Archive for February, 2011

After over six years of teaching, I am fairly comfortable standing in front of a group of students.  This doesn’t mean that I never get nervous, but going to class is not something that I fear.  Given the fact that I stand in front of people roughly nine hours a week, I am always surprised how nervous I am before a 15-minute conference presentation.

For the most part, the skills that result in good teaching seem to be similar to those that result in good presentations.  Organization, visual aids, and humor, for example, are all things that I appreciate both in the classroom and in a hotel conference room.   The biggest difference between the two seems to be the unpredictability of the audience.  After a few class periods, I typically know what to expect from my students, while this predictability never develops with a conference audience.  First and foremost, this unpredictability includes the fact that there may or may not be an audience.  I have presented in small rooms with only a few people and in large rooms with only a few people (there may have also been a large room with lots of people once, but that was an outlier).  Second, there is the fact that the audience members may ask questions implying that your research is terrible or that they weren’t listening to the presentations.  I like to think that the former is due to the latter.  Finally, there is the slim chance that somebody in the audience will play a role in your future as a reviewer or search committee chair.  This means that even if you are in a room with three audience members, answering a stupid question in a stupid way could affect your future.

Despite these differences, I’ve been told a few times that I am a good presenter and I like to think that I’m a good teacher, so maybe the hours I spend standing in front of students each week actually do contribute to speaking in other environments.  I am not going to subject myself to watching a video of myself presenting, so I guess I’ll have to take their word for it.

Read Full Post »

Until recently, I hadn’t returned to the location of my grad school years since finishing my dissertation and starting my job.  Because I still have some good friends in the program, the trip was part reunion and part nostalgia.  As friends graduate and faculty retire, I’m sure that this feeling won’t be present in many future trips, but I was surprised to see that almost nothing on campus had changed.  I was most surprised, though, by the differences in my interactions with faculty.  I am not sure if the difference was due to my own increased self-confidence upon returning after a year and a half as a successful faculty member, a greater recognition that I was an equal on the part of faculty, or some combination of the two (perhaps it was just the fact that the last time I was there I was just coming out of the foggy dissertation netherworld…).

The most bizarre of these encounters involved a faculty member that I have had some differences with in the distant past.  In one day on campus I am fairly certain that I talked to her more than I had in the final four years of my graduate career.  This is the same faculty member that had wondered what was wrong with me in my first year.  It is possible that she may look at my job at an unknown school and think that I could have done better if I had only listened to her advice.  My hope, however, is that she looks at the fact that I have the type of success that I wanted and considers that she may have been wrong.  Regardless, interactions such as these reminded me that I have come a long way since the beginning of my graduate career.

Read Full Post »

Tenured Radical has a post today exploring the role of college sports on small campuses, particularly in light of the potential for life-altering brain damage in sports like football.  In discussing this, she brings up a point that I’ve often considered in the past year and a half:

Too often, faculty assume that athletics themselves are a waste of resources and are inherently at odds with the intellectual mission of a university.  I disagree emphatically, and I particularly dislike criticisms that single out a particular group of students as undeserving, unaccomplished and unworthy of an excellent college education.  But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at some sports more closely.  Students who are recruited for football are being brought to college to work for their education at a part-time job that is directly at odds with their ability to profit from their education over the long-term, and perhaps even in the short term.

The fact is that football teams are big, which can make them a large part of a small campus (about 6% of students at my institution are football players).  As a result of this (and the number of football players who take at least a few sociology courses), I have had a lot of football players in my courses.  For some of these students, the ability to play glorified high school football at a Division III school is a double-edged sword.  While they may not be at a liberal arts school if it weren’t for football, football takes up a lot of the time that they could devote to studying if they are to be academically successful.  This is certainly true in other sports as well, but the size of the football team and the academic profile of a typical player make these factors more visible in this case.

When considering this in the past I have typically wondered about the academic benefits vs. academic liabilities of playing football, but factoring potential brain damage into the equation does change the situation somewhat.  As TR concludes, “At the very least, we on college faculties should press for information and forums that acknowledge the reality of an alternative point of view about the place of this sport in higher education.”

Read Full Post »

The combination of a recent paper submission and a post by Tina at Scatterplot have caused me to wonder about the age-old question of “blind” peer review.  The question, of course, is whether peer reviews can truly be blind in the days of online conference information (sometimes including papers) and internet search engines.  This question came up at Orgtheory a while back, with the definitive follow-up poll suggesting that most people do look up the authors of papers they are reviewing, either before or after the review.  Obviously, older individuals may be less likely to respond to Orgtheory polls and similarly less likely to look up authors in this way, but it is still likely that a blind review will not be blind to all reviewers.

Given that blind peer review is blind for a reason, it seems that we have a problem.  Sure, a few high-profile scholars might be recognizable by their writing style, theoretical perspectives, or citations, but the vast majority of sociologists do not have that problem.  I wonder, for example, how being an unrecognized name from an unrecognized school will affect me when my reviewers attempt to take the blinders off of the peer review process.

Given these issues, it seems that we have a few options.  One is to give up on the illusion of blind reviews and sign both submissions and reviews.  Another option is to take the blinding process further by removing titles as well, since titles are likely the easiest way to search for a paper that has been presented at a conference.  Other options include preventing our conference presentations from being archived online and throwing out the whole presentation and publication model and moving to communes organized by John Galt.  I’m not sure which of these would be most effective.

Read Full Post »

It has been a while since I’ve discussed Ayn Rand, but it appears that she won’t go away.  Beyond the fact that she apparently accepted social security and medicare, a terrible-looking movie is being made based on Atlas Shrugged.  Actually, two movies are being made because the story (like the final Harry Potter and The Hobbit) just cannot be told in a single film.  On the other hand, they may have just needed two movies to contain all of the terrible dialog (“They are not getting my metal!”) and ridiculous plot conventions contained in the book.  For example, the first movie appears to focus on Taggart’s relationship with Reardon.  The fact that Taggart leaves Reardon for Galt and Reardon understands because Galt is just a better capitalist is probably saved for the second movie.  Regardless, when I first saw the trailer I thought that it was some sort of joke due to how bad it seems the movie will be.  But you don’t have to take my word for it:

Read Full Post »

I’ve talked about my own phone interview experiences in the past.  I preferred one-on-one interviews to group interviews in general and preferred group interviews where interviewers were in their own offices (so that they couldn’t share nonverbal cues with each other).  While this article at Inside Higher Ed argues that Skype interviews are preferable to conference interviews in some cases, and despite the admitted problems with phone interviews, I am fairly certain that I would prefer them to Skype interviews, which seem to be increasingly common.

While I should probably admit that I’ve never participated in a Skype interview, it seems that they promise all of the awkwardness of a phone interview with a visual aid and the potential for technical difficulties.  Does being able to see somebody’s head and shoulders give you a better idea of that person’s ability as a teacher or researcher?  I would be interested in hearing about actual (as opposed to speculative) experiences with Skype interviews.

Read Full Post »

When I speak in class I often wonder what my students choose to write down.  Sometimes I worry that if I emphasize that one thing is NOT the same as another half of them will write “one thing = another” in their notes.  The other day I found the following student notes in class:

  • Meeting with [Professor] in her office on Thursday, February 24th at 10:00am.
  • She is actually talking about statistics and I have no idea what is happening…
  • We drew some arrows
  • Remember ice cream and murder rates

Those four lines were all that the student wrote down.  The second line sounds like a text while the third reinforces the idea that the student has no idea what is going on and the final line reminds me of Memento (remember Sammy Jenkis…).

Given that these notes indicated they were for a senior seminar I can only hope that the student in question has better note-taking abilities than he or she chose to utilize on this day.  The alternative, that this student has made it through nearly four years of college taking notes like these, is too embarrassing to think about as a college professor.

Read Full Post »

This semester I am teaching a class that relies heavily on student discussion, which has led me to believe that successfully leading discussion-based classes is an art form.  Obviously, I can’t put words into my students’ mouths, so leading discussions is less like painting than conducting an orchestra.  Audience members see somebody standing and waving his or her arms around, but I assume that it involves quite a bit more than that in an effort to get the best out of each orchestra member.  Aside from the need for students to actually come to class prepared, the danger in relying on class discussion is that students, like me at a symphony, might think that the instructor is not actually doing anything.  In practice, I’ve found that there are a number of factors that need to be balanced in leading successful discussions.

First, and most difficult on a daily basis, is controlling time.  A talkative class could spend an entire period covering half of the desired material while a reluctant class could move through an hour’s worth of topics in 25 minutes.  As an instructor you sometimes need to cut off interesting discussions when students have gotten what you want out of them.  On the other hand, you sometimes need to extend conversations by giving reticent students time to free write or brainstorm in small groups.

Second, and just as difficult but over a longer period of time, is allowing students to see the way that their daily discussions lead to something bigger than you could accomplish through lecture alone.  In my current course, this involves small daily discussions that build on each other as the semester progresses.  Along the way I will give plenty of signposts to demonstrate where we were earlier in the semester compared to our current location.

A third concern is related to exams.  When writing exams I tend to rely on information that was clearly presented in class (by me) so that students who were paying attention and taking notes will have the necessary information.  Students may take a variety of interpretations away from a class discussion, though, and each is likely to remember different highlights.  I try to alleviate this by providing summaries during discussions and at the end of class but I still find myself relying more on information from course readings in discussion-based courses.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is different than some of my other exams.

At this early point in my career I have not yet had a student accuse me of avoiding my duties by relying on class discussions.  I hope that my students, like people who actually know something about the symphony, will recognize that I’m doing more than waving my arms around.

Read Full Post »

A recent double post by Nathan Palmer at Scatterplot and The Sociology Source (which shows up in my RSS reader as “Blog”) tackles the issue of making social facts understandable for students.  As Palmer states:

I tell my class to imagine that I have just handed back their graded tests for them to review. I tell them that the class average was a 72%. This, I tell them, is an empirical social fact. The trend or in this case the average for the entire class was 72%.

Then I ask them, “would it make sense if one of you told me ‘the average can’t be a 72% because I got a 96% on my test’?” They laugh at the ridiculousness of this question. “Well when I present to you empirical social facts and you say to me ‘well I know this one guy who doesn’t do what your research says’ or ‘well that’s not true in my experience, so your social fact must be wrong’ you are basically arguing that because you got a 96% the class average can’t be a 72%” Many heads nodding in unison. They get it.

This seems like an excellent way to make this point, given the number of students who have told me that research findings aren’t “true” because they had different experiences.  It reminded me, however, of something else I encountered recently – former sociology students who have forgotten what they learned about social life as a result of the dreaded “real world.”

It seems that the social facts we teach students can be overcome by a few years of job experience.  Former sociology students who gained an in-depth understanding of the long-standing discrimination against blacks, for example, may claim that they are the victims of “reverse discrimination” when they can’t find a job in a recession.  Similarly, knowledge of the burden of the second shift may be overcome by a man who finds that his wife will do the laundry herself if he waits long enough.

While students in our classrooms seem to grasp the concepts we teach, these concepts are often counter to the stereotypical norms of our society.  Once they get it, the larger question becomes how we can get them to keep it.

Read Full Post »

Reading job market forums it is clear that one of the most frustrating aspects of the job market is the waiting.  Even successful candidates must submit applications and then wait, receive requests for more materials and then wait, participate in telephone interviews and then wait, participate in campus interviews and then wait.  In the early stages of the job market I found that being a forgetful applicant worked for me, by which I mean that I paid no attention to the status of a school on the Wiki after I had applied.  In the later stages, after phone interviews and especially after campus interviews, this approach is much more difficult.  The waiting, and the reasons for the waiting, are part of the mystery of the job market.  A recent article at The Chronicle gives some insight into the other side of the waiting game and indicates that candidates often are not the only ones who feel like they are blowing in the wind waiting for answers.

As the author states:

It is difficult for folks who are external to the inner workings of searches to understand just how complicated things are in the final stages of a search. Let’s say a committee has decided to invite two candidates to campus and the position is greenlighted for both interviews. The calendaring person must then poll to see when everyone in the department will be in town and match those dates with the dates when the candidates are also available.

Throw out days that just don’t work for anyone (large events or even local festivals that make logistics more difficult), and everyone is essentially fighting over the 24 to 28 days that are reasonably available. Now, heaven forbid that the latest Snowzilla storm or wave of the Porcupine Flu strikes and forces rearrangements of dates. Or that Candidate 1 for the position receives an offer elsewhere and pulls out of the search, requiring the committee to drop to Candidate 3, who must now visit campus two or three weeks after the other candidate, whose visit was already scheduled and who must then wait for the conclusion of the department’s deliberations.

A commenter shares the frustration from the department’s standpoint:

More maddening for me, as one who has chaired several searches, is the “after the interview” wait. We on the committee have done the hard work above of finding the times, making travel arrangements, booking the times with the dean’s and provost’s office, sending out announcements, on and on. . .only to find the paperwork stuck on someone’s office, most frequently the office of Social Equity, who needs to approve the search was compliant with appropriate rules. Once it clears, then the offer can be made (which can only come from the provost, who is not in the same hurry that you are on the committee). Then a negotiation begins with the candidate, which can take weeks (as ours just did the last month or so). All this goes on without the search committee in the loop, so we are also twisting in the wind. (We know that the other candidates out there are frustrated but we cannot communicate with them, since the search is not officially closed.)

I think that all of these factors lead to the sorts of fuzzy dates that frustrate candidates.  When a committee says they will be deciding which candidates to invite to campus “soon,” that could be a day or it could be a week (or more).  The challenges that departments and administrators face also lead to false hope or dejection via wiki updates.  I wrote off a school that I had been particularly interested in after seeing that they had scheduled phone interviews on the wiki.  A few weeks later I received a call for a phone interview at the same school and was invited for a campus visit within hours of the phone interview.

Although I haven’t yet been on the other side of the hiring process, I suspect that another factor in these vague dates is that departments want candidates to think that they are the first choice even if they are not.  When I interviewed for my current job I was told that bureaucratic holdups may delay the job offer such that it could take place in a few days or a few weeks.  After being hired I learned that this statement was made so that if the job was offered to somebody else and that person declined, it could be offered to me and I would be none the wiser about the previous offer.  Thankfully, I received the job offer within a few days.  While I negotiated my contract, however, the other finalists (and even the department, since I negotiated with the provost) were likely left blowing in the wind.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »