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Archive for the ‘R1’ Category

A recent trip to to an R1 for a college basketball game brought back a feeling I didn’t know I missed – the feeling of being in a college town. It turns out that there is a huge difference between a “college town” and a “town with a college.” I suppose that I would classify a college town as one in which a college or university is the largest employer, causing most of the people in the town to interact with students or academic employees on a regular basis. Using this definition, the location of my undergraduate institution qualified for most of my time there and the location of my graduate program definitely qualified.

After 11 years in college towns, the transition to a town with a college can be jarring. The character of social life is much different, especially in terms of the age of bar patrons, but there are a number of other differences. Over break, a colleague mentioned getting coffee but noted that doing so was impossible because the coffee shop in the student union closes at 10 am during breaks. In a college town there would be numerous coffee shops within walking distance of campus. In my town there are none. The realization that I could not get coffee on a January afternoon made me think about all of the time I spent as an undergraduate in off-campus coffee shops.

The things within walking distance of my campus consist of a bank, two grocery stores, two pizza places, a Chinese restaurant, a post office, a drugstore, a post office, and a bar. Each of these locations has college student patrons but none of them are aimed particularly at college students. The difference is also felt by those who have no affiliation with the school. Each time we visit a large campus in a college town my wife notes that she wishes my career aspirations had been different so that she could experience the kind of environment she grew accustomed to while I was in grad school. Maybe if there were huge liberal arts colleges (HLACs) we could have the best of both worlds.

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Brad Koch recently posted about the difficult balance between professor and friend, even at a liberal arts school.  While I didn’t attend a liberal arts school, by the end of my undergraduate years I considered myself to be relatively close to my mentor, who frequently took me to lunch as we discussed research projects or graduate school options.  Also, as I’ve noted before, I invited students in the classes I taught as a graduate student to call me by my first name.  (While I don’t do this now, the more frequent contact that I have with repeat students in my classes and those who frequently work in a computer lab near my office have led to students calling me all kinds of things.)  Despite the increased opportunities for talking with students I have found a number of barriers to true friendship.

The primary factor is that professors and students adopt particular roles in their interactions with each other.  While we might know a lot about students’ intellectual lives, we often know very little about their personal lives (including basic things like whether or not they smoke).  These barriers can erode over time as we hear students talking to each other about drinking, parties, and relationships before class but this doesn’t change the fact that the person we are making a judgment about possibly befriending is not an actual person but an idealized version focused on academics.

The other side of this is that faculty members withhold information about themselves in order to foster a sense of objectivity in the classroom.  As a rule I do not discuss my personal religious or political views with students and before I was marked by a wedding ring I was also hesitant to discuss being heterosexual (though I hope that someday this indicator will be blurred by equality).  The parts of ourselves that we keep from each other prevent us from discussing the things that are at the basis of many friendships.  Overhearing students talking about drunken hookups or all-night study sessions reminds me that although I was once a student, I (thankfully) no longer inhabit their world.  Similarly, most of my students are about ten years away from inhabiting my world.

None of these things make it impossible to connect with students over lunch, or even a beer, but they make it very difficult to truly be their friends.  Although I have not had any off-campus contact with any of my current students, I was invited to (and attended) several game nights with former students when I was a graduate student.  At the time, the social distance was slightly reduced (they were seniors, I was 27 or 28) and there was no chance of them having another class with me.  Still, I approached these encounters with a sort of detached amusement.  By this I mean that I ate dinner with them, laughed with them about their college-student troubles, and shared small tidbits about my own life when appropriate but largely felt like an outside observer.

When interacting with my current students outside of class I still largely feel this way.  This doesn’t mean that we could never become friends if some of them graduate and stay in the area, just that the transition is much more likely to occur when a number of the current boundaries have resolved themselves.

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Near the beginning of the semester I read an article at The Chronicle of Higher Education that my recent experience semi-annual experience of surviving advising brought to mind.  The gist of the article is that some graduate advisors do such a terrible job that their advisees pay for advising from others.  As a faculty member with over 40 undergraduate advisees, I would argue that many of the same lessons apply.  The relevant passages state:

Your responsibility to your advisees extends to telling the whole truth about the academic enterprise at this time. Tenure-track lines have been evaporating for years. Aiming for a tenure-track job is, for most students, unrealistic. For those students who wish to try, the effort requires years of methodical training and calculation of career chances, from the point of arrival in the graduate program through the dissertation defense and beyond. Your job is to look up from your students’ dissertations, and assist them in mastering those skills and calculations.

How? By teaching your Ph.D.’s how to write a CV; to cultivate prominent scholarly supporters; to pursue grant money with a single-minded purpose; to apply for national awards; to publish, publish more, publish higher, write a stellar application letter, and do the elevator talk.

And when, even after doing all of the above, the tenure-track job doesn’t materialize, as it often will not, instead of averting your eyes in shame from their so-called “failures,” you step up, professors, and work with your Ph.D.’s to transfer their skills into some sector of the economy that is not contracting as badly as your own.

While it is true that there are some bad advisors at my institution, and I’m glad that I don’t have to advise students writing master’s theses or dissertations, it seems that if I served my advisees as poorly as some professors serve their graduate students I would be out of a job.  For example, the person that I replaced was reportedly a bad advisor, but that person that I replaced was replaced after failing to get tenure.  I’m not sure if any research exists on this, but it would be interesting to see if the general orientation toward students and teaching at a SLAC also leads to better advising than the orientation toward publications and grants at larger institutions.

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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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This spring I gave a presentation at a conference in which I aimed to help graduate students determine if life at a liberal arts institution is something that they should consider pursuing.  In a lot of ways, the talk encapsulated my experiences through two years as a faculty member, touching on many of the themes I have highlighted here but in a (perhaps) more coherent way.  The majority of the talk is below:

I’m John Smith and I work at a private liberal arts school with about 2000 students.  Right now, you’re thinking, “I saw the name of your school in the program and I’ve never heard of it,” which brings me to my first point: a liberal arts school is not the place to go if you want or need status.  Even top-ranked liberal arts schools do not have the status of top-ranked research schools – Picture telling your grandfather that you got a job at Williams College (Williamstown, MA), the top-ranked liberal arts school by US News vs. telling him that you got a job at Harvard, the top-ranked research school.  I’m guessing that most people would get a much bigger reaction from their friends and family if they got a job at Harvard than at Williams.

So, if liberal arts schools aren’t for people who want status, who are they for?

Teaching

The primary answer to this question is: people who really enjoy teaching and want to be good at it.

At a liberal arts school you will be working closely with students both in and out of the classroom, so it is important to mention that not all private schools have the same type of students.  While some have nothing but privileged students, my school has a diverse student body from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a wide variety of abilities.  During class discussions I am typically glad for this diversity, even if I wish that the ability levels of the bottom students were a bit higher when I’m grading papers and exams.

Still, the student body overall is similar to what you might experience as a graduate student teaching at a large state school.  This means that there are some weak students but there are also some excellent students, with most students somewhere in between.  At more selective schools there are probably more excellent students but less demographic diversity.

At my school I have a 3-3 teaching load, which means that I teach three classes per semester.  In general, my classes range from 25-35 students but this is partly because I am in a popular department.  Faculty in some departments have fewer and faculty in other departments have more.  I also advise 45 students, which differs a lot from department to department as well.

The range of students at a liberal arts school is important when thinking about your plans for research (or scholarship, as it is often called at liberal arts institutions).

Research

People who want to work at a liberal arts school should not need an army of graduate students to be productive researchers (or to do their grading) and should enjoy the challenge of doing research with undergraduates, which often involves a lot of teaching about the research process.

It is also important to recognize that research can take a number of forms, even at highly ranked schools.  This may include things like conference presentations in addition to peer-reviewed publications as demonstrations of the “continued scholarly activity” that is necessary for tenure in addition to service and good teaching.

Given a higher teaching load than most R1 faculty and the fact that you will be grading exams, papers, and quizzes yourself, the reality is that you will not have as much time to spend on research as those at other types of schools.  This typically leads to fewer concurrent projects and fewer publications.

While there are general differences in research productivity, there can also be differences between departments on the same campus.  In my department, for example, everybody has a research agenda but research is rarely the main topic of conversation because it is not what people spend the majority of their time on during the semester.  In another department, however, the faculty publish much more frequently.  I’m not sure if this is a result of the types of graduate programs that the faculty in each department came from or the stages they’re at in their academic careers, but there is a definite difference and it can be difficult to go against the norms of your department.  For example, others in your department may not have much experience applying for grants or publishing in major journals, which can make it difficult if you want to do these things.  This is also something to consider if you are being hired into a department in which the standards have changed since the current faculty members have been granted tenure.

Obviously, I could work into the night and complete more research during the semester but the rewards for doing so are relatively small.  In the summer and over breaks when I focus mostly on research, however, small amounts of money are available if I am working on my own and larger amounts are available if I am collaborating with a student.  So research is definitely valued and supported but it is not my primary responsibility.

Nearby Peers

Continuing on the topic of research, something that I never heard anybody mention about liberal arts schools when I was in graduate school, and one thing that I found myself missing in my first year as a faculty member, was the community of those with similar interests that arose through departmental colloquia.

Because you will almost certainly be the only person with your specialization in your department, if you end up having a choice between jobs (however unlikely that may be in the current job market) you may want to consider the proximity of other schools that would allow you to form reading or writing groups.  There are a large number of schools in my area and I was able to join a reading group consisting of faculty from a wide range of research and liberal arts schools.  This helps me keep up with current research and it also gives me a connection to people who are more active in research than the other members of my department and can give me advice in those areas.

Campus Involvement

Beyond these teaching and research concerns, people who want to work at liberal arts schools should have a willingness, if not a desire, to be deeply involved in the workings of their institution and interact regularly with administrators and faculty in other departments.

To give you some perspective, the entire faculty of my graduate institution has met twice in the past 25 years.  At my current institution, there are monthly meetings of all faculty, and this is where major decisions about the curriculum are made.

Work-Life Balance

The final group of people who should consider working at liberal arts schools are those who are searching for the mythical work-life balance.  As I’ve said, during the semester you will be busy with teaching and over breaks you will likely be busy with research, but the ability to focus on these things at different times, and the corresponding emphasis placed on each when making tenure decisions, allows you to work without spending every waking hour worrying about whether you will be able to publish enough to get tenure.

Despite wishing for a higher level of scholarly engagement in my own department, I have never regretted my decision to work at a liberal arts school and, just as some likely have a hard time imagining why somebody would want to teach three courses per semester, I have a hard time imagining why somebody would want to work somewhere that gave journal editors and reviewers so much control over their futures.

How Can You Get Here?

Now that you have a better sense of whether you want to work at a liberal arts school, you are probably wondering what you can do to end up at a place like this.

The first thing you can do is go to a liberal arts school as an undergrad.  Because of the differences between liberal arts schools and the research schools where people get their Ph.D., schools see the fact that somebody attended a liberal arts school as a sign that they understand what is involved in this type of job.

With that said, I didn’t go to a liberal arts school and I still work at one, so there are some things you can do if you missed your opportunity to go to one of these schools yourself:

These include spending time working to become a good teacher.  This means assigning papers, essay exams, and involving students in class discussions.  Obviously, this takes more time and effort than lecturing from a textbook and giving multiple choice exams, but if you think of a class of 60 students as similar to teaching three classes of 20, you can get a sense of what a full teaching load at a liberal arts school is like.

Another thing you can do is teach classes that are likely to be in demand – schools are always looking for people who can teach classes like statistics, research methods, and social theory, so the ability to successfully teach one of those classes in graduate school gives you a valuable skill on the job market.  The fact that I had taught both statistics and research methods, for example, was a factor in each of the interviews I had.

Conclusion

In the end, the type of institution you want to work at comes down to what you want your daily experience to be like.

If you are interested in teaching, interacting with students and colleagues, and collaborating on research with students without intense pressure to publish, you should consider applying at liberal arts schools.

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A while back I talked about the fact that there are very different publication currents at the school where I was a grad student and the school where I currently work.  I stated:

When coming out of graduate school I had a strong desire to do important research but I wondered if the desire for high-profile publications would fade.  What I’ve found is that the desire hasn’t faded but the expectations of my institution create a situation in which I appear to be swimming against the current, wondering how long I can last before I am swept downstream.

When writing this, I was thinking about my own experiences and those of others at liberal arts schools, but this feeling is not confined to the SLACers of the world.  In response to these feelings, I talked about joining an old-fashioned (and long-running) reading group.  Historiann, however, presents blogging as another alternative in her blog post summarizing her talk summarizing her feminist blogging (how meta!).  She writes:

From the perspective of an intellectual metropole like Austin, I can certainly see why some might think of academic blogging as a waste of time that competes with the time available to meet concrete career benchmarks.  But most of us don’t end up in major university towns or big cities with seminars and symposia in our fields and armies of Ph.D. students–most of us leave graduate school and spend our careers in places in which we may feel intellectually isolated.  So blogs can be spaces that become virtual communities where we can combat isolation and have conversations about our common interests.  If your goal in blogging is to alienate friends and allies, then blogs may be potentially dangerous to one’s career.

I suspect that not all blogs work equally well for this task.  A pseudonymous blog in which the author never talks about his specific work (and doesn’t allow comments) is probably much less effective at building academic communities than a blog focused on a person’s particular research interests.  Similarly, an individual’s blog may be less effective at building community than a topic-centered group blog such as Orgtheory.  I suspect that if I had ended up in the middle of nowhere the purpose of this blog may have quickly changed from providing “sociological perspectives on life and the liberal arts” to providing “discussions on the sociology of lima beans for the intellectually isolated.”

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In my recent (highly scientific) look at ASA submission types, I noted that some of the ASA submissions are papers with promise that could be revised for future submission to a journal.  In that post I stated, “Of these, about half will likely never be submitted because they were written by people, like me, for whom conference presentations count as ‘scholarly activity.'”  This statement, in the second half of my second year, is similar to a concern I raised nearly two years ago when discussing the publication gauntlet:

I wonder how my choice of institution will affect my desire to run the publication gauntlet.  Coming from a “publish or perish” department, I have a strong desire to get my work published in order to contribute to the body of sociological knowledge.  I also want to publish in well-regarded journals in order to increase the chance that others will actually be aware of my contributions.  At the liberal arts school where I will be employed, however, expectations for publication are much lower than for junior faculty in my current program and the fact that a paper went through peer review is more important than the name on the front of the journal.

In addition to lower expectations, I noted, is the fact that liberal arts professors have less time for research and fewer collaborators (especially important is the absence of graduate student collaborators who can do the bulk of the data analysis).  This means that there are fewer concurrent projects.  I suspected at the time that fewer concurrent projects decreased the likelihood of submitting publications to highly regarded journals because the need for peer-reviewed publications would outweigh the need for a high-status placement.  It appears that, at least regarding my own institution, I overestimated the importance of even low-ranking peer-reviewed publications.

As I noted above, scholarly activity is measured a number of ways at my non-elite private school.  Obviously, peer-reviewed publications count, but conference presentations also count, as does working on projects with students.  The balance between these forms of research means that working with a lot of students, leading to poster presentations at regional conferences, can almost entirely make up for a relative lack of peer-reviewed publications.  Certainly, higher-ranking liberal arts schools have higher standards but other forms of scholarly activity count there as well.  In contrast, a research collaboration at an R1 institution is likely to be viewed as a failure (or not viewed at all) by a tenure committee if it does not result in a publication.

A story from a colleague illustrates this difference.  When I mentioned revising a paper based on reviewers’ comments one day, she noted that she once received an R&R at the same journal but never got around to the actual process of revising and resubmitting.  Keep in mind that she was a tenure-track assistant professor when she made this decision.  She has since been awarded tenure.  It is hard for me to imagine a situation in which a tenure-track assistant professor at an R1 would casually ignore an R&R in this way.  Surely, not all R&Rs result in eventual publications, but to not even try struck me as ridiculous.

Given the reality of my situation, the path to tenure  seems relatively clear and there are likely countless others who would take my position in an instant.  There are drawbacks, however.  Among them is the fact that while my colleagues are engaged in scholarly activity, they are not used to submitting papers to highly-regarded journals and, thus, can offer little help in this process.  Research is also not a typical hallway conversation given the primacy of teaching in our lives.  When coming out of graduate school I had a strong desire to do important research but I wondered if the desire for high-profile publications would fade.  What I’ve found is that the desire hasn’t faded but the expectations of my institution create a situation in which I appear to be swimming against the current, wondering how long I can last before I am swept downstream.

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Continuing the theme of faculty compensation, Tenured Radical has posted Part III of the conversation she started earlier in the week.  In Part III she gives an overview of the wide range of responses to her question of faculty salary and notes that only one commenter, the difficult to pronounce Squadratomagico, was not worried by the current state of affairs.  Squadratomagico (it is difficult to type, too) details her reasons for this at her own blog, including the argument that this is part of the deal we accept when entering the nonprofit world.  Along these lines, I thought that academics largely accept the fact that they are not going to get rich in academia and that if they wanted doctors’ and lawyers’ salaries they should go to school to be doctors and lawyers.  I remember hearing this several times, though not quite so bluntly as this or this.

Given the wide range of salaries in response to TR’s original post, it is clear that many academics are struggling in low-wage conditions.  There are others, however, bringing home comfortable salaries despite recent stagnation.  As one professor told me in grad school, no matter how much he made, he never seemed to have any extra money (he mentioned the more expensive houses, vacations, etc. that tend to come with higher incomes, but he may as well have said this).  Beyond the fact that we should have known what we were getting into before becoming academics, I have a hard time finding sympathy for an individual making more than twice the median income of U.S. households as we slowly make our way out of an economic crisis (even controlling for the higher cost of living in certain areas).

The larger question, though, is whether the salary freezes that have frustrated even well-paid academics are temporary or part of a new world order of higher education.  Given rising costs and decreasing budgets, academic pay is likely a double-edged sword.  As Squadratomagico notes, “The larger the gap between what it costs institutions to sustain a full-time line with benefits, and hiring an adjunct, the more adjunctified the university becomes, pure and simple.”  Ultimately, it seems that the solution may need to come from larger public investments in education, which is a double-edged sword in itself.  For the foreseeable future, it appears that we’ll need to revel in the non-monetary benefits of academia if we have a desire to consider ourselves rich.

 

*This post has a soundtrack, which has reentered my consciousness thanks to its excellent use in The Social Network

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Aside from the outcome, one of the interesting things about my recent journal submission, was the amount of time spent on the paper before submission.  A coauthor and I worked on this paper with varying degrees of intensity for over five years.  To put this in context, between the paper’s inception and its completion, we both took our comprehensive exams and started and completed our dissertations.  In the years between, our paper spent time on every burner.

It seems that the most frequently-discussed burner is the back burner, but I would characterize the early stages of our project as time spent on the side burner.  During this time, we made some progress on the paper every week or two.  This also describes the time immediately after our data collection was complete.  During data collection, there were times when our paper was on the front burner and received our undivided attention.  Following data collection and the completion of complete drafts, however, our paper was frequently moved to the back burner while things like the aforementioned comprehensive exams and dissertations occupied our time.  During this time our paper also periodically spent a day or two on the front burner when one of us became motivated to make some progress.  The summer was also a period in which our paper was on the front burner as we prepared it for submission.

While I would not recommend allowing your projects to spend so much time on the back burner (especially if you work at a research institution!), there are some ways that these long delays may have contributed to our paper’s eventual acceptance.  Putting the paper away for long periods of time necessitated that when we did work on the paper we had to familiarize ourselves with it once again.  Looking at the paper with fresh eyes allowed us to recognize the weaknesses in our paper.  My work this summer, for example, started with the idea that I would make some minor adjustments before publication and ended with a nearly complete reorganization of the introduction and literature review.

It is possible (and perhaps even likely) that our paper would have been accepted and published by now (even if rejections had preceded this publication) if we had submitted it in a lesser form several years ago.  Regardless, the fact that our longer-than-ideal time frame may have worked to our advantage suggests that others who have potential publications simmering on the back burner should move them to the front burner and send them out.

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A while ago I “wrote” to a journal editor who had spurned a paper that I wrote and, despite the fact that the paper was later published and received some media attention, the publication process was painful.  Even before first R&R, the paper was rejected at multiple venues.  While the final product was arguably a better paper, I wouldn’t have minded an acceptance at a much earlier stage.

Publication, it turns out, is not always so painful.  Over the summer I submitted a paper for review and there were several notable differences from my earlier experience.  First, I received the editor’s decision within a month.  The dear journal editor in my previously mentioned situation, by comparison, took three months to inform me that he was rejecting my revised and resubmitted paper without review.  The largest difference, however, was in the outcome.  Based on the quick turnaround, I was apprehensive about opening the e-mail and pleasantly surprised to see that the paper had received a conditional acceptance, the holy grail of review outcomes.

If publication was always this painless I may have been content at an R1 institution.  They have small class sizes and value teaching, right?

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