Monday, February 23, 2009

It's getting hot in here

We were hiking on Saturday when someone up ahead of me said, "Look out for that log. There are bees in it."

"Bees? It's February."

Sure enough, they were flying around a small nest, although not looking for anyone to sting.

Then this morning on the way to the library I passed by an older man sitting at a bus stop. He was wearing shorts and a undershirt-style tank top. The temperature - I had to check in disbelief - was 35°F.

Is there some kind of strange spring fever going around I don't know about?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Return to Cloudland Canyon

Sunny day at Cloudland
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
Cloudland is a beautiful hike. Last time we were there it was fall, and the colors were amazing. Now, of course, there were few leaves other than evergreens, but the hike was still very nice. It has enough waterfall views and bluff views to satisfy even the greediest eyes.

For some reason our group ended up being small. Even a week ago it was at capacity and we had a waiting list, but by the night before it was down to 14 people, and six of those didn't show. However, along the trail we ran into the Soddy-Daisy chapter of the TTA, whom some of us had hiked with before. There were a lot of folks out enjoying the day - maybe Nashville was cocooning, but not everyone else!

Friday, February 20, 2009


I lost about a day's worth of productivity this week when I finally got around to reinstalling the OS on my laptop. Six years worth of file crud was slowing it down. Now I have about 7 GB more free. Almost everything is reinstalled and working, although I haven't synced my iPhone yet. I need to figure out how to not lose my checkbook data when I do that.

I've spent the last day crosswalking the questions from a series of four surveys. That means making a big table showing how a question has changed over time, along with the question number to make it easy to look up. For example:

Sir Mix-A-Lot Survey
3) like big butts y/n1) like big butts y/n1) like big butts y/n1) like big butts scale 1-5
4) can lie y/n5) cannot lie y/n5) have lied in past year y/n5) have lied in past year y/n

I need this crosswalk so I can figure out which questions I can use for longitudinal analysis, among other things, for my dissertation.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Tall tower
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
This morning I tried to run errands. However, I was not able to replace my passport or actually renew my tags; I had forgotten it was President's Day. President's Day is a crappy sort of holiday because not enough people have it off for it to be a day of general merrymaking, but too many offices are closed to get real business done.

While I was out running out, I took a few photos, including the one at left.

In other news, check out this exciting journal article. (This link may not work unless you're on a campus network.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

So much for anonymity

I'm reading a dissertation that is a case study of one college. The author refers to this college by a pseudonym, presumably to protect its identity. However, at one point in the literature review he discusses another study that looked at eight institutions, one of which was the one he is looking at. The author of the previous study did not use pseudonyms, so in a direct quote our later author substitutes his pseudonym for the real name. Now all I have to do is go to the cited work to know exactly which college it is - although in truth enough clues are given in the case study that I could figure it out if I cared enough.

People! If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well.

I can't decide if the author just didn't think it through or if he is using the pseudonym as a reflexive tic because "that's how it's done in case studies." I've seen a lot of that. Bob Smith, who works full time at Albertson College of Idaho, titles his dissertation "A Study of Donor Intent at a Selective Private College in Idaho Without a Football Team." Then in his acknowledgments, he thanks his colleagues in the development office at Albertson. (Made up example alert!) Gee, I wonder what school he might have studied? The anonymity seems like a reflex here.

In a slightly different case, I read a book by a very esteemed researcher that used a pseudonym for its subject, and all it took was a quick Google search to find a school with those unique characteristics. Now the book was written pre-Google, but even at the time of publication it would have been simple to out it. The difficulty in this case was that the unique facts that enabled me to decode the college are essential to the argument he was presenting. Besides, the case didn't reveal anything damaging to the institution. I think he was making an educated gamble.

Many of the these attempts at anonymity seem so half-hearted, though, like putting on a funny hat and hoping nobody recognizes you. In fact, the hat just gets people's attention and causes them to wonder who you are.

Great books

My post on Matlin led me to start thinking about what my favorite books in higher education might be. I do not represent this as a definitive list of the best or most important books in the field: This list is necessarily idiosyncratic and reflective of my own interests. it includes books ranging from the informative overview for the newcomer to the provocative.

The Chosen by Jerome Karabel. This book won more awards than Michael Phelps and might break a flimsy coffee table. It's also an engrossing and compelling look at the history of admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
The Power of Privilege by Joseph Soares is another book about elite admissions. This book was what inspired my original, now-abandoned thesis topic.
The Higher Learning in America by Thorstein "Pecuniary Emulation" Veblen. His rant on the commercialization of higher education from a century ago still is powerful, not to mention really funny. Captains of Erudition everywhere, beware!
How Colleges Work by Robert Birnbaum. The title tells you exactly what it is, and it is as accessible to laypersons and practitioners as it is to researchers. My criticism of this book is that the types of college governance he lays out are not empirically tested but are based on experience and gut feeling.

I was surprised to see how short this list turned out to be. Notice too that the first three books are written by sociologists and only one is by an education researcher, albeit one with an organization theory perspective. A few runners-up:

Best fiction: Stover at Yale by Owen Johnson with an honorable mention to Jane Smiley's Moo.
Best finance book: Tuition Rising by Ron Ehrenberg.
Best edited volume: The High-Status Track by Kingston and Lewis.
Best book that's not specific to the field and yet ought to be read by every higher ed researcher: The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills.
Best book based mostly on experience instead of research: The American University by Jacques Barzun.
Best book on the presidency: Legitimacy in the Academic Presidency by Rita Bornstein.
Best book on fundraising: Philanthropy in the Shaping of American Higher Education by Curti and Nash.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Stalking Norman Matlin

I've been reading an odd little volume called "The Educational Enclave: Coercive Bargaining in Colleges and Universities" by Norman Matlin. It's from 1970 and was published by Funk and Wagnalls.

Dr. Matlin had an odd career. He went to Yeshiva as an undergrad and then to the New School for his sociology doctorate, where his dissertation was on "A Heuristic for Education." He married and then taught in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s, where he met Carlos Albizu and joined him at his new graduate school for mental health professionals. From there on out, all Matlin's work was in psychology, much of it in Spanish. He retired about ten years ago.

This book seems to have left few marks on the world. I can only find one book review, and that review took it entirely seriously. Even the dust jacket suggests it is serious. Yet in spots I had real trouble believing this book was anything other than satire (see the sample below), and it's quite possibly the funniest commentary on higher education I've read - in places.

"Most of the student's contractual obligations require his presence, at stated intervals, at appointed locations. Minimizing the number of appearances is obviously beneficial. While the appearance or nonappearance of any particular student is of no great import to the institution, the simultaneous nonappearance of large numbers tends to be conspicuous. Prudence suggests that the nonappearance of students be staggered. In situations of comparative inelasticity, the relative infrequency of nonattendance allows for this solution with a minimum of formal organization. In situations of higher elasticity, a fair amount of cooperation and coordination among students may be necessary to maximize minimization."

In places the book is dead-on, and in others it misses the mark by a mile. The above excerpt is from his chapter on students, which also contains a very close examination of why student cheating is an entirely rational behavior, with a cost-benefit analysis of different types of cheating. It is terrific, although it fails to explain why some students don't cheat.

In the very next chapter, however, he claims that "private educational institutions set academic policy by maximizing profit ... For various diplomatic reasons, however, institutions prefer to consider that they are operating at a loss." This seems to me to be a gross misreading of the situation. Institutions prefer to be able to boast that they are operating in the black. They ask for funds in order to continue to be able to do so in the future or to "promote excellence," i.e. be able to spend more. (In order words, they prefer to consider that if their income is not increased at once they will only be able to offer a sub-standard educational product). I am not taking issue with his statement that institutions act to maximize profit but with his claim that they pose as operating in the red. An analysis of annual reports and fundraising appeals (now or from the 1960s) would show otherwise.

I have two theories I can't decide between:

1) This book is a parody. How could someone write about "maximizing minimization" in regards to skipping classes with a straight face? The book review frowns upon his pedantic language, but it is too pitch-perfect to be accidental ... or is it? This book was his last salvo in an area he was tired of. This explains his refusal to cite, his scorn for educational research that goes beyond the de rigeur posing, his grandiose thesis (he alone can combine economics and sociology!), and his willingness to fit every quanta of educational life into his grand unified theory.
2) This book was Matlin's last effect to re-establish himself in the sociology of education, but it failed. The world in 1970 wasn't ready for a thesis that considered education to solely be a prestige-maximizing exercise, and Matlin was impolitic enough to, for example, fail to note that cheating can be treated as a moral activity and not simply an economically rational one. He also made the unwise choice to ignore the work of his contemporaries and only take into account giants like Veblen. Socially tone-deaf and convinced of his own brilliance, he had trouble finding a job in sociology. To quote Garbarino from his review, "the relentless translation of every bit of academic minutiae into sociological jargon over more than 200 pages makes for heavy going. ... The book would have benefited from a greater degree of selectivity in characteristics analyzed and a more straightforward style."

In other words, is this book a comedy or a tragedy? It falls short in some way no matter which light we view it in. Yet I've spent a lot more time thinking about this book than any other education book I've read in a while. For that reason I think it deserves more than the obscurity it languishes in.

Note: Sorry I haven't included a link. I bought a copy off of Amazon, but there are currently no copies for sale there or at Powell's - that tells you how obscure it is! - and no good pages to link to.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dribs & drabs

Today is Lincoln's and Darwin's birthday, so how do you celebrate? Apparently, for one guy the logical thing to do was dress up as Ben Franklin and fly a kite on the Peabody lawn. I'm sorry I missed seeing this.

Crappy thing to happen to crappy research. Uh, sorry, couldn't resist.

Bring back the CCC!

Stereotype threat is everywhere! A couple of weeks ago I saw a presentation by the guy who recently did a study on Barack Obama and stereotype threat. Now, here's a novel application: athletes.

Does the name LoJack sound like something out of a William Gibson novel to anyone else?

One last thing - jerk elk gets comeuppance.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Water Valley Overlook hike

We did a new hike yesterday that we vowed to never do again. Click on the photo to follow the story in photographs.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The challenges of the guest teacher

I taught an hour or so in my advisor's strategic marketing class tonight on strategic pricing. This is good experience, because our program does not emphasize giving us teaching experience. But it poses some challenges that teaching your own class does not. Obviously, teaching an entire course is more challenging than doing one lesson, but teaching one lesson in someone else's class is more difficult than teaching one lesson in your own, I think. Part of it is that the class may have been designed in a way you wouldn't have chosen. They do different readings, or you would have organized the material differently.

The bigger challenge, though, is that the class already has an established dynamic. They know how much reading they have to do. They expect a certain level of (in)formality. They come prepared to surf the web or to do group work. If they like the professor, they could resent having you (especially "just a grad student") instead.

If you are a regular guest lecturer, there to tell your part in the thrilling exploit of the Tuition Scandal of '99, the pressure is off a little because you can be a talking head. If you're expected to incorporate exercises, use good pedagogy, and demonstrate your potential as a future colleague, a higher level of performance is demanded.

All that said, it's still far better to learn to deal with one class session at a time before attempting to design and teach a course all in one go. However, there are ways in which the dynamic doesn't quite replicate the full teaching experience.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Return to Piney River

Peaceful river
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
We hiked Piney River almost a month ago when the weather was gray and rainy. This time it was sunny and a perfect temperature.

This time around, we hiked from Shut-in Gap to the Newby trailhead, the opposite direction of last time. A couple of us thought it would be more downhill, but we were so wrong. The elevation gain was about 2240 instead of 630! But a good half of that gain was in our side trip to the Twin Falls Overlook, which we didn't do last time. Either way it is a lovely hike.