Academic Dead End

I’m going to preface this post by saying that I enjoy my job and know that I am helping a lot of people (they tell me this pretty regularly). That said, everything else below is also true.

It seems strange to call a position in collegiate level education “a dead end job”. Culturally, we’re primed to think “dead end job” refers to food service, retail, etc., not positions that require a Masters degree. However, after a great deal of thought, I think the label is appropriate. After all, I’ve spent nine years in just such a position, with the same employer (for certain external reasons, plus assurances were made by said employer and never followed through), at a near poverty annual income. Frankly, people who have six or more years of post-secondary education cannot live on a pittance, really no one can at least not well.

So, why is this a dead end position?

In nine years, there has been no chance of promotion. There has been no opportunity for transitioning to full time (despite assurances of regular internal hiring, which hasn’t happened). There has been no raise, so someone with 10+ years makes the same hourly as the person hired yesterday. In fact, we’ve had a mandatory 20% pay cut, “to cut costs”, while the school created and hired new, six figure salary VPs.  There’s no incentive to do well, as pay remains the same and there’s a cap in hours that apply the same for the best and the worst.

I say all this not to complain, as such.

Rather, I say it to inform people about the model that’s been more or less standardized across higher ed for the last 40 or so years, at least in the U.S., though I hear it’s catching on in Canada & Europe too.

This is an unsustainable model for higher education. Colleges & universities cannot continue to rely on hourly positions, single semester contract positions, low annual pay positions that require a Masters degree and prefer doctorates. In the end, this practice harms undergraduate education, graduate teaching assistants, and doctoral graduates all; not to mention the fact that it shifts full time faculty more and more to administrative duties (shrinking pool of full timers to draw from) rather than teaching and conducting research.

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Stereotypes & Assumptions

I’m not a deep thinker or writer, despite my background, education, and training.  This may seem odd from someone with a PhD in an arts/humanities field given the reputations of said fields.  We’re expected to be thinking and writing deep, meaningful, philosophical things.

That’s not me.

Maybe that comes from being the grandkid of working class families.  Maybe it comes from my Polish lineage (though we have Copernicus and John Paul II, so maybe not entirely).

I think this is the big reason I rejected doing literary theory in grad school.  Most of the things we read and discussed were doing pure theory, theory for the sake of theory.  People like Roland Barthes, Toril Moi, and Stanley Fish who were totally divorced from texts, just developing theory to further theory drove me crazy.  Meanwhile, I embraced, halfheartedly because theory was required, New Historicism, in short studying a text’s historical context or the historical context in which it was and is received.  It seemed, and still does, the most practical of the theories out there.

I remember being in a graduate level Shakespeare course, during my MA.  We were reading Othello and a fellow student asked, “Why is Othello so obsessed with his reputation?”  As I recall, a few theories were posited, some “I don’t knows” floated around.  Then I spoke up (and I usually didn’t talk much in class), saying, “Othello’s a mercenary, the commander of a company of mercenaries.  His reputation is literally his life.  It’s how he gets jobs for himself and his men.  That would be important enough, but he’s also a Moor, a Black Muslim, working in Catholic Italy.  That makes his reputation at least twice as important as it is for other mercenary captains.”  To me, this seemed obvious.  From the looks I got, it seemed to be a revelation to many others in the class.  It’s not a deep, philosophical interpretation, but a practical, historically important one, I think.

During a decade as a student in higher ed, I concluded that  students sometimes forget about the practical side of critical thinking and get too caught up in some skewed sense of how they think they should be responding and thinking, trying to “sound college”.  The problem is that “sounding college” is built on a stereotype, maybe an idealization, possibly fueled by pop culture (especially movies), in which the faculty are almost invariably the enemy who need to be appeased and outwitted (often by presenting convoluted responses, answers, and thoughts that really make no sense in the light of day).  Often, we just want a straight response that seems likely (at least I do).

Was Shakespeare using Othello as a commentary on hyper-masculinity?  I don’t know.  Possibly.  It’s perfectly valid for modern audiences to read the character that way.  But, I think, for an audience that was being reminded of the War of the Roses, had survived the Spanish Armada, was dealing with the Succession Question, and had the Vatican & Papists fomenting insurrection . . . I suspect they’d understand Othello’s obsession with reputation as part and parcel of being a mercenary captain and an outsider by faith and appearance.

Maybe that all means I’m not a deep enough or philosophical enough thinker for this field or academia.  I don’t know.  Maybe the stereotype & expectation are just false.

Writer Advice: Getting from A to B, or Transitions

A common issue for early stage writers, although it appears with more experienced people as well, is transitions. These are the sentences and phrases that link paragraphs together. They serve to demonstrate how we are moving from one point to the next; they connect points A and B.

In short, transitions show the chain of logic that the writer is making.

Transitions can be seen akin to middle school algebra.

For example, a teacher writes: X + 5 = 10

Most people say, “X = 5”

Teacher says, “Show your work.”

Most people grumble and groan.

But, the teacher wants to see X + 5 – 5 = 10 -5; X = 5 because it shows the chain of logic. That becomes important when we get 2X + 3Y = Z – 5.

That chain of logic is important for linking evidence to claims and shifting between claims.

This is one reason that I like outlining before writing. With a formal outline, there is a good, visual representation of the main claims. These can be manipulated and moved around to where they best fit, compared to the other claims. It is, in my experience, always best to group claims based on what relationship they have to each other. That is, putting related claims next to each other. With that sort of organization, the transitions tend to be smoother, because the points are more closely related.

The chain of logic, aided by the transitions, or as shown by the transitions, makes the argument easier for the reader to follow. If the reader has a difficult time following the argument, then they aren’t focusing on the content, they’re focusing on the structure and trying to figure out what’s going on. This, obviously, is not good for convincing the reader. Rather, we want to make things easy for the reader to follow, so they don’t have to work so hard trying to figure out structural elements—ex. organization, syntax—and can spend more time chewing on the argument itself. Ultimately, that will produce a more convincing argument, or a more productive discussion.

Personally, I find that one of the easiest ways to create a smooth transition is the use of echoing language.  By echoing, I mean using one or two similar terms (or concepts) in the last sentence of paragraph A and the first sentence of paragraph B.

For example:

Her concern comes after years of knowing Lupin, the clearest exception to the prejudicial stereotype, and at a time far removed from a full moon.

The source of this prejudiced view, and its racial connotations, is nowhere more evident than in the words of Dolores Umbridge . . .

(Note the echoing of “prejudicial” and “prejudiced”.)

Alternately, referring to the next main point can create a smoother transition.

For example:

the medieval construct of sympathetic versus monstrous werewolf forms a lens through which Rowling discusses Lupin’s lessons as well as a historical connection to our literary past.

In Rowling’s work, the primary werewolf—Lupin—serves to directly educate key characters . . .

Here the last sentence of paragraph A links the idea of an old dichotomy to the concept of learning/education, with the first sentence of paragraph B moving straight into education.

 

Writer Advice: Intros and Such (Non-Fic)

Tail end of the semester has started (one week until finals here) and I’ve been focusing my writing time on some fiction/world pieces rather than blog stuff, so I thought I’d take a quick break from story posting to put up some advice.  A lot of the advice I give regarding writing, particularly non-fiction, comes from things I’ve seen crop up often over the last 13 years of teaching and tutoring.

Introductions & Theses

One of the most difficult things for a lot of writers, especially new ones, to do is introductions.

 Each introduction, in a formal non-fiction essay, needs to have three things:

1) Something to get the reader’s attention.

2) A brief outline of the major claims.

3) The thesis.

 There are many ways to get the reader’s attention from telling a joke or an anecdote to inserting a surprising statistic or a rhetorical question. Sometimes the thesis itself gets the reader’s attention.

 Outlining the claims is relatively easy, just a one sentence list (for shorter works) of the main points.

 The thesis can be the really difficult part.

 A thesis is also known as a hypothesis or theory. It is the overarching idea and argument of the paper. Alternatively, we can think of the thesis as the roof of the house—the roof covers the house and is supported by the claims (walls) which are, in turn, supported by the evidence (foundation). A thesis is always a sentence and always answers a question. It is, in effect, a theoretical answer that the writer will attempt to prove with claims and evidence.

 The simplest way to produce a thesis, in my experience, is to figure out what question you’re asking as a writer/researcher. Without the core question, developing a thesis becomes very difficult. With the question in mind, creating a thesis becomes infinitely easier.

 A couple analogies that I use for introductions follow:

 1) Think of the introduction as a movie trailer or TV preview. The two minute version of the movie is designed to get the reader interested, but not give away so much that they refuse to pay for a ticket.

 2) As a researcher, you have 10 articles that you found. Each article is 20 pages long. So, as a writer, ask yourself: would you rather read 200 pages to determine if the articles are useful or would you rather read 10 paragraphs? I’m guessing most people would prefer 10 paragraphs. So the introduction should provide enough information for a casual reader to decide whether the essay should go in the “Useful”, “Not Useful”, or “Maybe” piles of their research.

Yer a Jedi, Harry: Education in Worldbuilding

Hogwarts.

Unseen University.

Sunnydale High School.

Xavier’s School for Gifted Children.

The Jedi Academy.

Illuminati University (IOU).

Most worlds have some sort of education involved, whether mundane, military, paranormal, or something else. These are, for obvious reasons, especially popular in older children’s and YA novels. On one hand, they offer a shared experience with the reader. On another, they present an interesting place ot be explored without the presence of parents.

But, as writers, gamers, and worldbuilders in general, what should we know about educational institutions? What information should we have at our fingertips and/or present to our audience?

The following are some basics. Obviously, more detail can be added, such as traditions, rumors, and superstitions. But, I think this is a good baseline level of info.

Description—First, we should know what the place looks like. Is there one building or many? What do they look like? What is housed in each building? What are the grounds like? Are there any special rooms, ex. Hogwarts’s Room of Requirement? What is the feel of the school, e.g. dark, regimented, loose?

Curriculum—What is taught at the school? Are there formal classes or individual mentorships, or both? How long does completion usually take? Are there required subjects or classes? If so, for how long, e.g. it takes seven years to graduate, but History is only required for three of those years?

Ex. Hogwarts takes seven years to graduate, and some classes are only taken for four years. they teach both magic and history along with some elective subjects.

Who’s in Charge?—Who oversees the school? What title does this person hold, ex. headmaster, chancellor, president? Does this person have an assistant? Is there a group instead? How does one become the head or join the group? Who is this person or are these people?

Ex. Headmaster Albus Dumbledore oversees Hogwarts with a Deputy Headmaster, Minerva McGonagall, both chosen by the board of trustees.

Who runs the place?—Who handles the daily operations of the place? What non-teaching staff are present? Where do they live, do they have offices?

Ex. Argus Filch, Hagrid, and Madam Hooch are in charge of maintenance, groundskeeping, and sports coaching (more or less) respectively. Each has an office and/or living space on the grounds.

Faculty Hierarchy—Are the faculty divided into different groups? If so, how? Are the faculty ranked? If so, how?

Ex. University faculty are generally divided by department (field of expertise) grouped by “College” (ex. Arts & Sciences or Technology). They also have a hierarchy from adjuncts to non-tenure track to assistant professor to associate professor to professor (rarely adding university professor) to emeritus (retired).

Student Requirements—What does a person need to do to be accepted as a student? What age do they have to be? Are there gender, race/species, or skill requirements?

Ex. Hogwarts students can be any gender, but must be 11 years old and wizards/witches (House Elves or Goblins need not apply).

Faculty & Staff Requirements—What does it take to become a member of the faculty or staff? What process does one go through? What background does one need? Is there an age requirement?

Ex. Hogwarts seems to appoint professors based on interviews with the Headmaster (ref. Sybil Trelawney), or the Headmaster’s decision to offer a position (without an interview, ref. Remus Lupin, Horace Slughorn, and “Mad Eye” Moody).

School Rules—What sort of things are forbidden in the school? How are the rules enforced? What punishments can be handed out?

Ex. Hogwarts has relatively few rules—no magic in the halls, no Forbidden Forest, curfew. These are enforced by patrolling faculty, who can hand out detentions and take House Points away from offenders’ Houses.

External Oversight—Is there someone or a body of someones outside the school that provides external oversight? If so, what powers do they have? How does one take up this role? Do they get their authority from somewhere else or just from the school?

Ex. Both the Board of Trustees and the Ministry of Magic have some oversight of Hogwarts. The Board can choose to force resignations of faculty and staff, up to and including the Headmaster. The Ministry’s powers vary, depending on legislation (ref. HP and the Order of the Phoenix, esp. Dolores Umbridge).

Brief History—What has gone on at the school? When was it founded? How many leaders has it had? Was it involved in any major historical events? Was it built all at once or over several decades (or centuries)? Has its role changed over time?

Ex. See Hogwarts: A History; see also the history of the Jedi Temple (SW: The Old Republic, SW episodes 1-3)

Who Can You Trust?: Source Evaluation

Thanks to some conversations recently, I’ve been thinking about evaluating sources. Obviously, this is something I’ve taught for years in the classroom setting, but I think it is even more important to consider in a wider context given the growing propensity for people to link articles in online discussions (arguments, rants, whatever) as evidence (or “evidence”).

So, why should we evaluate sources? Why not just go grab the first online articles that seem to agree with our positions?

Several reasons, really, but the most important is: just because a source agrees with your position, does not mean that it is a good source.

Again, so what?

To best convince an open minded audience, we need to present the best possible evidence. Part of doing so is presenting evidence from solid, reputable, credible sources.

So, how do we determine a source’s credibility?

Just because it’s written (or on the interwebs), this does not mean that it is credible or reputable. Honestly, anyone can write anything. And these days it’s easier than ever before for anyone to publish whatever the heck they want to, whether it’s true or a drug induced mental rambling. This is one reason that scholars and other professional researchers are often skittish about internet and self-published materials.

Here are some useful criteria, gleaned and boiled down from a variety of collections of criteria found in dozens of writing and research handbooks (this is by no means a complete discussion):

1) Authorial Reputation and Associations

As we know, most writers and speakers have reputations for various things and everyone is associated with something. For example, we know that Mike Huckabee is an evangelical conservative and is associated with Fox News while Al Gore is an outspoken environmentalist. These reputations create certain expectations. They can also help us determine whether the individual is typically trustworthy, approaches multiple perspectives fairly, or not. A recent example I saw was an article written about problems with the Canadian health care system, written by a person who works for a public policy group. One of that ppg’s primary goals is to dismantle the Canadian health care system, so the author’s reliability is suspect.

2) Publisher/Host Reputation

Just as authorial reputations influence whether we can call a source reliable, so does the reputation of the publisher (or web-host). And this varies from topic to topic. For instance, we can consider the Harlequin publishing group an excellent source for the romance genre of novels; however, they would certainly not be a reputable publisher for sources on nuclear physics. On the other hand, the Oxford University Press has spent over 600 years building a strong reputation for solid publications in a range of fields.

3) Obvious Bias

Does the source make clear its bias without attempting objectivity? Obviously, a purely objective position is impossible to achieve, however any good piece of journalism, scholarship, policy, etc. should at least attempt to be as objective in tone as possible. For example, Ludwig Von Mises’s Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis is a fairly obvious propaganda piece that does nothing to appear objective—one of the first lines is even a logical fallacy (either/or fallacy).

4) Whom Do They Reference?

This is important with all sources, really, although it is more obvious with print. Most print non-fiction will include a list of source material consulted by the author. A read through that list should bring up some recognizable names within the field the source is in. For example, in a source of medieval magic, I would expect to see Carlo Ginzburg’s name come up; for medieval childhood, Barbara Hanawalt should be in there somewhere; etc. Likewise, virtually every article online references other articles, interviews, or other sources. These sources of information for the writer are important to look at, both for veracity of data and credibility of the original source.

5) Do They Look at Multiple Angles or Perspectives?

One way to present objectivity, and build the author’s credibility, is to look, honestly, at multiple perspectives on an issue or topic. By honestly, I mean by clearly and truthfully presenting the other positions without resorting to stereotypes, ad hominem, or misrepresentation of the arguments. This lends both credibility and objectivity in that it shows the author looked at the topic from a number of directions and chose one in particular as best, or synthesized one of out many, rather than simply starting with a single premise, putting on blinders, and ignoring any other ways of looking at the topic.

6) What’s the Context?

No material is created in a vacuum. Everything ever written is produced within a cultural-historical moment that influences it, or even acts as a catalyst for its creation. For instance, MLK’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech was written in 1963. If the year had been 1943, the speech would have been very different, likewise if it had been 1983. But, that doesn’t tell us about credibility. Because culture influences thought and source creation, cultural biases and issues come into play as well. For example, it is difficult to trust an anti-socialism source from the early-1950s in the U.S., because of the effect of McCarthyism (e.g. a pro-socialist book would never get published, the author would be blacklisted, and the author would potentially be deported or face imprisonment as a Soviet spy). So, even if the author thought socialism was the greatest thing since sliced bread, (s)he would write that it is evil as a means of self-preservation.

7) Can the Information Be Confirmed by Unrelated Sources?

One of the most important, and potentially difficult, measures of source reliability is confirmation. That is, can the claims be confirmed with reference to other sources. The difficulty is that the other sources must be unrelated to the first and must reference different primary sources (studies, interviews, etc). For example, recently someone in a discussion posted links to three articles—one from a conservative website, one from a left leaning site, and one from CBS—that all said the same thing. On the surface, this is good. However, all three cited the exact same study, from the exact same conservative public policy group (in fact, the second one, on the left leaning site, was written by a senior fellow of said group). So, there was no credibility in terms of data confirmation, since they all used the same primary data source.

8) Has the Work Been Peer Reviewed?

For print, and eprint, works, particularly those from scholarly writers, the question of peer review arises. Peer review (double blind) basically means that two people, experts in the same field, read the document and decide: print as is, print with modification, or do not print. The author gets feedback from the reviewers, modifies as needed, and the piece gets printed. This is essentially quality control for the written word. It keeps publishers and journals from printing materials written by individuals who have no knowledge or expertise in the appropriate field(s), usually. Versus non-reviewed sources that literally anyone can publish.

9) For Online Sources, Who’s the Sponsor?

With online sources, it can be difficult to determine who produced the material or what the goal of the organization hosting it is. So, we can also look for the sponsor of the website, e.g. who pays the bills. Then we apply the same criteria to the sponsor as to the publisher or author.

10) For Online Sources, What’s the URL Suffix?

I know it has been said before as well, but the URL suffixes can be helpful in determining web source reliability. As we know, the most common is .com (commercial site; e.g. they’re selling something), probably not the best option. After that, .org (non-profit organization), which will likely have obvious biases that need to be accounted for. Perhaps the most reliable are .gov (government), .edu (American academic), and .ac (academic network; non-U.S.), as they generally undergo some standards for posting and review of materials.

Digging Deeper: Summary vs. Analysis

My (sporadic) posts lately have been rather brief and focused on current writing projects. With that in mind, I thought I’d turn to general writing this week.

Something that has been coming up in tutoring a lot lately is problems understanding analysis.

A lot of student-clients who come in have been demonstrating difficulty transitioning from summary to analysis. Now, summary is good and useful. Virtually every piece of non-fiction has at least a little summary in it, if only to ensure that the reader and writer are on the same page or to refresh the reader’s memory. However, purely summary pieces are, quite frankly, rather simple and don’t take much thought. (There are, of course, exceptions. Trying to summarize a 250 page book in one paragraph is a hell of a thing to do.)

So, summary is easy and basic. Analysis, on the other hand, takes work, understanding, and knowledge. It demonstrates whether the writer understands the subject of analysis and knows the general subject matter. It also shows whether the writer is thinking about the subject or simply parroting back pieces of data. And it is something we all do regularly.

Examples:

1) Whenever we buy a car, or a house, or groceries, we conduct comparative analyses. We look at different options, weigh their strengths and weaknesses (cost, usefulness, flavor, looks, safety ratings, neighborhoods, size, etc.), and determine the best product to purchase.

2) Whenever we drive (or, say, ride a bike), we are constantly and unconsciously analyzing literally hundreds or thousands of pieces of data from our speed and position on the road to locations of other vehicles, pedestrians, potential problem drivers (e.g. the one who doesn’t use the turn signal, the one who is speeding, the one on his/her phone) to road conditions and weather conditions.

3) Anyone who plays any sport or game is continually analyzing elements of the playing field. That could include locations of other players, where the ball (or whatever) is, available resources, relative exhaustion of other players, body language, coaching commentary, etc.

To use an analogy that seemed to work the other night:

Summary is saying: “There’s a fin above the waves.”
Analysis is saying: “There’s a fin above the waves, therefore there is a shark beneath the surface and we should probably get out of the water.”