Posts Tagged ‘Research’

When discussing research methods, there are a number of barriers to overcome in the ways that my students think about research. One is the frequent use of the word “experiment” as a generic term for “study.” Although that is annoying, and some students still do it after a semester of methods training, I’ve found that it is even more difficult to reconcile students’ various uses of the term “research.”

In high school and some college departments, a research paper is one in which you combine information from several sources into a single paper. In this context, “research” consists of the gathering of sources, likely from Jstor and other electronic databases. Within sociology, I think that these papers are better conceptualized as literature reviews or review papers. In contrast to my students, I think of research as the collection and analysis of data, though even this is complicated by the fact that many sociologists who use existing surveys will never collect their own data.

Due to this terminological confusion, there must be at least a few students who enroll in research methods courses wondering how many ways there are to search Jstor and why they have to spend an entire semester learning to do so. Discovering that they will spend a semester discussing ways to collect and analyze data must be a shock!

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Two and a half years ago I faced an adjustment from teaching one or two courses per semester as a graduate student to teaching three courses per semester as a new assistant professor. My first semester taught me that I didn’t like preparing for MWF classes and that I didn’t have any time for research. In my second year I started my advising and service duties, adding additional off-campus involvement this year. In that time period I still haven’t had any time for research. Through the first two and a half years there has also been another factor contributing to my lack of research productivity: the fact that I have had at least one new course to prepare each semester.

After teaching seven different courses in the past two and a half years, this semester I’ve finally arrived at a point where none of my courses are new. Although one of my courses will require some changes from the last time I taught it, I will not need to spend my out-of-class time two days a week preparing for it. Hypothetically, this means that I will have some time for the numerous papers that I would like to finish up and send out for review. In order to use it productively, however, the increased time that I will have will likely need to be accompanied by a different approach to time management. In the past, I’ve set aside time for class prep and tried to squeeze in research whenever I could (typically when I was facing some sort of deadline). The problem with this approach was that when I wasn’t facing a deadline I often felt like I was “done” with my work when my class prep, meetings, and committee work were complete. This semester I plan to be much more deliberate about scheduling research time. Hopefully I will be able to make the most of the sorts of schedules my tenured colleagues have been enjoying for the past two and a  half years.

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The semester has barely started and I already feel like I am treading water.  I have short essays to grade from each of my three classes, committee meetings, and meetings with students.  Beyond this and my recurring Major Procrastination Disorder, I’m also teaching my third entirely new course since starting my job.  In total, I’ve taught seven different courses since starting just over two years ago.  With so much emphasis on course prep (I’ve never had a semester when I didn’t have to prep a new course or substantially revise an old one), once assignments and exams start rolling in there isn’t much time for anything else.  Then, when there is a moment when I finish my teaching-related work I feel like I’m “done.”  This feeling is similar to the lack of motivation I felt as a student after completing a major paper.  In these moments I often think of the research projects I want to work on.  I think about them as I’m drifting off to sleep for a rare mid-afternoon nap.

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As I discuss in some of my courses, one of the purposes of human subjects boards is to ensure that people are treated ethically by researchers.  I wonder, though, who ensures that the behavior of the human subjects board is ethical.  I discovered today that nearly the entire human subjects website for my school has been taken from another school.  This includes the relevant forms, instructions, and even the FAQ.  The worst part is that this fact is not even hidden.  While the links have been changed, the forms and FAQ refer repeatedly to an acronym that does not represent my institution but does represent an institution that is periodically named in the forms by mistake.  I haven’t been around long enough to be aware of any discussion that might have surrounded the adoption of these forms, but it appears that somebody decided that we needed a more robust human subjects review process and stole another school’s process rather than putting in the work of developing a process that will work best for our institution.  Of course, it is also possible that an underpaid and overworked staff member was given the task of updating the policies and  site.  Even so, the perpetrator may have chosen to pilfer from a peer institution.  The school the forms were taken from is ten times the size of my own.

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Based on the terminology my students use, it appears that they think of every research project as an “experiment.”  They are often surprised to learn that there are, in fact, many different types of research and that experiments make up only a small subset of these (especially among sociologists).  My favorite is when students describe an interpretive ethnographic research project as an experiment, since I imagine the blood pressure of ethnographers rising at the mere thought of such an association.

Keep trying students, you’ll get it right eventually!

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Pitse1eh’s post the other day about drowning in teaching as a first-semester assistant professor got me thinking about my own division of labor (or lack thereof).  She wrote:

I’m drowning. I really am. I find myself wondering if I worked all those long years just to get a job that I don’t even like. I constantly tell myself that it will get better, that everyone has a hard first year, that when all of my classes aren’t new prep things will calm down and I’ll be able to return to what I really love — research.

Over a month into my first semester as an assistant professor, I also haven’t had any time for research.  As I commented on her blog:

I’m in my first semester at a liberal arts school, and my experiences have been largely similar to yours. I have a 3-3 teaching load and I currently have two new preps, but I am exempt from service (including advising) this year. I teach at 8 or 9 am every day (and I am terrible at working from home), so I am in my office from 7:30-4:30 five days a week and do whatever else needs to be done at home (usually on Sundays). I’ve been working about 50 hours a week but exam season is in full swing so I anticipate that that will increase.

Next semester I will have one new prep and I will probably continue to have one or two new preps each semester for the next few years until I’ve covered all of the classes that will make up my primary rotation. As I look around at my colleagues, they have a set of prepared classes that they teach and occasionally teach a new course. They obviously still have to spend time grading but they are not doing nearly the amount of work to prepare that I am. I’m looking forward to getting to that point.

The biggest difference between the two of us seems to be that I like research but love teaching. Because of this, the fact that I have spent absolutely no time on research since the semester started doesn’t bother me. I’m looking forward to getting back to research over winter break and continuing next semester when I have a bit more time, but for now I don’t think much about it.

I would imagine that there are a lot of people in Pitse1eh’s position, having accepted jobs that will eventually allow them to spend time on research but finding themselves overwhelmed with teaching.  Although I’m not in this position, I’m still looking forward to next semester when I will have fewer preps and more classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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