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sense8: a damaged masterpiece

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Note: This post is rated G, but the show I talk about is rated R. Definitely NSFW!

I want to talk about Sense8, which got cancelled after two seasons, way before its plot lines were resolved. The Netflix original series is about eight people who come to learn they are all linked through psychic powers. They can borrow each other’s skills and memories. Not only does Sense8 have a neat premise, but the execution is superb. The Wachowskis, who direct and write the show, were able to shoot in *eight different cities* and seamlessly integrate the different story lines. They also recruited an amazing cast of actors, many international stars to fill out the series.

Not only is Sense8 a masterpiece of photography and production, the Wachowski’s reach new levels of maturity in their writing. By allowing the eight characters to see through each other’s eyes, they can explore identity and emotions in novel ways. For example, while I have seen many excellent films and television shows with LBGT themes, the show is the first, for this straight male, to effectively communicate the difficulties of LGBT people from a very interior perspective. In other words, when I watch a show with strong LGBT characters, I can appreciate the struggles and challenges they face. However, for me, Sense8 is the first show that provides straight viewers with rich metaphors and an emotional language for thinking about the first person experiences of people who have a non-heterosexual identity. That’s a real testament to the skill of the writers.

Another deep issue is that Sense8 is truly global. It has great American characters, and America is depicted in a great way, but it is not *centered* on America. We can see beautiful people living amazing, but connected, lives all over, from Kenya to Seoul. In another testament to the writers’ skill, the show rarely, if ever, veers into an uncritical multiculturalism. Rather, Sense8 excels when it grounds a story in multiple, simultaneous locations, suggesting that the story plays out in specific ways for each character, but still nods to the fact that people form a true global community, even if it is conflicted and tense.

Sadly Sense8 got cancelled after two seasons, so this uncanny story of eight linked empaths might never get the proper treatment it deserves. The good news is the Netflix allowed the team to do a wrap up movie and, if it proves popular enough, maybe a final  third season. But still, I don’t think it will be enough, given the major issues that were raised in the first two seasons and the format where each of the eight major characters gets a lot of attention. Still, I am glad we have this work and if you are a fan of ambitious art and television, I suggest you check it out.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

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Written by fabiorojas

November 20, 2017 at 5:01 am

rachel yoder/new york counterpoint

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50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

November 19, 2017 at 5:14 am

what nonacademics should understand about taxing graduate school

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There are many bad provisions in the proposed tax legislation. This isn’t even the worst of them. But it’s the one that most directly affects my corner of the world. And, unlike the tax deduction for private jets, it’s one that can be hard for people outside of that world to understand.

That proposal is to tax tuition waivers for graduate students working as teaching or research assistants. Unlike graduate students in law or medical or business schools, graduate students in PhD programs generally do not pay tuition. Instead, a small number of PhD students are admitted each year. In exchange for working half-time as a TA or RA, they receive a tuition waiver and are also paid a stipend—a modest salary to cover their living expenses.

Right now, graduate students are taxed on the money they actually see—the $20,000 or so they get to live on. The proposal is to also tax them on the tuition the university is not charging them. At most private schools, or at out-of-state rates at most big public schools, this is in the range of $30,000 to $50,000.

I think a lot of people look at this and say hey, that’s a huge benefit. Why shouldn’t they be taxed on it? They’re getting paid to go to school, for goodness sakes! And a lot of news articles are saying they get paid $30,000 a year, which is already more than many people make. So, pretty sweet deal, right?

Here’s another way to think about it.

Imagine you are part of a pretty typical family in the United States, with a household income of $60,000. You have a kid who is smart, and works really hard, and applies to a bunch of colleges. Kid gets into Dream College. But wait! Dream College is expensive. Dream College costs $45,000 a year in tuition, plus another $20,000 for room and board. There is no way your family can pay for a college that costs more than your annual income.

But you are in luck. Dream College has looked at your smart, hardworking kid and said, We will give you a scholarship. We are going to cover $45,000 of the cost. If you can come up with the $20,000 for room and board, you can attend.

This is great, right? All those weekends of extracurriculars and SAT prep have paid off. Your kid has an amazing opportunity. And you scrimp and save and take out some loans and your family comes up with $20,000 a year so your kid can attend Dream College.

But wait. Now the government steps in. Oh, it says. Look. Dream College is giving you something worth $45,000 a year. That’s income. It should be taxed like income. You say your family makes $60,000 a year, and pays $8,000 in federal taxes? Now you make $105,000. Here’s a bill for the extra $12,000.

Geez, you say. That can’t be right. We still only make $60,000 a year. We need to somehow come up with $20,000 so our kid can live at Dream College. And now we have to pay $20,000 a year in federal taxes? Plus the $7000 in state and payroll taxes we were already paying? That only leaves us with $33,000 to live on. That’s a 45% tax rate! Plus we have to come up with another $20,000 to send to Dream College! And we’ve still got a mortgage. No Dream College for you.

This is the right analogy for thinking about how graduate tuition remission works. The large majority of students who are admitted into PhD programs receive full scholarships for tuition. The programs are very selective, and students admitted are independent young adults, who generally can’t pay $45,000 a year. Unlike students entering medical, law, or business school, many are on a path to five-figure careers, so they’re not in a position to borrow heavily. Most of them already have undergraduate loans, anyway.

The university needs them to do the work of teaching and research—the institution couldn’t run without them—so it pays them a modest amount to work half-time while they study. $30,000 is unusually high; only students in the most selective fields and wealthiest universities receive that. At the SUNY campus where I work, TAs make about $20,000 if they are in STEM and $16-18,000 if they are not. At many schools, they make even less. (Here are some examples of TA/RA salaries.)

Right now, those students are taxed on the money they actually see—the $12,000 to $32,000 they’re paid by the university. Accordingly, their tax bills are pretty low—say, $1,000 to $6,000, including state and payroll taxes, if they file as individuals.

What this change would mean is that those students’ incomes would go up dramatically, even though they wouldn’t be seeing any more money. So their tax bills would go up too—to something like $5,000 to $18,000, depending on their university. Some students would literally see their modest incomes cut in half. The worst case scenario is that you go a school with high tuition ($45,000) and moderate stipends ($20,000), in which case your tax bill as an individual would go up about $13,000. Your take-home pay has just dropped from $17,500 a year to $4,500.

What would the effects of such a change be? The very richest universities might be able to make up the difference. If it wanted to, Harvard could increase stipends by $15,000. But most schools can’t do that. Some schools might try to reclassify tuition waivers to avoid the tax hit. But there’s no straightforward way to do that.

Some students would take on more loans, and simply add another $60,000 of graduate school debt to their $40,000 of undergraduate debt before starting their modest-paying careers. But many students would make other choices. They would go into other careers, or pursue jobs that don’t require as much education. International students would be more likely to go to the UK or Europe, where similar penalties would not exist. We would lose many of the world’s brightest students, and we would disproportionately lose students of modest means, who simply couldn’t justify the additional debt to take a relatively high-risk path. The change really would be ugly.

All this would be to extract a modest amount of money—only about 150,000 graduate students receive such waivers each year—as part of a tax bill that is theoretically, though clearly not in reality, aimed at helping the middle class.

It is important for the U.S. to educate PhD students. Historically, we have had the best university system in the world. Very smart people come from all over the globe to train in U.S. graduate programs. Most of them stay, and continue to contribute to this country long after their time in graduate school.

PhD programs are the source of most fundamental scientific breakthroughs, and they educate future researchers, scholars, and teachers. And the majority of PhD students are in STEM fields. There may be specific fields producing too many PhDs, but they are not the norm, and charging all PhD students another $6,000-$11,000 (my estimate of the typical increase) would be an extremely blunt instrument for changing that.

Academia is a strange and relatively small world, and the effects of an arcane tax change are not obvious if you’re not part of it. But I hope that if you don’t think we should charge families tens of thousands of dollars in taxes if their kids are fortunate enough to get a scholarship to college, you don’t think we should charge graduate students tens of thousands of dollars to get what is basically the same thing. Doing so would basically be shooting ourselves, as a country, in the foot.

[Edited to adjust rough estimates of tax increases based on the House version of the bill, which would increase standard deductions. I am assuming payroll taxes would apply to the full amount of the tuition waiver, which is how other taxable tuition waivers are currently treated. Numbers are based on California residence and assume states would continue not to tax tuition waivers. If anyone more tax-wonky than me would like to improve these estimates, feel free.]

Written by epopp

November 18, 2017 at 5:29 pm

it’s not you, it’s the job market

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It is very hard for young people to not take the job market personally. If you get interviewed and you get turned down, you can always ask: “What could I have done differently?” This is a very bad way to look at things. Why? Because in many cases, you can be perfect and still not get the job. Why? There are way more good candidates than jobs.

A real example. A few years ago, Indiana sociology did a job search in Fish Science.* So we advertised for Fish Scientists and, man, oh man, did we get a great batch of junior level Fish Scientists. The top twenty or thirty Fish Science applicants has pubs in American Fish Review, the American Journal of Fish and Social Fish.** The output of the top ten Fish Scientists would outpace any program in the country. It was amazing. Then we flew out three amazing Fish Scientists. And, once again, they had some amazing Fish research. Solid stuff.

So we settled on a young Fish Scientist and zey turned out amazing. Great colleague, good in the classroom and zey continued to do top notch Fish Science. Sometime last year, I decided to check in on the other junior Fish Scientists. Of course, I couldn’t remember everyone but I did remember a fair number of the top 20. Almost every single one I could remember continued to publish. Some went to other top 10 or 20 programs and have become starts in Fish Science.

Lesson? We often pretend that we picked the #1 absolutist and bestest candidate. But the truth is that many people could do the job and excel. I am happy with the Fish Scientist that we got, but I could easily imagine others doing well in that job or doing well in my job. If you are on the other side, it is easy to tell yourself stories but the truth is that the process is random and noisy. Job markets are like weather patterns, broad in outline but chaotic at the local level.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

*No, it is not an allusion to animals and society, or the person who wrote about the auto-ethnography of playing with their dog. And no, we didn’t do a search in ichthyology.

** Of course, we should also include Fish Problems.***

*** Ok, ok, let’s include Fishography. Happy now?

Written by fabiorojas

November 17, 2017 at 5:00 am

yes, even mediocre students deserve letters of recommendation

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Yes, I believe that letters of recommendation are garbage. But if we continue to require letters, faculty have a moral obligation to write them. Why? Part of being an educator is to evaluate students for the public and as long as they subsidize us professors, we need to satisfy the external demand for assessment.

Sadly, many professors take an opposite view. Students often report that professors turn them down. That happened to me all the time in graduate school. Letters were a precious commodity reserved for the best students. That is simply wrong.  In a great post at Scatter, Older Woman explains why you should write letters for most students:

The combination of a high workload per student who needs references and claims that all letters should be excellent or not written at all leads many instructors to refuse to write letters for any but A students or students they know well.  But is this fair?

Her answer?

There are a lot of graduate and professional programs out there with widely varying degrees of selectivity. Virtually all of them require three letters of reference for an application to be complete. Getting those three letters is a nightmare for some students because they have trouble tracking down their past instructors and some they do track down refuse to write for them for reasons ranging from the student’s mediocrity to the instructor’s sabbatical or general busyness. I have had conversations in which I tell a student that the letter I could write for them would not be a very good letter and the student would say: I don’t care what it says, I just need three letters. I’ve also talked to honors students who have done independent projects and have one or two excellent letters nailed down who are still desperately shopping for somebody, anybody, to write their third letter, because no matter how good the first two letters are, the application will not be complete without the third.

My view is that all of us who are regular faculty (either tenure track or non-contingent adjuncts) should treat writing letters of reference as an often-annoying but important part of our job. These letters should be honest, and we certainly owe it to the student to tell them honestly if the letter we would be able to write would be tepid or contain negative information that would not help them. We also owe it to the student to ask them about their plans, about their perceptions of the selectivity of the program they are applying to, and whether they have done their homework in selecting a program that fits their qualifications. But if the student feels they want or need the letter anyway after this disclosure and discussion, we should write the letter.

Correct! Basically, letters are not the special property of A students. Many graduate programs simply want to know that the person did decently. Instructors are not required to write special letters for everyone. Most students just want a few sentences explaining that they showed up and did relatively decently. In fact, I think it is totally ok to write one form letter for decent, but not great, students that you can customize as you see fit. It is a requirement for large, public institutions.

Heck, you can even write short and honest letters for crummy students. A real example: In my first year teaching, a dude name Jiffy* asked me for a letter. He was a really weak student. C in intro sociology and seemed spaced out. I said, “sure, but the letter will reflect your current grade – C.” He said that was totally ok. All he wanted was a study abroad letter and all it needed to say was that he attended class and was passing. And so I wrote that letter. All I wrote was a paragraph saying that he showed up to class and would answer questions if called upon. That’s it.

I never did hear back from Jiffy but I Googled him a year ago. He’s now a successful dentist. And you know what, if I helped some dentist enjoy a semester abroad, that’s not a bad thing.

Bottom line: Quit your whining and write that letter. If you don’t think it is part of the job, get another job.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

*Not a real name.

Written by fabiorojas

November 16, 2017 at 5:08 am

Posted in academia, fabio, teaching

new post-doc program in inequality at harvard

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From the home office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a new post-doc is announced. An excerpt from the program description:

Social and economic inequality are urgent problems for our society, with implications for a range of outcomes from economic growth and political stability to crime, public health, family wellbeing, and social trust. The Inequality in America Initiative Postdoctoral Program seeks applications from recent PhD recipients interested in joining an interdisciplinary network of Harvard researchers who are working to address the multiple challenges of inequality and uncover solutions.

The postdoctoral training program is intended to seed new research directions; facilitate collaboration and mentorship across disciplines; develop new leaders in the study of inequality who can publish at the highest level, reach the widest audience, and impact policy; and deepen teaching expertise on the subject of inequality.

The Award

The fellowship is a two-year postdoctoral training program, with an optional third year conditional on program director approval and independent funding. The salary is $65,000/year plus fringe benefits, including health insurance eligibility.

The award will include appropriate office space; a one-time grant of $2500 for the purchase of computer equipment; a $10,000 research account to support research-related expenses; and up to $2500 per year reimbursement for research-related travel.

Check it out!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

November 15, 2017 at 5:01 am

unicorns and gazelles are black swans

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Both the public and scholars pay a disproportionate amount of attention to the Silicon Valley model of entrepreneurship. But for every startup that becomes a unicorn, a thousand more mundane businesses are started. Howard Aldrich and Martin Ruef contextualize this ordinary entrepreneurship in a special issue of Academy of Management Perspectives on the reemergence of “Main Street entrepreneurship”:

Dazed and confused by the wild hype surrounding gazelles and unicorns, entrepreneurship researchers have focused on the black swans of the entrepreneurial world, even though IPOs and venture capital financing of firms are extremely rare events. Despite their rarity, entrepreneurship conferences and journals have been filled with papers on various aspects of the process of “going public” and “VC networks.” Fortunately, in the middle of the Silicon Valley mania, other scholars have been paying attention to the mundane aspects of business startups – – the ordinary business starts, numbering in the hundreds of thousands each year in the United States for businesses with employees. This special issue gives us an opportunity to look back over what we believe to be scholars’ misplaced attention to the extreme and their neglect of the mundane. Correcting the misperception that has been introduced into the literature by selection biases favoring growing and profitable firms will give scholars and policymakers a more accurate and policy-relevant picture of entrepreneurship in the 21st century.

Check it out!

 

Written by epopp

November 14, 2017 at 1:00 pm