Archive for April, 2010

From a Facebook friend’s status update:  “5 more days of teaching then 115 days off…bitches!”

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Despite Hollywood’s predilection for outlandish visions of the future, I predict that the robots will win by doing something simple like disrupting the transmission of e-mail.  My campus e-mail has not worked since last night and even without an impending robot onslaught it still feels like a matter of life and death.

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As noted before, one of the most daunting aspects of my transition from poorly-paid graduate student to acceptably-paid assistant professor has been that there is no longer anything preventing my wife and I from looking at houses and thinking seriously about when we want to increase the size of our family.  In preparation for incurring a debt greater than my life’s income, we have both purchased the recommended amount of term life insurance.  The process goes something like this:

Corporation:  Hello, sir, how are you today?

Me:  It’s Dr. sir, and I am generally okay but not well enough to prevent the fear that I may die in the next thirty years.

Corporation:  Die?  You look like a healthy fellow.  In fact, I am willing to bet that you will not die in the next thirty years.

Me:  Interesting… What are you willing to wager?

Corporation:  I will wager hundreds of thousands of dollars that you will not die in the next thirty years, and because I’m so sure that you won’t die I will give you forty to one odds!

Me:  So let me get this straight: I will wager thousands of dollars over the course of thirty years that I will die – really only hundreds of dollars a year – and you will wager hundreds of thousands of dollars that I won’t?

Corporation:  Yes, that is correct.

Me:  What happens at the end of the thirty years?

Corporation:  Well, since you think you’ll be dead by then, if you want to continue our agreement past thirty years it will cost you more for a single year than in the entire thirty years combined.  Otherwise, I’ll keep your money because you will have lost the bet and you will have to live with the fact that you’re a bad gambler.

Me:  But you’ll pay me if I die within the thirty years?

Corporation:  Well, I’ll pay somebody, but you’ll be dead.

Me:  So I’m a loser either way?

Corporation: Right.

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As a professor, I recognize that students have all kinds of lives outside of the classroom that I almost never see.  They have parents, siblings, romantic partners, stupid friends, cell phone bills, and to-do lists.  Most of the time I am happy to get a glimpse of what my students are like outside of the classroom but a small part of me dies each time I find out that an intelligent, thoughtful student is a smoker.  I have smoked a few cigarettes in my lifetime but they never did anything for me other than make me cough.  Apparently, the fact that their addictive quality does not kick in immediately prevents me from seeing their benefit.  As a result, it is hard for me to reconcile “intelligent and thoughtful” with “willing to pay somebody to slowly kill me.”  So students, if your own health is not motivation enough to quit, maybe you can do it for the little part of me that you are killing when you stand outside of a campus building and light up.

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A friend of mine recently bemoaned what he perceived as a lack of school spirit at his southern SLAC.  One sign that he cited is the fact that student apparel featuring the logos of the nearest big state school vastly outnumbers apparel featuring his own school.  Since he mentioned this I have paid closer attention to the clothing of my students and noted that this is not the case on my campus.  While I occasionally see students wearing apparel from a larger state school, this is the exception.  Much more common is clothing depicting the name or logo of my own institution, and the t-shirts of sorority members add to the relatively high percentage of clothing that fits into the “school spirit” category.

While I don’t perceive a problem among the students, the faculty in general are a different matter.  There seems to be a general reluctance among faculty to participate in things beyond their teaching/research/service duties.  Obviously, those duties keep them busy, but I would still like to see the number of poorly-attended discussions about teaching methods decrease.  Beyond the general amount of work to be done, I place some of the blame on the decentralized nature of faculty living.  When applying for jobs at SLACs, I imagined myself living in an isolated town of 25,000, hoping that a mall was within a half hour’s drive.  Thankfully, this is not the case, but I think that the fact that my school is within reach of a large number of other towns and cities prevents the sorts of connections that faculty can have to a school when they live and work in the same area.  In order to attend an evening or weekend event, for example, many faculty members would have to make a two-hour round trip.  For a one or two hour event, this much travel is understandably hard to justify.

Unfortunately, this situation is unlikely to change, but as somebody who is eager to dig in to this place and make it my home, a stronger sense of community would go a long way.

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At some schools, the biggest transition for new faculty is probably related to learning the ins and outs of departmental politics.  Luckily, my own department does not have much in the way of politics.  I have, however, noted some interesting campus politics.  During a recent conversation about student evaluations I found myself with several faculty members from the humanities who appear to have an inherent distrust of the process.

Obviously, lots of people dislike evaluations, but I’ve never talked to anybody who distrusts them like these professors from the humanities.  The fact is, I’ve always approached student evaluations from the stand point of the social sciences.  As such, evaluations are one way of collecting data about the ever-elusive student satisfaction.  As a sociologist, I’ve never questioned whether surveys were a valid method of data collection.  While survey methods are not perfect, they do reflect something about students’ reactions to what we do in the classroom, even if that something is not what we intended to measure.  This allows us to compare the reactions of our most recent students to those in the past using a standardized set of questions.

In contrast to the attitudes toward surveys that I developed in years of sociology courses, my colleagues in the humanities likely spent their graduate school days wrestling with debates about what constitutes a text.  For them, bubble sheets and numeric printouts are a mysterious entity that others (such as the members of the administration who have backgrounds in the social sciences) can manipulate to suit their needs.  While I strongly believe that this distrust is misplaced, this glimpse into campus politics was eye opening.

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Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority rank among the most controversial social science research projects.  Despite (or because of) this, people are always concocting new ways to push his experiments further.  (Milgram himself seems to have started this trend – his 1974 book documents 19 variations on his initial study.)  The latest in this line of ethically-questionable research is a French documentary that repurposes Milgram’s work as a game show in order to see how far contestants will go at the behest of a host and audience.  The answer?  Most of them went all the way to the maximum voltage, at which point the actor “receiving” the shocks slumped over, apparently dead, with the host exclaiming, “And you’ve won!”  Here is a fair and balanced clip:

Obviously, there are ethical implications of this but the larger implication is the potential reward for doing ethically questionable research.  In this case, the producer has received incredible amounts of publicity.  Milgram, Zimbardo, and Humphreys, of course, are rewarded every time we introduce their work to a new generation of students.

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When I was on the job market, I had an interview at a school that was ranked much higher than the school at which I accepted a position.  Because the school was also in a less-desirable location I thought at the time that if I had received an offer I would have had a difficult choice between that school and my current employer.  Of course, I didn’t have to make that decision but I did wonder about the candidate who was offered the job.  In the fall I checked the websites of a few schools that had interviewed me in an effort to see who had eventually been hired but none of them had been updated.

I had forgotten about this curiosity until a few days ago when something reminded me of a faculty member at one of those schools and I returned to the websites to look again.  Regarding the position at the highly-ranked school all I can say is that I apparently never needed to worry about making a choice because the person that was hired has qualifications that far exceed my own, to the point that I am not sure why I was interviewed at all.  Of course, even at a highly-ranked SLAC there is the potential worry on the part of hiring committees that a promising candidate will accept the job only to leave after a few years and continued success, but the gulf between my modest C.V. and that of this other person causes me to question whether they would have offered me the job even in the event that all other candidates declined.

In the end, I suppose that there are two ways to look at this situation.  The first is that I never had a chance (all the more reason not to spend time worrying about things that you cannot control while on the job market).  The second is that my meeting with this department at the ASA Employment Service and my relatively interesting dissertation topic carried me much farther than I expected them to.  Of course, the most charismatic person in the world is no match for a killer C.V.

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I wanted Butler’s men’s basketball team to win last night’s national championship as badly as I’ve ever wanted a team that I actually follow to win a championship.  Unfortunately, that did not happen.  Regardless of the outcome, last night’s game is viewed as an anomaly because of the academic success of players on both teams (as the announcers pointed out, each year there are 15 academic all-Americans and two of them play for Butler).  Tenured Radical has some interesting thoughts on the false binary relationship between athletics and academics:

Like so many things about university life, these tradeoffs are cynical and unnecessary: it is that old problem of assuming that things are as they seem. We talk about the “culture” of big time sports, as if we were anthropologists in The Land That Time Forgot, rather than looking at how we might change programs where the athletes are not doing college level work and are spending their spare time wreaking havoc on other students. Furthermore, if you look at schools that have a low graduation rate for their big budget teams, you often see overall low graduation rates, and students not able to get into the classes they need to attain the BA in four years. I remember a few years back when it was revealed that a Big Southern Football Power had a graduation rate of well under 10% for its national championship football team, but guess what? The university as a whole was under 40% for a BA in six years. And the team has not repeated this performance either, as its star players drifted off campus, mostly to the various forms of unemployment you are vulnerable to without an education.

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Happy iPad day

No, I am not buying one, but I do think that it has a future.  Incidentally, the fact that it is iPad day also makes it Phil Dunphy’s birthday.  Happy birthday, Phil.

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