Recently read… (27/1 – 2/2)

This week’s collection of articles, stories and papers is rather depressing.

The Reading Room at the British Museum
© ceridwen | CC BY-SA | Source: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/433966

The Just-in-time Professor

The US House of Representatives  Committee on Education and the Workforce have released a report on the working conditions of adjunct teaching staff in US higher education. The report, which summarises qualitative data provided by 845 contingent academic staff invites comparisons with the UK, where more than it 12,000 university employees earn less than a living wage, and makes for some disturbing reading. Here’s the introduction:

The post-secondary academic workforce has undergone a remarkable change over the last several decades. The tenure-track college professor with a stable salary, firmly grounded in the middle or upper middle class, is becoming rare. Taking her place is the contingent faculty: non-tenure track teachers, such as part-time adjuncts or graduate instructors, with no job security from one semester to the next, working at a piece rate, with few or no benefits across multiple workplaces, and far too often struggling to make ends meet. in 1970 adjuncts made up 20 percent of all higher education faculty. Today, they represent half.

Bullying tactics and free speech

The lack of job security noted above also has profound implications for academic freedom, which seems to be under sustained attack. Inside Higher Ed reports on a publication which surveyed US higher education institutes with regard to their policies  on free speech. They note that an alarming number of colleges and universities have policies in place to restrict speech which would, outside campus, be constitutionally protected.  To quote just one example of how intimidating tactics are sometimes used:

The University of Central Florida (UCF) suspended Professor Hyung-Il Jung on the basis of an in-class joke in which he likened his extremely difficult exam question to a ‘killing-spree’. His exact remark […] was: “this question was very difficult. Looks like you guys are being slowly suffocating from these questions. Am I on a killing spree or what?” […] UCF additionally demanded that Jung undergo a “thorough mental health evaluation” (p.7).

A demise of postgraduate courses?

There’s more alarming news on this side of the pond: Postgraduate education in the UK is at the brink of a serious crisis, according to an article published in Times Higher Education. The pool of applicants is described as being “dangerously low”, as potential students are discouraged from pursuing postgraduate education on account of the £9,000 tuition fees. At the same time, the comparative reputational advantage that UK universities enjoyed is being eroded, as many prestigious institutions worldwide increasingly offer English-language programmes. With university administrators pressing for even higher fees, this trend is only likely to become more pronounced. In the words of Mick Fuller, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education:

“It is going to be turbulent, it is going to be unpredictable and it is going to be damaging, and for some it is going to be terminal […] We might see key provision across the sector disappearing in great swathes because the demand is not there.”

“It was just a discussion”

The Thesis Whisperer has an interesting article on how to handle disagreement in supervisory teams, i.e., what happens when one’s doctoral supervisors cannot get along. There is a list of very practical steps towards the end of the article, as well as lots of sound advice of a more general nature such as shown in the following extract:

You only have a few choices when a break up seems imminent: pick a side or try to maintain neutral stance. [….] If someone has to go because of conflict, try to make sure that the break up is negotiated by the supervisors themselves without your direct involvement. This enables you to remain on friendly terms with the ejected supervisor, which is definitely in your long term interest.

Maybe they just don’t wash much?

Although the acid test for good science is verifiability, there is very little work done on replicating published studies, and papers that report on replication tend to be hard to publish, as journals prefer to publish novel findings. As a result, studies with sometimes surprising findings are often unchallenged and become entrenched in our collective knowledge. It is therefore encouraging to read about unusually tenacious scientists will go at pains to correct the scientific record. This blog post reports on a sustained effort to replicate a study which, among other things reported that ‘social coldness’ was associated with shower temperatures (and, incidentally, found that the sample of 51 Yale students bathed less than once a week). Predictably, they found that the original study was rife with statistical error. The following extract from the post echoes sentiments that I share:

One thing I find troubling about this story is that [the authors of the replication paper] needed to conduct 9 studies with more than 30x the original number of participants in order to get this paper accepted at Emotion. They should be applauded for replicating with enough power to be sure that their effect size estimates are precise, but each of their studies had more than 2.5x the sample size of the original! […] I’m glad that this paper was accepted, and our field owes them gratitude for their efforts. I just hope they haven’t set an overly high standard and precedent for what’s needed to publish a direct replication.

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