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yes, even mediocre students deserve letters of recommendation

Yes, I believe that letters of recommendation are garbage. But if we continue to require letters, faculty have a moral obligation to write them. Why? Part of being an educator is to evaluate students for the public and as long as they subsidize us professors, we need to satisfy the external demand for assessment.

Sadly, many professors take an opposite view. Students often report that professors turn them down. That happened to me all the time in graduate school. Letters were a precious commodity reserved for the best students. That is simply wrong.  In a great post at Scatter, Older Woman explains why you should write letters for most students:

The combination of a high workload per student who needs references and claims that all letters should be excellent or not written at all leads many instructors to refuse to write letters for any but A students or students they know well.  But is this fair?

Her answer?

There are a lot of graduate and professional programs out there with widely varying degrees of selectivity. Virtually all of them require three letters of reference for an application to be complete. Getting those three letters is a nightmare for some students because they have trouble tracking down their past instructors and some they do track down refuse to write for them for reasons ranging from the student’s mediocrity to the instructor’s sabbatical or general busyness. I have had conversations in which I tell a student that the letter I could write for them would not be a very good letter and the student would say: I don’t care what it says, I just need three letters. I’ve also talked to honors students who have done independent projects and have one or two excellent letters nailed down who are still desperately shopping for somebody, anybody, to write their third letter, because no matter how good the first two letters are, the application will not be complete without the third.

My view is that all of us who are regular faculty (either tenure track or non-contingent adjuncts) should treat writing letters of reference as an often-annoying but important part of our job. These letters should be honest, and we certainly owe it to the student to tell them honestly if the letter we would be able to write would be tepid or contain negative information that would not help them. We also owe it to the student to ask them about their plans, about their perceptions of the selectivity of the program they are applying to, and whether they have done their homework in selecting a program that fits their qualifications. But if the student feels they want or need the letter anyway after this disclosure and discussion, we should write the letter.

Correct! Basically, letters are not the special property of A students. Many graduate programs simply want to know that the person did decently. Instructors are not required to write special letters for everyone. Most students just want a few sentences explaining that they showed up and did relatively decently. In fact, I think it is totally ok to write one form letter for decent, but not great, students that you can customize as you see fit. It is a requirement for large, public institutions.

Heck, you can even write short and honest letters for crummy students. A real example: In my first year teaching, a dude name Jiffy* asked me for a letter. He was a really weak student. C in intro sociology and seemed spaced out. I said, “sure, but the letter will reflect your current grade – C.” He said that was totally ok. All he wanted was a study abroad letter and all it needed to say was that he attended class and was passing. And so I wrote that letter. All I wrote was a paragraph saying that he showed up to class and would answer questions if called upon. That’s it.

I never did hear back from Jiffy but I Googled him a year ago. He’s now a successful dentist. And you know what, if I helped some dentist enjoy a semester abroad, that’s not a bad thing.

Bottom line: Quit your whining and write that letter. If you don’t think it is part of the job, get another job.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

*Not a real name.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 16, 2017 at 5:08 am

Posted in academia, fabio, teaching

Teaching/research/learning opportunity available in Lebanon

Paul Galatowitsch has an announcement for organizational researchers who are looking to integrate their summer/winter break with teaching, research, and/or learning in Lebanon.

This might be of particular interest those with experience or seeking experience with NGOs, health systems, and refugees:

www.socioanalytics.org and the Short Course in Lebanon is up and ready.  I would really like to get some Organizational Sociologists on board…. It’s a great research and service opportunity.

 

Written by katherinechen

October 10, 2017 at 7:38 pm

global resistance in the neoliberal university

intlconf
Those of you who are interested in fending off growing neoliberalism in the university might be interested in the following international  line-up at CUNY’s union, PSC.
You can watch a livestream of the conference via fb starting tonight, Fri., March 3, 6-9pm and Sat., March 4, 9:30am-6pm EST:
…an international conference on Global Resistance in the Neoliberal University organized by the union will be held today and tomorrow, 3/3rd-4th at the PSC, 61 Broadway.  
 
Scholars, activists and students from Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Greece, India and the US will lead discussions on perspectives, strategies and tactics of resisting the neoliberal offensive in general, and in the context of the university in particular.
 
You can visit this site for a link to the conference program:
 
Due to space constraints, conference registration is now closed. But we’re thrilled by the tremendous interest in the event! You can watch a livestream of the conference here: https://www.facebook.com/PSC.CUNY.  If you follow us on our Facebook page, you will receive a notification reminding you to watch.  
 
We look forward to seeing some of you tonight and to discussing the conference with many of you in the near future. 
 

 

 

Written by katherinechen

March 3, 2017 at 11:29 pm

surviving academic affluenza/midlife-crisis

Academia is an iron person sport – the marathon to the dissertation,  the quest for a tenure-track position, and the trek to tenure.  What happens after tenure and promotion?

In this podcast, Elizabeth Matsui (a professor and practicing doctor), Roger Peng (professor of biostats), and Brian Caffo, a recently promoted full professor in biostats, discuss the timeline of an academic career, including those on soft money.  Using a disease analogy (i.e., do you suffer from full professoritis?), they discuss various outlets where the tenured can channel efforts following the post-tenure malaise.  They outline possible routes: “staying the course,” mastering a new field, or taking on additional, different roles as an administrator, empire-builder, public scholar, editor, teacher/mentor, and consultant.  Around the 40: minute mark, Matsui raises the issue of familial responsibilities.

Elsewhere, in an article titled “Midcareer Melancholy,” sociologists Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist point out the structural conditions that make associate professorship feel especially soul-crushing to those who had imagined a euphoric, happily ever after post-tenure and promotion.  As they describe the academic profession, assistant professors are protected from service work while some full professors shirk it.  These generate overwork among associate professors, whose ranks have been decimated by the adjunctification of the academy and the depletion of tenure-track lines.  Associate professors are acutely aware of how much of their daily work is neither valued nor counted towards their bid to advance to the next step of full:

Associate professors may be frustrated by the immediate demands of service work that materialize upon earning tenure when it is almost exclusively their scholarship that earns them promotion in the long run.

On our campus, we heard these sentiments repeatedly: “There’s a contradiction between the pressure for service at the associate level and the devaluing of service for promotion to full”; “In reality, only research matters when it comes to… promotion, but service and teaching require lots of time”; “The criteria for promotion is research. Associate professors have time for everything but research.” Another referred to associate professorship as “the midcareer service gully that we find ourselves taking an extended stay in.”

Misra and Lundquist offer the following adjustments to address the midcareer malaise:

  1. Clear guidelines for promotion that align with the institution’s mission. Tenure criteria are often less ambiguous than those for promotion to full professor. A few research institutions have identified alternative pathways to promotion in the form of exceptional service leadership or scholarly teaching.
  2. Mutual mentoring programs and supports such as those developed by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity that help faculty members focus their work time on the factors that will be evaluated, such as research productivity.
  3. Strategies aimed at lessening service burdens on faculty, such as: more tenure-line faculty hiring, recognizing that relying on adjuncts damages the university broadly, as well as adjunct faculty; course releases for intensive service positions to ensure that they do not derail research agendas; more staff hiring that supports faculty leadership.
  4. Greater departmental transparency in service assignments and teaching loads to reduce inequalities in how less-valued activities are distributed.
  5. Professional development for midcareer faculty on how to run meetings and complete committee work without reinventing the wheel.
  6. Standardized policies that regularly assess promotion timing rather than forcing candidates to self-nominate or wait to be nominated by a superior.

 

 

Written by katherinechen

January 18, 2017 at 5:13 pm

class and life chances

To help my students understand the impact of race and class upon life chances, I show excerpts from the People Like Us documentary.  Of the clips that I usually show, the one that has grabbed my students’ attention the most is the story of Tammy Crabtree and her two sons living in Ohio.  Viewers of the documentary may remember that Tammy walked several miles to reach her workplace, a minimum wage job at Burger King, and that her teenage son Matt voiced both shame about his family’s trailer-home poverty and his high hopes about his future.

Today, when answering an email inquiry by a school teacher about how to teach difficult issues to his students, I stumbled upon a recent update to Tammy and her family’s story.  Tammy is still working at Burger King, although she has a shorter commute than before – a 20 minute walk from her house.  Matt did not finish high school or attend college, contrary to what he had envisioned for himself, so that he could work to support his own child.  Now, he exhibits greater compassion about his mother’s circumstances, showing a degree of introspection that most may not realize until very late in life.  Both he and his brother emphasize family as a priority, as does Tammy.

Have a look at the family back in the late 1990s and now:

 

 

Written by katherinechen

February 12, 2016 at 8:29 pm

teaching without a safety net

A public speaking coach once told me to dispense with visual aids. They are a crutch. They are distracting. They disrupt the flow of your talk. For a while, I was able to follow his advice. Then, with the era of power points, I stopped. My students resented lectures without power points. I brought power points into class. I got worse as a speaker.

Recently, I have tried to implement the advice and reduce distracting visual aids. What I learned is that students wanted notes and summaries. The power point presentation fulfilled that function. They printed power point slides out and wrote on them. But they didn’t seem to want or need visuals during class. They were still perfectly capable of following lectures.

My current mode of operation is that I provide outlines/notes/power point slides but the class itself is just me talking and directing class discussion without notes. Occasionally, I’ll pick up the paper to make sure I hit major points. Otherwise, it is a wild free-soc improv jam session. And it works. I can monitor class, have off the cuff discussions, and drum up the audience. Since the class has a loose structure, people are more relaxed and we can speed up or slow down as needed.

But there is a deeper lesson, aside from just being more relaxed. By forcing myself to essentially memorize all these readings and then explain, from scratch, how they are connected, I can actually see the connections more clearly. For example, I teach social theory for upper division students from Lemert’s text. The book is one of those anthologies that mixes actual sociology with a bunch of “hip” readings from the humanities that touch on social behavior. So for a lot of the readings on race and gender, I always thought they were disconnected. But by re-explicating, I realized that there are lots of common themes. One is that a lot of the “humanities” style readings are actually about claiming intellectual space for women and minority intellectuals and using that position to generate social change. Though it is not mentioned in the critical essays in the readings, it comes out when you have do in-class close readings. Franz Fanon raises the issue, Patricia Collins nails it, and then Gayatri Spivak mucks it up again. I don’t think I’d be able to see that chain of thought had I just relied on the power points I wrote three years ago. It only comes out when you read, in class, passages and directly compare them.

This is the lesson I have for you. If possible, “go free” but not wild. Loosen up, read closely, have fun. And see the connections.

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

Written by fabiorojas

November 11, 2015 at 12:01 am

the gap between students, professors, and policy wonks

This was going to be a post about How College Works, a recent book by Dan Chambliss and Chris Takacs. Every couple of years I teach a senior seminar on higher education, and this time around we started with Chambliss & Takacs.

I’d still like to write that post. I liked the book quite a lot, and it was a big hit with the students. But right now I want to emphasize something teaching this class often reminds me of, and which was even more apparent as we made our way through How College Works. The gap between why students attend college and what they think they get out of it, and how academics and policy wonks think about the purpose of college and how to improve the institution, is huge.

The higher ed policy world has been buzzing lately. First there was a big new paper that used tax data to provide some of the best evidence to date on who is defaulting on student loans. (Short answer: students who attend for-profits, and, secondarily, community college students, who traditionally did not borrow but have started to in the last decade.)

Right after that came the new federal College Scorecard, which similarly uses tax data to provide, for the first time, some information about student incomes after college relative to net price and money borrowed at specific schools.

All this generated lots of chatter among the media, policy types, and academics obsessed with such things. I would have contributed myself, had the start of the semester not whacked me upside the head (and, briefly, off the internet).

But as all this was coming out, I was just coming off an intense conversation with my class of seniors about what they had gotten out of their four years of college. For context, these are sociology majors, almost all from NY state, a large majority residential and of traditional college age, about 40% first generation, half Black and Latino, at a school of middling selectivity. So perhaps not the most career-obsessed (they *are* sociology majors), but also not collectively so privileged as to be able to ignore the financial realities of life after graduation.

What they talked about was personal development. They learned who they are. To manage themselves. To prioritize and juggle competing obligations. To evaluate the character of others. To be confident in themselves and their ability to handle new situations. To get along with others who are different from them. They made what they expect to be lifelong friends. Academics barely came up. Neither did future income. They are very aware that “life out there” is drawing near as they head toward graduation, and they do wish college had done a better job of helping them think about how to transition to the world of work. But the reason they go to college, and what they think they got out of it, is primarily personal and social.

This conversation, which took place before we read How College Works, anticipated many of the themes in the book. Chambliss and Takacs’s book is, first and foremost, student-centered, and it emphasizes how college works for students. That means that even though academics are a significant piece of the puzzle, much of the benefit as students see it comes elsewhere—in their typology, not just in skills they gain, but in confidence developed and in relationships made. I think this is part of why the book resonated so much with students, who wished they had read it in high school, or at least as freshmen.

How distant this seems from the policy conversation about higher ed, which is increasingly focused on post-college income—the thing that can be measured, and thus the only thing that matters. Surely no one wants to argue that it is fine for students to graduate with a mound of debt and a job that pays less than a living wage. And the “college experience” that most of my students have had to some degree—at least partly residential, surrounded by others of one’s age cohort—and which is central to what they feel they’ve gained, is not in fact the typical college experience. And, of course, they’re young. They’ll probably pay more attention to the economic value of their degree as they finish school and start looking for full-time jobs, and maybe they’ll think differently about the cost of college when they’re paying more taxes.

But I can’t help but think that a national conversation that focuses so heavily on college as a gateway to a high-paying job, and ignores what traditional college students think they get out of college, is really wrong-headed. Maybe it’s ridiculously expensive to give everyone a four-year residential college experience. Maybe it’s dumb that students are willing to go into debt so they can have that experience. Perhaps it’s a consumption good that they should be paying for themselves, and we shouldn’t be collectively subsidizing it. But for my students, and the Hamilton College students of How College Works—different in so many ways from my own—none of this matters. They are getting something valuable out of college. It’s just not what policy makers think.

Written by epopp

September 25, 2015 at 3:06 pm