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Two college professors train students to critique institutions in far more responsible ways than Trump does (essay)

Of all the outlandish and absurd claims Donald Trump has made in the months since he announced his candidacy for president, the most recent -- that the news media and global elite are conspiring to rig the election against him -- is one that we take most umbrage with. Who are we? Two English professors at a community college who have spent the last year studying and teaching the difference between conspiracy theories and institutional critique.

As avid readers of Thomas Pynchon and viewers of The Wire, we’ve developed a pedagogy that asks students to analyze how institutions might or might not be illegitimate or criminal. And to us, Donald Trump’s claim seems weak. Where’s his corkboard? Where are his out-of-focus black-and-white photos? Where is his string connecting the evidence?

Yet, he’s right to focus our gaze on institutions. There are legitimate critiques to be made about the many forces, institutional and otherwise, operating against all of us. Having institutional knowledge and the ability to understand what competitive forces exist is required of any educated person. Polls have shown that Donald Trump’s largest support block are those with just a high school education. Those are, in fact, our students who have just enrolled in our English 101 composition classes.

It is dangerous to confuse comparatively uneducated with not smart. One doesn’t need a college degree to suspect and know that often, as Hillary Clinton has said, “the deck is stacked.” And many educated as well as uneducated people are likely to propose sweeping generalizations like Donald Trump -- such as “it’s all rigged” -- as evidence for their opinions.

But when we teach the difference between conspiracy theory and institutional critique to our students -- when they practice institutional analysis with corkboard, photos and string, and when they write essays that must have credible sources -- they are more likely to understand that social justice and consequential critiques are possible only if we study the details.

In our classes, most students grasp how a former House majority leader is profiting by doing things like trying to help drug companies avoid paying federal taxes. They also get how he may only be a piece of a larger problem, both in the way tax avoidance is lobbied for in this country and how an entire industry of consultants’ sole purpose is to help companies become more efficient at avoiding paying taxes.

They grasp the injustice when they uncover that there have been little to no consequences for financial institutions after the 2008 economic meltdown. They understand how police departments often reveal information about wrongdoing only in the wake of protests or public outcry. They understand that the complexity is vast, but in order to be authors of consequence, they need to have coherent evidence of the contrary. Stating that the system is “rigged” is a lie that becomes the truth by the power of acquiescence.

In their own investigations, our students have outworked Trump in articulating and supporting claims of institutional criminality. They have identified and investigated organizations and conspiracies that range from the local, like a Queens, N.Y., Wing Stop or Popeyes franchise, to the global, like corrupt government contracting in India and Italy. It’s unpredictable which institutions students will choose to investigate: the New York Police Department, for-profit universities, the Iranian leadership. But, if there is some suspicion of injustice, our community college students are on the case.

They have, on their own initiative, cold-called whistle-blowers at animal rescue agencies, walked into police stations and asked for the names and ranks of the precinct’s officers, and interviewed anonymous informants. In short, they have done the work of heroic investigators, the kind you would hope an engaged citizen in a democracy would undertake.

With those projects, students are engaging in the kind of work we witness in binges of popular television crime shows like Breaking Bad or True Detective, where investigators tack photos, maps, names, evidence to corkboards, office walls -- whatever they can find -- to allow viewers to vicariously sense that, yes, the rapidly connecting world that feels beyond our comprehension is being pieced together one bit at a time.

We ask, why leave these problems to television fantasy? Why not ask students to make sense of senselessness as an exercise of critical citizenship? Why not expect the same of our public figures?

In other words, if Donald Trump were a first-year community college student, all signs indicate he’d be a lazy one. We’d send him back to do more research. He has made a claim, but his critique would be classified as an empty conspiracy. If he presented this claim that it’s all “rigged,” we’d say, Mr. Trump, show us your corkboard, your photos, your documents, your works-cited page. Show us some work. You will not pass unless you do.

Jed Shahar and Benjamin Lawrance Miller are assistant professors at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.

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How to develop curricula that are inclusive of transgender students (essay)

Stacy Jane Grover gives advice on how to avoid curriculum choices that exoticize, tokenize and discipline the experiences of transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

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Academics can provide expertise and perspective in somewhat surprising ways (essay)

Many of us in academe might find that we have important expertise to share in surprising ways, writes Jason D. Seacat.

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Study suggests that gossip fails to punish senior scholars

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Informal system of warning colleagues about senior scholars who engage in inappropriate behavior doesn’t really protect anyone, study finds.

STEM Jobs and 'Ideal Worker' Women

Some research attributes gender imbalances in the sciences, technology, math and engineering in part to women’s deliberate life choices; in other words, getting married and having children keeps some women out of the workforce. But a new study suggests that even women with undergraduate STEM degrees who planned to delay marriage and child rearing were no more likely than other STEM women to land a job in the sciences two years after graduation. The men most likely to enter STEM occupations adhered to significantly more conventional gender ideologies than their female counterparts, expecting to marry at younger ages but also to remain childless, according to the study.

Still, the study attributes the majority of the gender disparity in transitions into STEM jobs to women's underrepresentation in engineering and computer science studies.

The Missing Women in STEM? Assessing Gender Differentials in the Factors Associated With Transition to First Jobs,” published in Social Science Research, analyzes data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. It tracks young people’s career aspirations that year and their career paths periodically thereafter and focuses on 163 women and 353 men with undergraduate STEM degrees. Over all, 41 percent of women graduating with a STEM degree were employed in a STEM job within two years of completing college, compared to 53 percent of men -- a statistically significant difference, the study says.

The researchers attribute their major finding, in part, to employer bias against women and women’s underrepresentation in STEM majors. Another major reason for the employment gap was women’s underrepresentation in STEM majors (especially outside of the life sciences), the study says. And men in the study were more likely than women to have traditional views about women being responsible for housework and child care, leading the researchers to suggest that some women found the STEM climate too conservative to work in; many women in the study found non-STEM work.

“These women have the characteristics of the ideal worker. They expect to have few family distractions and work in STEM both within five years and at midlife. They really have strong aspirations,” Sharon Sassler, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University who co-wrote the study, said in a statement. “But they were no more likely to enter STEM jobs than women who anticipated marrying young and having two or more children.”

Sassler said this dynamic exacerbates the gender imbalance seen at other points in the career pipeline. “If women aren’t getting into these STEM jobs, then they’re not there to mentor other women. They’re not there to climb the ladder and help with hiring.”

Q&A with authors of book on austerity in public higher education

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New book argues for change after decades of policies that authors say are strangling public higher education.

Grad departments need to prepare students for careers beyond academe (essay)

Humanities departments need to recognize today’s job market and change the tenure-or-bust attitude that’s still too prevalent on many campuses, writes Marcus Cederström.

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How to convince students to attend office hours (essay)

Teaching Today

Megan Condis explores why so few students take advantage of office hours and gives some tips on how to get more of them to do so.

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Should graduate students with disabilities disclose them in job interviews? (essays)

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When graduate students are searching for jobs, should they disclose any disabilities they may have? Sue Levine explores the question.

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Frustrations of Early Career Scientists

Current research funding trends discourage innovative thinking, according to a new essay in a special issue of Nature. The essay, written by four early-career scientists who have been named by the World Economic Forum as part of a group of scientists under the age of 40 who “play a transformational role in integrating scientific knowledge into society for the public good,” says that the “scientific enterprise is stuck in a catch-22,” with researchers charged with advancing promising new questions, but receiving “support and credit only for revisiting their past work.”

The authors say that their most striking common challenge is “barriers to achieving impact,” in that their research “often led us to questions that had greater potential than our original focus, typically because these new directions encompassed the complexities of society. We realized that changing tack could lead to more important work, but the policies of research funders and institutions consistently discourage such pivots.”

One of the paper’s co-authors, Gerardo Adesso, a professor of mathematical physics at the University of Nottingham, said in a statement that the key is allowing scientist to “pivot,” or to shift their focus during their career. Funders and institutions often hamper this, however, questioning researchers with no track record in the new area they want to explore, he said.

“We are not saying that scientists should dabble,” the essay argues. “Executing a pivot should still require conviction and risk, but the current strictures are too tight. Enabling early-career researchers to change trajectories is necessary to encourage the highest-impact research. Theories of brain plasticity and team productivity support this. Alongside specialization, diverse and varied experiences foster discoveries and promote the decision-making skills that are needed to lead research.”

In addition to promoting the pivot, the essay advises institutions to emphasize peer-review training, which it says could eventually change institutional cultures. “Equipping scientists with skills for more nuanced appraisal will help them to consider varied attributes, particularly how to address complex societal challenges and to evaluate broader interdisciplinary questions.”

“The greatest risk is that innovation will be stifled by failing to invest in the best emerging scientists, who are approaching the peak of their creativity,” the authors conclude.

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