Saturday, January 31, 2009

Evaluate This

Every institution generates a class of employee determined to prove that their paycheck isn’t a reckless drain of resources. These are usually mid-level bureaucrats charged with things like “Quality Assurance” or “Systems Analysis.” Many of those bureaucrats imagine that the best way to show that they are invaluable is to create change. That change doesn’t have to make things better necessarily, but it does need to be big and splashy. If that change also includes technology in some unnecessary way, they get super bonus stars. Universities, I am here to tell you, are not immune from this phenomena.

Big Midwestern University recently experienced one such change that transformed the means by which students conduct course evaluations. Previously, professors allocated about fifteen minutes of class time at the end of the semester for students to fill out anonymous paper forms which were returned to a central office for processing. But why continue with that system when we can make it needlessly more complicated and inefficient?

The higher administration decided that moving the system to an on-line format would be so much better. Why? Well, because – um ... It means that – er . . . It will just be better! It’s on-line!

Actually, they did offer us a set of fairly laughable justifications. One was that students must want to fill out evaluations on-line if there are unofficial sites like the much reviled (and often slanderous) Rate Your Professors. The logic being that the driving force of RYP wasn’t student entitlement or a means to trash instructors who required their students to work hard. Rather, it was simply the on-line format that kept students coming back. If they could fill out official evaluations on-line, than their desire for venting about their professors at RYP would be sated. It's on-line!

Another bonus that they promised was that we professors would have our evaluations instantaneously! As soon as we submitted our final grades, the evaluations would be downloadable. Isn’t that exciting? It's on-line!

Maybe I am a bad teacher, but I can’t say that I spent six weeks pining for the return of the old paper evaluations. Why, after a grueling semester, one would want to immediately read a potential list of complaints from students, I am not certain (And, btw, this much vaunted possibility of “instant review” proved untrue as the system become riddled with problems, thus delaying the release of evaluations for about six weeks (about the same turn around for good ol’ paper evaluations)).

Perhaps the biggest jump in logic was that the administration predicted a major rise in the completion rate of evaluations. In what can only be explained as a stunning lack of understanding about students’ priorities, the administration predicted that students would race to their computers to fill out surveys with enthusiasm and vigor in their free time. It's on-line!

Now, I’m not saying the administration is totally out of touch with reality, but did they even try to imagine themselves as a student? Logging onto my computer and finding a set of four or five evaluations, each consisting of twenty tedious questions, isn’t going to look like a party on Friday night. At best, I might fill out evaluations for one or two classes that I really, really loved or really, really hated before losing interest and finding out who is on Facebook.

Moreover, removing the evaluations from the professional context of the classroom might lead to students taking them even less seriously. One has to only glance at RYP to discover that many students have no idea what a professional relationship looks like.

Lots of faculty tried in vain to explain these basic realities to the administration before this system went on-line. They answered these critiques with a massive advertising explosion on campus encouraging students to use the new system. After goddess-knows-how-much-money went into the new system, what was the result? Less than 50 percent of students submitted reviews for my classes. Comparing notes with my colleagues, I was lucky to get even that level of response. Keep in mind, with the old paper system, I almost always had a 95 to 100 percent response rate.

So, has the university learned a valuable lesson from this colossal failure? Not at all – They have placed the blame on faculty for “not encouraging” students to fill out these on-line forms. If we really cared about evaluations, they claim, we would have made filling out this on-line evaluation an official assignment.

If you work at another university and find yourself chuckling at BMU’s silliness, let me sober you up. Right now, as you read this, your own institution is probably planning an identical shift. My sister (there is another) reports that her college is about to institute the same on-line system (Despite comparable protests from faculty on that campus). Indeed, it must be one of those things that is recommended in this month’s issue of Unnecessary University Expenses magazine. It's on-line!

I hear you asking, “Why does any of this matter?” and “When is this blog going to be about gay porn again?” Both of those are fair questions.

It matters because the value attached to student evaluations is escalating on campuses across the nation. When student evaluations first appeared, they were intended to be a means for students to provide constructive feedback so that professors could fine tune their courses. Indeed, I think students should have a means to offer their perspective on the learning. The evaluations would also be a means to alert administration to very serious problems that would only be available if written anonymously.

Over time, though, the consumer-mentality started to infiltrate universities. Students stopped being students and, instead, transformed into customers. Inside Higher Ed recently reported that Texas A&M University is offering a $10,000 bonus to the faculty member who receives the highest student evaluations (That’s big money for a humanities prof, but small potatoes for a Wall Street executive). Apparently the idea had its origins in a conservative Texas think tank known as the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The Chancellor of A&M, Michael “Burger King” McKinney, explained the program as “customer satisfaction . . . It has to do with students having the opportunity to recognize good teachers and reward them with some money.” No offense to the fine students at A&M, but should a professor's career be determined by these guys:

So, with the new on-line evaluation system at BMU, many of us are wondering how we will fair in the consumer-oriented world. Since students are not likely to fill out these new evaluations unless they are throbbing with love or hate, it will skew the results considerably.

Faculty who recoil at comparing their classroom to the gift-wrap counter at Macy’s are disregarded, or worse, assumed to be “bad teachers” who are bitter about it. But that assumption places a huge amount of faith in students’ abilities to measure what is important in their instruction (For the record, my own evaluations are usually fine – not stellar, but not a horror show. Given the amount of work that I assign, and my inclination to give texts that are outside students’ comfort zones, I am amazed that I do as well I do).

The same article in Inside Higher Ed pointed to many problematic assumptions about teaching evaluations, including studies that refute the accuracy of evaluations as a measure of learning. One study by three economists at Ohio State found, not surprisingly, that students are more likely to give higher course evaluations if their own grade is high. They also reaffirmed that gender and national origin impacts evaluations. Women and non-U.S. faculty receive lower evaluations than their peers on average.

When those same economists charted the student’s grades in subsequent classes that depended upon content from the evaluated class, they found no correlation between professor evaluations and the learning that is actually taking place. In other words, a student might have learned a great deal, but still hated the class and given a negative review.

Student evaluations are important and I am not suggesting their demise (though we can dump this on-line nonsense). Students' goals in the classroom, though, are often about reducing their work load and being entertained. Instead of depending on their viewpoint as the sole measure of teaching effectiveness, we need to consider tools that actually measure whether students acquire new skills. Until then, do you want fries with that history class?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama Nation

Like millions of U.S. citizens and people around the world, I watched Barack Obama’s inauguration with keen attention, enthusiasm, and a bit more emotion than I expected. There are many things that we will be talking about for the next few weeks: the new president’s implicit (and sometimes explicit) indictment of his predecessor’s failed policies and arrogance; the Chief Justice stumbling over the oath of office (Gee, for those who imagined John Roberts as a strict Constitutionalist, they might have been surprised to find that he couldn’t be bothered to learn the 35 words needed from the document for the day); the call for U.S. citizens to work hard; Aretha Franklin’s decision to say something with a hat.

Then there was the prominent place given to the creepy nominee for Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, at the luncheon. I’m not saying that Geithner is a crook. If I were on the staff at the Capitol, though, I would have made sure to count the silverware before letting him leave. He seems to have trouble knowing what is his and what belongs to the government.

Most importantly from the day, though, I did have the surge of hope. Somewhere in the middle of Bush’s second term, I could no longer even watch the news because the sound of his arrogant voice sent me into a tailspin. Sure, I kept informed by reading about the day’s events, but live-action shots were out of the queston. It was an astounding day of relief that we now have a president who is smart, kind, and at least wants to do the right thing for the nation and world. Basic competence is so refreshing!

Much like election day, though, Obama’s inauguration proved bittersweet for queer folk. While I hardly think that the inclusion of homophobic Christian minister Rick Warren is tantamount to sending gay folk to concentration camps, it didn't really suggest that the gays are anything other than a second thought for the new administration (as are Latinos, I might add). Most of us want to believe in his soaring rhetoric and promises of justice (VUBOQ sent me the link to the WH’s promises for LGBTQ people). It's clear, though, that all us queers are going to have keep pushing that gay agenda. Fortunately, unlike the previous administration, this one appears willing to listen and open to being convinced.

Since I am sure that the new administration is waiting breathlessly to know the recommendations of an obscure blogger, here are some of my own ideas for Obama’s first 100 days in office:

    * Mobilize your landslide victory and astounding approval ratings for rapid changes. I appreciate being cautious, but the people actually support you. Use the rosy glow of their approval to accomplish your priorities: Economic stimulus? Foreign Relations overhaul? Painting the White House a nice mauve color? Whatever you think is the most important issue, do it now while there is still time. Except the people who live in Texas and South Carolina, all of us are behind you 110 percent.

    * Crush Texas and South Carolina.

    * Give Michelle Obama something more profound to do than model pretty, pretty dresses. Okay, I will confess that when I had a drink with some of my gay peeps on inaugural night, the first item of discussion was her yellow brocade number (Two were in favor, one opposed). Still, she can look fabulous and do something that draws on that Princeton degree. Heck, I sometimes get the impression that she might be a wee bit more savvy than you.

    * Remember Mexico? Well, with the all the drug wars, political corruption, and kidnapping, it seems to need some serious help at the moment. Since you have never been south of the border, this might be a good time to brush up on your Spanish.

    * Either allow me to keep my shoes on through airport security screening or take liquids on board in quantities bigger than three ounces. I’m willing to settle for one or the other.

    * Hire more gay, Latino historians to work in your administration. What? I can’t have some petty self interests?

    * Update the twenty dollar bill. The Bush regime couldn’t stop fiddling with the money – color changes, font adjustments, security stamps. Apparently instead of keeping an eye on the economy, they went crazy with Photoshop. Well, they aren’t the only ones who can be creative with our currency. Take a look at my proposal:

    It looks good, doesn't it?

    * Stop sending me e-mails asking for more money. I was happy to donate to your historic campaign, but it seems downright tacky to keep asking for more after you have won and taken office. Hit me up again when it’s time for your reelection, or, at the very earliest, midterm elections.

    * Lay off the Abraham Lincoln parallels for awhile – We get it, you like yourself some Lincoln. Seriously, though, we better not see you sneaking around the White House in a stovepipe hat and mutton chops.

    * Sign an executive order that destroys all copies of the “prequel” Star Wars movies and order that we, as nation, never speak of them again.

    * Don’t, under any circumstance, trust political advice offered by Tom Daschle. His reappearance during your campaign, and now in the cabinet, sends chills through my spine. He too often compromised (or flat-out gave into) the Bush administration. For many like me, he represents the worst elements of the old Democratic party: Cowardly, weak, and unwilling to fight the hard fight for justice. He will almost certainly recommend compromising when you shouldn’t.

    * Sign an executive order ridding foods of high fructose corn syrup. The agri-corn-empire recently started advertising on television to convince us that high fructose corn syrup is not as unhealthy as some suggested. Such a move can only mean that is even worse than we suspected. High fructose corn syrup is the most toxic thing on the market since Philip Morris experimented with those asbestos-flavored cigarettes.

    * Figure out a way to turn Air Force One into a hybrid vehicle. Failing that, see if you can turn it into a Transformer robot.

    * Recruit some drag queens to work in the press room. If you want witty retorts to reporters’ tough questions, they are your gals.

    * Reconsider keeping Guantanamo Bay Prison Facility open, but only for former members of the Bush administration. They built it, they might as well enjoy it and its many amenities.

    * Try having a bit more of a sense of humor in public. You know that I think that you are a doll, but do you have to be so serious all the time? FDR, John Kennedy, and, yes, even Abraham Lincoln all liked a good joke. Maybe you could ask Jon Stewart to the Oval Office for a few lessons.

    * Remember that the gays love you (for now) and most [white straight] Christian Evangelicals never will. It might be nice, therefore, if you stop treating the gays as if we are the subject of a high school debate where a “big tent of disagreement” should be entertained. Our basic rights are not some trivial matter, like arguing over whether the bald eagle or the turkey should be the national bird.

    Besides, we gays have much better parties. Have you ever been to an Evangelical party? It’s nothing but cheeze-wiz and generic 7UP.

    Come to my house and we’ll listen to Billie Holiday on the hi-fi while I serve my current cocktail du jour, the Palmer (Citrus, bourbon, and bitters – Simple, but beautiful). Never heard of a Palmer? Stick with the gays -- we are always one step ahead.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thanks for the Bad Memories

President George W. Bush delivered his farewell address. I had imagined that he might use that time to offer some apologies for breaking the country or for his general assholeishnes. Or, even better, he could have used the speech as a confessional for the many crimes he committed over the past eight years. Instead, he spent fifteen minutes trying to convince people that his two terms in office weren't the total disaster that they appear to have been.

Bush decided to give his farewell address a little early, five days before he actually steps down from office. He would have done it the night before, but he decided to take the rest of his time in office as vacation days at Camp David. That is the story of this man’s administration. He has literally spent more than 450 days on vacation in his two terms in office. Wouldn’t that be nice to have a job where they gave you 1.5 years of paid vacation for every six years that you work?

Still, nobody looked happier than George W. Bush when Barack Obama won the election. “Finally,” he seemingly thought, “I can go and play baseball, which is all I really wanted to do.”

With all these farewell addresses and news agencies running retrospectives, it got met to thinking that CoG should do one as well. Here are some of the classic moments of Bush’s nightmare presidency that you won’t hear about from other sources:

    2000: Bush comes to power through a coup. Until the day I die, I will never understand why this nation accepted the completely illegal installation of Bush. He did not win the popular vote. He did not win the vote in Florida (though the news buried that tidbit months later when a statewide recount was finally completed).

      Uniquely Special Moment: The media made those of us who objected to the illegitimate seizing of power feel like we were nuts for expecting the person who won the election to actually take office.

    2001: Bush's first nominee for Secretary of Labor, Linda "English-Only" Chávez, is quickly forced to withdraw her nomination. Chávez's neighbor revealed that she once helped an undocumented worker by giving her cash and a place to stay (though not employing her).

      Uniquely Special Moment: Latinos across the nation, who best knew Chávez for her draconian visions of assimilation and anti-Spanish rants, were shocked to find out that she once did a nice thing for another Latina.

    2001: September 11 is one of the darkest moments in the U.S.’s history – Bush tries to make a run for Canada. Republicans cynically made September 11 one of the cornerstones of Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, but nobody seemed to remember his abysmal lack of leadership on that day. Only later did some point out that Bush sat dumbfounded and watched the clock tick away while reading The Pet Goat. Though, to be fair, The Pet Goat was probably beyond his assessed reading level.

    When he finally did get off his ass, he ran away and hid. Rather than returning to Washington, D. C., Bush first ordered (or, more likely, somebody else ordered) Air Force One to fly in big circles. Then he started to zig-zag across the country from air force bases in Louisiana to Nebraska.

      Uniquely Special Moment: The White House was later caught making up stories that security around Air Force One had been compromised to explain Bush’s basic lack of character, leadership, and courage.

    2002: Homeland security, under pressure to show that it was doing something, announces the entirely laughable color-coded “Threat Advisory System” for the nation’s airports. This same agency would also respond in knee-jerk fashion to any threat, thus leaving passengers having to more-or-less disrobe before entering a gate and, of course, keeping liquids to under three ounces in a one-quart baggie. 'Cuz obviously a group of terrorists wouldn’t think to bring on board multiple baggies of three-ounce explosives as a group.

      Uniquely Special Moment: With all the fanfare associated with the color coded system, I have never seen it budge from “Orange” level. Apparently the risk of terrorist attack is always “High,” much like the person who came up with this color-coded system.

    2002: Radical-Christian Extremist John Ashcroft, Bush's first Attorney General, spends $8,000 on fancy drapes to cover up art deco statues titled “Spirit of Justice” and "The Majesty of Law" at the Justice Department. Ashcroft disliked that the statues were seminudes. We can only assume they gave him impure thoughts.

      Uniquely Special Moment: Having millions of Americans claiming that they couldn't find justice at the Justice Department wasn't enough for Ashcroft. He need to make sure that they literally couldn't find the spirit of justice as well.

    2003: More young people report that they get their news from the comedy program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart than any other source.

      Uniquely Special Moment: Sadly, the fake-news program actually provided better coverage of the issues than the twenty-four news networks.

    2004: The Bush administration prompts the return of the protest-song genre. Green Day’s “American Idiot,” P!nk’s “Dear Mr. President,” Eminem’s “Mosh,” and whatever the Dixie Chicks sing all expressed disdain towards Bush. Protest songs hadn’t been this popular since LBJ was yanking beagles around by their ears.

      Uniquely Special Moment: The phrase “Fuck Bush” sounds even better when put to music.

    2004: Bush wins reelection (barely) through a four-point campaign based on fear, war, greed, and homophobia.

    Having little to show for his four years in office other than a tragic terrorists attack, a collapsing economy (Yes, problems were already evident), and unwinnable wars, Bush and the overly-praised Karl Rove masterminded a campaign that drew on voters’ worst impulses.

      Uniquely Special Moment: Mary Cheney, lesbian daughter of Dick Cheney, is surprised that other gay folk find it distasteful that she campaigned for an administration that sought to harm people like herself.

    2004: Warner Brothers releases the film Catwoman starring Halle Berry. I haven’t figured out how exactly, but I am certain that the Bush administration was responsible for this piece of celluloid detritus.

      Uniquely Special Moment: The New York Times and other newspapers go to town with bad cat jokes in their reviews of the film (e.g. “Catwoman coughs up a hairball.”)

    2005: Bush nominates a groupie, Harriet Miers, to be on the Supreme Court despite her total lack of qualifications.

      Uniquely Special Moment: Miers claims that she only wanted to be on the Supreme Court because she lost the role of Catwoman to Halle Berry.

    2005: Bush reveals that he believed himself to be on a religious mission delivered directly by God to invade Iraq.

      Uniquely Special Moment: God files a libel suit, demanding that Bush not besmirch Her good name through false claims.

    2005: Rumors emerge that war-hawk (and perpetually "single") Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a lesbian when a Fox reporter encourages her to get "friendly" with pianist Lauren Green.

      Uniquely Special Moment: Upon learning that Rice might be sexually attracted to women, millions of lesbians across the nation throw up a little in their mouth.

    2005: As Katrina is about to hit New Orleans, Bush hosts a barbeque for his sycophant press corps (while on vacation at his ranch – ahem). In one swoop, the depraved indifference of both the press and the president is revealed as 60,000 people are trapped in the drowning city of New Orleans.

      Uniquely Special Moment: Oh, gosh, too many to count – In a supposed show of interest, Bush ordered Air Force One to circle above the city so he could look out the window (Hey, at least he didn't hide in a bunker this time). After countless incidents of mismanagement, Bush praised Michael D. Brown, head of FEMA, by stating, “Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.” Totally unaware of the magnitude of problems that faced average Americans, Bush mourned the loss of the multi-million dollar mansion of Senator Trent Lott.

    2006: Bush provides a graphic lesson in what constitutes a workplace “bad touch” when he gives an uninvited massage to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

      Uniquely Special Moment. Upon learning of the massage, millions of Germans throw up a little in their mouth.

    2007: People embrace the new Battlestar Galactica because it uses science fiction as a vehicle to question the current state of affairs and U.S. policies.

      Uniquely Special Moment: Many viewers saw a dystopia where heartless robots attempt to slaughter the last surviving members of the human race as more hopeful than contemporary life under the Bush regime.

    2006: A dedicated blogger uncovers the horrible truth that Donald Rumsfeld isn't really a man at all. He is actually one of the evil taking trees from The Wizard of Oz.

      Uniquely Special Moment: The press really should have suspected something when he threw apples at anybody who asked questions about looting in Iraq.

    2007: Alberto Gonzalez, after either committing perjury before Congress or having a case of amnesia heretofore only experienced by soap-opera characters, resigns in disgrace as Attorney General.

      Uniquely Special Moment: Gonzalez, the first Mexican-American to hold the position of Attorney General, was given a statue of the Texas Rangers as his parting gift. It was only fitting that a man who had undermined the rights of people like himself should be given an object commemorating a group that historically terrorized people like himself.

    2008: Bush tours the Middle East after promising a democratic Iraq and a “road map to peace” between Israel and Palestinians. It turns out that he really should have invested in a G.P.S. for peace.

      Uniquely Special Moment: The people of Iraq are so overjoyed with Bush’s role in their nation that they offer him the shoes right off their feet.

    2009: Against medical odds, Dick Cheney lives through the entire administration and has spare time to shoot friends in the face.

      Uniquely Special Moment: It proves that good can't live through a stiff breeze, but evil lives on and on forever.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Interview with Kindness

Illness returned to me again this week. Put that with an absurd amount of snow (How much more can I possibly shovel?) and 2009 is off to a complicated start. Given that I am buried in for the short term, it seemed like a perfect time to check in with things around the blogosphere.

ProfBW, HistoriAnn, and Squadratomagico continue to offer advice for academic job candidates about to venture into the “on-campus” interview. For those who don’t know, the “on-campus” interview is a grueling gauntlet where candidates visit potential departments for two or three days presenting their research and teaching skills. Anybody on the market should consult this advice.

I would highlight two things from their sage wisdom: 1) practice your job talk over and over until your retinas dry out and 2) Do your homework on the department, reading at least something from every person on your itinerary.

It's also a good idea to let go of the delusion that you will get a job in your preferred location. Are you a “city person,” who just can’t imagine living anywhere but New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Boston? Well, guess what – Almost everybody on the job market thinks the same thing. That is why universities in those cities don’t have to try very hard to recruit candidates and often end up with many more applications for their jobs. In the immortal words of Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want.” Of course, he also said, “Hey! You! Get off of my cloud,” so he might not always have made the most sense.

For me, I want to continue offering advice to the interviewers rather than the interviewees. At this point, the search committee has done most of the heavy lifting. Now is the time where the full department comes into play. Here are some things to remember as candidates visit your department:

    1. Candidates have bladders that need emptying from time to time. There is a temptation to cram itineraries so jammed packed with meetings that candidates literally don’t have a free moment from 9:00 am until 8:00 pm. Build in a couple of fifteen minute breaks, plus an hour before their presentation(s), where the candidate can compose hirself. (N.B. to candidates: Remember to pee before you presentation. You don’t want to look unusually antsy half-way through it).

    2. Keep in mind that things that you perceive as “selling points” of your location might not be construed as such by others. Hopefully we all want to sell the merits of our particular location, but sometimes our zeal and personal interests expose hidden presumptions. Telling a candidate that your town is a “great place to raise children because it has lots of young parents,” for instance, might seem like an innocent statement or even an obvious plus. But is it? Those individuals, straight or gay, who have no desire for children might hear this as “our town is stifling unless you conform.” For those who are single, they might hear, “You will have a better chance of flying on a concord jet than finding a romantic partner in this town.” For those who are gay and/or single and have children, they might wonder if the subtext of that statement is that the town has a narrow definition of [heterosexual] “family.”

    None of this is to say that a “family friendly” town is a bad thing or that they can’t also have plenty of attractive options for singles and/or queer folk. Candidates want to know, though, that their hiring units have thought about the possible diversity of candidates and recognize that not everybody makes the same personal choices. Since it is illegal (see the previous entry on hiring) to inquire about the personal life of the candidate, we should remember that not everybody finds the same things desirable.

    Comparably, sometimes gendered assumptions can come out unintentionally. Noting that the majority of your department frequently plays basketball during lunch might seem like it shows that the department is relaxed and collegial; however, this might raise some concerns for women candidates (even if they do enjoy playing basketball themselves). Those types of sports activities have historically been associated with a certain type of “being one of the boys” mentality that excluded women (again, even if they have an interest in sports). It can be taken as enforcing a masculine vision of collegiality. Or, for someone like me who hates competitive sports, its might seem like a huge imposition to be expected to participate in such a thing just to socialize with my colleagues. (N.B. to candidates: Do not trash the location of the university where you interview. If you hate small towns, keep it to yourself. Asking things like, “What in the world do people do for entertainment in this god-forsaken cultural wasteland?” doesn't make you sound cosmopolitan. It makes you sound like you don't need a job.)

    3. Remember to allow the candidate to eat. Everybody interviewing for a job understands that breakfast, lunch, and dinner are part of the interview and expect to answer questions. The temptation for those interviewing, though, is to focus all of the conversation on the candidate. An hour can pass quickly with the candidate having only taken a couple of bites from their plate. Take time in the middle of meals to redirect the conversation to your other colleagues, thus allowing the candidate to get much needed fuel for the rest of their day. (N.B. to candidates: Keep your blood sugar high and remember that you will get dehydrated through the day. It’s not a terrible idea to carry around a protein bar just in case. Also, if you regularly drink and the other people at your table are having wine, limit yourself to one glass only).

    4. Be explicit about the department’s expectations for this particular position. Departments most often decide to hire because of a perceived hole in their unit (e.g. “We don’t have anybody whose research focuses on Latino/as in the U.S., thus making us grossly out of step with the reality of the nation.”). Many units also vary wildly about the expectations for service from junior faculty. It is important, therefore, to be clear about how you imagine a particular candidate filling that hole and serving your unit. Are they expected to teach a particular class or classes? Is it a class that has never been taught at this institution previously? Are they going to also need to teach survey classes? Are they going teach graduate seminars? Are junior faculty responsible for changing the urinal cakes in the men’s room?

    Whatever your department’s needs and expectations, be sure to communicate those directly to the candidate. Nothing will make a new hire more unhappy than feeling like they were the victim of bait-and-switch. If you claim that your main goal with this hire is to expand your graduate program, but then forbid your new hire from teaching grad students because they need to teach four sections of the freshmen survey, they are going to feel like you lied. (N.B. to candidates on the market: You will instantly eliminate yourself from any search if you respond to a direct statement about a unit’s teaching needs by saying, “I have no ability/interest in teaching a class like that.”)

    5. If you are charged with returning candidates to their hotel, offer to stop by a drugstore on the way back in case they forgot to pack something. It’s a minor courtesy, but one that will be greatly appreciated by somebody who inadvertently left behind their hair gel, pantyhose (Do people still wear those?), or their favorite brand of toothpaste (N.B. to candidates, do not use this time to buy yourself a fifth of bourbon and a package of Ramses).

    6. Remember that these candidates will still be your future colleagues even if you don’t offer them a job at your institution. The academic world is a shockingly small one (As the ease with which my Diana-Prince identity is exposed suggests). I have been surprised by some individuals who imagine that their particular department is the beginning and end, the alpha and the omega, of intellectual inquiry. Not every job-candidate fits every job. Maybe you are looking for a central Europeanist who specializes in the Weimer Republic, but found during the campus interview that a particular candidate only touches on the Republic before spending more of hir time on the rise of Nazism. Does this make the candidate wrong for this search? Probably. Does this make this candidate just plain wrong? Not at all. In fact, if you gave them a campus interview, some of your peer institutions probably did as well. It is likely that this candidate’s name will constantly reappear among Central Europeanists in the future. Perhaps they will even train the next generation of scholars. It’s a bad idea to have an army of former job candidates out in the academic world talking about how unprofessional your department was in the interview process. Even if they don’t get the job, work to make sure that everybody is friends before they leave campus.

    The academic job market is a crazy business. The candidate you interview today might just be interviewing you for a job ten years from now.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Living the Resolution

After traveling and being ill, it had been a couple of weeks since I had been to the gym. Going back felt great. And by great, I mean lousy. Ugh – I became a prof to avoid having to do heavy lifting.

Upon returning I found that my local gym was packed with people enacting their New Year’s Resolution to lose weight and/or get in shape. Given that I have constant struggles to maintain my weight, I understand the pain of getting back to it. In fact, it turns out that losing weight is the number one resolution that most Americans make. Reducing crippling debt is number two for most people (It’s my personal favorite for three years running). Number three is quitting smoking, which I have luckily never started (Resolution accomplished!). After those top three, the popularity of resolutions becomes a bit more scattered. Number four might have something to do with maintaining urological health. The fifth one is “putting a ring on it.” I am pretty sure that number six is about being more like GayProf.

Regardless, if you are one of the erstwhile folk entering the gym for the first time to slim down a bit, or just to tone up, let me tell you a few secrets that I have learned:

    The gorgeous personal trainer who chats you up in the gym and hangs on your every word isn’t about to ask you for a date. S/He just wants your money. Have you ever been to a gay strip club in Montréal? No? Luckily, GayProf has gone so that you don’t have to – That’s the type of blogger that I am – Selfless in the pursuit of knowledge. One thing that you’ll quickly learn in a Montréal gay strip club is that the performers can size up audience members quickly and efficiently. They know within a minute of being on stage who will lay out the extra cash for the pleasure of their company. Trust me, they probably have a better sense of your current credit score than Visa does. They ignore most of the audience in favor of a select few (lonely, rich, or drunk) individuals who they know will hand out the bills if given "special" attention.

    Personal trainers have similarly honed their skills. They target the folk who are the most uncertain about being in a gym. They know how to stroke your ego just enough (“You have such good form!”) that you won’t even remember signing up for a month’s worth of nonrefundable $80 sessions.

    One of the most unconvincing fictions that people accept in a gym is that it is “much easier” to shower at home. You mean it is easier to wrap your sweaty self in a thick layer of winter clothing, slog out to the car in your gym shoes, allow the sweat to dry to a crusty film as you drive home, and then get into the shower? The awful truth is that most people are too self-conscious and worried that others will judge their bodies that they avoid the gym showers. Put those worries aside. The gym showers aren't the same ones from seventh grade. Nobody is going to judge your body – out loud.

    Most of the gym “smoothies” will just make you fatter. A dash of protein powder and a couple of bananas doesn’t mean that the tasty milk-based drink isn’t loaded with extra calories and fat (Not to mention worth a fraction of the six bucks that you plunk down for it). It was some type of genius who came up with the notion of installing a milkshake station in gyms, but making them sound healthy by calling them “smoothies.” People are desperate to lose weight, so you decide to serve dessert? Isn't that a little like opening a bar in an AA meeting, but instead of serving Martinis you say that you are serving “elixiries?” Actually, I would totally join a gym with a bar in it.

    Recently divorced guys loiter around the gym. Maybe they are gay, maybe they are straight. It is one of the few cases where sexuality doesn’t matter. You’ll know the recently divorced because they are leaking desperation. They are the ones who are just a little too eager to talk with gym goers a decade younger than themselves. If straight, they will likely be confused by the notion that most women actually go to the gym just to work out. Recently divorced guys are also the ones who most often try to lift an absurd amount of weight for their muscles. Don’t worry, they will be okay. Right now they are under the delusion that the end of their ten-year marriage magically teleported them back in time to a decade ago when they were twenty-five. If approached by one of theses guys, say something supportive yet noncommital.

    Every gym has its own sense of courtesy. Circuit training is great – But totally impossible if your gym is not set up for it. If you are in a standard gym and attempting to circuit train, you are essentially asking to monopolize three or four machines all at the same time. Also, avoid the Princess Di syndrome in the locker room. Most locker rooms have a single center bench in the middle of a bank of lockers. This is not there for you to spread out the entire contents of your gym bag, thus giving the rest of us no place to sit and put on our shoes.

    That beautiful guy with the enormous arms and stunning set of abs is taking anabolic steroids. Sorry, kiddies, it’s a big lie that serious hard work and devoted exercise will turn all of us into rippling mounds of muscle. Heck, if goody-goody Steve Rogers couldn’t do it without tapping government-developed ‘roids, what chance do the rest of us got?

    Oh, sure, the guy whose arms look like he is illegally smuggling anvils works out a lot. In fact, you probably see him at the gym every time you go. But, without the juice, it wouldn’t be possible for his biceps’ circumference to surpass his hat size. Men and women’s bodies really do have limits that can’t be broken without chemical intervention. I am not saying that steroids are good. I am not saying that they are bad. All I am saying is that some folk are quite obviously taking them as part of their gym addiction and lying about it.

    Wearing jewelry during exercise is nasty. Unless you are fresh off a tour as a Hip-Hop star, leave the gold chains at home. Do you really want it encased with the stuff your body excretes under stress?

    After February ends and most of the other New Year’s resolution folk return to their living rooms, you will come to the realization that there are more gay men in your gym at any given moment than the local gay bar. It’s something that the fitness industry doesn’t want to acknowledge, but us gays keep most gyms financially afloat. Hey, if our community didn’t foster ridiculously high standards for male beauty along with crushing low-self esteem due to natural aging, many of these joints would have folded years ago. Now, where did I put those steroids?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Hire with Wisdom

*Gasp* *Cough* *Wheeze* Greetings on the New Year from your cold-stricken GayProf. One of the strangers on my return flight to Midwestern Funky Town kindly passed along hir rhinovirus to me. Most of the past few days have been spent cursing the meth addicts who prompted NyQuil to remove pseudoephedrine, thus changing the life-saving formula into something inert and useless. Instead of my plans of attending a local New Year’s party, I cuddled up with a box of Puffs+. I knew that I should have taken the invisible jet home, but I thought it might send the wrong message to Congress about the economic needs of my state.

My personal woes aside, the period between Christmas and the first week of January is of sacred importance to those who worship at the altar of Athena. It is that special time of year when academics in Modern Languages, History, Economics, and others start interviewing potential new colleagues for jobs in their departments.

Fortunately for me, I am neither on the market for a new job nor on a hiring committee. Very few people outside of academia know what a pain in the ass it is to get a job as a professor. It's such a pain, in fact, that some opt to die in a job that they hate rather than return to the market once again. Yet, the mysteries of the academic job market are hard to convey to anybody who hasn't lived it. Heck, after being out of grad school for six years and having landed an excellent position in my field, I still can’t quite explain to my parents why I don’t “just put an application into the local university down the block so that they will have it on file when they have an opening.” Like most people, they imagine that obtaining a job at a university as somewhere between applying for a primary school teacher position and a civil-servant-for-life job. In terms of the job itself, that's probably true. In terms of getting that job, alas there is an overabundance of humanities Ph.D.’s out there. This makes getting a professor job about as easy as winning a tour of the Wonka Factory.

I don’t bring this up to elicit sympathy for poor, misunderstood academics. Trust me – It’s a pretty cushy job if you can get it. Being a professor most definitely beats shoveling coal or being a secretary (my pre-prof gig). Nonetheless, actually becoming a prof means that you give up a great deal of flexibility about where you might live. You must go where the jobs are.

So, in a nutshell, here is the process of obtaining a tenure-track position in the humanities. Sometime in the Fall, all the universities and colleges that are hiring post ads to academic journals. For reference, a typical job advertisement for “[General] U.S. History” or “Modern Europe” can easily yield 150 applications. More specialized fields, like Latino/a History or African American History, can still result in 50-75 applications. Thus, one’s chances of obtaining any particular job is around 1:100. Those odds are better than playing the lotto, but still nothing on which to bank (I go to great lengths to avoid ending sentences in prepositions). Like the lotto, it also means that luck plays a critical role in one’s success. On average, it takes a newly minted Ph.D. a minimum of two years of searching to obtain hir first job.

After the ad is posted, the hiring department will form a committee (known as the “search committee”) of between four and (hopefully no more than) six people. This committee has the unenviable task of reading all the files submitted and narrowing the list down to ten or twelve people for a “conference interview.” If selected for a conference interview, a candidate’s chances of landing a job has now increased to 1:10.

At the end of the year/start of the new year, many of the major academic disciplines host an annual convention/conference. Modern Languages hosts theirs during the dreaded week between Christmas and New Year’s. So, if you celebrate both/either, you are forced to cut your plans short in order to attend. History and Economics and others host their conference in the very first week of January. Why such a dreaded time of year? It’s all about the cheapness of hotels. Tourists are not likely to want to trot through four inches of muck and ice on January 4. Thus, hotels give bargains to academic associations to keep their rooms filled.

During these conventions, the ten or twelve candidates selected by the search committee will interview for twenty or thirty minutes each. That time is spent grilling asking about each job candidate’s research and teaching. Once the convention has ended, the search committee will narrow the list down again to three or four people who will be invited for a “campus interview.” If given an on-campus interview, the chances of getting a job are pretty good at 1:3.

Most campus interviews occur between early January and the end of February. The time on campus is spent meeting the rest of the department, giving formal presentation(s), and learning more about the climate of a particular institution. Once all of that is completed, the department will vote on one person to offer the job. Like the Highlander, in the end, there can be only one.

Because of the intensity of academic hiring, many bloggers are offering valuable advice to graduate students "on the market." If you are on the market, take this advice seriously.

For my part, I want to offer advice to the other side of the table. Maybe I have fantasies of being the Gordon Ramsey of the academic world. I could come to dysfunctional academic departments, yell at people for a week, probably get food poisoning somewhere in the middle, and then put them on the right path with a teary goodbye. Until Bravo calls about that show-pitch, here are some things to keep in mind if you are a member of a search committee:

    1. Ask yourself if you are a gatekeeper or a future colleague. If you answer the former, think again. It’s not your job to decide whether or not an entire academic field is worthy of existence nor are you really in a place to decide the future potential of any individual scholar (though it might seem that way). Don’t go into the interview with an ax to grind or looking to prove to your colleagues that candidate “X” is really a poser who should never have made it on the shortlist.

    Instead, consider your job to be one of finding a new partner to build and expand your academic unit. Sure, some candidates aren’t going to fit your unit or needs and can be ruled out (I would suggest, though, if their work is a different type of scholarship and teaching than exists in your department, it might be a good thing to hire a fresh perspective).

    Yes, some other candidates do bomb particular interviews and/or aren’t ready to be on the market. But academics who smell blood in the water can go to a really bad place of attack and destroy. Maybe the candidate had a bad day. Maybe they got bad advice about how to prepare for an interview. Maybe they really are a poser. It’s impossible to say based on 20 minutes of conversation. Whatever the case, don’t be mean spirited. Ask yourself, What Would Jacqueline Kennedy Do? Answer: She would always be gracious -- and she would marry rich.

    Also ask yourself if being hired into your department will benefit the candidate. Every unit has its own expectations for tenure, but have you considered how (if) that unit will help a particular candidate meet that goal? If you are hiring a historian of Asia to work in the middle of Nebraska, what will that mean for hir research? Are there funds to allow this person to travel? Other colleagues with whom to chat (even if they aren’t other people working in Asian history per se)? What about time away from teaching? Obviously, many of these things depend upon the cash available at a particular institution. Some (most?) SLACs simply can’t afford leave or travel funds, so how will working at your particular institution help that candidate’s career? I firmly believe that anybody can flourish almost anywhere, but it requires the creative help of the people around hir.

    It is important to remember that, as colleagues (not gatekeepers), it’s the responsibility of senior folk to continue to mentor junior professors. This will mean taking the time to read work, set up support, and simply check in on them from time to time in a friendly way. It might also mean that you are going to need learn a bit about Asia.

    2. At least pretend like you enjoy the company of the other committee members. Unfortunately, many administrators make the mistake of creating search committees out of warring factions within departments. The theory seems to be that if everybody is miserable, than nobody “wins.” Let me say, this is a terrible way to run a department and does not work. Instead, it just means that those larger wars are played out on the microlevel of the committee.

    Job candidates, however, don’t want to step into a battlefield. Going to an interview with sparring committee members is a lot like spending Thanksgiving with drunken in-laws. When Uncle Ted starts yelling at Aunt Alice about her crummy stuffing, everybody wants to slide under the table and die. As a visitor, you can’t really do anything but stare intently at your mashed potatoes and hope to Jesus that they will stop fighting.

    One feels a lot better if it seems like people with serious disagreements are still collegial. If this means hiding Uncle Ted’s liquor before the interview, do so.

    3. Dress professionally. We expect job candidates to dress in a professional manner, why should you show up looking like you just rolled out of bed and scrounged your outfit from the hotel dumpster? I am not sayin’ you have to dress like you work at the Pentagon, but you should show that you care enough about the position being hired that you combed your hair and thought two minutes about matching your socks. Leave the sweatpants at home.

    4. Only interview people that you think have a serious chance for the job. Oddly enough, I have been on committees where people felt that they had to have a perfect number of ten candidates for the AHA interviews. To get that number, though, they sometimes included people whose work clearly didn’t match the job description. This just wastes everybody’s time. If you get 150 applications, but only eight seem like they match the department’s needs, interview eight. Don’t interview two more people who you know will never make the cut.

    My personal worst story about interviewing at the AHA involves just such an instance. My first time on the job market, I was still in graduate school and applied to a variety of schools. Among the places that interviewed me at the AHA was a small college in the West. To this day, I still think of that department as totally unprofessional and a place to be avoided at all costs. First, they didn’t bother to get a hotel suite or a table to interview. Instead, they wanted to conduct interviews in the middle of the hotel lobby. Yes, I had to compete with the sound of roller bags going across the tile floor and other job candidates swarming about the lobby.

    More importantly, though, the interview started with the search committee chair stating that I had more-or-less been ruled out of the running before the interview even started. He noted that they were only going to consider candidates who already had a Ph.D. in hand, but had decided to meet with me anyway. Since I was still in grad school, I was left wondering why I was there.

    After that bad start, it only went down hill. Two of the search committee members whispered to each other throughout the time I was speaking. Then, out of the blue, one of the members simply got up and left without explanation in the middle of the interview. The committee never offered me a chance to ask them questions. As it turned out, of course, I didn’t need that job. It still felt pretty icky, though.

    Committees should make key choices to narrow the pool of applicants (like deciding they only want candidates who have been out of grad school a couple of years). Nonetheless, if a committee has determined a set of criteria, don’t create bad scenes with “pretend” interviews that you know won’t lead anywhere.

    5. Consider abandoning the conference interviews altogether. As a village, can’t we agree that the age of the conference interview is passing? It is unpopular with the AHA bureaucrats (I am guessing with MLA and AEA too), but many departments are skipping the middle step of conference interviews, not passing Go, and forfeiting their $200. Instead, they go directly to on-campus interviews. To be honest, this seems like a smart saving of resources. I have never, ever seen a conference interview ultimately nail a candidate’s position as number 1 (Unlike campus interviews). I have, however, occasionally seen conference interviews become a means for candidates to eliminate themselves. Still, it always seemed to me that the top three or four candidates going into the conference remained the top three or four going out of the conference.

    6. Read the Damn Files. No, you don’t have to read every word of all 150 applications. By the time you get to the top ten, however, you should be familiar with all of the contents of each file. For the on-campus, you should know their work better than the candidate. Why? Unless your department is totally dysfunctional unusual, they will almost always follow the advice of the search committee. They do this because it is assumed the committee did the work of knowing the candidate’s full strengths and weaknesses in both writing and presentation.

    I would also add for those who aren’t on the search committee, but end up on the itinerary of a candidate’s on-campus interview, it is your responsibility to familiarize yourself with the candidate’s letter of application and c.v. as a minimum. I have been shocked – SHOCKED – by colleagues who are in a candidate’s specific field (and thus the people they are most likely to interact with over the long term) who had not bothered to find out even the title of their dissertation. Nothing sends the message that your unit is disinterested in junior professors than having future colleagues ask things like, “So, why did we choose to interview you?”

    7. Refresh yourself on local, state, and federal employment laws. For reasons that I have never fully understood (though I do have some theories), the academic world is often far behind the business world in understanding what is actually legal and illegal to ask during job interviews. In almost all circumstances, it is totally illegal to consider a candidate’s marital status, sex, age, race, religion (unless you work at a religious institution), parental status, disability status, or national origin in hiring.

    Twenty states (Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Wisconsin, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia also explicitly forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation. Thirteen states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia have specific laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity.

    Despite these laws, I have personally been asked whether I am [heterosexually] married or not (and often if I have children) on every single on-campus interview that I have ever attended. Every.Single.One. Now it should have been obvious if one read my c.v. that I am gay (See #6), but nonetheless this is an illegal question in almost all circumstances (In places that recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions, it is still illegal because marital status has no baring on one’s ability to do the job). All of the times that I have been asked, it has never been with animus as far as I can tell. Usually it’s because faculty confuse an interview with a social gathering.

    The problem, though, is that these “innocent” questions can become illegal ammunition that scuttles a candidate (e.g. At my former Texas university, mean-spirited faculty attempted to thwart one candidate’s hiring based on an argument that hir spouse’s career was clearly the more important one (There was no evidence that this was true based on what the candidate had told us)). I have also known members of some units who have protested against hiring “another gay person” when they felt the unit had “enough already.”

    If you are hiring, remember that you must comply with the local and federal law during all periods of a candidate’s interview process (including dinners and/or receptions) or face potential litigation. If you are the chair of a search committee, it is your duty to remind the committee members of these responsibilities. Don’t allow the candidate to be placed in an awkward situation of having to tell faculty that they are violating their basic legal protections.

    8. Do ask questions that push the candidate outside of their research zone. If they have made it to the point of being interviewed, it’s clear that their research project is exciting and unique. Be sure, though, that the candidate has not simply focused entirely on their narrow subject. It is especially important that departments think strategically about the future relevance of our discipline to a changing college-aged population.

    I highly recommend that every search in U.S. history ask candidates about key books in Latino/a History. Yes, this is partly my personal hobby-horse. But that horse has a silky mane and a gold saddle worthy of all our attention. Let me explain:

    Significant Latino communities have been part of this nation for 160 years. In 2003, Latino/as become the largest minority group in the U.S. Today, one-in-five school aged children in the nation are of Latino/a descent. Within a decade, we will start to see the first wave of those students move into universities. If an applicant for U.S. history can’t name a couple of books that touch on at least part of that 160-year tenure (I am not sayin’ they need to be an expert (unless the position advertised was for Latino/a Studies)), their graduate program has failed to prepare them for this future. If they really fumble in trying to address Latino/as’ roles within the U.S., it is also entirely likely that you will be hiring a candidate who has not thought much about the actual diversity that exists in contemporary classrooms.

    History is already failing to attract minority students as majors across the nation. If departments hire faculty without any sense of the history of Latino/as in the U.S., this will become substantially worse (BTW, if you are at a university that still doesn’t have a Latino/a Historian (I am looking at you, Harvard and Princeton), you are out-of-step with the reality of the nation and need to catch up).

    Beyond knowing about Latino/as, all candidates should be asked about broader works in their field. Hiring a candidate who works on Japan? Ask if they can speak about Japanese imperialism in Korea. If their work focuses on economic history, are they aware of key books in cultural studies?

    One of the most important things that I think should come out of an interview is knowing whether a job candidate can talk about another sub-discipline without being disdainful or dismissive (Something that is surprisingly really hard for most grad students). Like the Ghost of Christmas Future, it says a lot about whether they will be colleagues or gatekeepers themselves.

    9. Think about the strengths of your department and remember to sell them. Even when I was in the totally hostile department in Texas, there were still many good elements about that program that could make it attractive. Many of the key members of the department were actively pushing for a re-invention of the unit, which was resulting in exciting (if snail-paced slow) change (and, yes, it was that same change that was also at the core of the hostility). That unit definitely had an extremely exciting crew of young, hip junior faculty. That was (and is) a selling point of that program.

    Nobody wants to interview with a place and hear about how miserable it is to work there. I am not saying that one has to lie, but chances are the problems will become obvious on their own. Unique strengths, however, need highlighting.

    During one interview that I had, a disgruntled faculty member spent a huge part of the time railing against his own institution (Hello, boozy Uncle Ted). It made me wonder, if it was that bad, why wasn’t he on the market?

    10. Until told otherwise, presume that the candidate really does want to work for your university. When I worked in Texas, I was often surprised that some colleagues wanted to rule out really exciting people based on the premise that “they would never come here.” True, we did interview a few (very few) people who spent most of the time on-campus talking about how they could never imagine living in Texas. While I was sympathetic, it made me think of them as unprofessional as the search committee from #4. Why waste everybody’s time? Don’t want to live in Texas? I can’t blame you, but don’t apply in the first place.

    Other candidates, however, who were almost prematurely ruled out turned out to have family in the area or other relationships nearby. None of that information was apparent in their file, but ultimately played into their decision to come. I have also heard that some SLACs won’t even interview candidates from ivy league institutions because they imagine that they all want to work at Research Ones. That really isn’t true and suggests more about the committee's insecurities than any particular candidate. Why rule out people for no reason?

Lastly, remember to play nice. You don’t want to end up as the committee that becomes a dreadful story on a future academic blog.