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2012 Ig Nobel Prizes: Green Hair and Spilled Coffee

The Ig Nobel Prizes, an annual spoof of the real Nobels, for 2012 were awarded Thursday night. Among the research achievements honored were work on why coffee spills when you walk (the fluid dynamics award), why some people in a town in Sweden have their hair turn green (the chemistry award), why chimpanzees can recognize other chimpanzees individually from photographs of their rear ends (the anatomy award) and a report about reports about reports (the literature prize). Details of this year's awards may be found here. The first real Nobel for 2012 will be announced October 8.

 

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Titles are everything (and nothing) in higher education (essay)

Higher ed, as the casual observer might divine, is awash in titles. We have directors and managers, assistants and associates, fulls and interims. We’re well-versed in vice. Titles mean everything, which is another way of saying they mean nothing.

I’m reminded of that “Cheers” episode in which Rebecca, the bar manager, gives Carla and Woody, barmaid and barkeep, respectively, contrived, bombastic titles because the establishment can’t afford to award raises. They’re thrilled beyond comprehension, sporting their titles like badges of honor and quickly forgetting the corresponding lack of pay.

Back here in collegeland, titles work much the same way. I once went from assistant to associate director of nail clipping, or some such activity, with no raise or change in duties. Nor did I suddenly outrank colleagues and demand they do my laundry. I did, however, have to get new business cards and amend my email signature. For that, I gather, I was supposed to feel professionally elevated and compelled to clip more nails.

Some titles are more self-evident than others. Presidents, we intuit, preside, just as chancellors chancel. An associate vice president is an aide to someone who aids the president. That individual is, technically, an administrative assistant, known in previous generations as a secretary. We don’t use that term anymore because it’s demeaning. Plans are under way in Washington, in fact, to create an “administrative assistant of state” cabinet position.

Provost also is a peculiar title. On most campuses, it denotes the chief academic officer. The equivalent abroad is pro-vice-chancellor, not to be confused with the anti-vice-chancellor, normally the faculty senate president. Some institutions add “academic vice president” to “provost” just to belabor the issue.

Using that logic, we could have a “president and august chief toastmaster” to head up the joint. Did you know that the University of Pennsylvania didn’t have a president until 1930? The campus was led by a provost, owing, ostensibly, to the university’s Scottish heritage. Actually, the phenomenon was the result of 72 failed searches over the span of 190 years.

Endowed positions provide yet another level of titledom. You can be the Ethan Allen Professor of the Ottoman Empire, certainly a distinguished chair, or perhaps the Anna Graham Professor of English Syntax or the Ben E. Drill Professor of Immunology. Some endowed designations have fallen out of favor, such as chairs tied to Enron, Big Tobacco, Arthur Andersen (not the accounting firm but the unfortunate chap who happens to share its name) and Pee Wee Herman. Nonetheless, endowed chairs provide incumbents incalculable prestige in the academy, enviable salaries, and slush funds for research, conference presentations and similarly frivolous junkets.

The longer the faculty title, the more clout it conveys. Having the Dr. Edmund and Ms. Fanny Fitzgerald Exalted Professorship in Midwestern Maritime Studies is clearly superior to the mundane associate professor moniker. Yet among administrators, the opposite holds true: president beats vice president, which in turn beats assistant vice president, which thoroughly trounces assistant to the assistant vice president. More modifiers equate to lower status on the admin org chart.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Thanks to enterprising fund raisers, some non-teaching roles now carry fancy titles of their own. Donors can attach their names to deans, band leaders, coaches and, coming soon to a university near you, their favorite student-athletes. Imagine the country club bragging rights when you announce you’ve established the Duncan Dervish Endowed Power Forward Position, the proceeds of which, naturally, do not attend to the player himself. Naturally.

To manage these ever-elongating titles, the academy has come up with a series of initialisms. We have the CEO (borrowed from private industry, along with the salaries), the CFO, the COO (bloodless, usually), the CIO (which, somewhere along the way, lost its AFL), the CAO (which can be either the chief academic or advancement officer) and the CDO (relating to development or diversity, and never the twain shall meet). Lots of chiefs inhabit our universities, which is chiefly the reason why tuition continues to outpace inflation.

Titles even trickle down to students, beginning with freshmen, who are, for the sake of gender clarity, no longer known as freshmen. “Freshperson” never caught on, likely because of the suggestion of social impropriety, and “freshpeople” sounds like the latest boy band. So we went with “first-year student,” newbies who are subjected to freshman orientation and freshman seminars.

Each institution has its own titular culture, which can be confusing to those outside its gates. When a visitor comes to campus — say, a job candidate interviewing for a title of his own  — we introduce ourselves by stating our titles and expect that person to know exactly what we do. “I’m assistant director of procurement operations,” you announce confidently, only to discover a flummoxed gaze in return. “I buy stuff,” you add. He’ll catch on.

We’ve grown entitled to our titles, forever chasing shiny new ones that bring luster to our resumes and fill us with a sense of pride and purpose. We look askance at those whose title pursuits seem downwardly mobile, even though they might have had good reasons — such as more money or better working conditions or a shorter commute — for their descent.

After we retire, we cling to our titles, often adding “emeritus,” Latin for “no longer on the payroll,” as a suffix. In an age when “personal branding” has become all the rage, we covet things that easily identify and position us. Titles confer worth, or perhaps validate it. They have become a form of currency.  They define our existence.

And yet, they don’t. Titles come and go; intrinsic value persists. Case in point: I tried giving my dog Brady a new title, executive canine, to see if he would stop stealing dirty underwear from the laundry pile. We emblazoned his new title on his bowl and fastened a sign on his crate.

I even wrote a press release for the family newsletter touting his appointment. He did strut about with a more dignified air, but, alas, his malfeasance continued. Stripped of his title and standing, Brady has found legitimacy on his own terms.

He’s a consultant.

Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the second installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.

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Duquesne Adjuncts Vote to Unionize

Adjuncts at Duquesne University’s McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts have voted 50 to 9 to form a union, the United Steelworkers union announced Thursday. The union, the collective bargaining agent for the adjuncts, said that Duquesne administrators now have a legal duty to bargain with them. Last week, the National Labor Relations Board voted to count the ballots on the adjunct vote. The ballots were impounded following an appeal by Duquesne that the adjuncts should not be allowed to unionize because a union might affect the Roman Catholic university’s religious freedom. The NLRB decided to count the votes saying that if the effort was defeated, there would be no reason to consider the appeal. Now that the votes favor a union, the university’s appeal will go forward.

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Administrator's advice to professors about seeking and using counter-offers (essay)

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Considering whether to seek an external offer? Elizabeth Simmons discusses how your home institution is likely to respond.

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New York Public Library Revises Controversial Plan

The New York Public Library has revised a plan that would have moved most of its books out of the flagship Fifth Avenue location that has long been a key site for academic research, The New York Times reported. About 1.5 million books that would have otherwise been moved will remain at the location, which will house 3.3 million of the library's 4.5 million book collection. A donation of $8 million will allow the library to build a new storage facility so that it can make other changes in the library building without sending the books off site. Many scholars have been furious about the plan to move so many books away from the library.

 

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Essay on Marxist theory and breast-feeding in class

After a (completely unnecessary) controversy erupted last week about my American University colleague Adrienne Pine breast-feeding in class, it occurred to me that Karl Marx, of all people, might offer some insight on the matter. After leaving a seminar where some of my students and I had been reading Marx, I sent the class the following thoughts. Although Marxist terminology and obscure academic language of all kinds generally make me cringe, in this case, despite his being (like me) lactation-challenged, Marx's words seemed helpful. 

Hi all,

When I got home tonight, I realized that Adrienne's saga can be explained, at least in part, with the help of Marx. The precipitating incident -- breast-feeding her child in class -- was only necessary because Adrienne didn't have any child-care options for her child. Child care is part of what Marx calls the "reproduction of labor power," or reproduction, necessary for humans to sustain themselves as workers from day to day -- and biologically from generation to generation. If there is no one to watch her child during the day, Adrienne (and many others) generally can't work. If Adrienne works and doesn't have someone care for the child or if the child gets limited care or if the child doesn't get fed, the child literally may not survive to see the next day or make it to adulthood to become a worker herself.

The child care -- itself a form of labor -- necessary to sustain Adrienne and her child from day to day costs something, of course. Adrienne has to pay this cost as her employer (i.e., American University) does not (as far as I know) provide any child care for children under 2 1/2 (and only on a limited, space-available basis above that age).The cost then of the child care, of the labor necessary to sustain herself and her child, comes out of her wages. However, the rules of Adrienne's child-care providers say that Adrienne cannot leave a sick child with them. Again, Adrienne's employer (i.e., American University) does not provide emergency child care for sick children -- another kind of labor necessary to sustain workers and their children from day to day -- forcing Adrienne to find another solution (in this case, laboring doubly by teaching and caring for her child simultaneously -- no easy feat, but manageable with a child under the age of one, allowing her to maintain her high-quality teaching).

According to American University's statement to The Washington Post, the administration apparently thinks Adrienne endangered student health by bringing her sick child to school and that she should have taken earned leave or sick leave on the first day of class. Putting aside the dubious public health claims -- a walk down a dorm hallway is surely far more dangerous than a baby with a slight fever at the front of a lecture hall -- earned and sick leave are both employee benefits -- that is, part of the total wage Adrienne gets as a worker from her employer (i.e., American University). Which means the employer (i.e., American University), like most employers, wanted Adrienne to further subsidize the costs of reproduction, of sustaining herself and her child, by giving up some of her earned time off. Which also means that the employer (i.e., American University) wanted Adrienne to rob her students of the value (economic, intellectual, spiritual) of an important first day of class, either in whole (if Adrienne had been unable to find a substitute) or in part (even if she could have found a substitute, it's hard to imagine one who could have done justice to her first day of class).

That Adrienne's and my employer (i.e., American University) is now criticizing her publicly is a sign that the employer's leaders are more concerned with 1) maintaining the price and what Marx calls the "exchange value" of the commodity they're offering (i.e., the tuition the university can charge for academic degrees), and 2) ensuring a steady demand (i.e., students) for that commodity than they are concerned about what Marx calls the commodity's "use value" (the quality, utility, or usefulness of the teaching and learning involved in earning degrees). Ultimately, I suspect that this public relations strategy of publicly criticizing one of its workers to try to maintain the price and demand for its commodity will backfire. The employer (i.e., American University) and its leaders will come out looking worse than they do already 1) for attacking a female worker trying to fulfill her work expectations and sustain herself and her child, 2) for perpetuating sexist cultural norms that prevent women from feeling safe breast-feeding in public when they should have every right to do so, and 3) for perpetuating the masculinist idea that the classroom and the workplace are spaces where the bodily and personal needs of workers have no place.

That anyone, whether students or employees of the school newspaper or others, thought Adrienne's breast-feeding worthy of commentary in the first place also reflects some of the embedded sexism in our society: from the general forced subordination of women to men under capitalism (which Friedrich Engels shows us) to the simultaneously hyper-sexualized objectification of women's bodies and fear of those same bodies when women expose them on their own terms. So too, the saga reflects the double burden placed on women workers forced, historically under capitalism, both to labor in the workplace and to do most of the unpaid work of reproduction, of sustaining themselves and male family members in the kitchen, in the laundry, in the bedroom.

There is more to be said from a feminist Marxist perspective about how our society shames breast-feeding women and forces them to veil their breasts, about how women should be allowed to breast-feed everywhere and anywhere, including in the workplace, but for now, I need to care for some of my own daily reproduction work by going to sleep so that I can labor again tomorrow for my employer (i.e., American University), who could have avoided this whole saga by purchasing the labor-power of its employees (like Adrienne) at a reasonable price that would include more of the basic costs of reproduction (like child care, ordinary and emergency) that so often fall on women's uncompensated backs (and, frankly, breasts).

 

David Vine is assistant professor of anthropology at American University.

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Essay on role for research universities in promoting STEM education

Many Western countries face shortages in high school STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers. This shortage can be partially explained by the fact that qualified young people who excel in STEM prefer to study one of the STEM subjects and work in the tech industry as scientists and engineers, rather than join the education system. This choice seems reasonable, since such people can earn significantly more and work under better conditions elsewhere than in the education system. Unfortunately, this choice applies also to talented young people who do wish to be educators and contribute to the education system, but must forfeit their dreams mainly due to financial considerations.

Not surprisingly, this teacher shortage has an immediate impact on the quality of STEM education in high school and, consequently, on the level of STEM knowledge that undergraduates have when they begin their studies at university. Universities clearly suffer from this missing knowledge; further, entire countries suffer because the graduates’ potential contribution to the national economy is not fulfilled.

Leading universities around the world, especially those that focus on science and technology, look at these trends, worry about the inadequacies of elementary and secondary education, and in many cases tend to take a reactive approach. It's time for universities to proactively address this shortage without depending on government funds and without having to make significant investments to this end.

The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, for example, launched last year a special program, Views, whose objective is to help alleviate the shortage in high school STEM teachers in Israel. The Technion, which recently won, together with Cornell University, the competition to establish an applied sciences graduate school on Roosevelt Island off Manhattan, is the major supplier of scientists and engineers to Israeli industry, and its graduates constitute over 70 percent of the country's founders and managers of high-tech companies. Due to the ingenuity of Technion alumni, Israel is now home to the largest concentration of technology start-up companies outside of Silicon Valley, and 80 percent of Israeli NASDAQ companies are led by Technion graduates.

Proud as we are of our alumni excellence in STEM, we want them to own an additional profession – high school STEM teachers – which they will be able to use if and when they choose to switch to education, without discouraging their excellence in the worlds of research or business.

To this end, Views invites Technion graduates back to the Technion to study toward an additional bachelor's degree in its department of education in technology and science, which awards a teaching certificate for high school STEM subjects. Technion graduates enrolled in the Views program receive full study scholarships from the Technion for two years and are not required to commit themselves to teach in the education system. Extending the program over two academic years enables the graduates to continue working as scientists and engineers in industry in parallel to their studies (one day or two half-days each week).

Technion graduates are not required to commit themselves to teach in the education system since the knowledge they gain in the Views program is useful also in businesses, where teaching and learning processes are crucial for coping with new knowledge and technological developments on a daily basis. Thus, even if they decide not to switch to education, they will still contribute to Israel’s prosperity, but in a different way.

In its current, first year of operation (2011-12), the program started with 60 Technion graduates. Sixty percent of them are males – a fact that indicates that the Views program indeed attracts populations that traditionally do not choose education as their first choice, and who at the same time are attracted to the program.

All Win

The Views program has advantages on many levels and can be viewed as a win-win situation from the perspectives of the individual, the industry, the university, the education system, and the state.   

The Technion graduates gain an additional degree that enables them to increase their mobility in the industry in which they are currently working. This includes potential jobs in training and professional development departments as well as leadership positions that require teaching skills. In addition, earning a degree in STEM education can solve the problem faced by many engineers either during economic crisis or when they approach the age of 40-50, when some lose their jobs and have difficulties finding new jobs. Others would teach part-time or join informal educational programs and continue working in their various companies. No matter when and how they are involved in the education system, for some of them, it will be the fulfillment of a dream that they could not accomplish earlier.

The technology industry, which is the work arena of most Technion graduates, gains (at no cost) people with pedagogical knowledge which, as mentioned, is essential in this industry. This is why these companies enable their Technion graduates to miss work one day a week in order to attend the Views program.

The university wins since the returning graduates have very extensive and solid scientific and engineering knowledge and therefore, if and when they switch to education, they will be able to better educate future generations of students. This, of course, does not mean that other teachers do not have strong and updated knowledge; the graduates’ knowledge is, however, connected both to current science and technology developments based on their work experience in the industry and to the academic spirit of the Technion.

In particular, the Technion’s department of education in technology and science benefits since the graduates enrolled in the Views program study together with the department's other undergraduates and bring to the classroom relevant, new and up-to-date knowledge. At the same time, the regular undergraduates are inspired by the fact that successful scientists and engineers consider joining the education system and working in the profession that they chose to study. The instructors teaching in the Views program have already recognized these added values and have felt a change in the class atmosphere since the graduates joined their courses.

The high school educational system will benefit from the Views program since these qualified scientists and engineers will increase diversity in the cohort of high school STEM teachers and hopefully will change the image of the profession of education. These graduates will also bring into the education system not only updated content knowledge but also organizational experience, which includes new management methods and teamwork habits that they implemented previously in the high-tech industry. Curriculum development of STEM subjects in the school may also improve since the scientists and engineers will bring into the system updated knowledge and relevant examples they worked on in the industry, making the curriculum more vivid, appealing and interesting.

Finally, the government and state win, since the program may be carried out with almost no additional budget. In addition, no any special effort is needed to entice qualified people to switch to education or to encourage young people to enter into the field of education by offering them financial benefits. Thus, it will be possible to stop advocating an approach that sometimes leads to bad feelings in teacher lounges, when teachers discover that different teachers receive different pay, which is not necessarily based on their educational success and commitment to the education system. And lastly, this new pool of scientists and engineers with an educational background is simply an investment in states’ human capital.

Looking Forward

The Views program, described above, can be expanded into a wider program that addresses the shortage of high school STEM teachers. In its full application, the vision includes also undergraduate STEM students who will be able to study toward a bachelor's degree in high school STEM education in parallel to their undergraduate studies, with no additional tuition cost. This means that each semester students will take one or two pedagogical courses from the STEM education program, in parallel to their regular science and engineering undergraduate studies, and will complete the two degrees at the same time. Thus, upon graduation they will become both scientists/engineers and educators, sometimes without extending the total study time needed.

Once again, these students will not have to commit themselves to work in the education system; however, it is reasonable to assume that some of them will turn to education just after graduation or at some stage in their professional development. In the meanwhile, after they graduate, they will use the pedagogical knowledge they gain in the Views program in their jobs in the high-tech industry and improve teaching and learning processes in their organization. In addition, their undergraduate studies will be more diverse and they will be able to use this knowledge immediately to improve their learning processes in their undergraduate studies.

From a broader perspective, programs such as Views may change the perception of the high school STEM teacher: No longer will it be a profession one remains in for many years with almost no options for mobility; rather, teaching STEM will be regarded as a step in the professional development of scientists and engineers, providing also employment security. In other words, as it is common to change jobs in the hi-tech industry, it will be possible to leave the industry forever or for several years in order to work in the education system; another option is to dedicate one work day to the educational system, maintaining the tech job as the main work place. Education is perceived, from this perspective, as an addition profession by which scientists and engineers can foster their professional development.

Since Israel is such a small country, it is my belief that the Views program will significantly impact Israel’s science and technology education in the very near future. It is, however, worthwhile to investigate its potential in other countries. Thus, Israel may serve as a pilot case study for larger countries. Needless to say, traditional STEM teacher preparation programs should be continued as well.

 

Orit Hazzan is head of the Department of Education in Technology and Science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.

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Colleges start new programs

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Audit: City College of San Francisco Near Bankruptcy

City College of San Francisco is very close to bankruptcy, in part because of its spending and personnel decisions, a state audit has found, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. The study found that the college has almost twice the number of tenured faculty members per 1,000 students (24) as comparable community colleges in California. Further, the audit questioned some of the benefits employees receive, such as 23 paid holidays on top of vacation time.

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Judge Denies Access to Climate Researcher's E-Mail

A Virginia judge has blocked a bid by the American Tradition Institute to obtain e-mail records created by Michael Mann when he was a faculty member at the University of Virginia, The Washington Post reported. The institute is among the groups that believe that the records will raise questions about the validity of climate change research, even though there is a wide consensus among scientists that climate change is real. Mann, the university, and many academic groups believe that the attempt to obtain e-mail represents an attack on science, with the goal of intimidating researchers and denying them any privacy in their exchanges. The judge ruled that the e-mail is exempt from Virginia's open records laws under specific exemptions for communication among public faculty members while producing research. An appeal is expected.

 

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