Misery Loves Company
Kevin Drum made a comment this week that touched on one of the great annoying paradoxes of American life. In the course of a discussion about the Davis-Bacon act, he writes:
I've long felt that public hostility to unions, and especially to public sector unions, is based not so much on their demands for higher pay as on their demands for byzantine and highly restrictive work rules. Most people aren't unwilling to pay teachers decently, for example, but they also think that teachers should be held accountable to a boss (just like they themselves are) and that it should be possible to fire bad teachers without five years of hearings and red tape.
The paradoxical thing here is that many of the very same people who argue stridently that teachers need to "be held accountable to a boss" are busily decorating their cubicles with Dilbert cartoons and spend their off hours blogging about what short-sighted morons their bosses are. If the "normal" business model is so great, why all the bitching? Or, put another way, if being accountable to a boss in a normal corporate environment is such soul-sucking hell, why should we inflict the same system on teachers?
It's the flip side of the phenomenon where large numbers of poll respondants believe that Congress is hopelessly corrupt, and then turn around and vote for the incumbent anyway, because their guy isn't like the others. In this case, I think the reasoning is that corporate structure in the abstract is a Good Thing, and it's just their specific boss/company that's all screwed up. Presumably, if we put bosses in all the schools, we'll only be putting in the good bosses, not the incompetent windbags running their office.
Either that, or they're hoping for a chance at schadenfreude...
A Day Late, a Lurker Short
If you read this blog, but don't usually post comments, please post a comment and say who you are. There's no obligation to buy, no salesmen will call, and you don't even need to leave your real name.
I think I know most of the people who read this, but I get the occasional link from blogs in languages I don't speak, so there must be some traffic from people unknown to me. I'm curious to know who you all are.
Critical Phenomena on Exam Day
One person handing in the hour exam after twenty minutes is dismissed as an anomaly.
Two more turning their papers in at forty-five minutes get a little more attention.
A fourth paper handed in at fifty minutes reaches the tipping point-- six more come in right away. You can just about see the light go on that says "It's now OK to hand your paper in." Hell, I've been the indecisive person sitting there making no more progress, but thinking "It's too soon to just leave..." until enough other people go to make it all right.
There are usually a couple who hang on right to the bitter end, though not today (it's not that big a class). I didn't have to kick anyone out today, but I have had to just about physically drag papers away from people in the past.
I got really bored one year proctoring a large exam, and recorded the departure times of the students. I made a graph (yes, I'm that big a dork) of exam grade vs. time spent on the test, which was about what you would expect-- the first person to leave had one of the highest grades, as did the last one out the door, and the students in the middle were scattered all over.
When I set up some time bins (yes, I'm that big a dork), the average score started high, dipped, and came back up at the end. It looked vaguely gaussian, but that's the central limit theorem for you. The spread in the scores started small, got bigger, and came back down.
I'm still not sure what the exact threshold is at which it becomes all right for people who are just doodling in the margins to hand their papers in-- I don't think I could've said what it was back when I was one of the doodlers-- but I bet there's a psychology project in that somewhere...
I've been in a very Gibletsian mood the last few weeks-- dissatisfied with everything. I'm dissatisfied with the mass media, with football announcers in general (though not the New York Giants Radio Network, who rule), with the new edition of our introductory physics textbook, with our huge selection of defective lock-in amplifiers-- everything. Sadly, this doesn't actually make for good blogging, at least if you use the term to mean "something I could re-read a week from now without cringing."
One of the things I've been dissatisfied with most recently has been my bedtime reading, Charlie Stross's Accelerando, which has been widely praised as being the cutting edge of contemporary SF. It's nominally a story of humanity going through a Vingean Singularity, but really it's nerd porn, and when I say that, believe me I am not referring to the sex bits, which are just embarassing. I mean that it's chock full of nifty little gadgets and ideas and mini-lectures, all designed to make the geekiest of the geekiest say "Oooh!"
Chief among the Kewl ideas is the Singularity itself, an idea which Ken MacLeod (or, at least, a character in one of his books) rightly dubbed "The Rapture for nerds," a name given in scorn that has since been adopted in pride, which holds that the exponential speed-up in computing power will ultimately lead humanity to transcend our mundane existence, and become godlike electronic intelligences who will later serve as plot contrivances in some alien analogue of Star Trek.
I'm not a big fan of the Singularity as a literary device-- note that Vernor Vinge, who coined the term, explicitly avoids it in his best works-- and I think it's incredibly dopey as a serious prediction. But I'm spared from having to rant about this, as first Kevin Drum and then PZ Myers and Bill Tozier (twice) tear into Singularity buff Ray Kurzweil's forthcoming book of muddled futurist hype (disclaimer: I haven't read the book, but really, is there any other kind of futurism?).
Which is very convenient, because it lets me devote my time to being dissatisfied with the things that I'm paid to be dissatisfied about. Such as the exam I'm giving two and a half hours from now...
Don't Judge a Book by its Cover Letter
There's some follow-up on my job-hunting advice at Pharyngula and The Little Professor. The latter reminds me that I forgot to include the usual disclaimer that my advice is comments are aimed at people in the sciences. The situation in the humanities is very different (and infinitely worse, at least from my point of view).
The former provides some interesting discussion, and also a link to a badly dated essay (written sometime in the early 1990's, when email was a novelty) on how to get a liberal arts job in biology. As with the Chronicle article that kicked all this off, I'm baffled by the emphasis on cover letters. Specifically, the author writes:
Of the four standard documents, I would rank the four documents in the following order of importance: 1) cover letter, 2) cover letter, 3) cover letter 4) cover letter. Although your CV, teaching statement, and research interests/plan are very important documents for a job that expects both teaching and research, the first round of cuts will be heavily influenced by your cover letter.
The logic behind the emphasis on cover letters isn't terrible-- the article continues:
There is no one in the department who does what you do (if they did, they wouldn't want to hire another one), so no one will understand fully your research or appreciate who has written your letters of recommendation. You are writing to an audience of administrators and a collection of biologists from every subdiscipline, so your cover letter should be general in nature in order to appeal to everyone while sufficiently distinct and not generic.
[...]It should be about 1.5 pages long, explain why you are interested in teaching as a primary focus, indicate clearly that you are familiar with this particular school, and make it clear that you want to work with their undergraduates. (Make sure you use that word, some applicants send the same cover letter to graduate programs and PUIs - a guaranteed way to be excluded from the search.) If you determined from your phone call that there is an interest in hiring a research-active faculty member, you want to describe your intention to conduct student-based research.
The problem here is that it doesn't go far enough. Having that stuff in your cover letter is great, as far as it goes, but if that's the only place you talk about your research in general terms, and explain your focus on students, you're screwed.
That same material better appear in your research statement. You're writing a statement to describe how you're going to do research with undergraduates, after all-- it better mention how you can make the project comprehensible to them, and how you expect to be able to make progress with undergraduate labor. A hyper-technical description of your research interests that a faculty member from outside your sub-field can't understand is a Bad Sign.
That same material better show up in your teaching statement as well. The whole reason we do research at liberal arts schools in the first place is because it helps the teaching function of the institution. The best way to learn science is by doing science, and that means labs and research. You need to talk about how you can integrate your research interests into your teaching, and how to use your research to help train students. If your statements show that you feel teaching and research are completely separate activities, that's also a Bad Sign.
If you can find a way to make that same material show up in your CV, do it. List student projects that you've supervised, list some invited talks at educational institutions, show some evidence of interest in both teaching and research. And it needs to be in the reference letters as well. I realize those aren't in your direct control (which is why they carry the most weight with me), but they should show some indication of a real desire to teach and work with undergraduates-- if your references just talk about what a deft touch you have in the lab, and make no mention of teaching ability (even if it's just "He's an excellent public speaker"), that starts to look like you're a research-focussed person who's "settling" for a teaching job.
A great cover letter certainly won't hurt you-- out of the hundred-odd I've read for the various positions we've filled since I've been here, I clearly remember one that was excellent and eye-catching. But a good application needs more than just a good cover letter-- the guy with the great cover letter didn't make the first cut for campus visits, because of issues elsewhere in his application. I'd rather hire someone with a bland cover letter and a great application packet than a great cover letter and deficient personal statements.
(A sufficiently bad cover letter will sink you, though. I also remember a couple that mis-stated the position they were applying for, and one that contained a sentence of the form "I would like to work at your school because I really need the money." I didn't read much beyond the cover letter in any of those.)
Actual Job Advice
Back before my hiatus, I was talking about job-hunting advice for people seeking liberal arts college jobs. I had meant to follow up that last post with some actual positive advice, but I was about an hour away from needing dried frog pills to get through my days, so I decided to put it off.
Returning to the subject, and doing a little poking around, you could do a lot worse than to look at the career advice posted by the American Institute of Physics, particulary this PDF file on Hunting for Jobs at Liberal Arts Colleges. The authors are on the faculty at Dickinson and Haverford, so they know what they're talking about.
I'll just fill in a few things around the edges of what they wrote, giving a few do's and don'ts of the liberal arts college world.
Don't Even Think About Applying for a Liberal Arts College Job If:
- You think it'll be easier than a research university job. The jobs are very different, but don't make the mistake of thinking that a small college job is easier. The research expectations for tenure may be (somewhat) less, but that's balanced out by the increased teaching expectations. My annual teaching expectation works out to six lecture classes, or four classes and four labs, split over three trimesters. We're on the high end of faculty loading for schools in the top band of US News rankings, but five courses is typical of elite schools, and it gets worse. And teaching is something that will eat up as much time as you let it, and more than you want it to.
- You have lofty research goals. Larry Hunter from Amherst put this pretty well, saying that if you're going to do research at a liberal arts college, you need to carefully choose a project that can be done with undergraduates, and that nobody else will beat you to. And then you have to hope that those requirements don't push you too far out into the lunatic fringe. Whatever project you have in mind will need to be done entirely with undergrad labor-- no grad students, and no post-docs-- and as a rule of thumb, a good undergraduate student is about half of a graduate student. That's not a knock on the students' abilities-- it's mostly just that you only get them for half the time (full-time in the summer, maybe a quarter-time in the academic year).
- You aren't interested in research at all. At the same time, you are expected to do research, and to produce publishable results. You can't completely blow off research work, and expect to get tenure. The absolute number of publications required may not be as large as at MIT or Harvard, but you've got to be doing something, and the amount of something you need to produce increases as you move up the scale.
- You think it'll be easier to get a job. I haven't been in on a tenure-track hire here, but we got over 40 applications for a one-year visiting position a little while back. You're not the only person looking for a job in this area, so expect some competition.
- You want to make shitloads of money. Look, just go buy some Lotto tickets, or something. Stop thinking about academia.
Go Ahead and Apply If:
- You really enjoy teaching. I mean, really enjoy it, because you'll be doing a lot of teaching. And you're expected to do well, too-- it's not enough to just show up, read your lecture notes at the class, and bolt back to the lab. You need to be on all the time when students are around-- answering questions, going over problems, grading papers, making up lectures and assignments, setting up labs. It can be a big hassle, but if you get a big adrenaline charge when you see something click into place with a student after the fifth different explanation (and not just a wash of relief that you don't need to go through it a sixth time), you'll be ok.
- You enjoy doing research. As noted above, you will have access to undergraduate student labor, but real progress will require personal involvement-- if you're an experimentalist, you'll need to be in the lab tightening bolts, and if you're a theorist, you'll need to be writing code or grinding out theorems. And you need to enjoy doing this stuff, because you'll need to be doing it in the evenings, on weekends, and in odd moments between classes and office hours.
- You like dealing with college-age kids. It might seem silly to have to say this, but I think it needs emphasis, because you'll be around students all the time. As a colleague pointed out last week, college students these days bounce back and forth between doing very adult things, and acting like overgrown toddlers. I think it's important to understand that, and be able to roll with it-- with the right prodding, you can maximize the "adult" duty cycle (at least in your class or lab), but you can't just expect them to be mature all the time. Make sure you know what you're getting into, or you're setting yourself up for a world of frustration.
If You've Decided to Apply:
- For God's sake, get some teaching experience. As previously noted, my own application process was made much more difficult by my lack of teaching experience. Don't repeat my mistake-- make sure you TA as a graduate student, and do a good job of it. Or, if you're out of grad school, find a way to get some teaching in-- if you're in an academic post-doc, get them to let you teach a lecture or recitation section of an intro class. If you're at a research lab, find a connection at a local college, and teach something. I've seen applicants for a one-year visitng position get knocked for not having any teaching experience, so just imagine what the standards are like for tenure-track positions.
- Think carefully about your research proposal. As noted above, this is a very tricky problem. The best people in the business-- people like the aforementioned Larry Hunter, or Tiku Majumder at Williams (I couldn't mention an Amherst person and not a Williams one), or Stephen Padalino of the the nuclear physics program at Geneseo-- find a way to do table-top experiments that tie into deep physics, either directly (Hunter does EDM search experiments), or by measuring quantities of interest to larger projects (as the other two do). If you can think of a project that can be done by undergraduate students that connects to some exciting world-class research, you're golden. The krypton background measurement stuff that I'm doing is my attempt to find a project of that type.
- Good luck You'll need it, and I wish you well. We need more people willing to actually get their hands dirty teaching undergraduates. And on a good day, it's one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Just not in a financial sense.