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Scholarship and Departmental Rankings Revisited

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In his presidential address to the American Sociological Association, Alejandro Portes (American Sociological Review, February 2000) eloquently shows how purposive social action toward identifiable ends guided sociological theory throughout the first fifty years of the discipline. Portes contends that in the ensuing years, sociological theory and empirical analyses have reflected a tradition of intellectual skepticism that undermines system-builders and social engineers whose work rests on assumptions of purposive action. At one level, such as when we don our sociology “hats”, Portes’s argument is not too surprising; indeed we are taught to look for the unexpected and challenge myths built on predictable steps. Yet when we exchange our sociology hats for others, say in administration, the irony is that many sociologists revert to the very linear models of purposive action that they would openly challenge in different contexts. Take, for example, Barry Markovsky’s analysis of departmental scholarship and rankings, which he presented in Footnotes (February 2000).

Markovsky offers evidence that the University of Iowa’s Sociology Department, at least during the past three years, has bested many other fine departments in their level of scholarly productivity. He examines several different measures of productivity, to include total counts in prominent journals and faculty ratios, comparing these to rankings published by the USNWR periodical. Underlying much of his commentary is the implicit assumption that rankings of doctoral granting departments are a function of scholarly productivity. Indeed his modus operandi is the implicit belief that purposive action, in the form of quality scholarship, is reflected in departments’ subsequent rankings, as a measure of their intended outcomes. In sum, departments need only improve their scholarship to improve their relative standing in the field.

When one looks closely at the logic of this argument, important gaps become readily apparent between the theory and evidence. For example, my own analyses of sociology departments (Social Forces, June 1998) offers strong evidence that scholarship is far less important in determining ratings, or their respective rankings, than their past reputations. Patently, quality scholarship, as measured by both books and articles, is not a straightforward means of securing or improving departmental reputation. Instead, earlier ratings are found to be the critical property bearing on how departments are evaluated. Moreover, when examined across disciplines, I show that the reputations of departments and their affiliated universities, not scholarship, are the critical factors in determining subsequent departmental reputation (American Educational Research Journal, Fall 1999).

While the sociology department at the University of Iowa may have taken steps in the last few years to improve its level of scholarly output, these efforts, although laudable, are not likely to significantly improve its corresponding status. To illustrate, looking at data drawn from my Social Forces (SF) article for the time interval 1970-89, reveals a slightly different pattern than the one Markovsky presents (see Table 1). Iowa ranks 25th, not 10th, when the total article count is based on 20 years of publications instead of just three and includes articles from the ASR, AJS, and SF, as well as Social Problems, Demography, Sociology of Education, and Social Quarterly. Longer time intervals are important because the number of departmental publications is found to vary dramatically during any two-three year interval. Hence, publication patterns are somewhat unstable, especially for intervals based on a short duration. Moreover, when the total 20 year count is divided by the number of full-time faculty (not to include part-time and adjuncts as Markovsky does), Iowa ranks 20th instead of first. Similarly, when counting book publications, based on a standard benchmark of those reviewed in Contemporary Sociology, Iowa ranks 24th in total counts and 23rd in its corresponding faculty ratio.

In turning attention to rankings based on departmental ratings from three comparable national studies (the 1994 National Research Council report, the 1982 Conference Board report, and the 1970 Roose and Anderson report that was sponsored by the American Council on Education), Iowa again does not fare as well as that reported by Markovsky. Indeed, the department is ranked as 38th, 48th, and 29th in the 1994, 1982, and 1970 reports. A point is in order on the distinction between rankings and ratings. These reports published ratings, not rankings, based on the mean scores of the responses provided by a sample of sociology faculty. The rankings force an arbitrary hierarchy that is not apparent in the ratings. Indeed, many of the ratings vary only marginally and do not differ significantly from one another. Correlations between the ratings of the three studies reveal a high degree of stability (ranging between r=.87 for 1970-94 and r=.92 for 1982-94). Correlations between the ratings and scholarship levels are slightly less pronounced (r=.77 for 1994 rating and articles published in 1980s; r=.76 for 1994 rating and books published in 1980s). When controlling for the ratings departments’ received at an earlier time interval, scholarship contributes little to an explanation of the current rating.

Why? Returning to Portes’ argument, the manifest goals (e.g., improved ratings) often go unrecognized at the end of a planned process (e.g., improved quality scholarship). To understand this, we might look at ratings as a form of status within an institutional environment. Specifically, John W. Meyer and associates have shown that the status conferred to institutional structures, such as education, is only loosely coupled with the symbolic elements of its process. In effect, the manifest goal promotes scientific scholarship but the latent outcome creates greater homogeneity among a set of comparable institutions, promoting the influence of external factors in the allocation of status or power (e.g., perceived market value of an institution’s degree). The result, as I demonstrate in the American Educational Research Journal (Fall 1999), produces greater homogeneity within universities and greater heterogeneity between them with respect to organizational status. In conclusion, linear models of purposive action employed to explain organizational status are largely reflective of well-intentioned, albeit simplistic, myths of complex processes. An improved understanding of organizational status will require a greater awareness of the specific institutional context in which it is embedded.

Brucxe Keith, United States Military Academy;

No “Reserve Army” of Faculty

In his April 2000 comment, Professor Robert Stevenson suggests that departments with high rates of publications in the top three journals—American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology, and Social Forces—may be achieving their high productivity through the help of a “reserve army” of part-time faculty members who “free up” the full-time faculty for research and writing. Stevenson’s claim, however, is based on a misunderstanding of the data in Barry Markovsky’s article in the February Footnotes.

In that article Professor Markovsky ranked departments by publication rates per faculty, using data from the 1999 ASA Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology to determine numbers of full- and part-time faculty in each department. Based on these data, Professor Stevenson then reported part-time faculty as a percentage of full-time faculty for the departments that ranked the highest on journal productivity. Stevenson’s calculations place Arizona in a dubious second place on this measure, with part-time faculty equal to 73% of full-time faculty. There is just one problem with these data: Markovsky’s use of the “part-time faculty” label was an abbreviation of the actual designation in the ASA Guide, which is “Affiliated and Joint Appointments, Part-time and Emeritus.” At the University of Arizona, not one of the 16 faculty listed under this heading is a part-time faculty member, and the amount of teaching done by the entire group is miniscule. Seven of the 16 are emeritus faculty who do not teach in the department at all; four are courtesy appointments whose teaching obligations are solely within their home departments; two are joint appointments whose teaching obligations in Sociology are one course every other year, and three are faculty members who hold visiting appointments each spring and sometimes team-teach one course—typically a graduate seminar—with a regular member of the faculty. In short, Arizona does not have a reserve army of part-timers who do the bulk of the teaching, and our research productivity is unrelated to the number of faculty who were reported in this category. Our faculty carry a full teaching load—and win numerous awards for their undergraduate teaching—at the same time that they produce stellar research records. The same errors of interpretation that invalidate Stevenson’s assumptions about Sociology at Arizona may also affect his interpretation of other top-ranked departments. Most importantly, the composition of this category of affiliated, joint, part-time, and emeritus faculty undoubtedly varies across departments, making it impossible to infer anything about a relationship between part-time faculty and academic productivity.

Linda D. Molm, University of Arizona

Footnotes Deserves a Pulitzer

If ever a Pulitzer Prize is awarded to a professional newsletter, the April 2000 issue of Footnotes deserves it. Newsletters preparing their membership for an annual meeting commonly describe distinctive attractions of the city in which the meeting is to be held. These features however, are invariably obfuscating travelogues rather than insightful accounts about what the city is really like and whit it represents. James W. Loewen’s penetrating feature on “The Sociology of Selected Monuments of Washington” is different because it directs our attention to commemorative devices that Americans use to represent their history to themselves and others.

From the Library of Congress’s consecration of Social Darwinism to the monuments commemorating Christopher Columbus’s discovering the world to be around, Abraham Lincoln’s standing above a groveling slave, and former Klan Leader Albert Pike’s exploits, Loewen’s tour captures perfectly President Joe Feagin’s theme for the American Sociological Association’s millennial meeting — Oppression, Domination, and Liberation. Although Americans are less oppressed, less dominated, and more liberated than ever before, Loewen’s tour is a bracing antidote to this false-consciousness. Given the limits of space, within which Loewen was forced to work, I would like to add few more stops to his tour.

Let us begin at Arlington Cemetery, While ASA members are inspecting the Confederate Monument, they might wish to look behind them and see the Custis-lee Mansion, residence of Robert E. Lee, Mary Custis Lee (George Washington’s Great-grand daughter) and their 200 slaves. Near the Cemetery, on will find the gigantic Marine Iwo Jima Statue—a monument to American triumphalism.

On the mall the visitor may enjoy the Korean War Veterans Memorial and Frederick Hart’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial statue. These commemorative objects warrant attention because of their masking functions: they depict the diversity of racial and ethnic participation in the two wars in order to cover up a racially segregated division of labor. The two memorials are marvelous specimens of mystification in bronze. Not far from these sites is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Park, a hegemonic celebration of late capitalism. Visitors with several hours to spare may wish to visit another hegemonic site, the Holocaust Museum: focusing on Nazi Germany’s crimes against European Jews deflects attention from America’s crimes against native blacks, Hispanics, and indigenous peoples.

Speaking of indigenous peoples, ASA members must pay a visit to the United States Capitol, in whose Rotunda appear eight gigantic paintings representing the glories of America’s past: included are The Baptism of Pocahontas, a hieratic depiction of colonial devaluing of beginning is what is now Tampa and covering the entire southeast. Then go directly to the Capitol’s Statuary Hall to see larger than life statues of Jefferson Davis, John C. Calhoun, and other criminals, Elsewhere, in the Senate wing, are the busts of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

Other members might conclude their tour by strolling from the Capitol directly toward the Lincoln Memorial. On their way they must take note of the statue of Ulysses Grant, Union Army commander and Jew-hater. After Grant they will approach the tallest structure in Washington an obelisk commemorating You-Know-Who. Concluding their tour, they will find the one exception to James Loewen’s deconstructive travelogue: The Lincoln Memorial, site of Marian Anderson’s concert and Martin Luther King’s speech. Lincoln we can easily infer, is the one white character in American history (besides John Brown) who Loewen admires, but, alas, when visitors actually go inside the memorial and look toward the ceiling they see a colorful mural depicting two females, allegories of the North and the South, clasping hands in a dramatic gesture of reconciliation. This Lincoln Memorial, designed as a symbol of regional reconciliation, garnered every single Southern Representative’s vote in favor of construction. As to Loewen’s acclaiming Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address affirming slavery as the Civil War’s cause, we must ask a question about Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address: why did he offer the Confederacy, in return for its remaining in the Union, a constitutional amendment perpetuating slavery in the states where it existed?

Except for this minor oversight, James W. Loewen’s article is to be commended, as is the editorial staff that selected it. I urge the American Sociological Association’s publicity department to send copies of the April issue of Footnotes to all major newspapers. Public dissemination of this newsletter will help offset the all too commonly held stereotype which confuses sociologists with “socialists,” “social workers,” “socialist workers,” and sometimes even causes people to dismiss them as leftist nuts or aging 1960s Flower Children. Now, thanks to James Loewen’s sociological imagination, all Americans planning their family visits to Washington will be able to see America the way it really was.

Barry Schwartz, University of Georgia