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Archive for the ‘The Ivory Tower’ Category

A recent Rolling Stone article by Alex Morris focuses on Marlon James, who recently received the Man Booker Prize for his book A Brief History of Seven Killings. So far, so good. The third sentence of the article states that James came to the U.S. “with $200 in cash and the promise of a one-year teaching position,” which didn’t prompt much of a reaction until I read the following five paragraphs later:

By the time he began writing his second novel, The Book of Night Women, about a slave revolt on an 18th-century Jamaican sugar plantation, James was “full set that I was going to write my way out of Jamaica. My ambitions when I moved to the States were pretty simple: I just wanted to not kill myself.” When he was offered a teaching position at Macalester, a small liberal-arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, he immediately accepted.

Okay, so the teaching position was at a highly-ranked liberal arts college and not a high school like the phrase “teaching position” might imply. Teaching is, after all, a big part of the job at liberal arts colleges (even the highly-ranked ones) and there are certainly one-year positions that would involve nothing but teaching. Wait, though, why is James still in Minnesota (Morris makes several references to this fact) if this was a one-year position? Does he still work at Macalester or is he a full-time writer now? Morris doesn’t say, though there is a party with “Macalester faculty and friends.”

And what about his educaton? I know that famous authors sometimes teach at liberal arts colleges (David Foster Wallace taught at Pomona, after all), but Morris doesn’t give the impression that James was a big writing star when he got the position. Wouldn’t he need at least a master’s degree (even David Foster Wallace had an M.F.A.)? Let’s see what Morris says about this: “College at the University of the West Indies, where he studied literature and politics and fell in with creative types, was a reprieve, but after he graduated and got a job in advertising, the old insecurities returned.” Hmm.

Curious about this, I decided to check out James’s Macalester bioSurprise! James isn’t just a “teacher,” he is an Associate Professor of English. His bio also states that he “graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in Language And Literature, and from Wilkes University in 2006 with a Masters in creative writing.” So it appears that James didn’t so much “write his way out of Jamaica” as “got an advanced degree and a corresponding job,” though I’m sure that the publication of his second book in 2009 helped with the transition to a tenure-track position.

So, to recap, James earned a Master’s degree and got a one-year position at a highly-ranked liberal arts college and then, at some point, not only transitioned to a tenure-track position but received tenure. Readers of Morris’s article, however, could easily presume that James earned a bachelor’s degree and became a “teacher” at a liberal arts college, since anybody can teach at liberal arts colleges and there is nothing else that professors do (if he even is one!). When an entire article can be written about a tenured college professor without even mentioning that he is anything other than a “teacher” it is no wonder that Americans have a poor understanding of what professors do!

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During my second-to-last class period of the semester, I was standing at the front of the classroom talking, as I often do during class, and the light above me went out. The power had not gone out. Nobody had inadvertently hit a light switch. Just one light, directly above my head, that decided it had had enough.

A few days later, when I arrived for my final class in the same course, the clock had stopped working. Its hands resting on the numbers indicating that class would start in ten minutes. The clock couldn’t stand the thought of even one more minute of class.

When I arrived for the final exam period this afternoon I began handing back an assignment from earlier in the semester when a student took a chair from the back of the classroom up to her usual spot. Looking around, I noticed that about eight chairs had decided to abandon their posts and wander off into a nearby alcove.

Professors often make jokes about students, but I appreciate the fact that despite our classroom’s insistence that the semester had ended, my students did not give in.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links in your news feed, assuming your news feed doesn’t abandon you.

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The other day I saw a link online during my “lunch break” (i.e., the time between 12 and 12:30 when LeechBlock allows me to view my usual websites) about the difficulties Peter Jackson and others faced while working on the recent Hobbit movies. The danger, of course, inherent in reading something icon the internet is that it might cause you to read something else on the internet. In this case, I wondered if any fans have edited the three Hobbits into a shorter, more cohesive movie. It turns out that somebody has. Called “The Tolkien Edit,” this version trims many of the parts that were not in the books, resulting in a single four-ish hour movie. The website links to a torrent for the edited version, which is surely illegal but has gotten quite a bit of media attention. “I would be interested in watching that,” I foolishly thought, “But I don’t have anything that allows me to download torrents on this computer.” “Hey,” I continued even more foolishly, “The website has a link to a torrent client. I should click that.”

NOTICE: YOUR ACCESS TO THE INTERNET HAS BEEN SUSPENDED DUE TO ILLEGAL FILE SHARING. PLEASE REMOVE ALL FILE SHARING PROGRAMS AND CONTACT IT SERVICES IN ORDER TO RESTORE SERVICE.

My first thought upon receiving this notice was, “Shit!” My second was that I didn’t even download the software. My third was that explaining all of this to IT over the phone was going to be embarrassing. My fourth was that I had to go e the bathroom and that I should do so before making a phone call to deal with all of this since I had a lot of work to do that afternoon that would require access to the internet. Thankfully, somebody in IT must have noticed that the idiot in this case was a faculty member and restored my network access in the few minutes it took me to walk down the hall to the bathroom and back.

There are two morals to this story. The first is that considering downloading potentially-illegal files from work is stupid. The second is that if they wanted to, the people in IT could probably access a log of every stupid website I’ve ever visited while on the campus network, which makes me consider visiting fewer stupid websites. I can just see the letter reporting the outcome of my tenure application: “Although John has been marginally productive, the committee has regretfully decided not to grant tenure in his case. If even a fraction of the time he devoted to Buzzfeed quizzes had been spent on scholarship, it is likely that this outcome would have been different.”

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed, but maybe not from work.

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When faculty members arrive on a new campus, they are often told to keep their heads down and listen more than they speak. In most cases (i.e., when the place you find yourself in is not blatantly offensive), I think that this is good advice, since it makes sense to become familiar with the campus and departmental cultures before saying or doing things that might deviate from the norms of those cultures. Although I may never feel comfortable speaking at a faculty meeting (for those of you at large institutions, this is the monthly meeting of all faculty, along with various administrators, on campus), since I never did at my previous institution, I have found this semester that I am saying more at department meetings and feeling less apprehensive when I do. I don’t think I noticed that I had felt less comfortable last year until I started feeling more comfortable this year.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed. I’m also happy to assign some of my departmental tasks to you.

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Earlier this semester I attended a panel in which three first year students were asked questions about their impressions of the first year reading and speaker series on campus for an audience of faculty and staff, many of whom had planned the series and will be involved in planning next year’s series. The panelists included a white American, a white Western-European, and an Asian. All three students handled themselves well but, in comparison to the American student, the two international students spoke less, and less readily. For example, it was common for the international students to speak only when asked a direct question, while the American often interjected after one of the international students had spoken. I got the sense that this student was raised with the middle/upper-middle class “concerted cultivation” style that Annette Lareau discusses in Unequal Childhoods, leading to comfort in interacting with the adults in the room.

After the panel, a staff member approached the staff member I was seated next to and, noting that a committee they were on needed a new student representative, commented on how well the American student would do in this role. I have no idea whether this student was offered the position, but it struck me that the doors of opportunity were already opening for this brash, white American mere weeks after arriving on campus. It also struck me that if student representatives on various campus committees are chosen for their cultural capital, the voices of first-generation and working-class students are likely not being heard in these spaces. If it had been up to me to choose a student committee member, I would have chosen one of the quieter students whose voices need to be amplified on campus. The voices of privileged white Americans are already heard loud and clear.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links from a privileged white American via your news feed.

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A while back, Philip Cohen posted on some of the problems with the peer review system in sociology, sharing the story of a paper that underwent 13 peer reviews over several years in the publication gauntlet. Although the paper’s findings were essentially unchanged by this process, each reviewer apparently thought that the paper could be framed in a different, and better, way. As Cohen says:

Most (or all) of the reviewers were sociologists, and most of what they suggested, complained about, or objected was about the way the paper was “framed,” that is, how we establish the importance of the question and interpret the results. Of course framing is important – it’s why you’re asking your question, and why readers should care (see Mark Granovetter’s note on the rejected version of “the Strength of Weak Ties”). But it takes on elevated importance when we’re scrapping over limited slots in academic journals, so that to get published you have to successfully “frame” your paper as more important than some other poor slob’s.

Cohen also cites problems with the journal system and its speed and arbitrary nature, but I think that the issue of framing is particularly important because journal editors appear to be letting reviewers asking a version of the “why didn’t you write the paper I would have written?” conference question arbitrarily prevent the publication of otherwise-worthy papers. This is particularly problematic for graduate students and those of us who work at teaching-oriented institutions and don’t typically have numerous papers under review at once.

Cohen proposes an alternate peer review system, but barring major changes in the system, I think that editors can take immediate steps to address this issue. When somebody asks the “why didn’t you write the paper I would have written?” question at a conference, everybody else in the audience rolls their eyes and recognizes the problem. Journal editors need to be more forceful about recognizing these problems themselves, providing clearer review guidelines and ensuring that framing is not the single most important factor in their decisions.

Via: Scatterplot

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed and use the comments to complain about their framing.

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Jessica at Scatterplot recently posted some good advice about imaginary “perfect” jobs. She writes:

There’s a tenure-track academic job I hear students talk about – one with work-life balance and a forty-hour work week and at least two weeks (but hopefully an entire summer) of carefree, completely unplugged vacation; one where you have all the autonomy and prestige of a professor, along with job security and a professional level paycheck, but there aren’t external pressures on your time except for those that you select because they’re consistent with your values and life goals…that job – that does not exist. And, even if it did, you would not increase your chances of landing such a job by eschewing the professional advice of faculty or colleagues because they are seen as somehow biased toward a different kind of job, one that just doesn’t fit you or your life goals.

As I said above, I think this is good advice but the “do what senior scholars tell you to do in order to be successful” line of reasoning falls apart when so many senior scholars don’t understand other types of jobs or have outdated ideas of what various types of jobs entail (or even what is required to get jobs like theirs). If you want to work at a SLAC, for example, especially a high-ranking SLAC, publications are essential, so advice that a student will fade to obscurity in one of those jobs is ridiculous. Too many advisors still want to see their students replicate their careers, acting as if other types of careers are beneath them.

One could argue that Eric Grollman’s success in getting an excellent liberal arts job after initially aiming for an R1 is a strong example in favor of the idea that there is only one track, but the pressures that he reports facing from his committee members about even interviewing at liberal arts jobs show that this system still has flaws. I was fortunate not to receive these sorts of messages from my committee members, but a current colleague reports that her dissertation advisor neglected to provide her with any advice on negotiating her job offer from our institution because the advisor hoped that a “real” job offer would come along. That some students know early on what type of job they would like to pursue but still receive these sorts of messages undermines the value of advice in other areas.

In some ways, I could be seen as an example of the type of grad student that Jessica mentions in the comments, where she says, “This is about the students who don’t aspire to a life like the faculty in their grad programs – people who they (erroneously) believe work 80 hours a week all year long and have no life outside of work.” I started grad school around the time that a large number of junior faculty members were hired and watched them go through a grueling tenure process that included the very real threat of being denied tenure unless they could publish in ASR or AJS. I knew that I did not want that kind of experience, but this doesn’t mean that I didn’t think I would have to work to get a job or afterward or that I didn’t seek a strong grounding in theory and methods, as I took more than the required number of courses in each.

Just as Jessica provides advice for students, I would like to provide some advice for faculty who deal with graduate students: listen to them. Consider their career goals and give them advice that will maximize the chances that they will realize those goals while necessarily keeping an eye on their general marketability given that few of them will end up at the types of institutions they seek. If you start your mentoring by assuming that they want to emulate your career, though, and criticizing any desire to do otherwise, be aware that you are discrediting any future advice you will give.

Oh, and one more thing: When your graduate students are on the job market, get your damn letters of recommendation done early and often. There is no excuse for mentoring somebody throughout the entire academic process only to hang them out to dry by not fulfilling your duty as an advisor.

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In most areas of my transition to a new institution I have been able to draw on my previous experience as a tenure-track faculty member. This has been similar to my mostly-smooth transition from graduate school to life as a tenure-track faculty member. There is one area, though, in which my years as a tenure-track faculty member have not left me feeling any more prepared than I did during my last transition: advising.

Although I’m still part of a sociology department, there are some major differences between my current institution and my former when it comes to advising. The primary difference is that my current department has many fewer majors than my previous department, so while I had 40-60 major advisees at my previous institution, I currently have seven non-major advisees. This is an area in which I have no experience.

Previously, I was challenged with learning the departmental curriculum and the institution’s general education curriculum in order to advise students to complete all of the necessary graduation requirements. Currently, I need to know both of those things as well as enough about each of the other majors on campus to advise students until they officially declare, which must be done by the spring of their sophomore year. Although there is a lot of guidance available in the form of quick-reference sheets, lists of courses to start with, etc., it feels like the risk of screwing up somebody’s academic career by giving bad advice is magnified.

I’m sure that I will eventually get used to this, like I did at my previous institution. Until then, I’m glad that I don’t have many advisees to ruin the futures of!

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive my sage advice via your news feed.

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Microsoft Wedge Mobile KeyboardIn my reflections last spring on a semester of electronic grading I noted that, “At the end of each assignment I typically used the iPad’s on-screen keyboard to type some longer comments, the speed of which would have been greatly increased with the purchase of a Bluetooth keyboard.” A new academic year has brought new assignments and I did not want to spend another semester fumbling with the iPad’s on-screen keyboard, so I went online to search for a Bluetooth keyboard. I settled on the Microsoft Wedge Mobile Keyboard, largely because it was cheap (about $30).

Opening the box, I was surprised at Microsoft’s advances in presentation. Apple seems to have had a positive influence in packaging design. Although the specs don’t specifically mention that it works with iPads, I was able to pair it just fine and haven’t had any problems with operation. They keyboard itself is fairly small and thin, probably too small to comfortably type on for a long period of time but still infinitely better than an on-screen keyboard for a paragraph or so of comments at the end of an essay. The design also resembles Apple’s older iPhones and current iPads, with its metal sides and chamfered edges (it would match my iPad even better if the front of my iPad were black). Most of the keyboard is roughly the same thickness as an iPhone. The only awkward part is the bump:

SideAs you can see, the back of the keyboard has a significant bump, which holds the two AAA batteries that power it and helps it stand at a nice angle. This makes storage more difficult but I’ve found that I can place it on top of my iPad with the bump overlapping the edge to sit relatively flat in my bag.

In terms of functionality, the only downside is that there is no dedicated power button, so turning the keyboard on and off (which I do frequently since I only use it to write comments at the end of papers, not throughout) requires holding down the function and escape keys for several seconds. Otherwise, the keyboard works well for what I require of it.

CoverOther than the bump, the only other issue is that the keyboard’s cover is a bit of a pain to line up. The cover is made of a thick rubbery substance, with tabs that lock over the keyboard ends. If Apple had designed it it probably would have been held on by magnets, making it easier to align and quicker to put on and remove. The cover does have a useful feature: it can be folded and the tabs can be used to hold up a tablet:

Cover StandI have an iPad cover and don’t need to stand it up to type a few sentences anyway, but this could be convenient for those who don’t have a separate tablet stand. I’ve never actually bent my cover like this because there is actually quite a bit of resistance but it is a nice option to have as long as the bending mechanism can stand up to heavy use.

Overall, I think that this is $30 well spent, as the number of mistakes I make while typing has been greatly reduced compared to last semester and it is easy to use the keyboard only when needed. Now all I need is for my students to actually read the comments that I write!

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed so you can ignore them like my students ignore my feedback on their assignments.

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Last week, US News released the annual rankings for liberal arts institutions. It also released a bunch of other rankings, including “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” “Wait,” you may be thinking, “How different can the best liberal arts schools and the best liberal arts schools for undergraduate teaching be?” The answer is, “More different than you would think.”

You may recall that the overall rankings for national liberal arts institutions are strongly correlated with endowments. Apparently, the things that make a school good at teaching in the eyes of US News differ from those that make a school good overall. Interestingly, the methodology for determining best teaching is similar to that for determining the best graduate programs. Namely, they ask people about their perceptions: “College presidents, provosts and admissions deans who participated in the annual U.S. News peer assessment survey were asked to nominate up to 10 schools in their Best Colleges ranking category with a strength in undergraduate teaching.”

Like the graduate school rankings, then, the undergraduate teaching rankings reflect others’ perceptions rather than a formula that schools might try to game. It turns out that, unlike the national liberal arts rankings, these perceptions are not strongly correlated with a school’s endowment (only .226 vs. .78 for the national rankings). Although there are similarities, some schools are rated much differently in the rankings for undergraduate teaching. Hendrix College has the largest difference between its overall ranking (82) and its teaching ranking (29). Other schools that are at least 40 spots higher in the teaching than overall rankings include: Beloit, Wheaton, St. Olaf, Lawrence, Berea, and Wooster.

Of the schools appearing on both lists, Bowdoin looks the worst, with its overall ranking of 4 and its teaching ranking of 29. Many high-ranking schools in the overall rankings, though, don’t appear on the list of the top 30 teaching schools at all. Eleven schools in the top 30 national rankings do not appear in the top teaching rankings, the highest-ranked of which are the US Naval Academy and Claremont McKenna, tied for 9th in the national rankings.

The takeaway from all of this seems to be that a school’s reputation for teaching is not nearly as dependent on financial wealth as its overall rankings. I think that the different methodologies for different rankings are also interesting, since graduate programs are essentially ranked by those in similar programs, who would seem to know best. Undergraduate teaching is ranked in the same way, but US News is not willing to allow these peer-nominated rankings to make up its most publicized rankings like it is for graduate programs.

Of course, both types of rankings are probably connected only tenuously to actual student experiences at various schools, but by publicizing their overall rankings, US News ensures that they will keep schools focused on the small things they can do to try to climb the rankings, while an emphasis on the perceptions of others may allow schools to shift their foci to the bigger picture, considering what is best for students instead of for US News.

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