotional involvement and demand the intellect devise social solutions. It can turn any personal problem into a social problem, a social problem into a national problem, and a national problem into an international problem belonging to all humanity. Social science treats life as a series of problems for ‘society’ or united ‘Humanity’ to solve. When all the problems the social scientists can concoct from any part of the world become social problems for the WORld Management System (WORMS) to solve, the sociological dictatorship will be complete.

I’m sure that you can also imagine my surprise at discovering after 10 years that I am supposed to be working toward the completion of a sociological dictatorship!  If we are to be successful in this pursuit we need to do a better job of letting grad students know.  After all,

Sociology and other “social sciences” are required courses for many careers so students who become community organizers, reporters, politicos, lawyers, teachers, etc., etc., are thoroughly indoctrinated before they begin work.

We’ve been controlling all of these people without even knowing it, so imagine how much more effective we will be when we actually put our minds to it!

I recommend reading the entire thing If you’re ever in need of a good laugh.

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Today I read a bad paper that I will be giving a bad review.  I haven’t reviewed many papers, so I am hoping that I have just had bad luck so far, but it seems that every time I agree to review a paper it has serious flaws.  While the authors were kind enough to double space their papers and include page numbers, I could have done without these things if those double-spaced and numbered pages were filled with coherent arguments, paragraphs, or even sentences.

Despite my strong beliefs that these papers were bad, I sympathize with the authors who receive my comments.  As the recipient of a number of bad reviews of my own papers, I try to couch my criticisms between statements that “I think you have some really good ideas” and “your methodological approach is interesting.”  Unfortunately, these statements probably don’t do much to lessen the blow when they are followed by “…but your poor writing prevents me from knowing for sure” and “…but seriously flawed.”

The worst thing about this is that I always have high hopes for the papers I agree to review.  The paper I read today had been sitting on my desk for a while while I worked on dissertation-related matters, so I was looking forward to the chance to read about an interesting topic that was loosely related to my own area of research.  While my hopes weren’t met, I will still feel bad when I submit my suggestion to reject the paper.  Still, I would have felt worse if the author had bothered to proofread it before sending it to total strangers.

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Every time I see a link to something from Roger Ebert’s blog I think that I need to read it more often.  A link to a recent post is no different.  In the post, Ebert discusses Bill O’Reilly and the ramifications that those like him have for cultural discourse in the US.  A few highlights:

I am not interested in discussing O’Reilly’s politics here. That would open a hornet’s nest. I am more concerned about the danger he and others like him represent to a civil and peaceful society. He sets a harmful example of acceptable public behavior. He has been an influence on the most worrying trend in the field of news: The polarization of opinion, the elevation of emotional temperature, the predictability of two of the leading cable news channels. A majority of cable news viewers now get their news slanted one way or the other by angry men. O’Reilly is not the worst offender. That would be Glenn Beck. Keith Olbermann is gaining ground. Rachel Maddow provides an admirable example for the boys of firm, passionate outrage, and is more effective for not shouting.

O’Reilly represents a worrisome attention shift in the minds of Americans. More and more of us are not interested in substance. The nation has cut back on reading. Most eighth graders can’t read a newspaper. A sizable percentage of the population doesn’t watch television news at all. They want entertainment, or “news” that is entertainment. Many of us grew up in the world where most people read a daily paper and watched network and local newscasts. “All news” radio stations and TV channels were undreamed-of. News was a destination, not a generic commodity. Journalists, the good ones anyway, had ethical standards.

Obviously, change happens for good and bad and I am not going to pretend that the cultural discourse of ten years ago represented the gold standard for all of history.  Still, the fact that so many people watch shows like these makes me fear for a future straight out of Idiocracy (which has been airing on Comedy Central lately):

At least we still have Jon Stewart:

*For the first time in a while, today’s post has a soundtrack.

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It is amazing how quickly attitudes can change with one’s condition.  While I have been fortunate to be paid relatively well as a graduate student, there were a number of times when more money would have been useful.  To keep things in perspective, I have no kids, no house (and none of the potentially high associated costs), and no car payment.  Graduate students with the same salary and even one of these three things likely have a much smaller margin for error in their monthly budgeting.  When talking to a fellow graduating student recently*, however, I remarked that it was a good thing we got paid so little because if the pay had been any higher I may have been more willing to delay the completion of my Ph.D.  He rightly pointed out that I haven’t received a single paycheck from my future employer but I’m already thinking like The Man.  It may be a good thing that there won’t be any graduate students at my SLAC, since I won’t be able to tell them how I got by in graduate school just fine on five dollars a day** and that they should be able to do the same.

*I guess I could have formatted this as a Scatterplot-esque “Overheard” post.

**Thankfully, this was not my actual graduate student salary.

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There have been a number of times that I’ve discussed the ways in which public information on the internet is not private.  If you make photos or information about yourself publicly available, you have to recognize that others might take it into consideration when forming an opinion of you.  Now, however, the city of Bozeman, MT wants to know what private information you have, too.  As noted by Ars Technica, the city’s background check waiver form includes the following request:

“Please list any and all, current personal or business websites, web pages or memberships on any Internet-based chat rooms, social clubs or forums, to include, but not limited to: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube.com, MySpace, etc.” the form reads. But Bozeman isn’t simply interested in finding out where to look for potentially embarrassing personal details; the city wants full disclosure, since the form demands username and password information for each. City employees will apparently be able to dig through any information applicants have put online, regardless of whether it’s accessible to the public.

Applicants need not worry about their potentially sensitive private information, though, because the city won’t look at “protected” things:

A local news station spoke to Bozeman’s attorney and asked about the potential for problems of this sort. The city’s answer? Trust us! “One thing that’s important for folks to understand about what we look for is none of the things that the federal constitution lists as protected things, we don’t use those,” said attorney Greg Sullivan.

An examination of private information like this is ridiculous and the recent media attention will hopefully end Bozeman’s use of this practice.  If not, your next employer may want to come to your house and take a look through your belongings before deciding whether or not you should be hired.  Who doesn’t love Big Brother?

Update: Bozeman rescinded this policy on Friday, June 20, stating:

The extent of our request for a candidate’s password, user name, or other internet information appears to have exceeded that which is acceptable to our community.  We appreciate the concern many citizens have expressed regarding this practice and apologize for the negative impact this issue is having on the City of Bozeman.

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While the prospect of preparing for 42 class sessions in a semester is daunting, it doesn’t compare to the idea of being thrown in front of a classroom full of college students less than four months after completing your own college degree.  As a new pseudonymous writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education describes:

When I was a graduate student, I participated in academic fraud. I didn’t plagiarize to get an article published or inflate my CV to get a job. I did something worse. I accepted a teaching assistantship as a doctoral student at Elite National University.

By becoming a TA there, I took on a responsibility for which I had no qualifications: teaching first-year composition courses. Even though I had a bachelor’s degree in English, I hadn’t taken an introductory writing course while I was an undergraduate. I’d never taught before or had any course work in education. I didn’t even have a master’s degree. My hometown community college wouldn’t have hired me as an adjunct, but Elite National U. put me in charge of two sections of a required class.

Students attend ENU to be taught by experts, not amateurs. In my defense I can only plead ignorance. Before I set foot on the campus, I didn’t know that teaching assistants actually taught. My undergraduate institution, Flyover College, had no TA’s. The financial-aid offer I received from ENU made no mention of specific duties, so I assumed the phrase “teaching assistant” meant assisting a teacher. Only when I arrived on the campus did I learn that I had to stand alone in front of two sections of grumpy people each semester. I asked around and discovered that other graduate students who had spent their undergraduate years at small liberal-arts colleges were also surprised to be given teaching duties as TA’s.

My sense is that this is more common in English than sociology, but that may make the situation worse.  Despite my love for sociology, if a new graduate student does a poor job of teaching Soc 101 I assume that there are fewer ramifications for the students than those in a poorly taught section of Eng 101.  I suppose that most people don’t feel completely prepared to teach for the first time, but I am glad that I had a few years of grad school behind me before I was given the responsibility of providing college students with useful knowledge.

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In preparing my syllabi for the fall semester I discovered that my three-a-week courses meet 42 times.  The prospect of coming up with forty two interesting lectures/discussions/exercises is daunting.  I suppose that a positive aspect of meeting 42 times for 50 minute sessions is that if any particular lecture/discussion/exercise turns into a disaster the students and I will have to endure it for less than an hour before getting a fresh start in the next meeting.

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