Academic meritocracy still good?

Originally posted on Conditionally Accepted:

Many sociologists, as well as scholars in other disciplines, talk about the “myth of meritocracy” in their classes.  They inform their students that many in the US believe good ol’ hard work is the primary determinant of one’s successes, opportunities, and wealth — BUT nothing could be further from the truth to explain pervasive inequality.  Not only is this an inaccurate explanation, hence referring to it as a myth, it is also dangerous because it masks all of the other factors beyond one’s control that produce and maintain disparities.  Hopefully, we push our students one more step to see inequality as the product of individual and structural factors, not merely a few bad apples who lie, cheat, and steal, or discriminate and hinder others’ success.

Ironically, academics — including many sociologists — fail to apply this perspective to assess how status, wealth, resources, and opportunities are distributed within…

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Students wishing to join the ranks of your faculty by doing undergraduate research, consider this …

Originally posted on plastic bodies:

Way to go, academic philosophers, you’re successfully (still!) reproducing the means of knowledge production!

Helen De Cruz has initiated a very important discussion of the academic job market in philosophy, focusing on the numbers for the 2014-15 hiring season. Her post raises important questions about race, class, and elitism in hiring. The takeaway data:

On the basis of this year’s partial hiring data, Marcus Arvan notes that the majority of tenure track hires (a whopping 88%) are from people of Leiter-ranked programs. Only 12% of hires are from people of unranked programs. Also, 37% of all tenure track hires come from just 5 schools, the Leiter top 5 list – this is amazing if one ponders it, and one may wonder at the direction philosophy is going to, if most of its future tenured workforce comes from just a few select programs.

I’ve been tempted to write a post about…

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Brent Harger argues that the dream of becoming a professor is analogous to to the dream of becoming a star athlete. It is in the interests of college that a sizable number of students pursue these dreams, even though it is seriously dangerous for a student to invest everything they have in either.

Originally posted on Conditionally Accepted:

brentBrent Harger is an assistant professor of sociology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.  Dr. Harger (which rhymes with charger) teaches in the areas of methods, family, youth, and education.  His research examines the ways in which students and teachers create and maintain culture in elementary schools.

Below, Dr. Harger reflects on the depressing reality that few prospective graduate students will conclude their graduate training with a tenure-track faculty job.  Academic careers may be becoming a privilege afforded primarily to middle-class and wealthy people.

Academia as a Middle Class “Star Career”

The academic job market is horrible. So is academia as a whole. It is nearly impossible to obtain a tenure-track job and even tenure itself is no guarantee that one will be able to keep one’s job. Surveying the landscape of higher education, Fabio Rojas at Orgtheory says not to go to graduate school. So does Rebecca Schuman…

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Dr. Nicholas Rowland and I had the pleasure of attending Penn State’s Engaged Scholarship Symposium on March 25, 2014. It was a large, university-wide event that featured panel discussions by experts in the field of promoting engaged scholarship, as well as Penn State faculty discussing their experiences with engaged scholarship.

“Engaged Scholarship”is defined by Penn State’s Council on Engaged Scholarship as “out-of-classroom academic experiences that complement classroom learning.” Rowland and I noticed the announcement for this symposium and immediately noted that it sounded an awful lot like what we’ve always been calling “Undergraduate Research,” so we immediately signed up. From what we gathered from the discussions, Engaged Scholarship encompasses Undergraduate Research, and if not directly synonymous, might be a little broader of a term. Engaged Scholarship also includes an aspect of making the research enterprise at large research institutions like Penn State relevant to the non-academic world. In other words, applying the term “engagement” not just to the idea of “engaging students in research,” but also “engaging the public in our research.”

As a thought experiment, the following question was raised: “Penn State has one of the best anthropology programs in the country: What should this mean to a coal miner from Hazleton?” I have often argued for the importance of scholars being able to explain their research to non-scholars, because oftentimes the popular press (newspapers, magazines) pick up on stories about important research results, and don’t do a great job of representing the overall importance. Scholars need to do a better job at explaining the big picture, and how their research fits into it. Engaged Scholarship as discussed at this symposium was framed as a way of reorienting our roles in academia toward solving social problems, generating new knowledge, and being able to successfully describe its impact.

One of the biggest takeaways of the symposium for me, however, was just the additional vocabulary I picked up to describe undergraduate research. As a librarian, I’m always scanning for different terminology used to describe similar concepts– it helps in searching the literature! So not only was “engaged scholarship” picked up, but also “high impact practices” (used in the higher-ed administration field), “experiential learning,” and “full-spectrum learning.” So, all you readers interested in undergraduate research: keep your eyes and ears open for these terms.

For our first official post as contributors to this undergraduate research blog, it is only fitting that we write about our recent experience with developing and facilitating the first annual Northeast Ohio Undergraduate Sociology Symposium (NEOUSS) at Kent State University on Saturday March 1st 2014.


Both of us graduated from Penn State in 2011 and thanks to the support, guidance, research opportunities, and continuous mentoring of Dr. Nicholas J. Rowland, we have been successfully working toward our PhDs in Sociology at Kent State for the past three years.

By recognizing the importance of undergraduate research for our success, finding opportunities to engage with undergraduates has been one of our priorities in graduate school. Fortunately, this desire did not go unnoticed at Kent and we were asked to sit on the planning committee for the symposium in the Fall of 2013.

ImageThe Planning Committee

What we expected was an opportunity to work with other faculty members who care about undergraduate education, to learn about the coordination of conference style events, to read abstracts from a wide a variety of students, and, of course, some grunt work at the ground level (being the two graduate students on the committee).

What we did not expect, given that it was the first pass at planning this symposium, was the large number of submissions and attendees, the enthusiastic support from the invited colleges and faculty mentors (not to mention the distance traveled by some), and the overall success of the event.

While being pleasantly surprised by the success of the actual event, we were hit with an enormous amount of tedious and strategic tasks leading up to March 1st. From contacting caterers and facilities, to editing documents, emailing participants, receiving submissions, organizing sessions, printing nametags, building a website and program, determining appropriates fee and payment options, and coordinating volunteers for the event, many stressful hours, days, weeks, and months were spent on this project.

With that said, however, the sense of pride and fulfillment experienced while listening to and observing over 65 presentations, many of which were exceptional, was unmatched. This experience only reaffirmed our belief in the importance of undergraduate research.

What put this event over the top for us was having our undergraduate mentor involved (who opened the symposium Friday night with this talk). Not only was he present for the event, he also had a few of his current students submit and present on Saturday.


Alexander Kinney (top) and Chris Lehman (bottom) giving their presentations at NEOUSS.

This was important to us for several reasons:

1. His never-ending involvement with the students he mentors. We “technically” have not been Dr. Rowland’s students for over three years, but he is never more than an email, phone call, or meeting at a coffee shop away. Upon hearing about this event, his first question was “how can I help?”

2. Innovative ways to get undergraduates involved with research. The crux of Dr. Rowland’s message on Friday night was the need for “doing” sociology. The best way to get students to “do” sociology is have them dive head-first into a research project and to be involved at every step in the process. The importance of this is evident in point 3.

3. His successful track record with undergraduate researchers. Not only does Dr. Rowland encourage undergraduate research, he expects high quality work, while, at the same time, providing the tools and resources for students to meet these standards. The students he brought gave amazing presentations, knew what they were talking about, and had obviously been involved with every component of their research. This is, of course, the epitome of academia, and fostering this in students while they are undergraduates is what creates a powerhouse graduate student or instills invaluable skills for the world outside of academia.

Reflecting on this event has made us realize that seeing the success of your hard work is a rewarding experience. The three generations of mentors and mentees present at the first annual NEOUSS is a testament to this. It is not surprising that mentors put so much time and effort into the mentoring they do.

To borrow a quote from the man who started it all: “Teddy Roosevelt said more than a generation ago, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing,” and if I know one thing: it is that teaching and mentoring is worth the investment.”

ImageMultiple generations of PSU Altoona’s Research Lab.


Another book review with students first authors; this time, about video games.

Originally posted on Installing (Social) Order:


Proofs are back for an upcoming book review of Bogost’s work; check it out here (some corrections may be made, but the review is pretty stabilized now).

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Just published this piece with undergraduate researchers from the research lab. It is a book review of Anthony Miccoli’s recent 2010 book “Posthuman Suffering and the Technological Embrace,” which is available here and here.

While the topic is fairly esoteric to most — the author of the book admits as much, by the way — this post is about the value of writing book reviews with students, specifically, undergraduate students.  One of the main goals of this blog is to find valuable ways to harness undergraduate research experiences, and writing book reviews with students is a good way to do it, especially if you value “information literacy” (as much as our friends, like Jeff Knapp). Book review humor too?

So, why is writing book reviews a valuable form of undergraduate research?

1. Non-trivial activity and learning about what it means to “put your name” on something:

Probably the most important facet of writing alongside undergraduate researchers is that they consider writing publishable work to be a non-trivial activity. It provides the professor with an opportunity, as well, to really show a student what it means to put your name on a document that will be published. I find myself repeating to students, “if I’m going to put my name on this, then it must be written with a high level of quality.” In fact, some students think it is preposterous how much I might struggle over finding just the right word … just one word … the perfect word. But, moments later, you see that they are really getting it; they are taking control of their learning and starting not to write, but to command the English language. I think about Wes Culp as one of the first students that I remember working closely enough with on really writing — he mentions it, years later, in a recent magazine article too.

2. You can make it part of an upper division course to blend teaching responsibilities with undergraduate research and publishing:

Take, for example, a straight-forward and exceptionally brief review — 400 words, to be exact — of Christotainment written with Marcus Correll and Justin Didyoung. We were already studying non-religion, and through a chance encounter with a past editor of Sociological Viewpoints, the journal of our local Pennsylvania Sociological Society, we were asked to write a brief review of the then-new book, which is here. In this case, both students were looking for an independent study opportunity so we spent the semester writing many drafts of this book review and learning, in the process about book reviews, by making them … many of them, that is, many drafts of them. In the end, the students were held, they reported to me, to the highest standard of writing as compared to any of their previous classes. “It would be reviewed,” I told them, “and after that, it is out of our hands, so this had better be good.” They had to consider their audience; a lesson that was frequently repeated (many, many times). I repeated this process with Mark Singer (on Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided) and Nicholas Tsentas (on Irwin’s Lifers), which are also reviews for Sociological Viewpoints.

3. Opportunity for graduate-school-bound students to publish academic work:

Now at Kent State working under the famous Dr. Serpe on issues related to identity theory, Brooke Long and Fritz Yarrison are two students who understood the academic game and the important role of self-promotion. They came to me asking to review a book. After having recently published a piece in International Sociology, I casually asked the editor if there were any titles that they’d like to have reviewed. In the end, we ended up reviewing a great and massive book about national development partnerships, although, because the three of us were otherwise busy with our own classes, research, and so on, we ended-up writing the review on a handful of Saturday mornings, most notably during a blizzard while working at a Wegman’s grocery store coffee shop. The review was, in there view, another step towards graduate school, but also becoming a professional. Again, the standard of writing was held as absolute on my part, but I also think the students got a taste for what it really means to read a book academically (beyond what is expected in the classroom). In the future, I plan to have students participate a bit more in the solicitation process; it seems that editors are always looking for people to review books … so perhaps it won’t be that difficult. Also, I’d be remiss not to mention that sometimes editors, having read your previous work, come to you specifically to write alongside your students. That was the case with the book review mentioned above; the just-published piece with student co-authors — the book review of Anthony Miccoli’s recent 2010 book “Posthuman Suffering and the Technological Embrace,” which is available here and here. A couple more are on their way too. One about video games and another about oil pipelines.

4. Not just writing, but “information literacy” skills can be developed along the way:

You can also teach students quite a lot about book reviews by asking them to contribute to highly-unorthodox reviews, which are specifically designed to foster student information literacy. This is an idea that has only come slowly to me after nearly a half-decade working closely with a faculty reference librarian, Jeff Knapp. We recently discussed this at a colloquium talk too, and the response was palpable. The basic idea is this: you don’t just write a book review with a student, you use writing the book review as a way to teach the students something about how book reviews fit into academic life and academic literature. Seems simple, but after working with a librarian for a few years, I realize how complex it is. One way we started to do this is by writing book reviews that cite every other book review about the same book under our review. This requires the student to see how book reviews fit into the literature and after a good deal of discussion they grasp the role of book reviews. Also, after some discussion about the profession, students also get a good idea about how book reviews work for academics too; that some people write them, some people don’t, and that a professional obligation associated with being an expert is to review published materials for the broader profession. This was was the case with Alex Kinney (just accepted to Arizona University) in our review of a text for Spontaneous Generations. We worked with the editor at SG to determine whether or not a fairly innovative book review could be written, We reviewed all other reviews of the same book and wrote a review that covered what the other reviews seems to have missed, according to our reading of them. Kinney was responsible for reading the book, of course, but he was also asked to do the background research on the other reviews. The result was a great project, and one we’ve since tried to recreate with lab student Josh Branch and new blogger Nicholas Pyeatt, a review that has already gotten a bit of attention. The same is true of almost any review we now write with students.

5. Low rejection rate and extended window of time for book reviews:

For students, the exceptionally low rejection rate for book reviews and the typically extended window of time that is available for reviews to be completed provides a terrific context for students to publish their first academic work. The payoff for students is relatively high and the liabilities are few, if any. Perhaps, and this is something that has come-up in discussions of this with other professionals, is that the student gets a “false understanding” of how publishing works. “They get a guaranteed publication, which is not,” the critics of this approach contend, “what the broader world of publication looks like.” That very well might be the case; the student gets an inflated sense of their ability because they cannot be rejected and rejection is part of what makes an academic an academic (we’ve all suffered rejections of our work and perseverance is part of the academic game). My response: if you tell them how book reviews fit into the publication game, you reduce that possibility. Still, I concede: no matter how much you tell a student about the role of book reviews, perhaps a few will be unable to to hear it. On the flip-side, however, you train a student that in the professional world you have some obligations to review work — that book reviews, as limited as they are in readership and despite their low-status as a publication, provide a valuable function to the broader academic world and that a student could contribute to that if properly trained and mentored … I’m fine with that message too. I have seen no negative consequences thus far.

6. Given the relatively low pay-off to faculty for writing book reviews, writing them with a student boosts their value to the faculty member:

Hammering-out book review after book review is not a viable path toward tenure or promotion at nearly any college or university. However, completing a few high quality book reviews with student co-authors can increase the utility of those book reviews because you have now blended student mentoring (which is a service to the institution), teaching (because the students must learn so much to accomplish this task), research (because, while minimum, book reviews are a signal that you are an active scholar), and a service to the profession (given that book reviews are something of a shared burden to academics in many fields). Thus, getting students involved is way to muster a bit more value out of the experience.

7. It is fun:

I might be alone in this, but writing book reviews is fun. You are freed to write in a slightly different style, if you’re accustomed to writing, for example, research reports. You can tie-in, if you so choose, all manner of citations to other academic work as well as relevant material from the public sector. At any rate, I like it.

So, this is why you might write book reviews with your students.

Originally posted on Progressive Geographies:

Some good advice for academic interviews in  The Guardian .

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Check it out from Newsweek: “In Another Blow to Free Labor, Columbia University Halts Academic Credit for Internship.”

We share a lot of the concerns nestled in the short read above, and have mentioned many of them previously, trying to save internships by making them academic research experiences, attempts to create training programs in order to instill this in a growing number of students, or blending internships with traditional work-based learning in order to make them more academic.

Interestingly enough: instead of innovation, Columbia seems to be sounding the charge that “academic internships are over” … it seems to be an interesting case of leadership in higher education based on ending a struggling facet of the system rather than starting something new and innovative. Let’s see if the rest of academia jumps on the proverbial bandwagon.


February 28th – March 1st, the first annual Northeast Ohio Undergraduate Sociology Symposium (NEO-USS) will convene. The event will:

showcase the scholarly work of undergraduates from across the region that have interests in sociology, criminology/criminal justice, gender studies, LGBTQ studies, and black studies/Pan-African studies.  The conference will provide students with an opportunity to present their work in a friendly and supportive forum and to network with faculty and students from over twenty-five colleges and universities.

At Penn State Altoona, we are sending a current student and a couple of our recent graduates to share their work. The finalized program is available here.

On Friday night, I will kick-off the “opening ceremony” (if I may use that Olympic reference unfairly) and I plan to do it with this talk: “Undergraduate Research will Save all of Sociology: Here is how.”


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