Sunday, September 09, 2007

really just a variant on the half-empty versus half-full thing

My unhappiest semester at Madison included having a graduate student in my methods course allegedly express a desire to kill me that was sufficiently convincing that one of the student's peers reported it to the department. I don't think I would have been bothered about it if I had not already, for still the only time in my career, started a file about this student because their classroom and other behavior was so aggressively peculiar. Even then, it's not like I moved that file to the front of the drawer and wrote "READ IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH" on it. But I do remember feeling enormously disenchanted that I was teaching graduate students and had to deal with something like this, the same disenchantment I felt with the two plagiarism cases I had to handle over my four times teaching that course.* Oh, and also that time a graduate student raised their hand as I was in the middle of explaining something about sampling theory to ask, "Will this be on the test?"

Chris posted some advice to graduate students in response to Drek's advice, which was itself inspired by Fabio's excellent series of posts of advice. Chris's #3, though, is part of a lesson I've found especially valuable as a faculty member. Faculty often make broad assertions about "the graduate students" in their department--or about "the undergraduates" or "my colleagues"--but those assertions commonly reflect less the overall distribution of students than what part of the distribution the person chooses to focus on. In other words, assessments about "the graduate students" in a department reflect whether one chooses to focus on those students who are most rewarding or least rewarding to interact with. In retrospect, and as per Chris's advice, I should have focused more on the fun of teaching the most rewarding students and done better about not being made surly by the least rewarding students.**

In general, I let the disappointing part of the distribution of things influence my attitude more than it should, including of sociology itself. I am getting better about this, although, as with so many things with me, progress is uneven and slow.

* The first of these was the paper at the top of the stack of the first assignment of the first time I taught the course. In other words, when I sat down for the very first time as a professor to grade graduate student work, the first paper I read had several paragraphs cut-and-pasted from a book review online.

** I taught over 100 sociology students in those four years--not to mention students from other departments--so of course there was going to be variation. Madison's cohort sizes have shrunk the last three years, but there was an incoming cohort of 39 one year when I was there. Northwestern's typical graduate cohort size is 8. For someone teaching a required course only offered once per year, I'm much more happy with the idea of a cohort size of 8 than 39.

31 comments:

Michael said...

In your opinion, and based on your experience with multiple universities, is it responsible to bring in a cohort of 39 sociology graduate students? Note that I'm not saying anything about whether you are responsible...I'm just interested in your normative take on this.

sara said...

This is sanity saving advice. The helpful heuristic - from you, last year - is "disaggregate!"

Ang said...

Awesome. I have to say, though, about the whole, "Will this be on the test" thing. To be sure, that's some bad, bad form, and at the very least, kind of clueless, image-wise. But, you know, one does get graded in these courses. And even though the grades don't "matter" in any career-like way, if one's grade falls below a certain level, one has to retake the course. I'm not justifying asking a question like that, I'm really not. I get your point - it's a disheartening thing to see people who are supposed to be intellectually curious bottom-lining course material in such a crass and dumb way. But honestly, I can sort of understand the intention behind it.

Anonymous said...

"it's a disheartening thing to see people who are supposed to be intellectually curious bottom-lining course material in such a crass and dumb way"

Very true, but at the same time, I can see where that person is coming from. The soc program at UW has hugely heavy course requirements, and (at least for your first 2 years) the required courses may have little to do with your intellectual pursuits. While we have the general reputation of being well-trained, it comes at the cost of feeling like you're back in undergrad a lot of the time.

I was also told that grades don't count in grad school, but then after a particularly hard semester when I got a couple B's, I was told by a professor (who had decision making-power over my funding) that a B in grad school is a failing grade and that I should be doing better. I'm sure you can imagine what a statement like that does to the psyche of an over-achiever. I entered therapy soon after, and was actually told by my therapist that they saw a lot of soc students in her office. It's a tough place (but not so tough that you'd need to threaten your professors). Drek's advice might have been useful at the time:)

jeremy said...

Michael: I'm not sure in what way you would think it was not responsible. I don't think there is an overproduction of sociology Ph.D's generally. If there was, I don't think the top programs are the obvious place to cut. So the issue has to do more with students per faculty active in advising and with the way students are funded.

Ang: Yes, I understand this, which was part of why I moved away from having a test entirely in later incarnations of the course. Why I had a test in the first place could be itself the subject of a post on starting out as a faculty member.

Anon: As I have said, I would *love* it if there was a national survey of graduate student satisfaction.

jeremy said...

Sara: Girl, you know it's true.

Anonymous said...

Wow--I'm surprised about the plagiarism. I remember the threat incident because it was discussed on socgradchat--I'd expect it was that student's unhappiest semester as well. Glad to see in hindsight that you both seem to have survived/prospered despite it. It reminds me of what a brutal place WI was for students and junior faculty. In the late 90s, GPA was used to rank graduate students for allocating TA positions, as well as the whole "B as failure" sentiment, to which I was exposed as well. That made students very nervous about the courses they were required to take, particularly when those courses didn't dovetail with their interests/aptitudes. Unfortunate to stick a new junior faculty member in front of that train, probably without warning... I have more I'd like to say about what I perceive as the focus on students and expectations of students without a similar focus on faculty and the kind of institution that faculty could/should be creating, but I think it would come out more nastily than I intend. Suffice it to say that I think sociological analysis could greatly improve the practice of sociology itself, including the governance of sociology departments, but that it doesn’t seem to happen near as often as it should, which has led me to question the value of sociology. If we don’t use the tools we create in our own backyard, why should we expect anyone else to?

Anonymous said...

In all seriousness, are you saying that you don't maintain an ongoing "death file?" I thought all professors dealing with graduate students had one? I know I do!

p>s> I call it the "death file," but, probabilistically, it is more likely the "litigation file."

Anonymous said...

Wow. And that happens at a, what, top 3-5 Soc Dept?

jeremy said...

Anon 8:10AM: Much could be said in response to your comment, but I'll refrain at least for now.

Anon 9:46AM: No, I don't maintain a "litigation file." Obviously, much of my dealings with students is preserved via e-mail. I also have files for the academic misconduct cases that includes the assignments in question. But this was the only time I started a file about the behavior of a student.

Anonymous said...

I don't maintain a "litigation file."

it time, young master, it time...

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:10 a.m.: If this student is successful, as you say, I'm honestly not happy to hear that. Exactly what does it take to get oneself removed from a program/job? We knew sexual harassment was insufficient. Now death threats are insufficient as well?

Anonymous said...

Bear in mind that this is a country where Dubya is still president.

jeremy said...

Anon 12:21pm: I'm not going to talk about the particular incident. But, speaking to the broader issue, even if one does think circumstances warrant terminating a student from a program for some behavioral offense that does not involve criminal proceedings, I don't think this is easy to do, nor should it be.

Anonymous said...

but isn't threatening to kill someone still a crime?

Ang said...

Well, in general, there's felony harassment, which I think only gets fulfilled if someone threatens to kill someone else, and when it wouldn't be unreasonable to actually be afraid you might die.

But, you know, I'm no lawyer. I would imagine "threat" is a sticky issue in and of itself. You know, as opposed to just expressing the desire to cause harm. But again, I'm talking out of other orifices here, as I have no idea what the deal really is.

jeremy said...

I have no idea what the legal issues are. I concur that expressing desire to harm someone, see them harmed, etc., especially to other parties, is not threatening someone.

carly said...

The plagiarism thing shocks me. I may be pretty naive about these things (I mean, to be honest, plagiarism in undergrad continues to, if not shock me, then at least catch me off guard).

Ang said...

I hate myself a little for saying this, but the plagiarism thing doesn't really surprise me. I've always thought that there's probably a small but persistent number of people who just cheat when they get desperate.

Brady said...

Ang - There's a decent Michael Chabon short story I read recently about a (natural sciences) PhD student who, shortly before doing the final draft of his dissertation on some kind of cloud formation/weather cells kind of thing, discovers an aged and vanity-press-published book in some used bookstore that is about exactly what he found in his research, only with more elegant theorizing and better empirical data. In a fit of despair, he copies the whole thing and submits it. He then gets stuck in a game of "What's the biggest/worst lie you ever told?" at a cocktail party at his advisor's house. You might like.

Long Tables said...

Re: the plagiarism, if I recall correctly, I heard that the paper in question was written by a student in another program, i.e. the student was NOT a graduate student in sociology. But of course, as the actual instructor, Jeremy can verify whether this is true or not.

jeremy said...

LT: I said I had two cases of plagiarism when I taught methods.

Long Tables said...

Ah, yes. You do indeed. I stand corrected.

Ang said...

Brady: I'll check it out. Chabon's alright with me.

Mike said...

As someone who has taught graduate (quant.) methods in a couple of sociology departments of modest standing, I'm amused to hear that these kinds of student transgressions occur at Madison, where entrance requirements probably put their students in the top 10% of sociology graduate students in the country. The grading issue is something I tell my students about up front: I point out to them that grade distributions in quantitative methods classes tend to embody more distinctions because 1) grading is less subjective when one is treating material that, at the level of a sociology graduate methods class, leads to clearly right and wrong answers; and 2) "problems" and the like lend themselves to points-based rather than letter-based exam and assignment grading.

jeremy said...

Madison admits students without funding, so its entrance requirements are not nearly as high as one might suppose.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy,

I understand that you were insecure when you started the program, but that caused you to raise insecurity among grad students as well. I heard that the story of the student wanting to kill you was mostly misunderstanding. It's normal for people to say "I want to kill this professor" because they're angry at them for some reason, which doesn't actually mean they actually want to kill them. What I heard happened is that someone took it literally and reported it (though maybe there are details in the story that I don't know).
As to the plagiarism thing, the way you handled it at the time made lots of people who hadn't plagiarized insecure that they had mistakenly forgotten to cite someone. So I think that when we focus on the bad students, the bad signs etc, we do harm to the good students, we create a feeling of distrust etc.

jeremy said...

Anonymous 6:13pm,

I don't really want to talk about the specific incidents publicly at this time, if ever. I certainly agree that I did not handle the first plagiarism incident well, but that was a long time ago and now it makes a entertaining anecdote of painful first-time teaching experiences. But not one I am going to tell on the blog. At least not yet.

Obviously I have no idea what the real story is in the case of the "student wanting to kill me," nor do I care at this point. Note that I have never myself claimed a student wanted to kill me, threatened me, etc.. What I know is that an allegation was made. As I said in the post, the incident was demoralizing, not frightening.

Ang said...

It's interesting to me that a lot of Wisconsin's student brand cache seems to come from erroneous ideas about how selective the admissions process is. It always sort of makes me uncomfortable, because it neglects the role of training. I think the Bad News Bears can still win the game, if coached well.

Anonymous said...

So, it's UW's training that undergirds its reputation as #1 (or thereabouts)?

jeremy said...

I think many people, myself included, believe that graduate program rankings should reflect quality of training and quality of faculty (net of quality of training), although people differ in the relative emphasis they would place on these two components. Selectivity of the admissions process is usually not considered a criterion, although I suppose one could make a case that it should get more than weight it does since graduate students influence one another and influence the "culture" of a department.