Archive for the ‘academia’ Category
As events continue to unfold in Wisconsin, defenses of tenure are popping up in various places. For the most part, these are focused on how weakening tenure would 1) limit academic freedom, 2) drive faculty to other universities, and 3) subject them to political reprisals.
These are all true. One only has to think about climate research, or UNC’s Poverty Center, to realize that the threat to academic freedom is very real.
What is less clear is why the public should care. Sure, some will. But lots of people believe climate science is corrupt, and that centers like UNC’s are inappropriately political. Any good defense of the public university—of tenure within it or support for it more generally—has to appeal to a broad swath of people.
I suggested the other day that the business community cares about science, and that that is one potential source of support for higher ed, at least, if not necessarily for tenure. But what the average American cares about most with regard to universities is not science, but teaching.
Clay Shirky argued at Crooked Timber that in fact professors don’t do very much teaching, and when the public learns this they will revolt. I think he sees the world too much through the lens of NYU, and that if you look at the higher ed field as a whole, there is lots of teaching going on, including by tenure-track faculty.
But where he is right is that what most people outside higher ed care about is not research, but teaching. Fortunately, there are strong arguments to be made that link tenure and teaching quality. For example, Mikaila pointed out in the comments that
performance funding initiatives which emphasize on-time graduation rates would tend to encourage a decrease in academic rigor so that students make adequate academic progress and do not fail or withdraw from courses–something we could easily achieve by giving our students open-book fill-in-the-blank tests with As for all. It is tenure which protects us from such a demand and thus tenure that gives us the best chance of ensuring that students have the opportunity to receive a high-quality, rigorous education that challenges them and helps them learn and develop the skills which will benefit them economically, socially, culturally, and personally for the rest of their lives.
These are the kinds of arguments that are likely to have traction. Not that tenure is good for professors, or things like academic freedom that a minority of people care about. But tenure is good for students.
The flip side of that is that we can’t profess that tenure helps students and then denigrate or simply neglect teaching. Nor can we go along with “I won’t grade you too hard as long as you don’t demand too much.” Nor is this position compatible with allowing the system to continue to survive on contingent labor.
I’m still working out what the ethical thing to do is as someone who is (as we all are, in one way or another) caught up in this system. One thing I’m pretty sure about, though: appealing to faculty self-interest is not a winning strategy for gaining public support.
Jeff Guhin is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Virginia and earned his Ph.D. in sociology at Yale University. This post is a reflection on being an early career scholar at the ASA meetings.
Much like death, a meeting at ASA is generally short and anxiety-provoking for all parties involved. Think of the weird status distinctions of all of those friends-of-your-advisor meetings for the job market: sitting on a sofa in one of the halls, people watching so as to avoid too much eye contact. Passers-by wonder to whom that famous sociologist is talking (you! she’s talking to you!). Acquaintances of the high status individual feel permitted to interrupt. Your friends walk on past but ask about it later. All of these anxieties mask a much larger one: you’re a product at a market, and you damn well better not look dumb. If ASA is really about exchanging ideas and only secondarily about displaying cattle, then ASA isn’t working. It’s very hard to develop an idea if your primary goal in any conversation is not looking like an idiot.
To our discipline’s credit, the discomfort of those meetings is rarely the fault of the senior scholars themselves. The overwhelming majority of professors I’ve met at ASA have been extremely supportive and encouraging. I was shocked by how many made time to chat for a while in the halls. I recognize that I’m white, male, and straight, and also that I went to a top 20 program, and while believe these scholars would have been as kind to people in different contexts, I obviously can’t say for sure.
The majority of the people I met weren’t very famous sociologists anyways: they were the majority of the people I read, folks who write good articles about stuff I study too. These are folks who might or might not work in elite programs but who produce excellent work and come to ASA to talk about it, in their panels, sure, but also with junior scholars like me who want to get better at what we do.
I recently reviewed a paper for Social Problems. The decision letter noted that they accept 8% of papers. That is roughly in the ball park of ASR, AJS and other journals. On the Facebook page, I asked if Social Problems is so competitive, then why doesn’t it get the same profile or respect as ASR/AJS in the sociology job market/promotion system? Some answers make sense. For example, there could be self-selection and people send stronger papers to the association’s journals. Another issue is that Social Problems simply accepts different types of papers. For example, Social Problems does not publish “pure theory” as would be found in AJS or Sociological Theory and it rarely publishes methods papers, which can be big citation generators.
Still, it seems like there is quite a bit of overlap between Social Problems and AJS/ASR/SF. See for your self. Can you identify which papers are Social Problems from the following list?*
- Race, Space, and Cumulative Disadvantage: A Case Study of the Subprime Lending Collapse
- Is Love (Color) Blind? The Economy of Race among Gay and Straight Daters
- The Best Laid Plans: Social Capital in the Development of Girls’ Educational and Occupational Plans
- Work-Family Context and the Longevity Disadvantage of US Women
- Executive Compensation, Fat Cats, and Best Athletes
- The Dynamics of Opportunity and Insurgent Practice: How Black Anti-colonialists Compelled Truman to Advocate Civil Rights
- Emergent Ghettos: Black Neighborhoods in New York and Chicago, 1880–1940
- The Paradox of Legitimacy: Resilience, Successes, and the Multiple Identities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey
My point isn’t to say that all journals are publishing the same stuff, but even a casual perusal of the journals suggests a lot of overlap. I think self-selection and the prestige orders creates different pools that lead to actual differences in quality. My point is more modest: the difference between AJS/ASR and other journals is probably exaggerated. I’d like to see sociology move to a system of top 4 journals (or more), like most other disciplines.
* Answers: SP, SF, SP, SF, ASR, ASR, AJS, SP.
One of the most time-consuming (but big-impact*) responsibilities of an academic is teaching. However, graduate school training for teaching can vary. At some institutions, an academic-in-training may teach his/her own course right away. This trial by fire approach can be all-consuming for the first course preps.
At other institutions, an academic-in-training can closely observe experienced instructors and learn tricks of the trade as a teaching assistant. Serving as a (in Ivy Tower-speak) teaching fellow for a large, popular intro to sociology class, I learned how colleague David J. Frank introduced groupwork, cold-called names, and demonstrated how to apply various theoretical perspectives using a game he called “Stump the Professor.” Under the mentorship of Peter V. Marsden, I learned how to grade. Both of us scored papers independently and then compared our scores for inter-rater reliability; we then reconciled the few disparate scores after a discussion. From Richard J. Hackman, I learned how to use stories (and humor) to illustrate phenomena, as well as how to refine lesson plans and exercises.
As a professor, I still observe colleagues’ teaching, which has introduced me to techniques for teaching student teams. Meetings and conversations with colleagues are also opportunities to trade tips and troubleshoot scenarios.
Over the years, I’ve also read various books on teaching and followed discussion threads on teaching at the CHE forum. A few weeks ago, I read Dan Spalding‘s recently published second edition How to Teach Adults (creative commons licensed e-book version here, yay!). His book is an excellent guidebook to teaching, covering the gamut of how to construct lesson plans, how to deal with difficult behaviors in the classroom, and how to set up a professional identity as an educator. Drawing on his experiences teaching English as another language to immigrants, Spalding offers handy checklists and tips that can improve the teaching experience for novice and master instructors alike. For instance, the book discusses the concept of student comfort zones, and the author provides a handy metaphor for how students must “exercise” outside of class for the fullest benefit of education.
Spalding’s approach is thoughtfully provocative. To wit, he compares teaching styles with governance:
Below is a list of countries and the different types of teaching they correspond
with. Which is yours?*
North Korea: A tyrannical regime led by a distant autocrat.
Classroom: A teacher who ruthlessly enforces arbitrary rules.
Japan: A corrupt democracy where most citizens still enjoy a good standard
Classroom: A bad teacher who gives everyone an ‘A.’
Madagascar: A weak state where the people live mostly independent from
Classroom: A teacher who gives suggestions to students who are free to
take or leave them.
United States: A nominal democracy where corporate interests hold almost
Classroom: A teacher who insists they listen to students but ends up doing
whatever the administration says.
*Hopefully, your class is like none of these countries!
In his final chapter, Spalding raises the larger context of the corporatization of education. He also discusses alienation amongst students and instructors and how institutions train for certain dispositions,** followed by the call to consider the transformative possibilities of teaching.
In short, Spalding’s book systematically shares the nuts and bolts of teaching while including a critical perspective of the vocation and its associated institutions. An insightful, must-read for educators!
** Marx/Weber/your favorite theorists are sometimes not credited by the author but are recognizable.
Over the years, I have been asked by people if academia is hospitable toward minorities. Sometimes, they mean racial minorities or sexual minorities. Other times, they mean ideological minorities in the academy. Once, a student confessed to me that she believed she would be excluded due to her religion (Latter-day Saints, in that case). What all these people have correctly observed is that academia can be an unforgiving place. It’s a place where only half of doctoral students ever finish and only half of those make it into the tenure track. Many spend years working as adjuncts and never get a stable position. The basic truth of academia is that supply outstrips demand, so buyers have leeway to discriminate.
Still, unpopular opinions and people are not always doomed. Rather, it means that you can’t take things for granted. You have to be very careful about how you do things. In fact, it is not terribly hard to find cases where minority people and opinions do well. We can look at those cases and learn. In this post, I want to offer some advice for people in the unpopular position.
- First, be at peace with the fact that there will be a double standards. While complaint may sooth our feelings, bemoaning double standards is not a productive strategy.
- Second, fight from a position of strength. Example: James Coleman’s famous report went against the grain in sociology and he was hounded for years. However, he won out because he used the best possible data. In fact, that 1966 data is probably a stronger data set for studying school effects than what many use today.
- Third, do not fight from a position of weakness. Example: The Gentleman from Texas* decided to fight a contentious battle using very weak data. Result? Two sociologists (IU chair Brian Powell and alum Simon Cheng) found that the data contained serious errors. When the analysis is conducted without data errors, the original conclusions do not follow. Even if Powell and Cheng had not found rather obvious errors, The Gentleman from Texas still had to stretch the data to reach his result. I would not stake my personal reputation on such data.
- Fourth, cultivate a reputation for mainstream excellence. I have often noticed that people who succeed from unpopular positions are also known as people who have really mastered the mainstream of their discipline. Example: Gary Becker. The original econo-troll said more than enough to ruffle feathers, but no one could question his mastery of traditional economics. You need “street cred.”
- Fifth, be nice. You will need lots of help to succeed. If you are in an unpopular position, you will need even more than the average. Don’t alienate people with rude behavior. These people will help you later in life. A related point – be useful. If you volunteer in the lab, on the journal board, or in other ways, people will like you and help you back.
- Sixth, don’t hide, but don’t be a flagpole for the freak show. This is a subtle point. Often, people think there is a dichotomy between the “closet” and “flaming.” That is false. There is lots of space in between. You will be surprised. “Fly causal” and they may lower the shield.
Bottom line: Academia is tough on unpopular people. Be smart, be nice, and you may live to tell the tale.
* Sorry, I can’t write his name because it automatically attracts this insane commenter who once emailed me to tell me that I was responsible for the murder of LBGT people in the Ukraine.
Arizona State has been in higher ed news a lot this week. The Atlantic just published a fairly fawning article on ASU’s partnership with Starbucks, featuring trenchant critiques of traditional colleges like, “The customer service is atrocious.”
Today, the news is ASU’s announcement that it will offer its entire freshman year online, through MOOCs. (Just when you thought they were dead!) Here’s the deal: ASU is partnering with EdX, the nonprofit Harvard-MIT collaboration, to produce the MOOCs. Students don’t have to apply, and they don’t have to pay in advance. But after they complete the class, if they decide they want college credit, they can pay ASU $300-600 (the final price is not set) and it will show up on a transcript indistinguishable from any other class.
Of course, people love to hate on ASU president Michael Crow. Dean Dad pointed out that Maricopa Community College, in ASU’s backyard, only charges $250 a credit and provides library access, among other amenities. John Warner focuses on the importance of the first year to student persistence, implying that disadvantaged students will be hurt. Jonathan Rees amps up the rhetoric, calling ASU the first “predator university.”
The Chronicle’s analysis focuses on what it sees as the catch: ASU’s MOOC students won’t be eligible for financial aid. Because students won’t officially enroll until after they’ve completed the MOOC, what they’ve learned is considered “prior knowledge,” making them ineligible for federal aid. ASU admits this is an obstacle, but suggested that “the university hoped to find some way to make aid possible in the future.”
What the Chronicle doesn’t point to, though, is where this road ultimately leads. There’s no way ASU is committing to this if it doesn’t see a pathway to federal aid down the road. Who among the underemployed folks ASU is targeting can cough up $600 to pay for a single course? That’s more than two weeks’ work at minimum wage.
And indeed, noises about how to solve this problem are already being made. Conversations are underway in the Senate about finding ways to give accreditation — and thus access to aid — to “nontraditional providers” like (drumroll…) EdX.
Truthfully, I’m not that worried about ASU and EdX. I think it’s going to prove hard to get the disadvantaged students they’re aiming for to finish MOOCs, even with financial aid, and even with ASU’s well-publicized innovations in data analytics. And I think that the nonprofit EdX, with its close ties to Harvard and MIT, is unlikely to launch a race to the bottom in extracting revenues from students.
But you know who would be happy to suck at the teat of the federal financial aid system? The edutech disruptors, who talk a good game about transforming higher education but will quickly enough start tranforming student loans into company profits once it’s time to raise the next round of venture capital.* When we have the opportunity to channel our financial aid dollars not only to the University of Phoenix but to the Disruptive EduBadge Academy, then we will have fully corrupted the system. The reason, if it needs to be spelled out, is that there is no reason to think that their courses will require learning, that pesky obstacle between them and those tantalizing financial aid dollars.
I’m not anti-technology, or anti-innovation. And I think traditional colleges are deeply flawed. But I am very, very much against expanding the money-laundering side of our financial aid system. And that is the coal mine into which the ASU-EdX canary is being lowered.
* I just Googled “silicon valley edutech” and got the San Francisco EduTech Meetup Group for — you can’t make this stuff up — “connecting folks who are passionate about the education space.”