Saturday, January 27, 2007

If I can just figure out how to use this in my syllabus.

a rubric for rating student whining

(nod to ancarett, I found this through her links and immediately fell in love with it)

Now. If any of the rest of you are up to composing rubrics for "quality of wheedling for an extension," or "'I have to take the final exam early' vols 1-3," we should talk.

Friday, January 26, 2007

An Honest Letter that I Wish I Could Write

January xx, 200x

Anonymous Agency/Graduate School
123 Second Ave.
Large Metropolis, USA, zipcode

Dear Mr. Admissionsperson:

I am writing you a letter for Candidate X. She is brilliant. She consistently earns As in the classes she has taken with me. I suspect, from all that I have heard, that she earns As in the classes she takes with other professors as well.

She will excel in your program.

She will also, however, make everyone's lives a living, seething hell.

She has a smallness of spirit that clings about her like a bad smell. She enjoys breaking the curve. She gloats when others in the class do badly. She complains when essay exams aren't graded within 48 hours. Then she will email to ask that her grade be sent to her as soon as her exam is graded, along with detailed typed-out comments explaining where and why she lost points. She raises her hand so often during class discussion that the rest of the students roll their eyes. Even audible sighs of exasperation from the others do not discourage her. When another student answers incorrectly in class she makes a slight click with her tongue to indicate disgust at their error. She grubs for points. She has argued that the mid-A she earned on a paper should be a higher A. She comes up at the end of the first lecture of the term to ask if she can be excused from group work and do a separate project because she doesn't want to have to 'carry' anyone. She doesn't think the others are up to her level of performance.

And she is right. They aren't. But good lord. Doesn't our field already have enough self-congratulatory cutthroat obsessives?

Save yourselves. Thank you for your time.


Dr. O

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Shout Out to INGA MUSCIO, author of CUNT (2002)

From feministing, I see that the BBC is going to do a documentary on the "c-word." The article cited mentions the Vagina Monologues, which was ground breaking to be sure.

But -- no mention of Inga Muscio's amazing book Cunt. That is just wrong. If you are going to do a documentary on the historical use of the word CUNT, and an author has written a book -- now in its second printing (Seal Press, 2002) -- titled "Cunt," which explores the history of the word you are documenting and entertwines this information with memoir and current cultural references and political activism, well maybe you should take your hat off to said author.

I hope that I get to see the documentary, and it will turn out that the BBC has featured Muscio as one of the main speakers, and I am completely off base.

So, welcome to my first "Underappreciated Read Sunday." This book is an odd choice for me to put up on an academic blog. It isn't scholarly per se, although it is very informative and involves a decent amount of historical research. The language is colloquial and often "off-color". There is some TMI that may make some readers squirm. It's also one I consider "book as medicine," energizing and interesting. I own both editions, and reread the book slowly during the hard part of my divorce. If you are a woman having a hard time, and if you identify as liberal and pro-choice (pro-life women won't find much common ground), this book will be wonderful for you.

In which Dr. O naively asks: WTF with IRB fees?

It seems I have been living and laboring under a rock. At some point between when I graduated not-that-long-ago with my Ph.D. and now, Human Subjects Boards or Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) started charging fees to do their jobs.

I've been all over the web this afternoon, googling "IRB fees" and "sponsored research review fees" and the like. Obviously this isn't an exhaustive search. Still, I've read a sufficient number (25+) of "here is why we decided to start charging, and here is how we are doing it" notices to come up with basic observations:

1. The trend seems to have started in the early 2000s; most addenda and notices of fees are dated after 2001.

2. Most fees are attributed to the greater number of research projects being reviewed. The fee is noted as a line addition that will be billed to the sponsor of the research directly. Often the IRB tosses in a line about how such fees have become "common," and that many other universities are doing the same thing.

3. The fee does not supplant, replace, or augment the previous university charges tacked onto grant applications. That overhead is still there, and this fee does not roll into the same pool. What we have here is the "shipping and handling" of academia.

4. Most boards, but not all, note that only those projects sponsored by private industry will require a review fee.

5. Fees vary, generally from $1000 - $2000 for initial submission. Some IRBs designate the fee as all-inclusive. Others tack on an amendment fee of around $500-750 if the project has to go back through review for any reason.

6. Some note that if the fee is not paid, the protocol will not be reviewed, or if it is reviewed then consent will be withheld until the fee is received.

I get that universities are on the bureaucratic-entrepreneurship treadmill these days. I know that phrases like "best practices" have leached over from business to academia, that "soft money" is making gains on guaranteed funding. But there is something about this IRB development that sours me even further on human subjects boards. And that is saying something. Dr. O and Human Subjects shake hands, get along in public, but we don't go for beers if you know what I mean.

Here are the issues/questions I have for the IRB boards out there who passed "we are going to charge you now" policies:

* If you haven't limited your fees to industry-sponsored research, how can researchers who get small grants justify paying up to a quarter of their award (or sometimes more!) to you, just for the joy of getting permission to do their work? Do you think that maybe granting agencies will see this and hold it against an application?

* If non-industry grants are targeted by a given board, has that university removed any requirements for getting grants from the tenure and promotion process of those scholars who are in the smaller-grant-world of the humanities and social sciences?

* Why is there no uniform fee for review? Are we going to argue that one IRB is "better" than another (the merit model)? Are we going to argue that the busier the IRB, the higher the fee (making it about demand)?

* Why if this is truly necessary is there no nationwide policy? Why do some schools have such a fee and not others? Does name recognition have anything do do with it (university as 'market brand')?

* What does charging this fee do to reduce the amount of research that comes across the desks of the Board? Isn't it the job of this body to review research, for ethical purposes?

* If volume of protocols to be reviewed does not continue to drop, what is to prevent any given university from requiring professors to pay for review of non-sponsored protocols? Lest anyone out there scoff, I would ask that we all take a moment to think on parking fees. You would think that we would not be charged money by our employers so that we might feasibly do our jobs, but there you have it. The argument supporting parking fees also centers around increasing demand on limited resources.

* We'll pretend for a moment that academic paychecks are reasonable compensation for scholars' level of education and expertise. Let's consider ethics instead. The IRB exists to enforce a code of ethics. Is it not ethically questionable in the extreme for a university board to charge a potentially sponsoring group a fee for the review of a proposal for research to be done that might benefit said group? How about if each additional revision/review requires an additional payment, will the board be a bit 'pickier'? If an investigator suggested doing such a thing, his or her friendly neighborhood IRB would scream "coercion!!!!" before the undergrad work-study admin assistant could get back with the sub order from Quiznos. I have had a protocol hung up with a call for revisions because my offer of $20 to participants was seen as potentially coercive. I ask you.

I don't like this much. Not at all.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Single Academic Mom in The Meeting-est Department in the World

Not really. But sometimes it seems like my department must be the most meeting-happy in all of academia. Department cultures vary on this score, I realize. "A lot of meetings" means different things to different faculty. My last position at Smallish Private University (SPU) was in a department where monthly faculty meetings were the end of it. Two meetings a month caused eyes to roll. Committee business, whenever possible, was conducted via email.

Fast forward to current department at Anonymous Big University (ABU). Meetings monthly, which is pretty standard. But wait, and weep for me won't you: day-long focused meetings three times this term to discuss changes to the curriculum and department mission, plus lunchtime special topics meetings sprinkled liberally throughout every six to eight weeks. Plus the random all day Saturday 'retreat' every semester. Specific purpose: uncertain.

I realize that I am getting a paycheck from these good people, and that they pay me for my time and effort in collaboratively working toward department and university success. There is work to do, meetings are part of that work, and I am not exempt from bureaucratic tedium any more than the next professor. (Please note that the aforementioned meetings are in addition to department and university committee service, which weighs on us all.) I am on board with the monthly meetings, the lunch meetings, the day-long meetings.

The all-day Saturday meetings stick in my craw.

It's wrong of me. I'm not a happy camper, there is no "i" in team, every time I point a finger there are four pointing back at me, fostering collaborative department culture is critical, 'best practices' suggest that creative ......... blah blah blah. Around this point, my inner uberscholar who is busy quoting from Mentor in a Manual is drowned out by the eerie noise that all of the teachers make on the Peanuts holiday specials.

See, I am a single mom. I am divided on what this means for my career. In other words I am a hypocrite. I fully expect that my status as parent will not count against me in any official way. My work is quite good. I am in a strong place, tenure-wise. I've heard the phrase "go up early" several times. I would not expect that my having children would be held against me. If I were passed over for opportunities on this basis I would be apoplectic. Yet when I hear that a meeting has been scheduled for all day on a Saturday, I immediately feel slighted. Don't they remember I'm a single mom??! It does not help that I am the only unpartnered parent in the department, as my own beloved lives in another state.

I lose more than a day's recreation on retreat Saturdays. It costs me around $40-50 to secure child care for the hours I need to be able to get to the retreat site, stay for all of the goal-setting and mission-stating, and get back home. I lose a day's leisure and the cost of my monthly phone bill. And that is if I can get childcare for all day on a Saturday. On Saturdays when there is a sporting event, festival, or concert I might as well be waiting for Godot. If I can't go I seem a bad department citizen due to circumstances not of my choosing. If I draw attention to this tangle, I seem like a bad and bitter citizen.

This is only one event of many. Regardless of purpose or type of event, they are all essentially the same. Here's the template: required event critical to (department success, executive position in professional group, chance at getting major grant, ad nauseum) comes up. Dr. O gets notice (in department mailbox, through email, in snail mail) that her attendance is highly encouraged. Said event or activity is during time when conventional childcare already purchased for a small fortune is not available. Making necessary accommodations for attendance will cost Dr. O two to three times the monetary ding felt by other non-single-parent faculty, will bring about ire from ex on 'Dr. O. is too dedicated and works too much to be good mom' with vague implications of potentially reopening custody case, or will otherwise engender strife

My options for response are limited. Usually I smile, nod and dissemble (if in person) , or else breathe deeply and wait until I can do 'office hours voice' (on phone) or compose reply that doesn't include the word "asshat" (email). I only swallow my tongue half the time these days, while choking on my gracious acceptance.

Now what? Here is where I get stuck. Now what? I don't want to be accommodated, treated differently because I am a single mom. I also don't want to have to pay more, do more, panic more than ninety percent of my tenure cohort all in the name of equal treatment. Even if it does give me fodder for meeting with the other ten percent -- the rest of the single moms -- so we can laugh until we cry about the absurdity of it all over mojitos at our conferences.

Since I won't pack my children up and send them to relatives to raise, and since I won't give up on thirteen years' and six figures' worth of education, the change isn't going to come on my end. I won't be one of those single moms who tallies up the emotional and financial costs of academia and packs it in to work in an real estate instead dammit.

Academia is going to have to change. Period.

Stop flipping me off. This isn't as unreasonable as it sounds. If my personal circumstances, common and banal as they are, prevent me from being fully competitive in my field despite my competitive performance and skill, then academia is failing at its own project. This isn't a "Shakespeare's sister" argument. I'm not the rare high-achieving woman hampered by a predominantly male field of play. Women's enrollment in college, in graduate school, is climbing -- and divorce rates are not similarly dropping. More and more highly trained mothers, who will not abdicate a beloved career or who cannot even if they want to because of student loans and other financial responsibilities, will find themselves raising children alone. More and more academic fathers, also, will find themselves as single parents -- or will find themselves shouldering a larger proportion of the parenting load as their wives' careers and incomes are necessary to the family economy. We have to dump the academic model which assumes that a professor will have a stay at home partner to manage 'mundania,' leaving our hero's energies for Higher Things.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Professionalism, Disclosure, and Academic Personae

I choose butterfly, dreaming she is a professor. Seriously, the recent debate on whether one is an academic who blogs, or an academic blogger -- sparked off by Acephalous at -- is only relevant to me in the scheme of a larger question I've been worrying for a while. As scholars, it is our job to instruct students. But, for those of us who believe that teaching students to think critically is as crucial as teaching them facts to ponder, doesn't this suggest that we have to let go of at least some aspects of our glossy academic personae?

Think back to your undergrad days. I, for one, had some professors who barely registered on my radar, others who filled my days with misery, and a glorious few who made me want to be them. Here I am. But not one of those professors, not the stellar or the abysmal or any in between, gave the slightest clue as to the workings of academia. They might as well have been alchemists. The production and dissemination of knowledge was opaque. The texts reported "studies have shown," and other "knowledge," without laying bare the production of same. Even in methods courses, it seemed that the professors all had some research allele that I was missing. Their writing seemed like holy dictation taken down from the Gods of Ethnography. My own work limped and belched and I despaired. And all I got was pallid announcements that I should "keep at it," that I would "get it." Worse than useless, insulting when paired with the cookbook-style texts that outline how to do research. Effectively: some day you will not be atrocious, we hope.

Here's some heresy to pepper the academic pot: how about we all, in our own little ways, drop some of the all-knowing and ultra-competent veneer that our students see? Before anyone tries to backengineer who I am and report me to my department chair, I should state for the record that I am not advocating incompetence. But are our students really well served by our pretending that we know everything, that this sort of work is a natural inclination? Many of us front as though academic skill were the mental equivalent of a good singing voice. Sure you need training, but if you aren't born with that ineffable something well, kid, it ain't going to happen for you.

I say we get nekkid a little. I make it a practice in even the most basic undergraduate survey courses to point out where scholars disagree in findings, where the operationalization of variables skews findings, how research design determines the 'knowledge' that one can find. De-reification, to use an admittedly icky word. I also have a policy to always admit when I do not know something. This is not 'common sense.' I have seen many, many academics do the "shuffle and scramble" when trying to dodge questions from students or colleagues. Probably not surprising when there is an unspoken expectation that we know 'everything' within our fields. If we each did nothing but read journals all day, and then listen to podcasts of others reading yet more journals while we slept, we still likely couldn't keep up with absolutely everything going on in our fields. We need to stop pretending this makes us -- or others -- incompetent. It is like scorning someone because she cannot fly under her own power.

Writing is another sticky wicket. Maybe a year ago I came across a poetry journal titled "Lungfull," which I immediately adored for its practice of publishing the first draft and then the final version of a given poem. Fully half the time, the two versions seemed like different poems because there were so many dissimilarities. We as scholars might consider something similar. I know, I know, it is a horrifying thought. I have to do Lamaze breathing myself before I am even ready to share a draft with department colleagues, the step before sending out to blind peer review. But because of our reticence, students often don't understand that we scholars learn in part through writing. Writing is not the reporting of completed and digested discovery, but can in its own right be part of the discovery process. I advocate that we lay bare some of this process, perhaps through allowing students to see our own work in various stages. Scary, but effective. I have, in various semesters, kept an online research journal with reaction notes (a blog of sorts, where I speak of my research activities and emotional/mental reactions related to the process), posted coded transcripts in various stages of categorization, and posted subsequent drafts of a paper in progress. Students tell me it makes them feel much better, encourages them to write earlier (and to write several drafts rather than try to produce a finished one out of the gate), and helps minimize perfectionism and procrastination.

I am also public about many of my insecurities as a scholar. Does this make me incompetent? Does this mean that my students stop trusting me, or my chairs regret having hired me? Not a chance. My student evaluations are astonishingly strong most semesters, because my students know I am not subjecting them to anxieties that I do not experience myself. My students learn the meat of sociology and the practice of social research. But, they also learn a bit of what it means to be a scholar, how complex and at times discordant the process can be. My chairs have no problem with this process either. I don't grouse about the workings of the department or university directly, I don't betray confidences, and I don't use my insecurities as an excuse to avoid doing my best work.

There is nothing inherently wrong with telling the truth about academic practice. I applaud academics who blog, or blogging academics, for "whining". What is not spoken does not publicly exist -- it cannot be effectively addressed, changed, or understood. If there are commonly experienced problems in the practice of academic life, speaking them aloud should spread confidence in the academic community ("you mean my professor doesn't know everything? maybe I could become a professor, or an expert in this area too..." "Pee-yew! Amazing Dr. XYZ writes shitty first drafts!? Maybe I can produce something amazing too if I work at it...", "the eminent Scholar PDQ threw up for two weeks before her own tenure review? Then I'm not the biggest loser in all of [insert field of study]"). Let's be a bit more generous with our own stories and experiences, self-censorship be damned. Let's not hide under our academic covers with flashlights and then mock the brave soul who admits she wishes she had a nightlight.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The reverse mullet

Anonymous colleague on how to explain academic titles to students:

"The two-part academic title with colon is like a reverse mullet. Party in the front, business in the back."

This, of course, my students understand. The Social Sciences Citation Index? Not so much.

Dr. O's First Rule of Academia

Don't Be Paranoid.

I need to have this tattooed on the back of my right hand so I can see it while I type. I do fine in the classroom. But back in my office, typing away at yet another revision, the creeping anvil of doom hovers overhead. On these days I hate everything I write. I open up books or journals with my pieces in them and don't recognize my own stuff because it is better than I remembered. On these days everything is about how much I suck. I become sure that the Shadow Committee, my nightmare secret academic cabal comprised of scholars who can see right through me and who snicker at my earnest but doomed efforts, will notice that I was somehow awarded a Ph.D. in error and will have it revoked, thereby leaving me unemployable at anywhere but Starbuck's.

I had one of these days the other day. I didn't realize it at first, but I found that I was checking the online call for papers for a narrative conference over and over, to see if maybe the information had changed in the span of an afternoon. The original submission deadline had been extended. As I submitted very early, I read this as: "the abstracts we received thus far are of such poor quality that our only recourse is to extend the deadline by a month and pray God that some real scholars show up." I clicked on all the links on this site to try to glean some hint of what happened, and whether it has anything to do with me or my chances. I read the conference mission statement with the focus of a Talmudic scholar. It was sick. Then I came home and ate peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Miss Information: Miss Information is annoyed by academia

Miss Information: Miss Information is annoyed by academia


How can I be surprised by the same things over and over? You would think after a decade of this sort of thing (grad school and faculty time lumped together as "teaching time") it would be harder to drop my jaw. Still, at the start of each new semester, I am amazed at how tired I am. More, that the tired seems to come not from new prep or updating or new students, but from the effort of performing.

I don't dare ease up though. By my third semester, I realized that I have maybe two weeks' time to hook a class. If you don't come out of the gate strong, you never fully grab the class and it is like dying slowly on stage for sixteen weeks.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Welcome to my academic blog.

In the past twelve months, my two-year divorce and custody battle wrapped up, I moved across country to start a new tenure-track position, I got engaged to a man I have known for almost twenty years, and I paid off all of my credit card debt.

I need a nap.

On a hammock in the Virgin Islands. During a salary-paid semester's sabbatical, preferably.

As that is unlikely to happen, I have TiVo, brownie mix, cheap beer, my iPod, coloring books, blogging, and Goffman. This is my academic blog. I have decided to keep a bit more "audience segregation" in place in the bloggosphere. We'll see how that goes.