Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide

Christopher L. Caterine’s Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide (Princeton U. Press, 2020) is packed with sound career advice for people who have obtained doctorates. The book is also highly relevant to anyone who is just contemplating post-baccalaureate study, because it points out three systemic flaws in graduate education:

First, graduate programs typically emphasize the production of subject matter experts, leading to what Caterine calls the overspecialization trap:

“[N]obody outside the academy can monetize knowledge of . . . constructions of gender in eighteenth-century French novels. Even scientists aren’t safe on this count . . . many still face hiring bias because of the excessive specialization that graduate school requires. Trying to convince nonacademics to value what you study is probably a losing battle” (p. 89).

Just as doctorate holders should emphasize how they study when applying for jobs, graduate programs need to be oriented around methodological training rather than the delivery of factual knowledge. Any worthwhile graduate program needs to teach its students how to quickly distill large amounts of unfamiliar and often contradictory information down to its essentials and present “a coherent narrative in a public forum on short notice” (p. 123). This skill is in constant demand by employers, whereas being the world’s foremost authority on a post-Augustan Roman poet is not.

Second, the elements of good teaching are also immensely beneficial job skills, yet how many graduate programs train their students to become competent teachers? Good teaching requires one to be adept at project management, public speaking, running meetings, balancing divergent stakeholder interests, and emotional intelligence (p. 104). For example, running a classroom debate on a policy topic for which there are no cut and dried answers is an example of the ability to engineer “discussions that orient people toward a shared understanding or goal” (p. 108). These are the kinds of attributes that employers prize.

Finally, just like anyone else, academics need to present themselves and their expertise in an understandable, unambiguous manner. Judging by the terribly written cover letters and resumes I have seen from job applicants, this is not a skill that people commonly acquire through graduate education.

So, for anyone out there thinking about graduate school, what’s the evidence that a program in which you are interested will adequately prepare you for a non-academic career? If you are already university faculty, what aspects of your work have value outside of academia, and how can you clearly communicate this to potential employers? Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide will show you how to find answers to these questions.

Review of McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn

I stumbled across Teach Students How to Learn by Saundra Yancy McGuire (Stylus, 2015). Like The New Science of Learning by Doyle and Zakrajsek, it contains some useful advice. Here is a brief review:

The bad

The book has an excessive amount of personal anecdote — such as conversations with and exam scores of individual students — but no presentation of statistically significant findings on overall changes in students’ performance. The author also favorably discusses learning styles and the Myers-Briggs inventory, neither of which is scientifically supported. A more concise presentation with a greater emphasis on empirical evidence would be more persuasive.

The good

McGuire’s focus is on teaching students about the benefits of metacognition, including a specific method of introducing them to Bloom’s taxonomy (Chapter 4). Why is this effective? In high school, students earn high grades without much effort, so they enter college suffering from illusory superiority and ignorant of the actual learning process. Coaching students on specific study strategies (Chapter 5) will therefore benefit them. One example: as professors, we typically know what shortcuts to employ to efficiently find and retain information contained in a book. Students, in contrast, may not know what an index is or how to use one. McGuire also rightly discusses the role of motivation in student learning (Chapters 7-9), and she points out that there are both student-related and professor-related barriers to motivation. These barriers can be mitigated by the instructor.

A final comment

The underlying assumption of this book is that students want to learn, and if they are equipped with the right tools, college becomes a more valuable and rewarding experience for them and their professors. While I think this is a noble and generally accurate sentiment, I’m seeing an increasing number of U.S. undergraduate students for whom college is simply a credentialing process. For these students, the diploma is the goal, learning is not.

Updating Comparative Politics, Part 2

In my search for a new book to use in my comparative politics course, I sort of stumbled across Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America by Jeffery M. Paige (Harvard University Press, 1997). I say “sort of” because Paige, a sociologist by training, was a prominent scholar of agrarian revolution and development in the 1980s and 1990s — a name I had encountered as a doctoral student.

Search results for his publications turned up Coffee and Power, so I pulled it from the library. The book meets many of my criteria for being worthy of inclusion in my course. It is a multi-country study set in Central America that goes beyond the traditional white male Britain-France-Germany presentation of comparative democratization. The writing is academic but not too heavy with pointless jargon. And it serves as a good example of how to do research in the field.

The problem, as with the book I’m trying to replace, is that Coffee and Power, being than two decades old, is now very much a historical analysis. I don’t think a 400-page work that discusses events from the 1930s through the 1980s will succeed in getting undergraduates here interested in additional study in comparative politics. But I did figure out a way to use the book for what I think would be a good assignment, shown below.

Read Jeffery M. Paige, Coffee and Power, p. 53-84. Do a qualitative comparative analysis of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Classify each country as “high” or “low” for the following independent variables related to the coffee industry:

  • concentration of land ownership (average area of farm per number of farms)
  • farm productivity (amount grown per land area)
  • farm productivity (average yield)
  • technological sophistication (use of high-yield varieties or fertilizer)

Based on your findings, what can you conclude about the economic class structure and the likelihood of democracy in each country?

Updating Comparative Politics, Part 1

The good old days.

Last semester I was finally somewhat satisfied with the way I had organized my comparative politics course, after much failed experimentation (described, for example, here, here, and here). However, I would like to replace one of the books, Around the Bloc by Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Around the Bloc is a good fit for my course for a number of reasons. First, the author is Tejana, and I like students to read authors with different cultural backgrounds. Second, the book recounts Ms. Griest’s experiences in Russia, China, and Cuba, which automatically serve as fodder for comparison. Third, students learn about someone who at their age ventured forth into unfamiliar environments and came back better for it. Fourth, the book is stylistically well-written. The problem? Griest’s adventures took place twenty years ago, and they are described across 400+ pages. While I think students need to have some grasp of history to understand contemporary politics, I prefer that a book of that size include more recent events.

I would love to hear suggestions about possible replacements for Around the Bloc.

The Intel Community and the Theory of Knowledge

Today we have a guest post from David Young, Head of Theory of Knowledge and Ideas, The English College in Prague. He can be reached at david [dot] young [at] englishcollege [dot] cz.

A while ago I was asked to  develop a critical thinking course for an International Baccalaureate (IB) school as a preparation for its Theory of Knowledge course.  As someone who teaches global politics, I was drawn to two books: David T. Moore’s Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis (2nd ed 2007), and the invaluable The Art of Intelligence (2014) by William J. Lahneman and Ruben Arcos. Both have had a significant impact on my teaching and my position as the school’s co-coordinator for Theory of Knowledge (ToK), a core element in the IB programme.

In ToK, students are supposed to formulate and evaluate knowledge claims and ask questions about the acquisition of knowledge, making it one of the most challenging elements in a congested pre-university curriculum. I’ve found the analysis of intelligence and the ethical issues surrounding its collection and dissemination to be an exciting way for students to learn about ToK concepts such as reason, imagination, intuition, and sense perception. From my perspective, using principles of intelligence analysis has both enhanced my understanding of ToK and improved the course for students.
Continue reading “The Intel Community and the Theory of Knowledge”

Review of Learning Assessment Techniques

LATsSome of more widely-known practical guides for college teaching:

A recent addition to the list is Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Barkley and Manor (2016).

The bulk of this book consists of an easy-to-use directory of assessment techniques, many of which can be found in the other books. Here, however, the emphasis is on how the data generated by each technique can be collected, analyzed, and packaged for dissemination.

The focus on the links between learning goals, learning activities, and outcomes assessment can be summarized with two questions people should be asking themselves:  Continue reading “Review of Learning Assessment Techniques”

Review of Creating Significant Learning Experiences

L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses * is a book that is just as useful for college instructors as Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross. While the latter focuses on measuring teaching effectiveness at a granular day-to-day scale, the former provides a framework for designing an entire course.

Fink’s taxonomy emphasizes what I would call human-centered rather than content-centered learning. Yes, the acquisition and application of foundational knowledge are present, but psycho-social outcomes rank higher on his list of characteristics that mark good teaching. He argues that students should gain an awareness of themselves and their relationships with others. Ultimately they should develop the cognitive and emotional machinery necessary for learning how to learn.

The may sound like vague, feel-good mumbo jumbo, but the book is in reality a very practical step-by-step guide. According to Fink, the course design process should begin with the instructor identifying situational factors that can affect how and what one teaches: Continue reading “Review of Creating Significant Learning Experiences”

Review of Handbook on Teaching and Learning

Handbook PS IRI’ll begin a series of posts on curriculum design with a brief review of the Handbook on Teaching and Learning in Political Science and International Relations, edited by John Ishiyama, William J. Miller, and Eszter Simon (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015). Be forewarned that this snapshot review is probably biased given that I’m the co-author of one of the book’s chapters.

I commend the editors for ensuring that all the chapters in the book are concise and directly relevant to teaching. There is a complete absence of the convoluted verbiage that normally characterizes writing by academics.

Chapters in the Handbook neatly flow from curricular structure to teaching particular subject areas to classroom exercises. Both beginning and experienced practitioners will find topics like effective syllabus design, course-based writing,  and best practices when lecturing incredibly useful.

My one criticism is the very occasional inclusion of bogus assertions that have established themselves as “fact” in much of the political science pedagogical literature. A good example is the quotation on page 158 from Baranowski (2006), who cites Stice’s (1987) statement that “students retain only about 10% of what they read and 20% of what they hear [but] up to 90% of what they do and say.” This claim was thoroughly debunked in 2008 by Keith E. Holbert and George G. Karady of Arizona State University.

That said, I believe book ought to be a standard tool used in the training of political science doctoral students, along with Classroom Assessment Techniques by Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross.

When a Book Becomes Your Spirit Animal…

As a professor of politics I’m frequently reminded of my obligation to be a contributor to my discipline’s development. Ergo, I publish works about political science and security studies. This is the proposed purpose of my being…(particularly pre-tenure) and certainly NOT to publish in gasp pedagogy, or god forbid….other fields.

As such…I want to talk, briefly, today about the most extraordinary book I’ve read this year…

AMS

Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eight Air Force in World War II
– By Charles W. McArthur

It’s not a teaching book, it isn’t a political science book, it isn’t even a methods book. This book is weird.

Before Charles W. McArthur passed away, he was a Mathematics faculty member at Florida State University. I know right? Math prof? McArthur’s book is about a bunch of academics who worked in the European Theater of Operations in the 1940s helping U.S. pilots learn how to fly and fight more effectively. The book details all the ways in which research and science were a fundamental part of winning the war. McArthur himself flew 35 missions as a bombardier for the Eighth Air Force in WWII. He wrote this book as a historical recovery of the work done by Operations Analysts during that time.

McArthur’s book was published by the American Mathematical Society in 1990. It is part of a series of books published by the AMS called “History of Mathematics”

What does this have to do with pedagogy?

McArthur’s book is phenomenal all on its own merits, but what truly makes this book unique and relevant to pedagogy (and political scientists who research it) is that his work is a meta analysis of the honing of his craft (understanding how to conduct military operations analysis), through his craft as a professor, published by the academic community that he claimed as his discipline–Mathematics. Even though there are ZERO mathematics in the book itself.

McArthur’s book is complex, beautifully written, and fascinating to read. But most importantly…this book now sits on my desk as a reminder, that my lasting contribution to this world…should be about writing about those things about which I am passionate, no matter how far outside my field, or tenure requirement…erm okay maybe after tenure….

Either way, Charles W. McArthur’s book is an inspiration.