Posts Tagged ‘College Professors’

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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When starting my first job as an assistant professor, there were a lot of things I didn’t know about how the institution operated, like how tenure-track professors were reviewed, how service was assigned, and how advising worked. I have found, however, that starting my second job as an assistant professor is even worse in this regard because I not only don’t know how these things are done at my new institution, I do know how they were done at my previous institution. This makes the way things are done at my new institution seem weird because they are not what I am used to.

At my previous institution, for example, faculty turned in annual binders recording performance in various areas and all tenure-track faculty were observed at least once per semester by their department chairs. At my new institution observations are not officially required until the second year and I still have no idea if I need to turn in some sort of annual review. It seems that I don’t, but after doing one for so many years it feels wrong not to.

Service is also assigned differently. At my previous institution, each faculty member turned in a list of preferences and was typically assigned to one of his or her preferred committees. Furthermore, elections were held for certain committees based on who nominated themselves or accepted the nomination of a colleague. At my new institution, we also submit some preferences, but those preferences are likely to be ignored in favor of other factors like balanced divisional and gender composition. Elections are also composed of people who have been assigned by a committee to run for a particular position. Saying no is apparently not an option.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of these policies. I’m sure that if this was my first job I would learn the ropes and come to see them as normal. Having gotten used to things being done differently, however, makes it more difficult to accept a different system. On top of this, I haven’t even touched on departmental differences in course selection and I still don’t know how advisees are assigned. At least I have six months before I have to worry about that!

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In line with my post the other day about my decision to require students to meet with me, and suffering for that decision, Bradley Koch at Soc’ing Out Loud has a recent post about student reactions after receiving a grade that was lower than they expected. He discusses four ideal types of students: those who do nothing, those who drop the course, those who get angry, and those who seek advice during office hours. I’ve also encountered these general reactions (and I’m similarly frustrated by those who drop a course after receiving a single poor grade on an assignment) but I think that he misses an important group of students in his discussion of those who do nothing. He writes:

Most students do nothing. They show up as if nothing has changed. I suspect that these are the students who have done well on their assignments and those who are too lazy to actually open the email attachment that includes comments and their score.

In addition to those who have done well and those who are lazy are those who are intimidated by the thought of meeting with professors. While he notes that many students at his institution are from privileged backgrounds, lots of sociological research tells us that many students who are raised in working class and poor homes are much less likely to approach a professor and ask for help. Even if they do approach their professors for help, they are also more likely to be uncomfortable about meeting with us.

I don’t know what to do about this problem, but it is definitely something to take into consideration when reflecting on student reactions.


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This semester I have been attempting to find out how many meetings a single professor can have with students before going insane. Whenever students are responsible for large assignments on topics of their own choosing I like to meet with them to make sure that they don’t go astray. For example, students in research methods have met with me and stated that they are interested in studying cancer. Not the social effects but cancer itself. How it can be prevented, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated. Clearly, this is not a sociological topic! (Actually, I should allow students to use this. I would like to see how they propose to study these things using sociological methods.)

So meeting with students is good, but this semester I ended up assigning this sort of project in all three of my courses, leading to nearly 80 meetings and a serious reconsideration of my usual practice. On top of that, I offered students in one class an extra two points on their exam if they met with me to discuss what went right and (mostly) what went wrong in their preparation. I go back and forth on offering extra credit for an activity that I wish students would do anyway, but this does allow me to check in with them and let them know that I’m on their side as long as they’re willing to do the necessary work. Of course, only about half of the students who actually met with me did poorly on their exams…

I somehow survived all of these meetings over the course of about a month. I’m not sure whether it made me insane. Next up: meeting with my 50 advisees about their spring schedules!

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After the frustratingly low levels of student participation in my courses last fall I implemented a form of discussion questions in the spring semester that was designed to hold students accountable for class preparation while directing their reading to some specific topics that were relevant to the day’s discussion. In general, it seemed to work, so I am using them again this semester. While I require students to bring a copy of their answers with them to class (either handwritten or typed), some students type their answers but then have issues that prevent them from printing them before class. In these cases, students often e-mail them to me. Other than the fact that they won’t have their answers to refer to in class, I don’t have a problem with this practice. What I do have a problem with is the fact that, when sending them, students often refer to them as “homework.”

I realize that the difference between “discussion questions” and “homework” is largely semantic but, to me, discussion questions imply a student actively preparing for class, while homework implies busywork. The thing is, I don’t want students to see discussion questions as busywork. It is nice that they are preparing for class, but I hope that at least a few of them actually enjoy engaging with the material.


they’re discussion questions, not homework!

See the subject.

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