Foodism as the newest part of high culture

A commentator in the New York Times suggests “food [has] replaced art as high culture“:

But what has happened is not that food has led to art, but that it has replaced it. Foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known — in the days of the rising postwar middle class, when Mortimer Adler was peddling the Great Books and Leonard Bernstein was on television — as culture. It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of what Thorstein Veblen, the great social critic of the Gilded Age, called conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression. (My farmers’ market has bigger, better, fresher tomatoes than yours.) Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture.

Young men once headed to the Ivy League to acquire the patina of high culture that would allow them to move in the circles of power — or if they were to the manner born, to assert their place at the top of the social heap by flashing what they already knew. Now kids at elite schools are inducted, through campus farmlets, the local/organic/sustainable fare in dining halls and osmotic absorption via their classmates from Manhattan or the San Francisco Bay Area, into the ways of food. More and more of them also look to the expressive possibilities of careers in food: the cupcake shop, the pop-up restaurant, the high-end cookie business. Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion…

Like art, food is also a genuine passion that people like to share with their friends. Many try their hands at it as amateurs — the weekend chef is what the Sunday painter used to be — while avowing their respect for the professionals and their veneration for the geniuses. It has developed, of late, an elaborate cultural apparatus that parallels the one that exists for art, a whole literature of criticism, journalism, appreciation, memoir and theoretical debate. It has its awards, its maestros, its televised performances. It has become a matter of local and national pride, while maintaining, as culture did in the old days, a sense of deference toward the European centers and traditions — enriched at a later stage, in both cases, by a globally minded eclecticism.

Just as aestheticism, the religion of art, inherited the position of Christianity among the progressive classes around the turn of the 20th century, so has foodism taken over from aestheticism around the turn of the 21st. Now we read the gospel according, not to Joyce or Proust, but to Michael Pollan and Alice Waters.

This is intriguing but I wonder if it is as pervasive as this commentator suggests. I’m thinking of Bourdieu’s ideas that certain cultural tastes became part of a habitus for different classes. Thus, something like food or art or music has to be part of a lifestyle and is often formally taught. For example, high culture as art and music (and perhaps film and more popular music these days – and we might throw in literary classics) is taught in many colleges. Do the same colleges formally teach about food in the same way? Do lower levels of school teach about food? Foodism might be present in many social circles and is increasingly so in the media but I wonder if it has reached the same level of formal training just yet.

Also, if foodism has really ascended to this level, what does this say about the current state of art?

Encourage research collaboration by overlapping daily walking paths

Lots of academics are talking about interdisciplinary research and teaching and a new study helps point the way forward: make sure different groups have overlapping daily walking paths.

Researchers who occupy the same building are 33 percent more likely to form new collaborations than researchers who occupy different buildings, and scientists who occupy the same floor are 57 percent more likely to form new collaborations than investigators who occupy different buildings, he said.
One of these assumptions is that passive contacts between inhabitants of a building—just bumping into people as you go about your daily business—makes it more likely that you’ll share ideas and eventually engage in formal collaborations. This assumption is based on the work of ISR researcher Leon Festinger, who studied the friendships that developed among dormitory residents in the 1950s.
Owen-Smith and colleagues examined the relationship between office and lab proximity and walking patterns, and found that linear distance between offices was less important than overlap in daily walking paths. They developed the concept of zonal overlap as a way to operationalize Festinger’s idea of passive contact. “We looked at how much overlap existed for any two researchers moving between lab space, office space, and the nearest bathroom and elevator,” Owen-Smith said. “And we found that net of the distance between their offices, for every 100 feet of zonal overlap, collaborations increased by 20 percent and grant funding increased between 21 and 30 percent.”
Owen-Smith and colleagues also found that the likelihood of passive contacts can be more simply assessed by using a measure of “door passing”—whether one investigator’s work path passes by another’s office door.

This sounds like a more small-scale study but it ties into the broader concept of compulsion of proximity. Put people in spaces where they are more likely to run into each other and they are more likely to interact face-to-face. This would go for making friends on a dorm floor in college (random assignments lead to college long or life-long friendships), finding marriage partners through social networks , and apparently works for researchers.

One expanding housing market: upscale, off-campus college housing

Several builders are preparing for an area of the housing market that is set to expand: upscale, off-campus housing for college students.

These days the companies have begun to build upscale houses with bedrooms clustered around gourmet kitchens and access to amenity-filled clubhouses. Known as cottage-style housing, the relatively new product is becoming popular with operators and students.

Nationwide, there are 35 cottage communities with nearly 19,000 beds. Another 18 are under way or in the works, with roughly 12,000 beds, said Wes Rogers, chief executive of Landmark Properties Inc., which has built roughly one-third of the cottages in the U.S. While cottage-style housing represents a small percentage of the nearly 500,000 beds controlled by the sector’s top companies, industry watchers expect the bed count to increase as the product catches on…

Developers are building these properties to house an expanding student population: More than three million high-school students are expected to graduate annually until the 2018-19 academic year, well above the roughly 2.5 million graduating in 1993-1994, according to the Department of Education.

Moreover, universities don’t have enough beds and much of the current supply, tall towers with communal bathrooms, has lost favor among the McMansion generation. Schools, many struggling with budget cuts, can’t afford to build new dorms.

It’s not college, it’s luxury living! Or at least a small approximation of it.

A few thoughts about this:

1. Assuming this off-campus housing expansion continues, does this mean colleges will have to engage in an arms race for housing to keep dorms occupied? In other words, these nicer off-campus opportunities might impede campus cash flows if more students are drawn out of dorms.

2. The article doesn’t talk about this but could this lead to more of a have vs. have-not attitude on campus? Not everyone can access this kind of living quarters.

3. I wonder if better housing has any positive effect on student learning and development. Do students act differently if the (off-campus) housing is nicer?

Mapping the social network of American colleges by status

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fascinating story and interactive area that shows social networks among American universities and colleges:

Each year colleges submit “comparison groups” to the U.S. Department of Education to get feedback on how their institution stacks up in terms of finances, enrollment, and other measures tabulated in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The groups sometimes represent a college’s actual peers but more often reveal their aspirations.

The Chronicle analyzed the relationships of nearly 1,600 four-year colleges that make up those groups to map out the power players in higher education.

The typical college selected a comparison group of 16 colleges with a higher average SAT score and graduation rate than its own, lower acceptance rate, and larger endowment, budget, and enrollment.

The eight Ivy League colleges among them chose only 12 institutions outside their own number as peers—not surprisingly, often including the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University.

So it looks like colleges themselves act like high school students applying to college as laid out by sociologist Mitchell Stevens in Making a Class: they want to improve their own status by attaching themselves to a higher status institution.

It would take some time to figure this out based on entering different college names but here would be some intriguing queries that could be answered by the interactive graphic:

1. Which colleges are most aspirational?

2. Which college are the best judges of their own level, meaning that they select institutions that also select them?

3. What are the institutions that act as bridges, meaning they join together networks of different kinds of colleges or regions of colleges?

4. Are there any colleges that actually underestimate their own status by choosing institutions “below” them?

Teaching sociology online influenced by reading student’s online comments

Sociologist Mitchell Duneier writes about how his online teaching was enriched and influenced by the comments students posted online:

My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination, was a close reading of the text, in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line. I asked students to follow along in their own copies, as I do in the lecture hall. When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands.

Although it was impossible for me to read even a fraction of the pages of students’ comments as they engaged with one another, the software allowed me to take note of those that generated the most discussion. I was quickly able to see the issues that were most meaningful to my students…

With so much volume, my audience became as visible to me as the students in a traditional lecture hall. This happened as I got to know them by sampling their comments on the forums and in the live, seminar-style discussions. As I developed a sense for them as people, I could imagine their nods and, increasingly, their critical questions. Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars…

Nor had I imagined the virtual and real-time continuous interaction among the students. There were spontaneous and continuing in-person study groups in coffee shops in Katmandu and in pubs in London. Many people developed dialogues after following one another’s posts on various subjects, while others got to know those with a common particular interest, such as racial differences in IQ, the prisoner abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib, or ethnocentrism—all topics covered in the lectures.

A few thoughts about Duneier’s discussion of online comments about his lectures:

1. It is good to hear that some online comments can be rewarding and constructive. It is hard to be positive about such interactions when so many online discussions involve yelling past each other. I imagine there might have been some negative or less constructive comments but perhaps people were more restrained knowing they were part of an online class. In other words, the commentators had more of a stake in the conversations.

2. I am intrigued by the idea that Duneier got more feedback from this than in “a career of teaching.” I don’t know if this says more about the potential of online feedback or the lack of feedback and interaction in a traditional classroom.

3. Could there be a way to efficiently sort through such comments? Duneier suggests he was able to see what students cared about most by looking at which threads generated more discussion. But does simply having more responses indicate a more substantive discussion?

4. I wonder at the end of this: does Duneier think teaching online is a superior or equal experience to teaching at Princeton? It certainly is different…but how does it compare?

Lack of good data on grad students who go into nonacademic jobs

I was just asked about this recently so I was interested to see this story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about efforts to get better data about graduate students who go on to nonacademic careers:

The Council of Graduate Schools published a wider-scoped study this year. “Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers” focuses on the transition from graduate school to job. Its findings, based on consultation with students, deans, and employers, are now resonating in an academic culture that remains fixated on the tenure-track outcome.

The council’s study found that professors don’t talk enough to their graduate students about possible jobs outside of academe, even though such nonfaculty positions are “of interest to students.” That lack of guidance is particularly egregious in light of where graduate students actually end up: About half of new Ph.D.’s get their first jobs outside of academe, “in business, government, or nonprofit jobs,” the council’s report said.

The CGS study included a survey but the results have not been published. Incredibly, there has been no significant survey of graduate-student career outcomes since Nerad and Cerny’s [a 1999 study]—and they limited their sample to Ph.D.’s who had received their degrees nearly 30 years ago now.

So it’s big news that the Scholarly Communication Institute is conducting a new survey of former graduate students who have (or are building) careers outside the professoriate—a career category now commonly called alternative academic, or “alt-ac.” (You can tell how embedded an idea has become when it gets a handle as brief as that.)

You would think there would be more data on this topic but since graduate schools themselves may not have a great interest in this information, it takes some other group or interested party to pull it all together.

I know in reports like these graduate school faculty tend to take a beating because they don’t talk enough about nonacademic options. While they should know something about the topic and perhaps in the future they can point their students to this new survey and database, how much could they really know about the nonacademic world? They often face a lot of pressure to keep up in their own settings, let alone find out about areas that their schools and departments wouldn’t really reward them for. Perhaps there would be some way to introduce incentives to the system that could help reward faculty for also talking about life outside academia? I wonder how many departments in certain subjects would feel like failures if half their graduates ended up in nonacademic jobs…this is not conducive to wanting to share more information with students.

How to define a good college town

Livability recently released a list of the Top 10 college towns and here is some discussion of how they defined such communities:

And for starters, we need a basic definition of a college town. “True college towns are places where the identity of the city is both shaped by and complementary to the presence of its university, creating an environment enjoyable to all residents, whether they are enrolled in classes or not,” Livability’s editors write. “They’re true melting pots, where young minds meet old traditions, and political, social, and cultural ideas of all kinds are welcomed.”

That’s pretty broad. But the editors go on: In a college town, “the college is not only a major employer, but also the reason for more plentiful shops, restaurants, and entertainment businesses.” And it has to look like a college town, too: “It doesn’t seem right to call a place a college town if you can’t tell classes are in session with a quick glance at the mix of people on a busy sidewalk.”…

For example, what would Baltimore be without the Johns Hopkins University? The economic equivalent of a smoldering hole in the ground, that’s what. Or consider Rochester or Syracuse, N.Y., from the same perspective. And what about Boston and Philadelphia—are they “college towns”?

As you’ll see from the list below, most of Livability’s “best” college towns are relatively small, remote places, based on colleges that are highly ranked by the Princeton Review. Livability, true to its name, also factored in cost of living and walkability. (College towns, by their nature, should be among the most pedestrian-friendly communities America has left.)

This sounds like a very traditional use of the term “college town”: places that are heavily dependent on the university or college and that are quaint yet cosmopolitan enough. I like the contrast with the big cities which often have a variety of colleges and amenities that cater to college students, faculty, and staff.

This leads to a few thoughts:

1. How many college students today pick colleges based on it being in a “college town”? The surrounding atmosphere must matter some.

2. How have college towns been affected by the recent economic downturn and its effects on college campuses? Let’s say the college bubble bursts like some are predicting: how badly hit will college towns be? Another way to put it might be to ask how resilient these communities would be if the college/university started struggling or is this another example of what could happen to communities that rely too heavily on one industry.

3. Why not include an attitudinal component with local residents asking how much they like or approve of or even know what is going on with the college? Town and gown relationships can be difficult and simply because a place is a “college town” doesn’t mean there isn’t some tension.

4. It would be interesting to trace the history of college towns and their appeal. Historically, were there advantages to having colleges in communities that were heavily dependent on them?

5. Just because a place looks like it is where learning should take place (and this seems very constructed), does it actually improve learning?

Obama, the suburbs, higher education, and HENRYs

Peter Wood ties Stanley Kurtz’s new book about Obama and the suburbs to another interesting issue: the higher education bubble.

I have argued that among the factors most likely to precipitate the crash is the disaffection of families earning over $100,000 a year. Many of these families have seen the value of their home equity fall but have, with hard effort, kept their noses above water during the recession. The income bracket of $100,000 to $250,000—called “HENRYs” in marketing parlance, for High Earners who are Not Rich Yet—are a key sector for colleges and universities. These are the folks who borrow to the hilt to afford overpriced college tuitions. The bracket above the HENRYs, those earning over $250,000, are another key to higher-education finance. There are only about two million such families, but they are the top-end consumers of expensive colleges. Their willingness to pay top dollar is what signals to the HENRYs that the tuitions must be worth it.

These high income families—$100,000 and above—are concentrated in the suburbs. I have already written (Helium, Part 2) on the likelihood that these families will be forced to rethink their longstanding assumptions about the value of expensive colleges in light of the huge tax increases set to kick in after the 2012 presidential election. In the “ecology of higher education,” we are about to see what happens when we torch the canopy.

Kurtz’s book suggests that the assault on the HENRYs and the $250 K plus crowd goes beyond income and capital-gains taxes. We are in an era of emergent policy aimed at deconstructing what makes the suburbs attractive to the affluent. The “regionalists” advocate something called “regional tax base sharing,” which essentially means using state legislative power to take tax receipts from the suburbs to pay for services in the cities. The suburbanites will be faced with the unpleasant choice between lower levels of service for their own communities or raising their own taxes still higher to make up for the money they will “share” with their urban neighbors…

These are matters that faculty members, even those who enjoy life on campuses idyllically tucked away in verdant suburbs, will probably weigh lightly. But the regionalists are, in effect, working hard to diminish the attractions of the communities that form the social base for the prestige-oriented upscale colleges and universities that have for the last sixty or seventy years defined the aspirational goals of the American middle class. The war on the suburbs combined with the large increase in the tax burden may be the pincers that pop the bubble.

America is a suburban country so it makes sense that HENRYs and some of the colleges that appeal to them are located in the suburbs.

There are larger issues here. College is tied to a key foundation of suburban life: children should be cared for and given the opportunities that will help them get ahead in life. Particularly in the post-World War II era, going to college is a necessary suburban rite of passage that insures a middle-class or higher lifestyle. If college becomes too expensive for this group, it will be fascinating to see how they adjust.

This fall, more than half of college students will be living at home

New figures suggest that more than half of American college students will be living at home during the fall 2012 semester:

For American students, heading off to college has traditionally also meant physically going away to college. But now, at a time when college costs are soaring, and when news of young people being saddled with burdensome student loan debt is unavoidable, today’s students are trying to trim college expenses in every way possible. More than half of students, in fact, will be living at home when the fall semester begins—up significantly from the 43% of students who commuted a couple of years ago…

The argument that a so-called “higher education bubble” really does exist—and may be in the process of popping—gets a boost especially because it looks like students in wealthier American families, who should be able to pay for pricey colleges, are choosing to stay home in increasingly higher numbers. As USA Today points out:

This year, 47% of students from high-income families, those making more than $100,000, are living at home, nearly double the 24% who did two years ago.

It would be interesting to see this broken down by type of institution. In other words, are students at pricier liberal arts and research schools living at home in greater numbers?

Are there studies that show the impact of living on campus versus commuting? Does it have any impact on learning? Does it have a demonstrable impact on social adjustment and well-being? I assume colleges and universities will have to do more to justify having students live on campus or having them pay so much…

h/t Instapundit

Most common college grade: A or A-

Here is some data about college grades and how they have increased to a modal letter grade of an A:

In 1960, the average undergraduate grade awarded in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota was 2.27 on a four-point scale.  In other words, the average letter grade at the University of Minnesota in the early 1960s was about a C+, and that was consistent with average grades at other colleges and universities in that era.  In fact, that average grade of C+ (2.30-2.35 on a 4-point scale) had been pretty stable at America’s colleges going all the way back to the 1920s (see chart above from, a website maintained by Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor who has tirelessly crusaded for several decades against “grade inflation” at U.S. universities). By 2006, the average GPA at public universities in the U.S. had risen to 3.01 and at private universities to 3.30.  That means that the average GPA at public universities in 2006 was equivalent to a letter grade of B, and at private universities a B+, and it’s likely that grades and GPAs have continued to inflate over the last six years…
National studies and surveys suggest that college students now get more A’s than any other grade even though they spend less time studying. Cramer’s solution — to tack onto every transcript the percentage of students that also got that grade — has split the faculty and highlighted how tricky it can be to define, much less combat, grade inflation.”…
Last year, Professor Rojstaczer and co-author Christopher Healy published a research article in the Teachers College Record titled “Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009.” The main conclusion of the paper appears below (emphasis added), and is illustrated by the chart below showing the rising share of A letter grades over time at American colleges, from 15% in 1940 to 43% by 2008. Starting in about 1998, the letter grade A became the most common college grade.
“Conclusion: Across a wide range of schools, As represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. Ds and Fs total typically less than 10% of all letter grades. Private colleges and universities give, on average, significantly more As and Bs combined than public institutions with equal student selectivity. Southern schools grade more harshly than those in other regions, and science and engineering-focused schools grade more stringently than those emphasizing the liberal arts. It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.”

This is quite an increase, particularly as more Americans started attending college in this period. What does this do in the long run for credentialism – the idea that employers and others can get an idea about the competence, skills, and work ethic of people by knowing whether they have a college degree or not. Are employers and students looking for ways to differentiate between students?

Seeing the data by discipline (and not just broad categories) would be particularly fascinating.

Something to note about grade data: good grades can only bring up the average so much since they have a max of 4.0. So the rising average is partly due to more good grades being handed out but also partly due to fewer bad grades (which would have a greater effect on the average) being assigned. Note the last chart: about 78% of grades are either As or Bs, suggesting that students have to work at getting grades below this.

h/t Instapundit