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please stop lecturing me

The New York Times has run an op-ed by Molly Worthen, a professor of history, who implores against active learning in college classes and wants to retain the lecture format:

Good lecturers communicate the emotional vitality of the intellectual endeavor (“the way she lectured always made you make connections to your own life,” wrote one of Ms. Severson’s students in an online review). But we also must persuade students to value that aspect of a lecture course often regarded as drudgery: note-taking. Note-taking is important partly for the record it creates, but let’s be honest. Students forget most of the facts we teach them not long after the final exam, if not sooner. The real power of good notes lies in how they shape the mind.

“Note-taking should be just as eloquent as speaking,” said Medora Ahern, a recent graduate of New Saint Andrews College in Idaho. I tracked her down after a visit there persuaded me that this tiny Christian college has preserved some of the best features of a traditional liberal arts education. She told me how learning to take attentive, analytical notes helped her succeed in debates with her classmates. “Debate is really all about note-taking, dissecting your opponent’s idea, reducing it into a single sentence. There’s something about the brevity of notes, putting an idea into a smaller space, that allows you psychologically to overcome that idea.”

As we noted on this blog, there is actually a massive amount of research comparing lecturing to other forms of classroom instruction and lectures do very poorly:

To weigh the evidence, Freeman and a group of colleagues analyzed 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods. The meta-analysis, published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” Freeman says. And the exam improvement—about 6%—could, for example, “bump [a student’s] grades from a B– to a B.”

If you’d like your students to master the art of eloquent note taking, continue lecturing. If you’d like them to learn things, adopt active learning.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 21, 2015 at 12:01 am

please, no more homework

The Washington Post just ran an article about research showing that homework isn’t particularly effective. A clip from the article:

 Let’s start by reviewing what we know from earlier investigations.[1]  First, no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school.  In fact, there isn’t even a positive correlation between, on the one hand, having younger children do some homework (vs. none), or more (vs. less), and, on the other hand, any measure of achievement.  If we’re making 12-year-olds, much less five-year-olds, do homework, it’s either because we’re misinformed about what the evidence says or because we think kids ought to have to do homework despite what the evidence says.

Second, even at the high school level, the research supporting homework hasn’t been particularly persuasive.  There does seem to be a correlation between homework and standardized test scores, but (a) it isn’t strong, meaning that homework doesn’t explain much of the variance in scores, (b) one prominent researcher, Timothy Keith, who did find a solid correlation, returned to the topic a decade later to enter more variables into the equation simultaneously, only to discover that the improved study showed that homework had no effect after all[2], and (c) at best we’re only talking about a correlation — things that go together — without having proved that doing more homework causes test scores to go up.  (Take 10 seconds to see if you can come up with other variables that might be driving both of these things.)

Third, when homework is related to test scores, the connection tends to be strongest — or, actually, least tenuous — with math.  If homework turns out to be unnecessary for students to succeed in that subject, it’s probably unnecessary everywhere.

Along comes a new study, then, that focuses on the neighborhood where you’d be most likely to find a positive effect if one was there to be found:  math and science homework in high school.  Like most recent studies, this one by Adam Maltese and his colleagues[3] doesn’t provide rich descriptive analyses of what students and teachers are doing.  Rather, it offers an aerial view, the kind preferred by economists, relying on two large datasets (from the National Education Longitudinal Study [NELS] and the Education Longitudinal Study [ELS]).  Thousands of students are asked one question — How much time do you spend on homework? — and statistical tests are then performed to discover if there’s a relationship between that number and how they fared in their classes and on standardized tests.

and

Was there a correlation between the amount of homework that high school students reported doing and their scores on standardized math and science tests?  Yes, and it was statistically significant but “very modest”:  Even assuming the existence of a causal relationship, which is by no means clear, one or two hours’ worth of homework every day buys you two or three points on a test.  Is that really worth the frustration, exhaustion, family conflict, loss of time for other activities, and potential diminution of interest in learning?  And how meaningful a measure were those tests in the first place, since, as the authors concede, they’re timed measures of mostly mechanical skills?  (Thus, a headline that reads “Study finds homework boosts achievement” can be translated as “A relentless regimen of after-school drill-and-skill can raise scores a wee bit on tests of rote learning.”)

Education researchers have long known that homework doesn’t lead to improved learning. Back in 2006, I blogged about The Battle over Homework, which lays out the case. Hey, teacher, leave us kids alone!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 20, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio

my deep burning hatred of letters of recommendation

Econjeff mentions my long standing critique of letters of recommendation (LoRs). Here, I describe my personal experience with them and then I restate the massive empirical research showing that LoRs are worthless.

Personal experience: In graduate school, I had enormous difficulty extracting three letters from faculty. For example, during my first year, when I was unfunded, I asked an instructor, who was very well known in sociology, for a letter. He flat out refused and told me that he didn’t think I’d succeed in this profession. In the middle of graduate school, I applied for an external fellowship and was informed by the institution that my third letter was missing. Repeatedly, I was told, “I will do it.” Never happened. Even on the job market, I had to go with only two letters. A third professor (different than the first two cases) simply refused to do it. Luckily, a sympathetic professor in another program wrote my third letter so I could be employed. Then, oddly, that recalcitrant member submitted a letter after I had gotten my job.

At that point, I had assumed that I was some sort of defective graduate student. Maybe I was just making people upset so they refused to write letters. When I was on the job, I realized that lots and lots of faculty never submit letters. During job searches at Indiana, I saw lots of files with missing letters, perhaps a third were missing at least one letter. Some were missing all letters. It was clear to me that l was not alone. Lots of faculty simply failed to complete their task of evaluating students due to incompetence, malice, or cowardice.

Research: As I grew older, I slowly realized that there are researchers in psychology, education and management dedicated to studying employment practices. Surely, if we demanded all these letters and we tolerated all these poor LoR practices, then surely there must be research showing the system works.

Wrong. With a few exceptions, LoRs are poor instruments for measuring future performance. Details are here, but here’s the summary: As early as 1962, researchers realized LoRs don’t predict performance. Then, in 1993, Aamondt, Bryan and Whitcomb show that LoRs work – but only if they are written in specific ways. The more recent literature refines this – medical school letters don’t predict performance unless the writer mentions very specific things; letter writers aren’t even reliable – their evaluations are all over the place; and even in educational settings, letters seem to have a very small correlation with a *few* outcomes. Also, recent research suggests that LoRs seem to biased against women in that writers are less likely to use “standout language” for women.

The summary from one researcher in the field: “Put another way, if letters were a new psychological test they would not come close to meeting minimum professional criteria (i.e., Standards) for use in decision making (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999).”

The bottom line is this: Letters are unreliable (they vary too much in their measurements). They draw attention to the wrong things (people judge the status of the letter writer). They rarely focus on the few items that do predict performance (like explicit comparison). They have low correlations with performance and they used codes that bias against women.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 6, 2015 at 12:01 am

new and old thoughts about teaching mathematical proofs

A long, long time ago, I used to teach math. One of the central questions in mathematical education at the college level is how to teach mathematical proofs. Sometimes, you had pessimistic conversations. People simply had “mathematical maturity” and there wasn’t much you could do about it. There is truth to this –  some people simply can’t grasp what a proof would entail.

Beyond this simple observation, there was remarkably little thinking about how to teach proofs. Of course, there are occasional books that try to break down the process of creating and writing proofs, such as How to Prove It. Still, I felt there was something missing in the conversation about proof teaching. This blog post is my modest contribution to the topic.

My hypothesis: An important barrier to teaching math proofs is that they combine two very, very hard skills and that most math teachers only focus on one of the those skills. Specifically, proofs entail (a) symbolic manipulation and (b) recipes that get you from A to B. Math teachers and books are actually pretty good at (a). For example, almost every text will teach you about the symbols – set theory; formal logic; deltas and epsilons; etc. What is almost completely overlooked is that students find it hard to glimmer the “recipes” that make up proofs and there is no theory, or set of instructional strategies, for helping students intuitively understand recipes. In practice, you simply take courses on various topics (numerical analysis or matrix theory) and you mimic the proofs that people give you. Not great, but better than nothing.

The old Dolciani high school text books had an interesting response to this issue. In the geometry text, the proofs would always have two parts: “analysis” (outline of the idea) and “proof” (traditional proof with all details). You also see this in advanced texts and journal articles. When a long, hard proof is coming up, the author will present an outline.

Here is my modest suggestion: When teaching proofs, always outline the proof as a flow chart. In other words, take the old notion of the proof outline (or “analysis” in Dolcian’s terms), make it visual, and then put it in front of all proofs that require more than a few sentences. By repeatedly visualizing proofs as chains, teachers will be forced to extract the recipe from the text in a way that more students can understand. They will also more easily identify common themes that appear in multiple visualizations of proofs. Also, pictures are easier to remember than dense, equation filled masses of text.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 2, 2015 at 12:01 am

let the children play! it’s good for their mental health

Psychology Today has an article on a new analysis of play and the mental health of young people. The gist is that (a) recently, we let kids have less unstructured play and (b) unstructured play increases the belief that one has direct control over their life, which in turn has positive effect on mental health and various measures of well being. From the article:

The standard measure of sense of control is a questionnaire developed by Julien Rotter in the late 1950s called the Internal-External Locus of Control Scale. The questionnaire consists of 23 pairs of statements. One statement in each pair represents belief in an Internal locus of control (control by the person) and the other represents belief in an External locus of control (control by circumstances outside of the person). The person taking the test must decide which statement in each pair is more true. One pair, for example, is the following:

  • (a) I have found that what is going to happen will happen.
  • (b) Trusting to fate has never turned out as well for me as making a decision to take a definite course of action.

In this case, choice (a) represents an External locus of control and (b) represents an Internal locus of control.

Many studies over the years have shown that people who score toward the Internal end of Rotter’s scale fare better in life than do those who score toward the External end.[2] They are more likely to get good jobs that they enjoy, take care of their health, and play active roles in their communities—and they are less likely to become anxious or depressed.

And:

In a research study published a few years ago, Twenge and her colleagues analyzed the results of many previous studies that used Rotter’s Scale with young people from 1960 through 2002.[3] They found that over this period average scores shifted dramatically—for children aged 9 to 14 as well as for college students—away from the Internal toward the External end of the scale. In fact, the shift was so great that the average young person in 2002 was more External than were 80% of young people in the 1960s. The rise in Externality on Rotter’s scale over the 42-year period showed the same linear trend as did the rise in depression and anxiety.  

[Correction: The locus of control data used by Twenge and her colleagues for children age 9 to 14 came from the Nowicki-Strickland Scale, developed by Bonnie Strickland and Steve Nowicki, not from the Rotter Scale. Their scale is similar to Rotter’s, but modified for use with children.]

It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of Externality (and decline of Internality) is causally related to the rise in anxiety and depression. When people believe that they have little or no control over their fate they become anxious: “Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it.” When the anxiety and sense of helplessness become too great people become depressed: “There is no use trying; I’m doomed.”

Wow. Later in the article, they talk about how this shift correlates with mental health outcomes. So don’t schedule them or boss the, let them play.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 1, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio, psychology

movements and inhabited institutions: the case of latino student groups

A key insight from research on student activism is that the college environment has a strong influence on how that activism expresses itself. We saw that in Amy Binder and Kate Wood’s study of conservative groups. Daisy Reyes has an article in Sociology of Education that explores this issue with Latino groups and links it to institutional theory:

To comply with ideals of multiculturalism and diversity, postsecondary institutions incorporate Latino students into distinct campus cultures. These cultures influence how students interact with one another, the university community at large, and communities outside of campus, ultimately shaping how students inhabit Latino politics. Drawing on data from 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork with six student organizations and 60 in-depth interviews, I compare Latino student organizations in a liberal arts college, a research university, and a regional public university. Building on inhabited institutional theory, I identify dimensions of campus cultures that work in interaction with students to produce three divergent forms of ethnic political expression: deliberative, divisive, and contentious. Inhabited institutionalism helps explain why Latino politics takes distinct forms in specific academic contexts and suggests that strong collegiate incorporation may paradoxically serve to suppress Latino student engagement in political activism outside the campus gates.

Read the entire article here. Recommended.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

September 29, 2015 at 12:01 am

types of social network analysis courses

We live in a golden age of network analysis. It’s booming as science and booming as business. This raises questions for the teacher – what course should you teach? A few options:

  1. Bare bones: A course designed for folks with little to no mathematical background. You would teach descriptive stats, visualization, and applications.
  2. Stats+/Models : In this course, you’d assume some basic background. Maybe micro for econ students or stats for other social science students. Then, you’d dig deep into different centrality measures, power laws, clustering/community detection, etc. A follow up course would deal with p*, ERGM, Sieana and other advanced issues.
  3. Programmers: Here, you’d lightly gloss over the math and proofs and instead focus on how to scrape the net for data, how to write simulations, and how to manipulate big data sets.
  4. Elite stats: This is for a very small number of students in math, stats, or econometrics. It would be exclusively proofs of fairly advanced issues (like the graph models underlying p*).

Currently, I teach a course for sociology seniors between 1 and 2. I get soc students, a handful from econ/psych/poli sci, and one or two informatics students. I also get one or two grad students. The elite soc programs, where students often have science backgrounds or simply a lot of mojo, are now seeing Programmers courses. Old school networks courses (a la Ed Laumann or John Padgett at Chicago) offer a version of #2. Elite stats is exceptionally rare in that if students are that advanced, they can often read the papers themselves. Add your own comments about networks education.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

September 25, 2015 at 12:01 am

what i did and did not say about critical thinking

Two weeks ago, we had quite a discussion about critical thinking. There was one strand of debate the baffled me. Thomas wrote the following:

“If I don’t teach critical thinking, then what do I teach?” you ask. “Turns out that there is a simple answer: sociology.” It sounds good at first. But what you’re really saying is that you won’t acknowledge a kind of critique that isn’t sociological. That’s certainly the line Goffman’s defenders are taking. If you think she’s wrong, they say, it’s because you don’t understand how ethnographers think.

That is not what I was saying. What I said is this:

Aside from a very simple general rules of thumb, such as “don’t be emotional in arguing” or “show my your evidence,” the best way to be improve your thinking is to learn from those who have spent a lifetime actually trying to figure out specific problems.

I did not say: “only trust experts.” I said: “learn from.” In other words, there are people who have encountered certain problems and they have tried and tested the ideas that might have occurred to you. In the processes of trying out those ideas, they have probably learned important things about the phenomena that you are looking at. You should probably learn those lessons. Once you have absorbed those ideas, you are free to criticize as you will. No one has a monopoly on truth, even the experts. But that doesn’t mean experts are clueless fools. Certainly, “critical thinking” must have a place for learning from other people.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

September 17, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio

the most overlooked trend in U.S. higher education

State defunding of public higher education has received a lot of attention in recent years. And budget cuts like the $250 million one Scott Walker made this year to the University of Wisconsin mean this trend continues to get media play.

Less visible in the media, but still well known, is that as public funding has eroded, colleges have become more dependent on tuition dollars for revenue. For public institutions, this has meant both tuition increases for in-state students and, where possible, a greater percentage of out-of-state and international students. While the net price of college hasn’t increased nearly as much as the sticker price, it’s still beat the cost of inflation year after year.

Both of these narratives are completely true. Yet this story of a shift from public to private funding overlooks one critical factor: the expansion of federal student aid.

During the past two decades, as state appropriations per postsecondary student flattened then declined, federally supported financial aid made massive gains. In 2002 its volume passed that of state appropriations, and by 2010 it was twice as large.

Funding

Stunning, right? This suggests a very different story than the one about the privatization of public universities we hear so much about. Instead, it looks like there’s been a shift from state funding of higher ed to federal funding. So what’s going on here?

Well, a couple of things. First, the federal aid figures include both grants and loans. Data sources like the College Board and the Delta Cost Project include loans as part of net tuition, not as federal funding. That makes sense, if you’re interested in the financial burden of college on students and their families. And the loans don’t cost the government anything like their face value.

But counting this way downplays the fact that those loans ultimately exist because the federal government makes them possible. Colleges are doubly dependent in this scenario: on students’ choices about where to attend, but also on the feds to make them available in the first place. And if you’re coming at this from an organizational perspective, we should expect resource dependence — whether on students, on the feds, or both — to have effects.

Second, this chart collapses public, private non-profit, and for-profit institutions together. The state appropriations are only going to publics (which also enroll about three-quarters of the students). But as of 2010, more than a quarter of student aid was going to the 10% of students enrolled in for-profit institutions. Moreover, because private colleges are so much more expensive than public colleges, they also receive a disproportionate fraction of federal loans. I haven’t pulled these numbers apart by institution type. But if we just compared state appropriations and federal aid to students at public institutions, the chart would surely be less dramatic.

It would be misrepresenting reality to say that public institutions have experienced a substantial shift from state to federal dependence (at least without substantially more number crunching). And it would be similarly wrong to argue that schools haven’t become more tuition dependent (since loans do come to schools via individual students).

But you can absolutely make the case that at the field level, higher education has increased its dependence on the federal government relative to state governments. And this makes colleges susceptible to a whole wave of federal demands that simply weren’t there before. The college ratings system Obama proposed and then abandoned is one example of this. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s drumbeating for accountability is another.

Colleges have a lot of political clout and are well-organized. They ground the ratings proposal into a shadow of its former self. And it will take a lot of doing before we see No College Student Left Behind.

Nevertheless, if organization theory tells us anything, it’s that resource dependence matters. When, five years down the road, we get a Race to the Top rewarding colleges that meet completion and job placement goals at a given tuition cost, I know where I’ll be looking: at that point in 2002 where higher ed waved goodbye to the states and hello to the feds.

[Data from the College Board’s Trends in Student Aid 2014 and Grapevine reports, various years, deflated with BLS CPI.]

Written by epopp

August 31, 2015 at 12:34 pm

i don’t teach critical thinking, i teach the material

I no longer tell people that I teach “critical thinking” in my classes. My view is that “critical thinking” is a poorly defined buzzword that people use when they can’t articulate what they are actually teaching. For example, look at the wiki entry for “critical thinking:”

Critical thinking is clear, reasoned thinking involving critique. Its details vary amongst those who define it. According to Beyer (1995), critical thinking means making clear, reasoned judgments. During the process of critical thinking, ideas should be reasoned and well thought out/judged.

Notice that the first sentence is literally circular. The third sentence actually adds some content – clarity and reason. If you read the rest of the wiki, the definitions vary wildly from tautological to begging the question. E.g., don’t you first need critical thinking to discover if “participatory democracy” is a prerequisite for critical thinking?

If I don’t teach critical thinking, then what do I teach? Turns out that there is a simple answer: sociology. Other people teach stuff like physics or philosophy. Very concrete. The Critical Thinker might ask: don’t you teach a version of critical thinking? Not quite. My courses do not promise to teach vaguely defined analytical strategies. I teach specific forms of critique. For example, if I am teaching statistics for social science students, I don’t teach “clarity,” rather I teach about sampling, Type 1 and Type 2 errors, and related issues. Similarly, my colleagues in other courses teach specific arguments and ideas. The philosopher might teach about syllogism, and the economist might teach about opportunity costs, which people may not appreciate.

Obtaining truth is hard and there is no magical form of thinking called “critical thinking” that can be separated from specific domains. Aside from a very simple general rules of thumb, such as “don’t be emotional in arguing” or “show my your evidence,” the best way to be improve your thinking is to learn from those who have spent a lifetime actually trying to figure out specific problems.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

August 28, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio

book spotlight: in the face of inequality by melissa e. wooten

wootenbook

In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt is a new book on historically black colleges by Melissa E. Wooten. The purpose of the book is to ask how the field of HBCs has evolved over its history and to provide a sociological answer to this question. The book is built on a series of questions that most organizational theorists would find intuitive – how is the HBC field organized? How do HBCs pursue collective action? How do they build legitimacy and how have they responded to the ere of desegregation?

After providing an overview of the HBC field, Wooten answers these questions by looking at “adaptive episodes” where HBCs come together to address various financial and political problems. For example, there is a highly informative discussion of the United Negro College Fund, which remains one of the most important financial instruments for supporting Black students seeking a college education. The UNCF is also one of the most important accreditation agencies in the HBC field. The gist of the argument about the UNCF is that was both a financial project and also a legitimacy building project. It also had some important unintented consequences – by favoring standards selected by UNCF donors, HBCs were encouraged to adopt the forms that did not directly challenge the social and political practices that ensured low status for Blacks.

Aside from being an important sociological study of the HBC field, In the Face of Inequality is an important example of institutionalism 3.0 – the research project linking institutional theory with other major streams of modern sociology. This text connects institutionalism with race theory. For these reasons, it’s a good book. Recommended!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

July 9, 2015 at 12:01 am

teaching, tenure, and academic freedom

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.

And here…crickets.

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.

Written by epopp

June 11, 2015 at 8:15 am

learning how to teach – are you a North Korea, Japan, Madagascar, or the US?

Do you teach like I govern Madagascar?

Is this your teaching style?

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
of living.
Classroom: A bad teacher who gives everyone an ‘A.’

Madagascar: A weak state where the people live mostly independent from
the government.
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
all power.
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!

*  See Fligstein’s comment about educating the public.

** Marx/Weber/your favorite theorists are sometimes not credited by the author but are recognizable.

 

Written by katherinechen

May 18, 2015 at 1:22 pm

Posted in academia, education, teaching

Tagged with

what’s really important about the arizona state mooc announcement

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.”

Written by epopp

April 24, 2015 at 2:11 am

pre-doctoral symposium for management students

There is a symposium for early career management doctoral students. You should apply!

he Southern Management Association (SMA) is pleased to offer a Pre-Doctoral Consortium which will be held October 28th at the 2015 SMA Annual Meeting in St. Pete Beach, Florida.  The Consortium is designed to help those who are committed to, or seriously considering, earning a doctoral degree.  The goals of the Consortium include: (1) helping students to gain a better understanding of key factors to consider in applying to doctoral programs, and (2) to provide students with a “realistic preview” of life as a doctoral student and beyond as faculty.  We are seeking applicants and we hope that you will help us inform students who may be interested in pursuing a doctoral program

The Consortium will award $500 stipends to invited participants.  In addition, breakfast and lunch on the day of the Consortium will be provided, courtesy of SMA, and there will be a networking reception in the evening. 
 
The deadline for consortium application is June 28, 2015. All applicants must submit
(a) An application form (attached),
(b) A recommendation letter from a current or former faculty member,
(c) A copy of their vita (resume), and
(d) A photocopy of their government issued ID in order to verify that they will have attained the age of 21 on or before October 27th, 2015. 
 
Please send any questions or submit consortium registration materials electronically to Dr. Aaron Hill, Oklahoma State University, at aaron.hill@okstate.edu.
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

April 9, 2015 at 12:01 am

have an organizational paper on higher ed? send it my way

The organizational sociology of higher education is having a moment. Elizabeth Armstrong and Johanna Massé have written about it recently (and even more recently here), Michael Kirst and Mitchell Stevens have a new volume out on the topic (I’ll be writing more on that soon), and Amy Binder, whose work is very organizational, is chair of ASA’s generally strat-heavy Education Section.

Maybe it’s because there are so many changes going on in higher education right now that simply can’t be understood without thinking about organizations and the fields they are located within. From the Wisconsin budget cuts, to the effects of proliferating rankings, to the internationalization of universities, to the impact of organizational culture on student experience, tons of organizational questions are begging for answers.

Anyway, I’m editing a volume of Research in the Sociology of Organizations on “The University Under Pressure” with Catherine Paradeise, to be published in January 2016. We’ve got some great contributions from a trans-Atlantic group of authors including Dick Scott, Georg Krücken, Philippe Laredo, Christine Musselin, Amy Binder, Daniel Kleinman, Joe Hermanowicz, and others. And while the volume has mostly come together already, one free slot has opened up.

So if you have a paper in the works that you think makes a contribution to the organizational sociology of higher ed, send it my way. There’s some focus on comparing the U.S. and European experiences, but many of the articles look at a single country. And despite the title, it doesn’t have to be about universities: writing about community colleges from an organizational angle? Great.

The catch is that it needs to be either written already or ready for review quite soon — say, within the next month. On the plus side, if it’s accepted, you can expect it to be in print within the year. (And if it’s not, you’ll know quite soon.)

Just about all of us care about the future of the university. It’s time for organizational sociologists to do a better job of helping us understand it.

Written by epopp

March 19, 2015 at 1:58 pm

mfa program trash talk

Ryan Boundinat is a former MFA writing instructor. He has some blunt talk about MFA programs:

  • If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.
  • If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
  • If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.

I may disagree with some points (e.g., he over emphasizes the “you are born to do it”), but overall, I agree with the article. The defining feature of the professional is … professionalism. For writers, that means organizing your like around books, reading books, writing books, and thinking about books. This is also true about academia. If you find your classes boring, research boring, and can’t get out of bed to do it, well, this isn’t the job for you.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!! 

Written by fabiorojas

March 12, 2015 at 12:22 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

the student debt revolt begins

I have often been a critic of the higher education system. My critique, roughly, is that the costs of college are often disconnected from the market value of the degree. Students are often left with substantial debt that may take a decade or more to pay off. Some, without proper counseling, take on the debt normally associated with buying a home. It is no longer the case that college finances are a matter of saving up some money for a few years or working it off over a few summers. Now, students can carry debt into their forties, or later, if they aren’t careful. This debt can displace other, possibly more important, forms of wealth building such as purchasing a home, financing a business, or simply saving the money.

Today, there is an effort to organize college loan debtors in an attempt to roll back this trend. The Debt Collective, an activist group, announced today that a group of fifteen volunteers will go on a debt strike. These former students all have debt acquired from their time in various for-profit colleges. I applaud this movement. But I think it needs to go farther. Why stop at for-profit colleges? It is the case that some for-profits have acted dishonestly in promising much higher wages and encouraging students to maximize loans. But many students from more traditional colleges leave with very debt loads as well and often with degrees that don’t correspond to better jobs. An excellent start and I hope to see more.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!! 

 

Written by fabiorojas

February 23, 2015 at 7:23 pm

Posted in education, fabio, the man

“there’s no rankings problem that money can’t solve” – the tale of how northeastern gamed the college rankings

There’s a September 2014 Boston.com article on Northeastern University and how it broke the top-100 in the US News & World Report of colleges and universities. The summary goes something like this: Northeastern’s former president, Richard Freeland, inherited a school that was a poorly endowed commuter school. In the modern environment, that leads you to a death spiral. A low profile leads to low enrollments, which leads to low income, which leads to an even lower profile.

The solution? Crack the code to the US News college rankings. He hired statisticians to learn the correlations between inputs and rankings. He visited the US News office to see how they built their system and bug them about what he thought was unfair. Then, he “legally” (i.e., he didn’t cheat or lie) did things to boost the rank. For example, he moved Northeastern from commuter to residential school by building more dorms. He also admitted a different profile of student that wouldn’t the depress the mean SAT score and shifted student to programs that were not counted in the US News ranking (e.g., some students are admitted in Spring admissions and do not count in the US News score).

Comments: 1. In a way, this is admirable. If the audience for higher education buys into the rankings and you do what the rankings demand, aren’t you giving people what they want? 2. The quote in the title of the post is from Michael Bastedo, a higher ed guru at Michigan, who is pointing out that rankings essentially reflect money. If you buy fancier professors and better facilities, you get better students. The rank improves. 3. Still, this shows how hard it is to move. A nearly billion dollar drive moves you from a so-so rank of about 150 to a so-so rank of about 100-ish. Enough to be “above” the fold, but not enough to challenge the traditional leaders of higher ed.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

February 13, 2015 at 12:01 am

firing an entire university

The legislature of South Carolina has allowed a budget to pass that will shut down South Carolina State University for a single year. According to news reports, the legislature tabled debate on a motion that would defund SCSU and close it for a year while they work on the finances:

The Higher Education Subcommittee’s plan would shut down the university on July 1, 2015 for fiscal year 2015-2016 and reopen in 2017. That plan would suspend all athletics programs, fire President Thomas Elzey, dismiss faculty and state employees, terminate the Board of Trustees.

During that year of closure, a Blue Ribbon Committee would look at the school’s finances, rehire necessary staff, reconstitute the athletics programs, and set curriculum before reopening the doors.

The state would also foot the bill for the university’s debts and loans.

Whoa.

Satellite campuses of state schools are occasionally closed and/or merged for all kinds of reasons. But I think this is a first in that the legislature intends to continue funding SCSU at a later time, just with different management. This happens occasionally with private colleges who might close and then re-open, as has happened with Antioch College. An interesting question is (a) whether the South Carolina legislature will approve this policy and (b) if successful, how often legislatures will use this procedure to manage other state college campuses.

Higher ed geeks, use the comments.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

February 12, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio, leadership

mimetic isomorphism and social movements at work

mimetic_photo

This weekend, I visited Bates College and participated in their celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a lovely campus and I enjoyed myself. At the beginning of my workshop, one of the Bates students gave a brief talk about the history of Black Studies at Bates. A key issue was that it was a late adopter. The protest in favor of the program used late adoption as a frame for their argument. The photo above is from a student publication and shows students pointing out that Bates isn’t following its peer group. The banner actually lists the peer organizations that have Black Studies circa 1988. Great example of how movements hook up into institutional environments.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($1!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!! 

Written by fabiorojas

January 22, 2015 at 3:24 am

Posted in education, fabio, sociology

how the financial crisis and obamacare improved student loans

Student debt is in the news a lot these days. It currently stands at $1.2 trillion in the U.S., having surpassed credit card debt in 2010. The Occupy movement pushed the issue onto the front pages with its call for debt forgiveness, and since then loans have bounced in and out of the news under headlines like “crisis” and “crippling.”

student loans

Of course, there’s always two ways of looking at things. Since the college wage premium (or, more accurately, the noncollege penalty) has increased, plenty of folks have argued that college, loans and all, is still a great deal despite rising tuition, and that many students should actually be borrowing more.

That’s hard to tell an underemployed 24-year-old, but never mind. In general, our shift toward loan-driven higher ed financing is a big problem. But there’s one important, and often overlooked, way in which things have gotten better. Much better.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

January 5, 2015 at 2:23 pm

Posted in education, finance, markets

so, you wanna be fabio’s student?

In this post, I want to discuss my style as a dissertation advisor. This is mainly for potential students, but I also want to start a thread on how to best advise doctoral students in sociology and related areas.

1. Statue of Liberty: With a few exceptions, I will accept any student who needs a dissertation advisor. This is a personal decision on my part. In my career, I’ve been in institutions where students couldn’t find advisers. It’s a problem when faculty get too picky about who they take on and a few advisers get saddles with most of the load. I will not contribute to the problem. The exceptions to the Statue of Liberty policy are where (a) the student is really having academic problems; I’ve never been able to help these students as much as I have tried and (b) you happen to be in a specialty where having an non-specialist advisor will really create problems for you.

2. Even though I accept the masses, I have a few general areas where I am most helpful: orgs/economic sociology; political sociology; education/higher education; sociology of knowlegde and science; formal methods/computational sociology. Specifically: institutional theory, networks, movements, social media, rational choice, higher education/disciplines, computational sociology. I am also developing my knowledge of health.

3. General approach I: I think it is important to tailor the CV to the student. If you want an R1 job, I will encourage publication. If you want liberal arts, we will work on your teaching CV. For policy jobs, speedy completion and showing research in a policy related area.

4. General approach II: I focus on nuts and bolts “American social science.” In other words, I like clearly stated problems, high quality data and a focus on description or inference. I don’t care if you are qualitative or quantitative. Just make it good.

5. General approach III: In general, I don’t tell people what their dissertation will be about. I do try to tell them if it is a good or bad. In other words, I don’t say “this will never work.” Instead, I’ll tell you about what’s been done, what sounds good, what might get them a job and so forth. But making a decision is what the process is about. If you want to do it, convince me!

6. General approach IV: Hands on. I believe in solving problems now rather than later. Some of my students come by all the time, others once or twice a semester. In general, I believe in constant interaction so we move students forward. For this reason, I think an open doors policy is good.

7. Philosophy of the dissertation: First, my default for most sociology students is “three chapters.” Why? The dissertation is a pedagogical exercise meant to show that the student can do research. It is not a masterpiece. Also, most students will start with articles so this is good. I note that this is a default – not a rule. If a student really needs a book format dissertation, that’s ok.

8. Dissertation quality: It is important that students be judged according to their career goals. All students must submit a good dissertation but how good can vary. The research oriented PhD student should be held to a higher standard than the student who will find non-academic work.

9. Graduation: For students oriented toward academia, article = graduation. For other students, we can start the graduation process as soon as I have two or three complete empirical chapters.

Use the comment to disucss how you approach PhD training.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 30, 2014 at 12:01 am

shimer college and the puzzle of declining liberal arts colleges

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.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

 

Written by fabiorojas

December 15, 2014 at 3:15 am

non-punishment for sexual assault at virginia?

There is a serious crisis at the University of Virginia after Rolling Stone published an article that, unsurprisingly, argued that the administration failed to punish sexual offenders on campus. Soon, the University president, Teresa Sullivan, announced a suspension of fraternity activities until Jan. 9 but otherwise defended the school.

This is very disappointing. It has become increasingly common knowledge that universities are unable to handle rape allegations, they have almost no control over fraternities, and national fraternity organizations have set themselves up so that they are not liable for student violence. President Sullivan’s punishment is especially disappointing because the suspension only applies, essentially, when VA is out of session. Literally, the suspension applies now (Thanksgiving break), final exams, and the winter break. UVA is out of session until Jan. 12. Some “punishment.”

Here is the difficult discussion that universities have to have if this horrid situation is ever to end:

  • Rape is a felony. It’s something you go to prison for. Thus, colleges are not in a position to investigate or handle these claims. Student/faculty juries for felonies are a joke. All rape allegations should be immediately transferred to the police.
  • Develop new procedures for victims. Instead of going to the dean (who should be supportive in any case), all victims should go to the health clinic or local hospital *immediately* for medical attention and collection of physical evidence. This is especially important as research shows that violence is committed mainly by a small group of serial offenders who exploit the party scene. Even charges are never filed, physical evidence and documentation is needed to expel people suspected of violence.
  • Universities should divest themselves from fraternities because they are extremely dangerous and unaccountable. How bad? Essentially, insurance companies in America won’t ever cover claims related to fraternities any more. It’s that bad.

Sadly, we will always be faced with the challenge of sexual violence. However, universities have allowed a hot house environment for violence to grow on their campuses. Allowing large groups of unsupervised young men to throw alcohol drenched parties with no liability is a recipe for disaster. This has to end.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

November 26, 2014 at 12:01 am

where human capital arguments make headway

Higher education has become dependent on human capital arguments to justify its existence. The new gainful employment rule for for-profit colleges, announced yesterday by the Obama administration, reminded me of this. It clarifies what standards for-profits have to meet in order to remain eligible for federal aid, which makes up 90% of many for-profits’ revenues.

Under the new standard, programs will fail if graduates’ debt-to-earnings ratio is over 30%, or if their debt-to-discretionary-earnings (income above 150% of the poverty line — about $17,000 for a single person) is over 12%.

Now, we could have a whole other conversation about this criterion, which is really, really, weak, since it no longer takes into account the percent of students who default on their loans within three years. By limiting the measure to graduates, it ignores, for example, the outcomes of the 86% of students who enroll in BA programs at the University of Phoenix but don’t finish in six years — most of whom are taking out as many federal loans as they can along the way.

But I want to make a different point here. More and more, we are focused on return on investment — income of graduates — as central to thinking about the value of college.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

October 31, 2014 at 3:39 pm

letters of recommendation: still garbage

Long time readers know that I am a skeptic when it comes to letters of recommendation. The last time I wrote about the topic, I relied on a well cited 1993 article by Aamodt, Bryan amd Whitcomb in Public Personnel Management that reviews the literature and shows that LoR’s have very little validity. I.e., they are poor predictors of future job performance. But what if the literature has changed in the meanwhile? Maybe these earlier studies were flawed, or based on limited samples, or better research methods provide more compelling answers. So I went back and read some more recent research on the validity of LoRs. The answer? With a few exceptions, still garbage.

For example, the journal Academic Medicine published a 2014 article that analyzed LoR for three cohorts of students at a medical school. From the abstract:

Results: Four hundred thirty-seven LORs were included. Of 76 LOR characteristics, 7 were associated with graduation status (P ≤ .05), and 3 remained significant in the regression model. Being rated as “the best” among peers and having an employer or supervisor as the LOR author were associated with induction into AOA, whereas having nonpositive comments was associated with bottom of the class students.

Conclusions: LORs have limited value to admission committees, as very few LOR characteristics predict how students perform during medical school.

Translation: Almost all information in letters is useless, except the occasional negative comment (which academics strive not to say). The other exception is explicit comparison with other candidates, which is not a standard feature of many (or most?) letters in academia.

Ok, maybe this finding is limited to med students. What about other contexts? Once again, LoRs do poorly unless you torture specific data out of them. From a 2014 meta-analysis of LoR recommendation research in education from the International Journal of Selection and Assessment:

… Second, letters of recommendation are not very reliable. Research suggests that the interrater reliability of letters of recommendation is only about .40 (Baxter, et al., 1981; Mosel & Goheen, 1952, 1959; Rim, 1976). Aamodt, Bryan & Whitcomb (1993) summarized this issue pointedly when they noted, ‘The reliability problem is so severe that Baxter et al. (1981) found that there is more agreement between two recommendations written by the same person for two different applicants than there is between two people writing recommendations for the same person’ (Aamodt et al., 1993, p. 82). Third, letter readers tend to favor letters written by people they know (Nicklin & Roch, 2009), despite any evidence that this leads to superior judgments.

Despite this troubling evidence, the letter of recommendation is not only frequently used; it is consistently evaluated as being nearly as important as test scores and prior grades (Bonifazi, Crespy, & Reiker, 1997; Hines, 1986). There is a clear and gross imbalance between the importance placed on letters and the research that has actually documented their efficacy. The scope of this problem is considerable when we consider that there is a very large literature, including a number of reviews and meta-analyses on standardized tests and no such research on letters. Put another way, if letters were a new psychological test they would not come close to meeting minimum professional criteria (i.e., Standards) for use in decision making (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999). This study is a step toward addressing this need by evaluating what is known, identifying key gaps, and providing recommendations for use and research. [Note: bolded by me.]

As with other studies, there is a small amount of information in LoRs. The authors note that “… letters do appear to provide incremental information about degree attainment, a difficult and heavily motivationally determined outcome.” That’s something, I guess, for a tool that would fail standard tests of validity.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

October 29, 2014 at 12:01 am

congratulations to judson everitt

Business Insider named Judson Everitt of Loyola one of the best 25 professors in America. A hearty congratulations to an IU alumni and top notch educator. Here’s his profile at Loyola.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

October 27, 2014 at 2:26 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

classroom tech: heterogeneous students

A problem with a lot of introductory level courses is that they attract heterogeneous students. In sociology, this is very apparent in the introduction to sociology class. It is not uncommon to get, in the same class, a graduating senior who wants to put in the minimal amount of effort and the very aggressive freshman who wants that 4.0 GPA for that Harvard law application. The heterogeneous class presents problems on many levels – the presentation of materials, classroom management, and so forth. In this posts, a few comments on how to handle this class.

  1. Cut the class in half. A few people have told me that it is effective to treat the first half as a chance to make sure everyone is on the same page. Then, the second half you can move into material that will be new for almost everyone.
  2. Active learning: People have also suggested that you stop lecturing. Instead, really have students to in-class work. This helps reduced the boredom for more advanced students and, at the least, gives them something to do.
  3. A third strategy is to stratify assignments. Older students can get more involved and challenging assignments. This depends on the nature of the course and if you have the patience to grade multiple assignments at once.

Use the comments to discuss your own teaching strategies for heterogeneous classes.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

October 22, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio

history, the stock market, and predicting the future

So the stock market has been freaking out a bit the last couple of weeks. Secular stagnation, Ebola, a five-year bull market—who knows why. Anyway, over the weekend I was listening to someone on NPR explain what the average person should do under such circumstances (answer: hang tight, don’t try to time the market). This reminded me of one of my pet quibbles with financial advice, which I think applies to a lot of social science more generally.

For years, the conventional wisdom around what ordinary folks should do with their money has gone something like this. Save a lot. Put it in tax-favored retirement accounts. Invest it mostly in index funds—the S&P 500 is good. Don’t mess with it. In the long run this is likely to net you a reliable 7% return after inflation, about the best you’re likely to do.

Now, it’s not that I think this is bad advice. In fact, this is pretty much exactly what I do, with some small tweaks.

But it has always struck me how, in news stories and advice columns and talk shows, people talk about how this is a good strategy because it’s worked for SO LONG. For 30 years! Or since 1929! Or since 1900! (Adjust returns accordingly.)

And yes, 30 years, or 85, or 114, are all a long time relative to human life. And we have to make decisions based on the knowledge we’ve got.

But it’s always seemed to me that if what you’re interested in is what will happen over the 30+ years of someone’s earning life (more if you’re not in academia!), you’ve basically got an N of 1 to 4 here. I mean, sure, this may be a reasonable guess, but I don’t think there’s any strong reason to believe that the next 100 years are likely to look very similar to the last 100. Odds are better if you’re just interested in the next 30, but even then, I’m always surprised by just how confident the conventional wisdom is around the idea that the market always coming out ahead over a 25- or 30-year period—going ALL THE WAY BACK TO 1929—is rock solid evidence that it will do so in the future.

Of course, there are lots of people who don’t believe this, too, as evidenced by what happened to gold prices after the financial crisis. Or by, you know, survivalists.

Anyway, I think this overconfidence in the lessons of the recent past is something we as social scientists tend to be susceptible to. The study that comes most immediately to mind here is the Raj Chetty study on value-added estimates of teachers (paper 1, paper 2, NYT article).

The gist of the argument is that teachers’ effects on student test scores, net of student characteristics (their value added), predicts students’ eventual income at age 28. Now, there’s a lot that could be discussed about this study (latest round of critique, media coverage thereof).

But I just want to point to it—or rather, broader interpretations of it—as illustrating a similar overconfidence in the ability of the past to predict the future.

Here we have a study based on a massive (2.5 million students) dataset over a twenty-year period (1989-2009). Just thinking about the scale of the study and taking its results at face value, it’s hard to imagine how much more certain one could be in social science than at the end of such an endeavor.

And much of the media coverage takes that certainty and projects it into the future (see the NYT article again). If you replace a low value-added teacher with an average one, the classroom’s lifetime earnings will increase by more than $250,000.

And yet to make such a leap, you have to be willing to assume so many things about the future will be like the past: not only that incentivizing teachers differently and making tests more important won’t change their predictive effects (which the papers acknowledge), but, just as importantly, that the effects of education on earnings—or, more specifically, of teacher value-added on earnings—will be similar in future 20-year periods as it was from 1989-2009. And that nothing else meaningful about teachers, students, schools, or earnings will evolve over the next 20 years in ways that mess with that relationship in a significant way.

I think we do this a lot—project into the future based on our understanding of a past that is, really, quite recent. Of course knowledge about the (relatively) recent past still should inform the decisions we make about the future. But rather a lot of modesty is called for when making blanket claims that assume the future is going to look just like the past. Maybe it’s human nature. But I think that modesty is often missing.

Written by epopp

October 20, 2014 at 11:01 am

affirmative action and the academic pipeline

When people discuss affirmative action, they often have a mistaken view that higher education is filled with legions of under-qualified minorities. From the inside, we have the opposite view. The higher up you go, the less likely you will find folks from under-represented groups. So, what gives?

In addition to plain ideological differences, I think people are selectively looking at the academic pipeline. Basically, at some points in the career, affirmative action is indeed at work and some folks, including myself no doubt, will receive extra consideration. But most of the time, privilege is the rule. People will disproportionately focus on the parts of the pipeline where affirmative action is a modest benefit for some people.

To grasp the argument, it helps to break down what needs to happen in order for anyone to become a tenured professor:

  1. Getting a high college GPA.
  2. Applying to the “right” grad schools.
  3. Admission to the “right” grad schools.
  4. Passing courses.
  5. Passing exams.
  6. Getting the “right” adviser.
  7. Getting published in the “right” places.
  8. Writing the dissertation.
  9. Applying to tenure track positions
  10. Getting an offer from a school.
  11. Strong teaching skills.
  12. Continuing to publish in the “right” places.
  13. Getting elites in the profession to vouch for you.
  14. Getting the department and college to sign off on your tenure case.

As you can see, academia is this insanely long career track with a long list of interdependent parts.

Now let’s get back to affirmative action. Where does that policy work? In my scheme, it shows up mainly in step #3. Most schools will look askance at graduate school cohorts that lack ethnic or gender diversity. Some may even provide funds for recruitment and fellowships. But that’s it. After step #3, affirmative is rare. Perhaps the exception is when deans or departments at the junior level look to diversity the faculty and they may approve a hire.

This helps explain the perceptions of the policy. Admissions is high profile and people are openly competing for spots.  Faculty hiring is also high visibility. In contrast, say, getting published in a journal, or joining the “right” research groups is highly invisible to most observers until after the fact. And these are structured as homophilic networks, which might work against diversifying the faculty.

So, when it come to diversity in academia, you can’t look at one link in the chain. You have to look at the whole thing.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

September 22, 2014 at 12:01 am

the politics of college admissions at Berkeley and Cal Tech

A few days ago, we got into a fruitful discussion of college admissions. Steven Pinker wrote a widely discussed article condemning the Ivy League for using non-academic criteria in admissions. I concurred with the basic point, but noted that it is all for naught because Pinker doesn’t discuss why college admissions is set up the way it is. Basically, current admissions policies are designed generate income, political legitimacy, academic respect, and other factors. People simply wouldn’t stand for an admissions policy that would turn Harvard into Berkeley or Cal Tech, where Asians are the majority and Latinos and African Americans are under represented, not to mention all the influential people whose above average kids can’t get into Harvard without the legacy program.

In the comments, Chris Martin suggested that if Cal Tech and Berkeley could do it, it wouldn’t be so bad. I think Chris under estimates the issue. To see why, let’s review Berkeley and Cal Tech:

  • Berkeley: This was a school that had a policy where students were given an index that combined a number of factors, such as GPA, SAT, race, extracurriculars and so forth. This system was not changed internally and race was only dropped due to a ballot initiative and various judicial battles.
  • Cal Tech: Even though Cal Tech is probably a more elite school than Harvard, it is very different in that the political pressures on engineering and science schools are much weaker. Roughly speaking, every smart kid in America dreams of the Ivy League, but only the nerdiest kids want to go to Cal Tech. In other words, I’ve never heard of wealthy senators intensely lobbying Cal Tech to make sure their C+ son makes it in.

Bottom line: These two cases are not exemplars of internally driven change. Instead, they highlight how constrained college admissions policies are.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

September 11, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, ethics, fabio

steven pinker, do you want a meritocracy? YOU CAN’T HANDLE A MERITOCRACY!!!!

In case you’re wondering, I’m obviously Tom Cruise and Steven Pinker is Jack Nicholson.

Recently, Steven Pinker wrote a response to William Deresiewicz’ recent article/book, which claims that the Ivy League is a horrible soulless place. Overall, I concur with Pinker’s retort. Deresiewicz doesn’t offer evidence to show that careerism has gotten any worse, he makes a broad over generalization about non-elite college students, and he overstates the cases that non-elite colleges are under appreciated refuges of learning (although a few are). The bottom line for Pinker is that the Ivy League is where talented kids should go and we should spend our efforts making it more academic by emphasizing standardized tests in admissions and de-emphasizing things likes sports and music.

I could quibble here and there, but instead, I’d like to focus on what I think is a profound problem with Pinker’s retort. I share Pinker’s desire to create a more academic environment in higher education, but nowhere in the essay does Pinker come to grips with why the system of elite college admissions is the way it is. Why, exactly, does Harvard, and most other competitive schools, use a mix of academics, extra-curriculars, race, legacy, and geography? Here’s the simple answer:

Race. And money. But really, race.

Here’s a more subtle answer:

College admissions policies are the result of multiple political and financial pressures. Management scholars call it “resource dependence.” Your organization must be set up in a way to keep the resources flowing. Elite colleges need political legitimacy, scientific & scholarly legitimacy, prestige, a positive self-image, and loads of cash. A purely academic admission policy does not accomplish this complex goal. The current admission policy does.

Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen is the most comprehensive study ever conducted on elite college admissions and it explains in detail why the admissions system at Harvard looks the way it does. He focused on Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but versions of the policies are now standard at other leading research universities.

Roughly, it goes something like this. First, the “docket system” (sorting people into geographical regions) was intended to limit Jews from the Northeast, mainly from New York and New Jersey, and favor specific private schools. Second, the emphasis on being “well-rounded” was designed to limit Asians who had trouble with English and didn’t do “artsy” things. Third, affirmative action was introduced to bolster African American and Latino enrollments in the post-Civil Right era. Fourth, legacy is simply a fancy word for “pay to play.” Fifth, the types of people who give the most back in donations are not the artists or painters that Pinker rightfully praises. They are those who do “Wall Street,” and related careers like “Big Law,” and they can be identified by extra-curricular activities in high school. College admissions has evolved beyond these basic policies but the overall structure remains. Academic performance is one very important factor, but there are others.

If Pinker were to have his way and shift to a strictly academic admissions system, the following would happen:

  • A huge increase in Asian enrollments
  • A modest decrease in White enrollments, but with strong Jewish  enrollments
  • A substantial reduction of African American and Latino enrollments
  • An increase in people who don’t give back
  • A very angry group of industry leaders, senators, governors, and other powerful people who are really angry that their kid didn’t get in.

Harvard as we see it today would cease to exist. You’d instead see it turned into something like Berkeley or Cal Tech, which are White minority institutions. How would he deal with the inevitable blow back?

I applaud Steven Pinker for decrying the dilution of academic culture. I’ve spent my entire career in places like Berkeley, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Bloomington and I don’t regret it. But still, unless he can explain how he’ll solve this complex political problem that admissions policies are designed to solve, his preening is more of a show and not serious attempt at academic reform.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

September 8, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, ethics, fabio

does organizational sociology have a future? the final part

This is the third and final installment of the “Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?” panel from ASA, featuring Ezra Zuckerman’s presentation and the Q&A. Here’s part 1 and part 2.

Ezra Zuckerman closed on an up note with “some reasons to be bullish.” Rather than reviewing the past or summarizing trends, Zuckerman highlighted three pieces of work he’s excited about by younger scholars.

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Written by epopp

September 4, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Posted in academia, education

does organizational sociology have a future? the answer, part 2

[This is a continuation of the summary of the “Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?” ASA panel. Part 1 featured Howard Aldrich and Lis Clemens; tomorrow I’ll wrap up with a recap of Ezra Zuckerman’s presentation and the Q&A that followed the panel.]

Harland Prechel spoke third. He described himself as being located outside organizational sociology early in his career but was drawn to its useful analytical tools and incorporated organizational sociology into his research over time. Organizational sociology has a lot to offer. So why is it in decline?

A central problem is there is no integrated theory of organizations. Instead, there are numerous competing perspectives that rise and decline over time.  This occurs, in part, because each perspective has a narrow scope that constrains what can be examined, explained, and predicted. For example, given that the behaviors that contributed to the 2007-2008 financial crisis occurred inside organizations, why did organizational researchers failed to predict or anticipate it? One viable answer is the prevailing theories did not direct researchers’ attention toward the underlying structures that permitted the risk-taking behaviors associated with the crisis.

Another part of the explanation for the decline in organizational sociology is that business schools have begun to produce their own PhDs in organizational studies and have become less dependent on sociology departments. Also, organizational sociology is perceived to be less relevant to managing organizations. Given these conditions, it is likely that the job market for organizational sociology in business schools will decline in the future.

Given all this, should we do more of the same? Or, should we be doing something different?

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Written by epopp

September 3, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Posted in academia, education