nrc redux redux

This started as a comment on the previous post, which notes that the NRC rankings give virtually no premium for faculty size. The rankings almost entirely work on the premise that if you take a good department and randomly eliminate half its faculty, the resulting department is equally good. This is fairly nutty for the purposes of ranking for the purposes of graduate programs in a field as sparse as sociology, where student interests often change and many students have to make a big substantive reach in putting together committees even in reasonably-sized programs.

If NRC was going to do regular rankings using this methodology and a department wanted to game their ranking, the single best thing a department could do would be to revoke tenure and fire the least productive-and-award-winning half of their faculty. Thing is, after they’ve done that, the single best thing that department could do is fire the bottom half of their faculty, and so on, until you have a department of one (but, oh, what a highly-ranked one!).

Which raised a question for me that I’ve thought about from time to time: how bad does a faculty member need to be before they actually make a department worse? I mean, to my mind, there is a big difference in my mind between “below-average colleague” and “this person is actively harming our department with their presence.” Can a faculty member actively harm a department simply by being non-productive, via a contagion of sloth, by leeching away at a sense of excellence, or by setting a bad example for students? Or do they have to be a source of strange faculty votes and timesuck-for-everyone bomb-throwing battles of righteous indignation?

nrc redux

We had a good discussion of the NRC today. An important factor in the methodology that has not been highlighted in the previous scatterplot discussions is the decision to standardize all metrics by dividing by the number of faculty. The people with the highest number of publications, awards etc tend to be a relatively small number of highly productive senior people who have had a whole career to produce. If a department consists only of, say, five such people, it will score very high compared to another department with five highly-productive senior people that also has a lot of assistant professors. That is, the metric inherently penalizes younger departments and, to a lesser extent, larger departments. If your goal was to score well on the NRC scheme, you’d do best by having a small faculty of only full professor stars complemented by a large adjunct faculty (who don’t count in the statistics) to do the undergraduate teaching. Departments are penalized for hiring assistant professors rather than adjunct lecturers.  It also appears that there is no premium in the ratings for being strong in a wide variety of subareas of a discipline.

One colleague made the point that, at a minimum, one needs to do “apples to apples” comparisons. For example, comparing the publication records of full professors, or the publication records of people who received their PhDs in the 1980s, for example.

This is just added to prior discussions of erroneous data, not counting books at all, counting all articles the same regardless of quality, ignoring subfield size differences that affect citation counts, evaluating grad students by GREs, etc. It probably accounts for some of the peculiarities in the regression scores.

We are a large department and have a lot of assistant professors, so we are particularly penalized by the regression rating scheme the NRC used, but we recognize that systems that reputation surveys tend to reward sheer size and have tremendous inertia.


the internet ate my reference letter

I am currently on the job market, which I am sure everyone is aware is a trying process. There is no need to go into the depths of what the process does to one’s mental health, not to mention the mental health of loved ones around the candidate. However, given how trying this process already is, I get really frustrated when pieces of it are needlessly frustrating. And, it seems, almost all of these revolve around technology, which was supposed to make things easier last time I checked.

To begin with, there is the problem that our professional association has a website that was designed with everyone except the end-user in mind. Add to that, said association won’t post positions offered by non-member departments (unless they pay the exorbitant fee). Then, if a department is an institutional member of the association, then departments can only leave postings up for a specified period of time. For some postings, the maximum period allowed ends before the date the date that departments will start reviewing applications!.

To be fair, the ASA is not the only organization that cannot handle the internets. Many schools started using online application systems, likely imposed by their administrations who are sold software products by companies who tell them how great this will make their search process, streamline and centralize everything, and how many admins they can lay off to save money. Top-level administrators and accountants, understandably, like this idea. Yet, the end result is that there now at least five different flavors of applications: mail everything, e-mail everything, load everything onto a central job clearinghouse, upload documents for an individual department, and upload everything except recommendation letters. I am applying to a lot of positions this year because let’s face it, this is the first of three years where there approximates anything like a healthy market. This means that there are three years worth of candidates all vying for one year’s worth of jobs. Not only do I need to ask my letter-writers to write me letters for the dozens of jobs that I am applying for, I have to give them detailed instructions on how to deliver said letters, which varies by school and, even within the same school, by department. Now, I have a very good relationship with my advisors; however, it is quite possible after this experience, I will not.

My biggest frustration, however, is the fact that the software companies who sold the COO and HR departments at various institutions on their software must never have tested it in a situation in which people actually apply for jobs. Every letter-writer is, I assume, sent a unique URL from which to upload their letter. This makes perfect sense, the unique URL makes the matching between the reference and the application instantaneous and not prone to typos, etc. But here’s the rub: if a letter-writer happened to lose that e-mail, or her/his e-mail client filtered it to the junk folder, or they got confused (because when asked for a letter, some of the software programs don’t tell you which job you are writing a letter for! no, I’m not kidding), I have no way of resending that unique URL to my letter-writer when a letter has not arrived!

I would guess that these kinks get worked out in the next five years or so; but, in the meantime it is extremely frustrating. In part, it is because figuring these things out is what I imagine should be a central focus of an organization like ASA. If there were a common, well-designed application for departments to post positions, candidates to apply, and administrative assistants and search chairs to manage the search, it would be a net benefit to everyone. In it’s place this hodgepodge of systems drains everyone’s time and mental resources, which makes an already stressful situation more stressful than it has to be.

I apologize for the rant.  Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go apply for some more jobs…

ethnicity is the curse of culture

I wrote the above phrase in an email to a senior scholar (not a social scientist) I enjoy arguing politics with. I’m not entirely sure what I meant by it, but he liked a lot so I thought I’d flesh it out here.

I think the point I was getting at is that culture is about patterned behaviors, ideas, thoughts, styles, skills, habits–it’s something that’s done or thought. By contrast, ethnicity is a static label–a categorization implying exclusivity. It’s based on culture (whether practiced or just perceived), but it’s more than culture. Ethnicity is culture ossified, abstracted from culture and (re)presented to the bearer of culture, confronting her as if it were an alien reality beyond her control.