This Academic Life
  InterNet access
InterNet accessThe modern academy works on computer technology. Ours is not as reliable as it should be. Here is the text of a letter that I sent to the director of network operations this evening; it is strategically designed so as to make my point without alienating the administration. We shall see what, if any, effect results.

Recent difficulties with the computer systems at the university have driven home to me precisely how dependent I am on a reliable computer network for my daily work. I appreciate the fact that the university provides faculty members with electronic mail and the ability to access the World Wide Web, but the recent interruptions in those services proved to be a fairly major inconvenience to my work flow at a critical time of the semester. The university really needs to make a more direct commitment to enhancing network reliability through the purchase of redundant hardware and robust software in order to truly enable faculty members such as myself to continue to do their work in the most effective manner.

I should point out that by "network reliability" I mean principally the reliability of the two university network services with which I interact the most on a daily basis: e-mail and access to the World Wide Web. (To be honest, I could live without Web access for a while as long as e-mail was working properly -- and by "properly" I mean that messages sent to non-university addresses are being delivered promptly and also that messages from outside of the university are being delivered to me promptly.) I am very dependent on e-mail to keep me in continual contact with my students and with my colleagues at other institutions, including many in other countries. Even a minor interruption in this channel of communication causes major headaches.

Let me give three brief examples. I am presently coordinating a study abroad program in Poland for this summer. In this capacity I and my program assistant are in touch with a number of people in Krakow, Warsaw, and Prague as we try to get travel and living arrangements finalized. The inability to send e-mail to our contacts, or to reliably receive messages from them, means that we are hampered in our ability to negotiate for better rental rates for apartments, finalize internship placements, solidify plans for receptions at embassies, and so on. We are also holding an orientation meeting for this program tomorrow (Wednesday), and coordinating that meeting has been complicated immensely by the interruption of network services (for instance, until today we were not able to access some of the web-based materials that we wanted to include in the orientation packet that we were putting together this week).

I am also involved in putting together a workshop for the 2005 ISA meeting. Invitations were sent out last week, but I was unable to respond to potential participants in a timely manner this week because of the interruption in network services. As far as I know there has been no lasting damage to the plans for the workshop, but as e-mails (both those that I composed and those that were sent to me) continue to be delivered over the next day or so I will have to see whether there were any serious problems.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly given the task of the university to facilitate the instruction of students, I have final papers due in two classes this week -- papers that students have questions about. Those questions are ordinarily sent to me via e-mail, especially by those students who cannot make it to my office hours. But if I am not receiving their messages, and if I am not able to reply to them in a timely manner, this adversely affects their ability to complete their assignments in a timely manner and my ability to instruct them as they do so. E-mail interruptions are most problematic in this regard; the router issue that recently took away access to the broader InterNet from on-campus also eliminated the possibility of using Instant Messenger to work around this problem.

Is it possible to work around these issues by using other technologies? Yes. Is it convenient to do so? No. As I said, I greatly appreciate the fact that the university provides networking technology to enable a better way of working, but I am concerned that the university's networking technology is not as reliable as it really needs to be to enable me (and other faculty members) to do their work effectively. I really think that the university needs to make an investment in redundant network architecture so that the computer networks are as reliable as the telephone system, given that I for one use the networks more often and more effectively than I use the phone system. And in particular, a more sustained effort needs to be made to keep the network operational in such a way that communication between on-campus and off-campus locations is sustained. It does me as a faculty member little good if the campus network is operating internally but is cut off from the rest of the 'Net, as such a situation makes it impossible for me to communicate with my students who are off-campus (or who use e-mail services other than ours) and with my colleagues at other institutions.

If the telephone network abruptly ceased to enable calls from on-campus to off-campus, this would count as a major emergency. If the telephone network suddenly went off-line, and did so every few days for varying periods of time, this would indicate to me a need to seriously overhaul the telephone system. But both of these issues are, in my experience, characteristic of the campus computer networks, especially over the past few months. (The recent router problem was foreshadowed by network slowness and occasional brief service interruptions; e-mail service has been erratic for a good portion of the year, particularly when trying to use an IMAP connection.)

My ability to do my job effectively has been impaired by these network technology issues. My ability to do my job would be enhanced greatly by a commitment to, and an investment in, more reliable and redundant technologies. I would urge that this be a major priority for the coming months.

The computer network system on campus should be as reliable as the telephone system. I need such a reliable infrastructure to really do my job properly. I also need not to have to spend inordinate amounts of time lobbying and putting pressure on the administration to provide that infrastructure.

[Posted with ecto]
DefensesHad a PhD student successfully defend her dissertation proposal today. This was the third student whose chair I am who has defended this year; one of my colleagues remarked that was "cornering the market on PhD students," which seemed to betray a little resentment. It's not my fault that many of the PhD students seem to be interested in the kind of work that I do, is it? And I'll have a few more committees in the next couple of years, as we are now getting students who are specifically coming here to work with me. This is both kind of flattering and kind of daunting: flattering because I tend to think of grad students as better barometers of interesting work than most senior faculty members [there's that old joke about how knowledge accumulates: incoming students bring some with them and those who depart take none with them, so knowledge builds up…grad students haven't been "socialized" enough to reshape their sense of what's interesting yet, so in my experience they are more willing to listen to wacky ideas and more marginal/subversive/radical approaches], but daunting because suddenly I find myself in a position of authority that is somewhat uncomfortable for me.

Why is this position uncomfortable? If my idea of teaching was to produce lots of Mini-Mes [typographical note -- "Mini-Mes" is the plural of "Mini-Me"; "Mini-Me's" would be a possessive, not a plural. yes, I'm anal about apostrophes] I'd just take the flattery and run with it. But it makes me a little anxious to have PhD students who want to learn from me, since I'm not entirely sure that I have much to teach them that they couldn't figure out on their own anyway. And I'm rather mortified that someone will take what I say and simply accept it, instead of wrestling with it. I have sometimes refused to give classes -- even classes of PhD students -- the typologies and classifications of theories with which I am working, for fear that they would take it as gospel. At the same time, though, I do want to assist students who are interested in the same kind of approach that I am, and to help them get their projects underway. The hard thing is to try to promote this while not creating disciples. And it has to be me who takes steps to prevent this; I think that the default state of a student-faculty relationship is that the student ends up taking on what the faculty-member transmits. So I take pains to puncture my own authority from time to time.

One thing that I have learned through the process of having students defend proposals is the importance of a deliberate and strategic use of language. I often get the feeling that people evaluate proposals by simply looking for a few of their preferred terms or authors, and if those are there and if they are being used in the expected way than the proposal is okay. Problems arise when things are being used in an unfamiliar way -- such as when a student uses a term like "the nation" to refer not to an already-formed and stabilized entity, but to a category of practice that is instantiated not in broad "official" discourses but is rather inscribed in everyday activities. Several times during the defense today it was apparent that people were largely speaking past one another and using the very same words to do so. So here's the dilemma: should one make a strong statement to try to prevent misunderstanding, or should one simply accept the ambiguity and get the certification that allows one to proceed? A reference to theorist X might make some people happy, but if my understanding of theorist X is radically different than yours, is the inclusion of the reference worth it?

Knowledge politics is so bizarre.

[Posted with ecto]
  One portion of my identity

Which Fantasy/SciFi Character Are You?

  General Education
General EducationYesterday was a very tightly scheduled day, starting with a two-hour planning meeting for the PhD teaching seminars that I am involved in running at 9am, then a talk by a colleague from 12-2 that I coordinated, followed by a mini-retreat for the General Education committee of which I am a part from 3-8. Run run run. Needless to say, no grading got done -- I was exhausted when I finally did get home and barely managed to stay awake to watch the Yankees get drubbed by the Red Sox again. Not the most fun day I've ever spent.

The General Education meeting featured some interesting discussions about the overall shape of the program. University committee service is a blend of administration and philosophical argument: the arguments about overall shape and content are interwoven with more mundane concerns about requirements and paperwork. So we both envision the program as a whole, and handle the nitty-gritty of evaluating course proposals and monitoring syllabi for their conformity with the goals of the program. Yesterday's meeting was more of the "envisioning" task, as we concentrated on three issues:

  • "raceclassculturegender." One of the program goals for General Education on our campus involves increasing students' "attention to a variety of perspectives," particularly those involving race, class, culture, and gender. One of the problems with this goal is that the four components are usually lumped together into one massive charge, one which is usually recited without pause as a single long word. And people have very different opinions about what it means to integrate "raceclassculturegender" into their General Education courses. To my way of thinking this concept is too narrow; I much prefer something like "identity," of which race, class, culture, and gender would be specific types or instantiations; identity would also cover other issues, like nation, civilization, region, and the like. all sorts of self-other differentiations and community bounding practices. But for some people, integrating raceclassculturegender means pontificating to their students about the privileges that they enjoy because of their race, class, culture, and gender, and in effect proselytizing for a certain view of diversity (which is, to my mind, an unsatisfactory one that reifies certain distinctions and positionalities instead of analyzing the practical-moral effects of the practices of distinction that maintain them.

    So we had a discussion about that, and agreed to plan a faculty development seminar during which people could discuss these issues with the help of some invited speakers. I pressed for us to invite not "scholars of race" or "scholars of class," but "scholars of identity" who may happen to be concerned with these particular markers and differentiations, among others. It's a subtle distinction, but given my pedagogical philosophy -- especially as it applies to General Education -- I am steadfastly opposed to turning the classroom into a bully pulpit from which a professor can expound her or his particular views about social relations. Classrooms are for students to grapple with these issues, not for students to figure out the "party line" and then spit it back on tests and papers.

  • assessment. "Assessment is coming," came the cry from the higher levels of the administration; "get used to it." Yes, the lovely edu-speak involving learning outcomes and the meeting of defined objectives that is presently sweeping the primary and secondary schools throughout the US is also making its way onto college campuses. So we needed to start thinking about rubrics, measurable categories of performance, and the like.

    Much of this to my mind is very silly, since I still have no idea how to measure something like "critical thinking" or "a global perspective" (also a program goal). Nor do I think the effort likely to be worthwhile. some educational objectives can be measured, I think: those that are skills, like "information literacy" and "quantitative competence." Skills can be evaluated more or less precisely precisely because they are rule-governed activities which people perform by following the rules, so if we lay down the rules precisely we can see who has certain skills and who does not -- and which programs improve those skills and which do not. This may be why the departments more interested in and amenable to assessment are those that try to impart skills: math departments, economics departments, computer science departments, etc.

    But I am not a skill trainer. Students taking one of my International Relations classes do not have to master skills; they have to participate in discussions, make and defend arguments, read closely and engage critically, and reflect on their experiences. The point of most of my courses is to confront students with issues and conceptions and paradigms and analyses with which they may not be familiar, and then for us as a class to wrestle with the implications of those claims. "Horizon-broadening," one might call it. Or "identity construction" -- I want my students to become more self-conscious about the ways in which they construct their identities, and hopefully to take some more responsibility for those practices. I do not care where they end up. some of my best students take positions which I vehemently disagree with, but I consider this a success inasmuch as they can better defend their take in relation to the materials and literatures and arguments with which I have presented them over the course of the semester.

    These are not skills, and they are not facts. Facts are "knowing-that," i.e. mastering a set of claims and gaining a facility with the nuances of that set -- like memorizing one's multiplication tables, or the capitals of the 50 states. Skills are "knowing-how," i.e. rule-governed sets of activities (like tying one's shoes) which one must master in order to achieve some desired outcome. They are means, not ends. Identity-construction is more of a "knowing-from-within": developing the sense of how one "goes on" in a given social setting (because identity-construction is irreducibly social, and never takes place purely inside of one's head) and the kinds of possibilities that are afforded by different components of that setting. Personal responsibility for one's identity is an achievement, not a presupposition, and also involves acknowledging the extent to which one is never fully responsible for one's own identity. This is not a skill, and it isn't a fact. It's more like a craft practice, something that one learns not by rote or by internalization of rules but through emulation and engaged apprenticeship and critical feedback in a community. And it's not formalizable.

    Defining the rules for "great art" is a silly exercise. Great art subverts rules. Self-crafting is great art. Even when I teach students to do research, I don't teach it as a skill; I try to teach it as a craft.

    So I proposed that we not try to think about what "critical thinking" was in any definite way, but instead gather data on before-and-after writing exercises and see if there is a noticeable difference. If students have become better craftswomen and craftsmen, it will show in the product that they produce. And because there aren't rules for defining this sort of thing, we should simply observe the products and see if there has been improvement. Granted, this raises a methodological problem in that students are taking multiple classes and one can never be sure that it is a particular class or program which has resulted in that improvement, but whatever -- improvement is improvement and we'll be happy to take the credit. In this way maybe we can keep control over the assessment process and prevent it from becoming yet another disciplining tool for those obsessed with productivity and quantifiable results.

  • study abroad. The university is making a major push to promote study abroad programs, and we discussed how those programs would relate to the General Education program. Given that one of our program areas involves international and intercultural experiences, there might be an overlap here that we can strengthen. Everyone should study abroad, I think, but especially American students, who really have no idea what it's like in the rest of the world because by living at the center of the empire the world comes to them and reforms itself to their implicit expectations. Going abroad can be a shock to their systems, and I'm all for such shocks.

    Long day of meetings. Now for a long day of grading :-(

    [Posted with ecto]
  • 4.21.2004
      Morning Activities
    Morning ActivitiesWake up, 6:00 am.
    Make coffee, without which nothing at all happens.
    Check e-mail. Reply to three people regarding ISA workshop. Answer one student question about final paper for methodology class.
    Realize that a workshop contributor probably needs to see a chapter of my book manuscript, as he is implicitly debating with it; open chapter, read through, make minor revisions, and send off. Send chapter to another colleague who requested it at MPSA.
    Check last night's final Yankees-White Sox score (Yankees win, 11-8). Brief mental celebration that $182 million lineup seems to be remembering how to hit and score runs.
    Send brief message to editor of encyclopedia in which I have a biographical entry; message includes the line "Our e-mail has been funny for a couple of weeks so if you e-mailed me during that time I might not have received the message."
    Think briefly about the amount of time that I have spent dealing with e-mail problems over the past year or two; wonder for the umpteenth time why university network administration persists in using a system that really does not serve all of our daily needs (at least not the needs of the faculty). Look over notes from last meeting of information services committee, on which I serve and which meets again this morning; make decision about which lines of inquiry to press as part of ongoing effort to improve network reliability.
    Send e-mail to editors at press that may be interested in reviewing my book manuscript, asking for further details about book proposal format.
    7:15am: turn to grading of student papers.
    7:30am: hear son and daughter begin to stir; realize that I probably will only get one paper graded this morning before having to go in to the university for a fully-scheduled day, and not be able to grade papers again until this evening -- when i will probably manage to get through two or three before falling asleep at the computer.


    [Posted with ecto]
      Two observations
    Two observations1) I seem to have an easier time commenting and grading after I get started. It's as though there's a switch in my brain someplace that flips into "commenting" mode and then it's easier to envision continuing to comment on papers for a while -- certainly easier than before I get started, when I generally look for all kinds of ways to avoid starting the process. But once I get into it the commenting becomes quite a bit of fun, although the assignment of a letter-grade remains frustrating.

    2) academic work expands to fill and overflow the time available. It seems to take me a constant 15-20 minutes to comment on a brief (2500-word) student paper, except for the really weak ones that seem to need much more assistance and therefore many more comments. But it always seems that there are more things to do than simply this. It would be nice if I could cordon off time more precisely, focus only on one thing at a time; I sometimes produce this artificially by disconnecting from the 'Net, but then there are books and journals lying around begging to be read, and other things (like preparing my syllabus for my summer course in Poland) to deal with…

    Got the first acceptance for the ISA workshop back already. I love e-mail.

    [Posted with ecto]
    Trade-offsThe dilemma: on one hand, I have many papers to grade for all of my classes (and independent studies), and the semester is rapidly drawing to a close -- which means that people need to get their papers back, both so they can see how they're doing and so that they can prepare for whatever kind of final exam or final paper I have assigned to them. On the other hand, I need to send out e-mail invitations for a workshop that a colleague and I are preparing for the next meeting of the International Studies Association; we need to get people committed to the workshop before they go and commit themselves to multiple panels and other activities at the conference and no longer have time for our project. Both of these activities take time, and time -- especially in April, which really is the cruelest month for academics -- is very precious. So something's got to take priority.

    This morning the professional obligation won, for two reasons:
  • I told my co-organizer that I'd send out the invitations a couple of weeks ago, and also told colleagues to be expecting those invitations in short order, so I felt that I needed to carry through on those promises and let people clarify their ISA 2005 plans.
  • I extended the due date for the final paper for one of my classes from 23 April to 27 April, which means that if I get the papers back to the students by Friday then they'll have the weekend to process the comments before having to firm up their final papers. So the papers will get back to people later then I would have liked, but at least they won't come back after the final assignment has been turned in.

    And this is a relatively easy trade-off, because both activities are internal to academia. The tough trade-offs are things like "academic work vs. spending time with family" or "academic work vs. church" (actually, that one is disturbingly easy for me to make) or in general "academic work vs. everything else." Because being an academic isn't just a job for me, it doesn't really "stop" in the way that a typical 9-5 job stops. I mean, part of this is a job and does stop when I leave the office, but other aspects don't. And it seems that even the "job" aspects keep carrying over to other times and spaces these days too.

    It's hard to draw boundaries around a vocation.

    [Posted with ecto]
  • 4.19.2004
      Why Grading Stinks
    Why Grading StinksGrading papers is the worst part of my job. Commenting on student papers is fine, since that's pedagogical -- it's an opportunity to help improve the craft that the students are attempting to learn. But having to then cram those comments into a single letter-grade is deeply frustrating for me. I understand why students want letter-grades, since they vouch for mastery of certain skills and help to certify the student as having legitimately covered certain sets of material; they're part of the whole credentialing process that has unfortunately become more and more prominent in modern academia.

    That's probably why I dislike it so much. I don't like having to play the role of a skills trainer; I much prefer to be a craftsman at work who is assisting his apprentices as they strive for competence, proficiency, and then mastery. Flyvbjerg's Making Social Science Matter has an interesting account of this stuff that draws on Hubert Dreyfus (who in turn draws on Heidegger, which IMHO the right place to begin). The basic point is that virtuosos in a field don't follow rules; they have mastered the rules and then in an almost Wittgensteinian sense tossed the ladder away after they have climbed up it, and can simply perform. "Skills" are a very rudimentary part of the process, and certification/credentialing can be an impediment to it if people become too focused on the steps and not focused enough on the goal -- which is what I fear grading pushes people towards.

    Oh, I forgot to mention the $45 conference registration fee for MPSA in my previous entry. It should have been more, but I pretended to be a grad student and paid the lower price. I think that they wanted $110 (!) from faculty. NEPSA, and ISA-NE, have a conference registration fee for faculty of about $35, if I remember right. One wonders where all that registration money goes -- in the same way that students wonder, or should wonder, where their tuition money goes. It sure as hell doesn't go into faculty salaries, that's for sure.

    [Posted with ecto]
      In Media Res
    In Media ResConferencing is a crucial part of academic life. Attending conferences is how one forges connexions with other scholars, meets new people when they show up in the audience for one's presentations, puts off doing "tangible" work like writing and grading in a legitimate manner (you are, after all, "working" -- even if the labor involves the maintenance of social ties that are often mediated by food and alcohol), and establishes a professional reputation as a willing interlocutor and/or nice person to hang out with. [These last two can be critical at the moment of a job search, since getting an academic job is also a matter of joining a community of discourse -- and one usually does not want to hire assholes with whom one will then have to out up on a daily basis for years to come.]

    This weekend I went to the Midwest Political Science Association conference, which was an incursion into a foreign country for me. MPSA is quantoid heaven, with the overwhelming majority of the panels consisting of papers in which someone presents the results of their having run complex statistical tests on a variety of data-sets. In other words, not the kind of work that I do at all, and not the kind of work that I find particularly interesting or insightful. I was on a panel called "questioning the validity of the natural science model" in which a number of us showed up to critique the whole enterprise that many of the rest of the conference participants were engaged in; they responded by largely not showing up, and we had a small roomful of choir-members to which to preach (together with one gentleman who seemed overly concerned with the employability of students trained in political philosophy and the philosophy of social science -- someone with the wrong view of what a college education is all about, I fear). But it was probably important to show the flag, as it were, regardless of its immediate practical effects.

    What this conference cost me:

  • airfare, Southwest Airlines, BWI-Chicago and back again: $191.70
  • hotel, one evening at Hotel Allegro (featuring free in-room wireless 'Net access!), courtesy (thanks, Ido): $80
  • train fare to/from Chicago Midway Airport: $3.50
  • breakfast @ hotel: $15.42
  • beers after panel: $16
  • dinner with Elven Archer #37, which I paid for because he's still a grad student and I at least draw a salary: $53.62
  • hot dog and fries in airport: $7.56
  • parking at BWI, because I was late getting to the airport on Saturday morning and had to park in the Hourly lot: $60 (!)

    total financial cost: $427.80
    (I should be able to get most of this covered, although it will use up the rest of my university resources for the year)

    Other costs include taking time to write a paper during much of the month of April, and thus putting myself in a large grading hole that I now desperately need to claw my way out of. Plus the mental anguish of trying to get some inchoate thoughts about methodology down on paper, a process which has only increased my awareness of how poorly trained people in our field are for dealing with basic philosophical issues. And the lack of sleep associated with the writing process.

    Benefits of the conference:

  • dinner with Elven Archer #37
  • good discussion with panelists and two members of audience after panel over beer
  • forcing myself to get some inchoate thoughts about methodology down on paper, and maybe making them less inchoate
  • enhanced realization that I am really not an "interpretivist" or entirely on board with "science studies" as a research practice (more on that in a future entry, I think)

    Was it worth it? Beats me.

    Typing this with my computer at an angle while crammed into a Southwest Airlines seat is not fun, so I'll stop there for now.

    [Posted with ecto]
  • "Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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