Archive for the ‘academia’ Category
I am often asked: why don’t I study Latinos? Answer: I don’t have any good ideas. That’s it. If I had a great research idea, I would do it. Let me tell you, I would definitely do it and it would be YUGE.
Still, the question is worth thinking about in more detail. One might say that the question is racist, but I don’t think so. Normally, people like doing academic research about themselves. White people usually study white people and Black people like to study black people. Not a hard and fast rule, but we shouldn’t be surprised that American high schools teach American history instead of Albanian history. Thus, it’s ok to ask why I am focused on out groups.
Another way to think about the question is why I haven’t spent the time and effort working on Latino communities in search of research questions. For example, I have been asked a few times why I wrote on Black Studies instead of Latino Studies. There, the answer is simple. For the book, I preferred a “large N” data set. There are hundreds of Black Studies programs, but only a few dozen Latino or Hispanic American Studies programs. No systematic reasons. It’s just that I haven’t found the right case to make the right argument.
The lesson here is that what you study can be an idiosyncratic mix of personal identity and opportunity. If I weren’t interested in disciplines and higher education, I might have well arrived at a dissertation project that focused on Latinos. If my friend hadn’t asked me to help out with an antiwar studies project, I might have chosen a different post-dissertation topic. Who knows? If someone has a great idea on Latinos and approaches me, I’d probably try to help them.
One of the nice things about summer is getting to read stuff you don’t have to read. Matt Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City was excellent, and deserves the great deal of attention it received. The sociology is largely implicit, but it is absolutely there, and Desmond paints a compelling portrait of flawed but comprehensible individuals caught in a web of exploitative institutions from which it is very, very hard to escape.
But you know the good stuff is always in the footnotes, right? And my favorite footnote is not about Lamar, the neighborhood father figure whose legs froze off when, high on crack, he passed out in an abandoned house; or Lorraine, who tries to find a little joy in her otherwise grinding poverty by spending her food stamps on lobster.
According to Google Scholar, there are more than 4,800 scholarly articles and books in which the phrase “Moving to Opportunity” appears in the text. This neighborhood relocation initiative designed to move families out of disadvantaged neighborhoods was a bold and important program—which served roughly 4,600 households. In other words, by now every family who benefited from Moving to Opportunity could have their own study in which their program was mentioned.
Ouch. Point very much taken.
After completing a Ph.D., how to get a tenure-track position, secure tenure, and advance to full and beyond are not clear, particularly since multiple layers of bureaucracy (committees, department, division, school, and university board) have a say over candidates’ cases. Despite written policies specifying criteria and process for tenure and promotion, universities can interpret these policies in ways that advance or push out qualified candidates. Over at feministwire, Vilna Bashi Treitler shares her experiences with the tenure process at one university, where unofficial teaching evaluations were apparently used to justify a tenure vote:
In my case, I was unable to defend myself when someone at my tenure hearing read verbatim from RateMyProfessor.com, a popular website where anyone can write anything about any professor in the country. The review reported me for “abandoning” my class. My colleagues discussed my case without reference to the medical emergency that pulled me from class: I lay, pregnant and bleeding, on doctor’s ordered bed rest, trying to save my baby. My colleagues failed to consider the testimonies of graduate students who taught the four class sessions that remained in the semester – at my own expense – or the fact that my website showed evidence that classes continued (with the aid of graduate students) and I distributed handouts online, despite my forced absence.
Perhaps most frustrating, it did not appear to matter to my colleagues that I had several peer-reviewed articles published in top journals, a book already published with a top-tier university press, a grant from the National Science Foundation for a new project, and mostly good reviews from students up until that time. This happened 10 years ago, and despite the opposition, I survived and succeeded in the academy. However, I never stopped facing challenges from white students who – despite signing up for my course, which at no time was ever a requirement – resist what I have to teach them, and in some cases, treat me with open disrespect.
Having served with Vilna on a committee overseeing dissertation proposals at the Graduate Center, CUNY and spending time with her discussing pedagogy, I can attest that she is very invested in students’ learning, no matter how difficult the topic. In sociology and related disciplines, we teach and discuss complex topics – inequality, discrimination, and the various –isms – that can challenge or even threaten people’s worldviews. The individualistic emphasis in the US makes it especially difficult to convey alternative ways of thinking.
Vilna’s post includes several recommendations for the academy. In particular, she urges colleagues who have power to act on behalf of those who do not:
We must stand behind the promises we made to young faculty when we hired them: if you produce high quality scholarship, we will award you the tenure you need to continue conducting cutting edge research. Any scholar who makes the grade with notable and widely accepted peer-reviewed scholarship should not have their fates sealed in closed-door processes with little transparency or overt accountability where the complaints of a relatively tiny number of students – of course, students have never published research or taught courses themselves – are given undue weight. (Of course, bad teaching should not be rewarded, but we have other ways to assess teaching, including examining syllabi, having faculty regularly observed by peer scholars, and creating and encouraging the use of teaching centers where new scholar-teachers can seek aid in improving their classroom skills.)
Faculty who serve on committees that make these decisions know when injustice is being committed, and the time is now to take a stand. Standing up to proceedings that negate principles of both academic freedom and honor among colleagues and that allow racism and sexism to decide who is a quality scholar is risky and requires courage, but is nevertheless necessary. It is difficult to ask questions aloud about what’s not happening when a colleague looks like they’re being railroaded. If you stand up, you effectively become a whistleblower, for which there might be retaliation – but if you’re tenured, that’s exactly what tenure is for: protection from punishment for following through on ideas that may be unpopular. So when the tide turns against a junior colleague in your department or university, the difficult but morally right thing to do would be to take a bold step to stand up and at minimum question why.
And standing up takes many forms. When the conversation turns towards student complaints about a professor, inform your colleagues that student evaluations have gender and race biases (see here, and here, too). Find out if the professor has good evaluations that are being ignored or downplayed. Ask whether colleagues are overlooking other evidence of good teaching, like positive peer observations, or syllabi chock full of information about assignments, how grades are determined, and classroom policies. Professors who stand up must ask about the rest of the scholarly record: are we talking about the teaching of a highly productive scholar who has a publishing record and is a good departmental and college/university citizen? Maybe you should ask whether those things should matter more than evaluations – especially if you know this is what junior faculty are told when informed of the requirements for tenure.
Standing up also looks like administrators who overturn or challenge insufficiently explained tenure denials for stellar candidate records, being mindful of institutional commitments to inclusion and diversity. In addition, professors who become aware that injustice is occurring should reach out to administrators and encourage them to do the right thing.
Vilna’s insightful post includes links to several other scholars’ tenure denial experiences in the academy, as well as additional recommendations on working with students.
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.