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Report calls on British academics to be honest with Ph.D. students about career prospects

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British professors urged to tell their graduate students that they can't assume a Ph.D. will translate into a "job for life."

U.S.-Cuba announcement will have implications for higher ed

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Obama's announcement on resumption of diplomatic relations also broadens the kinds of educational travel that may now be possible.

State authorization reciprocity effort passes 'tipping point,' supporters say

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A national effort to simplify regulations for distance education providers adds 18 members in less than a year. Can it sustain its momentum?

Essay on being a short person in academe

I am a five-foot-tall female physicist. You hear a lot about the challenges facing women in physics. These are real, and the percentage of physics bachelor’s degrees earned by women has stagnated at just over 20 percent for more than a decade. Being a woman in physics can be hard, but being a short physicist seems even harder to me. Why don’t we ever talk about the challenges of being short? 

Gender is the most prominent feature that we use to categorize ourselves, beginning from the first question asked after we are born: Is it a boy or a girl? The hypothesis that women are less intelligent or less cognitively capable of certain tasks has been around for a long time. For a while it was attributed to brain size, then the Y chromosome, then hormones circulating in the body, and now prenatal hormone exposure.

For some reason, our society wants to believe that women aren’t as smart as men. When a woman feels out of place in a male-dominated environment, she is understandably tempted to attribute it to her gender -- and she may be right. 

But when I find myself feeling out of place and not quite knowing why, I tend to blame it on my height. Whether on the athletic field, in an elevator, or in the lab, I am generally the shortest person present. At my height, 19 out of every 20 women I meet are taller than I am. The average man soars 10 inches above me. High heels cannot make up 10 inches. 

As kids, we all wait to grow into the world around us, and the average 12-year-old is close to my height. It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate at Yale University that I had to admit the world would never be designed for me. I was somehow happily oblivious in college to the challenges faced by women, but the challenges faced by short people were obvious to me, every day. I could not reach things on high shelves in the labs and libraries. I could not sit with my feet flat on the floor with my back supported in many classroom chairs.  

The challenges continued in my graduate research lab at Harvard University. I wasn’t large enough to flip the dewar that held our cryogenic microscope. I wasn’t strong enough to loosen a bolt. When I couldn’t find where my peers had put something, I learned to get on the step stool and look at their eye level. 

I looked ridiculous using all my body weight at an awkward angle to pull a liquid helium tank down the hall. The cleanroom ran out of the small sizes of “bunny suits” that are required to enter the cleanroom fabrication facilities. Small people were expected to wear larger ones, since big people cannot physically fit into smaller ones. 

The biggest safety hazard was the location of a hot plate in a fume hood. The point of a fume hood, a structure that allows you to put your hands into a space that has its own ventilation, is to keep toxic fumes on the inside, away from the air you breathe. Short people simply took a deep breath before sticking their heads into the fume hood. 

My six-foot-tall female labmate didn’t have these problems. 

I now work at a women’s college. The environment is eye-opening. 

The brightest student in the class is a woman. The most studious student is a woman. The struggling student is a woman. The slacker is a woman. The geek is a woman. The most aggressive and most outgoing students are women. Even the student who talks the most in class is a woman. 

When I need help reaching the screen at the front of the room to pull it down, it’s a 5’6’’ woman who comes to my rescue. Prizewinners are always women, and leadership positions always go to women. We may still categorize the people we meet, but it’s no longer based on gender. 

I received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2010, considered one of the most prestigious awards bestowed upon young scientists. There were two things that statistically increased the chances of receiving the PECASE that year through the National Science Foundation: being a woman; and being named Ben. You are unlikely to hear the accusation that you won “just because your name is Ben,” yet women are told that they receive awards because of their gender, not their qualifications. 

A women’s college naturally provides many female role models, but predicting effective role models is not straightforward. For some, identifying with a role model is critical to pursuing an unusual path, but a good match is not as straightforward as being the same gender, race, or sexuality. 

I never needed or wanted female role models in physics. But I do need short role models in sports.  Watching someone much larger than you excel on the field is not helpful. Seeing someone your size outcompete a larger person is motivating, and educational. One striking part of my interview at Mount Holyoke was how short the (male) dean of faculty was. I more recently met the (short, female) director of the American Association of Physics Teachers. I didn’t think I was looking for five-foot-tall role models in leadership, but maybe that’s because I hadn’t met any. 

While I intellectually recognize that being a woman in physics has presented challenges, I viscerally know that being short is difficult. That I haven’t volunteered my race or sexuality suggests I’m white (which is true) and heterosexual (also true). 

When someone speaks over me in a meeting or repeats my idea more loudly as their own, I assume it’s due to my physical stature, not because I’m a woman. And for all of you who are ever in a meeting and notice this happening, it’s your cue to say, “Thank you for reinforcing the point made by... .” That’s all it takes to change a frustrating environment into an affirming one, in a noncontroversial way. 

If we all make an effort to do small things like that more often — to recognize that the categories by which we sort people are limited, and that talent comes in all shapes and colors and follows many different trajectories through life — then perhaps an essay like this will someday simply start with the statement: “I am a physicist.” 

Katherine Aidala is an associate professor of physics at Mount Holyoke College.

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Photo by Grace Fitzpatrick, Mount Holyoke College
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Katherine Aidala of Mount Holyoke (left), with a taller colleague, Spencer Smith

One university's decision to drop football should be a model for others (essay)

College football frenzy is peaking, soon to give way to a crescendo of basketball mania culminating in March Madness. For about 108 of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, this is a distinctly mixed blessing, as intercollegiate athletics pose a drain on school finances – one that is growing steadily over time.

Schools are in an athletic arms race, feeling the necessity to spend ever more funds on high coaches’ salaries and fancy facilities lest they suffer athletic humiliation and the wrath of irate alumni and fans. According to USA Today data, more than 100 schools currently subsidize intercollegiate athletics by more than $10 million a year. The fact that the University of Florida is spending some $7 million to lure a football coach away from Colorado State shows the financial dimensions of this are huge. It is no wonder that at the recent White House college summit, Vice President Biden blasted schools for elaborate spending on stadium sky boxes.

But as President Ray Watts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham recently showed, it does not have to be that way. He is eliminating the school’s football program.

UAB has been a football power wannabe, playing in the shadows of its superpower state rivals, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and Auburn University, which have won a majority of national championships in the past five years.

Its stadium, Legion Field, which seats almost 72,000 people, has limped along with an average attendance recently of under 15,000 fans per game. UAB takes in about $9 million in revenues from its athletics programs but spends $27 million. That $18 million loss amounts to nearly $1,000 annually for each of UAB’s 19,000 students – the equivalent of about 13 percent of the school’s in-state tuition price. Getting rid of football will eliminate some of that loss, though the school will maintain several other sports. More importantly, perhaps, the school will not have to spend tens of millions on new facilities viewed critical to remaining competitive.

Contrast the UAB experience to Ohio University, where we have some experience. Like UAB, it has a so-so football team (6-6 record) and considers a game with 15,000 attending to be pretty typical, despite its stadium capacity of 24,000. Like UAB, it plays in the shadow of a football powerhouse that regularly draws over 100,000 to its games, currently fourth-ranked Ohio State, playing UAB’s sister school Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Like UAB, OU is forced to subsidize intercollegiate sports to the tune of about $18 million a year – again, nearly $1,000 for each of its roughly 20,000 students on the Athens campus (partially disguised as part of a “student activity fee”). Both universities have medical schools. The institutional similarities are striking.

While UAB President Watts is saying “enough is enough,” Ohio President Roderick McDavis is following a more conventional path: let’s spend more to try to break into the ranks of the athletically anointed. Facing similar facility problems as UAB, OU has built a $12.5 million indoor practice facility, primarily for the football team.

It has also announced plans for an “academic center” costing more than $5 million, which will serve as a gated community of sorts where athletes but not ordinary students can study. Ostensibly, an existing study facility and the university’s library are insufficient for the athletes. Similarly, a decade ago the basketball coach made much less than McDavis, but now the coach is paid significantly more than he is.

When former Vanderbilt University President Gordon Gee made the athletic department a unit within the normal university bureaucracy, subject to all of its rules regarding budgeting and staffing, he said that if he tried to do that at Ohio State (where he also was president), he would quickly be pumping gas for a living. University presidents who try to unilaterally disarm athletics face fierce threats to job security that prevent any constructive reform to rein in college costs.

Instead, resources are misappropriated toward sports. Presidents like McDavis spend hours trying to cajole rich donors to help fund new athletic facilities when that money could finance the construction of, say, a much-needed performing arts center or more scholarships for excellent students. The crowding out of academic needs to support sports has come at a high reputational cost – OU has fallen 13 spots in the U.S. News national university listing over the past five years.

Boise State has emerged in recent years as a football power, but compares poorly with the less football-oriented University of Idaho. Despite spending more than twice as much as Idaho on athletics ($43 million versus $19 million), it loses more, and in both the Forbes and U.S. News rankings of colleges, Idaho clearly surpasses Boise. Many university presidents fail to recognize the Iron Law of Sports: when someone wins a game, someone else loses. It is impossible for a large portion of schools to achieve primacy in any given sport.

Economic pressures, however, suggest that other presidents may start biting the bullet and take the UAB route. Total college enrollments are lower today than three years ago, and high costs paired with widespread underemployment of recent college graduates are making students more price-sensitive than in the past. Passing on athletic subsidies to students in the form of higher fees is increasingly unrealistic.

The top 60 or so schools that are genuine athletic powers, about half losing $5 million or less annually on sports, are gaining control of the lucrative commercial aspects of sports through the NCAA athletic cartel. So while Watts might be catching some backlash for his decision to shut down the football program, do not be surprised if this turns out to be a recurring strategy for presidents to control costs in the future.

Additionally, the continued tales of corruption and abuse in sports that stain the reputation of higher education, such as phantom courses at the University of North Carolina, sex abuse at Penn State, and widespread cheating at other schools, should make presidents and trustees more willing to fight to withdraw from the arms race.

There is another model, where sports can be part of college life on an amateur basis without expensive coaches, ESPN television contracts, or athletic scholarships. In fact, this has been a glorious season for a New England town, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard College had an undefeated football team, and M.I.T. went 10-1, losing only in a national playoff game -- despite spending relatively modest amounts on sports. While neither school makes any list of the top 100 football powers, they are at or near the top of nearly every academic ranking.

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and teaches economics at Ohio University, where Joseph Hartge is an undergraduate studying economics in the Honors Tutorial College.

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Professors turn Yik Yak into happy space

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Colgate U. professors turn social media app with reputation for negative comments into a one-day love-fest.

Essay on technology tools to help Ph.D.s and postdocs in job hunts

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Joseph Barber reviews websites and databases that can help the Ph.D. or postdoc doing a job search.

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Essay on importance of not trying to protect students from everything that may upset them

It should not be controversial to believe that growing up involves becoming stronger, becoming better able to withstand whatever slings and arrows life throws at us and to pursue our goals even against difficult challenges. Surely the college years can and should play an important role in that growing-up process.

And yet, too often colleges treat their students like hatchlings not yet ready to leave the nest, as opposed to preparing and encouraging them to fly.

There are a variety of policies and practices that give students what most of them seem to want, but not necessarily what they most need. Speech codes and trigger warnings are two over-protecting initiatives that have received considerable attention in the higher education press and beyond. 

So much has been written about the problems with speech codes that there is no need to belabor the subject at this point.  Aside from the legal problems they can present with regard to free speech issues, especially in public higher education, they presume that students cannot withstand, much less respond with vigor to, speech they find objectionable.  They also serve as an example of how formal codes and policies are no substitute for shared norms and values concerning how people should behave with one another.

The trigger warning movement, which has offered another field day for those on the lookout for opportunities to ridicule colleges and universities, advocates alerting students in advance to anything potentially upsetting in materials required for a course. Above and beyond being forewarned, some students would presumably be allowed to avoid an encounter with such materials altogether. Aside from this being an insult to the intelligence and good sense of students and faculty members alike, it also threatens to spoil the thrill of discovery.  After all, would all first-time readers of Anna Karenina really want to be told ahead of time that [SPOILER ALERT!!] Anna commits suicide by throwing herself under a train at the end of the novel.

And then there is the rash of speaker cancellations due to student unwillingness to be exposed to “objectionable” views from a guest to the campus. Part of this particular problem might be addressed by recognizing that an essentially ritual occasion like a graduation ceremony may not be the best venue for a controversial, as opposed to celebratory, message. That issue taken care of, it should be easier to push back on other occasions against students who are being overly selective in their defense of free speech.

Student reactions to displays of racial insensitivity and prejudice can be considered in this context. The persistence of racism in our society and on our campuses is most certainly disturbing and unacceptable. At the same time, while a couple of students hanging a Confederate flag in their dormitory window or some students sending anonymous offensive tweets should not go without some critical response, incidents like these do not seem sufficient to put an entire campus into a state of turmoil. Surely, that is attributing too much power to the offenders and displaying too much vulnerability on the part of those they would offend.

It is important to consider which institutional customs may be at odds with the task at hand. There is, for example, the practice that has become common of designating certain areas of campus as “safe spaces” for certain kinds of activities and identities. Such language goes above and beyond the informal establishing of preferred comfortable gathering spaces. The implication is that certain students, depending on their identities or preferred activities, are “unsafe” on other areas of campus. This magnifies the sense of personal danger out of all proportion and interferes with students’ appreciation of what it means to be in real peril. It is an obstacle to the development of authentic courage.

The exponential growth of professional student services staff – which, to be sure, has had its positive side – has played into a tendency toward what we might see as self-infantilization on the part of students, who are now in the habit of seeking formal institutional support and approval for the kinds of activities they used to be capable of managing themselves. The most unusual example of this in my own years as a college president occurred when a student came to me seeking institutional recognition for the group she represented, which, as it happened, was composed of students favoring safe, consensual S&M sex. I inquired as to why it was not sufficient that her group was not being interfered with by the administration. That was apparently not good enough for her: she wanted a blessing from those in authority. I declined to provide the blessing, preferring to encourage her to see that she could manage without it.

This support-seeking seems to be of a piece with the prolonged umbilical role that many students maintain with their parents into their college years, calling them several times a day on their cellphones. The parents, for their part, remain overly involved with their children – at least those parents whose life circumstances allow them to do so.  And so we have socialization in reverse: rather than helping their offspring achieve adulthood, those who should be the grown-ups are living the lives of their children along with them. Parental over-involvement can make the institutional exercise of authority all the more challenging when it rises to (or descends into) litigiousness.

So -- whose responsibility is it to address this and other aspects of campus culture that stand in the way of students developing the kind of resilience and strength that they need in life? First and foremost, this job, like so many other tough and often thankless tasks, falls to college and university presidents. A job far easier to assign than to fulfill. 

Those of us who have moved on to less complicated lives must at least have the good grace to feel their pain. The task, however, must be taken up if the undergraduate experience is to be what it should be. Where presidents lead, staff will follow – and so even will the faculty, if a persuasively argued connection is made to the essential purposes of the institution.

Here, then, are the questions that must frame a president’s response when one of those increasingly common eruptions breaks out on campus:  How high does this measure on the Richter scale of crises? How can I respond in a way that plays to my students’ strengths as opposed to their weaknesses? How can this serve as an occasion to increase their wisdom and self-confidence?  How will I help them to grow up?

To invoke the timelessly wise words of the Rolling Stones: If students can’t always get what they want, if we try sometimes, we might just find they get what they need.

 

Judith Shapiro is a former faculty member and provost at Bryn Mawr College and former president of Barnard College.

 

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Protest of Confederate flag at Bryn Mawr

How to ask interview questions that show you're interested in the job (essay)

About to interview for an academic position? Elizabeth Simmons suggests how to ask questions that convey your enthusiasm and readiness for the role.

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How we must shape our language to the students we work with (essay)

"I think this a real gut-check moment for you, Nathan."

His eyes immediately drop to his lap in an apparent effort to do just that, and I feel my shoulders sag. I look over at my colleague, whose eyes meet mine and then roll slightly. Damn. Nathan looks up from his gut check and eyes me quizzically. I quickly adjust.

"What I mean is that this is one of those important moments when you decide if you really want to do something that's difficult." In this case, it was giving up his habit of taking over-the-counter medication in excess. I, of course, had my own habit to give up: my tendency to use figurative language to explain a concept or suggestion or quandary in which my students find themselves.

For most of my career, I have worked with students who, for the most part, traveled with me down the road of abstraction (See? There I go again. Damn). I would sit with them and explain how texting an ex-boyfriend was like "touching a hot stove over and over," or how missing class repeatedly meant they were digging themselves a hole that got deeper by the day, or that seeing a counselor would help them box up those bad memories and stack them neatly on a closet shelf where they could be accessed without fear of being crushed. Not always the most elegant language, but it worked for me, and seemed to work for them.

These days, I find myself in the company of very different students. They live together in a residential and academic support program that was created to help high-functioning autistic students, or students with significant executive function challenges, succeed in college. We provide a level of academic and organizational support that is beyond the capacity of most colleges, and in doing so, allow these often very bright students to take, and pass, classes and ultimately get a college degree and a credential necessary for some of the careers to which they aspire.

They can do many things: solve complex math problems, explain chemistry to anyone who will listen, remember dates of significant world historical events in a manner foreign to most college students who only want to memorize what will be on an exam.

What they can't do very well is understand my metaphors. They are, most of them, literal thinkers.

"Don't throw in the towel yet!" I implore Stephen, who is thinking of quitting a club he has joined.

"What towel?" Damn.

"Don't give up yet. Don't quit. Give it a few more meetings and see if you like it better."

"Oh. O.K."

I never realized just how much I resort to visual metaphors until I couldn't use them anymore. I am like a mechanic without a wrench, a hairstylist without a comb, a ... you see, this is my problem. I don't plan these analogies and similes. It just seems to be how my brain works. I come by it naturally, as my mother was the queen of the cliché, the euphemism, the short-phrase-that-put-all-in-perspective.

"Every cloud has a silver lining." "It's always darkest before the dawn." (Yes, teenagers love hearing those responses to heartbreak). My mother knew every aphorism available to English speakers. A well-phrased maxim was her primary child-rearing tool.

Perhaps she would have diversified her portfolio if she'd given birth to an autistic son rather than a daydreaming poet of a daughter. But she didn't, and now, here I am: in a job where I am often unable to use a tool that has served me so well in my work with students, a linguistic Leatherman, one could say, that I am lost without it (I just did it again, but that was pretty subtle).

"Come on, Robert. Don't let him get your goat," I say, trying to mediate between two students unable to be civil to one another.

"My goat?" asked Robert, suddenly sure that his nemesis was stealing yet another object of his.

"Don't let him..." What? Get the better of you? That's kind of abstract.

Rattle your cage? Ruffle your feathers? Get on your nerves? I settle on, "Don't let him make you angry." The conversation then continues.

My almost-daily moments of realizing my dependence on figurative language, proverbs, metaphors and other abstract notions make me very aware of the challenges my students face in the classroom. So much of teaching involves metaphor, which someone once defined as "using something we know to explain something we don't know."

In the rich scholarship of metaphor and meaning, this is more clearly articulated as two domains. One is the "source" domain, from which we draw the metaphorical expression: "Love is a battlefield"; "Life is a carnival." The source domain is our extant knowledge of a battlefield or a carnival, of things that are concrete, physical. The other domain is the "target" domain, where the metaphor takes us (to an understanding, in these cases, of love and life), to abstract and figurative concepts.

A teacher travels between these domains constantly, and the best teachers take their students there in style. Every academic subject -- literature, physics, computer science -- relies on metaphors for explanation of complex notions. And sometimes these notions become the source domain themselves.  We refer to an organization’s core value as “being in its DNA," or a deeply held belief as being part of someone's "genetic code."

In their book Metaphors We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write of the "conceptual metaphor" and its importance in cognition. Metaphors influence not just how we think, but how we feel and act. If, for example, a group of employees is placed into two "teams" and asked to "swing for the fences" toward a goal, they may find themselves in a competitive mindset.

If instead, they are asked to work in groups to build a "house," with different "subcontractors" working toward a common goal, they may approach their work in a more collaborative fashion. A simple comment like, "Hey, we're all in the same boat here" works to inspire a group of people because they instantly, with no effort, flash to the image of themselves in a boat with their co-workers and then quickly grasp what the boss is saying:  we're in this work together. Metaphors, and our individual and collective ability to grasp them, hold great persuasive power in our learning and working environments.

So when I imagine my students in a typical classroom, with a talented professor zooming between and among metaphors, I see looks on their faces similar to the ones I've seen when I've said things like, "This is a gut-check moment," or "Give it a whirl": bewilderment followed by defeat.

When everyone in the classroom seems to get what the professor has said except you, it is hard not to be discouraged.  Coupled with the cognitive processing speed deficits that are not uncommon among high-functioning autistic students, one can see why their attrition rate is higher than their native intelligence and innate perseverance would predict.  I know I'd get frustrated if I were them.  It's very likely I would throw in the towel, or raise a white flag, even.

I find that I do recognize that bewildered expression more quickly these days, and so catch myself almost as soon as the maxim, proverb, aphorism or metaphor is out of my mouth, or I at least announce, “I’m going to make a comparison between two things” (explaining a rule or predicting an action is often very helpful to students on the autism spectrum).

I have come to recognize, too, that some of my students do not have this particular deficit, and that some of them are so quick to use a metaphor to describe something that I need a moment to catch up myself.  One afternoon, I watched as some students tossed a brand-new rugby ball belonging to one of them, Shane, in the front yard of the house we occupy. An errant toss landed the ball in the street where a truck quickly crushed it. Shane was good-naturedly bummed about his lost ball; when another staff member came outside moments later, he said to her, "Abbie, my firstborn committed suicide."

She looked alarmed, then followed his pointing finger to the street where she saw the flattened carcass of the ball on pavement. "It was my first rugby ball, and now it's gone," he said, in mock despair. "Shane," I observed, "to be accurate, it was actually more of an assisted suicide." He looked at me and for a moment, I thought I had gone one step too far with the metaphor.

"Yeah," he replied, laughing. "But that’s O.K., since that's now legal in Vermont."

As more and more students on the autism spectrum arrive in our classrooms, as accommodations allow more students with nonverbal learning disabilities to succeed enough to land on a college campus, our attention to our own language habits must increase.  A few years ago, I might have responded to that request with some resistance. This is how I talk. This is who I am.

But now, spending my days in the company of students who have to work incredibly hard to succeed in a traditional academic setting, even with the appropriate accommodations, I know the onus is on me to add another tool to my toolbox. Exercise some new muscles. Step up my game.

Or maybe just ... improve.

Lee Burdette Williams is director of student life and collegiate partnerships at Mansfield Hall, in Burlington, Vt.

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