Archive for September, 2013

About a month ago, Corey Robin at Crooked Timber linked to a 1978 article by Vivian Gornick in The Nation. This article reminded me of some of my own thoughts on famous sociologists and academic false consciousness (but better written!). Bringing everything together is the final paragraph, which Robin also quotes:

Ruth Richards drove me to the station. As we sat in her car waiting for my train to come in she leaned back in her seat, lit a cigarette, then turned to me and said: “You know what keeps this whole thing going? What allows them to take themselves so seriously, and still go on behaving like this? It’s guys like my husband. My husband is a good man, a kind and gentle man, comes from a poor home, fought his way to the top. And he’s smart. Very, very smart. But you know? In spite of all that, and in spite of everything he knows, every morning of his life he wakes up, goes to the bathroom, starts to shave, and as he’s looking at himself in the mirror, somewhere inside of him a voice is saying: ‘Jesus Christ. I’m at Yale.’”

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In an apparent attempt to copy the “Apple Genius” model of customer service, Best Buy has apparently started referring to their employees as “Blue Shirts.” This language is present on their website and in their TV ads.  Lately I have seen this Best Buy commercial on TV referring to a particular “Blue Shirt,” Kristina:

In the ad, Kristina is “testing” an HTC One cell phone from Verizon. She spends some time talking about how good the coverage is while she is shown running. So far, so good. Best Buy has recognized that women can be knowledgeable about technology. That’s not all they know about, though.

The next line highlights the multitasking ability of the HTC one (iPhones on Verizon cannot access cellular data while takling). To do so, Kristina states, “Usually when I’m talking on the phone I’m also shopping, so it’s nice to have the multitasking ability.” O. M. G. The HTC One is a stereotypical teenage girl’s dream! But does it come in pink? Nope, only silver and blue, and the blue is a Best Buy exclusive.

Kristina knows that blue is for boys (it is bad enough that she has to wear a blue shirt to work!), so after mentioning how fast the networking is she takes off running again. Boys are icky.Wait, Kristina, you took the phone with you! All of the talking and shopping in the world won’t save you from cooties!

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There is a classroom near the sociology offices on my campus that I have done my best to avoid over the years. This semester, though, I’m teaching in it again and remembering all of the reasons that I have avoided it. For me, classrooms are something that I only really consider when they cause me problems. In this particular classroom, students sit closely to each other in rows of tables and the room is much deeper than it is wide. The projector screen leaves only about 12 inches of white board visible while blinding me if I am not standing at one of the edges of the room. If I walk between the tables to the back of the room, students facing the front are unable to turn to see and hear me because of how close together they are.

Other than being annoyed by my classroom, my students in this class are not doing particularly well. This classroom was also the site of my problems with first-year students several years ago. In fact, thinking back on my worst classes, each of them was also in a less-than-optimal classroom. Cramped quarters make it easier for students to get distracted but they also make it more difficult for students to form groups and for me to move around the classroom to check in on students doing individual or group tasks. Classrooms arranged in other ways (such as rooms featuring a large number of small tables that students sit around) make it more difficult for all students to be able to see me at the same time and see and hear each other during class discussions. I’m sure that my own mood is also affected by being in a classroom where my mobility is limited or where I am worried that students cannot hear or see me.

In the end, there isn’t much I can do about my classroom this semester, but I hope that those designing classrooms in the future, or remodeling current classrooms, put some serious thought into how they will be used and what sorts of designs are actually conducive to student learning. Just because a classroom can accommodate a widescreen projection screen and large tables doesn’t mean that it should.

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Thanks to Dan Hirschman, who provided me with a copy of the paper by Figlio, Schapiro, and Soter comparing tenure-track to non-tenure-track faculty at Northwestern, I was able to find an answer to my question from the other day about whether the non-tenure-track faculty included graduate students. The answer is no. As the authors note on page 7:

“We exclude graduate students and visiting professors who hold faculty appointments at other institutions from our analysis. Our results are fundamentally unchanged if we include these two groups, regardless of whether we assign them to the tenure track/tenured category or to the non-tenure line category of instructor.”

Not only are graduate students not included, then, but their inclusion does not affect the analysis in any meaningful way! I don’t know how the number of graduate student instructors at Northwestern compares to the number of other non-tenure-track faculty, but the fact that they can be placed in either category without changing the results seems to indicate that this number is either relatively small or that graduate students fall between the two categories that Figlio et al. focus on, which seems interesting in itself.

Also interesting, and incredibly important for the interpretation of their results, is the fact that most of the non-tenure-track faculty at Northwestern are not “adjuncts” in the typical sense. Rather, they are classified as Continued Lecturer Faculty, as Jeremy Freese describes in a comment at Orghtheory:

I haven’t read the study yet, but it’s worth noting that (to my understanding) most non-tenure track teaching at Northwestern is not done by “adjuncts” but by what we call Continuing Lecturer Faculty, who are on multi-year renewable contracts for which the pay is less than tenure-line but substantially more than what adjuncts get paid at Northwestern, which is in turn substantially more than what adjuncts get paid at other places in the area that have used our students as adjuncts. Also, at least in sociology and neighboring disciplines, CLF are expected to teach 6 courses a year, but we are on quarters, which means that the actual number of hours a CLF spends standing in front of a classroom is roughly the same the standard load for a tenure-line faculty member teaching 4 courses at, say, Wisconsin.

In short, if you are not at a similarly well-heeled place, there’s good reason to suppose our non-tenure track faculty are better teachers than your non-tenure track faculty, whereas I’m not sure the same is true for tenure-track and if it is I wouldn’t expect the difference to be as large.

Dan Hirschman discusses the implications of this for the generalizability of the study (which it seems that outlets like Inside Higher Ed would consider important):

Rather than asking (just) about comparability of students, or even the capacity to attract elite non-tenure track faculty, we have to ask, where do non-tenure track positions look like the ones at Northwestern? For example, here at Michigan, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization (LEO) has successfully fought to unionize non-tenure track faculty, securing multi-year contracts for more senior instructors, along with benefits, and etc. So we can imagine these findings mapping reasonably well onto Michigan.* But could we say the same for Eastern Michigan? For Washtenaw Community College? For the (seemingly) typical adjunct making less than $3,000 per course with no benefits?

He concludes:

Figlio et al.’s study looks to my not especially expert eyes like an excellent evaluation of the efficacy of NU’s non-tenure track lecturers, with obvious relevance to the potential for such full-time faculty at other reasonably selective universities. But it’s just not a study about part-time adjuncts and says nothing about such instructors. So, let’s stop framing it that way.

While the “Adjuncts are better!” framing certainly helped the study gain attention among academics, it is not in line with the authors’ own claims. Nevertheless, I fear that this framing will stick as those in positions of power use these reports to justify the increasing adjunctification of higher education.

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Over the past few days a new study of Northwestern University by David N. Figlio, Morton O. Shapiro, and Kevin B. Soter and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research has been making the rounds. The study, discussed at The Atlantic, Inside Higher Ed, Orgtheory, and Tenured Radical, among others, finds that students learn more in classes taught by adjuncts than in those taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty. A lot of the people reporting on this study talk about the fact that adjuncts are being paid solely to teach so it may not be surprising that they do a better job of it than those who are also supposed to publish, serve on committees, publish, and publish.

What I have not seen anybody address for certain (and what I have not been willing to pay $5 to access the article to find out myself) is whether the “adjuncts” in the study included graduate students. Beyond the other potential problems with the study (such as using student grades to indicate greater learning), the answer to this question is crucial to interpreting the findings, since graduate students, like tenured and tenure-track faculty (and, as some point out, many adjuncts), also have many other competing expectations and are not just “paid to teach.”

If anybody has access to the full version of the paper I would love to know the answer to this.

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