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Archive for October, 2011

I’ve talked before about former sociology students reverting to individualistic perspectives after being exposed to the “real world,” but that idea depends on students learning about the impacts of social structures in the first place.  I’ve run into particular problems in class when discussing the effects of poverty on educational outcomes.  No matter how many examples I give demonstrating the effects of inequality, students continually get caught up on the fact that some poor students “make it.”  In an attempt to counteract this, I recently explained inequality to my students as a room on fire.

I started by drawing a top-down view of a large lecture hall on campus and asking students where the exits are.  In this particular lecture hall there are three exits, two at the back and one at the front.  I told the students that the lecture hall holds several hundred students and asked them how many students they think would be able to get out if a fast-moving fire broke out in the center of the room.  They thought that 1/4 of the students might escape.  Then I asked them how many exits there would need to be for every student to have an equal chance of escaping.  One student said that there would need to be an exit for every student in order for their chances to be truly equal.

Next, I erased the three exits from the drawing and drew a single exit at the front of the room, asking the students how many people would be able to escape with only one exit at the front of the room.  They answered that they thought only the students in the front few rows would be able to get out.  Hearing this, I asked the who they would blame if most of the students in a lecture hall with only one exit died in a fire.  One student said she would blame the school for building such a poorly-designed lecture hall.  Why, I asked wouldn’t they blame the students at the back of the room for not trying harder to get out?  The reason, they said, was that the students didn’t design the room so it wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t get out.

Inequality, I told them, is like a room on fire.  A few students (usually those who were lucky enough to be born near the exit) end up getting out but this does not mean the students who don’t get out are to blame for their inability to escape from a poorly-designed system.  Whether the ashes of this metaphor will resonate with my students remains to be seen.

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Today Consumer Reports released their annual rankings of automaker reliability.  Now, you would think that automaker reliability may change slightly from year to year but, according to CR, you’d be wrong.  This year, Ford dropped from 10th to 20th in reliability while Lexus moved up seven spots, Mazda moved up eight, and Jeep moved up seven.  Porche, on the other hand, fell 25 spots, from second to 27th!

The survey is sent out to the magazine’s 1.3 million subscribers each year and results are based on survey responses regarding the 2002 to 2011 model years.  There are (at least) two major problems with this.  The first is that Consumer Reports subscribers may not accurately represent the population.  The second is that all makes and models are not equally represented.  Chrysler, for example, rose 12 spots to 15th on the basis of only two models that were owned by survey respondents.  The full list, courtesy of cars.com, is below, with last year’s rankings in parentheses:

1. Scion (1)
2. Lexus (8)
3. Acura (3)
4. Mazda (12)
5. Honda (4)
6. Toyota (6)
7. Infiniti (5)
8. Subaru (7)
9. Nissan (14)
10. Volvo (8)
11. Hyundai (11)
12. Kia (13)
13. Jeep (20)
14. Lincoln (15)
15. Chrysler (27)
16. Volkswagen (16)
17. Chevrolet (17)
18. Mercedes-Benz (22)
19. BMW (23)
20. Ford (10)
21. Dodge (24)
22. GMC (21)
23. Mini (25)
24. Buick (18)
25. Cadillac (19)
26. Audi (26)
27. Porsche (2)
28. Jaguar (not rated)

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Despite my desire to become involved in my campus and community, there are times that I wish I lived closer to family.  Since I don’t have kids (and, as a result, don’t need occasional free child care) these times are typically related to visits home.  On a daily basis, I am happy with where I live and I actually prefer my current are of the country to the area where I grew up.  During trips home, however, the presence of parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins is enough to make me wish that I had a more mobile job.

There are several problems with this desire.  The first is that I am happy where I am professionally and I recognize that lots of people end up with colleagues or administrators that they dislike.  The second is that, as you may have heard, academic jobs are hard to come by. Beyond this, there are not a lot of colleges and universities in the area where I grew up and several of those that are in the area are not the kinds of institutions that I spent seven years in graduate school preparing to work at.

Despite these problems there are a few schools in the area where I would be willing and/or qualified to work, so I suppose that every fall I will check job listings looking for one of these schools but accepting that I am likely to stay where I am.  I am probably equally likely to convince my entire family to move here.

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Although I can’t find the original date of publication, this comic nicely sums up the current state of the economy:

Via: Daring Fireball

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Like a lot of other tuition-dependent schools, my institution is partially supported by money brought in by a distinct program for non-traditional students.  This creates some interesting problems due to the fact that the standards for the non-traditional program has lower overhead, lower salaries for its mostly temporary instructors, and arguably lower academic standards.  One of these problems is that the name of the institution remains the same.  Even though these students are not factored into things like US News rankings, it seems that these programs could dilute my institution’s reputation as it tries to do the opposite in order to increase the percentage of tuition that traditional students are able to pay.  The uneasy truth is that without a non-traditional program, the tuition that the traditional program brings in would not be enough to support the current standards of our campus, much less the improvements that the faculty would like.  As a result, the low-paid, non-traditional program instructors who arrive on campus after I’ve left for the day and are gone long before I return allow me to have a nice office and a decent salary.

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Given that I’ve felt extra-busy this semester, a few recent discussions of work habits caught my eye.  First was a post by Female Science Professor describing three types of people she has encountered:

A Type W person would get a lot done whether they were funded by a research assistantship (RA), a teaching assistantship (TA), a fellowship, or whatever.

A Type X1 person would only make decent research progress if funded by an RA or fellowship. A TA would consume all of X1’s time and energy, not because X1 is more devoted to teaching than W, but because X1 can only focus on one thing at a time.

A Type X2 person would get more done if partially funded by an RA or fellowship and partially by something requiring a bit of structured work — for example, perhaps teaching one lab or discussion section, or perhaps doing some grading or other work like that. If funded entirely by an RA or fellowship, X2 wouldn’t be able to deal effectively with the lack of structure and would waste a lot of time, making very slow progress, even if the advisor set specific goals.

Given these descriptions, I would classify myself as an X2 person.  As I’ve mentioned, I don’t do well with large blocks of open time.  I also don’t do well when I have something that can easily take up all of my time (like teaching three courses in a semester).  In order to be productive in more than one area I need to have something to structure my time but not so much of that thing that I can’t focus on anything else.

My ability to fill up time with other things is related to a lack of time in general.  Tenured Radical responds to a reader who asks about a lack of time that is related to constant requests from others:

I don’t have time to go to the gym, or to pack my own lunch — two things I swore I would do this fall to maintain my mental health and not gain back the weight I lost over the summer.  I see talks and events come and go and don’t do any of them because I am already scheduled to do something else or I am so tired all I want to do is go home. Worse, I have so much to do that I am not sleeping well and I forget things constantly.  Keeping up with my writing? Ha! I have deadlines coming due that I can’t even imagine I will keep.

Her response is that the reader, “Marv,” needs to learn to say no to things that are not in line with his goals and interests:

This leads us to a larger problem, Marv, which is that you have set goals for yourself — go to the gym, eat a nice lunch, get some sleep, write, be responsible to your students, take advantages of the intellectual pleasures a university campus offers — without actually acting to privilege your own interests and desires over the interests of other people. You are trying to please all of the people, all of the time.  You are pleasing everyone but yourself.

While I can certainly appreciate the pressures to please others, especially on the tenure track, but this is not my problem.  My problem is that I keep saying yes to opportunities that sound interesting without prioritizing my own goals.  I pressure myself to get involved.  At some point, though, I need to decide what is really important, likely putting research above other interests.  I have a feeling that this time will be soon.

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When students don’t do well on exams I always encourage them to meet with me.  I don’t think there is anything particularly novel about this.  What I’ve found, though, is that the more students meet with me the less frustrated I am with them (and with myself).  Only a few of the students who failed a recent exam have come to meet with me, but each gave me insight into what went wrong that I would not have otherwise had.

Most students had not put forth the required effort, but the reasons for this varied widely.  One student, for example, had been working off campus over 50 hours per week leading up to the first exam.  Given that, it is no wonder that she didn’t do well.  When meeting with me she was confident that she would do better on the next exam because she has been able to reduce her hours to around 30 per week.  Another, who did not have the textbook until just after the first exam, reported being very excited by the topic of an upcoming assignment.

While I may still wish that my students were more motivated overall, these meetings allow me to see what else they have going on in their lives and reduce my personal frustration considerably.  Unfortunately, I suspect that these students are reluctant to meet with me because they fear punishment or don’t want to relive their poor grades (among other reasons) while I feel more like doling out punishment when they don’t meet with me.

At some point maybe I’ll have enough experience to assume that students are doing poorly because of external circumstances rather than because they are all lazy and uninterested in education.  Until then, I wish more students would meet me halfway.

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