Post Academic

Tell us something we don’t know: Gladwell on the U.S. News college rankings

"Malcolm Gladwell" by Kris Krug (Creative Commons license)

So this Malcolm Gladwell piece from The New Yorker (subscription req’d) about the U.S. News college rankings has been kinda making the rounds, if mostly because of who’s writing the piece.  I should begin by explaining that pretty much know little about Gladwell besides whatever’s floating in the cultural ether, except for his Sideshow Bob-like looks and that his speaking honorarium needs to be subsidized by Goldman Sachs or something (reportedly $80,000), so this post makes no comment or critique on his best-selling zeitgeist-tapping works.  But what he has to offer by way of critiquing the U.S. News rankings doesn’t really count as new news, especially to anyone who’s spent a good part of her/his life in academia.

For those of you who can’t get behind The New Yorker paywall, here are the main points:

1. College rankings are no more reliable than car ratings or suicide rate measurements: Or, in other words, there’s no objective measure to why one college is rated higher than another when subjective factors come into play, no matter how authoritative U.S. News tries to make itself appear.  Really, did Gladwell need to make his point about the college rankings by using a clever lede about how consumers of automobiles have different priorities in determining which car is for them or mixing in how cultural influences and the problem of intention complicate what’s defined as a suicide, thereby complicating how suicide rates are measured? The basic point is this: U.S. News has a secret algorithmic formula in determining its rankings, but Gladwell wonders who’s to say why the criteria are weighted the way they are.  That’s simple enough, isn’t it?

More about how Gladwell is right, but not particularly profound, below the fold…


Has Disrespect of Teachers Fueled the Wisconsin Union-Busting Attempt?

PhotobucketAnyone who is a teacher or is close to a teacher is keeping track of the protests erupting in Wisconsin as Governor Scott Walker attempts to gut benefits for state employees and take away collective bargaining rights. If you’ll pardon the pun, something strikes me as odd about Walker’s anger toward the unions.

He thinks teachers are an easy target.

Except for police, firefighters and troopers, raises would be limited to inflation unless a bigger increase was approved in a referendum. The non-law enforcement unions would lose their rights to bargain over anything but wages …

Obviously, other non-law enforcement unions are affected, but much of the story has involved the fact that public schools across the state are shut down due to teachers on strike.

Putting straight-up politics aside, why is it that teacher’s unions arouse ire, but police and fire unions tend to escape first-round union attacks? Police and fire departments are vital to our safety. No matter how irate they are about paying taxes, most people don’t want their police and fire department to go on strike. Aren’t teachers valuable to society as well? They are the ones watching kids all day and training them to be productive members of society. So they don’t get the right to negotiate for their wages, while police and fire departments do?

Image from the German Federal Archive, 1982, from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

So Want to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities, the Next Generation

So William Pannapacker/Thomas H. Benton has created another Xtranormal video describing the tragicomedy that is the Ph.D. process in the humanities, this time capturing the awkward interactions between grad chair and prospective grad student.  In our latest episode, Pannapacker’s grad chair authority figure is back, but, as apropos of academia, our heroine from the original vid has long been chewed up and spit out by the system, replaced by new blood/fresh meat in the form of an incoming grad student.  And it’s good timing for the new YouTube, too, considering how grad school admissions decisions are around the corner.  I know it’s just because the computerized characters are necessarily glitchy, but the virtual cartoon people really capture the eerie nervousness and anxiety of mentor-student relationships, which is only accentuated by the spacey neo-muzak in the background.  Enjoy!

“So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities,” the Sequel


Screenshot from "So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities: Nine Years Later"

The feel-bad hit of the academic job application season “So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities” has spawned its own subgenre, including the not-as-funny, not-as-well-received, longer-winded retort “Yes, I Want to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities” as well as other discipline-specific narratives for poli sci, law school, philosophy, and film.  But best yet is the sequel to the original created by none other than the patron saint of sites like ours, Thomas H. Benton/William Pannapacker.  His version revisits the earnest would-be grad student nine years down the line, scraping by as an adjunct and more than willing to do so.  As he describes his clip, “Our intrepid young English major finally completes her doctoral degree, and is appropriately rewarded.”   The scary thing about the humorous video is that grad students of this generation have already internalized much of what seems so horrific about the job market so that very little of it seems over the top.  We can’t embed XtraNormal videos on WordPress, but go over to the Chronicle Brainstorm page to see “So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities: 9 Years Later” for yourself.

Postacademic Giggles With Al Jackson

Posted in The Education Industry by Caroline Roberts on January 22, 2011
Tags: , ,

If you’ve ever been a teacher, sometimes the only thing you can do in a bad classroom situation is laugh. And if you’ve never laughed at one of your students … well … you’re probably lying. Al Jackson went into the teaching meat grinder came out a comedian.

Hey, most of my students were excellent, but I remember the goofy ones the most. In one of my composition classes, a student argued against organ donation with the following wise words: “Dead people will miss their organs when they’re gone.”

Yeah, sometimes students can be a pain in the ass at the time, but they might be great comedy material someday.

So Now Teachers Are Supposed to Be Mental-Health Experts?

PhotobucketI’m not very happy with a recent New York Times article wondering if Pima Community College did enough when handling the apparent mental disorder of former student Jared Loughner, the alleged Arizona shooter. The implication is that if Pima Community College somehow handled Loughner better, these people wouldn’t have died and Representative Gabrielle Giffords wouldn’t be in a hospital with a head wound. Here’s the line that set me off:

After the release of detailed reports the college kept of Mr. Loughner’s bizarre outbursts and violent Internet fantasies, the focus has turned to whether it did all it could to prevent his apparent descent into explosive violence.

“Did all it could?” Is that saying it’s Pima Community College’s fault? So now teachers are expected to be mental-health experts, on top of everything else they do?

Blaming the community college seems awfully easy, but the college told Loughner and his parents–in person–that he couldn’t come back because of his behavior unless he had a doctor’s note. (You could ask whether or not his parents got him that help, but the damage has been done.) It appears that the college was genuinely concerned about the welfare of other students, and they acted on it. This is good, right? Colleges are still working on responses to dangerous students after the nightmare at Virginia Tech, and it seems that Pima CC had a plan in place.

A teacher could have devoted every spare minute to Loughner, and it wouldn’t have mattered in the slightest because a teacher is not a psychiatrist, and a psychiatrist is probably the only person who could have helped Loughner become a functioning member of society instead of an alleged mass murderer.

This article is proof that teachers need to make their job duties clear. They are not psychiatrists. They are not psychologists. They are not babysitters. They are in the classroom to share knowledge and provide instruction. Society should be thinking about improving mental-health services and whether or not they should be administered through social services, the health-care system or even schools if appropriate programs are installed. Asking teachers to do more and be more aware isn’t going to do much if the rest of society isn’t also helping to figure out how to handle those who are dangerously mentally ill.

All charges alleged until proven under law. Old Austrian Schilling note with Sigmund Freud. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

The Most Common MLA Sensation–and It Doesn’t Involve Drunken Hook-Ups

Posted in The Education Industry by Caroline Roberts on January 7, 2011
Tags: , , ,

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionWhile perusing the MLA scuttlebutt, I noticed a theme, which is … nausea, the scourge of the academic. This feeling rises all too often during events like the MLA.

For example, Bardiac isn’t going to MLA because it is chock-full of fear: “The whole conference is brimming with it, from arrogant a-holes to terrified and desperate folks, there’s a definite odor of angst and desperation. Just thinking about it makes my stomach churn.”

Come to think of it, that sounds like a bunch of job fairs and networking events, but what is truly upsetting about the MLA is that the education industry has boomed … yet there aren’t enough jobs. Just asking what’s wrong with that picture can result in a tummy ache.

Speaking of churning stomachs, Erica Daigle over at the Huffington Post has a friend who declared after a bad MLA result: “I give up. And I might vomit.”

Daigle has a remedy, and it isn’t Rolaids. She writes, “… no matter how much time you’ve invested, money you’ve spent (whether it’s yours or not), and pages you’ve written, there is no shame in leaving a familiar path when you’re tired of endless roadblocks. There is always another way, even if the gods of academia don’t tell you about it.”

Please remember Daigle’s words. Whatever you do, don’t act desperate. Interviewers in all realms can smell fear, and they love it. It makes their job easier because they can cross one more candidate off the list. And stock up on some Dramamine before you start your interviews. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride, but you will find a job–whether it’s in academia or not.

Image of what is called a “vomiting bowl at the toilet of the brewery restaurant” by SJU from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license. Yeah, we keep it classy.

Postacademic MLA Interview Survival Tips

I’m putting the smartphone series on hold in the interest of those who are participating in the MLA. Although I strongly advise anyone going to the MLA to develop a backup plan and brace for a career change, I know that some of our readers are giving it one last shot. This one’s for you!

Arnold has been weaving horror stories of MLA interviews, so I’ve gathered together a link roundup of our past interview tips and tales for quick reference:

Top Grad Student, Round 4: Convention Interviews With Soul-Sucking Vampires
Inappropriate Academic Interview #1
Transfer Your Skills: Interviews in the Hamster World
Look Like You Want the Job

A caveat: The MLA interview is a completely different animal from the Hamster Interview. As Arnold’s posts have shown, you are more likely to encounter crazy during the MLA, and you can’t reason with crazy.

So, in the face of irrational interviewers, here is the only tip you need: Do not show fear. Keep your face completely still, or at least with a slight smile. Some of these MLA interviewers are sadists who want to tear you apart, and you shouldn’t let them. By not breaking character, you might impress one of the interviewers with your professionalism, or at the very least you’ll fry someone’s circuits.

Remember: There’s nothing wrong with effi-ing with their heads. Why not? They’re eff-ing with yours.

The Butts-in-Seats Teaching Philosophy

Posted in Process Stories,The Education Industry by Caroline Roberts on December 22, 2010
Tags: ,

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionNow that people are grumbling about the usefulness of core courses and education that does not involve an MBA, I’ve been pondering the point of higher education. Is it facts? Maybe not. See what Dr. $hriaz has to say about that over at Worst Professor Ever.

After a few years in the Hamster World, I’m starting to think that education involves a sprinkling of facts and massive doses of the following three lessons:

1. Getting people to sit down, shut up and concentrate. I figured out this lesson when I taught SAT courses. The courses started in 9th grade and led right up to the test. I taught vocabulary and grammar, but I also gave practice tests, and you could measure success by how well the students were able to concentrate. You can memorize as many big words as you want, but it won’t help if you are thinking about your World of Warcraft scores during the test. Concentration is a critical skill.

2. Encouraging people to stop believing everything they hear. OK, this is the humanities element talking, but one of the best exercises I did when I was TA-ing was teaching logical fallacies by giving students print ads and asking them to list all the fallacies. Oh, bandwagon! Oh, slippery slope! I don’t think I transformed my students, but I think that a few of them were surprised to discover that just because something looks, sounds and even smells true doesn’t mean it is.

More after the jump! Image of Canadian students in a train classroom, 1950, from Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia Commons.

Girls, Get That Glassdoor Account!

Posted in Absurdities,Breaking Academic Stereotypes,The Education Industry,Transfer Your Skills by Caroline Roberts on November 22, 2010

Image Source*Only using “girls” for playful alliteration purposes! I’d recommend much of the advice in this article for guys, too.

With the non-passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, it’s more important than ever for women to know their worth and fight for the same pay as men, one job at a time. Obviously, the people who have been elected to office are more interested in pleasing a base rather than doing what’s right … anyway … let’s look out for ourselves since our legislators won’t do their jobs.

Despite the academy’s claims to be a forward-thinking meritocracy, female academics are suffering from the same pay inequalities as hamsters. Newsweek reported that female academics don’t make as much as male academics (Hat Tip: Worst Professor Ever): “… female faculty members have made no progress at all and have actually regressed. In 1972 women teachers made 83 percent what male faculty members earned; today, they’ve lost a cent for every dollar, earning just 82 percent.” That’s inexcusable–especially since salaries for professors at public schools are so easy to look up.

So, want to get paid as well as your male counterparts? It’s time to make like a negotiator, and it’s easy.

1. If the job is for a public school, look up the pay in a database. Local papers usually have handy salary databases for all public employees. For example, the Contra Costa Times has a salary database for the state of California.
2. If the school is private, go to Professor salaries are up there; just look up the name of the school. For even more information, try If the information lines up, you should know exactly what you can get.
3. If you are offered the job and salary comes up, have a number in mind. Penelope Trunk advises that you should make the prospective employer give the salary number first. Sometimes, that’s not easy. Whatever your situation, do not short-change yourself. You should be making about the same as what everyone else is making–or more.
4. (the hard part) If you don’t get the salary you want, don’t take the job. Obviously, if you are a poor grad student in dire financial straits, I’m not going to judge you if you do take the job. The only thing is that these universities know bloody well how broke and desperate you are, and you shouldn’t let them take advantage of you. You should push for every penny you can.

As for anyone who is reading this blog who is employed, male or female, do your female colleagues a solid and share your salary on Glassdoor or leave a review of the company. (No, I’m not doing any shilling for them; I’ve just found what’s on there extremely helpful.) Until a Paycheck Fairness Act actually passes (don’t bet on it), then we have to help each other.

The We Can Do It! poster. What else? From Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

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