Friday, February 02, 2007

with or without you

Okay, so keep in mind that the NRC ranking survey I posted about a few days ago not only doesn't allow you to include faculty size as a criterion for department quality, but also presumably the measures of faculty quality used will be based on averages. Averages are only fair, right? Otherwise, small departments would be at a disadvantage, and that's unfair because, well, it's, well, um, unfair.

The trouble with averages in a measure of department quality is simple: to use averages is to imply that half the members of a department do not merely contribute less to the quality of a department than their more productive/cited/grants-getting colleagues, but that they actively harm it. Take any department, fire the lesser half according to whatever the quality measure is, and you've instantly created a better department. You can even repeat the step and create an still better department, until you have a one-faculty member graduate program.*

I'm not sure how many faculty members are actively bad for the programs that employ them, in the sense that the program would better if they immediately disappeared and took their hiring line with them.** I feel confident, though, in my sense that this number is quite a bit less than half at most places. If you are in academia, think about your own department, and don't just single out the worst person, but think of somebody you think would probably be a little below the dividing line. Do you really think your department would be better if that person just vanished? They really hurt more than they help? Maybe so: but, if that's really true for half your department, I hope you aren't surprised by my response that your department must suck.

Average measures also imply that if you take a department and add to it by hiring everyone's structural equivalent, you haven't improved the department at all. Think graduate students are better off having four people in their specialty area rather than two? Average-based measures of quality imply no. In sociology, faculty size has always seemed to me especially an issue to attend to insofar as the discipline is sparsely populated even at the largest departments and many graduate students change their mind about the area they want to work in after they begin (or come in not knowing what they want to study). The smaller the department, the more likely a graduate student is to suffer from a change of interest, a falling out with their advisor, or their advisor leaving.

Not that I think faculty size should be the be-all-end-all, especially as one would expect it to be correlated with what Fabio calls programs of "benign neglect". I would rather program ratings try to measure benign neglect more directly, however. Anyway, if faculty size ends up having no weight or very little weight in the way NRC ultimately does the "objective" part of its rankings, that's just not credible.

* Half per se assumes either we are talking average in terms of the median or a measure that is symmetrically distributed. You know what I mean. My guess is there are ~40 sociologists who would be have the highest "faculty quality" of any department in the country if only they could get themselves into a department with no colleagues.

** Not that they left and someone else was rehired; there is a difference between someone being not the best use of a faculty line and being actively bad, and averages treat half the department as actively bad.

Addendum: I actually wrote this post a couple days ago, and in the interim Dan has written his own reaction to my earlier post. Incidentally, I suppose one could think it convenient that I have this strong opinion about faculty size while being a member of one of the largest sociology departments in the US. Maybe so. But it just seems intellectually galling to me that you'd have a rating system based on the idea that if there were two great small departments out there and you could somehow merge them, the result would be no better. It's one thing to say a whole isn't greater than the sum of its parts, and another to say the sum is no better than the average of its parts.


Anonymous said...

Groundhog requests no early posting: needs another day's sleep, please.

Anonymous said...

I don't follow. The point of the "average" is to identify the central tendency. You are not trimming the lower tail alone. You are trimming both tails. Am I missing something? Explain to me again the "trouble with averages"?

Anonymous said...

Your first point takes issue with using averages. But isn't this a measurement issue, not a departmental quality issue -- How good departments look by questionable rating systems, rather than how good they are (if we could better quantify it)?

To some degree I agree with you about the critical mass issue. But, it may be just that -- some minimum number is beneficial, rather than "bigger is better." Are four people better than two? I can see how four people probably aren't *worse* than two, but they're not necessarily better. Do you actually have contact with them? Are they helping you? Are they good quality? Are two excellent people in your area better than four mediocre people? Or two excellent and two weak?

Also, some smaller departments specialize. They don't claim to be all things to all people, but they do what they do very well. This would seem to compensate for the "if one person leaves you're screwed" problem. And yes, people change their minds once they're in graduate school, but this doesn't occur in a vacuum -- it's most likely to be strongly influenced by the people they're exposed to in graduate school. You could use this as an argument to advocate for "bigger is better," but bigger also doesn't necessarily translate into having any actual contact with those faculty that might change your perspective/focus.

So, I'd agree that tiny probably could lead to all sorts of problems. Beyond that, I'm still not convinced by a "bigger is better" argument (which I think, but am not entirely sure, is the argument you are making. Maybe I'm just responding to a straw man argument. . .)

jeremy said...

My assertion is that overall "faculty quality" for the purposes of rating graduate programs is not well-represented by the quality of the average faculty member. My belief is that, ceteris paribus, if two departments have the same quality of average faculty member, the larger department should be ranked higher. I'm not arguing that bigger is always better, by any means, but I'm arguing something close to that all else being equal. There are numerous very good smaller departments in sociology in the US, but I would argue that if they could retain the same average-member-quality and increase in size, they would be better departments.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this. I'm a grad student and program size was one of a few decisive factors for me in picking a school. I came in with broad interests and very little idea what kind of research would actually emerge from them, and I wanted to feel that whatever I wound up wanting to do, I would be able to find people who could really help me (if not because someone did something similar, then at least because a number of people did somewhat related things).

It's worked out well for me, and I think I've also benefitted from having access to people (not only faculty, but lots of fellow students) doing a very wide range of things even if I haven't wanted to do them myself.

I'm not saying that would be the right choice for everyone, but it does seem to me that larger department size should be considered a good in and of itself. However, I think that the attention that faculty and departments give to students should also be considered a positive good in and of itself, and I imagine a measure of this would tend to work against large departments (especially if the measure weren't just whether *some* students had access to plenty of faculty time and attention, but whether *all* did).

Anonymous said...

If number of faculty isn't important how come nearly every department in the country would like to add faculty while almost none are hoping to reduce their numbers? It must be good for something.

Dan Myers said...

On balance, I agree with your points about size, but I'll add one potential wrinkle: Too many cooks can spoil the broth. I've had a lot of experiences with this in the academic system where everything is run by committee....

In response to Anon 4:18: Well, the department's assumption is that it is going to add someone good when it grows, rather than someone crappy. Sometimes department do have the opportunity to grow and they don't take it (a key example is when a spouse of a candidate in another department is presented) so it's not "growth is good no matter what." I'm also willing to bet most departments could name a few people they'd be happy to get rid of too, even if they couldn't replace them.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon. 4:03's decision making. It makes sense for him/her to go to a large program, because of personal factors. But, personal factors of students aren't (by design or necessity) included in departmental rankings. The top department isn't necessarily right for the top student; other factors come into play here, like personality, temperament, interests, personal needs.

And, this still does not translate into a universal "bigger is better," which I'm still not convinced by. Up to a point, maybe, but nowhere near your (jeremy) conviction. And I agree with dan's point.


Steve M said...

I agree completely with Jeremy's basic point: all else being equal, larger departments are better, especially at training graduate students.

The only remaining issue in my mind is whether there are other things positively related to size but detrimental to a department and its members. For example, very large departments often have a much larger total undergraduate teaching burden. It is possible that the average faculty member has to teach more in a large department (this is obviously true for a comparison of Princeton to Wisconsin, but I do not know how true it is on average across all departments). If this is true, and if undergraduate teaching is a soul-crushing burden for large departments, it is likely that faculty in small departments have more time to spend with their graduate students and are generally happier and more productive.

I don't know if this particular detriment of largeness exist. And, I don't know how much it counterbalances the ceteris paribus positive effect of largeness. But, the general point deserves some consideration by those who have spent more time in a large department than I have.

jeremy said...

I am interested in the issue of the effect of department size on its members, especially in terms of their appearance on the quality measures that are used to rate them. I can see it either way, and indeed, maybe it is both, with larger departments being better at one part of the career and smaller departments being better at another.

jeremy said...

My last comment was in response to Steve M's comment. In response to Dan's comment that "I'm also willing to bet most departments could name a few people they'd be happy to get rid of too, even if they couldn't replace them": certainly this is so for individuals, as I've received a couple private e-mails today to this effect. A whole different level, of course, would be unanimity among the rest of the faculty that their program would be better off without a particular person.

Anonymous said...

On the boutique department issue: Perhaps a missing factor is "Does the department do what it claims it does?" Of course small departments do not produce a large number and wide variety of sociologists, and of course such departments might be seen as better if they maintained faculty quality while growing, but what if they don't want to grow? Should they be ranked lower because they don't want to become like Madison?

Anonymous said...

Response to Anon 9:40 right above me:

Well, sure. It seems completely reasonable to me that if a department isn't attempting to excel at sociology as a broadly defined discipline - as opposed to a specific corner of the field - then (to the extent we care about rankings at all) they should be "ranked" lower on a general measure of quality in sociology. As you say: it may not even be what they're trying to do.

Of course, all that means is that there may be a divergence between the "best" departments in sociology as a whole, and those that are the best in particular areas. And different people may care more or less about quality in sociology as a whole as opposed to in a particular area. I myself am not much invested in fine-grained distinctions between departments. But I think it's a peculiar idea that some sort of equity or fairness demands that rankings be structured such that departments that *don't* have quality faculty and students in all the major areas of the discipline will still be "ranked" as high as those that do.

Dan Myers said...

Of course now we can get into a debate about what are the major areas of the discipline. That's a fun one that is also relevant to the NRC study. Here's their sociology list, which is pretty long relative to some other disciplines (Political Science for example, only has 5: American Politics, Comparative Politics, International Relations, Models and Methods, and Political Theory). Originally, it was much shorter, and there was a lot of griping about it (including by me). And somehow, through what process it is unclear, it became this. At any rate, it hard to imagine too many departments that could actually be large enough to be good/serious in all of these areas or even have a critical mass (meaning, perhaps, enough to populate a qualifying exam committee on a regular basis).

-Demography, Population, and Ecology
-Family, Life Course, and Society
-Gender and Sexuality
-Inequality and Stratification
-Medicine and Health
-Methodologies : Quantitative, Qualitative, Comparative, and Historical
-Place and Environment
-Politics and Social Change
-Race and Ethnicity
-Regional Sociology
-Rural sociology
-Social Control, Law, Crime, and Deviance
-Social Psychology and Interaction
-Sociology of Culture
-Theory, Knowledge and Science
-Work, Economy and Organizations

Anonymous said...

The list itself (thanks for providing it Dan) is pretty moronic. Social Control, Law, Crime, and Deviance gets a separate category from Criminology, and yet Inequality and Stratification is one omnibus category(which presumably includes things like sociology of education, which is one of the largest ASA sections). Why are knowledge and science stuck in there with theory? Why is comparative historical stuck under methodologies, when it is a well recognized substantive field as well? And where is astrosociology?!?

I suppose when a field is as disorganized as ours, this type of confusion emerges when anyone tries to develop a reasonable categorization. It is really quite sad for the field that we can't just settle on five or so categories and organize ourselves under them.

Jeremy: leads us, please!

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon 9:40. That list is ridiculous. Its contours seem to reflect what people outside of sociology consider to be "hot areas" like legal studies/crim/etc. And why is sexuality always stuck onto gender?

Dan Myers said...

One could probably go on for some time about the weirdnesses of this list, but for my part, the least explicable is "Family, Life Course, and Society." I guess society isn't relevant to the 15 areas. I'm sure glad the family folks are taking care of that and the rest of us don't have to wrorry about it!