religious observance policy limitations

My campus’s religious observance policy is pretty good, although vague around the edges. First, we are urged to avoid scheduling mandatory exercises on days when “significant numbers of student would be impacted.” In practice, this means try to avoid Passover, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana; the updated version of the policy also mentions Eid al-Adha although, candidly even avoidance of Jewish holidays for exams is hit or miss and there is very little public attend to Eid on this campus.

Second, and this is the part I want to both praise and comment on, we are to provide a non-punitive alternative for any student who says they have a religious conflict with a particular date. There are reasonable constraints on this: the student has to tell the instructor the relevant date(s) within the first two weeks of class (not the night before an exam), and there can be “reasonable limits” on the total number of days requested. The policy explicitly says that “students’ sincerely held religious beliefs shall be reasonably accommodated with respect to scheduling all examinations and other academic requirements” and that “A student’s claim of religious conflict, which may include travel time, should be accepted at face value” because “there is no practical, dignified, and legal means to assess the validity of individual claims.”  Pretty good.

So where are the problems? Continue reading “religious observance policy limitations”

you might want to read your school’s tenure policy

There has been a great deal of publicity about the change in the tenure policy at the University of Wisconsin. It is a big change, but what very few people have recognized is that the nature of the change is moving Wisconsin from the best tenure policy in the nation to a tenure policy that is comparable to or slightly better than most other public universities and substantially better than most private universities. All universities reserve the right to lay off tenured faculty in financial emergencies and nearly all reserve the right to lay off tenured faculty when they close departments for “programmatic reasons.” Typical language states that the university should try to find a position for the person in another unit for which they are qualified, but does not generally guarantee that such a position will be found. Public schools generally have more steps through which they must go before closing departments and laying off tenured faculty; private schools typically say deans can just do it if they want to. Typically you have to work hard to actually find your campus’s tenure policy but you might want to go look. We have one faculty member who flamboyantly resigned saying “tenure is dead,” but the actual tenure policy at the school that person is moving to looks very similar to the new policy at Wisconsin.

open letter to students of color

NOTE: I did not write this letter. I am posting it here as a model for what support looks like and because some people will find it helpful to have it in a place they can link to. For those of you not at Wisconsin, the context is that campus police entered an Afro-American Studies class and removed a student charged with putting up anti-racist spray-painted graffiti around campus, then took him downtown and filed criminal charges against him, thereby publicizing his name. This was in the context of a wave of hate and bias incidents on the campus; students in these cases faced campus misconduct charges, not criminal charges. Tony Robinson was a young biracial man shot last year by a police officer in a Madison neighborhood near campus.

18 April 2016

An Open Letter to the Students of Color of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

            From The Faculty and Staff of the Department of Afro-American Studies

The faculty and staff of the Department of Afro-American Studies is thinking about you and keeping you in our hearts at this time of extreme stress and tension.  Your anger is justified, your fear understandable.  The disruption of Professor Almiron’s class, and the arrest of your fellow student, King Shabazz, while important in itself, is only the most recent in a series of events that has been steadily escalating in recent months and weeks.  What so many of you are experiencing isn’t a sign of individual weakness.  It’s a version of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a mental health crisis as serious as those following campus shootings or natural disasters. We admire the way many of you are holding up but we understand what a strain this represents.

In recognition of that fact, we call on faculty across the campus to respond to the crisis in a spirit of care and generosity as we near the end of the semester.  Further, we ask the administration to affirm that call, as well as to offer public assurances that these events will not interfere with King’s plans to graduate at the end of the semester.  Further, we ask that emergency mental health support be made available to all students affected by recent events.

The most important part of our message to you is simple: do your best to keep your eyes on the prize, and know that we’re there to support you as you walk a difficult path.  We know you’re feeling torn between the demands of your studies and your desire to take an active role in responding to what’s happening.  Let some of the burden be shifted to our shoulders.  Continue reading “open letter to students of color”

the opposite of subtle

The Tennessee House of Representatives just voted to remove funding for the University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The target here seems to be especially the “inclusion” bit as the local news reporting makes clear:

Republican lawmakers have threatened to defund the diversity office for months after two controversial posts on the office website that promoted the use of gender-neutral pronouns and “inclusive holiday celebrations.

But it gets better! What is the state of Tennessee, in its infinite wisdom, going to do with those funds?

Lawmakers amended the bill Monday to send $100,000 of the Knoxville diversity office’s funding to a program that would print “In God We Trust” decals for law enforcement vehicles while sending the remaining $336,000 to minority scholarships. The original House bill would have sent all of the funding to the decal program.

Defunding diversity and inclusion programs to put “In God We Trust” decals on law enforcement vehicles… Is there anything less subtle or more emblematic of the current GOP?

why are headlines so bad at causality?

Every major media outlet has been reporting on the big JAMA paper by Chetty et al on income inequality and life expectancy. I haven’t read the paper yet, but I’ve been following the coverage. As is true of any complex social science finding, the details can be tricky to report. Ezra Klein at does a pretty good job of explaining the article itself, how it fits into existing findings (for example, about the relatively small effect of access to health care on mortality) and how the researchers approached competing explanations. Continue reading “why are headlines so bad at causality?”

trump supporters need safe spaces too

Last week in my higher education class we covered debates about free speech on college campuses, including a discussion of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” We read last year’s infamous Atlantic essay by Lukianoff and Haidt along with critical reactions, and put the debate in historical context with a discussion of Gould’s work on campus speech codes and the weakness of legal precedents in the face of contradictory organizational imperatives. We also talked about Fabio Rojas’ book on the emergence of Black Studies (which we read earlier in the term), and particularly the argument that Black Studies departments offered a kind of safe space for challenging the racial status quo.

I was thinking about all of this when I read an excellent piece in the New York Times about r/The_Donald, the home for Donald Trump supporters on Reddit.* Continue reading “trump supporters need safe spaces too”

what does it mean to say an algorithm is racist?

Yesterday, tipped off by Beth Berman, I posted a screenshot of a pair of Google search results onto Twitter. The screenshot (below the cut) shows what happened when you searched for “professional hairstyles for work” and “unprofessional hairstyles for work”. I labeled the screenshot “This is what a racist algorithm looks like.” (BoingBoing picked up the story around the same time, and seems to have traced back the idea for it to the original source.)

Continue reading “what does it mean to say an algorithm is racist?”

graduate student associations

Although it has had a teaching assistant’s union since the 1970s, my department has just formed a Sociology Graduate Students Association in the past two years. They are interested in learning about the structure and functions of graduate student associations at other programs.Is there a sociology graduate student association on your campus? What does it do? How is it structured?

Our students would also like to identify graduate students at other institutions who could tell them about the how the graduate student association works in your department. I think this is especially so if you believe it works well. If you would be a good contact or can suggest one, drop a comment and I’ll email you for more information. I can see your email address if you comment.