Thoughts on Writing

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lately I've been having numerous conversations with graduate students frustrated with the process of writing research papers.  Mainly they appear overwhelmed with how labor-intensive the process is, and how long it takes to generate much satisfaction.

When responding, I'm finding it helpful to talk about cooking.  I love cooking, always have.  My strong preference is for slow-cooking -- I like the art of braising, how flavors deepen and meld as meats and veggies turn golden. It never fails to amaze me how the results are even better if left to rest in the fridge for a day before serving, since that time allows the fat to congeal and thicken, and then to be skimmed off, leaving a sharper (and healthier) result.

In my experience, a good research paper requires braising.  I think many people don't anticipate this, instead expecting a stir-fry. Those are neat-- you simply do a bunch of slicing and dicing in advance, line everything up, turn the heat on high, and you're done in minutes.  Preparation pays off, and immediate satisfaction is guaranteed. But as anyone who's eaten stir fries knows, the feeling doesn't last-- you're hungry an hour later.

Writing a good paper requires commitment and patience.  Yes, you need a good idea, but you also need the good sense to put the paper down from time to time, and let it simmer.  I've been known to simmer my papers for as long as two years, before removing the lid to check and see how things look.  (Yes, it's because as a sociologist I'm not fearful of being scooped and my work usually isn't time-sensitive-- and yes, I did this pre-tenure too.)  The best part is that I inevitably find something new when I look-- my view is not only freshened, I'm wiser, more skilled, and excited again about the work.  I can skim the fat quite easily, since it's hardened. I may even involve a second cook in the kitchen at that point, to get the seasoning right.  But no matter what, every single time, the paper is better for the braise.

It's thoughtful, satisfying, and worth every minute.  Try it. And enjoy, along with a nice shiraz.

What We're Reading: New Evidence on Educational Policies

Monday, March 26, 2012
The recent conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, held in Boston, was a terrific event. Especially exciting was the large number of rigorous analyses on higher education policies.  Here are some highlights; a more complete set of papers is here.

1. Peter Hinrichs of Georgetown University examined racial segregation in higher education since 1968. He finds that segregation has diminished, in part because of declining enrollment in historically black colleges and universities.  The exposure of white students to black students has increased sharply since 2000 in private institutions but not in public institutions, and these trends appear concentrated in the South and West.  Far more perplexing is his suggestion that affirmative action bans in some states may have also contributed to declining segregation. But he is appropriately circumspect about these puzzling findings, noting that one also has to consider a range of other issues with regard to affirmative action (see p. 17).

2. Ben Castleman and Bridget Long of Harvard estimated the effects of a Florida need-based financial aid grant on bachelor's degree completion.  Using a regression discontinuity design, the authors found that "an additional $1,000 in grant aid eligibility (in 2000 dollars) increased the probability of immediate enrollment at  a four-year university by 3.2 percentage points, while increasing the probability of staying continuously enrolled through the spring semester of students' freshman year by 4.3 percentage points. An additional $1,000 in aid eligibility increased the cumulative number of credits students completed after three years by 2.1 credits and increased the probability of earning a bachelor’s degree within six years by 4.6 percentage points."  On the other hand, Kevin Stange of U. Michigan finds that charging different amounts of tuition for different majors does not appear to impact major choice.

3. An analysis by Amanda Griffith of Wake Forest considered whether same-gender matching of professor to student enhances student performance.  She finds suggestive evidence that the growing presence of female faculty may contribute to the outstanding performance of women students, at least at the private selective college she studied.

Know Before You Go

Friday, March 23, 2012
Recent conversations with several college access programs prompted this post.  My experiences studying the college pathways of students from low-income families have led me to formulate several suggestions for college preparation, and while I plan to write these up in more formal venues in the future, I thought perhaps it's best to begin dissemination now--especially since, in some respects, I think my suggestions are unconventional.

1. There is no one "right" college for you.  Talk about "matching" with a college abounds, and it sort of reminds me of dating advice.  Find the person who is right for you, suited to your skills and temperament, and all will work out. Well, two caveats: first, maybe yes, maybe no.  There are far too many unobservable characteristics of people and colleges to predict success based on observables.  And second, there are many plausible matches-- if one doesn't work, you need to be prepared to try again.  This means that students need to have a healthy sense of possibilities and alternatives, and a framework for evaluating when college is meeting their needs, and when it might be time to transfer.  They need to know how to go about that process, and to not feel ashamed to make the choice to find a new college.   Nearly one in two undergraduates attend more than one institution in pursuit of a degree, and my research with Fabian Pfeffer shows that this is true even among four-year college students.  Transfer is typically in the purview of community colleges, and many universities lack outbound transfer resources-- and will even discourage departure.  Students need to graduate from high school knowing that transfer later might be necessary, and ready to know what to do.

2. You won't do it alone. The normative view of a college student who leaves home, embraces independence, and engages in college life as a fully formed adult is outdated--or perhaps never really existed.  Remarkably, young people are becoming less not more mobile-- and it may not be a terrible thing.  Family ties promote survival, and kinship can mean the difference between starving alone or managing to make it.  Undergraduates in my study are not only receiving support from their family, but also supporting their family emotionally, and by devoting both monetary and non-monetary resources. The trick is finessing how to do this well.  Students need to graduate from high school prepared to discuss with their parents (and other relatives) how they can best stay connected while also getting to focus on their studies.  What do you do when an assignment is due and mom needs you to babysit?  How can you discuss with your parents the amount of your earnings that you can share with them for the rent, while also having enough to buy books?  This requires strong interpersonal skills we have to help young people develop.

3. Shoot for the stars, but don't over-reach. Many programs are focused on helping students aspire to careers in science and engineering, and that message is leading some students to proclaim the intention of becoming such professionals even though high school hasn't quite prepared them. The unintended consequences may be severe.  In one example, I know a student who was rejected from his first choice college-- a public university-- because his application stated a desire to become a physicist.  Yet, while he had excelled in AP Literature and History his senior year, he hadn't gone further than Algebra II in high school.  The university likely denied him because of a sense he wouldn't achieve his goals there-- at least not in four years (one of the unintended consequences of a focus on measuring grad rates?).  While in a better world, he would have been admitted and then apprised of what it would take to achieve that goal, so he could choose a longer time-to-degree or a different path, instead he was denied.  Crushed, he diverted for a community college.  High school students like this one need to ensure their big dreams are either backed up with the right coursework, or counseled to be circumspect in their college applications.

4. It's ok to not know.  Students in my study often speak of fear of failure, of getting bad grades, of being caught not knowing how to answer a question in class. They don't know that professors have much respect for students who can say confidently "I don't know the answer, but I'd sure like to learn."  The cool pose many students adopt when they are unsure alienates professors.  Instead, high school students need to be encouraged to express their concerns, and ask ask ask.  Perhaps this could be modeled for them, and they could practice it in their senior year courses.

5. Always ask twice.  For four years, I have watched students leave college without a degree because of a snafu-- a minor happenstance that felt enormous and real, but could have been resolved by asking for help more than once.  One student left because he thought his misdemeanor conviction meant he could no longer get financial aid- a concern a fellow student confirmed. He needed to ask again at his financial aid office.  Another student left because she was dropped from her program due to low grades, and she thought this meant she was expelled from the entire college.  She waited for the college to call and explain it to her.  I wish that was something we could reasonably expect colleges to do, but right now the orientation and resources simply aren't there.  High school students need to know that when something's wrong, they need to ask- and ask -- and ask.

I hope this proves useful for the many programs and people working to make college success possible for the least likely graduates.  If you have lessons of your own to share, please write in.

Is This What Shared Governance Looks Like?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012
For decades, the price of higher education has been rising at colleges and universities nationwide, and relatively few students and families have done so much as sniff.  While occasional concerns about affordability have been expressed, that message has been quite soft when compared to the loud statement uttered by the millions who walk onto college campuses every year, despite rising tuition and fees.  In other words, actions speak louder than words.  Colleges and universities are able to say: if we are truly charging more than you want to pay, why do you keep buying it?

Times are changing, as some students are informing themselves about why college costs so much-- and where the money is actually spent.  Some are aware that part of the costs are offloaded onto students in the form of student fees, fees which in many places students have no choice but to pay, and have no control over.

UW-Madison is a bit unusual-- it has segregated fees, but it also has a renowned shared governance structure which gives students strong input into how those fees are spent.  This is a model that has helped shape the character of the institution and is among its finest attributes.

Unfortunately, a challenge to shared governance may be upon us.  Recently, the Student Services Finances Committee of the Associated Students of Madison voted to reject a request to increase spending of the Wisconsin Union and Recreational Sports.  Before approving the request, the SSFC wanted more information about how those funds would be spent.  In other words, students demanded transparency and accountability, beyond the high-level look at spending they are typically provided.  Absent that information, they declined the request.

On Tuesday, Interim Chancellor David Ward, a chancellor who has been demonstrably sensitive to issues of affordability and the cost-effective use of resources, overruled that veto.  I admit, I have not spoken to Ward to ascertain his reasons. But whether I would agree or disagree with his reasons are beside the point, which is fundamentally about process.  Shared governance leans heavily on adherence to process -- it is time-consuming but is essentially what the concept is all about. And according to the written process, Ward was to consult with SSFC before overruling their decision -- according to both Sarah Neibart (head of SSFC) and Allie Gardner (head of ASM) he did not.

Given a climate in which faculty, staff, and students have good reason to be concerned about allocation of scarce resources (since every day many of us observe it being allocated in inequitable and ineffective ways), and given the generally low morale due to stagnant and declining compensation, it is more important than ever to preserve the aspects of this university which make it special to its constituents. Shared governance is exactly that. Strong protection of shared governance is an inexpensive way to keeping the University's laborers integrated, involved, and effective. It is essential.

A positive result of this action would be a renewed discussion about the types of reporting that students, faculty, and staff can expect to receive from the administration regarding the allocation of monies generated from tuition and fees. Rigorous assessment of the impacts (the delta) resulting from spending (not the outcomes), can help move this institution through hard times-- and we should all be supportive of that.

A 4-Year Degree?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education released a new website that seems to have succeeded in finally getting people to sit up and take notice of the huge challenges confronting colleges and universities.  This morning, a colleague stopped by my office, pointed at the 4-year graduation rates of the universities in UW System, and said "Can this possibly be right?"  My answer was "YES. Now what are we going to do about it?"

Finding institutions' 4-year bachelor's degree rates isn't so easy anymore, given that so many popular publications now focus on completion over 6 years. The argument is that "since hardly anyone finishes in 4 anymore, why bother?" I get that-- college experiences have changed, so have the students, and we need to realign our expectations. That said, most of the public still calls the BA a "4-year degree."  And it's simply not.  Here, in case you missed it, are the 4-year degree completion rates of the 13 public universities in Wisconsin. What are we going to do about it?

Eau Claire: 25.7%
Green Bay: 23.1%
La Crosse: 32.4%
Madison: 49.7%
Milwaukee: 14.9%
Oshkosh: 14.6%
Parkside: 9.8%
Platteville: 17.6%
River Falls: 26.0%
Stevens Point: 21.1%
Stout: 19.9%
Superior: 16.4%
Whitewater: 24.5%

The black/white gap, averaged across these schools, is 9.3 vs. 28.6%

Note: These are for students who start college full-time. Part-time freshmen are excluded.

Elitism Does Little to Improve Education

Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Cross-posted from today's Badger Herald

It is a terrible understatement to say that the last year has been a tumultuous one in Wisconsin public higher education.  We have witnessed a crisis of finance, politics, and leadership.  But we can’t claim to have been blindsided, since this crisis was decades in the making and partly our own doing.

Over the last forty years, Wisconsin decided to send its kids to college, but neglected to decide how to pay for it.  Instead, families turned to the government-subsidized public sector, established when far fewer high school graduates went on to college.  As enrollment expanded, the costs grew—partly because there were simply more students and partly because expectations rose.  Families clamored for UW-Madison to be an accessible, affordable version of Harvard—but few wanted to pay the taxes to support it.

So UW-Madison stayed the course, keeping entering classes about the same size and educating as usual for several decades, all the while competing to become a globally recognized research powerhouse. In effect, because the university did not change to accommodate demand, metaphorical gates—even a moat—sprang up around it.  And the crowd just outside the gates grew louder.  “What’s happening at that place?” they began to wonder, “A place that thinks my kid isn’t quite good enough?”  “Who are those professors, complaining about their $70,000, 9 month salaries?”  “And why should we support them?” 

Arguably, today’s UW-Madison leaves as many people of Wisconsin behind as it embraces, and it does so because it is pursuing other justifiably important interests.  But the way it does this, as political scientist Katherine Cramer Walsh documents in a recent WISCAPE paper, comes off as unfeeling, elite, and disengaged.  The message sent by many proud alumni, faculty, and administrators doesn’t help—UW-Madison is allowed, they said, “because we are different, and we are the best.”

In perpetuating that kind of talk, UW-Madison makes a critical mistake. We are not different—we are Wisconsin.  We are only as much “the best” as we help the people of the state to be the best. We are not doing our job if we do not, every year, communicate with the people of Wisconsin about why it is essential that we continue to do our job well—and what accomplishing that requires. That kind of communication is not a series of op-eds or robocalls but regular, two-way conversations where, as Cramer Walsh points out, we are actually listening.  In a time of declining real income for many families, and strong demand for college among very smart kids, we have no choice but to keep costs down and open our doors wider.  At the same time, we are obligated to change the terms of the debate about taxation in this state—to help all residents understand why an investment in public higher education is among the most cost-effective decisions we can make. Doing this requires that we stop acting like Wisconsin public higher education is all about UW-Madison.  It’s time to sit down with the people of this state, listen to their needs, and find ways to meet them.  That’s the only way to rebuild a future for public higher education.  Either we do it now, or we should move over for the for-profit colleges and universities like Phoenix, Kaplan, and DeVry, who are eager for the business.  Make no mistake about it— they’re on the way.