cost-cutting in higher ed

In the Washington Post earlier this week, Steve Pearlstein published a piece promoting four things universities should do to cut costs:

  1. Cap administrative costs
  2. Operate year round, five days a week
  3. More teaching, less (mediocre) research
  4. Cheaper, better general education

The next day, Daniel Drezner responded with four things columnists should do before writing about universities.

  1. Define what you mean by “universities.”
  2. Don’t exaggerate the problems that actually exist.
  3. Don’t rely on outdated data.
  4. Be honest that you’re using higher ed reform as an implicit industrial policy.

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fun with musical taste and identity

In my intro theory class yesterday I did an exercise using PollEverywhere to evoke associations between musical taste and identity. I played four musical pieces and asked the students to type free-text responses to “What kind of people like this song?”. Their responses were lots of fun, and I present them below in raw form for your enjoyment, interest, and comment.

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mastering sociology

What purpose does a terminal MA in sociology serve and what purpose should a terminal MA in sociology serve?

These questions have come to my mind after spending three years in a department with a terminal masters program (and no Ph.D. program). To partially answer the first question, I can say that there seem to be three kinds of students who enter our program:

  1. Students who want to pursue a Ph.D. program and either don’t have the credentials to be accepted currently or don’t feel like they have the credentials to be accepted;
  2. Students who receive some kind of promotion or pay for holding a Master’s degree; and
  3. Students how liked undergrad and want to continue in school with a vague idea that they want to do non-academic research (e.g., in think-tanks) who might also be, possibly, maybe-in-the-future, considering a Ph.D. program.

For the first group, the terminal MA seems to serve a defined goal. The information to make the decision is "knowable," though I am not sure how many follow solid advice not to enter Ph.D. programs. The second group probably makes the most sense since everything is on the table. The benefits seem clear for those in the second category since one could evaluate what one would pay in tuition or student loans against the expected future return in increased salary.

It is the third group which concerns me.

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your dissertation is as important as your dog.

I just wrapped up a two week course for graduate students on effective and engaging teaching in the social sciences and humanities. The first day of class, as we talked about issues we’d like to cover over the session, one student asked how to ensure that teaching doesn’t take up all her time so that she can actually finish her dissertation.

I outlined my core belief when it comes to teaching (don’t reinvent the wheel) and a handful of strategies I had discovered worked well for work-life balance in general: have a strict schedule and clearly outlined goals, and be sure to block out time for your non-student self.* I made an off-hand remark about how, in my research on graduate students, I found that students with children were much better at all three of those things than students without, but particularly the last one, because they felt they had a good excuse for “turning off” their grad student role.

The student who originally asked the question piped up, “Oh, I get that. I’m great at calling it a day to go take care of my dog.” I asked her to pretend, for just a moment, that her dissertation was as important as her dog. If she could stop herself from writing too many comments on her students’ papers or tweaking the reading list again or over-preparing for the next day’s lectures because she knew she had to go home to take her dog out, surely she stop herself from doing all those things because she had to take care of her own research.

Bottom line: Setting aside time for your research while you’re teaching isn’t neglecting your students, it’s taking care of you and your career (and ensuring you can still afford dog food when you finish your PhD).

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*It can be tough, because of all the immediate reinforcement that teaching and the classroom provides, but as Jeremy illustrates, anything (including research or ones dissertation) can be turned in to a game that offers similar psychological incentives.

 

gradebook rant

I use what seems to me to be a very logical grading system. I grade papers on a letter grade scale and then calculate grades as a weighted average of these letter grades. Say there are three papers weighted 25%, 25% and 50% that got BC, B, and A respectively. The grade would be 2.5*.25 + 3*.25 + 4*.5 = 3.375, a grade I would then interpret as a low AB. Clear, logical, fair.But as far as I can tell, the course software cannot handle this kind of grading. It assumes that everything is percentages or points. So I cannot use it as an online gradebook. And I have had over the years a large fraction of TAs who cannot quite understand the logic grading papers with (gasp!) grades. To me this seems only logical. Ultimately we will give letter grades, why not set the standards for the grades and grade that way from the beginning? But, instead, they set up their own 10-point or 100-point schemes for grading papers, and then I have to ask them, well, so how does this translate into grades?

For things like tests or homeworks that are more point-like, I use linear equations to transform the points to the 4-point range and put those into the grade calculations in the same way. This is a little more outre and would not have been possible back in the days of paper gradebooks, but after all, you have to take algebra BEFORE you get to college, and we have had computers with spreadsheet programs readily available on college campuses now since the mid-1980s.

So I ask you, why is my university still assuming that everything will be calculated on a percentage basis and then curved to grades? For that matter, why are most of you just blindly assuming that everything should be done in percentages even though virtually every school in the US reports grades on a 4-point letter grade scale? There are a lot of reasons why the percentage-point system has problematic properties, but even if you have a good reason to like it, is it really that hard to understand why I’d like my system, or understand why I prefer it? Is it really that crazy to expect that to be an option in campus course software?

who is the public face of sociology?

The 101 class is the public face of our discipline. Every year there are roughly a million students in the United States who take Soc 101, that is, if my publisher friends’ estimates are to be believed. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, 101 will be their only exposure to our discipline. Sure, they might hear about our research findings in the media, but chances are they’ll have no idea that it was a sociologist who produced the research.

So, who’s teaching the 101 courses at your institution? In many places 101 is taught by a hodgepodge of grad students, adjuncts, lecturers, and assistant professors.[1] In every one of these situations we position on the front lines our least experienced educators (many of whom have never received any formalized training on pedagogy). Now, don’t let me be misunderstood. I reject the idea that years of experience correlates with excellence in the classroom. I’ve been cutting my grass since I was 10, but I’ve always done the bare minimum to avoid the ridicule of my neighbors. My neighbor’s yard, on the other hand, is the stuff that would make the angels cry. Wisdom in the classroom certainly has its advantages, but an inexperienced teacher who is passionate and focused on honing their craft can quickly make up for a lack of experience.

How do the faculty in your department think about 101? Is it something to be avoided like the plague? Is it a hazing ritual that you put newbs through so that senior faculty can get to teach their “real classes” (i.e. their upper division classes within their area of interest)?

Why Does It Matter Who Teaches 101

First, it matters because the introductory classes serve as the on ramp to the major. As reported by InsideHigherEd.com in their forth coming book How College Works, Chambliss and Takacs find that,

Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.

Second, it matters because of Krulak’s law which posits, “The closer you get to the front, the more power you have over the brand.”[2] Put simply, if the 101 class is the frontline of sociology, then the 101 teacher is the ambassador for us all.

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