Saturday, December 2, 2006

Last minute mania

At 6:40 a.m. I sit in front of my computer on a Saturday morning wondering if the semester will truly come to an end. Next week is the last week of classes and then finals but I still have trouble seeing the "light at the end of the tunnel". For the last two weeks, my inbox has been very active. Not only have I been receiving the usual administrative, committee, listserv, and research related emails but a new breed of student email called "last minute mania" has infiltrated my inbox.

Some start with "What did I miss?" Okay, sounds quasi-reasonable until I look at my attendance records and see that they have failed to come to class 6 out of the 8 classes in the last two months. How am I supposed to address that question? Well, read the second half of the textbook? I maintain a pretty strict attendence policy. The university allows for two absences (or 3 hours) without academic penalty. In a course worth 250 points, I deduct five points per unexecused absence. I just want to point out that if a student tells me ahead of time or has a plausible excuse afterwards the absence becomes excused. Most don't bother to notify me. Additionally, I make my attendence policy very clear throughout the semester. At the end of the semester I get emails about "I missed a class". Usually, this can be loosely translated into I missed so many classes I am going down a letter grade - can you help me with this. Again, not an easy one to respond to. My personal favorite is "Will this be on the exam?". No matter how many times I let students know what they are responsible for this still occurs. I provide a review sheet and a jeopardy style exam review in class all to no avail. "Please let me know what I need to study for the exam" appears in my inbox without fail. But the one that truly wins the award is a student who wisely took the time to come to see a colleague of mine during office hours. He asked him why he had missed the final exam. His response was something to the effect that he was unfortunately incarcerated at the time and provided his release papers. Hmmm. Does that qualify for an excused absence? I still have a week and a half to go until the final exam. Let's see if there are any creative souls in my classes his semester.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Academic norms

Through the course of one's graduate studies you develop an image of the "typical" professor. Personally, my image went something like this: older, wise, and distant. I concede that the sociology department from which I received my Ph.D. had not hired a new faculty member in over 15 years (hard to believe, but true). Most faculties demonstrate tremondous diversity. Such is the case when looking at my colleagues. Yet, regardless of the composition of the department it can be argued that there are some academic norms which most faculty adhere to. For instance, don't have sex with your students. Or, don't bribe your students for good course evaluations. It's the latter that was brought to my attention by a Ph.D. student who works closely with me.

Ethics 101...when administering course evaluations do not remain in the classroom. Second, don't buy pizza (or any other food) for the class prior to administering the evaluations. Third, don't ask your students what you should choose as you main objectives for evaluation. Fourth, don't go drinking with your students prior to evaluations. Finally, don't change the syllabus right after administering course evaluations (i.e. the content and due date of the final exam).

Maybe I'm crazy but this all smacks me as unethical behavior. I can appreciate the importance of course evaluations and their impact within the faculty evaluation system for an untenured assistant professor. Every January I face the very same pressures. However, I am not convinced this is the way to handle the situation. This student in my colleague's class was understandably perturbed about the situation. In fact, the student was completely distressed about the change in the final exam. Yet, what to do about it? Or, rather, should something be done about it at all? Perhaps this is a case where these actions are not entirely inappropriate. I'm really not sure. What I am sure about is where I stand on the issue. I cannot imagine doing any of the above. I also taught a Ph.D. course this semester and administered the evaluations with decorum by emphasizing how seriously I took their opinions of the course and my appreciation for any written comments. Then...I left the room without a word. Did I mention that I gave them at the beginning of the class with no fanfare?

What are the academic norms for administering course evaluations? I have read the rules at my university and they are quite specific. None of the aforementioned behavior would qualify as acceptable. Beyond the official rules and my personal ethics, there is nothing written on this matter. I'm not surprised due to the subject matter (on the surface not very interesting). But I find that right now discerning the academic norms is my "other" full-time occupation. There are so many unwritten rules to follow. It seems as if you only find out about them once you have broken them. It's unfortunate that untenured faculty are not given more guidance during the first few years. I find this one of the most frustrating aspects of being a junior faculty member. Maybe ethical transgressions would not occur if this mentorship were in place.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Publish or Perish

Publish or perish is the mantra one learns as an untenured faculty member. Regardless of the type of institution or the discipline, all faculty members are expected to produce scholarly work to some degree. What varies is the extent to which this is an expectation that is weighted heavily in merit reviews and tenure considerations. What I have also learned (quite recently) is sometimes the rules can change. When they do, they tend towards more stringent evaluation criteria. Such is what I currently face with the introduction of ranked journals (i.e. impact ratings) and the use of the recent publications in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education ranking universities based on faculty productivity in the top tier journals.
This leaves me in a quandry about several things. First, what happened to submitting a manuscript to the journal that is substantively the most appropriate? Second, not all of us have access to the type of data that would be required to publish in one of the top five journals. Third, where has the focus on the research questions gone? For tenure, a research theme or substantive focus needs to be demonstrated for our work over the last five to six years. Fourth, shouldn't faculty productivity be measured both quantitatively and qualitatively? For instance, it is not unheard of in our college to be on 2-3 committees, 1-2 advisory boards in the community, supervising 5-10 M.A. and Ph.D. students, participating in 5+ thesis/dissertation committees, and teaching 2-3 courses per semester. Given these other obligations, I find it difficult to imagine having a room of one's own (thus, the picture) to conduct the research that will now be expected. Finally, I thoroughly enjoy conducting research. For me personally, I couldn't imagine being effective in the classroom without my research as it keeps me connected with the field. But I am frankly concerned with the recent developments. It's not that I don't think I could achieve the new standards but more a question of principle. How does one cope when the rules change while on the tenure track? Expect further postings on the issue. In the meantime, any words of wisdom would be gratefully accepted.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Teaching and Learning Quandries

One of the most profound developments over the last four to five years is the decreased reliance in the classroom on the traditional lecture format. This is particularly the case for smaller classes under thirty students. I am not implying that this phenonenon didn't start much earlier - only that I have become acutely aware of it, more so, recently. With varied learning styles, it makes perfect sense that a professor should not rely on only one medium to convey information. However, what I have also seen is a distressing trend for students to enjoy the collaborative work environment at the expense of others. As the penguins aptly demonstrate, survival of the fittest.

What is the remedy? Let me provide an example from a typical one hour and twenty minute class in criminology. I generally lecture for the first part of class in order to cover the relevant theories or typologies. Then, students are expected to participate in a number of possible activities. First, there is discussion. On the best of days, this seems to go rather poorly. So, I try and show a video clip that highlights the points in question and then ask the class questions. This seems to meet with more success. Second, I incorporate small group work into the final grade. Students work on a case study, theoretical problem, or other application of the material in groups of 2-5 students. For the most part, course evaluations suggest that the small group work is appreciated by the students. Yet, I always see students left behind. They are either not incorporated into the discussion or just appear to be lost. That is our friend the penguin getting pushed over. If you don't understand the material fast enough in a small group the odds are not always good that your fellow group members will help you understand the material (this is what is hoped to be accomplished).

Solution? Beyond floating from group to group? Some have suggested group members grade each other. Anyone with any experience using this technique? Any ideas? My goal is to provide the most conducive environment possible to learning in the classroom. This includes all "penguins". Thoughts and suggestions welcomed.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Contesting Viewpoints in the Classroom

What I witnessed in my class today could be a function of the subject matter or it could be a reflection of teaching in a southern state. Which is the case may not be discernable. The course in question is a criminology class. For the majority of the semester we have been discussing theories of crime (i.e. possible explanations for the causes of crime). Only recently have we started looking at the types of crime such as crimes against the person, crimes against propery, public order offenses, white collar crime, etc.

Today's discussion concerned rape, assault, and robbery. As is my practice, I asked students to work on a case study in small groups. Each group was presented with a real case that went to court involving a 14 year old juvenile who had committed the offenses of rape and robbery. The case involved aggravating factors (such as gang membership and behavioral issues). Students were tasked with the following: (1) Should the juvenile be waived to adult court; (2) Can a 14 year old understand the consequences of their actions; and (3) Do any of the available typologies of rapists and robbers apply in this case? Seems simple enough.

Wrong. The class was divided half and half on whether the juvenile should be waived into adult court. A portion lamented that the death penalty no longer applies (this is the result of Roper v. Simmons (2005)). Another portion was quite concerned about the victim (rightfully so). As a result, there was a wide spectrum of responses as to what should be done. For instance, those favoring juvenile court felt there might be a chance for rehabilitation. Those favoring adult court suggested that the juvenile deserved to be punished. I welcome such diversity of opinion.

Ultimately, a few things occurred that caught my attention. First, although there is an emphasis on rehabilitation for first time offenders the class did not feel this should apply. Second, I was pleased to see that everyone saw how contentious and difficult judicial decisions can be in real life given their experiences working in groups on this case. Third, when I revealed how the case was handled...there wasn't much shock at the outcome. The juvenile in question was actually transfered to adult court and received a deteriminate sentence of 40 years.

In the end, my goal was accomplished. But I can't help but wonder what social forces are at play which create some views of justice that are not necessarily congruent with real life cases. Perhaps this is my naivete or perhaps there is a cultural force at work that provides some support for the subculture of violence thesis suggested by Wolfgang and Ferracuti.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Considering Justice

There is a question I keep coming back to over and over again. That is simply, what do we do when someone breaks the law? Closely related to this question is why do we react in these ways? Much of my research focuses on the use of formal social control in handling apprehended juveniles. What I have realized is there are inconsistencies in our views towards justice and the appropriate way in which to handle juveniles (especially those that are defined as chronic offenders - 4 or more prior arrests).

Our thinking in this area has evolved over time but our current juvenile and criminal justice systems still retain the fundamental ideas as presented by Beccaria over 200 years ago. When an individual breaks the law as determined by society our response is to "punish" the individual for their transgression. However, we have forgotten elements from the Beccaria's other maxim that justice should be swift, severe, certain, and proportionate. Our system definately covers the severe criteria and to some degree that element of certainty. Yet, our system is no longer swift and in many cases lacks proportionality of the response. The principle of proportionality entails a punishment that is commiserate with the offense. Recent sentencing innovations such as the three strikes law (e.g. eligibility with a property offense in California for adult offenders) or indeterminate and determinate sentencing practices (that transfer juveniles to the adult correctional system) is not necessarily congruent.

Unfortunately, what appears to be only now taking hold are some of the other philosophies of justice such as rehabilitation. The landmark case of Roper v. Simmons (2005) removed the United States from the company of only 5 other countries that put their juveniles to death through the use of the death penalty. However, we still have a long way to go in terms of viewing rehabilitation as a means of holding offenders accountable for their action. In the case of juveniles, research has found that a very small proportion of offenders (about 6%) commit a large proportion of the offenses (about 52%).

Should our system reserve the most severe punishments for these offenders? Or, should our juvenile justice system view all offenders as capable of rehabilitation regardless of the number of prior arrests or commitments?