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Oral History No Longer Subject to IRB Approval

Life will soon be a little easier for oral historians and a number of other kinds of scholars who have had to gain approval from institutional review boards. Revised federal guidance for such boards, to take effect in 2018, says the following activities are “deemed not to be research: (1) Scholarly and journalistic activities (e.g., oral history, journalism, biography, literary criticism, legal research and historical scholarship), including the collection and use of information that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected.”

Historians, journalism students and scholars, and others have previously argued that they should be exempt from oversight by a board that aims to protect human research subjects. The American Historical Association, for example, issued a statement in support of the now-published revisions in 2015, saying it appreciates the government’s “consideration of self-regulation by historians. Individuals in any discipline who plan to do oral history interviews should follow the practices and ethical codes developed by the Oral History Association. These principles and codes aim to protect the interests of narrators (e.g., by requiring informed consent) while encouraging the creation of invaluable historical records.”

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Last Day to Apply for Lego Professor of Play

Who says play is just for kids? Not the University of Cambridge, which through today is accepting applications for a Lego professorship of play. The Lego Foundation is giving 2.5 million pounds ($3.1 million) to fund the position, in addition to a separate £1.5 million ($1.85 million) donation for a play research center in the university's education school, BBC News reported. The university says it aims to produce play-oriented research so that "children are equipped with 21st-century skills like problem solving, teamwork and self-control.” Tiny plastic blocks not your thing? Cambridge has previously advertised for a doctor of chocolate.

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An academic recognizes she no longer wants to pursue a tenure-track position (essay)

Who exactly did I think I was, Fatimah Williams Castro asked herself, to want to leave the professoriate?

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U.S. issues final version of 'common rule' on research involving humans

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University leaders praise regulation for leaving out provisions on biospecimens opposed by many as too burdensome. Social scientists see some gains for their studies.

New Advice on Navigating Politics in the Classroom

The American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers have published an FAQ-style guide addressing common concerns among professors in the wake of the 2016 election. The document offers advice on scenarios ranging from an administrative ban on talking about the election in the classroom to discussing the election without appearing partisan and responding to students who express racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic views. It includes information on what is protected classroom speech and conduct and what is not.

The guide gives attention to non-tenure-track faculty members, saying that they “may be especially vulnerable in a highly politicized environment. All faculty must commit to ensuring that nontenured colleagues are supported and protected through enforcement of collective bargaining agreements, faculty handbooks and other actions from political and popular pressures that lead to arbitrary dismissals or nonrenewal of contracts.”

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Adjunct Found to Trade Grades for Charity Gifts

The University of Central Florida says Kenneth Vehec will no longer be hired as an adjunct instructor in psychology because the university found he gave some students perfect grades on their final papers in return for donating $100 to a charity, The Orlando Sentinel reported. The alleged arrangement was reported to an ethics hotline. Vehec said he would never sell grades and that the incident is a misunderstanding coming out of his encouragement of students to get involved in extracurricular activities.

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Martha Nussbaum Named Jefferson Lecturer

Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, was named Wednesday by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the 2017 Jefferson Lecture. Giving that lecture is among the top honors the government offers in the humanities. Nussbaum's talk, scheduled for May 1, will be called “Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame.” A statement from Nussbaum said of her topic, “It is urgent for us to understand ourselves better, to see why we have arrived at this state of division, hostility and noncommunication …. A philosophical approach, focused on a close look at human emotions, offers that understanding of ourselves …. I believe it also offers us strategies of hope and connection.”

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Advice on how to write effective tenure-review letters

Many professors frequently write tenure-review letters, but as a community, we’re not regularly discussing how we should be doing so, argues Eric Goldman.

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Librarian's list of 'predatory' journals reportedly removed due to 'threats and politics'

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Librarian removes controversial list of "predatory" journals and publishers, reportedly in response to "threats and politics."

Essay on presidency and symbolic interactionism

“As nearly all scholars recognize,” we read in an article published in Presidential Studies Quarterly in 1983, “there is no apprenticeship or training an individual may obtain in preparation for the presidency. There is no convenient book or guide which provides a detailed step-by-step analysis of the requirements and demands of the office.”

How true! An acquaintance with the Constitution would surely be helpful, but it’s not as if you have to pass a test on it -- even one with simple questions, such as “Would requiring Muslims to register with the government follow the First Amendment (a) to the letter, (b) in spirit or (c) none of the above?” (It’s surprising how far you can get in public life without being able to answer that one correctly.)

But the whole point of the paper just quoted -- “On ‘Becoming’ President of the United States: The Interaction of the Office with the Office Holder” by Robert E. Denton Jr. -- is that coping with the lack of an orientation handbook is one of the simultaneous, urgent and inflexible demands over which the incoming chief executive must demonstrate a mastery, beginning almost immediately. The author is a professor of communications (and head of the department) at Virginia Tech, with a special interest in the “symbolic dimensions of the American presidency,” to borrow the title of the first of his more than two dozen books.

His vita shows that Denton has been analyzing presidential communications more or less in real time since the first Reagan administration, when “On ‘Becoming’ President” appeared. One of his earliest publications, it proves especially interesting just now -- despite having been written long before official speeches and press conferences were joined by such message-delivery formats as the tweet.

“On ‘Becoming’ President” takes its bearings from symbolic interactionism: a school of thought at the intersection of sociology and psychology, and well established even then. Its defining insight -- drawn largely from the American pragmatist philosophers, especially George Herbert Mead -- is that communication between human beings always involves considerably more than the content of a message. We also take in cues about one another’s roles, statuses, expectations and so on -- an ongoing process of learning to see oneself from other people’s vantage points.

They are doing so at the same time, of course. It can get complicated, even when the roles, beliefs and shared expectations are all reasonably clear or well established. Arguably the symbolic-interactionist researcher and the novelist or filmmaker each tries to depict and analyze the range of communicative multitasking constantly underway in life.

The Oval Office emerges as the scene where symbolic interactions of global consequence take place that are conditioned by “expectations and functions of the office [that] are often competing, conflicting and contradictory.” In addition to the president’s constitutionally specified roles (chief of state, chief executive, chief diplomat, chief legislator and commander in chief), another “five extraconstitutional roles must be recognized: chief of [his] party, protector of the peace, manager of prosperity, world leader and voice of the people.” (Denton culls these roles from the poli-sci literature of the day; the references are given in his article.)

Occupancy of the office itself confers a great deal of persuasive force in exercising any given role. But it often requires playing a number of them simultaneously, and while a certain amount of authority may be delegated, the ultimate responsibility cannot. Denton also underscores the constant burden of “vast and complex” public expectation, both to meet of promises and to exhibit a suitable combination of leadership traits and personal morality.

“Many attitudes about the presidency stem from messages received in childhood about the virtues of various presidents,” Denton writes. “Studies continually find that the president is ordinarily the first public official to come to the attention of young children. Long before children are informed about the specific functions of the presidency, they view individual presidents as exceptionally important and benign.”

He mentions researchers who found children attributing to the president qualities of “honesty, wisdom, helpfulness” and related virtues. (All of the studies Denton cites were conducted before the mid-1970s, but comparable findings appear in a book on child psychology from 2005.)

The symbolic-interactionist approach would emphasize not only presidential roles and duties (as established by the Constitution or tradition) or the pressure of public expectations (still tinged with hero fantasies from childhood, perhaps) but also the inner experience of “adopting and adapting the self to the actions of others” through years of public life. The political learning curve “is adaptive,” Denton writes, “resulting from the capacity to change self depending on political environment, beliefs, values and expectations.”

Implied by Denton’s remarks on what he calls the “political self” is some normative sense of a successful candidate’s personality and career: a self conditioned by the experience of political action and debate, informed by some modeling of another’s leadership, and skilled at anticipating the impact of both words and deeds. The tempered political self -- so understood -- will presumably be as well prepared as anyone can be to incorporate “the trappings, powers and prerogatives of the presidency” into itself. And he suggests that the process is not without its risks, even then.

Our majestic treatment of presidents causes status inequality, inflation of self-concept and distorted perception of external events. Such exposure manifests distortion of social comparison processes, ‘overidentification’ with the office and misinformed decisions …. Presidents are constantly pressured to misrepresent or distort themselves to various national constituencies. Such a continual pressure causes further misrepresentations, erosion of truth norms and self-delusion.

It appears that the author had Richard Nixon in mind as the worst-case scenario, although Nixon had more than 20 years of political experience (including one previous presidential campaign) before taking office. In any event, Denton’s paper is something to chew on this week -- and to choke down in the months ahead.

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