Archive for the ‘academia’ Category
The Guardian recently ran an article about Shimer College, a tiny great books college in Chicago, Illinois. Originally, the authors wanted to know why it had been ranked so low by the Department of Education. The answer is that there is a fair amount of non-completion, people leave with debt, and they don’t get great jobs. Why? Shimer College takes all kinds of students and makes them go through this unique curriculum of great books for four years. It sounds like a wonderful institution, but not one that produces the “right numbers.” It’s also a college that is very close to closing due to extremely low enrollments.
When I finished reading the article, I realized that Shimer College represented a puzzle. Normally, in a large market, like higher education, we see an explosion of organizational forms catering to different market segments. And to some extent, that’s exactly what happened in higher ed. We have research schools, tribal colleges, cosmetology schools, and an army of biblical colleges. But the liberal arts sector keeps shrinking and shrinking. Is it really all that hard to find 200 people in a nation of 300 million that wants the free wheeling inquiry of Shimer College?
Here’s my solution to the issue. Start with the observation that there’s a negative association between price and risk tolerance. When college is cheap, people will try out all kinds of college experiences. As it becomes more expensive and tied to the labor market, there is a huge pressure for conformity. You get diversity when there is a strong social identity supporting an institution (e.g., ethnicity or religion) or when students simply can’t be shoe horned into existing structures (e.g., cosmetology students don’t need football stadiums). Thus, liberal arts schools exist only for a market segment that (a) needs the four year credential, (b) really, really doesn’t want the standard package offered by the big universities, and (c) has the cash to pay for such a specialized service. You also have some liberal arts schools that are bankrolled by others (e.g., Deep Springs or Berea). You probably get down to a few thousand students per year at most and there is stiff competition for their money. And as prices keep going up, the market gets smaller.
So yes, there are probably tons of students who would love the liberal arts education, but not many who would pay the full sticker price. I hope that people can create a model where you bring people back to this type of education at a more reasonable price.
Mikalia Arthur is a long time reader of this blog, professor of sociology at Rhode Island College, and author of a book on social movements and higher education. I thought her comment on teaching colleges and what they want in job candidates was important enough that it deserves it’s own post.
I would point out that “teaching-focused institution” is too broad of a category to be able to say something sensible about. There are really four different categories (or maybe more, but I think 4 ideal types gives us the most parsimonious classification system) of teaching-focused institutions, and the way to approach each differs.
1) Selective Liberal Arts Colleges, and less-selective private liberal arts colleges or public honors colleges who wish they were/are trying to become SLACs: Here, you MUST come from a top program, or at least from a very prestigious university even if the soc program is maybe a little less fantastic. You must have top publications, though books tend to count a little better. You must have teaching experience. In particular, it is extremely helpful to have been an undergraduate at a SLAC. The right candidate might be able to get away with not meeting all of these requirements, especially if the institution has an esoteric need. At these jobs, faculty do a lot of teaching, advising, and service, but have phenomenal research resources (sabbaticals, funding, undergrad RAs, etc.)
2) Research institutions in name only: This is where I would put the CUNYs and many similar public institutions, as well as some privates which are in the midst of playing the status game. These are institutions which typically offer a significant number of graduate programs at the MA level and at least some at the Ph.D./professional level, though any given department may not have a graduate program. Faculty here have significant teaching loads, but can buy them out with grants; are expected to publish in quantity (quantity is often the key metric); and have low levels of research support though they do have graduate students and often good grants offices. These positions are the ones Colin was discussing. As a job candidate, someone told me not to work at a CUNY pre-tenure because of how intense the demands are. Hiring requirement may include teaching experience, but pubs and grants will be more important, and you need to be able to signal that you will achieve quantity in your pubs.
3) Truly teaching-focused institutions: This category would include community colleges and other low-prestige teaching institutions with very high teaching loads and low research requirements (note that I do not say no research requirements–one or two peer-reviewed pubs and some conference presentations may still be required, but it is unlikely to matter what the prestige of the pubs is and pedagogical pubs are highly valued). These institutions value teaching experience (at institutions with student bodies similar to their own) well above research experience and tend to be fine with low-prestige Ph.D. programs.
4) Comprehensive colleges: This is my type of institution. Teaching, advising, and service are far more important than research, and strictly speaking, official research requirements are fairly low. We hire people with strong teaching backgrounds in a variety of courses who have worked with non-elite students, but we expect them to be able to demonstrate an active research agenda, and promotion (which is somewhat decoupled from tenure at my institution) is not likely without ongoing research productivity. Prestige of publications, or of graduate degree institution, is not a central qualification, though I can’t say we ignore it entirely. People with great research but little teaching experience do occasionally get hired, but will find the transition miserable and will often voluntarily or involuntarily leave.
So, I think the advice in the OP is very helpful, but I would emphasize that if you want a job at category 3 or 4 institutions, you need teaching experience, preferably at a less-selective institution, preferably to include some online or hybrid courses, preferably to include some smaller courses, and preferably to include a variety of course titles. Research topics do not matter as much, especially if you can claim to teach the stuff we need (in sociology, you should be able to teach criminology and probably research methods, but your research need not have anything to do with criminology). It helps if you have an ongoing research agenda that you will be able to continue at the new institution without much in the way of research support, and if you have at least one or two peer-reviewed pubs out already. And if helps if you actually like teaching. If you want a job at a category 2 institution, teach a couple of courses, but focus on your research and follow all the advice in this post. And if you want a job at a category 1 institution, and you won’t have the right names on your CV, you need to readjust your plans.
note: this is my first post in a while and I’m a bit rusty. I accidentally hit “publish” on a decidedly un-publishable version of this in the midst of editing and writing earlier. Sorry for the confusion.
I was asked a few weeks ago to comment on the fact that a French economist has been awarded the Nobel Prize this year. Frankly, the answer I gave was kind of lame:
… Sean Safford, an associate professor of economic sociology at Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, the elite institute for political studies known as Sciences Po, said the awarding of the prize to Mr. Tirole, a professor of economics at the University of Toulouse in France, was notable for coming at a time of economic malaise and brain drain, when so many of the country’s brightest are emigrating elsewhere in Europe or to the United States. “The average French person, who is struggling to pay the bills, is not going to rejoice,” he said.
I’ve been mulling over what I meant to say since then. It started to come together when I read Paul Krugman’s lengthy reflection yesterday on a recent working paper by my colleagues Marion Fourcade and Yann Algan who, along with their co-author, Ettienne Ollion have written a little incendiary bomb of a paper titled The Supremacy of Economics. The paper documents the striking dominance that economics has achieved since the 1980s over sociology and political science in the United States. I read The Supremacy of Economics immediately on the heals of another of Marion’s papers, this one with Rakesh Khurana which documents the rise of financial economics within American business schools. Taken together the two papers paint a clear picture establishing that the discipline of economics — and financial economics in particular — has taken a confidently dominant position at in the United States which has given it unprecedented sway in the halls of policy-making and of commerce and proposes a compelling account of how it got there.
Krugman calls the tone of The Supremacy of Economics “jaundiced”. I would call it wistful. You get the sense that it could have gone another way if it weren’t for the social skill of certain individuals and the interlocking of particular ecologies at particular points in time. (If that wasn’t the tone Marion and the others meant to convey, then I’ll claim it for myself.)
If that alternative is possible anywhere, it should be in France where I now live and work, since — as is the case with its food, its wine and its health care system — here in France the nexus of academic, political and business elites is different. Very different.
In contrast to the story that Marion and her various colleagues tell about the US, academic disciplines (including economics) have not — yet — assumed the central role in France that they have in the American scene. As Bourdieu observed with far far greater skill than I could, French grandes ecoles are unapologetic factories of elite self-reproduction. Most teachers are graying wizened poobahs of their field. Politicians and policy-makers teach other politicians and policy-makers. Engineers teach other engineers. And researchers basically teach and train other researchers on how to be researchers, and thats all. Period.
As Marion and Rakesh show, American business schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries were organized along lines not all that different from the French model. There may have been economists at the helm, but the predominant logic was vocational in the sense that the teachers were mainly practitioners who saw their roles as socializing a younger generation to the norms of the field as situated within prevailing moral values of the day. (Moreover, the “economists” were of the old-school institutionalist variety, not today’s preening quant-jocks).
This begs the question: How did the academics break this pattern to lay claim to teaching, consulting and advice-giving well beyond their home “territory” in America? And how, ultimately, did the (financial) economists come to dominate it? The story Marion and Rakesh tell is fascinating and it is well told. It involves strategic action, social skill and a healthy dose of help from the Ford Foundation all couched within a nuanced theory that mingles Fligstein, McAdam, Bourdieu, MacKensie, Callon and Abbot almost in equal measure. Briefly put, there are two major steps that led America down that particular path. The first was the appearance of an alternative model pioneered at Carnegie-Mellon. Seeking to establish itself in a field dominated by Harvard and Wharton, Carnegie-Mellon hewed to a boldly discipline-based approach to business education. This alternative was amplified by the Ford Foundation which was seeking to differentiate itself within its own competitively saturated field. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, it was understood that previous models of training the elite had produced disappointing results. The Foundation latched on to Carnegie-Mellon’s idea and worked to diffuse it throughout the field. The second step brings in the University of Chicago which ran with the idea of discipline-based teaching, but focused it much more sharply on economics and in particular, on financial economics. The GSB then became the leading player in the “performative” turn which has brought financial economics into boardrooms, Wall Street, the halls of government and of course, the annals of social science.
Which brings us back to France.
France today faces what the Times (constantly) refers to as “persistent malaise.” The economy is flat. The European project is stalled. Its political elite are perceived as out of touch. There is a sense that the system around which France has been organized since 1946 is… just kind of disappointing. And this has led to a broad reflection on the process by which this country produces its political elite.
Sciences Po, where I work, sits at the center of that debate. In the years after the Second World War, General De Gaulle gave Sciences Po a special status that made it the primary path to entering the bottom rung of France’s administrative and political elite, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. Sciences Po’s teachers were largely drawn from the ranks of the political elite itself. But the school has moved in recent years to beef up its academic credentials and in large part that shift has been justified by a familiar narrative: it is the disciplines, with a dispassionate and theoretically grounded approach, that should take the lead in defining the curriculum of elite education. (As an example: Dominique Strauss-Kahn taught Sciences Po’s main introduction to economics course up until his appointment at the IMF. Today its taught by… Yann Algan).
Here’s the thing, while Marion and Rakesh expertly situate their account within a smartly argued and largely persuasive theory of “linked ecologies”, I could not help feeling that there was an element of chance involved in the ultimate rise of financial economics in the US: The University of Chicago happened to become home to a troika of free-market true believers which included Milton Friedman. The result, ultimately, leads us to The Supremacy of Economics. Could there have been an alternative? One that was less dogmatic? One in which the other disciplines were not isolated and ultimately relegated to the junior leagues?
This brings me back to a French economist winning this year’s Nobel.
When I arrived at Sciences Po, I was impressed by the idea that sociology, political science and economics stood on a more equal footing here than had been the case, certainly, when I was on the faculty of the Chicago GSB. I felt the conditions existed here in which a real dialogue across these disciplines could produce a richer, more compelling approach. It was a place where what we call “economic sociology” could find a fresh home.
I still hope that. But that outcome is by no means inevitable. Winning the Nobel Prize in economics this year and the phenomenal success of Thomas Pickety’s book raise the profile of economics in this country precisely at a moment when political, business and academic elites are questioning the system and looking for the kinds of concrete answers that disciplinary economics provides. In other words, the conditions exist for the intermingling of intellectual streams which seems possible here to breakdown and head down a path toward a European version of The Supremacy of Economics.
Yet the very existence of the paper that motivated this post is a prime example of the kind of dialogue which seemed (and still seems) possible here suggestiing that that outcome could turn out differently. After all, Marion is a prominent young sociologist of world-class capabilities, Yann Algan is very much her equal in economics and the paper was written during Marion’s two-year sabbatical at Sciences Po. But the lesson that I take from Marion and Rakesh’s work is that economic sociology — or whatever you want to call this more egalitarian approach to social science — needs to “perform” itself. And it does that by building a curriculum capable of producing the next generation of elites.
My bottom line is: If economic sociology is to amount to anything, this kind of cross-disciplinary dialogue must continue and it must mature into something that does more than simply critique the hegemony of economics. What it must turn into is a curriculum.
The opportunity is there. But is economic sociology ready for prime time? (Oh, and does anyone have a good contact at the Ford Foundation?)
As the author of an advice manual for graduate students, people ask me about strategies for students in low ranked doctoral programs. Specifically, how does one start an academic career in a department that doesn’t have a track record of placement? Here is what I advise:
- First, accept what you cannot change. Sadly, there is a lot of evidence that there is a halo effect in academia. For example, there is a well known experiment where some psychologists resubmitted published papers to journals and randomly changed the names of authors to see if status mattered. Answer: yes. There is little one can do about this, so don’t waste precious energy worrying about it.
- Second, learn about overcompensation and counter-signalling. In other words, people don’t expect much from individuals in low status positions. Actively show that they are wrong. For example, if you work in an area that is low status, actively try to get published in a high status journal. My own example: much of my work has focused on ethnic studies and its history. That is really low status – trust me, I wrote a book on it! What I did was worked extra hard on getting it into mainstream social science journals (see the next step).
- Third, persistence. Often, the only difference between moderately successful and really successful people is persistence. You don’t know how many times I have wondered, “Why on earth didn’t that person resubmit that great paper?” If you take the reviewers’ advice seriously, you will improve and place well. When I ask people with unusual research, “how on earth did that get published?” The answer usually involves submitting it a million times.
- Fourth, choose your allies carefully. If you are in a high ranked program, the damage suffered from a bad dissertation adviser can be mitigated. Even an incompetent Princeton adviser can place the occasional student. A bad adviser at Yahoo State can doom your career before you get started. Be completely cold blooded and unemotional in how you choose faculty. Choose advisers who publish and place students.
- Fifth, show mainstream competence. Often, low ranked programs are the home of heterodox scholars. That is not intrinsically bad, but often that becomes an excuse for rejecting the mainstream or not seriously engaging with it. It also means that the faculty may not have the best connections. So if you do unusual work, do it in a way that shows a real understanding of the mainstream and shows multiple marks of excellence. That Ivy League grad can get away with doing a post-modern rational choice auto-ethnography of snowball fights, but you won’t. Show that you “get it.”
The next two apply to all students, but even more so to students in low status positions:
- Apply widely. My experience is that a typical grad student in an elite program might need only 15-20 applications for a single fly-out during “good year” – which, by the way, is still a 95% rejection rate! In contrast, students at places of more modest reputation might need conduct a multi-year search and increase the number of applications. So, large N – that’s your strategy.
- Move sideways. Academia is a very rigid system and people will be quick to peg you into a slot. One way to avoid that is to apply for quality positions outside your area. It is often the case that your virtues will be appreciated by someone outside your group. If you have an arts and sciences PhD, you can often do much better in a professional school or an interdisciplinary area than within the older arts and science departments. Look at growth areas instead of older areas that are stable and crowded.
To sum up: accept what you can’t change; strive for signals of quality; avoid deadwood; apply widely; and consider career building lateral moves. Please use the comments to post your own advice.
So I should start this post by first saying that I’m thrilled that Sociological Science exists. It is terrific that a group of folks did the hard work — and I imagine it’s been a lot — of putting together a high quality, open access journal that sidesteps the protracted review process we all love to hate, that evaluates quality rather than importance, and that values replication as a scientific contribution. I’ve been impressed by the caliber of the articles and love that they’re getting covered in places like Salon and Daily Kos.
In fact, it’s only because Soc Science has clearly been successful, and I think will become even more so in the future, that this is even worth bringing up: What does it mean for qualitative sociology?
At orgtheory, we’ve repeatedly discussed whether letters of recommendation (LOR) are useful or not. For some committees and tasks, LOR can help decision-making a lot – for example, undergraduate admissions, graduate school admissions, and tenure for professors. But for other committees and matters, LOR serve a per forma function and are less likely to impart information useful for decision-making. Worse, LOR can increase workloads for letter-writers, especially when they are at institutions that do not offer support for this kind of bureaucratic task.*
Nonetheless, committed letter-writers dutifully carry out their responsibilities, especially since LOR can be consequential.** As Fabio, olderwoman, David Meyer, and others have pointed out, writing effective LOR is an art, with carefully coded language that require fluency on the parts of both letter-writers and letter-readers. Otherwise, what one letter-writer might view as effusive could be interpreted as a lukewarm endorsement by readers; hyperbolic letters with hierarchical rankings ( i.e., “best student ever”) might be considered suspect. But what if LOR and related documents were brutally honest about their contexts, rather than merely following convention?
A recently published novel Dear Committee Members takes aim at these bureaucratic documents and their institutions’ crumbling support. Julie Schumacher‘s novel unfolds as a series of documents composed by a professor for various audiences. Check out the following reviews for tidbits.
Announcement from one of the hippest groups in sociology:
CALL FOR ABSTRACTS
2015 Junior Theorists Symposium
August 21, 2015
SUBMISSION DEADLINE: FEBRUARY 13, 2015
We invite submissions for extended abstracts for the 9th Junior Theorists Symposium (JTS), to be held in Chicago, IL on August 21st, 2015, the day before the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA). The JTS is a one-day conference featuring the work of up-and-coming theorists, sponsored in part by the Theory Section of the ASA. Since 2005, the conference has brought together early career-stage sociologists who engage in theoretical work.
We are pleased to announce that Patricia Hill Collins (University of Maryland), Gary Alan Fine (Northwestern University), and George Steinmetz (University of Michigan) will serve as discussants for this year’s symposium.
In addition, we are pleased to announce an after-panel on “abstraction” featuring Kieran Healy (Duke), Virag Molnar (The New School), Andrew Perrin (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Kristen Schilt (University of Chicago). The panel will examine theory-making as a process of abstraction, focusing on the particular challenge of reconciling abstract “theory” with the concrete complexities of human embodiment and the specificity of historical events.
We invite all ABD graduate students, postdocs, and assistant professors who received their PhDs from 2011 onwards to submit a three-page précis (800-1000 words). The précis should include the key theoretical contribution of the paper and a general outline of the argument. Be sure also to include (i) a paper title, (ii) author’s name, title and contact information, and (iii) three or more descriptive keywords. As in previous years, in order to encourage a wide range of submissions we do not have a pre-specified theme for the conference. Instead, papers will be grouped into sessions based on emergent themes and discussants’ areas of interest and expertise.
Please send submissions to the organizers, Hillary Angelo (New York University) and Ellis Monk (University of Chicago), at firstname.lastname@example.org with the phrase “JTS submission” in the subject line. The deadline is February 13, 2014. We will extend up to 12 invitations to present by March 13. Please plan to share a full paper by July 27, 2015.