Archive for September, 2009

Interview season is quickly approaching for the five schools that are hiring sociologists this year.  If you are fortunate enough to land one of these interviews, you don’t want to blow your opportunity by doing something stupid while eating a meal.  I always thought this was the kind of thing that graduate programs told their students, but given that others I know had vastly different graduate school experiences, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to pass this sort of information along.  With this in mind, a recent Inside Higher Ed post has some helpful advice about what to do (and not to do) while eating with potential colleagues.  Some highlights:

Choose an item priced in the middle range of the menu offerings. You need not order the least expensive, but do not order the most expensive item. Accept menu items “as is.” Refrain from asking for substitutions or asking that ingredients be excluded.

If you choose to drink any kind of alcohol, be sure to drink slowly — and be mindful of your drinking. Have a glass of water along with your beer, wine, or mixed drink. Given the circumstances of interviewing, remember that you may be tired, possibly hungry, and perhaps nervous — all factors that have implications for consuming alcohol.

To this I would add not to eat anything complicated (crab legs) or likely to fling sauce on your interview attire (spaghetti).  In the case of alcohol, the advice I’ve received is to let others order first and follow their lead.  You do not want to be the only person at the table ordering alcohol, but if somebody orders a bottle of wine for the table there is some social pressure to join in.  At one of my interviews last year there was about a glass worth of wine left over at the end of the meal and I was encouraged to take it with me to my hotel to unwind before the next day’s interviewing.  I did.

Even more important than what you eat and drink is this piece of advice:

As a job candidate, you will be focused on wanting to make a good impression and getting the offer. However, remember that you too are conducting an interview. Sharing a meal with prospective colleagues offers an opportunity for you to consider if you want to work with them. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What is their rapport?
  • Are they respectful of each other?
  • Do they seem to get along well?
  • Are they collegial?
  • These are people you might be working with closely for many years. They need not become your close friends, but you do want to have a sense of working successfully with them as colleagues.


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    One of the dangers of assigning a book that has been turned into a movie is that students will think they can watch the movie instead of doing the reading.

    One of the pleasures of assigning a book that has been turned into a movie is asking students questions about characters and events that did not happen in the book and then letting them know that I was not, in fact, born yesterday.*

    *The pleasure gained from this experience is just enough to make me overlook the fact that it runs counter to my preferred way of dealing with problems.

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    Eighty percent of students in my introduction to sociology course this semester are freshmen.  I’ve taught classes with freshmen plenty of times, but there were lots of sophomores, juniors, and seniors to dilute the freshmenness of them.  So far this semester it has been extremely evident that these students have never experienced college life.  This is evident in their use of textese, it is evident in their time management skills, and it is evident in their talking during class.  Obviously, a lot of talking in my courses is sanctioned but I have had constant problems with students talking to each other instead of paying attention or sharing their opinions with their classmates.

    When this happens, my first inclination is to call them out.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that this helps anybody but me.  Long ago I did some observations in an alternative high school and marveled at the way that students who weren’t paying attention were asked questions that brought them back into the discussion rather than alienating them.  This is the model I have tried to follow when teaching my own courses.  When these tactics fail, I talk to students after class or during a group exercise and ask them to “do me a favor” and stop talking.  This usually works and I think students appreciate that I did not call them out in front of their classmates.

    These tactics did not work this semester.

    Because of the freshmenness of these students, I feel that one of my jobs is to school them about college life.  To this end I spent ten minutes at the beginning of a recent class talking about the financial costs of attending a private college and the fact that students who talk are wasting the money of those around them.  I also talked about the fact that college students, unlike high school students, have the choice to stay home.  I concluded by telling them that speaking out of turn, whether they are ignoring me or a classmate, will lead to an invitation to leave the classroom.  We’ll see how it goes.

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    I asked for it.

    While shadowing a liberal arts professor as a graduate student, I attended a faculty meeting.  I don’t mean a departmental faculty meeting, I mean a meeting of the entire faculty.  At the time, the fact that these professors had a direct say in the organization of their school had a big impact on me.  Sure, faculty at big schools have a say in how their schools are run, but they don’t typically have this kind of direct influence.  This experience was one of the things that I talked about in interviews while on the job market, including the school at which I am now employed.

    Now I’ve experienced a faculty meeting at my new institution and I don’t think I’d mind an indirect influence after all.  It doesn’t help that the first meeting of the semester dealt with proposed curriculum changes that a number of departments were not happy with.  Hopefully, this made the meeting more contentious than it would have otherwise been.

    If there is a bright side to this experience (aside from having a direct say in the decisions that will affect my future) it is that the contentious nature of the meeting made some of the school’s stronger personalities evident, which will be helpful in future interactions.  On a small campus, it is hard to avoid these people even if they are in different departments.

    I asked for it.

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    I’ve been teaching college students for five years and in this time I have encountered a lot of students who were bad writers.  I’m reminded of this as I sit in front of a pile of student essays, many of which are lacking in basic spelling, grammar, and sentence structure.  I have encountered at least two essays that include the textese word “u.”

    A recent post on the Chronicle website details some of the difficulties of dealing with student writing, including this example:

    During a conference with another student, “Belinda,” I mentioned the subject of childhood reading. “Books are great,” Belinda declared. “Nancy Drew mysteries, Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka. I love them all.”

    “Good,” I said. “Now you need to do what the authors of those books did.”

    “What’s that?”

    “Master the basics of the sentence,” I said.

    Belinda turned huffy. “But my mother teaches English.”

    Being used to spontaneous outbursts of illogic from students, I replied politely, “Perhaps she can help you learn how to create sentences properly.”

    Belinda changed tactics. She leaned forward and asked, almost conspiratorially, “What do I really need to do to get an A?”

    Acting flirtatious may have gotten her high grades in high school, but I said, “You need to clear up comma splices and eliminate sentence fragments.”

    Belinda waved one hand dismissively and laughed. “That’s what my professor said last semester.”

    Apparently she expected a new instructor to be more original in evaluating the quality of her work.

    I walked Belinda through my former professor’s tried-and-true worksheets about fragments and commas, but her next paper displayed the same problems that her previous ones had. This flummoxed me. Graduate students in English write without having to think about the rules; in fact, grad students may not be able to explain the rules or even diagram a sentence, since they intuit what to do when they write. Belinda did not share that gift, nor did a number of other freshmen.

    Unfortunately, there are no solutions (yet… this is the second part of a series so I hope that the author will include some suggestions to help deal with these issues eventually).  If the experiences of this person, who was a graduate student teaching English composition, are indicative of those who teach English composition in general, this goes a long way to explain the poor writing abilities of my own students.  Of course, if basic improvements can be made to the writing abilities of freshmen in mandatory composition courses, those like me who devote large amounts of time in each course to the improvement of student writing may be able to spend that time focusing on the content of student essays rather than the mechanics.

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    The title of this post is one of the more gentle quotes compiled from Twitter on this site following Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards Sunday night.  For those unfamiliar with the situation (though I recently saw this story on CNN, so if you’re reading this you’re probably familiar), Taylor Swift won the award for Best Female Video and Kanye West took the stage to say that Beyonce’s video for “Single Ladies” was one of the best of all time.  Apologies followed, but the story continues to be told.

    Entertainment Weekly, of all places, does a good job of examining the racial implications of this situation:

    Then there’s the other context underlying this story: namely, race. I want to make it 100 percent clear that I am absolutely not accusing everyone who’s criticized Kanye’s VMAs conduct of having racist motivations. That would be ridiculous, not to mention hypocritical. But racism is a undeniable part of this controversy. Not just from the Twitterers and blog commenters whose first instinct has been to spew truly vile racial slurs in Kanye’s direction. (Blogger Harry Allen has compiled some of the most disgusting examples; warning, lots of NSFW language.) I’m talking, too, about all the characterizations of Taylor Swift as a victim of some awful crime. When a black man speaks rudely in the presence of a younger white woman — and that’s all Kanye really did — and it gets described as an “attack” or a “violation” or an “assault,” you bet that’s playing into centuries of racist tropes. When a black man does something impolite, making no reference whatsoever to race, and he immediately gets crucified for “hating white people” or “reverse racism,” that itself is a form of racism. Here’s a question for those who use this line: VMAs host Russell Brand made some pretty gross jokes about Katy Perry and Lady Gaga during the broadcast. Does he hate white people, too?

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    For the first time since early January, somebody has paid me.  I am glad that the summer without pay is finally over.  The most interesting thing is that the taxes withheld from my current paycheck are about 90% of my take-home pay as a graduate student.

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    With the beginning of the school year it has been easy to forget that a year ago I was in a much different situation.  For everybody who is on the job market (or who is still trying to figure out what happened on last year’s job market), this post gives an interesting look inside a search committee.  While the position in question is for a philosophy department, a number of the factors that the committee deals with (high numbers of applicants, evaluating job talks) will be similar across departments, though the numbers of applications are likely higher because of the school’s location in New York City.

    Most interesting, I thought, was this paragraph:

    How did we prune our field from 637 to 27? An important selection criterion was holding a Ph.D. from a good university. Members of our department earned their Ph.D.s at Columbia, Harvard, Oxford, and University of London. Additionally, City College is known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat,” with distinguished alumni that include nine Nobel Laureates, more than any other public institution in America. Our faculty members are expected to live up to this legacy.

    I am leery of any school that describes itself as “the [insert higher-profile school] of the [insert different group or geographic location]” but it is interesting how much a Ph.D. from a “good university” seemed to matter.  Based on this list, the top programs in philosophy seem to correspond to schools that the general public would think of as “good,” but I’m guessing that this is not the case in all disciplines.  I would be particularly interested to see if departments at schools that think of themselves as “the Stansbury of the East” (remember how bad Jessie Spano wanted to go to Stansbury?) feel pressure to hire from schools with impressive names even if they don’t have particularly impressive programs in a given area.

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    Insight into student lives

    Sometimes it is easy to forget that, outside of class, students are regular people going about their regular lives.  I was reminded of this today when I saw the following list crossed out on the back of a student’s quiz:

    Go to bank
    Case of water
    American cheese

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    I was recently talking to my students about the potential ways that technology will affect today’s children as they grow up.  Following on Anomie’s post about her daughter’s cyberself development, I am extremely interested in seeing how these things play out (maybe this is due to the presence of my own pseudonymous cyber identity).  The other day I came across a post on a gaming website examining digital identities and self reflection:

    Although some use their real names and conceal nothing about themselves, most of us rely on constructed personas when we participate in online games. For the past 12 years, I’ve used the moniker “Clifford” while gaming. Truth be told, I have no idea where the name came from. Few of my real-life friends are aware of my alter-ego, while I have a bevy of online and community friends who exclusively know me as Clifford.

    I wouldn’t say that I live two disparate lifestyles, but there seems to be a distinct disassociation between Omar Yusuf and Clifford.

    So who am I — Clifford or Omar?

    In an essay written in 1995, digital-technology theorist Howard Rheingold made the claim that “the latest computer-mediated communications media seem to dissolve boundaries of identity.”

    What Rheingold means is that under the auspices of the Internet, the attributes which characterize our “identity” are often absent. The vocal and gestural queues that we use no longer exist. Our sense of humor is less palpable. Our values and ethical standards become irrelevant in-game. It is both impossible and impractical to try and socialize on the internet in the same way we socialize in real-life. In that vein, online gamers often allow avatars, handles and profile summaries to represent them while gaming online.

    This brings us to a pivotal question; are online identities absolutely necessary?

    I for one believe they are. Although my Steam account profile is relatively honest when compared to those of my fellow online gamers, I don’t normally provide my name to those who ask. For some reason, like most gamers, I’m reluctant to engage in candid interpersonal discussion while online. Handles and screen names provide a security blanket that we can hide behind.

    So do I use Clifford as a security blanket in order to free myself from judgment and insult, or is the name completely arbitrary and meaningless?

    Richard Coyne, a professor of architectural computing at the University of Edinburgh, would disagree. He claims that the “security blanket” turns out to be more of a mask. The professor argues that while the mask hides the gamer’s true identity, it’s not completely secure because it often reveals details about who lies behind the mask.

    Maybe there is something more to this security blanket/mask distinction.  An online persona such as Omar’s may be acting as a security blanket to the extent that it protects him from potential prejudgments based on his name (Clifford does not seem to have the racial or ethnic overtones that a name like Omar Yusuf does).  I also wonder if gaming identities are typically distinct from other online identities (such as blogging or commenting in online forums).  Outside of my posts on this blog, I actually have a fairly stable online persona in the form of variations on a single user name that I use for nearly all of my online interactions, despite the fact that those interactions do not overlap.  Maybe the real question is whether I am using these online identities to create security blankets or masks.  I suspect it is a little bit of each.

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