Hope in the Darkness, Fatalism is not an Option

This is the first week of advent, the week we light the candle of hope. Hope is not cheerfulness and optimism. Hope is not the property of the wealthy and self-satisfied. Hope stares into the dark, looks despair in the face, and dares to believe in another future. Hope is what keeps us going when everything around us looks bleak. Despair demobilizes, despair paralyzes. Despair makes us fatalistic and inactive. Despair tells us that we may as well go about the individualistic business of scrambling to get what we can for ourselves and ignore the signs of need and injustice around us. Hoping is believing and working for what is right and just when there is no easy path.

My hope in the darkness of injustice was renewed this week by these words from Ta-Nehisi Coates: “I’m the descendent of enslaved black people in this country. You could’ve been born in 1820, if you were black and looked back to your ancestors and saw nothing but slaves all the way back to 1619. Look forward another 50 or 60 years and saw nothing but slaves. There was no reason at that point in time to believe that emancipation was 40 or 50 years off. And yet folks resisted and folks fought on. So fatalism isn’t really an option. Even if you think you’re not going to necessarily win the fight today in your lifetime, in your child’s lifetime, you still have to fight. It’s kind of selfish to say that you’re only going to fight for a victory that you will live to see. As an African-American, we stand on the shoulders of people who fought despite not seeing victories in their lifetime or even in their children’s lifetime or even in their grandchildren’s lifetime. So fatalism isn’t really an option.” Interview on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” 12/4/14, posted on the Huffington Post by Ed Mazzra Link

Name Ghost

One way or another it is looking like it will cost me several hundred dollars and significant aggravation to deal with the fallout of US patriarchy. Back when I was married in 1970, the women’s movement was just kicking in and a summer employer insisted that they could not (would not) pay me unless I signed a form changing to my married name on my social security record. I never got a new card, however, and since that time, the only name I’ve used is my birth name.To do this, in the 1970s I had several times to verbally lie to self-appointed local government monitors of women’s names (marital status was never a question on the written document one was signing) who were insisting that married women must use their husband’s surnames on things like drivers licenses and employment records. Sometimes the courts upheld the patriarchists, sometimes the women. All this dust gradually settled around 1980 and since then married women have been left alone and allowed to use birth names in peace.(All you young-’uns who are going about changing names willy-nilly for trivial reasons like marriage just make us older women sigh, given all the grief we incurred to avoid it.)

Because many people do change names at marriage, it is very easy to do so. You just drop by your local identity office with marriage papers and poof your name changes. This does not apply, however, if you are caught in the warp of the 1970s. If the SSA persuades itself that the name they have for you is your “legal name,” you must prove that there has been a legal name change. If you are a married women using your birth name you do not, of course, have such a court order, because you never changed your name. You are just dealing with the fallout of strong arm patriarchal bullying from the 1970s that gives many married women from that era an inconsistent set of names.

SSA knows who I am. I have a comprehensive identity record. They know my birth name, they can see my lifetime payroll records, they have my marriage certificate. They know what happened. There is no dispute about the facts. But they claim to be incapable of correcting their records to match reality without a court order. They say this is part of the heightened scrutiny on identity with e-verify. There are activists pointing out that this system disproportionately affects women. http://www.nilc.org/everifyimpactonwomen.html My lawyer says I should not have to pay her to do this for me, and I’m going to try one  more time on my own before handing it over to her.

I’m pretty mad but if I have to I can pay the money to get this straightened out. If I have to, I’ll get the court order. But as my friends say, “what are poor women supposed to do?”

Splaining

This essay is about the phenomenon often called mansplaining (with its variant whitesplaining). It is prompted a recent 90 minute episode of what felt to me like mansplaining. Any use of the term mansplaining or whitesplaining in mixed company typically evokes complaints that the term itself is sexist/racist. Even our own scatterplot had a minor eruption of this conflict when mansplain was used to describe something women had said to a man  Of course both mansplaining and whitesplaining are very common special cases of the more general privilegesplaining or, better, just splaining. The term splaining has not been applied to class, or to student vs. professor status, or other hierarchies, but it could and should be. Let’s begin by saying that I am often guilty of splaining, at least in the basic sense of telling someone else something they already know or of speaking with confidence about something that is later revealed to be wrong. In fact, when I told my spouse what I was thinking about, he said: “well, you know, you do that.” As if I didn’t know that. This essay is thus not about my own virtue and others’ vice, but about unpacking the idea of splaining, examining its sources and making distinctions. And then explaining why we don’t stay neutral about it. Continue reading “Splaining”

you think applying for academic jobs is hard?

Since retiring, my spouse has been volunteering at the “job club,” helping low income people apply for jobs. Applicants for low-wage jobs need to apply on line, and many low-wage workers neither own computers nor have much experience using them. Plus they are often unfamiliar with the various verbal hoops applicants have to go through. One of the big ones are banks of attitude questions. Yesterday he spent a couple of hours with a woman applying to work as a baker in a donut franchise, not the chef who thinks up recipes, someone who just does the work of cooking and frosting. She had to respond to 300 Likert items, 25 a page for 12 pages (!) with items like these

It is important to know what my coworkers think.
It is important to know what my coworkers feel.
I can easily imagine what my coworkers feel.
It is important to my life that the company do well.
Sometimes you have to take a risk to solve a problem for the company.
You have to know all possible solutions before picking one.
My coworkers say I’m cooperative.
My coworkers say I’m obedient.

Other items, he says, are convoluted sentence structures that even he finds difficult to parse to figure out what the positive/negative ends of the scale are. After two hours, they had to quit because the room needed to be used by someone else, and they had only gotten through five pages of the questions. The 300 is the worst so far, but this kind of thing is common in the low wage world. Another time he was working with a mentally disabled man trying to get a job as a dishwasher who had to work through 150 such questions. This is not what you do after you’ve passed the screening and are being interviewed. This is what you have to do just to enter the screening process. My daughter the labor activist says they are trying to screen out not only thieves but activists. I’m sure she’s right, and also pretty confident that these question banks are produced by consultants who don’t necessarily think through what it means to have to spend five hours applying for a $9/hour job on a computer in a public place. Or maybe they do, and that’s part of the test?

I don’t mean with my title to belittle the stresses of being on the academic job market. It is a scary world out there, and the application process is time-consuming and stressful for everyone. But I think we have not stooped this low. Yet, anyway.

Coauthoring Norms 1: Assisting and Junior Authoring

My goal is to improve the culture of publication and coauthoring in my department. Although some of our students do great on this, others languish, and many of our students complain that they do not get enough mentoring about publishing. I have identified as one problem that many faculty consider it “exploitative” to involve students in their research if they are not being paid. Another problem is wide variation in opinions about the level of involvement that merits a coauthorship. What I want to do is to develop a set of normative guidelines for apprentice-like experiences that do not involve payment, as well as guidelines for those that do. I am working up a draft of this and would appreciate comments and reports on good and bad experiences and practices in other programs. So here is my draft. Comments, please. NOTE: This is explicitly a model for the hierarchical situation in which a professor takes the lead in defining a project and the graduate student is an apprentice. It is NOT a model for the more egalitarian relations that develop organically. Continue reading “Coauthoring Norms 1: Assisting and Junior Authoring”

gradebook rant

I use what seems to me to be a very logical grading system. I grade papers on a letter grade scale and then calculate grades as a weighted average of these letter grades. Say there are three papers weighted 25%, 25% and 50% that got BC, B, and A respectively. The grade would be 2.5*.25 + 3*.25 + 4*.5 = 3.375, a grade I would then interpret as a low AB. Clear, logical, fair.But as far as I can tell, the course software cannot handle this kind of grading. It assumes that everything is percentages or points. So I cannot use it as an online gradebook. And I have had over the years a large fraction of TAs who cannot quite understand the logic of grading papers with (gasp!) grades. I cannot understand their confusion. To me this seems only logical. Ultimately we will give letter grades, why not set the standards for the grades and grade that way from the beginning? But, instead, they set up their own 10-point or 100-point or 24-point schemes for grading papers, and then I have to ask them, well, so how does this translate into grades? And they look at me with puzzled expressions. I don’t get their confusion.

For things like tests or homeworks that are more point-like, I use linear equations to transform the points to the 4-point range and put those into the grade calculations in the same way. This is a little more outre and would not have been possible back in the days of paper gradebooks, but after all, you have to take algebra BEFORE you get to college, and we have had computers with spreadsheet programs readily available on college campuses now since the mid-1980s.

So I ask you, why do my university and most of my colleagues and students still assume that everything will be calculated on a percentage basis and then curved to grades? For that matter, why are most of you just blindly assuming that everything should be done in percentages even though virtually every school in the US reports grades on a 4-point letter grade scale? There are a lot of reasons why the percentage-point system has problematic properties, but even if you have a good reason to like it, is it really that hard to understand why I’d like my system, or understand why I prefer it? Is it really that crazy to expect that to be an option in campus course software?

Too Many Reviewers

(reposting here to archive. Discussion is like to be on scatter.wordpress.com)

I freaked out recently when, after reviewing an article, I received a packet of FIVE (5!!!)  reviews on the same article. I chewed out the editors for wasting my time and told them I would never review for their journal again. After an exchange (in which I got a little less testy), I told them I’d post my concerns to scatterplot and open a discussion on the topic. Although five was over the top and freaked me out, it has become pretty common now for me as a reviewer to get a packet with four reviews. No wonder we regular reviewers are feeling under the gun. The old calculation of two or even three reviews per article has gone by the wayside. The pressure for fast turnaround and the high turn-down or non-response rate among potential reviewers has led editors to send out articles to extra reviewers in the hopes of ending up with at least the minimum two or three.

But this is a death spiral. As a frequently-sought reviewer I get at least four requests a month, sometimes as many as eight, and I used to get more before I got so crabby.  When I was young and eager, I was reviewing an article a week [and thus, by the way, having a huge influence on my specialty area], and I know some people who are keeping that pace. But at some point you burn out and say “no more.” I, like all other frequently-sought reviewers I know, turn down outright the requests from journals I don’t know for articles that sound boring, and then save up the other requests and once a month pick which articles I want to review. So the interesting-sounding articles from good journals get too many reviewers, while the boring-sounding articles from no-name journals get none. If journal editors respond to the non-response by reviewers to boring-sounding articles by sending out even more reviewer requests per article, our mailboxes will be flooded even more and the non-response rate and delayed-response rate by reviewers will go up even more. Senior scholars are asked to review six to eight (or more?) articles per month. You have to say no to most of the requests.

And then we have the totally out of hand R&R problem. I think it is completely immoral to send an R&R to ANY new reviewers. I know a young scholar with a perfectly good paper who is now on the 4th (!!!!) iteration of an R&R from ASR. Not because she has not satisfied the original reviewers, but because the editors keep sending each revision to a new set of reviewers in addition to the original reviewers and, of course, the new reviewers have a different perspective and a new set of suggestions for the paper, some of which cover ground that was gone over in one or more of the previous revisions. Not to mention the problem that R&R memos are now longer than the original articles!!  We are no longer a discipline of article publishing, we are turning into a discipline of R&R memo-writing.

Something has to change.  Senior scholars burn out and get reputations for being difficult, possibly because editors don’t know how many other people are asking them to do things. Junior scholars would want to review and wonder why nobody is asking them, and other junior scholars think they are being tapped a lot because they are getting four requests a year. Article-submitters (disproportionately junior scholars) whine and complain about slow turn-arounds, and imagine — what?  I guess I don’t know what they imagine? Do they even understand what is happening on the reviewer side of the equation? I think some of the more clueless imagine that reviewers are just queuing up to write negative reviews about them and it is all the editors’ fault for not organizing things better.

My purpose in posting is to open the discussion. I think what is needed are some ground rules that would help the senior scholar problem. (1) Reviewer time is a scarce resource. Treat it as such. Do not waste people’s time. (2) No article is ever sent to more than three reviewers. Better is to send to two and ask for a third if there is a split vote.  (3) If a reviewer fails to respond in a timely fashion, they get an email: please respond or we will send the article to someone else. (4) If an editor has three reviews, they immediately send a notice to anyone else they asked for a review saying “we have enough now” or, if you insist, “we have three reviews but they are mixed, and your opinion would help.” (5) If you get two reviews and the situation is obvious, tell anyone else you asked for a review “never mind.”  (6) An R&R is sent back to the original reviewers and to NOBODY ELSE unless there is some very specific issue and the paper author is told at the time what the issue is and the category of additional reviewer who will be solicited. (7) Author angst about turn-around time is dealt with not by sending articles out to eight possible reviewers (!!!!) but by keeping authors informed of their status. Telling an author that they are having a hard time getting reviewers lets them know what is going on. (8) Tell reviewers you want a response to the “will you review?” email within two weeks and cancel the invitation if they do not respond within one week to the follow up to the initial request. Leaving the requests open just encourages the kind of gaming I described and increases the risk of wasting reviewers’ time with too many reviews.

To expand the pool of reviewers among junior scholars, it seems to me that there needs to be a database set up of potential reviewers. This would have to have cvs and samples of the person’s own publications/writing. Does anyone have an idea about how to get such a thing going?

Scatterplotters: Your thoughts?