Monday, June 30, 2008


One of my birthday presents was The Academic Job Search Handbook, third edition. Since it looks like I'll be on the job market this fall, I figured it might be a good idea to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm the kind of paranoid person who feels much better having done something official like read The Book, no matter how much information I've absorbed through other channels. So, hooray, official information.

I hate those Merrell ads

I don't know where else they appear, but they're on Facebook at least:
  • "Remember how you talked about hiking the Appalachian Trail someday? Why don't you take a hike this weekend?" Message: Yeah, you big lazy lug. Stop just talking and get off your arse and do it, or shut up. Who is this supposed to appeal to? I'm already hiking this weekend, thank you very much. And if I wasn't, do they really think an ad is going to motivate me via guilt? Now if my mom calls me up and says, "Geez, you keep talking about doing the AT," maybe that would work. Merrell? Not so much.
  • "Remember when you ran further than the guy who got you into running in the first place? Like you'd forget." Message: You are the kind of competitive jerk who has to remind everyone else of exactly how good you are. Ah, yes, July 15, 2006 ...and I was wearing Adidas at the time.

Apparently Merrell is the brand of choice for bullies and jerks. In any case, all these ads make me want to do is not be associated with Merrell in any way. Not that I am now, as their hiking boots don't fit me well. I believe this works out well for both of us.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Conclusion: Nature still constrains us

On Saturday I went for a walk at Peeler Park in northeast Nashville. But this entry isn't about the hike itself; it's about getting there. Nashville is a city with a river running through it. (I have linked to an old map because it does the clearest job of showing the Cumberland River.) Most of the time you'd never notice the impact of the river - oh sure, you see it when driving over, but it doesn't affect navigation. I cross it every time I leave east Nashville and really only notice when a bridge is closed.

But the majority of bridges connect east Nashville with downtown or are part of the interstates. Other parts have town have few or no bridges. Occasionally it becomes obvious, like when I want to go to Opry Mills and go shopping. It's not far away as the crow flies, but I'm not a crow. The only bridge over the right part of the Cumberland is a new greenways bridge, not open to cars. And I noticed it on Saturday as I tried to go to Peeler Park. A bird would cross the river twice, but I had to drive a long way around. The result is that the area, Neely's Bend, still feels pretty rural and undeveloped, despite being close to several more populous areas. On the other side of town is another park in a similar situation, Bell's Bend.

The upshot is that these parks are much less visited than your average greenway, because few people live close to them. Peeler Park does not offer anything other than the greenway and an equestrian path to draw visitors. So, sure, it feels nice and secluded, but to my mind that's not the point of a greenway - it's an urban path, not a wilderness. Yet the seclusion is why these parcels were available in the first place.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

So you want to be a president

There are a lot of people studying higher education at the graduate level who aim to some day be college presidents. It's getting to the point where my response is, "Another one?," while trying to restrain myself from patting them on the head. Statistically, you see, most of them just don't have much chance, any more than your average aspirant to the presidency of the U.S. or would-be pop star.

Most college presidents followed what is known as "the traditional path." That is, they started off as professors, then eventually became a department chair, an assistant dean, a dean, a provost, and finally a president. They may skip a step or two, but it's rare to go from prof to prez. (It does happen.) The number of non-traditional presidents was rising for a while, but it has plateaued at well under 50% of new appointments. Keep in mind that "non-traditional" includes not only non-faculty tracks within colleges (i.e., student affairs) but also non-academic careers like government or business - and the latter seem to make up the majority of non-traditional hires.

Presumably, higher ed grad students are not aiming to go non-trad outside of academia. They may wish to move up through student affairs; they don't plan to become real estate moguls. Like any institution, academia has fewer places as you move up the ladder - there are more profs than chairs, more chairs than deans, more deans than provosts. (The exception is that there are not more provosts than presidents, since each school has one of each.) So ponder this: If you wanted to be promoted, would you be better off entering a field where lots of your colleagues want administrative posts (education) or where only a few do (physics, sociology, nursing, take your pick)? The competition is even fiercer on the non-faculty side of the house.

Now those who study higher education do have a particular advantage in that they often vhave theoretical knowledge of running institutions of higher education. But they also have the disadvantage of having degrees in one of the least respected fields of academia. Surf on over to the Chronicle of Higher Education forums and see what other disciplines have to say about ed doctorates if you need examples. This mitigates any advantage those studying higher education have over their competitors.

Essentially, the smart way to aim at the presidency is to study a field outside of education that has the repute of some degree of rigor, where few of your colleagues have people/leadership skills. (May I suggest economics?) This doesn't mean that no higher ed aspirants will reach their goal; I have bets on at least one particular person I know making it. It does mean, I think, that one is better off keeping one's aspirations to oneself early in the career. If you're already a provost - please, do let people know; that's how you get onto the radar of search committees. But if you're still in grad school? If you're on message boards with names like "futureuniprez" after a few years in fundraising work, trying to decide where to get an EdD? Maybe you're better off letting people know what you can offer in the next job you're ready for, which is assuredly not the presidency.

At that early point, after all, you're not just aiming for the statistically improbable. You're also making the career mistake of telling those who hire what you want to get, not what you can give. One of my mentors has said that leadership in academia is very much about being tapped rather than applying for it. When people talk about their presidential aspirations, they often fail to demonstrate they understand how to get there from here. That's cute in a second grader who wants to be president of the U.S., but not so cute in a 20-something scavenging for free food at the annual conference. If you want to be a college president, prepare yourself so you are ready to be chosen. Don't anoint yourself.

Of course, it's not like I have any credentials to give advice in this matter. All I'll lay claim here to is the basic math sense to understand the proportion of aspirants to openings.

And if you want to anoint yourself in your heart, go for it. Dream big. Just don't expect that when you tell your colleagues your dream, they're going to think, "Why, I never thought of X in that way before, but now I see he's destined for great things." They're going to think, "There's another one." And need I point out that it's never beneficial to be seen as just another commodity, a typical member of a set, a herd animal?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

And this is after the yoga helped considerably

I have spent much of this week feeling behind. I'm supposed to be concentrating on my dissertation, but everything else keeps popping up. And I have no right to complain, because it's all stuff I've agreed to do.
  • I'm not working at this week's institute, but there are tasks for the next one, because I'm the coordinator for it.
  • My chair has paid me to do some research, and I'm behind where I'd like to be on that.
  • I'm supposed to be writing a book chapter.
  • There are three papers I need to revise and submit to journals.
  • Oh yeah, the dissertation.
All of these things are either things I've promised to do or am being paid to do, so it's difficult to say no. I think my weekend plans are about to go up in smoke, because otherwise I'll feel more guilty, and get behind, and at least one person I owe stuff to will be rightly aggrieved (which one, take your pick).

Monday, June 23, 2008

Pennyrile Nature Trail hike

Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
I was feeling macho, so I thought I'd do serious hikes both days this weekend. (There really isn't a good female equivalent for macho, is there?) So on Sunday I went on a hike with the Nashville Hiking Meetup at Pennyrile State Park in western Kentucky. The hike was billed as about 13 miles long and "moderate."

When hiking the previous day, I had wondered about laying out trails and choosing routes. Sometimes one end point is obvious - the natural wonder or the top of the mountain. How do you decide where to put the other end? How long should it be? Which direction should you approach from? At the Walls of Jericho, the natural wonder is one end, and the trail has two other ends, both of which connect to the nearest roads. I was still thinking about this on Sunday as we set out.

The Pennyrile Nature Trail doesn't seem at all obvious in its layout. One end is in a state park, and the other is at a random parking lot. The scenic high point is about 1/3 of the way from the park. So why not just build a trail to there and stop? There is a road parallel to most of the trail, so access points aren't the determining factor. This isn't to say the hike isn't pretty or good exercise, but it doesn't seem to have a strong raison d'etre. I think the result of this is low traffic. We saw no one else on the trail, and in some places there wasn't really a trail at all. (It was very well signed, so we couldn't get lost despite the lack of a trail.) It didn't seem to be receiving a lot of use.

13.5 miles is a long hike for me, and I was feeling the effects the previous day's hike. Around miles 7-10 I was sure my body would insist on giving up the moment we reached one of the places the trail crossed the road. But after mile 10 or so, I got my cliched second wind. Today my legs are sore, and there's no way I'm up for my Ashtanga yoga class tonight!

You can see photos from another hiker here.

Walls of Jericho

Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
On Saturday, we did a hike that is frequently considered one of the most beautiful in the area, the Walls of Jericho. The land was privately owned and closed for years; the Nature Conservancy bought it and turned it over to the states of Tennessee and Alabama. As you might guess, the hike is right on the border of the two states. You can approach from either side, but the two trails meet near the Walls themselves. We chose to start on the Alabama side.

The trail started off as nothing special. The trail is in a forest that was regrown after logging. It was downhill most of the way - we gained 175 feet on the way there but lost a lot more. Finally, we got to a creek. As we followed it, bluffs began to rise on each side of us, becoming walls. Eventually we left the trees where the creek widens into what looks like an ampitheater (see photo). This is pretty spectacular, and it's where we ate lunch. Small pools in the rock held tadpoles and the most amazing tiny frogs - they weren't any bigger than a ladybug. Afterwards we scrambled over the edge of the bowl and onto a flat rocky area. From there one can climb down into another, smaller bowl with sheer sides. In the spring, water runs into this, but it was dry when we saw it.

The hike isn't a loop, so as we retraced our steps out, we were heading uphill, gaining 1300 feet this time. It started to rain on the way out, but never very hard, and the trees provided plenty of shelter.

As always, you can see more of my photos by clicking on the links, and you can see some of Joe's photos here.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
One of those days ... the government promised my stimulus check would arrive by today, and yet it hasn't. Still waiting for my refund, too. At least I'm working from home today and not spending $2 to drive to and from campus.

Sigh. I'm supposed to do stuff this weekend ... not even expensive stuff, but it costs money.

Well, flowers are still pretty.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


The peculiar story of a man trapped in a elevator, who subsequently couldn't get over it. Also includes the history of the elevator, which is in some ways more interesting.

The prose here harkens back to a day when writing was embellished like Victorian houses. Example: "To enjoy them in their fullest beauty, we should walk under the trees when the sun is shining brightly through them, and we can then see each pellucid sunshade to be fringed with a row of most delicate silky hairs--hairs that protect it from undue moisture or the radiating cold of the late frost." Nice, although at times a bit purple, information on trees.

Holloways: Prepare to be nostalgic for a piece of history you never knew existed.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ways in which I am Not Cool

  • I don't like The Decemberists. I think the lead singer has a voice almost as irritating as that dude from AC/DC's.
  • I'm still aggravated that there are now blue M&Ms.
  • I'm spending my summer working and dissertating rather than backpacking through Europe or something.
  • I've never seen So You Think You Can Dance.
  • When I saw the new Weezer video, I had to look up most of the references.
  • I'm not in a band. I don't date anyone in a band.
  • See above, except replace "band" with "singer/songwriter."
  • I don't own a bicycle.
  • So you can probably figure out I don't do triathlons, what with not having a bike.
  • I don't own a Vespa, a loft, a Mini Cooper, or a hybrid.
  • I haven't been to a dance club in, geez, since I moved to Nashville for sure.
  • I'm over 30.
  • Really, that settles things. I'm pretty sure you can't be considered cool once you've hit 30, especially if you did so without having a quarterlife crisis.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Whoo, it's only 80 degrees out!

This week there is no conference to work at, so I'm mostly working from home, dividing time between the dissertation and the work my chair has hired me to do. Not much to report on that, I'm afraid.

Other than that ... I'm still exploring the fun world of vegetables with my CSA share. The second-year students have taken their comprehensive exams and are awaiting the results. I'm eagerly awaiting my tax refund and my stimulus check.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Half done

The second of our four conferences ended today. With two in a row, everything else falls by the wayside, and I realized tonight that my apartment is a mess. I couldn't face tackling it all, but I did clear off my desk. Normally I can't stand having crap on my desk, yet it was piled with books and papers. I should have also gone to the gym to work off some conference food calories, but I really preferred to cocoon.

Tomorrow I will spend most of the day at this event. While on campus, I'll stop in the library to pick up some books on topic x. My chair emailed me today to ask if I had any new thoughts on it, and my response was, "Since yesterday?" (We'd chatted somewhat extensively.) Really, all I'd done was to download some more articles and look up books in the card catalog. So tomorrow I will attempt to acquire said books. Hopefully this weekend I can dive into getting some work done.

On a totally unrelated note, I hate to admit this, but what the heck is RSS? Why would I want to use it? Can anyone explain this to me?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sniffing out a dissertation

I may be closer to a dissertation topic now, thanks to a meeting with my chair yesterday. (Conversation not guaranteed to be verbatim.)

The Chair: Do you have any interest in x?
Me: Actually, yeah. I thought about it but didn't go too far because I assumed data would too hard to get.
The Chair: X is large enough that you should be able to get it from somewhere. And I can hook you up with Contact Y, who is a big cheese of x.
Me: Well, OK then. Bring it on.

The nice thing about x is that it's not studied to death, but it is important to the administration of higher education. There's a real opportunity for good work there.

I am being a little coy about what exactly x is until I figure out more specifically what I am asking - hopefully that will be soon.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Thanks, I'll look into that

Yesterday's post, by the way, was not meant in much seriousness. That is, it was perfectly accurate, but it was not a plea for sympathy. It was simply the quickest thing to post in response to a complaint that I hadn't been posting.

Over the past few weeks I have gotten a great deal of advice on my topic, some of it solicited and some of it not. Most of it has not been particularly useful, because every person brings with them a set of assumptions about how a dissertation should be done. But the way person A does a dissertation has so much less in common with the way person B does a dissertation that it's not useful. It's like telling a baseball player, "Now, get back in the game, and I really want to see you running with the ball." Now you might expect that this comes from friends and family who know only a little about getting a PhD, but it comes from faculty as much as anyone.

Before I started a PhD, I assumed that all dissertations (within one field, at least) would pretty much be the same. At the very least, there was some bar of quality that every dissertation had to meet. I quickly learned otherwise. Essentially, every doctoral student who reaches the point of defending a proposal can complete a dissertation if one can motivate oneself to do it. The committee won't stand in the way. Faculty have very different expectations for students, based on their assessment of the student's capabilities and career goals. I'm not going to get into whether that's fair; it's just the way it is.

Faculty also don't agree on how to approach the topic. One professor told me it didn't matter what topic I picked; the important thing was to pick the quickest thing I could and go get a job. Another told me the topic was the most important part of the dissertation; this person had chosen something they really weren't interested in, and it had taken years to shake off the association with it that they were growing sick of.

Finally, there are considerations of departmental politics that constrain me in ways people outside the department would have no reason to be aware of. Topic X or Approach Y simply aren't on the table if I want the backing of my faculty.

I'm in the department I'm in, so there's nothing I can do about that last point. When I chose my committee, and in particular my advisor, though, I made a commitment to approaching the topic and methods in a certain way. I chose to play baseball instead of football, so to speak. Yet when football-approach professors suggest something, they assume I'm playing the same game they are, even when they know who my coach is. Finally, regarding the level of expectations, at this point it is always possible to lower them, but not so much to do the reverse.

The point is that the most well-meaning (and even very expert) advice really isn't helpful here. The only people who are much help are my committee, and even they can't pick a topic for me. (Actually, they could. Asking them to do so would be the quickest way to lower expectations.) And I've been talking to people and bouncing things off of them, thinking it would help me, and it hasn't much. I appreciate everyone's willingness to help, of course, but in the end they've been better for moral-building than practical solutions. That's how it's supposed to be, I guess, at least in the social sciences. One student, going mano a mano against the void to wrestle something out of it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


I crave everyone's indulgence as I spend the next few days thinking through some ideas out loud. If you're not interested, you may wish instead to check out photos from last weekend's trail building trip, here, here, and here. You get to see me square dancing, although that may not be any more enticing than reading about ...

Zero-base budgeting! The word "budgeting" just oozes with fun, right?

ZBB was a budgeting fad born in the late 1970s that was most popular in government. The idea was that instead of assuming that this year's budget for your organization would be pretty much like last year's, everything would be up for grabs. The ideological assumption was that would reduce inertia, producing lean, mean, efficient operations. The problem was, in reality everything can't be up for grabs. The biggest problem is transaction costs. It costs time and money to consider alternatives, and that effort may cost more than the efficient alternative would save. Should you replace Park Ranger Bob with a new employee? Someone else equally competent might be cheaper, but then maybe not. It would cost money and time to conduct searches for every employee on payroll, to evaluate replacing all your real estate, to consider entirely new organizational charts. You might as well stick with what you have until a problem pops up.

This is an example of satisficing. "Satisficing" means that most of the time, in most situations, we do not consider all available alternatives, even for very important decisions; we choose the best alternative (or the first minimally sufficient one) among some set of readily available alternatives. I'm not going to date every single man in the United States if I want to get married. I'm going to use some heuristics, or rough decision-making rules ("I am only interested in men who have not committed felonies") and convenience ("I will date men I happen to meet rather than questing in Nova Scotia"). But why do we satisfice? Because exhaustive searches have costs higher than benefits. If I consider every unmarried man in the U.S., I will spend the rest of my life reading resumes and die before I even go on one date. If your state government considers replacing every employee and facility, it will never get around to hiring anyone or buying any property. Heuristics and convenience will result in better cost-benefit ratios than exhaustive searches will unless the number of options are very few. Hence, satisficing is a way of reducing transaction costs. These are costs of taking action or making decisions that are not related to the inherent costs of the product. Paying a park ranger's salary is part of the inherent cost of running a park; transaction costs are the costs of trying to find someone to hire as a ranger. We are willing to pay some transaction costs, but we try not too pay too much.

So, we satisfice on a lot of decisions. Some questions I wonder about:
  1. Why do we sometimes take the first minimally acceptable alternative (for example, looking for a parking space) and sometimes take the best from a pre-bounded set of choices (for example, choosing the most interesting classes that meet graduation and major requirements from among the courses offered next semester at the institution I am currently enrolled at)?
  2. What do we not make decisions about at all, that is, simply accept the status quo on (not firing any professors with tenure)?
  3. How do we set the conditions for a bounded search? For example, every university seems to be short on parking. Administrators faced with this issue will consider buying land or converting green space to parking; placing new lots close to campus or farther away but with shuttlebuses; and constructing garages or surface lots. They are unlikely to consider auctioning all campus parking spaces to the highest bidders or completely eliminating parking while subsidizing the city's bus system.
  4. A lot of the times these bounds could be rationally explained, but in fact we don't go through a rational process to choose them. Registering for all my classes at the same institution is cheaper than simultaneously taking one class in Maine, one in California, and one in Florida. But I bet most students don't consciously think through the economics of being enrolled in geographically distant locales. (Um, that's not a question, I guess.)
  5. What decisions do people in organizations not make that drive other decisions? We don't decide to have staff parking this year, or not to eliminate the website, or to once again admit a freshman class. Therefore, we have to decide how much to charge for parking, what to update on the website, and which applicants to admit.

Monday, June 2, 2008


For everyone who has asked, yes, I've been thinking about dissertation topics. I have come up with several ideas, some of which are even viable, doable, and credible. None of them I am passionate about. I've been trying to decide whether that was because they really didn't excite me and spending a year (or more) on them would make me miserable, or whether it was because, as Great White teaches us, we are once bitten, twice shy.

Then this morning I read an article about cubicles. It made me think, this is the kind of thing I want to write. Not that wish to write about the rise of cubicles in the corporate world, precisely. At the end of the article, I laughed to see that it was in fact based on a sociology student's dissertation. Well, there you go; it can be done.

Part of the problem is that I feel as if I had been preparing to write the discarded dissertation for well over a year. I was well marinated in the topics it would examine. When it came time to come up with a new topic, I decided to throw away part of that preparation and looked for a dissertation that maybe used the other part, but that more importantly met a set of criteria such as a) can be done in a certain time frame b) is not about x or y or z c) will position me on the market in a certain way. That's no way to find something you're passionate about.

It's time for a new approach. I'm going back to the topic I was ready to abandon. And I'm looking at it, and the things around me, and not thinking instrumentally. We'll see what turns up.