Archive for the ‘productivity and performance’ Category

thriving in the academic commons + labors of love in the time of pandemic

This year, like the past several years, I have the honor of serving as a mentor to tenure-track CUNY faculty in the CUNY Faculty Fellowship Publication Program (FFPP). The FFPP is a writing and professional development program that helps tenure-track faculty at CUNY two-year and four-year colleges navigate the ins-and-outs of publishing and tenure at their teaching and research-intensive universities. As a mentor, I get to read and comment on works in progress, across the disciplines, facilitate group learning processes, and connect with other highly accomplished mentors across CUNY; these responsibilities enact a cooperative philosophy of individual and collective learning-all-the-time.

Since this year’s FFPP orientation was virtual due to the pandemic, FFPP program directors Matt Brim and Kelly Josephs asked me to put together and record a presentation about publishing as a social scientist. I was also asked to comment on publication productivity for scholars who are caregiving during a time of pandemic, state repression/failures, and uncertainty.*

I’m sharing the direct FFPP link to my recorded presentation here in case it might help other scholars outside of CUNY.**

Since the video is not close captioned, I’ve cut and pasted the full script below. While I have embedded screenshots below, here’s my powerpoint presentation if you would like to look at the images of recommended resources, like guides for publication, up close:

“Greetings, I am Katherine K. Chen; I’m an organizational researcher and sociologist at The City College of New York and the Graduate Center, CUNY.  I’ve been asked by FFPP to talk about the writing and publication process from the perspective of a social scientist.  I’ve also been asked to discuss handling multiple roles in the academic commons during a time of pandemic, austerity, and state repression/failure. 

When I was finishing my PhD thesis in graduate school, I came across a book called Deep Survival; in this book, journalist Laurence Gonzales distilled conditions that were common among the accounts of those who had survived disasters, plane crashes, and being lost in remote areas.  I think many of these principles are applicable to the academic commons in both conventional times and uncertain times such as these. 

I speak as someone who has experiences with journal publishing like the following:

(1) An editor sat on a revision that I submitted in response to a R&R, a revise and resubmit.  The editor sat on the revised manuscript for 7 months [correction: it may actually have been 9 months…] before saying he was rejecting it, without sending it out for review.  I told other folks I had met at a mini-conference about this dispiriting decision; well, they let a famous researcher who was putting together a special issue around his concept about my paper.  That’s how I got introduced to a literature that catapulted my article into a higher ranked, well-known interdisciplinary journal.  This scholar also invited me to dialogue with his work for another journal.

(2) I had a journal manuscript that I was absolutely in love with writing, about the difficulties that consumers have with navigating social insurance markets.  In Aug. 2013, I sent the manuscript to a special issue for a general journal – this got rejected fairly quickly, with a few helpful review comments.  I revised this and sent it to a regional journal in Oct. 2013.  This also got rejected in Nov. 2013, with reviews that made it clear at least one reviewer didn’t understand the manuscript.  I spent a lot of time revising the manuscript with a new framing, based on a new literature, and submitted to an interdisciplinary journal in July 2016.  This version of the manuscript received a R&R; I did a revision.  This was followed by another R&R that had the warning of a “high risk” R&R.  I did one final push, as this was a make-it-or-break-it moment.  For several years, I had spent all of my New Year Eves working on revisions to this paper, and I was hoping to break this yearly ritual, as much as I enjoyed working on the paper.   Leading up to this final round, I was doing a reading group with a graduate student on an entirely different topic of school choice, and I also just happened to take the time to read a colleague’s book about the market of wealth management.  These seemingly ancillary activities helped me hone my own theoretical concept of bounded relationality, generating a published journal article in highly ranked and regarded journal, more-so than the ones I had originally submitted to.  

With these experiences in mind about how long it can take to publish research, I have translated several of the lessons from the Deep Survival book that I mentioned to our specific situations, which is about surviving and hopefully at some point thriving during a long journey towards publication and dissemination. 

Here are how these ideas apply to thriving in the academic commons:

  • Think relationally.  For survivors, the thought of loved ones, real or imagined, was what kept them going on seemingly hopeless treks, even when they were tempted to give up.  For academics, thinking relationally means the following: (a) First, who’s your audience?  Who are you writing for, and why is it important?  (b)  Second, who’s in your corner?  Who can you turn to for honest feedback?  Who can be your cheerleader and supporter?  Who can you offer the same in return?  Can you form a writing group?  Can you find a writing partner?  These groups can really keep you going, even when you haven’t heard from reviewers and editors or the reviewer feedback is not what you expect.
  • Prepare for your journey by anticipating possibilities.  Survivors are prepared with maps and supplies.  For academics, this means a lot of reading of examples in your field and how-to guides like: Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks or William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book.
  • Adapt to changing circumstances.  In the Deep Survival book, people got into trouble when they acted the way that they thought things should be – that the descent down the mountain should be easy, that there wouldn’t be a storm rolling in.  Survivors didn’t reject what they saw or experienced – they adjusted to their conditions.  If they were tired, they slept.   If they were cold, they didn’t keep wandering around until they got hypothermia; they made a shelter with a fire instead.  For academics, this means: (a) If you get a rejection, mourn it for a moment, then keep moving and talking with colleagues, prospective journals, or book publishers.  (b) If you keep getting the same advice about your writing, think about how you can use this advice to fix your writing.  (c) If you find that your intended audience isn’t receptive to your work, is there a different audience that might welcome your work?  Do you need to build up those audiences by organizing conferences or special events and making connections?
  • Reflect on where you are by learning a different perspective – The Deep Survival book argues that hikers need to periodically turn around and observe where they were, from a different vantagepoint, so that if and when they need to make a return journey, they can recognize the landscape.  This one is a harder one for academics – this is essentially an argument for slow scholarship, for revisiting ideas developed in younger years, to question assumptions and original interpretations, to master different literatures and see how these could fit.  Since so many of us have spent years developing expertise in particular areas, it’s tempting to hunker down and take a very linear and narrow path.  Adopting different perspectives, crossing subdisciplinary boundaries lines can be generative, help you fall in love again with what originally drew you to research.

Now, I’m going to turn to a slightly different but related topic.  Besides working as a tenured faculty, I am also a caregiver for a younger learner – in my case, a 6-year-old daughter and her community of now online learners.  What does this mean?  I can’t speak as a tenure-track faculty writing during a pandemic; I can only extrapolate from what I am doing and what I worry that junior faculty are experiencing.  Here’s my suggestions:

  • First, Be kind to yourself. 
  • Second, Reach out to others for support.  Most people and communities do want to be helpful when they can.  If you’re not a caregiver yourself, think about how you can support and be inclusive to those who are – Victoria Law and China Martens’ book Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind is a good guide.
  • Third, Partner up with others to write.
  • Fourth, Use the classroom in synergistic ways – learn about topics and/or methods that you’re interested in and test ideas.
  • Five, If you can, use your experience to inform your research and vice versa.  I aligned my research interests with what I was experiencing as a parent, instructor, and mentor.
  • Six, Take the longterm view – expend your energy interdependently where you think possible futures should head. Many scholars have sought to contribute to the academic commons, in the hope of bettering lives and circumstances for themselves and those around them, despite so many wrenching circumstances.  Many of us are the descendants of those who escaped wars, famines, genocides, and slavery, for example, and many of us are here today precisely because of mutual aid and cooperation.  Our daily presence and mentorship of upcoming generations are what makes multiple futures possible.

Thank you so much for listening.  Take care, and welcome to the CUNY academic commons.”

For other inspiration about writing and publishing, check out other content on the FFPP visual orientation page (some content is embedded, for others, you’ll need to scroll down and click the screenshot images to go to a dropbox link):

  • Bridgett Davis recounts her experience with how abandoning 400 pages of writing lead to two additional books, including a memoir that she is now converting into a screenplay for a film.
  • William Carr shares how a professional newsletter article about teaching at CUNY lead to an invitation to write about active learning for a textbook, thereby disseminating practices to wider audiences.
  • Duke University Press editor Ken Wissoker discusses about publishing dissertation work as books.
  • A FFPP group discusses their experiences as “The Writing Group That Never Quit.”

*Incidentally, the pandemic has accelerated skill acquisition and a reliance upon invisible labor and personal resources under challenging conditions. For those of who are instructing virtually from home, we’ve had to learn how to become video content generators, video-makers, and video editors. Some of us must use equipment that we have purchased ourselves and “free” labor donated by others.

** For those of you trying to budget time (or considering asking someone to provide video content), this 8-minute-long video involved several hours of set-up work, including writing and practicing the presentation and fussing with zoom recording and screen sharing settings. I could only complete it because the construction drilling in my complex had finally ended for the day, and I had gotten unpaid technical support from my zoom-savvy 6-year-old assistant. Another uncompensated work assistant (spouse) had sourced, purchased, and set-up the camera and boom mic.

Written by katherinechen

December 6, 2020 at 4:27 pm

interstitial bureaucracy: high performing governmental agencies operating in ineffective governments

Back in February (which now seems like an eternity from a fast-disappearing alternate reality), sociologist and organizational researcher Erin Metz McDonnell virtually visited my graduate Organizations, Markets, and the State course to talk about her research on high performing governmental agencies in Ghana.   McDonnell initiated an electrifying and dynamic discussion about the applicability of her research findings.  She also shared her experience with the opaque process of how researchers form projects that contribute to public knowledge.

Many of her observations about organizing practices are particularly timely now that the US and other nation-states face extreme challenges that demand more proactive, rather than retroactive, preparations for pandemic conditions.

Here’s a digest of what we learned:

  • Why Ghana? Prior to graduate school, McDonnell went to Ghana on a Fulbright award.  These experiences helped her question conventional organizational orthodoxy, including generalized statements about “states do this” built on research conducted in North America.  Using such observed disjunctures between the organizational canon and her lived experience, McDonnell refined research questions.  When she returned to Ghana, she identified high performing governmental units and undertook interviews.


  • Why did McDonnell include other cases, including 19th century US, early 21st century China, mid-20th century Kenya, and early 21st century Nigeria? McDonnell discussed the importance of using research in other countries and time periods to further flesh out dimensions of interstitial bureaucracy.


  • How did McDonnell coin the term interstitial bureaucracy? Reviewers didn’t like McDonnell’s originally proposed term to describe the habits and practices of effective bureaucrats.  “Subcultural bureaucracy” was perceived as too swinging 1960s, according to reviewers.


  • What can Ghana reveal about N. American’s abhorrence of organizational slack? McDonnell explained that high performing bureaucracies in Ghana reveal the importance of slack, which has been characterized as wasteful in N. American’s “lean” organizations.  Cross training and “redundancies” help organizations to continue functioning when workers are sick or have difficulties with getting to work.


  • Isn’t staff turn-over, where people leave after a few years for better paying jobs in the private sector or elsewhere, a problem? Interestingly, McDonnell considered staff turn-over a small cost to pay – she opined that securing qualified, diligent workers, even for a few years, is better than none.  (Grad students added that some career bureaucrats become less effective over time)


  • What can governmental agencies do to protect against having to hire (ineffective) political appointees? McDonnell explained how specifying relevant credentials in field (i.e., a degree in chemistry) can ensure the likelihood of hiring qualified persons to staff agencies.


For more, please check out McDonnell’s new book Patchwork Leviathan: Pockets of Bureaucratic Effectiveness in Developing States from Princeton University Press.  Also, congrats to McDonnell on her NSF Career award!

jerry davis used to hate transaction cost economics, but now he kind of likes it

Last week, the amazing Jerry Davis gave a talk at IU’s Kelley School of Business. Jerry’s talk addresses a very important corporate process – the move from organizations that employ lots of people to organizations that employ few people. For example, Facebook, one of the biggest wealth creators on earth right now, employs a paltry 12,000 people.

Jerry noted that this shrinking of the organization has even influenced politics. Social movements, for example, used to rely on vast organizations to contact and mobilize people. Now, you can stage a major protest with an announcement on social media.

Theoretically, what Jerry talked about was a profound shift in transaction cost economics (a field he said he used to hate, but didn’t say why). Advances in shipping and communication allow a lot of people to be shifted outside firm boundaries. He had a great example. Giant firms like Sony used to assemble TVs in house, but now Vizio outsources all assembly and design. They simple manage and coordinate the design, assembly, and shipping process.

One comment: I think Jerry over estimates the need to dispose of organizations among activists. As long societies rely on mass voting, there will be a need for large organizations to recruit and mobilize voters. So, yes, we can see the occasional protest movement wildly succeed using only twitter. But routine politics still belongs to the old clunky political organizations.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

January 31, 2017 at 11:43 pm

driverless cars vs. police departments

In my view, driverless cars are revolutionary. At the very least, they will eliminate a major health problem – auto injuries and fatalities. No system will be accident free, but driverless cars will be better at driving that most humans, they don’t get drunk, and they won’t drive recklessly.

There is another social consequence of driverless cars that needs discussion. Driverless cars will seriously disrupt police departments. Why? A lot of police department revenue comes from moving vehicle violations and parking tickets. In a recent news item, one judge admitted that many small town fund their police department entirely through speeding tickets. Even a big city police department enjoys the income from tickets. New York City receives tens of millions in moving violation fines. This income stream will evaporate.

Another way that driverless cars will disrupt police departments is that they will massively reduce police stops. If a driverless car has insurance and registration (which can be transmitted electronically) and drives according to the rules of the road, then police, literally, have no warrant to pull over a car that has not been previously identified as related to a specific crime. Hopefully, this means that police will no longer use moving violations as an excuse to pull over racial minorities.

Even if a fraction of the hype about driverless cars turns out to be true, it would be a massive improvement for humanity. Three cheers for technology.

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



Written by fabiorojas

November 3, 2016 at 12:15 am

genres in popular music

There is a new paper in PLoS One by Daniel Silver, Monica Lee, and C. Clayton Childress about the structure of genres. They use MySpace co-mentioning data to understand which genres are mentioned together, which maps out the space of pop music in the mid-2000s. From the abstract of “Genre Complexes in Popular Music:”

Recent work in the sociology of music suggests a declining importance of genre categories. Yet other work in this research stream and in the sociology of classification argues for the continued prevalence of genres as a meaningful tool through which creators, critics and consumers focus their attention in the topology of available works. Building from work in the study of categories and categorization we examine how boundary strength and internal differentiation structure the genre pairings of some 3 million musicians and groups. Using a range of network-based and statistical techniques, we uncover three musical “complexes,” which are collectively constituted by 16 smaller genre communities. Our analysis shows that the musical universe is not monolithically organized but rather composed of multiple worlds that are differently structured—i.e., uncentered, single-centered, and multi-centered.

For Chicago-ites, this is a “hollow core” finding about musical social worlds. Recommended.

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

Written by fabiorojas

June 7, 2016 at 12:01 am

i am so sorry, the GRE is still a valid tool in graduate admissions

A recent Atlantic article by Victoria Clayton makes the case that the GRE should be ditched based on some new research. The case for the GRE rests on the following:

  1. The GRE does actually, if modestly, predict early graduate school grades and you need to do well in courses to get the degree.
  2. Many other methods of evaluating graduate school applications  are garbage. For example, nearly all research on letters of recommendation shows that they do not predict performance.

To reiterate: nobody says GRE scores are perfect predictor. I also believe that their predictive ability is lower for some groups. But the point is not perfection. Th point is that the GRE sorta, kinda works and the alternatives do not work

So what is the new evidence? Actually, the evidence is lame in some cases. For example, Clayton cites a 1997 Cornell study claiming that GRE’s don’t correlate with success. True, but if you actually read the research on GRE’s there have been meta-analyses that compile data from multiple studies and find that the GRE does actually predict performance. This study compiles data from over 1,700 samples and shows that, yes, GRE does predict performance. Sorry, it just does, test haters.

Clayton also cites a Nature column by Miller and Stassun that correctly laments the fact that standardized tests sometimes miss good students, especially minorities. As I pointed out above, no one claims the GRE makes perfect predictions. Only that the correlation is there and that is better than the alternatives that simply don’t predict performance. But at least Miller and Stassun offer a new alternative – in depth interviews. Miller and Stassun cite a study of 67 graduate students at Fisk and Vanderbilt selected via this method and note that their projected (not actual) completion rate is 80% – much better than the typical 50% of most grad programs.

Two comments: 1. I am intrigued. If the results can be replicated in other places, I would be thrilled. But so far, we have one (promising) study of a single program. Let’s see more. 2. I am still not about to ditch GRE’s because I am not persuaded that academia is ready to implement a very intensive in-depth interview admissions system as its primary selection mechanism. The Miller and Stassun column refers to a study of physics graduate students – small numbers. What is realistic for grad programs with many applicants is that you need to screen people for interviews and that screen will include, you guessed it, standardized tests.

Bottom line: The GRE is far from perfect but it is usable. There is no evidence to systematically undermine that claim. Some alternatives don’t work and the new proposed method, in depth interviews, will probably need to be coupled with GREs.

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

Written by fabiorojas

March 16, 2016 at 12:01 am

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

megaprojects are a rip-off

I’ve always known that some city projects are simply bad deals, like sport stadiums. What I didn’t know is that there is new research showing that maga-projects of all types are a giant rip-off. Bent Flyvberg of Oxford discusses this finding a new Econ Talk podcast. What Flyvberg did was collect data on “mega-projects” – construction efforts that cost at least a billion dollars and affects a million people. What was found is that 90% of the time, mega projects are over budget, not completed on time, or do not attract the customers that were predicted (i.e., the demand was wildly over estimated). This applies to both private and public sector projects. Flyvberg also reports that smaller projects tend to do much better, for a variety of reasons.

A few comments here:

  • This is pretty strong evidence that states should completely avoid the expensive mega-sports projects like stadiums above a certain size. The Olympics, for example, should only be hosted in nations that have preexisting facilities.
  • Flyvberg points out that mega projects can even destroy the engineers and other professionals who build them. The architect of the Sydney opera only did one building in his life. The cost-overruns and delays ruined his reputation.
  • It is mainly state actors, contractors, and land owners who receive benefits.
  • I recently saw the Church of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Big project, but built little by little over a 100 years. A better model?
  • There are some cases of success, but they seem hard to predict ex-ante.

Bottom line: The next time they tell you that we need this multi-billion dollar road, just say no.

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

Written by fabiorojas

July 28, 2015 at 12:01 am

let’s just burn 20% of our research dollars

Plummeting grant funding rates are back in the news, this time in the U.K., where success rates in the Economic and Social Research Council—a rough equivalent to NSF’s SBE division—have dropped to 13%. In sociology, it’s even lower—only 8% of applications were funded in 2014-15.

I’ve written before about the waste of resources associated with low funding rates. But this latest round prompted me to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Disclaimer: these numbers are total guesses based on my experience in the U.S. system. I think they are pretty conservative. But I would love to see more formal estimates.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

July 16, 2015 at 12:01 pm

what does success mean in higher education? – a guest post by mikalia marial lemonik arthur

Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur is an associate professor of sociology at Rhode Island College. She is the author of Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education.

My state, Rhode Island, is in the process of beginning an experiment with performance funding for public higher education. Because of our small size, we have only three institutions of public higher education: The University (URI), The College (RIC—my institution), and The Community College (CCRI), and thus our performance funding initiative cannot involve comparative metrics or those based on what “the top” institution in the state is doing. Therefore, the legislature instead decided to craft a performance funding formula based on their own goals for higher education outcomes. The current version of the bill—considerably improved from prior versions, due in large part to the concerted efforts of my colleagues who testified before the relevant state House and Senate committees—includes among its metrics the 100% and 150% of normative time graduation rates; the production of degrees tied to “high demand, high wage” employment opportunities in our (very small) state; and an additional measure to be decided by each of the three institutions in consultation with internal constituencies; with the potential to adjust the weights of these measures to reflect institutional missions, student body demographics, and “the economic needs of the state.”

But this is not a post about performance funding, at least not really. Rather, it is a post about what “success” means for colleges and university.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

June 15, 2015 at 12:01 am

stefan simchowitz: my kind of scum

Stefan Simchowitz has attracted a lot of negative attention in the art world. The New York Times labeled him the “The Art World’s Patron Satan.” For example:

Critics charge that Simchowitz often preys on vulnerable young artists without gallery representation — some say without talent — and buys up huge quantities of their work, then flips the pieces back and forth at escalating prices among a cultivated group of buyers: a network of movie stars, professional poker players, orthodontists, nightclub promoters, financiers, football players and corned-beef magnates, many of whom hold Simchowitz in such high esteem that they’re willing to purchase the pieces he acquires for them sight unseen, artist unnamed. In March, in an online screed for New York magazine, the art critic Jerry Saltz tore into Simchowitz with unusual ferocity, dubbing him a “Sith Lord” and the Pied Piper of the “New Cynicism.” Simchowitz’s artists may enjoy a temporary surge in prices, his critics argue, but they typically see little of the upside; in any case, or so the story goes, once their bubbles pop, they’re left for dead.

Many important galleries have blacklisted Simchowitz as a buyer, forcing him to take extreme measures to secure desired work, including using consultants as undercover mules. Simchowitz told me about a recent scheme in which he had a consultant buy three pieces from Essex Street, a Lower East Side gallery. The purchase was nominally on behalf of another client, but the ultimate recipient was Simchowitz; by the time the gallery suspected the ruse, money had already changed hands, but the pieces had not been delivered. The gallery requested that Simchowitz not only cancel the purchase but also return another piece by the same artist that was already in his possession, which he did. Moreover, the gallerist, furious over what happened, called the other client to inform him that he was colluding in fraud, an accusation that heartily amused Simchowitz. (Asked for comment, the gallery responded, “Essex Street has never done business with Stefan Simchowitz.”)

I am a lot less alarmed by Simchowitz and even delight in his irreverence and trash talk. Aside from the trash talk, one reason that he draws controversy is his embrace of the market side of art. He thinks “flipping,” which is just another word for “quickly selling at a profit,” is great and has argued that it indicates strength of an artist. Another source of the controversy is patronage of young artists. One could argue that being so dependent on one person creates too much risk.

I tend to think these arguments, for the most part, are misplaced, or overblown. For example, almost all relationships in the art world have ups and downs. People can get traditional gallery representation and then have stalled careers. There are routinely lawsuits filed against galleries because of shady business deals. Artists can get burned as well. Private “dealers” like Simchowitz have no monopoly on good, or bad, business decisions.

If an artist strives to be in the “right” collections, Simchowitz, and flipping in general, may not be optimal, but he’s still preferable to not having a career at all. He’s probably equivalent to having a good, but not elite, dealer behind you.

On a deeper level, I have to give Simchowitz a thumbs up simply because he puts his money where his mouth is. If he likes it, he pays in cash. The trade off is that you are locked in. But, so what? That’s a standard way to reduce uncertainty. Also, he’s like a good business manager in that he provides personal support to help younger people who may not know how to deal with the business side of things. And worse comes to worse, if you hate him, it seems like you can “paint your way out of it,” in the same way a musician can finish a contract by just chunking out the last few records.

He may be crass and direct, and he may embrace practices the art world deems inappropriate. At the end of the day, there’s some artists who stayed in the game and succeeded because he gave them a room and ten thousand bucks. I wonder if he’ll take my calls?

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 7, 2015 at 12:01 am

orgtheory puzzle: why does sears still exist?

Puzzle for you all your org behavior/theory of the firm types: Why does Sears still exist? Normally, when we think about why successful firms exist, we think that they have a unique product, fill a niche, or have some sort of incumbent advantage. Or just overly aggressive management. But in a world of Amazon, Target, and Home Depot, it’s difficult to understand what Sears does well. Why aren’t they gobbled up by Lowes or Home Depot? Or dismembered by selling off its prime real estate holdings?

You see the occasional article on the topic. Forbes in 2011 claimed that it was generating good cash flow, which owners used to fund purchases of other firms. But the question is – where is the cash flow coming from? Yahoo readers claim that Sears is less a retailer and more of a holding company for a few brands (like Diehard batteries or Land’s End clothes) that just happen to be sold in Sears big box stores. But you’d think that competition would make this set up hard to sustain. The Forbes article does note a massive drop in sales… yet wiki reports that 793 (!) stores were open in 2014. Please use the comments.

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

Written by fabiorojas

March 25, 2015 at 12:01 am

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

There’s a September 2014 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.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 13, 2015 at 12:01 am

there’s probably a lot more cheating with the patriots

So far, the Patriots have been nailed on two cheating scandals – deflation gate 2015 and the 2006 spying scandal. Each of these is interesting in its own right but there is one implication that few are willing to utter. The Patriots are probably cheating in more ways than we imagine.

The intuition is simple. Cheating incidents are not independent. It is not likely that every person will cheat with equal probability. Rather, people who want to cheat are the most likely to cheat and do so over and over. Also, consider incentives. They have been caught cheating multiple times and that hasn’t seemed to harm them much at all. The conclusion is that it is highly likely the Patriots are cheating in other ways.

I think it would be interesting for the fans of vanquished teams to conduct Levitt style analyses of the Patriots. I would guess that looking at other data in addition to the now famous fumble analysis will yeild some interesting answers.

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January 26, 2015 at 12:45 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.

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Written by epopp

October 31, 2014 at 3:39 pm

what, exactly, are the police maximizing?

Last week, discussed how police interact with urban communities and the hypothesis that police are rewarded for focusing on the drug trade and they are less rewarded for just keeping the peace. Once commenter asked: what are the goals of the police? What are they trying to maximize?

Upon reflection, I realize that I had no idea, but I could generate some hypotheses:

  • Income/salaries
  • Department budgets
  • Violent crime
  • Non-violent crime
  • Property crime
  • Victimless crime
  • Social control (i.e., controlling specific populations)
  • “Broken windows” – making certain locations look desirable
  • Self-image
  • Votes (for D.A.’s especially)

I’d be interested in any data show the relative importance of these goals, say, in police budgets, arrests, prosecutions, police hours, etc. Criminology readers – how would you rank these goals given your knowledge of the field?

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September 9, 2014 at 12:01 am

financializing social services

Do people know about social impact bonds? I hadn’t heard of them till recently. Since then, though, I’ve developed a train-wreck fascination. They have the potential to combine all the worst features of the public and private sectors. And they can be securitized, to boot!

Let’s take a step back. What is a social impact bond, anyway?

Well. Imagine you have a social problem you’d like to solve. Say that you want to reduce recidivism among young people in prison. That sounds good, right? The problem, of course, is that taxpayers don’t want to pay for rehabilitative programs, and there’s lots of disagreement about what kind of program would actually help solve the problem, anyway.

The government says, Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody would take care of this for us, and we’d only have to pay them if they actually succeeded?

Enter Goldman Sachs.

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Written by epopp

August 11, 2014 at 1:01 pm

grade inflation experiment

A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reports a recent attempt to curb grade inflation. High GPA departments at Wellesley College were required to cap high grades. The abstract:

Average grades in colleges and universities have risen markedly since the 1960s. Critics express concern that grade inflation erodes incentives for students to learn; gives students, employers, and graduate schools poor information on absolute and relative abilities; and reflects the quid pro quo of grades for better student evaluations of professors. This paper evaluates an anti-grade-inflation policy that capped most course averages at a B+. The cap was biding for high-grading departments (in the humanities and social sciences) and was not binding for low-grading departments (in economics and sciences), facilitating a difference-in-differences analysis. Professors complied with the policy by reducing compression at the top of the grade distribution. It had little effect on receipt of top honors, but affected receipt of magna cum laude. In departments affected by the cap, the policy expanded racial gaps in grades, reduced enrollments and majors, and lowered student ratings of professors.

My sense is that this shows that grade inflation, whatever its historical origins, acts as a competitive advantage for programs that few other market advantages. If you don’t have a strong external job market or external funding, then you can boost enrollments via grade inflation. It also absolves programs by masking racial under performance. The lesson for academic management is this: If you have inequality in funding, departments will compensate by weak grading. If you have inequality by race, departments will compensate by weak grading. Thus, academic leaders who care about either of these issues should implement policies where departments don’t choose standards and are accountable for results.

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August 5, 2014 at 12:01 am

how much to quantify the self?

Over at Scatterplot, Jeremy’s been writing about his life gamification experiment, which involves giving himself points for various activities he’d like to be doing more of. I find this sort of thing totally compelling and have to admit I’m now giving myself all sorts of points in my head. (Finish unpacking one box — 5 points! Send an email I’ve been procrastinating on — 5 points!) Although not in 100 million years could I get my husband to play along with me, even for brunch, of which he is fond.

Anyway, the game brought to mind this post from Stephen Wolfram, in which Wolfram presents a bunch of data from the last 25 years of his life. Here, for example, are all the emails he’s sent since 1989. (Note the sharp time shift in 2002, when he stopped being completely nocturnal.) He’s also got keystroke data, times of calendar events, time on the phone, and physical activity.

Plot with a dot showing the time of each of the third of a million pieces of email

Fascinating to read about, but perhaps not terribly healthy to pursue in practice. Although in Wolfram’s case, it sounds like he was mostly just collecting the data, not using it to guide his day-to-day decisions. Others become more obsessive. I don’t know if David Sedaris has really been spending nine hours a day walking the English countryside, a slave to his Fitbit, or if he’s taking poetic license, but it’s a heck of an image.

Clearly there are a lot of people into this sort of thing. In fact, there is a whole Quantified Self movement, complete with conferences and meet-up groups. One obvious take on this is that we’re all becoming perfect neoliberal subjects, rational, entrepreneurial and self-disciplined.

For me, though, what is fun and appealing as a choice — and I do think it’s a choice — becomes repellent and dehumanizing when someone pushes it on me. So while I’ll happily track my work hours and tally my steps just because I like to — and yes, I realize that’s kind of weird — I hate the idea of judging tenure cases based on points for various kinds of publications, and am uneasy with UPS’s use of data to ding drivers who back up too frequently.

It’s possible that I’m being inconsistent here. But really, I think it’s authority I have the problem with, not quantification.

Written by epopp

July 15, 2014 at 10:27 pm

“you can’t fire your way to finland”

Last week a judge struck down tenure for California teachers on civil rights grounds. (NYT story here, court decision here.) Judge Rolf Treu based his argument on two claims. First, effective teachers are critical to student success. Second, it is poor and minority students who are most likely to get ineffective teachers who are still around because they have tenure — but moved from school to school in what Treu calls, colorfully, the “dance of the lemons.”*

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about teacher tenure. I’d rather see teachers follow a professional model of the sort Jal Mehta advocates than a traditional union model. This has personal roots as much as anything: I’m the offspring of two teachers who were not exactly in love with their union. But at the same time, the attack on teacher tenure just further chips away at the idea that organizations have any obligation to their workers, or that employees deserve any level of security.

But I digress. The point I want to make is about evidence, and how it is used in policy making — here, in a court decision.

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Written by epopp

June 18, 2014 at 3:00 pm

‘it’s like rating a blender’

The Obama administration is developing a proposal to rate colleges, a draft of which should come out this fall. Unsurprisingly, college presidents hate the idea. And honestly, so do I.

Org theorists know a thing or two about what happens when you rate things. People change their behavior. In this case, that’s the point — Arne Duncan et al. are hoping that the ratings will create incentives for colleges to graduate more students with less debt and higher post-graduation incomes.

Now, those are obviously not objectionable goals. There are some clear challenges in adjusting for the expected performance of different student bodies, and worries about disincentives to go into low-paying fields like teaching or social work, but who doesn’t want college to be more affordable, somehow?*

The big problem is the outcome that is missing in there: students who have learned things. If you create a system that measures access, completion, debt, and eventual income, and it has any teeth at all, you will get colleges that aim for those things. Unfortunately, those things have a limited relationship to actual learning. Where one conflicts with the other, learning will lose.

Of course, I’m kind of hesitant to say that, because heaven knows what would happen if we started trying to measure learning outcomes at the federal level. No Young Adult Left Behind, I guess. Coursera can sell us the curriculum.

* Another problem worth mentioning is that many adults without degrees don’t see graduation rates and average student debt levels as relevant to their college decision — they think it depends on them, not the school.

Written by epopp

June 11, 2014 at 4:00 pm

the psychology of ivy league grads on wall street

Ezra Klein interviews Kevin Roose, who has a new book about young Ivy League graduates who work on Wall Street. The take home point is simple: people who graduate from competitive schools graduate toward these jobs not because they love business, but because they want security. Wall Street jobs are high paid, require little experience, and have a bit of prestige. On the origins of the short term Wall Street job:

Wall Street invented this new way of recruiting in the early 80s. Before that they hired like any other industry. If you wanted to be a banker you applied for a job at a bank and they hired you or they didn’t. But in the early 80s Goldman Sachs and others figured out they could broaden their net and get lots of really smart people if they made it a temporary position rather than a permanent one.

So they created the two-and-out program. The idea is you’re there for two years and then you move onto something else. That let them attract not just hardcore econ majors but people majoring in other subjects who had a passing interest in finance and didn’t know what else to do. People now think going to a bank for two years will help prepare them for the next thing and keep them from having to make these hard decisions about the rest of their life. It made it like an extension of college. And it was genius. It led to this huge explosion in recruitment and something like a third of Ivy League graduates going to Wall Street.

Of course, it’s a mixed bag for the grads:

EK: So after writing this book, what would you say to a college senior thinking of going to Wall Street?

KR: First I would ask them why they wanted to work in an investment bank. If the answer is “because I’m tremendously in debt and need to pay it out” or “I’ve been reading Barron’s since I was 12 years old and I desperately want to be an investment banker” then those are legitimate reasons. Go ahead. But if it’s just about taking risk off the table and doing the safe prestigious thing, I’d tell them first that it will make them truly miserable, the kind of miserable it could take years to recover from, and that it also no longer has that imprimatur. It can actually hinder you. I’ve spoken to tech recruiters who say they only hire bankers in their first year or two because after that banking ruins them.

EK: How does it ruin them?

KR: It makes them too risk conscious. It gets them used to a standard of lifestyle they may not be able to replicate in any other industry. And it has a deleterious effect on creativity. Of the eight people I followed, a few came out very damaged by the experience. And not in a way a vacation can cure. It’s not about having bags under your eyes. It destroys your ability to think in creative ways about what it means to build something of value. The people I followed would admit they got a lot out of being a banker but I don’t think they’re all that tuned into the ways the experience changed them.

Check it out.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 22, 2014 at 12:01 am

a broken patent system? the case of samsung vs. apple

Vanity Fair has a new article on the Samsung-Apple litigation. Kurt Eichenwald makes the following case about Samsung’s business strategy:

  • Pick a cool area of electronics.
  • Quickly reverse engineer lower quality, low cost versions of the innovators.
  • When sued for copyright or patent infringement, fight non-stop legal battles that only end with last-minute settlements.
  • You win by either (a) grabbing insurmountable market share during the legal battle or (b) punishing small firms with exhausting litigation and high legal fees (Samsung counter-sues almost all plaintiffs).

If this is an accurate account of Samsung’s strategy, it has interesting implications. First, it contradicts resource based value theory in that the firm doesn’t need a monopoly on anything – just the ability to quickly mimic and exploit the system. Second, it suggests that markets are indeed stable in the absence of patents or enforceable intellectual property rights. Samsung has beat up some other firms, but most competitors have survived. Third, it suggests an interesting use of slack resources – throw them at emerging markets. Fourth, it suggests that the patent system is simply an ineffective means of enforcing intellectual property rights when the defendant is sufficiently large.

Strategy scholars and intellectual property gurus – go nuts in the comments.

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May 8, 2014 at 12:06 am

the balboni/manning theory of sports teams

In baseball lore, the “Curse of the Balboni” means that teams with sluggers (a player who hits 36 home runs per year or more) don’t win the world series. It is also a short hand for the observation that slugging isn’t always correlated with play off wins. I was reminded of this during this year’s Super Bowl when the Denver Broncos lost the Super Bowl after posting one of the most impressive performances in the history of the NFL. Not only did they lose, they lost very, very badly.

What’s my hypothesis? My theory is that teams with extremely successful offenses tend to overlook the defense. Think of it is an “sense making” issue in athletic organizations. Defenses are often less glamorous and harder to measure in many cases (e.g., good fielding in baseball or blocking in football). So they get less attention than offense. So having top notch offense let’s you off the hook defense wise. It distracts you from problems in the organization. In a league or division with unbalanced teams, it can be easy to wrack up wins. But when you meet more balanced teams in the play offs, or even teams who are a little better at exploiting defense mistakes, your success is limited.

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May 6, 2014 at 12:01 am

most academic papers are not cited and that’s ok

A classic result in the social analysis of science is that most papers are poorly cited. For example, the classic deSolla Price paper in Science (1965) found that the modal citation count in his sample was zero. Low mean and modal citation counts remain the standard in contemporary studies of scientific behavior. So, what gives?

Scientific research is a type of creative pursuit. By definition, journal articles are supposed to report on what is new or novel. Once you buy that, the low citation rates in science make sense. First, creativity (or importance) is a scarce commodity. Anyone trained in a psychology  graduate program can do an experiment, but few can do a novel experiment. Second, new results are themselves scarce. Fields quickly get covered and only obscure points remain. Third, even if you have a creative scientist who found a genuinely important problem, they might not have an audience. Perhaps people are focused on other issues, or the scientist is low status or publishing in a low status journal.

In principle, we should expect that few articles will deserve more than token citation. But still, why can’t journals just stick to important stuff? The answer is imperfect knowledge. Once in a while we encounter obvious innovation, but usually we have a limited ability to predict what will be important. It is better to over publish and let history be the judge. Considering that the cost of journal publishing is low (but not the subscription!), we should be ok with a world of many uncited and lonely articles.

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April 24, 2014 at 12:01 am

charismatic organizations: the case of alcoholics anonymous

The media covered a new book by Lance Dodes called The Sober Truth. In the book, Dodes surveys the evidence on rehab and finds that there is literally no evidence that rehab, AA or other popular methods for kicking drugs are effective. From a recent Alternet article:

Peer-reviewed studies peg the success rate of AA somewhere between 5 and 10 percent. That is, about one of every fifteen people who enter these programs is able to become and stay sober. In 2006, one of the most prestigious scientific research organizations in the world, the Cochrane Collaboration, conducted a review of the many studies conducted between 1966 and 2005 and reached a stunning conclusion: “No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA” in treating alcoholism. This group reached the same conclusion about professional AA-oriented treatment (12-step facilitation therapy, or TSF), which is the core of virtually every alcoholism-rehabilitation program in the country.

What I find interesting is that I was told this before by physicians and social workers. These programs work for very few people and this is common knowledge. But why didn’t I draw the logical conclusion? If it’s expensive ($200,000 for a stint in a fancy rehab center) and it doesn’t work, why not just stop doing it?

Two answers: The Robin Hanson answer is that it’s a signal of morality. We do it to show that we care, even if the evidence is dodgy. Another (not unrelated) answer is that charismatic orgs get less scrutiny. AA is trying to be nice to people and help them overcome serious problems, so I am less inclined to search for evidence that assesses their effectiveness. This is different than, say, a think tank that is pushing a policy that I don’t like. Then, I’ll search high and low for all the evidence I can find to fight them.

Bottom line: We should probably get tougher on organizations that claim to do good. We’re probably giving out too many free passes.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 21, 2014 at 12:01 am

contingency theory – is that like a thing anymore?

Once in a while, I am asked by students about contingency theory – the view in organization theory that there is no optimal firm structure and that it simply “depends.” In other words, it’s the pragmatism of the org theory world. Here’t the question I get asked: is contingency theory still an active research area? On the one hand, it is obviously alive – people (including myself) still talk about it in published articles. On the other hand, it seems to be permission to resort to contextual, ad hoc exaplanations, or, better, to add a needed extra dimension of variation. There aren’t native “contingency theory variables” that have been developed in the decades since the 1960s.

My own view is that it is now more of an argumentative move rather than a stand alone theory. Even though it is an obvious point, it acts as a corrective to the very rigid theories of org environments often found in sociology (e.g., iron cage institutionalism or early population ecology). If you think there is a real advance in contingency theory, do use the comment section.

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February 19, 2014 at 12:01 am

getting what we measure

Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Rhode Island College and is the author of Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education. Her current research explores network effects on curricular change in higher education. Her primary teaching responsibilities include social research methods and law and society courses, and this spring she is teaching a new interdisciplinary upper-level general education course on higher education.

One of the hallmarks of modernity is the focus on rationality and efficiency in organizational function: organizations of all types, from hospitals to Fortune 500 corporations, from universities to small not-for-profits, seek to improve their performance in terms of measureable outcomes. But, as the aphorism goes, “What gets measured gets done, what gets measured and fed back gets done well, what gets rewarded gets repeated” (variously attributed to any number of management scholars). For example, pharmaceutical companies’ focus on stock prices, sales figures, and the next blockbuster drug has led to a focus on treatments for common, chronic conditions, such as the umpteenth heartburn medication, and less focus on the development of new antibiotics, a trend that may soon prove to have devastating effects on our attempts to control infections disease.

In higher education, a similar dynamic is occurring. In the past, colleges and universities were primarily measured (and funded) based on enrollments. This meant that encouraging more students to enroll, and keeping them enrolled in classes until after the third week (or whenever official enrollment statistics are due), was often the highest priority, and whether students ever graduated did not matter nearly as much. You get what you measure: students in seats.

More recently, the emphasis has shifted to retention and graduation as measureable outcomes. This change encouraged administrators to consider what was necessary to keep students in school and to improve time-to-degree, but it came with its own perverse incentives. For example, administrators turned to student evaluations as a way to increase student satisfaction; some colleges and universities discourage faculty from failing students because failures decrease graduation rates and increase dropout rates. This leads to colleges in which students can graduate with a 2.0, never having written a paper (a phenomenon discussed in recent books like Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift and Armstrong and Hamilton’s Paying for the Party). It also contributes to rampant grade inflation, including elite institutions where over half of all grades awarded are As (happy students=repeat customers). You get what you measure: grads with high grades.

A variety of colleges and universities have thus sought ways to curb grade inflation, such as providing average class grades on transcripts and setting strict grading curves. By encouraging tougher grading standards, these methods may indeed reduce the average GPA of enrolled students, but tougher grading standards do not necessarily translate into better educated graduates—and in any case, most colleges and universities have not chosen to enact these sorts of reforms. Indeed, the ease by which average grades can be manipulated highlights the fact that grades themselves may not be even an adequate proxy measure of student learning, and thus the assessment movement was born.

Today, accrediting agencies require colleges and universities to demonstrate that students meet measurable learning outcomes, and projects like the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile encourage institutions and departments to clearly state the intended outcomes of their programs in measureable language. Some colleges and universities have gone further, developing competency-based degrees in which students supposedly demonstrate their skills rather than their seat time to graduate. At first blush, many critics argued that these programs are just another kind of teaching to the test. But teaching to the test is only a problem if the test is not actually able to test the desired learning outcomes—you get what you measure: results on the test.

It has already become clear to advocates of competency-based learning that competency is a pretty low floor, and instead they have begun to use the term “proficiency.” One goal of proficiency-based degree plans has been to shorten the time and cost of a degree, particularly by reducing Baumol’s cost disease by disrupting the relationship between seat time, faculty workload, and degree production. So far, competency- and proficiency-based programs are rare and likely appeal only to a particular self-selected group—but as Chambliss and Takacs point out in their forthcoming book How College Works, college only works if it works for all students, including the lazy, the unmotivated, and the perhaps not-so-smart.

So if we get what we measure and what gets rewarded gets repeated—and we measure proficiencies and reward completion—what do we get? Degrees as checklists? Students who cannot earn a college degree because, while they are excellent writers and have superb disciplinary knowledge, they cannot (in Lumina’s language) construct and define “a cultural, political, or technological alternative vision of either the natural or human world,” a key bachelor’s-level competency? An even more extreme bifurcation of the higher education field in which some colleges and universities develop rigorous proficiency measures and provide students with the supports necessary to excel while others assess writing, critical thinking, and speaking with machine- or peer-grading?

Or is it possible to build a system that measures proficiencies in a real, valuable way and which rewards completion without reducing the rigor of these proficiencies? In other words, can find a way to measure what we want to get instead of getting what we happen to have measured?

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Written by fabiorojas

January 29, 2014 at 12:01 am

get organized – the eisenhower way!!!!


The Uncluttered blog has a nice post about the way Eisenhower organized his work. It’s a 2×2 table, which means sociologists should love it:

Long before David Allen taught the world how to get things done, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower was getting things done with a system all his own.

He was highly organized and prioritized his tasks and responsibilities while serving as president, a five-star general, supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and supreme commander of NATO. Eisenhower devised an effective system that’s simple enough to be executed with a pencil and a piece of paper and effective enough to, well, run the free world. It’s called the Eisenhower Matrix.

Yes, the Matrix of (Eisenhower) Domination.

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January 4, 2014 at 12:01 am

stop interviewing people

A recent Washington Post op-ed describes recent research showing that interviews are poor predictors of future job performance. The idea is old, but the results elaborate in new ways. From Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia:

You do end feeling as though you have a richer impression of the person than that gleaned from the stark facts on a resume. But there’s no evidence that interviews prompt better decisions (e.g., Huffcutt & Arthur, 1994).

A new study (Dana, Dawes, & Peterson, 2013) gives us some understanding of why.

The information on a resume is limited but mostly valuable: it reliably predicts future job performance. The information in an interview is abundant–too abundant actually. Some of it will have to be ignored. So the question is whether people ignore irrelevant information and pick out the useful. The hypothesis that they don’t is called dilution. The useful information is diluted by noise.

Dana and colleagues also examined a second possible mechanism. Given people’s general propensity for sense-making, they thought that interviewers might have a tendency to try to weave all information into a coherent story, rather than to discard what was quirky or incoherent.

Three experiments supported both hypothesized mechanisms.

In other words, interviews encourage people to see patterns in the data where none exist. They also distract us with irrelevant information. Toss this in the file of “we have evidence it don’t work, but people will do it anyway.”

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October 30, 2013 at 12:01 am

coaches are the highest paid state employees


Deadspin provides this illustration of the highest paid state employees. It says something when a public institutions gives more support for collegiate sports than other functions. That’s why I advocate a separation of sport and school.

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May 16, 2013 at 12:53 am

sociology don’t pay nuthin’ had one of those lists of majors that don’t pay very well. #8? You guessed it – sociology:

People who enter the field of sociology generally are interested in helping their fellow man. Unfortunately, that kind of benevolence doesn’t usually translate to wealth. Here are three jobs commonly held by sociology majors (click on job title and/or salary for more info):

… social worker

… corrections officer

… chemical dependency counselor

This is one of those cheesy magazine articles on careers, but it is consistent with prior research on college majors and income. Sociology is a feeder into service professions. That’s a good thing, though I do wonder how my sublime lectures on the differences between structuralism and post-structuralism help people get off of drugs.

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March 29, 2013 at 12:34 am

michael cohen’s last research

Like most of us in the world of organization studies, I was saddened to hear of Michael Cohen’s passing. I only met him once and he was very gracious. In the spirit of his work, let me me draw your attention to his last research project – an analysis of “handoffs.” The issue is that doctors can’t continuously watch patients. Whenever a doctor leaves to go home, a new doctor comes in and there is a “handoff.” Cohen wrote a nice summary for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation website:

1. To be effective, a handoff has to happen.

It may seem incredibly commonplace, but all too often preventable injuries or even deaths trace back to handoffs that were abbreviated, conducted in awkward conditions, or downright skipped.  The easy cases to identify are things like leaving before handoff is done, or rushing the handoff in order to get out the door.

Unfortunately, many other causes are also in play. Some major examples derive from schedule or workload incompatibilities.  If patients are sent from the PACU (post-anesthesia care unit) to a floor unit during its nursing report, the nurses accepting the patients will necessarily miss out on the handoff of existing patients. If a patient is moved from the Emergency Department (ED) before her doctor or nurse has time to complete phone calls to the destination unit, the patient endures some period of having been transferred without benefit of handoff. If there is a shift change in the ED just before a patient moves, the handoff is conducted by a doctor or nurse who has only second-hand familiarity with the events. To improve handoffs, we may need to teach participants to think about the organizational structures that make it hard to do them well.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 9, 2013 at 12:01 am

productively handling structured and unstructured time as a scholar

In this post, I want to follow-up on my previous posts about conducting research by discussing the thorny issue of time management.  One challenge of academia involves completing work under schedules that incorporate both structured and unstructured time, with both unclear ends (what does one want/need to accomplish?) and means of reaching these ends (how does one achieve that goal?).  People must learn to self-manage the processes of undertaking a dissertation or research project and preparing publications along with other responsibilities.

During the school year, class preparation and grading, committee work (i.e., admissions committee, curriculum committee, hiring committee, etc.), service to the profession (i.e., reviewing manuscripts or conference papers, committee work for professional associations, etc.), and other commitments structure schedules.  For some, research, writing, and publishing all get squeezed into the remaining time.  Thus, periods such as the summer, winter break, and sabbaticals usually start with a long list of best intentions of how to spend “unstructured” time, which can feel overwhelming.

What to do?  This post is devoted to examining several Jedi tricks that increase the likelihood of accomplishing research projects during both structured and unstructured times.

Use deadlines

As part of class requirements, I used to assign my students two two-page long journal entries to help them understand the link between theory and phenomena (say, how routines help direct workers but may have undesired consequences).  The deadlines for these assignments were open-ended as students could pick whichever readings they wanted to use to analyze their organizational experience.  The assignment was due the same day that the reading was due.

Although a few students submitted their work on time, most students struggled with selecting their own deadlines and waited until the semester’s last week to turn in their journal entries.  A few didn’t submit any entries at all.  After a couple semesters, I tried another tactic: I made the first of the two journal entries due by the semester’s midpoint.  Student turn-in rates improved during the first half, but students still had problems with turning in the second journal entry.  After reading behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s description of his experiments with having MBA students set their own deadlines for turning in assignments versus setting deadlines for them (the MBA students at his elite institution apparently did no better than my undergrads in setting their own deadlines), I finally replaced this requirement with regular homework assignments with set deadlines.

Such experimentation shows how setting deadlines can be helpful, even if the deadlines are arbitrarily imposed.

How to set deadline prods:

– Understand prioritization

For scholars, juggling multiple responsibilities often means that projects that lack hard deadlines or immediate reinforcement can fall by the wayside.  It’s too easy to prioritize not particularly important deadlines for obligatory service commitments or bureaucratic paperwork simply because these have set deadlines while other, often more important or consequential responsibilities do not.  Or, some may find that the instantaneous gratification of teaching or mentoring students can trump the often-lonely, seemingly thankless task of writing up research and responding to reviewers’ comments.   These “pulls” can derail research productivity, particularly during long projects where deadlines are self-set – for example, submitting journal or book manuscripts for peer review.

For those of you who enjoy making 2 by 2 typologies, time management guru Stephen Covey suggests writing down projects and responsibilities in an important vs. not important and urgent vs. not urgent table to assess how you are allocating time.

– Routinize large projects into small incremental tasks

Based on his research comparing the writing and publication productivity of faculty who wrote in spurts versus regular, steady writing, Richard Boice recommends setting up small, incremental deadlines.  Rather than “binging” on intermittent writing bouts, he suggests regularly writing small amounts.  Some people assume that they have to be motivated first in order to be productive – instead, productivity is like a waterwheel: productivity elicits productivity.

– Follow a preset template

Wendy Belcher published an excellent guide to how to submit and publish journal articles according to a set schedule.  Her chapters cover topics such as how to write letters of inquiry to editors and how to respond to reviewers’ comments.

– Use other external deadlines

Some scholars find that presenting at conferences helps with getting initial drafts done, with the possible bonus of getting useful feedback during the review process or presentation.  If you’re writing journal manuscripts, check out calls for special issues, which usually have hard deadlines.  These also have the added advantage that reviewers have to get back to submitters by a set date.

– Participate in a writing group or colloquiums

Writing groups or colloquiums where members regularly present drafts for feedback can be great prods for productivity.  Depending on what your needs are, writing groups need not include only members from your own discipline – often, those from other disciplines can offer writing feedback that extend beyond substantive content, or they can suggest alternative perspectives which can be very helpful for cross-fertilizing with other fields.  Your university might even have a program led by a trained facilitator who will set up guidelines for a group.

– Intermix different types of deadlines

Sometimes deadlines for smaller projects can feed larger project deadlines by supporting substantive knowledge.  For example, if you are asked to write a dictionary entry or review a book related to your research topic, you now have the opportunity to distill your knowledge of existing literature.  Successful submission can set up conditions for entrainment – that is, meeting a small deadline might provide the impetus to pursue a larger deadline.  The tricky balance is not to take too many small projects at the expense of a larger one with a bigger impact.

– Use carrots and sticks

To meet deadlines, some colleagues have used carrots like a non-refundable vacation or moving to a new job.   A stick might be running out of funding – a “natural” end to a project.

– Work with collaborators

If you’re the type of scholar who prefers company, you might find that the stimulation of working interdependently with others is more appealing than working independently.  However, this can be a double-edged sword if the collaborators (or you) are overly optimistic about abilities to expend time.   Most likely these will involve frank conversations about authorship and responsibilities upfront, as well as adjustments along the way.

– Spend regular time with friends and family; participate in a hobby

Finally, some might feel tempted to eschew “distractions” until a big project is over.  However, scheduling in hobbies and regular downtime with friends and family – even a deceptively mundane task such as a walk with a pet – can help motivate scholars over the productivity hump.

Other resources

Randy Pausch’s recorded talk on time management

A handy guide to how research progresses (or not)

Add your recommendations to the comments…

Written by katherinechen

August 2, 2012 at 3:05 pm

online networks and sources of firm value

Why is Facebook valuable? As we’ve discussed before, we know it’s valuable, but we don’t know how valuable. The issue is that we know that advertisers are willing to pay, but we also know that estimated revenue per FB user is low (about $1.21 by one estimate).  If FB is valued in tens of billions, that’s way more than the couple of billion generated by users. Currently, FB is charging advertisers about $9.50 a user. Something ain’t right.

There’s more. The big selling feature is that FB has data volunteered by users, but FB doesn’t seem very adept at using this data to target ads. For example, I get Indiana targeted ads, some hobbies (online games), and generic ads for online colleges. Most of this could have been obtained from other websites. The ads don’t seem to exploit my networks much.

The best I can figure out is that social networking creates economic value for investors by the same mechanism that tv shows create value for networks. A social network is a form of entertainment, people just want to keep up with friends in an easy way and FB does that. So we watch our FB page like we watch a TV show. Enter the advertisers.

As long as FB maintains an easy to use interface, it will likely remain the social network leader, at least among US users. But this also means that FB’s market value will drop until it matches the relatively more modest income stream generated by users. That doesn’t mean FB is doomed to failure. It’s got a lock on it’s niche, which is huge, but for it to justify its utterly gigantic IPO, it’ll have to innovate in ways to create more value beyond allowing Internet addicts to post the cat meme of the day.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

July 30, 2012 at 12:01 am