Cantor’s victorious opponent, an economics professor, to face off against Democrat sociologist professor

The academic disciplines of sociology and economics don’t always get along so it will be interesting to watch an economics and sociology professor square off in Virginia’s 7th district:

In sociology, education is often championed as the best path to a vibrant society—an idea Trammell clearly subscribes to. He is running on a platform of college access, student-loan forgiveness, and special-education reform. In 2012, Trammell published a book, The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion. (More recently, he has planned to write a vampire novel.) Trammell’s ancestor, Thomas Trammell, was an indentured servant when he arrived in Fairfax in 1671.

Brat joined the faculty at Randolph-Macon in 1996 after receiving his Ph.D. in economics at American University. Since then, he’s taught classes on micro- and macroeconomics, public finance, and business ethics. And he coauthored a paper titled, “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand”. Back in January, Brat told the National Review that while he doesn’t consider himself a Randian, “he has been influenced by Atlas Shrugged and appreciates Rand’s case for human freedom and free markets.”…

The idea of a Republican economics professor facing off against a Democratic sociology professor presents a near-perfect microcosm of American political thought. What matters most in governance—the good of the market or the good of society? Should government serve to keep the free market as uninhibited as possible, or to impose checks on the market to protect citizens? Is education or entrepreneurship a more important path to individual and collective success? These are questions ripe for a Poli-Sci 101 discussion.

Perhaps a bit overstated (the next, and last, paragraph of the story goes on to tell who has the highest score at RateMyProfessor.com) but it sounds like the two have different perspectives on the world.  Given their disciplines, it could be easy to caricature the two sides without seeing what exactly the points of agreement and disagreement are between the two candidates. Is it easy to argue its education versus free markets or would voters generally support both? It is not immediately clear how much voters care much about this academic food fight –  both candidates are PhDs after all.

If you are curious, here are the demographics of Virginia’s 7th House District which skews Republican and more white, educated, and wealthy than American averages.

According to the United States Census Bureau’s 2010 data for the 111th Congress, the total population of the district is 757,917. Median age for the district is 39.2 years. 74.3% of the district is White, 17.1% Black, 3.9% Asian, 0.3% Native American or Alaskan, and 2.1% some other race with 4.9% Hispanic or Latino. Owner-occupied housing is 72.0% and renter-occupied housing is 28.0%. The median value of single-family owner-occupied homes is $188,400. 88.1% of the district population has at least a high school diploma, 36.7% at least a bachelor’s degree or higher. 9.9% of the district are civilian veterans. 12.7% are foreign born and 20.1% speak a language other than English at home. 9.9% are of disability status. 68.2% of the district is in the labor force, which consists of those 16 years and older. Mean travel time to work is 26.2 minutes. Median household income is $64,751. Per capita income is $33,628. 5.3% of the population account for families living below the poverty level, and 7.6% of individuals live below the poverty level.

So perhaps the sociologist, compared to an economist, starts at a disadvantage.

The value of bringing gripping sociology into a continuation high school

Sociologist Victor Rios was recently invited to a Sacramento high school where students were engrossed by his story and book:

When Erin McChesney went to her principal with a new book for her high school English students, he was skeptical.

Consider the cover. The title, “Street Life: Poverty, Gangs and a Ph.D.,” is scrawled in a graffiti-style font. A cartoonish drawing depicts a man half-dressed in graduation regalia, half in trademark gangster attire.

But Bob Wilkerson, principal at Vista Nueva Career and Technical High School, agreed to read it. Not only did he give McChesney the green light to use it in her classroom, he assigned it to his entire staff to read during last year’s summer break. And after McChesney scraped together funds to bring the book’s author, Victor Rios, to campus, Wilkerson relished a day of watching his students engage so deeply in an educational opportunity.

“You know what? I’ve got to get these kids to read. I’ve got to help them read better,” said Wilkerson, a longtime educator. “What I have to think about – within reason – is what is best for my students. And if they’re going to read that – if they’re going to read the autobiography of Derek Jeter – I’m OK with that, because they’re reading.”

On Wednesday, Rios – a former Oakland gangster who teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara – spent the morning at the continuation high school sharing his story and fielding questions about his path from gangs to academia. Speaking to an audience primarily filled with students of color from the impoverished neighborhoods surrounding the East Del Paso Heights campus, Rios spoke of his family’s struggles spanning from Mexico to a drug-infested Oakland neighborhood. He talked about poverty, racism, lack of opportunity, dropping out of a school system that did not engage him – and the teacher from that system who ultimately inspired him.

Sounds like a good learning experience. Additionally, it is good to see a sociologist using his work and life to help inspire others.

What other sociology texts might be similarly inspiring to high school students? Perhaps books of a similar ilk, ones that are both personal and interesting in terms of explaining social phenomena not easily understood, would work. Is appealing more to high schooler’s sense of identity formation and construction the way to go or can some of them understand a more structural approach? If I remember correctly, the sociology class offered at my high school (which I did not take) tended to rely on pop sociology books like Fast Food Nation.

Ph.D. degrees are pretty rare, The Five-Year Engagement notwithstanding

In the movie The Five-Year Engagement, one of the main characters has a post-doc at the University of Michigan in social psychology. I wondered how many people know what a post-doc is and this pushed me to think more broadly: just how common is a Ph.D. in the United States? According to the 2012 Statistical Abstract, there were 49,562 PhDs awarded in 2009, up from 42,437 in 1996. According to the National Science Foundation, here are some additional figures on the number of doctorates awarded:

-In the first year of their data, 1957, there were 8,611 PhDs awarded.

-The greatest years of PhD growth (measured by % change from previous year) were clearly in the 1960s with peaks of 14.1% in 1965 and 14.6% in 1970.

-There were 48,069 doctorates awarded in 2010.

(Unfortunately, these tables do not break down how many doctoral students graduated with degrees/concentrations in social psychology.)

Census figures from 2010 say 27.9% of Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Figures from 2011 show that 7.95% of Americans have a master’s degree and 3% have a doctorate or professional degree.

All this suggests that PhDs are relatively rare in the United States meaning that many Americans may not be able to relate to this story (plus, how many movies or TV shows focus on academia?). However, the movie is set in San Francisco and Ann Arbor: 51.2% of residents in San Francisco have a bachelor’s degree or higher (with a California state figure of 30.1%) and 19.7% of residents have a graduate or professional degree (ACS estimates). In the college town of Ann Arbor, 71.1% of residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher (with a Michigan state figure of 25%) and 42% have a graduate or professional degree (ACS estimates).

So is Judd Apatow aiming for a more educated audience with his latest film?

Argument: “Academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture”

In a discussion of reforming PhD. programs, one academic suggests that frequent meetings between students and faculty are needed to speed up the process because shame motivates more than guilt:

David Damrosch, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard University, said that Ph.D. students and professors in his department have been thinking more carefully about coursework. “Very often, students drift for extended periods,” he said. Frequent meetings with dissertation committee members are helpful, he said. “All this result in fewer incompletes in coursework … and more consistent progress in the dissertations,” said Damrosch.

“In anthropological terms, academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture: you may feel some private guilt at letting a chapter go unread for two or three months, but a much stronger force would be the public shame you’d feel at coming unprepared to a meeting with two of your colleagues,” he said. “It’s also ultimately a labor-saving device for the faculty as well as the student, as the dissertation can proceed sooner to completion and with less wasted effort for all concerned….” With frequent meetings, the students doesn’t lose time on “unproductive lines of inquiry” or “tangential suggestions tossed out by a single adviser,” Damrosch said.

Neither shame or guilt seem like the best motivation…

I wonder how many Ph.D. students say they feel positively supported by their institution and faculty. This doesn’t necessarily mean that students are the only ones who have a voice in this but I wonder if a lot of these issues are due to a poor match of (unclear?) expectations.

Gingrich the history professor versus Obama the law professor?

I feel something is generally being overlooked in the rise of Newt Gingrich in the polls and talk about his background. Newt is an academic who became a historian and is interested in running against a president who was once a self-described “constitutional law professor.” Let’s start with Newt’s background on Wikipedia:

Gingrich received a B.A. in history from Emory University in Atlanta in 1965, a M.A. in 1968, and a PhD in modern European history from Tulane University in New Orleans in 1971.His dissertation was entitled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945–1960”. While at Tulane, Gingrich joined the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church and was baptized by the Rev. G. Avery Lee.In 1970, Gingrich joined the history department at West Georgia College as an assistant professor. In 1974 he moved to the geography department and was instrumental in establishing an inter-disciplinary environmental studies program. Denied tenure, he left the college in 1978.

He has written a number of books, according to the biography at Gingrich Productions:

As an author, Newt has published twenty-three books including 13 fiction and non-fiction New York Times best-sellers.  Non-fiction books include his latest, A Nation Like No Other, in addition to Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with DestinyTo Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist MachineRediscovering God in America (newly revised featuring the photography of Callista Gingrich), 5 Principles for a Successful Life, Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less, Real Change, A Contract with the Earth, Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America, To Renew America, Lessons Learned the Hard Way, Saving Lives & Saving Money, Window of Opportunity, The Art of Transformation, and Rediscovering God in America. He is also the author of a series of historical fiction books: Gettysburg, Grant Comes East, Never Call Retreat: Lee and Grant the Final Victory, 1945, Pearl Harbor, A Novel of December the 8, Days of Infamy, To Try Men’s Souls, and his latest, Valley Forge. These novels are active history studies in the lessons of warfare based on fictional accounts of historical wartime battles and their aftermaths.

A political scientist weighs in:

He is hired as an assistant professor (a tenure track position) at West Georgia College.  While he clearly thought highly of himself (the timeline linked states that he tried to become department chair in his second year—and odd move for a variety of reasons.  These reasons include:  1)  it is difficult to be in a leadership position like that sans tenure, given that one would have to come into conflict with people who would have direct influence over tenure decisions, including senior faculty, deans, and upper administration, depending on the system in place) and, 2) new faculty have a lot of time demands, including preparing a large number of classes from scratch as well as working towards publications.

Gingrich fails to achieve tenure, meaning that his academic  career at West Georgia College was over.  Of course, from there he goes on to get elected to the House, ending his stint in academia altogether.

The interesting thing about Gingrich rather brief stint in academia is the record suggests he was never especially serious about it.  Not only did he try to become chair in his second year (an indication that he was, at a minimum, confused about how to get tenured) but he ended up running for congress during this period (a time-consuming activity).  Given the time needed to engage in teaching and scholarly output, something had to give and clearly political ambitions overtook academic ones.  Now, this is a legitimate choice for Gingrich to have made (although odd in the sense that getting the Ph.D. in the first place took a lot of work), but clearly he abandoned the academic enterprise almost at the beginning of his career (his first run for Congress was in 1974, at that point in his time at GWC that he should have been focusing intently on the fact that he would be going up for tenure and promotion soon).  As such, his claims to being a historian from a professional point of view are quite dubious.

Yes, he has published a number of books (22, I believe) but they are a  collection of co-authored novels and political/ideological tomes.  Indeed, none of the books written or co-written by Gingrich listed at Amazon would qualify as “scholarly” by actual historians…Really, he has no credibility claiming the mantle of either scholar or historian at the moment.  I can find, by the way, no evidence of any scholarly output whatsoever during his stint in the academy (I check a couple of databases that cover publications in history, but it is possible I am missing something).

A historian has similar thoughts:

But here’s what you need to know about Gingrich: He’s not a real historian. Sure, he’s got a Ph.D. in the field, and yes, Gingrich has written more than 20 books. But when he left academia for Congress in 1978, he also left behind the most basic canons of our discipline: rigor and humility. Put simply, we’re supposed to know what we’re talking about. And when we don’t, we’re supposed to say so.

That’s what I learned on my very first day of graduate school, almost a quarter-century ago. The world is infinitely complicated, a professor told us, and we’ll only be able to study a very small slice of it. And even when we think we understand that tiny piece, someone else will come along to prove us wrong.

Some of my own thoughts on this:

1. While Gingrich may not have been in academia for long, he did complete a dissertation and taught for 8 years (as far as I can tell). Both President Obama and Gingrich spent some time in academia before moving onto more success in politics. Did this background help each of them in politics?

2. I imagine many or even most historians and other academics would not support Gingrich. Since academia tends to lean away from Gingrich’s positions, I assume Gingrich would not be the favorite candidate of college professors.

2a. If this is the case, would this lead to more critical comments regarding his academic background and charges that he was just dabbling in the academy?

3. Obama and Gingrich are just two data points but could there be more academics rising to high ranks in the American political scene? How about Elizabeth Warren, Harvard law professor for over 20 years? Could a sociologist ever run for and win a higher office and how would their sociological background inform their campaign and governing strategy?

4. On the whole, is being an academic a positive thing for voters? American culture has an anti-intellectual streak as well as some negative ideas about the “educated elite.” Of course, this background might appeal to some people.

Helping PhDs find “alternative careers” outside of academia

The academic job market is tough. Therefore, it’s not surprising to read about programs and seminars being held to help PhDs pursue job opportunities outside of academia:

“Ph.D.’s often don’t know how to leverage and sell themselves to a nonacademic world,” says Steinfeld. “We can do that for them.” Steinfeld and other career counselors at Wasserman stress that the discipline that is needed to earn a doctorate degree makes Ph.D. candidates attractive to financial firms like Morgan Stanley and service firms like McKinsey and Boston Consulting.

One recent Wasserman workshop on alternative careers, “What You Can Do With a Ph.D. in the Humanities,” featured Michael Shae, who earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale in 1992, and two years later began work at the New York Review of Books as an editorial assistant; he is now a senior editor. Another annual workshop, “Careers Outside the Academy: Sociology and Social Science Options,” featured a panel of career switchers with Ph.D.’s, including Preston Beckman, the executive vice president of scheduling for Fox Network. Beckman holds a Ph.D. in sociology from NYU.

Emi Lesure, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at NYU, says she attended the workshops every year for the past few years and found them heartening. The panelists, she says, noted the perks of their jobs over academic careers: intellectual stimulation, reduced hours, better pay. “I’ve lived the life of a poor, stressed-out, overworked grad student for seven years now,” says Lesure. “I can’t keep that up for another decade.”

The good news, says Steinfeld, is that considering non-academic jobs is no longer career suicide. “Years ago, if you were a Ph.D. student at NYU and you talked in public about looking outside of academia for a job, you were put aside as not a serious candidate,” she says. “Faculty today have a much more realistic understanding of the pressures of job hunting.”

A few thoughts about this:

1. How many big-name graduate programs in different disciplines present jobs outside of academia as viable options?

2. Do graduate programs advertise the fact that some of their students now work outside academia? Since most programs list their recent graduates and their jobs somewhere, someone could look into this.

3. It sounds like hearing from PhDs who have successfully worked outside of academia could make a big difference. It would be nice to have some sort of database of “career switchers” who have sociology PhDs.

4. With the growing prevalence of master’s degrees within certain fields, will the PhD become the next step for non-academic employees who want to get a leg up on their coworkers and competition? If so, will graduate programs be willing to accept more students who they know have no interest in careers in academia?

How to improve the graduate student-faculty adviser relationship

An English professor has discovered that there are a lot of graduate students (and former graduate students) who are upset with what they perceive to be lack of information given to them by their graduate advisers. The professor suggests how this relationship between graduate student and adviser could be improved:

That failure rests absolutely on us. We’re the teachers, and the initiative is ours. The communication gap between graduate teachers and graduate students is an intramural version of the crisis facing academe writ large: Professors are only lately waking up to the need to take their assigned part in the continuing and necessary discussion of the role of the university in society today.

We need likewise to rethink our role in the education of our graduate students. Professional-development seminars, which I discussed last month, help stake out common understanding between professors and graduate students, but communication only starts there. Advisers need to advance it. We shouldn’t wait for students to ask what’s out there careerwise. It’s part of our job to tell them. To mend the gap, we must mind the gap—or else corrosive anger will widen it…

I’m not sure I’d let the teachers off the hook so easily, but we should pay attention to the reader’s larger point, namely: Graduate students, as well as their professors, have responsibility for the choices they make.

School is a place where teachers tell students what to do. At the same time, school is supposed to prepare students to make choices for themselves. In between those two realities lie a lot of teaching and learning—and professional development. Both professors and students have to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions before us: We both must learn how to work together so that our students can leave us with every possible advantage. We all need to keep our eyes open.

On the whole, it sounds like there simply needs to be more conversation within graduate schools about the possibilities and pitfalls that graduate students and practitioners of particular disciplines will face in a changing world. The experience a faculty member might have had 20 years ago may not repeat itself but at the same time, the graduate student shouldn’t take that past experience as a factual story about how things always work.

A missing part of this conversation seems to be the interests of the graduate department and the school/university at large. Graduate departments generally want to produce students who go on to good jobs at Research 1 institutions. These departments are rated on this productivity, particularly by their peers at other Research 1 institutions. Would a department who puts a majority of PhDs in private industry when the norm for the field is Research 1 jobs be punished or be looked down upon? What incentives could be put into place so that departments would promote a broader range of options for students with advanced degrees?

Something might be said here as well for students building close relationships with several faculty. Advisers are important, particularly for the thesis and dissertation stages. But it is helpful to have other perspectives as well, something that is not possible if a student is tied to only one faculty member.