FOOTNOTES APRIL 2000
homeprev issuesexecpublic affairsSTAFFASA home
 
 

Public Forum

A complete elaboration, i.e., all departments at all levels of output, might also reveal that many hire large numbers of part-timers and yet produce, proportionately, very little that is published in the major (or any other) journals—a reality that is increasingly likely as one moves down the prestige hierarchy and into the universe of departments that lack advanced degree programs. This is currently being met, however, with an ironic form of disciplinary denial where (if one regularly scans the Employment Bulletin) one notes an increase in teaching emphasis on “undergraduate research” (curious, because most undergraduate faculties cannot find the time to do their own research), an increase in bureaucratic ritualism regarding the application process, a look to “distance learning” (a techno-administrative scheme of questionable pedagogical value) to increase the volume of tuition and fees from sources previously untapped, and a new twist to an old outrage: teaching huge, i.e., 500 student, introductory classes—and being quite proud of that fact (as measured by a recent advertisement for such a position). I applaud Professor Markovsky for bringing this data to light. I think that the department at SUNY-Albany should get some kind of award for professional integrity.
Robert J. Stevenson, Elkins, WV

Rethinking Departmental Productivity

I was very sorry to see the article in Footnotes (February 2000) ranking sociology departments by measuring faculty publications in only three journals— the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology and Social Forces. As the former Dean of the College of Arts and Science and Vice Provost at the University of Delaware, I have directly observed the dangers of such narrow measures of academic program quality. Administrators in most universities are now eagerly hunting for quantitative measures of “faculty productivity” and are increasingly asking departments to measure themselves against presumed “comparator institutions” for the sole purpose of budget reallocation and program reduction. Such a prominent publication of departmental rankings based on a narrow measure of program strength has the potential to put a large number of sociology departments in jeopardy. I only hope that few senior administrators ever see this article. Particularly troubling is the narrow measure of department productivity on which this ranking rests, even if we wanted to quantify faculty productivity. I cannot imagine a more narrow measure than number of publications in only three journals. What about departments where faculty publish books? What about departments whose faculty publish widely in equally strong academic journals, such as Gender & Society, Social Problems, Social Science Quarterly, Administrative Science Quarterly, Social Psychology Quarterly, just to name a very few? What about faculty who do pathbreaking work published in major interdisciplinary journals? Even if we did wish to quantify faculty productivity—a questionable practice because it does not account for the large measure of judgment that such a concept requires—why not count external research funding, major awards, placement of graduates, success in recruiting and retaining faculty of color and women? Particularly given the ongoing discussion about exclusionary practices in some sociological journals, a measure of “faculty productivity” that rests exclusively on articles published in a few journals is especially harmful.

Such measures also privilege research over teaching, at a time when most institutions, including research institutions, are encouraging greater balance in teaching and research. Should not program quality include such things as the climate for undergraduate and graduate students in the departments; how well departments recruit, support and maintain students of color and faculty of color; the climate for women students and faculty (including the service load women faculty carry); and the accessibility of faculty to students? What role does a strong record of professional service and leadership have in measuring faculty productivity and program quality?

This is not to suggest that the departments ranked are not of high quality—only that such articles, based on an extremely narrow view of faculty work, play a “gatekeeping” function and socially construct the elitism that is used to devalue the work and contributions of those outside more privileged spaces. As sociologists, we should be more circumspect in participating in such gatekeeping, realizing that many of our colleagues—faculty of color, women faculty, and large numbers of white men, i.e, those located in departments now judged to be not as worthy as these select few—may find themselves in jeopardy. Moreover, what does this ranking communicate about the value of different kinds of work to junior faculty in these select few departments? Time and time again I have heard junior colleagues in elite institutions say they are actively discouraged from participating in various intellectual activities that they see as enriching and supportive of their work when these activities do not fit into the more narrow construction of “quality work” that their departments reward. I hope that as professional sociologists who understand the problems of narrowly construed measures and who understand how systems of power and privilege exclude and devalue people will be cautious about the production and dissemination of such rankings in the future.
Margaret L. Andersen, University of Delaware

Ménage à Trois: ASA, ASR, and Politics

Among sociologists, there had always been a ménage à trois between conservatives, methodologically quantitative oriented and supporters of sociology as a hard science. Of course, the obverse was also true: Another ménage à trois between liberal, methodologically qualitative oriented and supporters of sociology as a soft science. (It was a case of partial correlations, since other combinations were possible) But they all stayed in the same boat. Were they strange bedfellows? No, on the contrary. Maybe I should have said that they stayed in the same bed. A ménage à six? Why not? They did not disqualify each other as sociologists. A happy promiscuity, for Max Weber’s sake. A change, now, when our discipline is academically questioned? (I wholeheartedly—and “wholemindedly”—second Professor Herbert Gans’ fairness; Footnotes, November 1999, page 6. When the going gets tough, the toughs get going, so it’s better to be inclusive than exclusive.) Down here in Buenos Aires, Argentina, my feeling is that we need you all. It’s not clear who is right and who is wrong. At least, for the time being. Perhaps it is still too early. So, please, be peaceful. My dear colleagues, as they used to say when I was a student of sociology, at UC-Berkeley, in 1968: “Love and let love.”
Marcelo Aftalion, University of Buenos Aires

University4Sale-dot-com: The Educational Cost of Free Notes on the Internet

The internet is arguably the most remarkable development in a recent wave of communications technologies. Websites have also been set up on academic matters, such as sites with rankings of graduate programs and so-called “virtual colleges” that offer online classes. No doubt, some of these developments are beneficial, others problematic. With that in mind, my comments here pertain to one specific phenomenon on the internet which, I feel, poses a serious threat to our profession, especially in our mission as educators. I refer to private companies that post unauthorized lecture notes of courses taught at colleges and universities on the internet.

Online notes companies are a relatively recent but rapidly expanding phenomenon. Since they first emerged in the Fall of 1999, at least 13 such companies currently exist. The companies are privately owned and typically distribute notes for free, acquiring revenue from website advertising. At least one company charges a fee for its notes. Companies advertise aggressively, particularly in the college press, touting attractive salaries (up to $400 per semester) and job titles (“Class Research Coordinator,” “Campus Operations Manager”). In recent months, notes companies have managed to attract millions of dollars in financing. For instance, Versity.com has received $11.2 million from multiple investors, while StudentU.com operates on some $6 million. Also, several notes companies have recently been expanding and diversifying by acquiring other college-related enterprises, such as book-selling sites, college news sites, and much more. StudentU.com, for example, bought out “28th Street,” the publisher of a college magazine.

Website companies posting lecture notes raise concerns in terms of their anticipated effects and the problems they create in principle. Among the negative effects could be a decline in class attendance. The companies carefully mention that the notes are not to be used as a substitute for attending class, but the disclaimer is, of course, no guarantee that it will not happen. More generally, the availability of online notes could mean that students will develop a short-sighted and narrow perspective of education as getting notes to pass exams and make the grade.

However, irrespective of their potential impact, online notes companies pose many problems in principle. The most serious drawback is the loss of autonomy and responsibility in our position as educators. The notes are posted with explicit reference to college and university courses, identified by title, section, and/or instructor. But instructors are not asked for permission and the service is not cancelled upon the instructor’s request. This is entirely antithetical to our educational mission. In our teaching we not only need not, but also should not accept any authority but our own judgment and the advice of our peers and feedback from our students.

Some teachers have stated that online notes may be beneficial to our teaching. This reaction is even more astonishing than the companies’ pretensions, because teachers approving online notes implicitly relinquish their educational duties. If notes on the internet are a good idea, instructors should organize the service themselves. Many teachers (myself included) already use the internet for their teaching in many ways which, importantly, we ourselves determined. Not speaking out against online notes implies a loss of responsibility in that students may—right or wrong—accept our silence to be an implicit approval. The aggressive manner in which the companies present themselves might indeed make students think that the service is approved by instructors and their institutions.

Furthermore, on the part of the companies there is an absence of quality standards and accountability. There are no procedures governing who provides online notes, which is probably best demonstrated by Versity.com, the Michigan-based company which has been set up by four college drop-outs. Company employees are not trained in educational matters and there is no authority of supervision. There is nothing equivalent to the degrees qualified teachers acquired from accredited institutes and our various efforts to maintain our expertise. Neither is there an equivalent to the institutional rules that guide our educational duties. Instead of the safeguards to protect the standards of our profession, online notes companies benefit from a parasitic freedom of opportunity on the internet. Relatedly, online notes companies lack accountability in providing educational materials. The company websites specify a disclaimer that the notes are a student’s interpretation, that no guarantees are made on their quality, and that the company cannot be held liable for mistakes. Such disclaimers on the quality of a service presented as educational are in complete contradiction with a responsible understanding of education. Students cannot only ask their teachers questions, as educators we actively stimulate student participation.

At the heart of this problem, I believe, is a free-marketization of our educational system. The problem is not the internet and not free enterprise, but a profit-oriented and technologically-based invasion of market principles in an area of society governed by fundamentally different standards. Education is not a business oriented at maximizing profit but a commitment aimed at shaping informed citizens. As teachers we do not deal in commodity and we do not sell our courses on the basis of supply-and-demand criteria. What is appropriate for soft drinks is not alright for our lectures.

Fortunately, over the past months several universities have reacted against the menace of notes companies and have developed and implemented appropriate policies (based on intellectual property rights or academic honesty regulations). Representatives of UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other universities have been successful in having notes for their institutions removed by sending cease-and-desist letters to the notes companies. Still, with a phenomenon as novel as the commercial distribution of online notes, many university administrators, teachers and students are still unaware of ongoing developments. I invite sociologists and other scholars to join in on the discussion. In an effort to help in the educational response against notes companies, I have since September of last year been organizing a website campaign, “Free Education Now!,” which provides detailed information about many aspects of commercial notes companies. The URL of the site is: http://www.sla.purdue.edu/people/soc/mdeflem/education.htm.
Mathieu Deflem, Purdue University, DeflemM@sri.soc.purdue.edu