Posts Tagged ‘Chronicle of Higher Education’

When Candide was on the job market, he held that everything would work out for the best. Atlas Odenshoot (I guess that the Chronicle has run out of normal-sounding pseudonyms) contends that the job market is more like The Hunger Games, where “the odds are never in your favor.” Odinshoot also shares some interesting insights about the fact that your advisor has been there before, the importance (or lack thereof) of appearance, rule changes, and competing with friends, concluding:

Of course, the academic job market is not exactly like the Hunger Games. If you lose in the games, at least it’s over quickly. The job market, on the other hand, stretches on for months, perhaps years. So when you write that email to your adviser to say you want to go on the market, it might be better just to raise your hand and shout, “I volunteer as tribute!” Better yet, just run off in the woods with Gale.

I guess that would be the equivalent of leaving academia. Compared to some adjunct positions, being with Gale might not be bad. I guess it depends on whether you prefer to be a movie boyfriend or a movie girlfriend.

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The internet has made it easier than ever for students to turn in work that is not their own. Fortunately, the internet also allows professors to use services like Turnitin.com in an attempt to ensure that the work students are turning in hasn’t been turned in before. Of course, that doesn’t mean that students always write the work they turn in themselves, as this Chronicle article from a few years ago highlights. The problem (for lazy students) has always been that they had to do the other things that go along with being a student. Annoying things like taking notes and studying.

Now, for online courses at least, their problems have been solved. As noted on Inside Higher Ed:

Prices for a “tutor” vary. Boostmygrades.com advertises a $695 rate for graduate classes, $495 for an algebra class, or $95 for an essay. When Inside Higher Ed, posing as a potential customer, asked for a quote for an introductory microeconomics class offered by Penn State World Campus, noneedtostudy.com offered to complete the entire course for $900, with payment upon completion, and onlineclasshelpers.com asked for $775, paid up front. Most sites promise at least a B in the course.

I typically like to save money and do things for myself, which makes me a bad candidate for this type of service, but as online classes increase in frequency, the fact that we never see our students in person will surely bring up a new set of problems for faculty members. Less money, more problems? Great.

*Don’t forget the soundtrack

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Although I’ve written about college and university rankings in the past, rankings are not a topic of much discussion on my campus (probably because they’re low!). What we do hear a lot about, especially from the president and provost during faculty meetings, are peer institutions. Peer institutions justify the administration’s decisions on everything from tuition increases to faculty salaries. The term “peer institution,” though, is often vague. Who exactly are we comparing ourselves to? Are we aspirational in our comparisons or do we compare ourselves to supposedly lesser schools in an attempt to boost our institutional self esteem? A new networking tool from The Chronicle of Higher Education gives some insight into these questions.

The network displayed at the Chronicle demonstrates which institutions a given school chose as peers when receiving reports from the U.S. Department of Education. Although the accompanying article notes that some schools put more thought into the selection of their peers than others, this still gives some insight into how campus administrators are making their decisions.

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A recent article in the Chronicle by Nannerl O. Keohane tackles the age-old question of why a liberal arts education is valuable. Keohane mentions a number of good reasons, but I don’t know how many of them would resonate with my students or their parents. Although I work at a private liberal arts institution, most of my students don’t want an invitation “to a community of scholars, both professional and amateur, spanning the ages.” They want jobs.

Because students and their parents want reassurance that $120,000 of their money will not be wasted by spending four years in college, there is increasing pressure on institutions like mine to offer more applied majors with direct connections to jobs. I see this in my intro students when they tell me that they love sociology but that they don’t want to major in it because they don’t want to be social workers and even in my advisees when they come to ask me what kind of job their sociology degree will get them after graduation.

Maybe majors at schools like Duke and Wellesley, where Keohane has worked, have a direct pipeline from the liberal arts to careers and graduate degrees, but the experiences of my own students (and most of my friends) have been very different. Ask a few non-academic friends what they majored in in college and compare their responses to their current jobs. I’m guessing that most of them aren’t employed doing anything remotely close to what they thought they would do when signing their major.

While schools like mine are facing pressure to offer more applied majors, the reality of the job market for most people is that those who are best off are those who have a broad knowledge base and can use that knowledge to reason, solve problems, and clearly communicate with others. There seems to be a huge disconnect between what students think they will get out of college and where they actually end up. If we can get people to realize that linear paths from high school to college majors to careers are the exception, the importance of the liberal arts should be self evident.

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Reading job market forums it is clear that one of the most frustrating aspects of the job market is the waiting.  Even successful candidates must submit applications and then wait, receive requests for more materials and then wait, participate in telephone interviews and then wait, participate in campus interviews and then wait.  In the early stages of the job market I found that being a forgetful applicant worked for me, by which I mean that I paid no attention to the status of a school on the Wiki after I had applied.  In the later stages, after phone interviews and especially after campus interviews, this approach is much more difficult.  The waiting, and the reasons for the waiting, are part of the mystery of the job market.  A recent article at The Chronicle gives some insight into the other side of the waiting game and indicates that candidates often are not the only ones who feel like they are blowing in the wind waiting for answers.

As the author states:

It is difficult for folks who are external to the inner workings of searches to understand just how complicated things are in the final stages of a search. Let’s say a committee has decided to invite two candidates to campus and the position is greenlighted for both interviews. The calendaring person must then poll to see when everyone in the department will be in town and match those dates with the dates when the candidates are also available.

Throw out days that just don’t work for anyone (large events or even local festivals that make logistics more difficult), and everyone is essentially fighting over the 24 to 28 days that are reasonably available. Now, heaven forbid that the latest Snowzilla storm or wave of the Porcupine Flu strikes and forces rearrangements of dates. Or that Candidate 1 for the position receives an offer elsewhere and pulls out of the search, requiring the committee to drop to Candidate 3, who must now visit campus two or three weeks after the other candidate, whose visit was already scheduled and who must then wait for the conclusion of the department’s deliberations.

A commenter shares the frustration from the department’s standpoint:

More maddening for me, as one who has chaired several searches, is the “after the interview” wait. We on the committee have done the hard work above of finding the times, making travel arrangements, booking the times with the dean’s and provost’s office, sending out announcements, on and on. . .only to find the paperwork stuck on someone’s office, most frequently the office of Social Equity, who needs to approve the search was compliant with appropriate rules. Once it clears, then the offer can be made (which can only come from the provost, who is not in the same hurry that you are on the committee). Then a negotiation begins with the candidate, which can take weeks (as ours just did the last month or so). All this goes on without the search committee in the loop, so we are also twisting in the wind. (We know that the other candidates out there are frustrated but we cannot communicate with them, since the search is not officially closed.)

I think that all of these factors lead to the sorts of fuzzy dates that frustrate candidates.  When a committee says they will be deciding which candidates to invite to campus “soon,” that could be a day or it could be a week (or more).  The challenges that departments and administrators face also lead to false hope or dejection via wiki updates.  I wrote off a school that I had been particularly interested in after seeing that they had scheduled phone interviews on the wiki.  A few weeks later I received a call for a phone interview at the same school and was invited for a campus visit within hours of the phone interview.

Although I haven’t yet been on the other side of the hiring process, I suspect that another factor in these vague dates is that departments want candidates to think that they are the first choice even if they are not.  When I interviewed for my current job I was told that bureaucratic holdups may delay the job offer such that it could take place in a few days or a few weeks.  After being hired I learned that this statement was made so that if the job was offered to somebody else and that person declined, it could be offered to me and I would be none the wiser about the previous offer.  Thankfully, I received the job offer within a few days.  While I negotiated my contract, however, the other finalists (and even the department, since I negotiated with the provost) were likely left blowing in the wind.

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I’ve been teaching college students for five years and in this time I have encountered a lot of students who were bad writers.  I’m reminded of this as I sit in front of a pile of student essays, many of which are lacking in basic spelling, grammar, and sentence structure.  I have encountered at least two essays that include the textese word “u.”

A recent post on the Chronicle website details some of the difficulties of dealing with student writing, including this example:

During a conference with another student, “Belinda,” I mentioned the subject of childhood reading. “Books are great,” Belinda declared. “Nancy Drew mysteries, Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka. I love them all.”

“Good,” I said. “Now you need to do what the authors of those books did.”

“What’s that?”

“Master the basics of the sentence,” I said.

Belinda turned huffy. “But my mother teaches English.”

Being used to spontaneous outbursts of illogic from students, I replied politely, “Perhaps she can help you learn how to create sentences properly.”

Belinda changed tactics. She leaned forward and asked, almost conspiratorially, “What do I really need to do to get an A?”

Acting flirtatious may have gotten her high grades in high school, but I said, “You need to clear up comma splices and eliminate sentence fragments.”

Belinda waved one hand dismissively and laughed. “That’s what my professor said last semester.”

Apparently she expected a new instructor to be more original in evaluating the quality of her work.

I walked Belinda through my former professor’s tried-and-true worksheets about fragments and commas, but her next paper displayed the same problems that her previous ones had. This flummoxed me. Graduate students in English write without having to think about the rules; in fact, grad students may not be able to explain the rules or even diagram a sentence, since they intuit what to do when they write. Belinda did not share that gift, nor did a number of other freshmen.

Unfortunately, there are no solutions (yet… this is the second part of a series so I hope that the author will include some suggestions to help deal with these issues eventually).  If the experiences of this person, who was a graduate student teaching English composition, are indicative of those who teach English composition in general, this goes a long way to explain the poor writing abilities of my own students.  Of course, if basic improvements can be made to the writing abilities of freshmen in mandatory composition courses, those like me who devote large amounts of time in each course to the improvement of student writing may be able to spend that time focusing on the content of student essays rather than the mechanics.

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With job market season gearing up we get a fresh set of advice columns, such as this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education about how to get  a job at a liberal arts school.  This advice, while largely similar to what I’ve heard before at various conferences, seems to be aimed at two distinct crowds: those who are just starting to think about future job markets and those who have gotten a job and are in the negotiation stage.  As a grad student I knew early on what type of job I wanted and actively sought information that would be useful in that pursuit (I can’t believe how easy it is to talk about grad school in the past tense), so I suppose that having these distinct types of advice in one column is useful assuming students put it somewhere safe while they do things like getting teaching experience as a graduate student.

While students are doing the things that will make their CVs stand out from the crowd at application time (and possibly considering Jenn Lena’s recent advice on presentation of self), there is something else that I think can help job candidates or, at least, can’t hurt*: choosing a dissertation topic that is interesting to people in general (and, for bonus points, ties into one of these areas).  Obviously, this is something that needs to be done fairly early in one’s preparation for the job market, but I think that having a dissertation topic general enough that you can have a conversation with somebody about it while in line at the grocery store is incredibly helpful.

While I can’t say whether this was a factor in my own hiring, I would imagine that this is especially true at liberal arts schools where there are smaller numbers of faculty members and a greater need for people who can cover a wide range of topics in a way that is interesting to students.  Having an interesting topic has also been helpful as I’ve started to forge my post-grad, pre-tenure identity on campus.  I’ve spoken to a number of people who remember my CV because I’m “the person who studies clothing**.”  Because everybody wears clothing, everybody has something to say about it, giving me a chance to share my dissertation results and start conversations.  This isn’t to say that I think there is anything particularly wrong with studying thread, buttons, or cuff links, which may be fine topics in a large department where there is room for a variety of particular specialties.  When applying to a liberal arts school, however, don’t forget to talk about how the thread, buttons, or cuff links relate to the larger issue.  I would bet that not a lot of people in the grocery store want to hear about thread but most of them are interested in clothing.

*Note that because I’ve never been on a search committee, this advice is based on my own job market experiences combined with my experiences on campus in the short time since starting as an assistant professor.

**Clothing is a pseudonym for what I actually study.  Here’s a hint: I do not study pigeons, though pigeons have proven to be a successful dissertation topic for at least one person.

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PowerPoint is a presentation tool.  While it may seem absurd to blame a presentation tool for the boredom of countless college students, plenty do so.  A July 20 Chronicle of Higher Ed article implores professors to “Teach Naked,” (free of technology), and asserts in its headline that “When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom.”  First of all, boredom in college classrooms likely dates to the 19th century, long before computers came along.  As a student, I had plenty of professors who used no technology at all and managed to be incredibly boring.  There is a basic methodological lesson here: correlation does not equal causation.  The fact that a professor who uses PowerPoint is boring does not mean that PowerPoint is to blame.  Rather, the blame lies in the presentation style that PowerPoint (and other presentation software – you’re not exempt from the possibility of boring presentations just because you use Keynote) has helped popularize – bulleted lists of facts.  This presentation style can be found everywhere from corporate boardrooms to the nightly news, and seems designed to ensure that you can get the information you need without paying attention to a single word the presenter is saying.

Now that we have established that PowerPoint itself is not to blame for boredom in college classrooms, let’s take a closer look at the argument in the Chronicle article.  The article centers on José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, and states early on that:

More than any thing else, Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web. When students reflect on their college years later in life, they’re going to remember challenging debates and talks with their professors. Lively interactions are what teaching is all about, he says, but those give-and-takes are discouraged by preset collections of slides.

If you are a boring professor who relies on text-heavy PowerPoint slides to lecture to your napping students, it seems likely that ditching PowerPoint might shake things up in the classroom.  Rather than arguing for the end of the lecture, however, the article appears to be arguing for the end of the reading.  The fact is that the sort of discussion-focused class time that Bowen describes would be possible if students completed their reading assignments.  Imagine if a textbook chapter was assigned as a reading and the professor and students could spend class time delving into the issues raised by the reading.  It is more likely that the majority of students have not done the reading because they know the professor will spend the class period rehashing the main points of the reading because the professor knows the majority of students will not have done the reading.  Yes, this is what a self-fulfilling prophecy looks like.

So lectures are boring because professors spend too much time rehashing the readings, which are so boring that students cannot bring themselves to complete them.  But students want to be entertained.  Ditching PowerPoint in order to shake up the status quo doesn’t solve this problem, though, because it focuses on shifting lecture material outside of the classroom, to podcasts and videos.  For example, this quote:

Kevin Heffernan, an associate professor in the school’s division of cinema and television, has also created podcast lectures—essentially narrated PowerPoint slide shows—for students to watch before class. During class he shows movie clips from his laptop and has students discuss them based on the background lectures.

“I don’t have to explain to them how film censorship in America changed in 1968” during his class session on Midnight Cowboy, says Mr. Heffernan. “They have that information from the online podcast.”

What’s this?  Something that students can look at outside of class that introduces them to the important points of a topic so that they can discuss the topic in the classroom?  That is what readings are supposed to do! Of course, if your students are currently bored by your lectures in which you rehash boring reading material, I fail to see how they are going to be excited about the prospect of watching you narrate PowerPoint slides from the comfort of their dorm room or sorority house.  As much as you would like it to happen, they are not going to call their sorority sisters over to the couch so that they can all watch your fascinating lecture on hegemony before discussing it over dinner.  My guess?  They’re going to find your video lectures just as boring as your previous readings and in-class lectures, and they’re not going to watch them before class.  Sure, they might spend a few hours trying to glean the key points before an exam, just as they did before with the textbook readings you assigned.

I can see that you are curious about something: If your students are not watching your videos before class like they’re supposed to, why are they participating in discussion?  The answer, of course, is that you are coming to class with different assumptions and enough of the students have watched the videos (the same students who always did the readings) to get things going, after which the other students will have heard enough to make points that are at least somewhat related to the topic at hand.  At the same time, the shift of all lecture materials outside of the classroom causes your students to be curious about something else: if all of the lecture materials are available outside of class and class time is spent discussing them, why do they need to go to class at all?  The discussions that you find so engaging will essentially become a waste of your students’ time because they have other things to do and if it isn’t going to be on the exam it may as well have not happened.

Another problem with shifting lecture material outside of class time is that it greatly increases the time demands on professors.  Professors who do this must now spend an additional 3-12 hours a week (depending on course loads) recording their lecture materials so that they can spend their course time doing other things.  Unlike lecture notes, which can be tweaked from semester to semester but do not always need to be completely redone, these recordings will need to be completely redone each semester in order to change even the smallest detail.  The ease of blaming PowerPoint sure has created a lot of extra work for professors!

Each semester when my students are about to fill out their evaluations I argue for the importance of constructive criticism.  If they tell me they hate something but don’t tell me what a better alternative would be, I’m not going to be able to do much about their complaints.  As a result, I’m not going to complain about blaming PowerPoint for problems that run much deeper in academia without offering what I think is a better solution (clearly, any jackass who starts giving people job market advice almost immediately after receiving a job always thinks that his way is a better way).  If the goal is to ensure that students are engaged participants in the classroom while continuing to believe that class time is valuable, we need to do several things (so you don’t have to pay too much attention, I have provided them in a bulleted list!):

  • Require readings that provide background for discussion and hold students accountable for the completion of these readings.
  • Keep things fresh by mixing lectures, videos, discussions, and exercises in the same class, just as those focused on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning have been telling us to do for years.
  • Allow students to focus on what is happening in the classroom by relieving some of the pressure to take extremely detailed notes.
  • Demistify exams and assignments by telling students what your learning goals for them are and how your exams and assignments are designed to help you measure their progress toward those goals.

Regarding point three, one way to do this is by recording class sessions and making them available online after class.  A number of professors do this, including Tina Fetner of Scatterplot fame.  This gives students the option of reviewing their notes after class to fill in any gaps or revisit confusing topics.  This is probably a good solution in a large class like Fetner’s (she had 475 students in her intro class last fall).  In classes of all sizes, this approach may prevent students from seeing going to class as a worthwhile way to spend their time.  Why go to class if you’re guaranteed not to miss anything?*  Of course, if 25% of students in a class of 475 skip, the rest of the students will probably enjoy the extra elbow room.  If 25% of students in a class of 21 (my current intro enrollment for the fall semester) skip, however, the classroom dynamic can be significantly altered.  Students in small classes are also less likely to have problems hearing others due to noise from those around them, which makes this option appealing for large classes.

Another potential solution is the use of “Guided Notes,” which, “provide all students with background information and standard cues with specific spaces to write key facts, concepts, and/or relationships during the lecture.”  The use of guided notes forces students to pay attention and take notes but does not force them to write down everything that is said, word for word.  As a result, they are freer to participate in class discussions.

Obviously, while podcasts and guided notes, along with keeping things fresh and explaining why exams and assignments exist, can help with student engagement in the classroom, neither directly addresses the problem of student engagement outside of the classroom (indirectly, of course, one hopes that students who are engaged inside the classroom will be more likely to be engaged outside of it).  While this is a difficult problem, it existed long before the rise of PowerPoint and classroom technology.**

*I know that professors include lots of things like quizzes, attendance policies, participation grades, etc. in their syllabi to ensure that students will come to class, but if we are truly seeking engaged students, encouraging students to be physically present in order to take a quiz, sign an attendance sheet, or even ask a question, after which they check out mentally because they know a recording of class material will appear online is probably not the best approach.

**I use PowerPoint in class almost daily.  I use it primarily to provide students with definitions of class concepts, but I also use it to display pictures, diagrams, and guidelines for in-class exercises (basically, as a substitute for the “slate chalkboards or overhead transparencies filled with hand-scrawled notes that students struggled to decipher” of the past) and as the basis for my guided notes.  If my class sessions are boring I am positive that the fault is my own, not PowerPoint’s.

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While the prospect of preparing for 42 class sessions in a semester is daunting, it doesn’t compare to the idea of being thrown in front of a classroom full of college students less than four months after completing your own college degree.  As a new pseudonymous writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education describes:

When I was a graduate student, I participated in academic fraud. I didn’t plagiarize to get an article published or inflate my CV to get a job. I did something worse. I accepted a teaching assistantship as a doctoral student at Elite National University.

By becoming a TA there, I took on a responsibility for which I had no qualifications: teaching first-year composition courses. Even though I had a bachelor’s degree in English, I hadn’t taken an introductory writing course while I was an undergraduate. I’d never taught before or had any course work in education. I didn’t even have a master’s degree. My hometown community college wouldn’t have hired me as an adjunct, but Elite National U. put me in charge of two sections of a required class.

Students attend ENU to be taught by experts, not amateurs. In my defense I can only plead ignorance. Before I set foot on the campus, I didn’t know that teaching assistants actually taught. My undergraduate institution, Flyover College, had no TA’s. The financial-aid offer I received from ENU made no mention of specific duties, so I assumed the phrase “teaching assistant” meant assisting a teacher. Only when I arrived on the campus did I learn that I had to stand alone in front of two sections of grumpy people each semester. I asked around and discovered that other graduate students who had spent their undergraduate years at small liberal-arts colleges were also surprised to be given teaching duties as TA’s.

My sense is that this is more common in English than sociology, but that may make the situation worse.  Despite my love for sociology, if a new graduate student does a poor job of teaching Soc 101 I assume that there are fewer ramifications for the students than those in a poorly taught section of Eng 101.  I suppose that most people don’t feel completely prepared to teach for the first time, but I am glad that I had a few years of grad school behind me before I was given the responsibility of providing college students with useful knowledge.

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Across the country, prospective job candidates are beginning to put vague ideas into Microsoft Word that will be shaped into cover letter templates, teaching statements, writing samples, and research statements over the next few months.  Since January I have written a lot about the sociology job market and my experiences with it, but I think that a general compilation of things I’ve come across in the past year or so will be helpful to those who are gearing up for an intense autumn.

As a sociologist, you may want to start with the ASA’s job market resources, although they cost  money, so you may be better served by reading blogs and going to the various “how to get a job” sessions in San Fransisco.

Beyond this, I think that it is helpful to read about the experiences of others who have gone on the market.  By seeing both the good and the bad, you’ll have a better sense of what you’re getting yourself into.  For this, the Chronicle of Higher Education is a good resource.

For general job market advice, Wicked Anomie has a great post and some good things are available from the Sociologists for Women in Society (there is also some good information in the advice column section of their site).  Finally, the Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter has a number of job-related posts.

After you’ve hardened yourself in preparation for the road ahead with general information, you can consider your first opportunity to interact with potential employers at the ASA employment service.  As noted before, this has been discussed at Scatterplot and on this blog.

Before applying for jobs, you will likely want to check out the rankings, keeping in mind that rankings aren’t everything.  The US News grad school rankings are here and general undergrad rankings are here.

Beyond the rankings, a sense of whether a school is likely to pay enough for you to live on Long Island or in Claremont, CA is obviously important.  You can search the AAUP’s faculty salary survey here.

Once you have applied, you will hopefully be invited to interviews where these tips from Wicked Anomie and these reflections from Pitse1eh will come in handy.  You can also prepare answers to frequently asked questions and be prepared to ask some questions yourself.

If you can stomach it, there is also the job market message board, which replaces the job market blog for 09-10.

I think that the most important thing to remember about the job market is that it is a long, difficult time during which most things are out of your control.  Once you’ve mailed an application, you have done all that you can, so make sure that your applications are as good as they can be and try not to think about them once they are out of your hands.  With luck, by this time next year you’ll be writing a blog giving people advice about the job market.

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