Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Today's Faculty: Stressed and Focused on Teaching - Faculty - The Chronicle of Higher Education

As I read this, I considered my own situation.

Today's Faculty: Stressed and Focused on Teaching - Faculty - The Chronicle of Higher Education

This article was the first thing I noticed when I went to the CHE website to once again survey job openings. I read it, while telling myself that my degree, from a well-known program, was special and that I was also special. Maybe I am, but there are many of us "special people" out there on the job market.

While I'm employed full-time in a technically tenure-track post, many of the people on the job market have been working part-time for many years.
Graduate programs continue accepting more graduate students than can possibly land jobs in academe, leading to a glut in the job market, she said. Cultural and psychological attitudes also come into play, she added, as tenure-stream faculty hold a mistaken stereotype that adjuncts don't have what it takes to make it to higher education's promised land.
Some long-term, part-time faculty members have noted that their employment status taints their job prospects; many keep working despite their dislike for their working conditions because they become attached to teaching or devoted to their discipline.
"People still don't recognize how much the labor market has shifted," Ms. Kezar said. "All of these factors add up to a stark and bizarre trend."
The optimism that many part-timers seem to feel about their prospects, even in the face of stark odds, suggests that the academic job market has similar characteristics to the one facing entrepreneurs and aspiring restaurateurs, said Don A. Moore, an associate professor of management of organizations at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. People entering those fields may recognize that the odds are long in general, he said, but many still believe they alone have a good shot.
Doctoral programs are partly to blame for accepting students even when the programs have poor records of placing their graduates in jobs. But students will keep coming, overestimating their chances, he said. "The results are tragic."
I'm not sure what is ahead for me, or the thousands of other aspiring academics. I'd like to land in a great post, at a great university, but maybe the reality will be part-time employment while pursuing other interests. You have to be an idealistic optimist to pursue a career in higher education.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Writing and Statistics

It is clear that some writing students are struggling to comprehend how statistical research is referenced and presented in writing for general audiences. What seems to be the problem, what was called a "contradiction" in class, is how science relies on precise data to report imprecise results. I am including a link to an essay I composed this morning in an attempt to explain why generalized statistics (the goal of all research) are not a contradiction with precise writing. The problem is that few people understand scientific research methods or statistics.

The right approach in a class is to ask for clarification, attempting to understand why "imprecise" can be the "most precise" data for an article or essay. Writers learn to use two or three sentences to accomplish this balance, educating the public while also using data appropriately. Scientific findings and data are never precise. That's one of rare instances when "never" is the best word. Science assumes everything we assume to be true might someday be disproved. Therefore, we express findings in terms of percentages of confidence. As I expressed in the first few nights of class: science admits to imprecision and doubt, while literature scholarship makes absolute claims.

This is a study reported in the New York Times:
The average American watches 34 hours of television per week … which sounds suspiciously like a full-time job. That slightly depressing, slightly baffling statistic comes to you courtesy of the Nielsen Company, which reports that total viewing rose about 1% in 2010.
Now, of course some people watch more, and some people watch less. A statistical mean (average) is imprecise. It is a best estimate, based on complex statistical models. That is how research data are collected. I cannot make a range map of the scarlet tanager (a beautiful bird) by tracking every single scarlet tanager in the world. Instead, I study a subset of banded tanagers and hope they represent the entire population. I then report with a percentage of confidence what the range of the species is. However, I might be 80 percent certain of the range and there will still be several scarlet tanagers who find a nice golf course in Minnesota to call home. They don't make my research any less valid: they are statistical outliers.

A writer needs to appreciate that science is uncertain, while writing with the highest level of precision possible. If a study you cite claims that the average American watches 34 hours of television, that's the best data we have. We know that not every household was studied — that would be impossible. We also know that some people don't have televisions. Statistics are, by nature, imprecise. You write about statistics precisely, yet you also either assume or explicitly explain that statistics are incomplete realities.

Read the essay I've composed and try to understand the complication is not a contradiction. Being as precise as possible does not require perfection. It requires writing based on the best evidence available, while knowing all evidence is flawed. If you want to learn about writing with as much accuracy as possible, within the limits of research and statistical methods, you need to accept that science is uncertainty.

Science seeks generalizations, which is not a contradiction. We generalize about gravity. We generalize about evolution. That's science. Our generalizations are based on precise data and precise correlations. Yet, they are always presented within confidence intervals that are never 100 percent.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

(Sad) Rhetoric Lessons from the Campaign Trail

The campaign season has provided discussion topics for my writing and philosophy courses, with students trying to understand and explain what they've been witnessing. As you might imagine, they are cynical about politics, but they are involved in their local communities. They do manage to separate the national (and some local) political theater from what government does. Last week, a student observed that it was much easier to be ignorant than to consider the way political campaigns shape messages.

I keep telling myself that this blog would be a great place to share weekly, or even daily, curmudgeonly rants on public policy rhetoric. Yet, like my students I find it almost painful to ponder the sad state of public discourse.

We can discuss logical fallacies and outright misstatements every class meeting and not exhaust material from local, state, and federal elections. It would take days to explore the problems with speeches by both major presidential candidates. Senate campaigns are a bit better, while House races seem significantly worse than the presidential race. My students have suggested local races are the worst examples of public discourse. I wish I could disagree, but the fliers and commercials students share are pretty disheartening.

With a long list of fact-checking organizations, including partisan fact-checkers like Media Matters and Newsbusters, it is easy for students to conclude that no politician tells the truth. Information on political consultants specializing in neuro-psychology, linguistics, and behavioral economics reminds students that "free will" isn't so free. When we discuss the ethics of campaigns, the debate is not if ethics are lacking, but instead we find classes arguing over which campaigns are the worst among a lousy sample.

I try to encourage students to be critical thinkers and to analyze every political statement, commercial, and staged event. It is tempting to criticize "the other side" and not be critical enough of those we support. That's not a problem this year, though. My students are disgusted, yet informed and engaged. They see through the games, and it leaves them without much faith in our system.

When I ask students to consider the rhetoric of science and technology in the campaigns, there isn't a clear "winner" or "loser" when it comes to the truth. Discussions of green energy, environmental policy, healthcare, global warming, space exploration, and dozens of other topics reveal that our national leaders often use facts selectively, caring more about winning elections than promoting true science understanding. Each major party has its scientific "truths" that are either blatantly mistaken or intentionally misleading. We're stuck trying to decide which side is least bad at representing science and technology to the public. Sometimes, there is clear "wrong" in science; issues like evolution demonstrate that politicians can be as ill-informed about science as the general public.

At least my students do follow the public policy debates. They don't believe there will be any real effort to address policy issues, though. Instead, they view politics as a sport, with a winning team and losing team.

There never was a "good ol' days" when political discourse was elevated and campaigns were about facts. But, we can dream it might happen.