Thursday, November 29, 2007


All right! All this deep talk has moved my blog up:
cash advance

While we're being reflexive, my dad sent me this.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

You've been advised, part II

So if my dissertation is being driven by a central idea, what is that idea? I'm been thinking through a bevy of ideas, and I feel like I can't quite get there. Here's some of what I've been tossing around.

"Elite institutions have interests identical with those of elite individuals." A hundred years ago, Harvard wasn't selective. They didn't turn down a lot of students. Instead, it was in a mutually supportive relationship with America's elite, especially the Boston elite. The right folks applied and were admitted, and most everyone else didn't give a rip. This solidarity thesis may have been true back in that day, but it hasn't been for a long time. When Columbia and Penn started admitting more Jews, their relationships with the upper class eroded, according to work by Farnum. That they allowed this to happen suggests the institutions had some interests at least that did not coincide with the elite as a whole.

Well, how about a thesis about change over time? Because I'm not doing a history. Whatever changes have taken place are a backdrop; I'm just analyzing the current situation.

"To those that have, are given." This is accumulative advantage, or the Matthew Effect, made famous by Merton. Certainly I am looking at institutions that have and keep getting. But I'm not explaining why everyone else can't keep up; I'm looking at the active process of keeping at the head of the procession. Accumulative advantage may state that organizations do whatever it takes to stay ahead; it doesn't say why one course of action rather than another is what it takes.

Stratification is too broad, but I think I can discard it without delving too deep. Colleges are stratified, sure, but stratification theory is about how individuals behave. It's why the stakeholders in my dissertation are making the demands on colleges they do. But I don't think it describes how colleges decide to respond.

If you're talking about responding to stakeholders, you're talking resource dependency. That is, organizations respond to the demands of those who have resources, be those fiscal or regulatory or something else. The problem with this theory is that no matter what an org does, it can be explained by resource dependency. Therefore, it's not predictive. You can't model how a college decides to respond to one set of stakeholders or balance conflicting demands. I am arguing that colleges are in fact actively balancing contradictory constituent demands, but this can't tell me in what proportion, or why it just doesn't give up one set of stakeholders. For a theory, RD is strangely atheoretical.

I'm only starting to read about status systems, so maybe I don't know enough about them yet to really say much. I have a feeling there could be something there.

I'm thinking about consumption and how you know a good is high status. Some things are consumed only by elites. Say, yachts. Whatever interest most people have in yachts, we aren't buying them. Do you know yacht brands? I don't. Other goods everybody buys, say, cars. Here we can identify elite brands even if we don't purchase them ourselves. We all tacitly know that a Ferrari is better than a Kia. Part of that is price, but is it all? Doesn't part of Ferrari's status depend on being known as a status good? Kia could jack up their prices - even hire a Ferrari designer - and the end product might cost more than my Cinco, but I bet it wouldn't compete with a Ferrari.

So a high-end product in a mass market, I think, needs both scarcity (whether artificial or natural) as well as name recognition. (I'm wandering into Veblen territory here.) Colleges, back in the day, did not produce goods for the masses, and so were like yachts. Today, with the massification of higher education, they do, and are like cars.

Being scarce isn't hard for the top colleges to do - just limit admissions. Being broadly identified as an elite product is. Price is a signal to some extent, but just like in the souped-up Kia example it isn't enough. How does Ferrari stay on top? It makes cars that perform well. What is the equivalent for a college? It has to be known to perform well, which I think for a college doesn't mean it teaches students a lot. It means it offers entree into elite society. Frankly, that's really the only good an elite institution offers that other colleges don't. That's the hard thing to maintain that drives a lot of institutional behavior. The concessions made to elites, such as an advantages in admissions, are not because they have identical interests or because colleges need their fiscal resources, but because good relationships with elites are what they are selling to all comers.

But I know nothing about consumption and luxury goods, except what I know from The Theory of the Leisure Class, which is a century old. Somehow I don't think scholars have been sitting around twiddling their thumbs on the topic.

Wait, is this what my dissertation is about? If so, I had no idea until right about now. How can my central, driving question be entirely subconscious? I don't even know where to look in the literature. And if that's my argument, why aren't I just looking at legacy admissions? Why am I adding development admits too?

I need a luxury good right about now. Preferably a strong one with a little umbrella in it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

You've been advised, part I

Today I had a meeting with my dissertation chair about another paper I'm working on (the one that was panned for being too long when it wasn't) and it turned into a meeting about my dissertation. He was really pushing me to conceptualize it as an example of a specific theory - as an example of how the world works that just happens to be taken from education - rather than as a dissertation about education.

In the good old days before I entered the Ivory Tower, I would have said all research questions were created equal. Oh, curing cancer might beat curing bruises from a useful standpoint, but "finding info about the world and how it works" was all intellectually equal. Right, not so much. Facts about the world, no matter how useful, that are isolated facts and not part of a system, just don't rank as high. That's why "practical" disciplines such as education have less prestige than "pure" disciplines.

So if you're doing research in education, you can conceptualize your question several ways.

One, it is a practical question of "does X work?". Education gets browbeaten for asking these atheoretical questions, but they have their place. Let's say one of your state senators decides that in order to improve education, all class sizes need to be 10 students or less. If his bill passes, the state is going to spend a lot of benjamins to reduce class sizes. So asking simply, "Do smaller classes lead to higher test scores/higher graduation rates/etc.?" without any kind of theoretical grounding is a reasonable question. One reason to criticize this work is that it doesn't lead to any guidance on how to answer follow-up questions. If you find that reducing classes sizes from 20 to 10 does make a difference, would it also be equally good to add a teacher aide to each class of 20? Would reducing class sizes to 15 have the same effect? What about lengthening the school year? Does it matter for all grades?

Thus, you can introduce theory. In alumni giving research, some folks draw on psychological theories of attachment. Alumni wish to identify with a school they perceive as successful, thereby boosting their own projection of success. Your hypothesize that alumni increase their giving if their alma mater rises in the U.S. News rankings. And if you find out it does, you can go on to test whether making more PR noise about your rise in rankings further improves giving. Great, now you're grounded in theory. But your work doesn't feed back into the work on loyalty and attachment. It's pitched at others in education, not to psychologists. Your central question is about education fundraising, not about psychology.

Your final alternative is to take a theoretical proposition and use education as a test case. Suppose you are interested in stratification. In a nutshell, stratification theory posits that we all want our kids to have at least as much status as ourselves. The trouble is, the elite have more resources to use as inputs on their childrens' behalves. Thus, no matter what the rules of the game are, those who already have win. So you might posit that if education is a pathway to the elite, those who are already in the elite will set the educational bar higher for the next generation. If a college education used to be enough to enter the elite, ambitious non-elites would start to get college degrees. But now the elite is getting bigger; maybe a masters degree will come to be seen as a minimum. Education is your test case here; your next project may well be on how the elite controls the Social Register.

Even at a really excellent education department, like, oh, Vanderbilt, most of the work being done falls into the second category. At the end of the day, it's about improving education. I offer no criticism of this, and in fact I think it's what "the public" expects from an ed school. We in LPO tend to frown on the first category - my advisor made it clear long ago that my dissertation WOULD have a theoretical grounding. There is no or else.

So why was my chair pushing me towards category three? In part, of course, that's because his own dissertation was like that. It was fundamentally asking a question about a theory of political science. I don't think that's the only reason, mind you, but he didn't give a list of reasons. He did go further and suggested actively insinuating myself into the networks of where those kinds of questions are being answered. As my advisor pointed out, this would give me a whole other set of peers. (On the other hand, it doesn't really open up any more jobs. It's still a PhD in ed, and you don't get into a sociology department with that.) I am finding myself that most of the work I think is interesting is Category III work, and it's being done by people I don't know at conferences I don't go to. That alone is an incentive for me to follow his advice.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Furniture rocks

Last Monday I stopped into my office and noticed that, joy of joys, we finally got our filing cabinets. (There was a mishap with the furniture delivery at the beginning of the year.) So this morning I spent some quality time rearranging things, putting things inside my file cabinet, and generally sprucing up my corner of the office. And then I got a key for the cabinet. Now I can lock my belongings up when I leave and feel secure they won't disappear, even if my officemate isn't around to keep an eye on things.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lost dogs

Lost dogs
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
While walking in Shelby Park this morning, two random dogs attached themselves to me. They followed me for most of the way back to the lot, obviously being people dogs, until I met a jogger. She didn't have a cell phone on her either, so we couldn't call Animal Control, but they liked her fast pace and followed her back to her car.

Their tags had registration numbers but no owner information; Animal Control wasn't going to be open (and able to look them up) until Tuesday. She decided to take them to the Humane Society.

So, if anyone in East Nashville is missing a German Shepherd and a Boston Terrier, call the Humane Society. And get tags with your phone number on them, because if the dogs had those they could be home with you now.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


I'm back from Charleston, where we had a great Thanksgiving. We stayed with family on Isle of Palms, but we spent some time sightseeing in Charleston proper, too. The picture here is of the beach on IOP.

Yes, it was in the high 70s and sunny the whole time, although at night the temperature dropped considerably. And yes, I ate a great deal.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
I'm leaving tomorrow for Thanksgiving break. I hope all of you have happy, healthy, relaxing holidays.

The photo at right is one of a series of fall photos I took on the Peabody campus. The squirrels, as you see, are not at all people-shy.

Friday, November 16, 2007

All quiet on the turkey front

I've been somewhat heads-down the last few days, partially because I've had a cold. It's not going to kill me, but I've been sleeping a lot. So there's nothing very exciting to report. (Except I did go to the new Whole Foods today. I've never seen such an enormous Whole Foods. It's aisle after aisle of food porn!)

I also think that having the grant application and my conference presentations behind me has helped me be more productive on some end of the semester stuff. This is in part because they're just out of the way, but also because I was spending nervous mental energy on them. End of the semester projects, on the other hand, do entail a lot of work but are not novel. They don't induce the same sort of anxiety.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Viewing pleasure

Here are two videos for your perusal:

This is something you just have to see. Really.

This might be somewhat less goofy if I spoke Korean, but only minimally.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Next steps

OK, I'm over it. I don't have room in my headspace to let this reviewer take up valuable real estate, so ... moving on ...

I came back from ASHE filled with ideas and plans, as usual. Dr. Carter, who was the discussant on my event history analysis paper, had several good suggestions, of which I plan to use all but one. On the drive home, Ms. Prepared had a really excellent suggestion for a slightly different direction in which to take the paper. So now I'm more excited about a project I had gotten tired of. (I am not taking one of Dr. Carter's suggestions because the new direction obviates the need for it, not because it wasn't a good one.)

I also have roughly mapped out where the various projects I am working on need to go over the next year or so, with next steps, where to submit them, etc.

But - before I can do any of that - I have some homework to catch up on for this week.

Adding insult

The reviews are available for proposals for AERA. Two of mine were accepted and one was rejected.

Reading the comments isn't necessarily fun - they tell you what's wrong with your paper, and I'm no masochist. However, generally the comments are useful. Some make me think, "Right, OK, I should do that." Others make me think, "They're wrong about X, but I'm pretty sure that I was unclear. Time to rewrite." Some I disagree with and am willing to take the risk that others will agree with me when I submit elsewhere. Others are more complex or thought-provoking.

But then there is the occasional comments that makes you wonder if they were actually reading your paper at all.

I had one reviewer write, "This proposal is quite problematic for me. First, it appear to be too long and, thus, I do not believe that it is compliant with the baseline requirements for proposal submissions to Division J." The call for proposals says, "Provide a summary of 2,000 words or fewer (excluding references) for use in judging the merits of the proposed paper." Division J does not provide a different word count. My proposal clocks in at 1986.

Honestly, this makes me angry. It's rare you can say that a reviewer is clearly and unequivocally wrong. While it doesn't matter (this paper would have been rejected in any case), it is frustrating to see the one thing you know you did right criticized.

Friday, November 9, 2007

ASHE 2007

It's day 2 of ASHE. So far, we learned that Louisville is on Eastern time (which I should have known, since I've driven up and down I-65 enough times). I have a few pictures from the Vanderbilt reception, which I will post as soon as I get around to downloading them. For now, I have to go meet my editor. (Doesn't that make me sound fancy? In truth, she's the editor of the book I'm third author on. So it's not inaccurate to call her my editor, just misleading.)

I guess I have to start saying things like that, though. Apparently between being a second and a third year student a transformation occurred. As a second year, I was one of a large mass of mostly indistinguishable graduate students that were treated politely but with no special interest. Apparently now I am close enough to being on the job market - even though I'm not looking this year, I have started on that magical process that ends in "dissertation" - that I'm now quasi-scrutinized by many of the people I meet, but most particularly by other students on the market or soon to be. It's all friendly enough, but it's a weird feeling.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Academic conferencing

Tomorrow morning I head off to ASHE, where higher ed academics present research and have a general hootenany. This year it is in Louisville, so we're driving. Depending on the internet situation, I may or may not be posting. Wish me luck in my presentations on Saturday.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Various education notes

"Del Mar College’s interim president has come under fire for proposed policy changes affecting faculty life – most notably one decoupling promotion from tenure." Without getting into the issues of tenure and promotion, what I wonder is, what the heck is an interim president doing making policy changes? Interims are hired with the understanding they are temporary placeholders, cardboard cutouts to stand in for a permanent president, if you will. They keep things going the way they were before they started. Occasionally, a major scandal will erupt under an interim's watch, and then, of course, the interim must act. But other under circumstances, interims with big ideas are supposed to sit back and apply for the presidential job like everyone else.

MIT is suing Frank Gehry for its ineptly designed and constructed building. UC Irvine tore its Gehry down; my own alma mater has had ongoing issues with its Gehry. (In addition to the ice mentioned in the link, they've had the same flooding problems that MIT has.) I do have one soft spot for CWRU's Gehry, though - its labrynthian architecture played a sizable role (along with the shooter's ineptness) in stopping our own school shooting from being an even bigger tragedy than it was.

I saw a college billboard the other day that seemed a little different. Most college billboards are either touting their degree programs or their sports. Among the latter, you see "Catch the [team] spirit!" and "Get your season tickets!" Those that tout degree programs take one of two strategies. One is focused on you - "Get your degree, get your promotion" or "It's time to fulfill your dream." When you think about it, these don't actually tell you that the college being advertised is the best place to do it. Others advertise the advantages of their particular program - get your degree online, part-time, or more quickly. The billboard for Bethel College was clearly among the last type. It said, "Learn more, finish faster." But I've never seen a college billboard before that actually said anything about learning. A degree is always treated as a certification or credential, one can you can take pride in, but then you can take pride in lots of kinds of hard work that do not necessarily increase your knowledge.

Last, but not least, Vanderbilt has announced what it wants in a chancellor.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Kickball results

I was reminded that I did not post the results of the Peabody kickball tournament. For the second year in a row, our department won. It was a close thing; one game we won in overtime, one we won by forfeit, and we actually tied our final game. But since each of the other teams had lost a game, our record was still the best.

Better ideas

So I was being a bit of a smart aleck about that diagram. Actually, it was a good idea. I was finishing up my grant proposal and was very dissatisfied with the theoretical framework. Dr. McLendon had told me to elaborate on it, and I had, but it felt disjointed. There was some of theory A and some of theory B but I didn't feel like it tied together.

Then I decided to draw a model of what I thought was actually happening, and suddenly the framework made a lot more sense. I had to rearrange and write some more, but it was no longer random piles of theory. I thought - for just a moment - great, I would figure this out at the last minute. Then I realized, better the last minute than the next day, after I've turned the proposal in. Hooray for just-in-time production!

Whenever I have a breakthrough that seems sudden like that, I never know if it is really a new flash of insight, or if it's just stuff that's been simmering finally coming together.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Stop me before I apply to Owen

Ack, I just found myself drawing a diagram, complete with arrows. What am I, an Owen School of Business student? Help!

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Tonight I am finishing up a proposal for a dissertation grant. Only 6% of applicants are awarded the grant - but of course, all 100% of non-applicants are turned down.
At the very least, it is forcing me to put into words and think through issues. You know how something seems perfectly clear in your head, but you try to explain it to someone else or to formulate it explicitly, and you realize you were glossing over some bits of it? Yeah, I'm going through that. I'm also chasing down citations and beefing up my theory section. I tend to absorb theories and then report them back telegraphically:
org theory stop resource dependency stop stakeholders with different levels of salience stop
I need to slow down and explain these things, not only because that's better academic writing, but because in this case the readers could be in a totally different area of education - say, they study interventions for autistic pre-schoolers.