Monday, February 25, 2013

Blog CXXXIX (139): On-line Education: More of the Same

In the course of writing this blog, I have learned a few new things. One of those is that the best news coverage—and maybe the only regular coverage—of higher education comes from The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education.  As a result, I have tried to avoid reproducing news articles from those two publications. I will not break with that tradition today, but the Times published an editorial “The Trouble With Online College” in its February 19, 2013 issue that deserves comment.

The editorial began by noting a stunt that took place at Stanford University.  A non-credit, open enrollment class on artificial intelligence drew more than 150,000 people. The editors at the Times were not impressed.  “This development, though, says very little about what role online courses could have as part of standard college instruction. College administrators who dream of emulating this strategy for classes like freshman English would be irresponsible not to consider two serious issues.”

Those two issues focused on student concerns.  “First, student attrition rates — around 90 percent for some huge online courses — appear to be a problem even in small-scale online courses when compared with traditional face-to-face classes. Second, courses delivered solely online may be fine for highly skilled, highly motivated people, but they are inappropriate for struggling students who make up a significant portion of college enrollment and who need close contact with instructors to succeed."

The editorial spends a good deal of time exploring the issues facing students requiring remedial education.  “Lacking confidence as well as competence, these students need engagement with their teachers to feel comfortable and to succeed. What they often get online is estrangement from the instructor who rarely can get to know them directly.”  I take some difference with the editors of the paper on this point.  College and universities might not be the right place for students that never mastered English and math in high school.  For the most part, though, it is hard to argue with the basic thrust of the editorial—on-line education is a bad idea.

The editorial got a lot of commentary on the Times website.  Over 450 posts, last time I checked.  The bulk of these comments focused on the student experience, but I want to direct our attention towards the other side of the podium—or in this case, the computer—and talk about the prospective of the professor.

On-line classes might seem the wave of the future, but what type of future? How much feedback and of what type will you be getting from students?  It seems likely that there will be a lot of detachment on both sides.  That is unfortunate.  I often get some really good ideas from my students in the interaction that takes place in classrooms.  A lot of other stuff will also get lost; the intangibles, the emotions, the frustrations, the joys, and the complexities of wrestling with material and discussing it; and maybe connecting with a student and opening them to a new idea; or recognizing that you have done some good.

Another thing to consider are the widespread complaints and concerns about the decline of tenure-track jobs at universities and the use of instructors who are often only a yearly contract or are paid by the course rather than drawing a salary and who receive no benefits like health insurance or retirement plans.  On-line instruction will only offer more of the same.

The ironic thing is that many of the people who are suffering most from this system are the ones that are helping prop it up—the senior grad students or the newly minted Ph.D.s.  In an effort to bolster their credentials, they take some part time teaching assignments, or lacking a permanent position, they accept temporary, one or two year positions.  These are the people that are most likely going to be the ones teaching the on-line courses, reducing the need for them and their colleagues.  Why hire a new faculty member, who can only teach maybe 150 students total depending on teaching loads, when you can hire someone who will teach 150 per class and be happy for the opportunity.

From my own experiences on hiring committees, this type of experience has only limited utility in making a candidate more attractive.  They are mostly likely teaching only broad survey, and not upper level or graduate classes.  Most on-line instruction is going to be in these large surveys.  Employment in this type of work for more that two years is a professional dead end when it is in the traditional classroom.  It is hard to see it being anything better in the virtual classroom.

It might be best for new historians to recognize the downward spiral for what it is and walk away from this type of work.  Of course, I know it is easy for me to make these observations with a solid job and career, but I have refused to get involved in any form of on-line instruction, at any previous point in my career, seeing it for what it is.  I hope some of you do the same.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Blog CXXXVIII (138): Eight Questions: Science, Technology, and Medical History

Today's post is a return to the Eight Question series. Joy Rohde is an assistant professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She received her BA from the University of Chicago and her Ph.D. from the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research integrates the history of science with U.S. political and intellectual history. Her book, Hearts, Minds, and Militarization: Democracy and Expertise in the Age of Anxiety, is forthcoming from Cornell University Press. Tracing the rise and fall of university-based, Pentagon-funded social science in the Cold War, the book examines the role that scholars, policy experts, and think tanks have played in American national security policy. An article related to her research, “Gray Matters: Social Scientists, Military Patronage, and Democracy in the Cold War,” appeared in the Journal of American History in June 2009. Her current project is a comparative study of the myriad ways social science has been used to understand, manage, and control the citizens, colonial subjects, and perceived enemies of the American state from the late nineteenth century to the War on Terror.

At Trinity, Rohde teaches introductory and upper level courses in 20th century U.S. intellectual history, the Cold War, and the history of science and technology. Before joining Trinity, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Science, Technology, and Public Policy program at the University of Michigan, where she taught science and technology policy to students in the sciences and public policy. She has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
I am continually inspired by the temporal and geographic relevance, as well as the methodological versatility, of the history of science, technology, and medicine. In nearly every era and nearly every location, there are fascinating stories to be told about science and technology, and its relationship to changing contours of power. The centrality of science and technology to historical change in the West and its overseas imperial expansion since at least the 16th century makes the field relevant to many scholars working in political, intellectual, social, and cultural history in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas. he field is also becoming more methodologically relevant to the broader profession. In recent years, historians have embraced transnational approaches and have become interested in networks of power and knowledge. By virtue of its subject, the history of science, technology, and medicine has been invested in questions of transnationalism, knowledge networks, hybridity, and the knowledge economy for decades. The field also has fertile crossover with science and technology studies, which allows for exciting theoretical perspectives on the co-production of science, technology, and society. What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
Without question, the lack of jobs is the biggest issue facing the field, the profession, and the humanities more broadly. The number of positions advertised for historians of science and/or technology has dwindled with the recent economic downturn. The history of medicine seems to have fared marginally better, if only because medical historians can find positions in medical schools as well as traditional history departments. Similarly, in 2012 about half of the few history of science and technology positions advertised were in the history of the life sciences. I would advise any Ph.D. student working in the history of science, technology, and medicine to also position herself professionally within another historical field. This will have intellectual benefits as well as (hopefully) career benefits.
The problem of underemployment cannot only be blamed on the current economy. The overproduction of Ph.D.s is a decades-old problem, and as universities look to economize by increasing the ranks of adjuncts and turn to massive open on-line courses, it may only become worse.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
The history of science, technology, and medicine is so diverse that my answer necessarily reflects my own interests. To my mind, work at the intersection of science, technology, medicine, and public policy, particularly the environment and public health, is some of the most exciting. Paul Edwards’ recent work on the history of climate science and the politics of global warming; Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt (which is intended for the general public and while not theoretically pathbreaking, shows clearly the relevance and importance of the field); and Sheila Jasanoff’s multiple books on science, health, and politics all come to mind. Work in this area offers exciting critical perspectives on the relationship between expertise, power, and democratic governance. It also demonstrates the field’s relevance to social, political, and environmental problems.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
In the current job market, where search committees choose candidates from an embarrassing wealth of highly qualified early career scholars, teaching experience is crucial. If at all possible, candidates on the market should have experience teaching at least one of their own courses, and have a good sense of two or three additional courses they would like to offer. 
Teaching is not just professionally necessary; it is also intellectually valuable, especially for all but dissertaion candidates and recently minted PhDs, because it encourages intellectual breadth. Writing a dissertation—and turning it into a book—can induce intellectual myopia. Teaching offers a welcome opportunity to reengage with the broader questions and ideas that got us all interested in history to begin with. For me, at least, it kept my intellectual passion alive and my mind fresh as I slogged through manuscript revisions. And it offers a venue to explore new areas and experiment with new ideas.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
New Ph.D.s intending scholarly careers should work in two directions. One, if they have not already, they should endeavor to place an article in a well-respected peer reviewed journal in their field. (Ideally, they will have done this during graduate school.) I would advise a new Ph.D. to aim high if they have time to face a rejection or two. Even if an article is not placed, the reviewer feedback can be very useful. And two, they should get to work on book proposals and start talking to editors at university presses. The job market is too competitive right now to delay publishing. 
New Ph.D.s in tenure-track positions should use their department’s tenure requirements to guide their publishing plans. I would advise these folks to ask lots of questions; make sure the criteria are clear. Different departments (and indeed, different colleagues in the same department) have various interpretations of what counts as quality peer review and quality presses. 
Some publication opportunities are worth avoiding for the most part, at least until one publishes that first book. New Ph.D.s should not get bogged down in reviewing books, or in producing edited volumes. Take it from someone who is not very good at saying no: Say no!
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
While each of these is influential, family considerations can have a huge impact on one’s career. Many research fellowships, both for postdocs and faculty, are residential, leaving them out of reach for those who cannot move their families. Likewise, long research trips are difficult to take without disrupting family life. And for dual career couples, family considerations shape almost every professional decision, beginning with whether or not one can work in academia at all. 

What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
First, I always tell such students what they are proposing to take on—that after years of work they will likely face an oversaturated market and have a good chance of not getting a job. If I get the impression from them that my advice is falling on deaf ears, I encourage them to look at the job listings on H-Net and the desperate rants on the academic job wiki. Second, I insist that they never go into debt to get a Ph.D. Aspiring Ph.D. students should only consider programs that provide them with funding and a stipend. Third, I counsel them that if they seek a research and teaching career, they should only apply to top programs. One can get a wonderful education at any number of institutions, but the reputation of one’s program matters for career development. For students interested primarily in teaching, of course, second tier programs may be fine. Finally, I encourage them to develop at least one very solid research paper, and even present the research at undergraduate research forums, in order to establish their c.v. and get a sense of the kind of work they will be doing as historians.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Be persistent. It is not unusual for new Ph.D.s to spend a few years on the market, so they need to have a back-up plan or two. Seek out postdoctoral fellowships while applying for academic positions. Consider visiting appointments. Look into jobs at private secondary institutions. But above all, keep publishing. Search committees will notice gaps in your vita; fill them with publications and conference presentations (if financially feasible). And be careful about adjuncting, which is time consuming and pays very little, especially if you already have teaching experience. Finally, put a time limit on how long you are willing to pursue a job in academia.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Blog CXXXVII (137): Tell Me How this Ends?

The biggest problem facing the history profession, without qualification, is the job market.  There is a huge surplus and demand is decreasing just as the number of people graduating with the Ph.D. degree is increasing.  Part of the reason I started this blog is to address this very issue.

To give you an idea of how bad the problem is, let me direct your attention to the twenty schools listed in Blog LXXIX: Hail to the Victor as having the best history departments in the United States.  We can dispute the merits and accuracy of such a listing, but let us put those legitimate reservations aside for a moment.  They are all basically good schools.  I did graduate work at two of these institutions and know them well.  I have heard all sorts of gossip about my alma matters and others on the list.  Graduate students at some of these others schools have contacted me privately via e-mail to discuss concerns they have about their programs, asking my advice.  I have also looked at their web sites and their own self-announced job placement figures.  All of them are having problems.  One school went 0 for 11 in job placements for their graduates.  Another school is placing only about a third of their students.  (You can tell by toggling back and forth between the page on their website listing completed dissertations and the other listing employment of their alumni, and even then some of the jobs are at community colleges.)  The “weaker” graduate students at one Ivy League school are discovering that their degrees are not enough to help them find employment.  Long story made short, it is bad even at the “good” schools. 

While I have been trying to show that there is a real problem, two incidents in 2012 had a huge impact on me.  First, during a session at the AHA conference Sarah Maza, the incoming vice president of the professional division, requested ideas from the audience on how to deal with the job crisis.  This got me to thinking about solutions and I said in Blog LXXII: Reflections on the AHA that I had some ideas I was developing.  This thinking accelerated when Christopher Thompson, a Senior Research Fellow in the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Buckingham, criticized me in a posting to his own blog that he reproduced in the comments section to Blog LXXIII: The Disposable Academic, for not offering any solutions to the job crisis.

I am true to my word and I put together a series of reform proposals.  I circulated these to a number of friends, and asked for their honest feedback.  None of them liked my ideas and they let me know what they thought.  They knew I was trying to be constructive and responded in like manner.  The exchanges make for fascinating reading and may or may not end up on this blog in some manner.  I developed an article from all these exchanges and hope to have it published in the next few months.

What is more important is that they got me thinking about how this crisis ends and I came with four possible scenarios.  Some of these outcomes are already underway and they often overlap.  They are in descending order of probability:

1) “Outsiders” intervene.  In this scenario the “outsiders” are people like board of trustees, state legislatures and governors.  Academics tend to resent this type of input and for understandable reasons.  These outsiders rarely know the profession as well as those that work in it.  With that point made, there are some sound reasons for intervention.  These individuals are usually those that write the checks and it is their legitimate responsibility to make sure the money is being spent in appropriate manners.  The hard fact is that budgets are shrinking and it is easier for these officials to sell painful cuts by arguing that they are cutting fat and unproductive employees.  This process has already started in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and New Jersey.  Budget issues in states like California and Rhode Island indicates more is coming.   The problem with outside intervention is that it is often done in clumsy manner.  While fat is cut, so is muscle and tissue.  The result is these individuals often do real damage to their institutions.

2) Do nothing, and let Charles Darwin work things out.  In this scenario, departments continue to admit students to their graduate programs, knowing full well that they will never be employed as historians.  The best will find work—perhaps not great work, but work nonetheless—and the “weaker” students will end up doing something else professionally.  It is also very possible that several graduate programs will go the way of the Dodo bird.  Having a Ph.D. program is very expensive for an institution, because graduate classes count for a professor’s work-load, but they have far fewer students than undergrad classes, which is to say they produce less revenue.  It might be easier to shut down a program and have faculty members teach a class of 30 or 40 undergraduates instead of five or six graduate students, than fire or lay off faculty and staff.  This Darwinian outcome is, I think, the preference of most leaders of the profession, and that says something about their ethics when it comes to the fate of their students.

3) The economy gets better and schools end up with bigger budgets to hire more faculty.  At some point the economy will get better and schools will start hiring.  Of that, I have no doubt.  I just do not know when and to what degree.  I, however, doubt it will be enough to employ the scores and scores of history Ph.D.s that are currently unemployed.  Nor will it be enough to take care of those individuals who will sone be graduating and entering the work force.  (Current estimates suggest that the number of newly minted Ph.D.s will be something like 900 each year).  The profession was hiring people left and right in the 1960s.  Then, things fell apart in 1969 and the job market has never recovered.  The economy was booming then, but the rapid expansion was also pushed along by the baby boomers as they went to college.  That kind of demographic bubble is not in the offering, so while the economy will eventually recover, the odds of it expanding history department budgets is not high.

4) Reform the profession.  In many ways, this would be the best outcome, but it is also the least likely.  In 2011 Anthony T. Grafton, the then-President of the American Historical Association, and the executive director of the organization, Jim Grossman, published an article in the October 2011 issue of Perspectives on History that addressed this very issue. The article in question “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.”  Their intent was noble. “We’re trying to say, ‘Wake up. Times have changed. There are more opportunities and that’s a good thing,’” said Grossman said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “This is not about the negativity of wringing our hands and saying that there are no more jobs.” 

They were successful in generating a lot of discussion.  Their article, however, has some serious shortcomings.  The reforms they offered were fairly tepid and they also made it clear in their article that the AHA will not be taking the lead. They argue that solutions to the job crisis need to come from history departments that produce Ph.D.s.  To a degree that position makes sense.  The AHA has no control over departments and the production of new Ph.D.s is what departments do.  The problem is that no single department has enough status to lead the profession in a certain direction. Nor is it any department’s institutional interest to do so.

So, all this leads me to the original question I askedand one for which I do not have a good answer: Tell Me How this Ends?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Administrative Post 27

My appologies to all of those that have been waiting for a new post.  Personal issues over the past few weeks got in the way.  More posts coming in a few hours....I promise.