Archive for June, 2011

I have said before that technology itself does not make somebody a good or bad teacher but there are ways that we can use technology to our advantage.  PowerPoint presentations, for example, prevent my students from having to deal with my terrible handwriting.  Despite the ubiquity of PowerPoint, though, I am surprised how often I attend class sessions or presentations where somebody is constantly running back and forth from the computer to the rest of the space in order to advance to the next slide or image.  Even worse, I think, is when the presenter has somebody sitting next to the computer to advance the slides, since this situation usually results in at least a few awkward transitions that are either too early or too late.  All of these could be prevented by the purchase of one of these.

The reason for the ubiquity of PowerPoint and the lack of presentation tools may be the cost of the presenters.  $35 seems steep, especially for graduate students, but the difference between teaching without one and teaching with one is huge.  Without, instructors have a limited range of motion because they can never go too far from the computer.  With, instructors can be anywhere in the classroom when moving through whatever they are presenting.  The freedom to move around the classroom actually affected the way I felt when teaching, making me wish I hadn’t taught for several semesters without one.  Even if instructors cannot purchase a presenter for personal use, colleges and universities should be able to provide themas part of the setup for presentations.  One of these presenters would also be useful if provided at conferences (though this may be too much to ask when conference organizers can’t even ensure that a laptop will be provided).


A clicker has been the best thing I ever bought for my teaching and presentations.

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Because I look at a lot of student writing, I sometimes think of things like grammar and punctuation.  Other times, journal editors bring things to my attention (like the fact that there should only be one space between sentences – though I can’t resist using two when writing).  A relatively recent Slate article explored the use of logical punctuation, which seems to be arising out of the same common-usage patterns that lead to a singular “they.”  Logical punctuation is the placement of punctuation outside of quotation marks, even in situations where the placement does not affect the meaning.  While I would not include a question mark in a quotation that did not originally include it, then, logical punctuation suggests that commas and periods don’t belong inside the quotation marks, either.

It is easy for me to get behind something like a singular “they” because it makes practical sense.  Despite the fact that it also seems practical, I am hesitant about logical punctuation for two reasons included in the article:

If it seems hard or even impossible to defend the American way on the merits, that’s probably because it emerged from aesthetic, not logical, considerations. According to Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, it was instituted in the early days of the Republic in order “to improve the appearance of the text. A comma or period that follows a closing quotation mark appears to hang off by itself and creates a gap in the line (since the space over the mark combines with the following word space).” I don’t doubt Feal, but the appearance argument doesn’t carry much heft today; more to the point is that we are simply accustomed to the style.

Basically, I think that logical punctuation is ugly.  I prefer “they.” to “they”.  That period outside of the quotation marks looks so far from the word that ends the sentence, while I guess I am used to seeing space between words and the quotation marks themselves.  Like putting one space after sentences, I don’t see myself taking up logical punctuation any time soon.  It would, however, save me a lot of time when grading student papers, since they seem to use it exclusively.

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A few years ago I posted some sexist ads that I came across on a car site.  Interestingly, that post is my most-viewed, largely because it seems to show up on web searches ranging from “matchbox” to “big women.”  Anyhow, I recently came across a few ads that seem to be using some brand of sex appeal that I don’t understand to sell Kias in Brazil.  In addition to being, as Inside Line notes, “creepy,” these ads are also award winners!  The point of the ads seems to be that the Kia Sportage is available with dual-zone climate control (a relatively common feature allowing the driver and passenger to select different temperatures), but they are definitely using provocative images to draw attention to this fact (at least to the extent that anybody notices the small print at the bottom of the ads mentioning this feature).  See for yourself:

Does temperature affect age?

The second panel reminds me of the Aeon Flux cartoon.

Do you want to buy a Kia?

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Given my former statement that instructors are letting students off the hook for their failure to complete assigned readings, I have tried to hold students to higher standards when grading.  This is especially true for writing assignments.  This includes requiring students to have things like thesis statements that they support with relevant examples.  In one course, I required students to write brief summaries of some topic that had stood out to them during the previous section of the course, asking them to combine the information in their readings to look at something from a different perspective.  These papers were okay at best.

Although there was some improvement as the semester went on, students seemed nearly incapable of writing an original thesis statement and supporting that statement with data.  While I am not sure why this is the case, I was interested in on particular comment on a student’s course evaluation:  “Dr. Smith asked us to write summary papers after each unit.  When he graded the first papers, he graded them as persuasive essays, expecting an argument and support in the papers.  This made it difficult to write the papers.”  Based on this sentence, I’m not sure what exactly made the papers difficult to write (the combination of summary and argument? conflicting instructions and grading?) but I was struck by the use of the term “persuasive essays.”  To me, all essays should be persuasive.  This student, however, considers persuasive essays to be a particular type of writing that is separate from most writing.  In future classes I’m going to explore this language further to see if I can help students bridge the gap between persuasive essays and essays.

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While I realize that the article I link to below is ancient in internet years, it fits with the recent theme of tenure reviews.  Also, it is so old that it is likely new for many who, like me, are just starting out in this process.  At any rate, you may be aware of some of the exploits of Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., which included running from boulders and looking for tin cups but did not, whatever anybody tells you, include hiding in a refrigerator during nuclear testing or interacting with extraterrestrials.  At any rate, you may have wondered what happened to him after the things that caused Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to make biographical movies about him.  Sadly, McSweeney’s has uncovered the results of his tenure review and they were not positive.  Here are a few highlights:

Demonstrates suitable experience and expertise in chosen field:

The committee concurred that Dr. Jones does seem to possess a nearly superhuman breadth of linguistic knowledge and an uncanny familiarity with the history and material culture of the occult. However, his understanding and practice of archaeology gave the committee the greatest cause for alarm. Criticisms of Dr. Jones ranged from “possessing a perceptible methodological deficiency” to “practicing archaeology with a complete lack of, disregard for, and colossal ignorance of current methodology, theory, and ethics” to “unabashed grave-robbing.” Given such appraisals, perhaps it isn’t surprising to learn that several Central and South American countries recently assembled to enact legislation aimed at permanently prohibiting his entry.

Demonstrates successful record in undergraduate and graduate teaching:

In his nine years with the department, Dr. Jones has failed to complete even one uninterrupted semester of instruction. In fact, he hasn’t been in attendance for more than four consecutive weeks since he was hired. Departmental records indicate Dr. Jones has taken more sabbaticals, sick time, personal days, conference allotments, and temporary leaves than all the other members of the department combined.

The lone student representative on the committee wished to convey that, besides being an exceptional instructor, a compassionate mentor, and an unparalleled gentleman, Dr. Jones was extraordinarily receptive to the female student body during and after the transition to a coeducational system at the college. However, his timeliness in grading and returning assignments was a concern.

The story is not entirely a sad one, however, as shortly after his dismissal Jones was hired by a top research university, where his notoriety helped attract affluent students who wanted to study with him despite the fact that his teaching load was 0-0.  Years later, faced with pressure from a new university president, it is said that he took on a young British graduate student by the name of Lara Croft (who may or may not have been a Russian spy known as Evelyn Salt).

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Given the emphasis that academics place on tenure, I assume that most colleges and universities have some sort of review for junior faculty before the one that determines whether they will be asked to pack their things and leave.  Some schools review junior faculty in their third year while others, such as my own, review junior faculty in their second and fourth years before the tenure review in their sixth year (assuming that they were not given credit for years at another institution and that they do not stop the tenure clock along the way). Of course, the materials for these reviews are often due during the academic year, so they are more like 1.5, 2.5, or 3.5-year reviews.  Regardless of the time frame, they are intended to give junior faculty members feedback on things they could/should/must improve and, in some cases, provide them with time to start seeking employment elsewhere.

Having recently completed my own two-year review, I have several thoughts.  The first is that I am glad to have these reviews, despite the amount of work involved in preparing materials for them.  I am also glad to have two pre-tenure reviews instead of one.  Given the uncertainty surrounding tenure expectations at any given institution it is nice to get some feedback along the way.  My second thought is that it is hard to believe I have already completed two years as a faculty member.  Beyond the usual realization that time goes so fast, this puts the tenure clock itself in perspective.  I simply have not had much time in the past two years to establish myself as a scholar, though I am making progress in that area.  Even with a slightly lower teaching load it is hard to imagine my output being much higher.  The pre-tenure reviews, as a result, are crucial for letting me know whether this is acceptable for faculty members at my institution.

My final thought on the process is that it was anticlimactic.  While I have never been led to believe I was doing something wrong, I was eager to hear what the committee thought I needed to improve.  Instead of setting some goals for me, though, they basically said “keep up the good work.”  Obviously, I am happy with that message, but it seems that it will be hard to show improvement when it is time for subsequent reviews.  For example, I doubt that it is wise to start a tenure application with the following statement: “Dear Tenure Committee, Because I was so awesome when you hired me and I have not changed my approach to teaching, research, or service, I am still awesome today and, thus, would like to receive tenure so that I may remain awesome at this institution until such time as conceptions of awesomeness have changed, at which point I intend to remain at this institution at least a decade longer to remind new faculty what awesomeness looked like at the turn of the century.”  On the other hand, could tenure really be denied based solely on this type of jackassery?  If anybody wants to try it, let me know how it goes.

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It has been a while since I’ve talked about issues of digital identity, but technological advances also present us with the possibility that our analog identities will be captured and shared with the world.  Some, like Anthony Weiner, find their private communications are being spread far beyond their intended targets, but I am more interested in public behaviors.  The question of whether public behaviors can be recorded by researchers without consent has long been a part of methodological debates, but today this goes far beyond whether somebody will describe our behaviors in seldom-read books or journal articles.

The Society Pages recently asked whether Americans have the right to conduct citizen surveillance, such as recording conversations with police officers during traffic stops (and then risking injury to highlight the problems with the officer’s directions).  The police officer, though, was aware that he was being recorded.  Others are unaware that their behaviors will be shared with the world.  In the case of Hermon Raju, a “well-educated” NYU grad, or Cathy Cruz Marrero, who fell into a fountain while texting, momentary lapses can lead to internet infamy.

If I attend a public concert, the songs remain the intellectual property of the band.  My limited knowledge of copyright law suggests that I may be allowed to record this concert for personal use but I cannot sell it and while I might post it on YouTube the band has the ability to have it taken down.  While this works for some copyright owners, to my knowledge the issue of whether an individual’s public behaviors are effectively intellectual property has not been addressed in a way that reflects the realities of our digital world.

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There are two types of Father’s Day cards: funny and sincere.  The sincere cards typically exclaim what an excellent father somebody was and how he was always there to listen/give advice/bail you out of jail.  The problem with the sincere cards is that they go too far in their claims of fatherly excellence.  While there are some people who’s fathers have been consistently excellent who can buy these cards and there are some who have no contact with their fathers and don’t need to worry about sending cards, there are many who fall somewhere in between.  As a result, I think that there is room for more realistic class of sincere Father’s Day cards.

In an attempt to rectify this situation, I created the following cards at someecards.com (where everybody is apparently white):

Until cards like these become reality I guess those of us in the middle will have to stick with the funny cards.

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Race, class, and gender are not the only places where individuals fail to see the big picture.  It turns out that attitudes about climate change have a lot to do with the present weather conditions.  As the author of the study states:

Global warming is so complex, it appears some people are ready to be persuaded by whether their own day is warmer or cooler than usual, rather than think about whether the entire world is becoming warmer or cooler. It is striking that society has spent so much money, time and effort educating people about this issue, yet people are still so easily influenced.

Humans, it seems, are not particularly good at systematically collecting data with which to explore their world views.  I also wonder if the apparent decline of media authority also plays a role, since reports based on data that has been systematically collected can be written off as evidence of bias.

As an aside, every time I hear a variation of the maxim expressed in the first sentence of the article above – “Don’t like the weather? Wait an hour.” – it is attached to a particular region of the country.  The more time I spend in different areas of the country, however, the more convinced I am that this saying is common in every area of the country.

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