Archive for the ‘research’ Category

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

dear andrew perrin: i was wrong and you were right on the obesity and mortality correlation

A while back, Andrew and I got into an online discussion about the obesity/mortality correlation. He said it was true, I was a skeptic because I had read a number of studies that said otherwise. Also, the negative consequences of obesity can be mitigated via medical intervention. E.g., you may develop diabetes, but you can get treatment so you won’t die.

The other day, I wanted to follow up on this issue and it turns out that the biomedical community has come up with a more definitive answer. Using standard definitions of obesity (BMI) and mortality, Katherine Flegal, Broan Kit, Heather Orpana, and Barry I. Graubard conducted a meta-analysis of 97 articles that used similar measures of obesity and mortality. Roughly speaking, many studies report a positive effect, many report no effect, and some even report a negative effect. When you add them all together, you get a correlation between high obesity and mortality, but it is not true at ranges closer to non-overweight BMI. From the abstract of Association of All-Cause Mortality With Overweight and Obesity Using Standard Body Mass Index Categories: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, published in the 2013 Journal of the American Medical Association:

Conclusions and Relevance Relative to normal weight, both obesity (all grades) and grades 2 and 3 obesity were associated with significantly higher all-cause mortality. Grade 1 obesity overall was not associated with higher mortality, and overweight was associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality. The use of predefined standard BMI groupings can facilitate between-study comparisons.

In other words, high obesity is definitely correlated with mortality (Andrew’s claim). Mild obesity and “overweight” are correlated with less mortality (a weaker version of my claim). The article does not settle the issue of causation. It can be very likely that less healthy people gain weight. E.g., people with low mobility may not exercise or take up bad diets. Or people who are very skinny may be ill as well. Still, I am changing my mind on the basic facts – high levels of obesity increase mortality.

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

Written by fabiorojas

June 4, 2015 at 12:01 am

jerry davis on the importance of management research

Harvard Business Review has run a version of Jerry Davis’ essay on the merits of modern management research. A few clips:

Is management research a folly? If not, whose interests does it serve? And whose interests should it serve?

The questions of good for what and good for whom are worth revisiting. There is reason to worry that the reward system in our field, particularly in the publication process, is misaligned with the goals of good science.

There can be little doubt that a lot of activity goes into management research: according to the Web of Knowledge, over 8,000 articles are published every year in the 170+ journals in the field of “Management,” adding more and more new rooms. But how do we evaluate this research? How do we know what a contribution is or how individual articles add up? In some sciences, progress can be measured by finding answers to questions, not merely reporting significant effects. In many social sciences, however, including organization studies, progress is harder to judge, and the kinds of questions we ask may not yield firm answers (e.g., do nice guys finish last?). Instead we seek to measure the contribution of research by its impact.


Management of humans by other humans may be increasingly anachronistic. If managers are not our primary constituency, then who is? Perhaps it is each other. But this might lead us back into the Winchester Mystery House, where novelty rules. Alternatively, if our ultimate constituency is the broader public that is meant to benefit from the activities of business, then this suggests a different set of standards for evaluation.

Businesses and governments are making decisions now that will shape the life chances of workers, consumers, and citizens for decades to come. If we want to shape those decisions for public benefit, on the basis of rigorous research, we need to make sure we know the constituency that research is serving.

Required reading.

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

Written by fabiorojas

June 2, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, guest bloggers, management, research

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can powerful, elite-led organizations lessen inequality?

Hi all, I’m Ellen Berrey. I’ll be guest blogging over the next few weeks about inequality, culture, race, organizations, law, and multi-case ethnography. Thanks for the invite, Katherine, and the warm welcomes! Here’s what I’m all about: I’m an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo-SUNY and an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation. I received my PhD from Northwestern in 2008. This fall, I jet off from the Midwest to join the faculty of the University of Denver (well, I’m actually going to drive the fading 2003 Toyota I inherited from my mom).  

As a critical cultural sociologist, I study organizational, political, and legal efforts to address inequality. My new book, The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press)is officially out next Monday (yay!). I’ll dive into that in future posts, for sure. I’m writing up another book on employment discrimination litigation with Robert Nelson and Laura Beth Nielsen, Rights on Trial: Employment Civil Rights in Work and in Court.  These and my articles and other projects explore organizational symbolic politics, affirmative action in college admissions (also here and here), affirmative action activism (and here), corporate diversity management, fairness in discrimination litigation, discrimination law and inequality (and here), gentrification politics, and benefit corporations.

I’ll kick off today with some thoughts about a theme that I’ve been exploring for many years:

How can powerful, elite-led organizations advance broad progressive causes like social justice or environmental protection? I’m not just referring to self-identified activists but also corporations, universities, community agencies, foundations, churches, and the like. Various arms of the state, too, are supposed to forward social causes by, say, ending discrimination at work or alleviating poverty. To what extent can organizational decision-makers create positive social change through discrete initiatives and policies—or do they mostly just create the appearance of effective action? Time and again, perhaps inevitably, top-down efforts to address social problems end up creating new problems for those they supposedly serve.

To the point: Have you come across great research that examines how organizations can bring about greater equality and engages organizational theory?

I think this topic is especially important for those of us who study organizations and inequality. We typically focus on the harms that organizations cause. We know, for example, that employers perpetuate racial, class, and gender hierarchies within their own ranks through their hiring and promotion strategies. I believe we could move the field forward if we also could point to effective, even inspiring ways in which organizations mitigate inequities. I have in mind here research that goes beyond applied evaluations and that resists the Polly Anna-ish temptation to sing the praises of corporations. Critical research sometimes asks these questions, but it often seems to primarily look for (and find) wrongdoing. Simplistically, I think of this imperative in terms of looking, at once, at the good and bad of what organizations are achieving. Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin, and Erin Kelly’s much-cited American Sociological Review article on diversity management programs is one exemplar. There is room for other approaches, as well, including those that foreground power and meaning making. Together with the relational turn in the study of organizational inequality, this is a promising frontier to explore.

More soon. Looking forward to the conversation.


Written by ellenberrey

May 13, 2015 at 2:08 pm

lessons from the social organization of sexuality

In 1994, The Social Organization of Sexuality was published. The authors, Ed Laumann, John Gagnon, Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels,conducted a large N survey of a random sample of Americans. I use the book in my freshman class to discuss sexual behavior. In today’s post, I will discuss what sociologists should take away from the book.

1. Doing a well crafted large N survey on an important topic is huge service to science. When we think of sociology, we often think of “high theory” as being the most important. But we often overlook the empirical studies that establish a baseline for excellence. American Occupational Structure is just as important as Bourdieu, in my book. Laumann et al is one such study and, I think, has not been surpassed in the field of sex research.

2. The book is extremely important in that good empiricism can abruptly change our views of specific topics. Laumann et al basically shattered the following beliefs: people stop having sex as they age; marriage means sex is less frequent; cultural change leads to massive changes in sexual behavior. Laumann et al showed that older people do keep on having sex; married people have more sex; and cultural moments (like AIDS in the 80s) have modest effects on sexual behavior. Each of these findings has resulted in more research over the last 20 years..

3. An ambitious, but well executed, research project can be the best defense against critics. The first section of Laumann at al. describes how federal funding was dropped due to pressure. Later, the data produced some papers that had politically incorrect results. In both cases, working from the high ground allowed the project to proceed. It’s a model for any researchers who will be working against the mainstream of their discipline or public opinion.

4. Quality empiricism can lead to good theory. Laumann et al’s sections on homophily motivated later theory about the structure of sexual contact networks and prompted papers like Chains of Affection. Also, by discovering that network structure affects STD’s, it lead to the introduction of network theory into biomedical science about a decade before Fowler/Christakis.

When we think of “glory sociology,” we think of succinct theoretical “hits” like DiMaggio and Powell or Swidler. But sociology is also profoundly shaped by these massive empirical undertakings. The lesson is that well crafted empirical research can set the agenda for decades just as much as the 25 page theory article.

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 23, 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

the grant economy as tragedy of the commons

Grants, grants, grants. Every academic likes getting them. And every administrator wants more of them. In some fields, you can’t be an active researcher without them. In all fields, the search for grants grows ever more competitive.

PLOS recently published the results of a survey of the grant-writing process in the U.S. Drawing on a nonrandom sample of astronomers and social & personality psychologists, and asking about their applications to NASA (astronomers), NIH (psychologists), and NSF (both), they reported their researchers having applied for four grants in the past four years, on average, and received one. Proposals took an average of 116 hours to write.

While respondents did note some non-pecuniary benefits to grant-writing, comments suggested that many researchers simply gave up after repeated failures, judging it a poor use of their time. In the words of one respondent:

I applied for grants from the NSF in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007….Most of the reasons given for not funding were that funds were too tight that particular year and that I should reapply the next year since the proposal had merit…I finally just gave up.

The authors, who start with the certainly-debatable-but-not-totally-baseless assumption that funding is fairly random (see these cites), make some rough calculations to come to the conclusion that when the funding rate is at 20%, half of grant applicants will be forced to abandon their efforts after three failed attempts, with a rate of more like 2/3 for previously unfunded researchers.

Now, this is a limited study and there is plenty of room to argue about the data it uses and the assumptions it makes. But few would disagree with its conclusion: “20% funding rates impose a substantial opportunity cost on researchers by wasting a large fraction of the available research time for at least half of our scientists, reducing national scientific output.”

And 20% is the good scenario these days. The National Institute on Aging, one of NIH’s major funders of sociology research, recently announced paylines at the 7th (for under-$500k grants) and 4th (for over-$500k grants) percentiles. That’s incredibly competitive.

Yet at the same time, universities, desperate for revenues, are pushing harder and harder for researchers to bring in grants, with those sweet, sweet indirect costs. I know mine is. When I arrived at SUNY Albany seven years ago, I was happy that the university seemed to treat grants as a bonus—something nice to have, not something required by them. This was a contrast with at least one other place I interviewed.

But that’s less the case now. I won’t go into details here. But suffice it to say that the pressure on the department to bring in grants is steady and increasing. And while this may not be happening everywhere, it’s certainly common, particularly at cash-strapped public universities. It’s even worse, of course, in the soft-money parts of higher ed, like med schools.

The thing is, it’s simply not a viable strategy. Unless the pool of grant funding is massively increased at the federal level—a remote possibility—this is a zero-sum game. And so we’re left with what is basically a variation on the tragedy of the commons problem. Rational individuals (or individuals responding to their employers’ rational demands) will write more grant applications, since doing so still probably increases one’s chances of being funded. And if everyone else is working harder and harder to secure grant funding, maintaining constant effort will likely result in a decreasing payoff.

But what a collective waste of resources. The PLOS article cites research suggesting that university faculty spend an average of 10.7 (public universities) to 14.5 (private universities) hours per week on research during the semester. Even assuming grant-writers are finding somewhat more time for research, grant-writing still takes half a semester’s research time or so. Yes, there’s some intellectual benefit to the grant-writing process. But probably not so much to writing multiple unfunded grants.

My modest proposal is to cap the number of applications—either at the individual level, or the institutional level. Or perhaps establish a lottery for the right to submit in a given round. I can think of disadvantages to that—why should the best (or at least most fundable) researchers not be able to apply as often as they want? But the goal here isn’t to share the wealth—it’s to waste less of our collective time.

In the meanwhile, the ever-growing pressure for external funding in an environment of flat-at-best resources is itself throwing money out the window. At a time of intense pressure to do more with less, this is the biggest irony of all.

Written by epopp

March 16, 2015 at 12:30 pm

Posted in academia, research


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