Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Ph.D Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts - Jordan Weissmann - The Atlantic

I've written repeatedly about the challenges facing humanities students. Unfortunately, all doctoral students face a challenging job market. My personal advice remains: study a STEM field, in which a master's degree seems ideal, and add a minor or double-major in the humanities.

The Ph.D Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts - Jordan Weissmann - The Atlantic

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Whining Rhetoricians, Proving the (Wrong) Argument

The call for proposals was typical: explore the vulnerabilities of our programs. Yet another conference or journal wallowing in collective angst. Once again a group of individuals supposedly specializing in the art of effective communication would announce they have failed to persuade various others of our unique value. I suppose advertising an obvious record of failure makes sense to a tradition that begins with Socrates "winning by losing" in the official court of public opinion.

Almost daily, I read the complaints of my colleagues in rhetoric, composition, speech, communication, and related fields. And yet these colleagues seem oblivious to the fact that their whining, self-important rants only serve to support the argument that we might not offer the benefits we claim to deliver.

Students and parents expect practitioners and mentors. Nobody wants a teacher who isn't a master of his or her field. No, you do not need to be the best to be the best teacher. An analogy might be the arts: you can learn the basics from an average musician with a gift for teaching. Still, the instructor is a musician of at least journeyman proficiency. You don't have to play Carnegie Hall to be a great instructor — but you do have to play with a certain competency.

A medical student expects professors capable of diagnosing basic conditions. An electrical engineering student expects a professor capable of diagraming circuits. My journalism professors were at the top of their profession, and I valued their courses. The computer science instructors I know still consult on corporate projects. The instructors were good, talented practitioners of the skills and knowledge they sought to impart.

While I do not believe the purpose of a university is purely vocational — I am a liberal arts advocate — the people teaching each of the disciplines within the "liberal arts" should be more than theorists. Scholars serve an important role, but I admit a bias against isolated scholarship.

The common complaints are that we are undervalued by students, parents, administrators, politicians, and colleagues from other disciplines. People "outside" our fields do not understand how special we are! How essential we are! How much we contribute! How everything in life is rhetorical! Philosophical! Political! All communications are acts of rhetorical composition!

What does it reveal about the instructors of the communication fields when they constantly complain about not being understood? When we protest that our value is ignored, are we not demonstrating our failures as practitioners of effective communication?

A colleague told me, in all seriousness, "Rhetoric isn't marketing." Well, that seems to be true — marketing actually persuades people to act. Consider it crass, but wallowing in self-pity because people cannot see the value of the "art of effective communication" proves how stunningly ineffective we are as a group.

Of course marketing is rhetoric. In fact, marketing has turned to psychology, behavioral economics, anthropology, neurology, and to any other disciplines that might help master persuasion. Forget the logos, pathos, ethos, and kairos; marketing seeks to get the task of communication accomplished. They are "selling ideas" (and products) while we complain that logical arguments are losing the battle for academic resources.

Of any group, shouldn't we be the most aware that logic alone seldom wins arguments? That our ethos has been damaged because we focus so much energy on social issues, instead of teaching skills? People do not take our disciplines seriously, it should be clear to us, and we are why.

More than one colleague has said, "If only people were critical thinkers, then they would understand our value!" Well, but didn't most elected officials and business leaders take general education courses? Were not our leaders exposed to rhetoric, composition, and communication courses? In other words, generations of former students have decided that our courses did not offer a special value.

We failed to persuade our own graduates of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, of our value proposition. There is no other explanation for how political, business, and academic leaders who graduated from colleges and universities could so readily cut our courses and programs. We failed. We are still failing.

A colleague who believes strongly in "pure democracy" and the "wisdom of crowds" recently complained that the majority don't understand what we do. Wait a minute… the majority shouldn't be empowered to decide the fate of programs that claim to foster democratic ideals?

I admit that I attempt to "sell" writing and communication to as many people as possible. I do not sell the scholarship of various "studies" or overt political agendas. I sell the idea that a doctor, a programmer, a business owner, and most other professionals benefit from writing effectively. I do not sell more or less than that idea: I can help students discover how to communicate a bit better.

Too much of our energies are being spent protesting and complaining. It is time to prove our skills by persuading people that we offer an inherent value. And we should start by being active practitioners of our disciplines. That means writing for larger audiences than each other and our little like-minded communities that seem to be shrinking each year.

We complain that other disciplines pay better. We complain that other disciplines get more respect. We complain that our students do not appreciate our courses. We complain a lot, as any conference agenda demonstrates.

If we proved our value, there would be more demand for our courses than instructors to teach them. Instead, most students take writing, speech, and philosophy courses because they must. What happens when students are no longer required to take our courses? The same thing that happened when Latin and Greek requirements were removed: those programs largely died, with only a little community surviving in isolation.

We need to be more than the bad tasting medicine that claims to be good for everyone — or we will be relegated to the margins forever.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Extroversion, Collaboration and Neurological Differences

I am cross-posting this blog because it overlaps issues important to the autism community, rhetoric instructors, and those teaching with technology. It is a personal issue, for me, and one that reminds me how apart from "normal" society and dominant pedagogies I am as someone with a neurological challenge.

The following contains generalities, and there are always exceptions to generalities. But, my experiences and those of adults with cognitive differences I have interviewed do support my claims.

Contrary to what some might assume, many teachers in the humanities (though certainly not all) are extroverts. I've found the opposite is true in most science and technology fields, with the introverts outnumbering the extroverts. Statistically, there are personality traits that dominate various disciplines. There are political views that dominate, too. There are scholarly studies of the political views of professors (Gross and Simmons, 2007) and personality types within disciplines.

In rhetoric and many English departments, the rogues, the iconoclasts, are the rugged individualists with a tendency towards introversion. The norm is an emphasis on group work and buzzwords like "community." There is, as Gross and Simmons found (among others), a bias towards left-leaning political theories and outspoken activism. Good luck being an introverted Libertarian with neurological differences.

You might imagine the faculty in English or rhetoric want to sit and read in nice, quiet spaces alone. But, if you read the list of topics and conferences, these are a social and political group of professors. I found that wanting to be alone, focused on my work, was not how rhetoric or English departments function: they are social spaces with a lot of idealism. Compared to business or engineering, I've been in an academic sphere that fails to align with my personality — let alone my political ideals.

We claim to value various learning styles, from auditory to visual, but our practices don't value different personality and neurological traits. We seem to appreciate that some people learn from lectures and others learn from kinetic interactions, but we dismiss the preference — even the need — for some students to work alone or in pairs instead of larger collaborative teams.

Sadly, how socially skilled you are is statistically significant when predicting college success. For more than one individual I've met with autism or other cognitive differences, the social aspects of school proved impossible to navigate. Although there is a stereotype of "awkward genius" the reality is that even most professors prefer charming students.
The Utility of Career and Personality Assessment in Predicting Academic Progress

We examined the ability of four career and personality assessment inventories to predict students' first-year college performance and persistence. Among our sample of 677 college freshmen who enrolled in a freshman orientation course, subscales from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Strong Interest Inventory, and **Social Skills Inventory uniquely predicted first-year college GPA**, and subscales from these three instruments and the Career Factors Inventory uniquely contributed to the prediction of freshman-to-sophomore persistence, each after controlling for ACT/SAT scores.
— from
The following essay, published in The Atlantic, indicates how biased some English writing instructors are.
Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School Lahey is an English, Latin, and writing teacher
FEB 7 2013

In the end, I have decided to retain my class participation requirement. As a teacher, it is my job to teach grammar, vocabulary, and literature, but I must also teach my students how to succeed in the world we live in -- a world where most people won't stop talking. If anything, I feel even more strongly that my introverted students must learn how to self-advocate by communicating with parents, educators, and the world at large.

Dr. Kendall Hoyt -- introvert, assistant professor of medicine at Dartmouth Medical School -- agrees. "You don't get a pass for your personality type. I understand that social anxiety is a real thing - I am an introvert, and my mother used to actually faint if she had to do public speaking - but part of my job as a teacher is to teach people how to articulate and be heard."

Hoyt applies this same philosophy to her own children, both introverts. She and her babysitter have constructed elaborate social scavenger hunts for the children, games that require them to approach strangers, look them in the eye, and ask for whatever the game requires - directions, information, or signatures.

When I asked her why she puts so much effort into her children's ability to communicate with strangers, she answered, "In order to be effective in this world, you must be able to communicate. If you can't speak up for yourself, if you can't muster the courage to tell the person you love that you love them, if you can't advocate for your own safety, the world will be a very intimidating and frightening place. I don't want my kids to be intimidated by the world."

When a parent tells me that his or her child is simply not capable of communicating educational and emotional needs, I see a child even more in need of mastering interpersonal communication. I'm not talking about the value of communication as it relates to grades here; I am talking about the value of communication as it relates to personal health, happiness, and safety. A student who is unwilling to stand up for herself and tell me that she does not understand the difference between an adverb and a verb is also less likely to stand up for herself if she is being harassed or pressured in other areas of her life.

— from
The one place that should value knowledge and skills over personality, the classroom, turns out to be a horrible experience for the gifted people I've interviewed and studied. It wasn't that great for me or my wife, either, as we are both gifted introverts. We can't play the social games necessary in some academic settings. That's depressing.

A colleague of mine has completed her dissertation. The topic was giftedness in the workplace. It turns out, most of us with "special gifts" want to be left alone… not made to be part of some group and not required to speak up in some classes.

Why is there so much faith in the idea that the more people, the better? Groups are not wise; they are often dangerous mobs. Plenty of research has debunked the value of "brainstorming" because the loudest voices end up getting their way. I want to sit and solve problems on my own. When I need help, I'll ask the few people I trust, and then go back to working on my own after getting input from wiser experts.

Why is it wrong to be different? I have blogged about these issues before:

Examples of personality-type research in higher education: