Thursday, November 29, 2007

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

At least that is what they hear. Maybe the same is true for the readers of this blog; which is still coming out of the tryptophan-induced slumber of the holiday. This is despite the fact that I have really wanted to follow up on squire's and Dave's comments about tenure and its role in the academy. Despite my best intentions, I have not found time to do so. This is partly due to the fact that I continued my comments elsewhere and partly because Dave posted another great post about the "liberal" role of the academy.

Unfortunately, I still don't have time to do it now. I set a deadline for myself to finish a paper by tomorrow and "motivated" myself by guaranteeing that my committee would have it so that they could read it before I headed to Ann Arbor. I'll tell you - there is a certain part of me that can't wait for that point Jeremy describes about deadlines taking on less weight. Though, then, I guess, it also become easier for todays to become tomorrows...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Times & Tenure

This story from the NYT about the diminishing prevalence of tenure in American colleges and universities in their top-stories feed. I think that they do a decent job presenting the basics, but—as is always the case&mdahs;miss some of the larger issues that are presented with diminishing tenure track positions.

While the story talks exclusively about public universities and all of the examples cited here are non-flagship public universities, the same trends can be seen in private universities as well. The number of tenure-track positions is drying up across the board. While the administrators may cite the lack of public funds and the inconsistency of public funding from states (or cities and counties for many community colleges), this trend is not entirely due to the the lack of funds. It is true that public higher education has suffered in recent years and often the non-flagship universities are hit harder than the flagship universities[1], but if it is also happening at private and flagship universities there must be something larger. Furthermore, this trend is coming at a time when tuitions are so high that Congress is considering action and endowments of many universities are through the roof.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that many universities are employing WalMart-like management strategies. WalMart, the biggest private employer in this country and largest retailer in the world, perfected the art of "just-in-time" delivery of goods. Rather than paying for the manufacture, shipping, and storage of a huge inventory, they honed the method of supplying just enough product to meet demand with as little time as possible. No sense in those Christmas hats sitting on the shelves on Boxing Day when they couldn't be sold until the next year. Get just enough to meet demand, get more delivered next-day if you run out and constantly re-stock the shelves straight from the delivery truck. The same now works for professors teaching classes. Rather than having a full-time job with job security, professors are hired on semester contracts. Their pay, healthcare (if they have it), retirement benefits (again, if they have it), access to the library and university facilities lasts for those 17-weeks. If the department has enough enrollment, the professors receive a full course-load—if not, well...I hope that they planned on getting half the paycheck or less for those four months.

What ends up happening to many of these professors is that they try to line up a full-time teaching load by stringing together three or four jobs at three or four local institutions. In Michigan, as the NYT article mentions, professors would go from U-M Ann Arbor to U-M Dearborn to Wayne State to one of the several community college systems in the area. While they are teaching full time, they aren't getting full-time benefits because they technically have three to four different employers. The pay is bad, healthcare is either not offered or unaffordable and they are lucky if they have an office in one of the four campuses, nevermind all four.

Just-in-time operations for retailers may work[2], but for educators it is a disaster. Professors, at their best, are supposed to be working with students to provide them the tools they need to understand the world, both for their future employment and as engaged citizens. They are not lawnmowers, lawn gnomes, cheap clothes or groceries or any of the other thousands of items available at WalMart. They are not a product on a shelf waiting to be taken home by a family paying the lowest price. When a professor is teaching four classes at four different campuses without an office, they aren't providing office hours, answering student's questions, contributing to the service functions on campus - all of the things that allow professors to have a real impact on students' lives. No, they are driving interstate highways rushing back an forth, trying to grade one exam in time to receive another that day. And, of course, forget term papers or semester projects that allow students to expand their knowledge to their own interests. In the ever-demanding just-in-time world, they give tests that can be answered by scantrons (if they are allowed to use the grading machine). Ultimately, education as a whole suffers and students who have the most tenuous grasp on a college education, first-generation college students, minorities, working mothers who are enrolled at community colleges and local state universities are the ones who are forced to deal with this the most.

It's a deplorable situation that needs to be fixed. If Congress, state legislators, education policy wonks and others are serious about fixing American higher education, then this is a problem that urgently needs to be addressed. Otherwise, no amount of fancy new tech center, student gym or other expenditures made possible by the egotistically exorbitant gifts by donors so that they can view their name a building are going to matter if the professors mandated with teaching the students can't teach.

Cross-posted at Free Exchange

[1] In my experience, this is in no small part due to the fact that many state legislators are often alumni of the flagship universities and tend to be less so for the non-flagship local campuses. Supporting a local branch of the state university system is seen as garnering pork for your constituents but trying to get money for the state flagship universities as part of one's alumni obligations is seen as noble -- and is one of the few things that can cut across party lines.
[2] Of course, there are also major problems for workers and communities for the just-in-time methods of corporations like WalMart as well.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Recipe du Jour

In my ongoing quest to find more fulfillment, I have decided to try and cook more at home and avoid eating out so much. This is motivated by two things. Eating out is both expensive and very unhealthy in the long run, particularly the kind of eating out that I do which consists of a rotation of Chinese food, pizza and going out to a Mexican restaurant. Alright, not all of those are expensive, but they are bad for my health. The second, loftier, reason is that I enjoy cooking and want to learn how to do it better and E. enjoys the food I make (usually, especially if it doesn't contain red onions).

Tonight, I made a very "interesting" dish. When I was in architecture school as an undergrad, our professors would come around and look at our work. Often, the first words out of their mouth when they would approach my desk would be something like, "This" Basically, it meant that it was somehow unusual and somehow less than successful. I felt that way about what I made tonight. The dish, from The Joy of Cooking, was "Baked Acorn Squash with Pear and Apple" (p. 425).

Basically, I think that I would have liked it if it weren't squash...which, I realize, I should have recognized before I made it. I was trying it because we are having some vegetarian friends over for dinner this weekend and we wanted to attempt it before making it for them. Although I have never really liked squash, I have recently acquired an appreciation for it -- and it was in season. Let's say that taste was not acquired for this squash. I'm not sure if it is because I messed it up or I just really don't like squash. I'm hoping its the former, especially since E. really liked it. The filling was great, though and the idea of serving a dish in what looks like a pumpkin is kind of cool.

Anyway, for those of you who like squash and might want to try it, here you go:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a baking pan. Place cut side sown in the baking pan
  2 medium acorn squash, halved and seeded

Add ¼ inch hot water to the pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, mix in a medium bowl:
  2 large apples, peeled, cored, and diced
  1 ripe pear, peeled, cored, and diced
  ¼ cup dried raisins
  2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
  Grated zest of 1 small orange
  ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Heat in a large skillet over medium heat until melted:
  2 tablespoons butter

Add the apple mixture and cook until the fruit is golden brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in:
  ¼ cup apple cider or orange juice

Simmer, stirring often, until the fruit is tender, about 8 minutes. Remove the squash from the oven: pour off the water from the pan and turn the squash cut side up. Fill the squash with the apple mixture. Bake until the squash is tender, about 15 minutes more.

Page 425, Rombauer, IS; Becker, MR; and Becker, E. 1997. The Joy of Cooking. New York:Scribner.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Qualifying and Quantifying the Physical Sciences

It's nice to know that it is not only in social sciences such as sociology and linguistics where there seems to be a qualitative/quantitative divide -- today, Female Science Professor, an anonymous female professor in the physical sciences, also discusses the debate between quantitative and non-quantitative methods in her field and the gendering that is associated with the assumptions of who is a qualitative and who is quantitative methodologist.

Her basic message, and one I hear often repeated by people who glorify statistics[1], is twofold. First, there is an assumption that quantitative methods arrive at some "true" answer. Now, this is, of course, true. Most statistics will give you a true answer in the sense that the computer program will give you a number best fit to the data of a given sample that is the most accurate answer to that problem. But, what is particularly important in what she says is where this runs into problems:

You can always get a number, but even if it means something.. what does it mean? (i.e., the number itself is not an end in itself, you have to think about it).

Just because one can get a number means that one has to be able to articulate A) what that number is, what it means, how it should be interpreted, etc. and B) what assumptions were used to produce that number. Now, those who glorify statistics, will indicate that this is the true number for which we should base all of our knowledge. The problem is that there are statistical assumptions made about the derivation of that number (i.e. sampling error and modeling error), not to mention the methodological concern over how the question was worded asked, primed by previous questions, etc. (i.e. measurement error; see my earlier post on that topic). Qualitative researchers often challenge quantitative researchers on what that number means and, in my experience, quantitative researchers often overly exaggerate the meaning of the number, particularly if it revolves around something like culture, attitudes or beliefs—things that are often complicated and nuanced.

On the other hand, I have seen qualitative researchers argue that, because of the assumptions required for quantitative methods, all of the findings are invalid. The problem here is that all analysis, by definition, requires that assumptions be made. Just because one has a more nuanced version of reality in qualitative methodology does not mean that it is not prone to errors as well. The sample might not be representative, informants might have the desire to be friends and not discuss difficult topics with the analyst, processes might be true for this subset, but it might be because of that subset's particular social position.

Although this is at this point dogma in sociology, the only way to appropriately address many questions is by some combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. But, here is where I see FSP's second issue arising: quantitative methods are seen as particularly rigorous because they require an understanding of math, equations, and statistics. These are also areas that are traditionally dominated by men. Qualitative methods are seen as feminine and not very difficult. The theory goes that anyone can talk to someone, where's the difficulty in that?[2] These comments, I find, often come from people—particularly when they find people in the media—who have a severe lack of understanding of statistics and don't realize the assumptions inherent in statistically analyses and blindly trust the all-holy "Number."

While there is beginning to be an appreciation of such topics, the understanding of statistics and math to be "difficult" (and, thus, by extension professors who are able to use that methodology indispensable) and qualitative methods "easy", that this is going to do a great disservice to both sociology as a whole. A large part of the problem, as I see it is the lack of cooperation between qualitative and quantitative sociologists. Grants are so scarce as it is, we are afraid to try and write anything beyond the proscribed standards to work with teams that might look at problems in both directions. Or, alternatively, individual researchers try and take on both components themselves many with great success. The problem I have found with this goal in my own development is that it is very difficult to be on top of methods in two very different methodological traditions and to produce anything that can pass muster in both qualitative and quantitative fields. I don't have enough time in my graduate career to do both well - maybe it might come when I have my first job or a postdoc, but it seems a severe disservice to the pursuit of knowledge to maintain these divisions. This division seems particularly severe for people associated with qualitative methods - particularly when that assumption (as is the case with FSP) is wrong and based solely upon one's gender!

[1] I am not positive that she is discussing statistics, this is the world in which I live, so I will go on that for my purposes.
[2] This is where I am sure that there is some difference in what FSP does and what qualitative sociologists do; unless there is some branch of the physical sciences wildly different than what I thought of the physical sciences -- talking to particles and all.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Academic Freedom is Us

I feel very good to have finally fulfilled a long-standing promise to start posting away from my home here at Free Exchange on Campus. The blog is one of the major components of the work being done by the Fre Exchange Coalition. The Coalition was set up in order to counter the kinds of outlandish and false attacks by David Horowitz and others on true academic freedom in our nation's colleges and universities[1].

The problem with these people is that, in the cloak of arguing that they are attempting to "eliminate liberal bias" in the classroom, they are arguing that there should be a kind of litmus test applied by the states in order to make sure that classes being taught are "fair and balanced" (in the FOX News sense of the term). Seriously, they have proposed legislation on the issue and even acquired floor votes in some state legislators. The goal is not to increase diversity, but to go back to the standard "Great Man" theory of teaching (specifically using Universities to teach how great America is because of the work of now-dead old-white-men).

The problem with all of this is that, just like the media being attacked for a liberal bias, Universities are overly conscious of something that is probably not a wide-spread problem and it stifles debate on campuses around the country. Although this is not the only problem facing academic freedom (lack of tenured faculty lines would be a good example of another), the fact that true academic freedom is under attack at all is very disconcerting and something that needs to be addressed. Hopefully this effort will be one part of that.

Anyway, you should check out the blog and my first post.

[1] For a great example of the kinds of things that they propose, check out Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week. Of course, don't take everything there at face value, check out TPM's coverage on Horowitz's inaccuracies and exaggerations.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I'm Feeling Alright

About the prospects of Democrats in my new home state given that both Clinton and Obama would beat Giuliani in a state-wide general election right now. Clinton by 15 points and Obama by 5 points. Although early polls don't necessarily mean that much, it is nice to know that Rudy's megalomaniacal delusions aren't even working in his home state.

Now, granted that I am not positive that Clinton would be the best candidate for the job of President, or even that she would be the best Democrat currently running for the position. On the other hand, I do know that she will be better than race-baiting, police-state advocate Giuliani.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


Because my efforts to get back the bloggy back after being on vacation have been stalled by a trip to Ann Arbor to work on my work (that sounds funny, but is actually true) so that I might be able to forgo the "graduate student" title and move onto "professor" or "Dr.", I thought that I would just do a roundup for the time being and hopefully move onto more productive blogging in the future.

  • Speaking of becoming "Dr." as opposed to a lowly graduate student, the future Dr. Warner moved to a new site that she hopes to keep going after she is a grad student. I hope she does, because her posts are always fascinating for anyone in grad school, but particularly those in sociology programs. Check out her new site. I'm not sure if there is an appropriate web version of the housewarming present - any suggestions are welcome.

  • On the other hand, Jeremy Freese has declared a hiatus because he is afraid of becoming "some kind of peculiar jester-statesman for my discipline." While I certainly do not believe this to be true and respect Jeremy for the decision, it is sad to see such a great voice leaving the blogosphere; and, it appears that most people who took the poll agree with me. But, it was good to see that he did have a brief post titled "entr'acte" today, hopefully this means that there will be more to come.

  • Speaking of being between acts, I will hopefully be in that state soon as my advisors told me that they think that I should be able to send out my paper which means I will be on to my dissertation.

  • Which reminds me that Dave ran away from Big Purple, but at least his Ducks are ranked number 5 in the BCS which I hope helps. Given his frustration with the labor movement's lack of appreciation for young people--a topic on which I completely agree (and, agree is a problem on the left more generally)--I hope that it is for the best for him.

  • Another cool kid from the GTFF wrote a great post about why economic rationality and "just-in-time" professorships are bad for academic freedom.

  • Oh yeah, you should also check out another great rant about the ages.

  • Is it just me, or do other people not care about the presidential primary anymore, particularly whether Clinton is "playing the female card" a) because she's not; b) because if she were, why is it a bad thing to point out that she is the only woman in the field; and c) because it is really hard to take Matt Lauer seriously.

  • But, all is not glory in the Clinton camp, either. I seem to remember some saying about foxes and hen houses. Not only does the company that Mark Penn, Clinton's pollster and a top advisor, serves as the CEO defend Cintas, a notoriously anti-union company that broke OSHA standards so badly that the administration fined them for killing an employee, his company also works to improve Blackwater's image. His excuse on the first account, he doesn't personal work on that campaign (though, presumably he makes money from it). On the second--get this--they outsource the work for Blackwater. That's priceless.

  • And, while I'm on the topic of pollsters and the campaign, I should mention a great initiative by another pollster (on the other side of the spectrum from Penn), Mark Blumenthal from is undertaking what they he is calling the Disclosure Project to get polling companies to release the details of their methodology.

Off to bed with me now so that I can work on getting my own survey results written up tomorrow. I am sure that there is much more that I missed, but I hope to maybe start catching up on my bloggy activities, maybe even post something substantive. I know, shock!