beyond the existence proof

In response to Fabio’s defense of nonrepresentative sampling, Sam Lucas sent his paper, “Beyond the Existence Proof,” published last year. Fabio mentions Lucas’s article in his follow-up, but doesn’t really address the claims in the paper. I hadn’t seen it before Sam sent it, but after reading it I think it’s really smart and deserves attention in methods classes and elsewhere.

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asking for an appointment

One of my pet peeves is an email that says: “Would you be available for an appointment some time?” but does not give information about when that person is available. The answer to such a request is rarely “No.” This is really an opening gambit for and exchange that will involve finding a time to meet. I would prefer if the opening email asking for the appointment also indicates the blocks of time the sender is likely to be available as I feel I’ll end up spending a lot less time on the scheduling exchange if the asker goes first in listing the possible times they are available. I’ve told students this, and they tell me that it seems presumptuous in sending the initial email to presume that you will agree to meet with them and offer times and that is why they start with what seems like the most humble request. (Although most do comply when they figure out that is how I prefer to operate.)

What do the rest of you think? Am I wrong to want people to list their schedules in the first ask? Or are the students right that seeming to presuppose a yes answer may rub people the wrong way? Are there professors who do in fact take offense if a student presupposes that the request for an appointment will lead to a scheduling negotiation?

becoming a master student.

I often tell my students that the course that changed my life was Introduction to Sociology. Today I realized that I’ve been lying to them, or to myself, all this time. The class that truly changed my life was Human Development 100.

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elysium and the fact/value distinction

I saw the new Matt Damon movie, Elysium, this summer. I loved the prior movie by the same director (Neill Bloemkamp), District 9, which is a dystopian alien-visitation movie wrapped up in an extended allegory for apartheid.  Like District 9Elysium has an explicit political message along with plenty of violence, action, and gore (all of which I confess to liking!).

To me, though, Elysium was disappointing in its political/theoretical content for one of the reasons I am troubled by Phil Gorski’s approach to transcending the fact/value distinction:

Social science is not (entirely) value free or ethically natural. Instead, it is axiologically committed to the realization of human flourishing and freedom. This is not to say that social sciences provide ready answers to policy questions like “is proportional representation better than first past the post?” Those are of a different order. Nor is it to deny that justice must be part of a social ethics, either.

WARNING: the remainder of the post contains a SPOILER, so if you haven’t seen Elysium but plan to you may want to stop reading here.

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interfolio, letters and such

I realize this is just another instance of a privileged person not knowing what is going on, but I have just become aware that the price to an applicant of having reference letters sent out via Interfolio is now $6 “per delivery” (which can be one letter or a whole set of letters or a whole application packet), and is the same fee for email as for paper mail (which seems outrageous to me). Some years ago our department started asking our grads to use Interfolio and picked up the initial fee for setting up the service. The reason for the shift is that producing paper letters for students applying to a large number of jobs had become a huge problem for our downsized office staff in our large department. My memory (admittedly very hazy) is that when we discussed this many years ago, the initial fee included a certain number of letters and the incremental price of letters over that initial number seemed fairly low. But maybe even then we were not paying enough attention. In any event, I now know how costly this is for applicants and am motivated to seek alternatives.

I know that the mathematics association has a centralized application portal that is paid for by employers and is free to applicants: . Setting something like this up for sociology would require some initial investment in overhead, although as models for this already exist, one imagines it would not involve reinventing the wheel. This seems like something our ASA dues ought to pay for, and should be attached to the Employment Bulletin (as it is attached to job ads for mathematicians.) Are there other models out there?

And in the mean time, what is the situation in other departments about getting reference letters produced? Do you have your office staff tasked to produce and submit letters via email or paper? Do you expect your faculty to manage the clerical task of generating dozens of letters for each student they are writing for? And in reading them on the other end? As a file evaluator, do you expect to see what appear to be individually-tailored (i.e. mail-merged) letters for every applicant? Do you downgrade applicants whose letters appear to be generic, especially if they do not have your institution in the inside address? Because I know we send out mass-produced letters, I personally do NOT weigh this as a factor, but I want to know what others think.

Opinions, thoughts, experiences appreciated.

Edit: To clarify pricing. A “delivery” is $6, whether by email or paper mail. A “delivery” can be an entire application packet including cover letter, cv, teaching statement, writing sample, and all letters, in which case the $6 for a paper portfolio is pretty reasonable, although a case can be made that the $6 for emailing the packet is overpriced. But if the applicant is only using the system to send reference letters and is sending them individually, an applicant would be spending $18 for three letters or $30 for five letters, which is really way too much.  In addition, the price is $4 per item to send a reference letter to an on-line portal, in which case the price would be $12-$20, depending on the number of letters.  If the receiving institution has an interfolio account and requires interfolio submission, the charge to the applicant is zero.

feeling like a fraud? you’re not alone.

There’s nothing quite like having someone else write about my research in a public forum to rouse my generally dormant sense of impostorism. So, why not use that publicity–about fraudulence, no less–to have a discussion about the negative effects of a fear of fraudulence for academics (and the academy).

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starting a new job?

This post in the Chronicle has great advice for people starting their first job. It reminded me that it has been five years now since I posted my own advice to new assistant professors, so with your indulgence, I’m linking to it again. I’ve been told often that it is well worth reading if you are a new assistant professor.

racial coding in the skies

On the way to a wonderful vacation this summer, I flew Delta RDU-ATL-SEA and SEA-MSP-RDU. The flights in and out of SEA showed Delta’s edgy new safety videos, a version of one of which is here:

(The versions I saw were slightly different, as I’ll describe below. One was on a 767-300, the other on a 757-200). WARNING: Spoiler alert below the break.

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what should asa’s gender categories be?

Cross-posted on Social (In)queery.

The ASA is trying to respond to a request from its members to expand the options for gender on its membership form. Right now, the choices are female, male, and prefer not to answer. There is no category that acknowledges transgender members at all, but creating a new category scheme is not as easy as it might seem. For example transsexual people and transgender people have not always appreciated being lumped into the same category. Some people reject gender categories altogether and might prefer a “none” or some other less alienating gender-non-specific category.

These gender categories are important for a number of reasons. First, by having exclusive gender schemes, the ASA is not acknowledging its trans members. Second, it is a missed opportunity to collect data on the size of the trans membership in the ASA. Third, gender categories are communicative; they tell members who may not be aware that transgender sociologists work among their ranks. Finally, it is important to get the gender categories right because they are teaching sociologists what the “appropriate” categories to use are, setting an important example for us as we design survey questions , courses, departments, etc.

The ASA staff have brought the matter to the Committee on the Status of LGBT Persons in Sociology, but there wasn’t consensus there. They propose (and are planning to implement), the following scheme: Continue reading

don’t tread on my statehood dreams

"Taxation Without Representation" license plate on Presidential Limo

In case you’ve missed the news of of rural Northern Colorado, a number of counties there wish to secede from the state because those darn city slickers in Denver just don’t listen to their concerns. Although the chances are nearly impossible since it would require an amendment to the Colorado constitution and approval of Congress, nothing has deterred them yet.

One of the leaders of the movement, however, Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway made a much more plausible case: admit the new state of “Northern Colorado” along with another state, either Puerto Rico or Washington, D.C. As some of you may or may not know (though I’ve mentioned before), residents of the District of Columbia do not have representation in Congress. In other words, they have taxation without representation.

The idea is pretty clear: admit one Republican-leaning state and one Democratic-leaning state. The action would have precedent: the Missouri Compromise admitted Maine and Missouri together in order to maintain the balance of free and slave states.

I was curious what the addition of D.C. and Northern Colorado would do to state Congressional apportionment if Congress maintained the current 435 seats in the House (the Senate would likely add two Republican Senators and two Democratic Senators, keeping the current balance, though breaking a filibuster would be even slightly harder because 63 votes — or 60.6% of the Senate — would be required rather than the current 60). I wrote a Stata script to implement the “Amazing Apportionment Machine.”
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nra membership, 2013 edition

The NRA added more than 500,000 members in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, based on their latest magazine circulation reports.


Back in January and February, the NRA was making claims about its size and growth to ward off potential gun control legislation after the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, CT. Mother Jones and the Washington Post both looked into the claims using my method of examining the publicly available numbers of paid subscribers to the three major NRA publications. Since NRA membership comes with a free subscription to one of their magazine and that is the only way to subscribe, I suspect that the total number of subscribers is a good proxy for the total number of members.

The NRA recently release circulation reports for the first six months of 2013, giving us the first look at post Newton membership. The total number of subscribers to NRA publications went from 3,096,145 to 3,671,054. The biggest jump was between February and March, when the number of subscribers jumped by 184,575. Given the lag between when people sign up and when they are added to the magazine roles, this most likely reflects change in membership during December, the month of the shooting. This might also underestimate the number of new members that month because there was probably some existing members who choose not to renew their membership during that a month.

This blog also hosted a contest to see who could predict the number of members in June of 2013. Congratulations to Ben Lind for having the closest guess with 3,094,723. This is a tricky time series to estimate because of its strongly cyclical nature. While some of the ups and downs follow the political calendar, others, like the most recent surge, are due to well-framed responses to threats, both of which are harder to predict. My guess is the NRA continues to grow but at slightly slower pace and finishes the year with close to 4 million members.

I’ve made the complete time series available.

how much do you charge?

Here’s an “ask scatterplotters” for mid-career folks. I got an email from a younger colleague that I don’t know the answer to: “I am being asked by a government contractor to provide an estimate of how much I would charge to write a white paper and two fact sheets. Do you have any clue what kind of fee would be reasonable?” Do you? More broadly, I’ve never known how much to ask when I’ve been asked to consult with lawyers or NGOs, or asked how much I charge to speak. I’ve asked back: can you tell me how much other people charge? Can the more experienced scatterplotters among us give some idea of the going rates are for the various types of consulting sociologists might do? In particular, I’d find it helpful to know how the acceptable rates vary by: (1) what exactly you are doing, (2) your level of prior academic or consulting experience, (3) your status in the profession, (4) the nature and resources of the client, (5) region of the country.

If you are able to provide some benchmarks or answers, please specify what type of consulting/work you did, what kind of client it was, your region, and what you charged. If you are using a pseudonym, it would be helpful to provide some kind of status or experience indicator to help us calibrate.


so long, and thanks for all the fish

Phil Schrodt, a political scientist at Penn State, has written an epic blog post announcing his retirement.  I don’t know anything about his work, although I was on a grant panel with him once and was impressed by how wise he seemed then.  Suffice it to say his Goodbye To All That contains a lot to think about, starting with some of his thoughts about the practical state of political methodology and ending with him wondering if he will wind up in hell because of “the decades I spent as an enabler of the [Kansas] Ph.D. program, for which there is absolutely no justification.”

Among various contenders, I’ll pull a quote out of the middle: “I log my time, more or less accurately, in half-hour chunks. Fifty hours [a week] is a lot: most people I know who claim that have, in the absence of contemporaneous written documentation, essentially no idea of how much they actually work. Those who claim eighty or more hours per week are either lying or should be institutionalized.”

liability insurance?

Someone asked me about liability insurance on research. The person is concerned about the risk of being sued for libel for research that makes a company look bad. The research is based entirely on publicly-available materials and truth would be the ultimate defense, but the company has a history of suing activists as a strategy for responding to protests about their actions and a lawsuit can destroy you, even if you ultimately win. A collaborator on the project is a lawyer, which I suppose is partly why the subject came up.

I’d never heard of such a thing. Turns out you can purchase such a liability policy. Educator policies protecting you against the risk of litigation by students and policies for clinical psychologists protecting both their treatment and research show up readily in Internet searches. You can find a few blog posts out there about how to protect yourself against libel suits when you study people or organizations.

So, does anybody else out there know about this? Is this a coming thing? Or is it a scam?

too many reviewers

I freaked out recently when, after reviewing an article, I received a packet of FIVE (5!!!)  reviews on the same article. I chewed out the editors for wasting my time and told them I would never review for their journal again. After an exchange (in which I got a little less testy), I told them I’d post my concerns to scatterplot and open a discussion on the topic. Although five was over the top and freaked me out, it has become pretty common now for me as a reviewer to get a packet with four reviews. No wonder we regular reviewers are feeling under the gun. The old calculation of two or even three reviews per article has gone by the wayside. The pressure for fast turnaround and the high turn-down or non-response rate among potential reviewers has led editors to send out articles to extra reviewers in the hopes of ending up with at least the minimum two or three.

But this is a death spiral. As a frequently-sought reviewer I get at least four requests a month, sometimes as many as eight, and I used to get more before I got so crabby.  When I was young and eager, I was reviewing an article a week [and thus, by the way, having a huge influence on my specialty area], and I know some people who are keeping that pace. But at some point you burn out and say “no more.” I, like all other frequently-sought reviewers I know, turn down outright the requests from journals I don’t know for articles that sound boring, and then save up the other requests and once a month pick which articles I want to review. So the interesting-sounding articles from good journals get too many reviewers, while the boring-sounding articles from no-name journals get none. If journal editors respond to the non-response by reviewers to boring-sounding articles by sending out even more reviewer requests per article, our mailboxes will be flooded even more and the non-response rate and delayed-response rate by reviewers will go up even more. Senior scholars are asked to review six to eight (or more?) articles per month. You have to say no to most of the requests.

And then we have the totally out of hand R&R problem. Continue reading


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