Academic Minute: String Theory

In today’s Academic Minute, Ali Nayeri of Chapman University discusses the explanatory power of string theory cosmology. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.


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Essay on the cover letter for academic jobs

Get a Job!

Every paragraph has a purpose, writes Cheryl E. Ball.

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Education research association releases recommendations on evaluating faculty members -- on and off the tenure track

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Ed schools need to update how they evaluate professors who are up for tenure or promotion, and they need to pay more attention to the conditions of adjuncts, say two new reports.

Study Finds Unanswered Questions in Physics Gender Gap

A new study -- summarizing 26 previous studies on the scores of female and male students in physics -- has failed to find a consistent explanation for women appearing to start and finish courses, on average, with lower comprehension levels than their male counterparts. Viewing the studies in isolation, there is evidence that some factors -- such as different preparation of levels of men and women before college -- may contribute to the gap. But no one factor studied can explain the overall gap, "suggesting that the gender gap is most likely due to the combination of many small factors rather than any one factor that can easily be modified," says a summary of the study, which will appear in Physical Review Special Topics. The summary of the paper also notes that "several high-profile studies that have claimed to account for or reduce the gender gap have failed to be replicated in subsequent studies, suggesting that isolated claims of explanations of the gender gap should be interpreted with caution."




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Report Details Financial Struggles of Boston Adjuncts

Service Employees International Union released a report Friday detailing the financial struggles of adjunct faculty at institutions across Boston, as part of its ongoing effort to unionize adjuncts in that city. The campaign is part of a national SEIU effort, called Adjunct Action, to organize adjunct faculty at individual institutions and regionally.

According to the report, called "High Cost of Adjunct Living: Boston," 67 percent of faculty members -- some 15,000 people -- in the Boston area were employed as adjuncts in 2011. Based on median pay per course in New England -- from $3,750 at private, master's-level institutions to $5,225, at private, doctoral-level institutions -- SEIU finds that an adjunct would have to teach 17 to 24 courses annually to enjoy median-priced housing and utilities in Boston, where the cost of living is 32 percent higher than the national average. Teaching 12 courses per year at those rates -- an unusually large course load -- an adjunct may earn $45,000, the report finds. Comparatively, full-time faculty earned from $113,000 to $154,000, on average, in 2011, depending on institution type.

The report is based on data from the U.S. Department of Education Digest of Education Statistics, among other sources, as well as SEIU interviews with adjuncts across Boston. Some tell of living off inexpensive food such as fried potatoes and onions for an entire semester and using credit cards to pay for basic costs, such as Internet and groceries. Many tell of feeling buried by student debt. According to SEIU calculations, an adjunct would have to teach one or two courses per semester to pay back average doctoral student loans alone. SEIU notes that adjuncts who are unionized enjoy on average 25 percent better pay nationally, as well as other benefits, such as increased job security, and, in some cases, access to health insurance.


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Rearguard Action Against Vague, Demanding Search Committees

Many aspiring faculty members complain that search committees ask for lots of information they will never use (or even look at), with vague explanations of what to send. Rebecca Schuman, an adjunct at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and a blogger who writes frequently about job issues in academe, has proposed an unusual way to take a stand about such requests. On her blog, she has announced a contest in which she will pay $100 each to the first two people who send a photo of their butt to a search committee (mixed in with the other materials -- to raise the question of whether anyone would find it). Schuman is requiring that contestants provide her with proof, and that they apply for a job in their discipline for which they have the basic requirements. She also has offered to up the payout to $200 for applications to Ivy League search committees.

Via email, Schuman said that several people have indicated that they will send tush-shots to search committees, but so far no one has provided proof.

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Academic Minute: Evolution and the Fear of Holes

In today’s Academic Minute, Arnold Wilkins of the University of Essex digs up the evolutionary origin of a strange phobia. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.


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Northeastern Students Participate in Adjunct-Themed 'Thriller' Flash Mob

A group of Northeastern University students stormed the library quad in a flash mob performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” Thursday, in support of the university’s adjuncts’ union drive. About a dozen Empower Adjuncts Student Coalition members broke out in dance and song, changing the lyrics of Jackson’s creepy classic to reflect their cause. Here’s the first verse: “It's after midterms, and we're all gasping sighs of relief/But across campus, injustice has its claws sunk in deep/They're everywhere: teachers without proper compensation/Poverty wages, no offices or job security -- and we don't agree.” And the chorus? “It's time for adjunct, adjunct rights/We're building up momentum, the fuse is set alight/We've got to stand up, fight the fight/Let's organize together to make things better, better tonight.”

Similar events took place throughout the week at campuses nationwide, as part of the United Students Against Sweatshops’ “Hallo-Week of Action” against what it calls low-wage worker “exploitation” in higher education, and Campus Equity Week, a national, adjunct-driven campaign to raise awareness of their working conditions.

But Northeastern students said they were protesting in particular the university’s recent hiring of Jackson, Lewis, a New York-based law firm specializing in “labor and preventive practices,” among other areas, according to its website, as outside counsel for a union drive there. Sophomore Troy Neves said the student group hoped to encourage university administrators to “remain neutral” as adjuncts attempt to organize under the Service Employees International Union. Tufts University adjuncts recently voted to unionize with SEIU, which seeks to organize adjuncts across Boston, but Bentley University adjuncts recently voted down a union effort there.

Mike Armini, a Northeastern spokesman, said the university had met with concerned students recently, telling them the firm had been hired to help the university “navigate” the intricacies of labor law related to the union drive. He referred questions about the university’s position on the drive to a letter to part-time faculty from Stephen Director, the provost. “Ultimately, the decision about whether to support SEIU or not is yours,” the letter reads. “We do want to emphasize that the issue of union representation is of critical importance to every faculty member, including you, as well as to the university as a whole. Therefore, we urge you not to remain uninvolved. However you may feel about this issue, please make your voice count.”

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Adviser to adult students wrestles with vocational/liberal ed divide (essay)

“Now bear with me, Gentlemen, if what I am about to say has at first sight a fanciful appearance.”
--John Henry Cardinal Newman, from “The Idea of a University”

Imagine your job is to help students get into college, and one of the students you’re advising says to you, “It has always been my dream to study philosophy at Harvard.”

Let’s say that this student is graduating from a private prep school and you know that money will not be a major worry for her either during or after the college years. She has a deep hunger for knowledge, connections who can help her figure out a career path after graduation, and a family safety net that will catch her if she slips. How would you respond?

Now let’s say that, instead of graduating from an elite high school, this student is graduating from a local ESOL program, where she has been a student in night classes for the past three years, working her way up from near illiteracy to a decent command of spoken and written English. Let’s say that she came to the U.S. alone as a refugee from a war-torn part of the world, and she worked with an employment counselor upon arrival to land a job in the fast-food industry before her tiny assistance allowance from the government ran out.

Let’s say her counselor also helped her to find a room in a small apartment in a cheap part of town that she shares with two women she’d never met before she moved in. Let’s say she works nearly full-time on an irregular schedule and sends money back to family members in her home country, hoping that her husband and young child will soon be able to join her in the U.S. She, too, has a deep hunger for knowledge.

How do you respond now?

Or let’s say that your prep-school student comes to you and says she wants to enroll in a patient care technician certificate program at a nearby community college. What do you say? How about if your ESOL student says the same thing?

If studying philosophy at Harvard seems like an extreme example, what if we changed it to studying international relations at a state university? Or what if both students wanted to start out studying history at a community college, with dreams of law school down the line? Would you encourage one and not the other? How different should advising be for different populations of students?

This is the question I struggle with every day, the dilemma that makes my head ache with an ethical clench. The idealist in me wants so badly to say that the students I advise – adult students in ESOL classes and alternative high school programs – deserve to be taken seriously when they express the same dreams and desires as those in more privileged positions, that they should be challenged to consider educational programs that may not, on the surface, seem to be appropriate for their life circumstances.

After all, I got into the education game because I believe it to be a great equalizer – it opens up opportunities of all kinds, and everyone gets a place at the table where the ideas that shape the world are being discussed, debated, and refined. If we start selecting who gets to sit at that table, however well-intentioned we may be in doing so, what are we really doing? And what are the consequences?

I understand why, within the adult basic education world in which I operate, advisers, administrators, instructors, our national and state governments, even the students themselves tend to consider only those educational pathways that offer near-immediate payoffs: job-training programs; short certificate programs at public colleges; anything that bears the label “work force development,” the pragmatic antithesis to a highfalutin “liberal arts education.”

Older students, students with children, students with jobs, students with bills, commuting students, students who have already spent years sacrificing to acquire language skills and high school credentials … none of them have time or money to waste, so they need to know that an investment of their time and money will yield a very concrete, very quick return.

They need to earn above the minimum wage, and since college is really the only way to reach that end these days, we help them get to college. Or at least, we help them get to those colleges and those programs that serve specific vocational goals. Get ‘em in, get ‘em out, get ‘em to work. We score one for the completion agenda, and we’ve done our jobs.

But have we? Or are we diminishing the students we claim to care about as well as the concept of higher education itself?

This is a source of internal tension for me, because I’m sold on John Henry Newman’s idea of the university as the place where the primacy of a liberal education is upheld, over and above technical training.

He does not deny, and I do not deny, that a college education can (and probably even should) result in a good career. What he does deny, and what I also deny, is that this should be the only and principal result, for, as he argues, “education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character; it is something individual and permanent” which is truly useful, not “in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense, but as diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world.”

Education, if done right, confers a treasure – first to the student, then to the world.

Newman likens this educational treasure to physical health. No one would dispute that maintaining physical health is a good unto itself, which may even be worth a sacrifice of time and money. We can easily identify the innumerable things we are able to do when our bodies are healthy, even though we cannot pinpoint an exact, specific use of good health. So, too, with a liberal education. Its practicality lies in the infinite unpredictable ways in which it will enhance all of our endeavors. “A cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself,” writes Newman, “brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number.”

I’m hooked on this kind of higher, deeper, broader understanding of education that cannot, cannot be an elitist model, for it’s this type of education that yields a stronger, more useful citizenry. Engineers, paralegals, lab technicians, phlebotomists, all need to be considering and questioning their roles, as professionals and human beings. We all need to understand systems and question authorities. We all need to critically consider our world. The opportunity to do just that is what a college education should provide. To learn, to listen, to reason, to speak, to contribute and be heard. To flatten social hierarchies, to gain and to give social capital. To be equal. To develop marketable job skills in tandem – sure, absolutely – but not at the expense of the greater good to be gained.

I do not want to decide, and I do not want superficial circumstances to decide, which students can pursue a quality liberal arts education and which ones are shunted toward job-training programs. If the immigrants, high school dropouts, refugees, older students, single parents, ex-offenders, and full-time workers who come to see me wish to enroll in college, I want to encourage them to consider programs that go beyond pure skills instruction. They need to be at the table where the big, meta concepts are laid out for ingestion, or we risk filling these positions of power exclusively with people of privilege. We risk losing nontraditional students’ input and perspective within entire branches of knowledge, within countless spheres of influence.

I will admit, though, that I have a hard time advising adult students from this viewpoint when what they need in the short term is preparation for a job that pays the grocery bill. It is awfully hard to say, “Study philosophy!” when they’re desperate for relief from the burden of poverty.

Knowledge may be power, but a paycheck is survival.

I get it, I really do. But I sure do hate it.

Shawn E. Fisher is a pre-college adviser with JVS in Boston.

Faculty Cuts at East Stroudsburg

The cuts continue in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. East Stroudsburg State University has announced that it is eliminating 15 tenured and tenure-track positions, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. The university also plans to close its movement studies and lifetime fitness department and to place a moratorium on bachelor's degrees in music and in French.


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