Sociology departments “holding steady” across American colleges

Inside Higher Ed summarizes a new report from the American Sociological Association on the state of sociology departments across the country. A few highlights:

“We’re doing relatively well,” said Roberta Spalter-Roth, director of research and development for the ASA. “We aren’t doing as well as we would like to be, but we’re doing relatively well compared to other disciplines,” such as physics and foreign languages, which have seen widespread closures in recent years…

One noticeable finding is that bigger sociology departments actually have decreased their employment of adjunct faculty, bucking a long-term, national trend toward hiring more adjuncts across disciplines. That probably accounts for the fact that tenure-line faculty workloads at those kinds of institutions have gone up, Spalter-Roth said. She called the latter trend “problematic.”…

There also was a slight “graying” of the faculty, the survey notes, with the most growth in the associate professor ranks. In 2001-2, departments had, on average: three full professors; two associate professors, and two assistant professors. In 2011-12, they had: 3.7 full professors, three associate professors; and 2.6 assistant professors. The study calls the distribution pattern an “inverted triangle,” with more full professors than assistant professors…

Spalter-Roth said the data was mostly for internal use to report on the data-driven profession, but would also be available to individual departments to report back to their institutions. The association usually surveys departments on different matters every five years, she said.

See the full report here.

It is too bad there aren’t similar figures from other disciplines to compare to. Without good comparisons, the ASA can only compare to ten years ago and not assess the relative movements among disciplines. Isn’t that probably what sociologists really want to know?

It is a little amusing that the ASA collects such data and produces a number of reports on things like mismatches between graduate student subject area interests and jobss and the state of jobs in the discipline. Should we expect much different from a data-driven discipline? At the same time, shouldn’t other disciplines collect similar data to better serve their members? I don’t know what kind of personnel or offices are required to pull off such research but I assume there is some added value to collecting it and distributing the results.

How does the rise in non-tenured college faculty affect education?

There has been much conversation about this in academia lately but here are some actual numbers about the percentages of tenured and non-tenured faculty:

Once, being a college professor was a career. Today, it’s a gig.

That, broadly speaking, is the transformation captured in the graph below from a new report by the American Association of University Professors. Since 1975, tenure and tenure-track professors have gone from roughly 45 percent of all teaching staff to less than a quarter. Meanwhile, part-time faculty are now more than 40 percent of college instructors, as shown by the line soaring towards the top of the graph.

This doesn’t actually mean that there are fewer full-time professors today than four-decades ago. College faculties have grown considerably over the years, and as the AAUP notes, the ranks of the tenured and tenure-track professoriate are up 26 percent since 1975. Part-time appointments, however, have exploded by 300 percent. The proportions vary depending on the kind of school you’re talking about. At public four-year colleges, about 64 percent of teaching staff were full-time as of 2009. At private four-year schools, about 49 percent were, and at community colleges, only about 30 percent were. But the big story across academia is broadly the same: if it were a move, it’d be called “Rise of the Adjuncts.”

This is quite a shift over several decades. While there is a lot to explore here about economic life in colleges and universities, there is another question we could ask about how this affects the college experience: how does this change educational experiences and outcomes? Are students learning more or less depending on what kind of faculty in the classroom? Does it matter?

Website of the day:

Perhaps it is finals week that piqued my interest in this particular website: There is a lot of fascinating information on this site about college grading trends in recent decades. Yes, my own institution is represented on the site.

If this puts you in the grading spirit, you can try out The Grading Game app which one Wired reviewer liked:

I’m frankly surprised by how much I like The Grading Game. It is ultimately about grading papers and looking for spelling errors, but somehow the intense time limit, scoring mechanics and various modes wrapped around that seemingly bland premise make the game super addictive. And, as someone who does a great degree of text-editing, I suspect that this simple iPhone app is making me better at my job.

Not quite the same experience but it is an attempt to put grading through the gamification process.

TV shows for teenagers show professors as “old, boring, white, and mean”

Here is how college professors are portrayed on television shows for teenagers: “old, boring, white, and mean.”

They may be fictional characters, but their small-screen images may affect students in big ways, says one researcher. Barbara F. Tobolowsky, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, found that television’s image of the professor is intimidating, uninterested, and generally old, boring, and white. She is scheduled to present a working paper on her research, “The Primetime Professoriate: Representations of Faculty on Television,” this week at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education…

While previous studies of television have focused on how much time students spend watching TV and not studying, Ms. Tobolowsky looked at the content of those television shows. In her study, Ms. Tobolowsky, who has a master’s degree in film history and criticism and who previously worked in the film industry, analyzed 10 shows that aired from 1998 to 2010 and were geared toward the 12-to-18-year-old demographic group in the Nielsen ratings.

Scrutinizing professors in those shows, she examined characters’ clothing and ways of talking, camera angles and background music, and a variety of other film nuances to break down how enthusiastic the faculty were and how they interacted with students, along with other criteria.

On the whole, she says, professors on the television shows tended to be relatively old, white, and traditional, wearing sweater-vests and sporting graying hair. Young, female, and minority professors on the shows tended to teach only at arts-oriented institutions or community colleges. Most were intimidating or, at the very least, distant, throwing a scare into characters like Matt on 7th Heaven, who worried he’d seem weak if he asked a question in class.

This study seems to suggest that shows for teenagers depict professors as the enemy. While not all teenagers love school, I wonder if this is part of a larger message on television and in movies that the learning part of school isn’t that important while the social aspects, think of the message in Mean Girls, is what really matters. Of course, there is a genre of movies that depicts heroic teachers but these are formulaic in their own ways.

It would be interesting to compare these depictions to how professors are portrayed on shows aimed at adults. I’m reminded of the TNT show Perception that features Eric McCormarck playing a neuroscientist at a Chicago area university. (Disclosure: I know about this show because I tend to catch a few minutes of its opening after watching Major Crimes which I watch because of The Closer.) The show tends to open in this way: McCormack is at the front of the classroom that is full of eager students who are hanging on his every word. At the side of the room is his trusty graduate student TA who occasionally chimes in. McCormack has scribbled all sorts of profound things on the board and then he ends class with a deep question or a witty joke. When the class ends, he quickly leaves the classroom and gets wrapped up in some fascinating case. Sound like a typical college classroom? While the professor here is depicted as a cool young guy, it is not exactly realistic to most college classrooms.

I realize what takes place day in and day out in a college classroom likely does not make scintillating television. Indeed, have you watched DVDs of The Great Courses? Yet, this doesn’t mean there isn’t something worthwhile going on in that classroom that doesn’t require severely stereotyping professors one way or the other depending on the audience.

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.

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

Positive results for teaching statistics by computer

A recent study shows that students taking an online statistics course utilizing software from Carnegie Mellon do better than students who take a hybrid course with a classroom classroom:

The study, called “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities,” involved students taking introductory statistics courses at six (unnamed) public universities. A total of 605 students were randomly assigned to take the course in a “hybrid” format: they met in person with their instructors for one hour a week; otherwise, they worked through lessons and exercises using an artificially intelligent learning platform developed by learning scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative.

Researchers compared these students against their peers in the traditional-format courses, for which students met with a live instructor for three hours per week, using several measuring sticks: whether they passed the course, their performance on a standardized test (the Comprehensive Assessment of Statistics), and the final exam for the course, which was the same for both sections of the course at each of the universities…

The robotic software did have disadvantages, the researchers found. For one, students found it duller than listening to a live instructor. Some felt as though they had learned less, even if they scored just as well on tests. Engaging students, such as professors might by sprinkling their lectures with personal anecdotes and entertaining asides, remains one area where humans have the upper hand.

But on straight teaching the machines were judged to be as effective, and more efficient, than their personality-having counterparts.

As someone who regularly teaches both Statistics and Social Research (a research methods course), these findings are intriguing. I understand the urge to curb costs while still providing a good education. However, I have three questions that perhaps go beyond these findings:

1. Are there any benefits for students from being in a classroom for three hours a week beyond learning outcomes? Is there a social dimension to the classroom setting that could enhance learning? For example, it is common for professors to have students work in groups or with each other, sometimes with the idea that being able to teach or effectively help another student will increase a student’s learning. Also, I wonder about learning becoming strictly an individualistic activity. Sure, there are ways to do this online (discussion boards, using Skype, etc.) but does this replicate the kind of discussions faculty and students can have in a classroom?

2. Are there any professors in the United States who might secretly welcome not having to teach statistics?

3. Is there a point in a discipline, like statistics, where the difficulty of the subject matter makes it more helpful to have a live instructor? This study looked at introductory stats courses but would the findings be the same if the courses covered more advanced topics that require more “intuition” and “art” than pure steps or facts?

h/t Instapundit