Archive for the ‘academia’ Category
I’ve been thinking a lot about academics who do non-academic writing. One of my favorites is Molly Worthen, who writes regularly for The New York Times. I talked to her about her process, and she said part of how she swings it is by basically focusing on academic books and then articles for the popular press. She doesn’t really do that many book chapters or peer-reviewed articles. That’s a bit easier to pull off as a historian, though there are certainly sociologists (and sociology departments) that focus on books as well, so it’s by no means an impossible model for sociologists to imitate.
I recently wrote an article for Slate, and it was a lot of fun. But it had me thinking about the difference between academic writing, blogs, and writing for a place like Slate. Some of the feedback I got on the piece sort of proved my point about scientism. The comments about how science is all we will ever need made me wish I could have mentioned Charles Taylor’s concept of a subtraction story in the piece (it was in my first draft). But a lot of the rest of the feedback was quite helpful both on the substance of my argument and on its rhetorical moves. I like the piece, but it obviously could have been better in a variety of ways.
However, this isn’t a post about my piece. Rather, it’s a post about how, had I written the piece for an academic audience, I would have had the chance to present it at a few conferences or workshops, get ideas from colleagues, and then get the stern admonitions of anonymous reviewers. I also could have assumed a lot of previous knowledge that I just can’t assume when I’m writing for a popular audience, even an audience like Slate’s (or, for Molly, the New York Times), where you can assume a pretty educated readership. There’s also the question of speed. It’s pretty frustrating how long academic publishing can take, but it can also help you to work out a lot of the kinks in an argument.
But this has me thinking: how is this any different from blogs? And I think a big piece of it is that blogs are less like an article for a broader public and much more like a paper-in-progress presentation, especially for blogs like Org Theory and Scatterplot that have a very specific readership. It’s a way to float or work out an idea that might well be less formed than an article in a popular website, magazine, or newspaper would have to be, yet the blogger still gets the benefit of being able to speak in a shorthand that wouldn’t be possible in those venues.
It also had me thinking of Johann Neem’s piece on the virtue of academic writing as an end in itself, which came out a while ago but is worth seeing if you haven’t seen it:
Yet there is a risk when we mistakenly assume that public and scholarly writing are the same thing — that one is good and clear and the other is needlessly complex. Critics often blame academics for overusing verbiage that is meaningless to the general public. But jargon and complexity have their place. One need only ask whether theoretical physicists would have been able to achieve their insights if each of them had to write for lay readers like me instead of for each other. Of course not.
There is jargon, and then there is jargon. In my own field of history, shared references to specific scholars, concepts, or schools of historiography can open up worlds of meaning economically. It allows us to focus on our shared task: scholarly inquiry.
Do scholars sometimes hide behind jargon? Of course. Can jargon mask emptiness? Yes. Do scholars sometimes use jargon when more accessible language is available? No doubt. Does jargon primarily serve the needs of tenure and promotion? Sometimes. Should academics write as clearly as they can? Yes. There is good academic writing and bad, just as there is good public writing and bad. But can we do away with jargon? Not if by jargon we mean scholarship that uninitiated readers simply cannot understand. Indeed, to do so would make it impossible for philosophy to achieve its goals.
At the website Chronicle Vitae, Scot Gibson, who took a job in Ecuador, argues that many humanities PhDs should seriously consider moving abroad. The core of the argument makes sense – the pay is often comparable to low paying humanities jobs in the US and you may be eligible for a lower student loan repayment plan. Also, given the ability of many scholars to access research materials online, moving abroad may not have a negative impact on your ability to do scholarship. And finally, there is the simple point that life should be about doing your job instead of looking for a job.
I have had a number of friends and colleagues be quite satisfied with jobs overseas. For example, I haven’t heard too many complaints from those in Anglophone nations. A few colleagues have tried schools in the middle east, such as the NYU branch in Abu Dhabi, but you have to be willing to live in a culture that is often in conflict with many liberal values. And many folks find work in the expanding universities of Hong Kong, China and Korea.
The bottom line is this. Academia is tough and a lot of good people don’t find jobs. At the same time, the costs of working overseas are not as high as they used to be. Salaries are creeping up as nations develop and universities aren’t so bloated and bureaucratic as they used they are in the states. Working overseas may a good choice.
In this month’s ASA Footnotes, there is an article called “Is ASA Only for the Rich?” This passage stuck out:
As with most member organizations, ASA’s membership has fluctuated over the last half century. It grew rapidly in the 1960s to an historic high of 14,934 in 1972, and then declined steadily in the 1970s to a low of 11,223 in 1984. A period of resurgence followed with membership reaching just over 13,000 by 1991. While it remained relatively constant across the 1990s, membership dropped to 12,368 by 2001. It then climbed rapidly back to near its historic peak, reaching 14,000 in all but one year between 2006 and 2011. The last four years have again seen declines, with final 2015 membership at 11,949.
Whoa. Let me rephrase this, ASA membership has dropped to the lowest levels in over 32 years. This is amidst a modest economic recovery in the early 2010s and an overall expansion of higher education where many sociologists are working in business schools, education schools, and policy schools.
In the rest of the article, Mary Romero presents data showing that the composition of the ASA hasn’t changed much and that those who are ASA members attend at relatively high rates compared to the past.
Here’s my conjecture: A long, long time ago, ASA fees were probably low, adjusting for inflation. Then, they slowly crept up. As they crept up in the 2000s, people still enrolled since universities would foot the bill. But in the recession of 2008, many universities cut back or eliminated travel budgets for faculty and universities (mine did!). Also, pre-2008, most folks probably were signing up to get journals. Now, almost all university based students and faculty can get the major journals for free from the library. So there is no need to sign up for ASA unless you need to go to the conference, which explains the increase in the proportion of members who attend the ASA. To offset this, fees have to stay high, which drives away people.
I’d like to hear about your decision to sign up/not sign up for ASA. Personally, once travel funds were cut at IU a while back, I just stopped signing up unless I really, really had to go in an official capacity. Also, seeing that the dues are too damn high relative to other associations make me want to sign up even less. What is your reason for signing or not signing up? Use the comments.
From time to time, you’ll have a discussion about someone who did not get promoted but had a strong record. This raises the question of what a strong record is and, ultimately, what tenure is all about. When talking to people about tenure, I try to distinguish between three situations: the scholarly department; the bean counter department; and the crazy department.
Let’s first dispense with the crazy department. There are some programs that simply have difficult people or unreasonable standards that few people can satisfy. In that case, tenure has nothing to do with quality of record. It’s mainly about kowtowing to crazies or leaving town before dusk.
Appetite for Innovation: Creativity & Change at elBulli (To be published by Columbia University Press on July 12, 2016)
How is it possible for an organization to systematically enact changes in the larger system of which it is part? Using Ferran Adria’s iconic restaurant “elBulli” as an example of organizational creativity and radical innovation, Appetite for Innovation examines how Adria’s organization was able to systematically produce breakthroughs of knowledge within its field and, ultimately, to stabilize a new genre or paradigm in cuisine – the often called “experimental,” “molecular,” or “techno-emotional” culinary movement.
Recognized as the most influential restaurant in the world, elBulli has been at the forefront of the revolution that has inspired the gastronomic avant-garde worldwide. With a voracious appetite for innovation, year after year, Adrià and his team have broken through with new ingredients, combinations, culinary concepts and techniques that have transformed our way of understanding food and the development of creativity in haute cuisine.
Appetite for Innovation is an organizational study of the system of innovation behind Adrià’s successful organization. It reveals key mechanisms that explain the organization’s ability to continuously devise, implement and legitimate innovative ideas within its field and beyond. Based on exclusive access to meetings, observations, and interviews with renowned professionals of the contemporary gastronomic field, the book reveals how a culture for change was developed within the organization; how new communities were attracted to the organization’s work and helped to perpetuate its practice, and how the organization and its leader’s charisma and reputation were built and maintained over time. The book draws on examples from other fields, including art, science, music, theatre and literature to explore the research’s potential to inform practices of innovation and creativity in multiple kinds of organizations and industries.
The research for Appetite for Innovation was conducted when Adria’s organization was undergoing its most profound transformation, from a restaurant to a research center for innovation, “elBulli foundation”. The book, therefore, takes advantage of this unique moment in time to retrace the story of a restaurant that became a legend and to explore underlying factors that led to its reinvention in 2011 into a seemingly unparalleled organizational model.
Appetite for Innovation is primarily intended to reach and be used by academic and professionals from the fields of innovation and organizations studies. It is also directed towards a non-specialist readership interested in the topics of innovation and creativity in general. In order to engage a wider audience and show the fascinating world of chefs and the inner-workings of high-end restaurants, the book is filled with photographs of dishes, creative processes and team’s dynamics within haute cuisine kitchens and culinary labs. It also includes numerous diagrams and graphs that illustrate the practices enacted by the elBulli organization to sustain innovation, and the networks of relationships that it developed over time. Each chapter opens with an iconic recipe created by elBulli as a way of illustrating the book’s central arguments and key turning points that enable the organization to gain a strategic position within its field and become successful.
To find a detailed description of the book please go to: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/appetite-for-innovation/9780231176781
Also, Forbes.com included Appetite for Innovation in its list of 17 books recommended for “creative leaders” to read this summer: http://www.forbes.com/sites/berlinschoolofcreativeleadership/2016/05/15/17-summer-books-creative-leaders-can-read-at-the-beach/#7ac430985cef
Don’t worry, I won’t give away state secrets.
In the 2000-01 and 2002-03 academic years, I worked at the American Journal of Sociology as a member of the manuscript intake group and later as an associate editor. I also worked for a while, roughly at the same time, as the managing editor of Sociological Methodology, which was then edited by my dissertation advisor, Rafe Stolzenberg. In this post, I want to tell you a little bit about how top academic journals work. This is important because academics reward people based on getting into highly selective journals. There should be a lot of discussion about how the institution works and what does and does not get accepted.
Background: The AJS is the oldest general interest journal in American sociology and has, during its entire existence, been based at the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. To my knowledge, it has never rotated to another program. In fact, the relationship between the Department and the journal is so strong that one of Chicago’s faculty, Andy Abbott, has written a very nice monograph just about the AJS called Department and Discipline. It’s a good book and you should read it if you want to either understand the evolution of journals or how Chicago fits in to the broader discipline.
Some time ago, the AJS developed this system where students were strongly involved in the operation of the journal. For example, the AJS usually is run by a full time manager, the incredible Susan Allan, and a few students who run the office. These folks do budgets, office organization, crazy amounts of paper work, and a whole lot more. But it goes beyond administration. Students are deeply involved in the shaping the journal’s content.
At the time I was a doctoral student, the AJS was organized into three major committees: the editorial board, which is always headed by a senior professor; a manuscript intake group, which assigned reviewers to papers; and a book review board, also headed by faculty. The manuscript intake group and the book review board are mainly staffed by students. The editorial board usually has one or two students on it, who have a major voice.
In contrast, Sociological Methodology was run like many specialty journals. You had a manager (me) and the editor (Prof. Stolzenberg) who choose reviewers, read reviews, and made decisions. These two people did about 90% of the work running the journal
Lessons from working at AJS: In many ways, the AJS resembled other major journals that must process hundreds of papers per year. There is a basic intake/review/decision cycle. That process has up and down sides. The up side is that the journal review process is actually pretty decent at weeding out garbage. After a while, you can easily spot bad papers. Unending rants, poor spelling, poor formatting, lack of data. Another upside is that many papers do actually improve once people respond to reviewers.
I also saw some of the downsides of the review process. For example, I discovered that only about a third of people agree to consistently review papers, making the workload highly unequal. Some of the patterns are obvious. A lot of people stop answering the mail post-tenure. People in some sub-fields are simply bad citizens and refuse to write reviews or write bad ones. Finally, like a lot of journals, we could let papers fall between the cracks and go without a decision.
Perhaps the biggest insight that I had was the power of editors and the randomness that goes into a “great paper.” Example: while I was on the editorial board, we had a paper with ok but not great reviews. I read it and disagreed strongly. Right as the chief editor was about to assign it to the reject pile, I interjected. It was published and was covered by the national media. This may sound like a great story, which it is, it also shows the weakness of the journal system. If I had been absent that week, or if we had another student editor, the paper would have been rejected. Conversely, I am sure that I overlooked some excellent work.
A related lesson is that the chief editor matters a great deal. An editor can doom a paper from a scholar they don’t like, or on a topic they hate, by simply assigning it to known mean reviewers. Editorial influence appears in other ways. While most papers are clear rejects, many are on the border. An interventionist editor can strongly affect what is accepted from these border line cases. One editor I worked with would actually ask the authors for the data and rerun the analysis to see if reviewer 2’s criticism was right. Another is very comfortable with adding a few suggestions and then just tossing it back to the authors. The power of editors, and the Chicago department, also manifests itself in the fact that AJS is way more tolerant of longer, theory driven papers than other peer social science journals.
A second lesson is that there are big structural factors that influence what gets published. The first factor is type of research. Simply put, ethnographers produce papers at a slower rate than demographers. So if you have a small number of papers, it doesn’t make sense to risk it all on the AJS. Instead, you move to the book or more specialized journals.That’s one reason why ethnographic work is rare in top journals A second factor is culture. There are some sub-fields where the reviewers seem to be really difficult. For example, during the late 1990s, there seemed to be a sort of feud in social psychology. Each side would tank the others in the review process. Ethnography is similar. When people did submit field work papers, it was nearly impossible to get 2 or 3 reviewers to say “this is good enough.” Just endless and endless demands.
The final lesson I took is that we are humans and we are biased. While 95% of decisions really based on reviews, there were definitely times that our biases showed. There were one or two papers I promoted because I was excited about social movement research. At other times, decisions took into account touchy political situations and author prestige. As I said, this is not typical but it does happen and I include myself in this evaluation.
Lessons from Working at Sociological Methodology: This was a totally different experience. Instead of being embedded in a larger group, it was just literally me and a filing cabinet and my advisor. We had a weekly meeting to discuss submissions, I took notes, and he told me what to do.
Probably the biggest take home point from working with Professor Stolzenberg was that editors make or break the journal. The dude was really on top of things and few papers went past 2 or 3 months. Once a paper couldn’t get a single review after six months and the editor wrote a letter to the author explaining the situation and they mutually agreed to release the paper from review.
Stolzenberg was also not afraid of people, a strong trait for an editor. He didn’t mind rejecting people and making the process speed up. Although he didn’t desk reject often, he was good about getting reviews and writing detailed rejection letters. That way, the journal didn’t get clogged with orphaned papers. The lesson is that there really is no excuse for slow reviews. Get reviews, reject the paper, or get the hell out of the editing business.
Final note – authors and reviewers are lame: I conclude with a brief discussion of reviewers and authors. First, authors are quite lame. They are slow at responding to editor. They fail to read reviewer comments or take them seriously. And even more puzzling, they fail to resubmit after the R&R. I was shocked to discover that a fairly large fraction of AJS and SM papers at the R&R stage were not resubmitted. Perhaps a third or so. Second, reviewers are lame. As Pamela Oliver put it so well in the recent American Sociologist, the review process is simply broken. Reviewers ask for endless revisions, the focus on vague issues like framing, or simply write hostile and unhelpful reviews. So I thank the 1/3 of academics who write prompt and professional reviews and I curse the 2/3 of shirkers and complainers to an eternity of reading late reviews that criticize the framing of the paper.