May 30, 2007
Anthro majors gone wild!
I showed "24 Hours on Craiglist" to my Life Online class last week, a film our a/v guy handed to me that morning and which I had not pre-screened. It's great.
One of the Craigslisters interviewed was a young woman who explained that after graduation and her discovery that no jobs awaited her, she had decided to sell her services as a "wife" to gay men on Craiglist. "What did you major in?", she was asked. "Anthropology." Ack!
Happy, then, I was to find this profile of someone who found/created a good job for herself with a B.A. in the field: Sarah Rich
Another Sarah, Sarah Thibault, was mentioned in yesterday's L.A. Times piece on gutter punks in the Haight-Ashbury district. Thibault pulled herself out of said gutter, majored in anthropology at SF State and now works at an assistance center in the Haight.
March 23, 2006
Gender Imbalance in Higher Ed
What Jennifer Delahunty Britz describes in her column in today's New York Times about higher standards for female college applicants than male ones is, of course, affirmative action for men, although she doesn't use the term. The fact that she “apologize[s]” to women “for the demographic realities” implies that there is injustice in this. If the reason for higher numbers of women attending and graduating from college is that men have greater job opportunities than women without a college degree and for this or some other reasons are electing not to attend college, she is clearly she is right. It's unfair. If, on the other hand, our schools are failing to prepare men for college at the same rate as women, than, following the logics of other affirmative actions, is the bias in admissions justified? I would still argue that it is not, and agree with Britz, unless there is either proof of historic and ongoing discrimination or bias in admission criteria that undervalues important skills that male applicants might have in greater abundance. I find this unlikely. Should high schools examine possible failings in preparing boys for college? Absolutely.
February 21, 2006
Academic email and the too-casual style
Today's silly New York Times story about email from students to professors quotes complaints about being asked to send notes for missed classes, about receiving pleas for help with personal issues, about being asked about what kind of school supplies to buy.
Although I can relate to many of these experiences, and have now and then received an email from a student with a cheeky "hey teach" sort of flair that put me off, I think there's a strong reactionary streak running through a lot of the professors' moaning.
English Professor Meg Worley of Pomona College, was quoted as saying that
she told students that they must say thank you after receiving a professor's response to an e-mail message.
"One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back," Professor Worley said.
She is saying that she was misquoted, here on Tim Burke's blog and in an email to Pomona faculty, and that she just makes suggestions about etiquette for email to profs and points out "conventions." The suggestions, although basic and reasonable things your mother or Emily Post might say, still reveal a little anxiety about authority such as often accompanies new forms of communication (I guess the New York Times thinks email in academia is new).
There has always been disrespectful (and, following the analysis in the article, perhaps increasingly consumerist) behavior between students and faculty: acting up in class, nasty things written on bathroom stalls, home phone calls at inappropriate hours, overly personal issues raised in office hours, an "exaggerated sense of entitlement" exhibited in comments about classwork or grades. The medium is not to blame when occasional behavior like this shows up in emails.
Personally, I like it that students can send me email at 2 a.m. when they're up studying or whatever. I can answer it right away if I'm up - embarrassingly often, actually - or wait to respond until it's convenient for me. I do let students know that although they may frequently get quick responses at odd hours from me, they can't always count on it. I get lots of breezy and sometimes mildly inappropriate emails, but I don't find that it undercuts my authority where it matters, and I think the informality in this medium is good, on balance. The empowerment given to students through email can be helpful to some, the shy ones, for example, something I also notice in my students' blogs in my "Life Online" course. I too communicate to students differently via email, more teasing, maybe, sometimes more terse, sometime more prolix than in "RL." Since there is less and less socializing between students and faculty (damn lawyers again?), email is a nice escape from more scripted forms of interaction. On the other hand, I also get some emails from students that are far more formal than what I assume they are exchanging with peers, sometimes comically so. As in all Internet interaction, the way users interpret and imbue meaning to particular sites, and communication media are unpredictably connected to cultural values from other arenas and other times.
As for the offensive email asking about what kind of binder to buy, jeez, I answer that question all the time in my classes. They usually want to know whether they are going to get a blizzard of handouts they will have keep organized (the answer is no, due to the miracle of course web sites, an even newer educational technology the New York Times might want to look into).
Letting students email assignments, another point of contention, does introduce a whole new genre of sometimes dubious excuses, but it's often a whole lot more convenient for me and them. It saves them money, and as long as the College is paying for my paper and toner....
December 14, 2005
In defense of hard exams
It's been quite few number of years since I taught a class large enough to think about grading on a curve. Futhermore, I decided long ago that I was philosophically opposed to the practice, thinking that I owed the students an objective measure of my expectations and their achievements toward them. This semester, however, my wife and I are co-teaching three sections of Introduction to Sociocultural Anthropology totally over eighty students. Our first two midterm exams mixed multiple choice/true-false questions with short essay/long answer sections. Grades were generally lower than the distribution we would like to see in the final grades, but participation and two critique papers were graded more generously, and the overall averages were tending up to the low B mean we were looking for.
Still, the students were frustrated that the midterms were so hard (the second one had a high score in the upper 80% range and a mean of 72, down from a mean of 76 on the first exam. I consciously tried to write an easier final, half on new material and half a recapitulation of the first two thirds and worth double the midterms.
I don't know if I succeeded, but preliminary inspection and some discouraged looks on faces leaving the exam room last night suggest not. The problem, I think, is that to write an objective exam with a mean in the low 80s means writing lots of questions -- 50% or more -- that any warm body in class most days could answer, and I resist this. Such questions seem to insult their intelligence, so I end up introducing some little challenging nuance to almost every question. Even the best students start second guesing and "over-analyzing" and end up missing more points than the 0-5% that they are probably used to.
Without entering here into the complicated debates about the meaning of grades, grade inflation, and so forth, I think that hard exams have two major advantages. One, if curved, they do test more efficiently than an easier exam that produces a generally more restricted range of grades. Second, they are themselves a more effective teaching tool. There were a couple of questions on this final that went to issues that I knew that most or all of the students didn't get, owing in part to my hurrying through them or other pedagogical or logistical factors. The exam was the last chance to drive those points home!
The downsides, of course, are the increased anxiety and lower morale. No one bounced out of the room spiking the air with their fists, heading home to a sure "A," the payoff for their hard work -- and I know that in many cases the studying was assiduous and sincere. In fact, since they don't yet know (I don't yet know) exactly how the curve will work, there is no one who knows that they are assured of an A, though clearly I will give some.
I'll update when I finish grading...
December 9, 2005
Late night on HBO one never knows whether a new show will be astoundingly good or unbelievable trash. On the topic of sex, this is especially true. When I sat down to watch "Middle Sexes" this week (in truth, just for something to watch while calming a fussy baby), I was half expecting an especially bizarre take on the "G-string Divas" theme. This show was excellent, however, and I can't wait for a copy to use in teaching. It was made by Anthony Thomas and is narrated by Gore Vidal. It explores the social identities and roles around the world for intersexuals, transsexuals, and homosexuals with great sensitivity, a light editorial touch, and ethnographic sensibility. It aired just after the unit on Sex and Gender in my "Introduction to Sociocultural Anthropology" course; had I known what to expect, I'd have brought my sections to my house to watch! It airs throughout December and January. Kudus to HBO.
July 30, 2005
Here's a screen shot from my student Jennifer of her laptop in the early dawn hours in Maui as she participated in our mid-morning class discussion in Cambridge, yours truly on the left.
Don't nobody else get any ideas (!), but this worked okay (no video on our end, unfortunately, but the audio was clear in both directions). Of course, for the purposes of our class (the anthropological investigation of cyberspace) it was an excellent opportunity. Next time, though, I want my college to send ME to Hawaii and I'll beam in on my class.
Grades and grading
So, more or less on hiatus this summer, but I do want rouse myself from my stupor to point out some interesting posts and comments on grading and getting papers & exams by email on WitchProf's blog:
papers by email (ugh, except that it's so damn convenient, except when it's not...)
May 24, 2005
Pomp & Circumstance
It's graduation time again at the Waldens of the world. The full comic is here.
May 6, 2005
The doctoral dissertation defense compared
In case you're not on the Tomorrow's Professor email list from Stanford University's Center for Teaching and Learning, this week's entry is a really good one. First an excerpt, then, click on extended entry for the whole thing. It's Chapter 5 of The Ph.D. Defense in Research Genres: Explorations and Applications, by John M. Swales of The University of Michigan. Cambridge University Press, 2004. (It was used by permission there, on a huge listserv, so I'm assuming it's okay for the blogosphere. I'm sure someone will let me know if not.)
In continental Europe, in contrast, matters tend to proceed in a very different manner. In Scandinavia, the examination is conducted in a large room, with as many as fifty people present, with a senior university official such as a dean presiding, everybody decidedly dressed up, the examiners in full academic regalia, the chair, examiners, and candidate processing in and out of the room in a fixed order, and some use of ceremonial Latin. The seating arrangements may resemble that of a court, and the external examiners is often called "the opponent." On a recent instance in Finland, I not only had to provide a detailed report before the thesis was approved for defense, but also had to prepare a ten-minute oral critique of the work being examined as a means of getting the examination fully under way. As might be expected, the discourse was pretty formal, with questions taking such form as "Would the honored candidate now like to address the question ofŠ?" No first names were used.
THE Ph.D. DEFENSE
The Ph.D. defense, oral examination, or "viva" is a very interesting genre and only partly because it presents another opportunity to consider the repurposing of genres, as discussed in Chapter 3. Are dissertation defenses, on the one hand, just "meaningless rituals," mere epideictic celebrations, simple instances of "just going through the motions"? Or are they, on the other, tough and true oral examinations of the submitted work, consisting of carefully prepared but unpredictable interrogations of the texts under review and thoughtful and intelligent responses by the candidates? Or are they sometimes both, or at least sometimes more and sometimes less one or the other? Unfortunately, our primary knowledge of the discoursal properties of this genre is limited to a massively investigated instance of a single sociology defense recorded in a complex manner at Indiana University in 1975 (Grimshaw, 1989; Grimshaw et al., 1994). In addition to this, I have studied the four dissertation defenses that have been recorded as part of the MICASE project.
Defenses Outside the United States
Before we look at the discoursal characteristics of the U.S. defense itself, it is particularly important to put this event type into a broader geographical context. Elsewhere, oral examinations of the Ph.D. can take very different forms and have different names, such as "viva," "viva voce," and "disputas" (Norway). In Britain, and in countries influenced by British academic traditions, the assessment of the Ph.D. thesis, as it is normally called, is carried out in a closed room and conducted by an external examiner from another institution, and an internal examiner, who is not the candidate's supervisor/advisor. There also my be a senior academic from the home university present who acts as chair and is there to make sure that no unseemly wrangles or hostilities break out. The candidate's own supervisor can ask to be present but is not usually allowed to say anything; often the supervisor busies herself or himself taking notes, including those designed to assist the candidate in making any revisions, emendations, or additions that the examiners may require. In this system, the external examiner has a great deal of power, including that of "referring" it for resubmission, or insisting that, whatever revisions might be attempted, it only qualifies for a lesser degree, such as an M.Phil. Under these circumstances, a key issue for supervisor and candidate is choosing the right external examiner. In my experience, these vivas last about two hours and have much of the "quasi-informal" (see later) character of U.S. defenses, as perhaps might be expected given the small number of people present and the lack of an audience.
In continental Europe, in contrast, matters tend to proceed in a very different manner. In Scandinavia, the examination is conducted in a large room, with as many as fifty people present, with a senior university official such as a dean presiding, everybody decidedly dressed up, the examiners in full academic regalia, the chair, examiners, and candidate processing in and out of the room in a fixed order, and some use of ceremonial Latin. The seating arrangements may resemble that of a court, and the external examiners is often called "the opponent." On a recent instance in Finland, I not only had to provide a detailed report before the thesis was approved for defense, but also had to prepare a ten-minute oral critique of the work being examined as a means of getting the examination fully under way. As might be expected, the discourse was pretty formal, with questions taking such form as "Would the honored candidate now like to address the question ofŠ?" No first names were used. In France, according to Maingueneau (2002), a key genre is the Report of the Thesis Defence Meeting (RTDM), which is the official document produced by the examining jury and which, as an official archived text, is of considerable significance for the candidate's future career.
According to Burling (1997), the Norwegian "disputas" will typically be even more elaborate, with the candidate ("doctorand") being required to present two formal public lectures on the day before the accrual disputas, one being a topic of the candidate's own choosing and one assigned by the examination committee. The defense itself takes most of the day, with the first "opponent" asking more general and theoretical questions in the morning - after having given a twenty- to thirty-minute summary of the dissertation for the benefit of the attending "publikum" - and a second "opponent" asking more specific questions in the afternoon. Burling also notes that the preferred form of address is again in the third person ("Is there anything that the doctorand would like to add?"), at least partly because the opponent is addressing two audiences: the candidate and the attending fifty or so members of the "publikum" consisting of faculty, colleagues, friends, and relatives. After the disputas, there is a formal banquet known as the "doctor's dinner" at which "the candidate is simultaneously host and guest of honor" (p. 13).
On another occasion, when I was an examiner in Holland, the defense genre had much of the same character, except that each of the several examiners was permitted to ask only one question (!), and the university's "pedale," or beadle, appeared after forty-five minutes, banged a large ornamental staff on the floor, and announced "Ora est" ("Time's up"). Aside from the highly ceremonial nature of these oral examinations, another distinguishing feature is that the thesis in much of continental Europe will already have been published, usually by the local university press. Although the candidate may think otherwise, the oral examination has the character of a ceremonial public academic debate designed to showcase elegant formal language and intellectual dexterity on the part of the protagonists.
Two hours are usually set aside for the U.S. dissertation defense, and the time and place of the defense is typically published, although it is by no means always the case that outsides (other interested faculty, fellow doctoral students, friends, and family of the candidate) are present. This is quite a heavily instantiated genre, with tens of thousands of exemplars in any one calendar year. (As far as I am aware, almost all doctorate-granting U.S. universities require a defense before a doctorate is awarded, one of the few exceptions being the University of California-Berkeley, where only the original proposal requires a formal oral examination.) Typically, the principal defense participants include a candidate, the candidate's chair or advisor, additional faculty members from the candidate's department, and one or more faculty members from outside departments. As Grimshaw notes:
Typically, the defense participants have views about appropriate evaluative criteria for both the written product (and the research it incorporates) and the candidate's performance in the defense proper as part of their stock of cultural resources; typically, the institutions themselves have normative charters of varying degrees of specificity and enforceability. These dissertation defenses vary somewhat from institution to institution, discipline to discipline, department to department; they collectively differ from defenses of fifty years ago and from those in the societies from which the practice was originally borrowed. A satisfactory answer to the question of how defenses vary over time and place is also an answer to the question of how social structure is generated, sustained, reproduced and changed. (Grimshaw, 1994: 444-5)
Although much of what we know about dissertation defenses from a discoursal perspective comes from the nearly twelve hundred combined pages of Grimshaw (1989) and Grimshaw et al. (1994), there are additionally anecdotal stories from various participants that add color to our impressions of the genre. Of course, this rite de passage can also make an appearance in the subgenre of the (English department) campus novel. The earliest instance known to me that includes an oral examination is by George Stewart and indeed has the highly relevant title of Doctor's Oral. At the close of the novel, the Grand Old Man of the English Department, who had eventually come to the rescue of the young candidate, reflects on his experience earlier that day:
How many examinations had he sat through? Sometimes he felt a monotony. Each was different, and each was the same. He could plot the normal curve. First the highly excited period; then the "rising action" when the candidate had collected himself and was still fresh; the growing weariness marked by slowed reactions and almost careless answers; then the dead half-hour when it seemed that you had to flog up the candidate to answer every question; finally, the little rally which might come before the end when realized that he was just about through - the last heart-breaking, pathetic sprint of the long distance-runner as he sighted the tape ahead. (pp. 239-40)
Stewart also nicely characterized different questioning styles by the faculty members. Here is a brief extract:
To be through with Brice's sharp staccato was a relief. Now Martiness was having his turn. He asked questions like a man snapping a black-snake whip - at first the slow moving grace of the loops as the question shaped, then the lash leaping forward and the crack as the last words released the question's real point. (p. 195)
April 21, 2005
What to read?
I had an email yesterday from a student from Singapore who has been accepted to Harvard as a freshman. He will be deferring admission a year and wants to spend the intervening time preparing himself. He came across my syllabus for the Sophomore Tutorial in Social Anthropology, a fairly intense theory course that newly declared concentrators take. He tried to download the online readings, which were password protected for the obvious legal reasons, and was thinking of buying the book (the McGee and Warms reader in anthropological theory) but was worried that the reading list would change by the time he arrives in the course three years from now! After stifling my amused reaction and the observation that he'll fit in well with the over-achieving and ever-anxious Harvard undergrads, I told him that he should read some "fun" ethnographies, some history, and novels and that last thing in the world he should think about doing is wading through Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss and Bourdieu as a pre-freshman. The very thought of it! And, as our undergraduate administrator pointed out, what we want is well-rounded people anyway, not narrow anthro-geeks. I told him I'd send some recommendations, especially if there's some part of the world he's particularly interested in.
This got me thinking, what are the books we would recommend to a general audience (since this is certainly what he would be, his desire to get a jump on his classmates notwithstanding), books that would be fun and engaging and also represent what we think is of value in our field? I'll ponder this and maybe start a wiki topic or two on AnthroWiki.