Prepping for Fall 2014: Visualizing School Closures

Splatter Compass

compassIn my previous post, I mentioned that I spend a lot of time during the summer prepping for academic year. This fall requires extra work because I’m changing textbooks, and re-organizing a lot of material. I’m not doing this just to improve the content or my teaching, but I do this to “exercise” my other skills – things like playing with Google Fusion Tables, Photoshop, HTML, etc.

This fall I’ll be teaching urban sociology again and I’m currently updating material for the course. New on the syllabus for this year is Robert Sampson’s book on Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Reading the book the past few weeks inspired me to think of examples to help students make comparisons/connections between Chicago and Philadelphia.

Perhaps the most obvious example is that were both hit bad with school closures in 2013 affected whole communities.

Chicago Philadelphia
School Closings 2013 47 23
Students Displaced 12,700 10,000
Layoffs 2,000 3,700
Charter Schools opened 15 9

The Chicago Tribune has an excellent map that illustrates some of social and economic dimensions of neighborhoods affected by the closures. Since, I’m very much in favor of visualizing data for my statistics-adverse students, I’ve decided to make my own map in Google Fusion Tables to help me with my lesson plan in the fall. I can always use Social Explorer, but it’s also useful and fun for me go through the effort of downloading U.S. Census data and making my own map.

The below is a color coded map of census tracts based on the percent of those with high school diplomas or higher based. The purple flags are where the schools closed in 2013 are located.

[Click for Map w/ Race & Income]

In particular, the consequences for school closures have dramatically affected communities of color. The Root reports that while African-American Students represent 58% of the students in Philadelphia, they made up 81% of the students affected by the closures. In Chicago, black students account for 43% of all students, but 87 of those affected. In this map, I’ve set it up so that you can toggle layers to look at race, income, and education attainment, so that you can see the connection between race and school closures. Setting up the toggle was fun it required playing around with JavaScript. For more simple layered maps, I use the Fusion Tables Layer Wizard. However, I wanted to create something that was more interactive that students could play around with. This required trying to find a color scheme for the maps so that when you toggle layers, they interact with one another in a way that is visually informative.

I’ll continue to work on this throughout the summer, but I wanted to blog on how summer “prep” work isn’t just revising lectures and reading. It can be an opportunity to develop other skills.

Summer Writing

handwritingIts summer time, which means I can get a lot of work done without the distraction of student emails, service work, and other things that take my attention away from research. So I’ve decided to devote this entry to my writing regimen.

In an Inside Higher Ed article, Hollis Phelps discussed how he’s been able to continue doing research at a teaching focused institution. While a very positive piece, many of the commentators below the article had harsh words for him, claiming impossible workloads as a barrier to getting writing done. The reality is scholarly writing is difficult and graduate school is generally a poor training ground for it. So, in the last year, a few people have asked how I’ve managed to publish while teaching a 4/4 load with no TA support. Or how I can write, teach, grade, and be involved without a 60 hour work week? So, I’ve decided to write this blog post on my writing process.

First, I think it’s important to get a few things out-of-the-way. I’m privileged to have a tenure track job. I have a PhD adviser and other colleagues to co-publish with. This either isn’t the case for those in fields where co-authorship is less common. Also, having a spouse that’s a graduate student in a social science field helps. I have ready access to a proofreader. I’m also lucky in that I teach courses related to my research. In other words, I’m privileged to have resources and be in a situation that others are not.

It also helps to have a writing strategy. When I was working on my second comprehensive exam (area paper) in graduate school, I realized that reading and writing at odd hours was not working for me. I also couldn’t wait for inspiration to hit me. The reality is scholarly work is my job, and I should treat it as such. Every moment in front of the computer should be productive. Of course, this is all easier said than done, so these are my 5 strategies for staying on task when writing:

  1. Know Thyself. It’s important to know what works and doesn’t work for you. I tend to write better before sunset. I also tend to work best if I devote 2-3 hours a day solely to new writing. I tend to write less junk that requires a lot of revision if I work while in that zone. So once my time is up, I move on to other work (like revision, course prep, reading, etc). Finally, I write better in my office than at home. This was my discovery in graduate school, and I’ve stuck to it ever since.
  2. Organization (daily and annually). Once you know what works for you, you need to organizeyourselfaccordingly.
    • Daily. Take advantage of the time that you have. Every minute is valuable to me. I not only organize my day to optimize my writing time, but I keep my notes, files, and references organized. It’s completely ridiculous to not use citation management software like EndNote and Zotero! I also organize my day like a typical 9-5 job, this allows me have a routine that includes time to clear my head when I get home from work (see below). In other words, being organized helps me balance work and leisure – both of which are important.
    • Annually. I don’t have a 60 hour work week because I work all year round. Summers are when I do 90% of my course prep for the next academic year. This saves me a lot of stress during the academic year. It’s also when I’m able to have distraction-free writing time year round.
  3. Routine and Discipline. Writing is a craft. You have to keep working at. It’s also not easy. As mentioned above, I write best in the morning. If this means I need to wake up earlier to get an hour of writing in before my 8 or 9 am class, then I get up earlier. If I’m not traveling during the summer, I try to go my office 2-3 days a week (or more). Being disciplined about your routine helps you stayed organized, which in turn helps you have time for your life outside of academia.
  4. Clearing your head. Something that helps me stay focused for those 2-3 hour blocks of time is making sure I feel refreshed mentally. I do very little writing at home. This allows me to recharge my mind before re-opening that Word document again the next day. I also devote a lot of time to mindless pursuits like television and video games. During the summer when I have more time, I go to the gym a lot. I shut down the academic part of my brain when doing these things. This keeps me from burning out. Some people can breathe academic work 24-7. I can’t, so I don’t.
  5. Learning to let go. I have way too many friends and colleagues who hold back their work. They think that an extra month of revision will help them perfect their work, and this ends up being month after month of delays. Part of knowing thyself is knowing that you’ve done all that you can on the manuscript (such as editing, proofreading, double checking sources and data, sharing with colleagues, etc.). Once you’ve done all you can, it’s in the hands of editors and referees (or advisers and committee members). The reality is that the peer review process inevitably yields some sort of criticism you have to deal with or some other kind of revision. This means there’s a time where you have to let go and trust that you submitted the best work possible.

What I’ve written above is what’s worked for me the last decade or so. It might not work for you, but nonetheless it’s useful to learn how to work with your strengths and around your weaknesses.

Good luck reaching your summer writing goals.

Thinking About Summer Reading

Splatter Reading

ReadingAs we approach summer, many of my professor and teacher friends are posting on their summer reading plans. Also, several of my friends have been posting this piece on reclaiming reading for leisure and enlightenment via Facebook. In many ways, all of this echoes the things that Neil Gaiman has said about reading. Essentially, that reading fiction for leisure is good. I agree. I also don’t think people (and especially young people) read enough. However, I want to offer my own very different personal trajectory as a reader and suggest that we all read for different reasons. Also, I’d like to argue that we all read for different things as well and that we shouldn’t idealize certain approaches to reading.

This past winter, while staying at my parent’s house, I showed Hande my writing assignments from grades 5 to 10. In that folder, there were papers on Constantine the Great, Lord of the Flies, Shakespeare’s plays, the American Civil War, To Kill a Mockingbird, the history of Iraq, and nuclear power. She remarked it was very clear I was meant to be a social scientist as my English assignments weren’t nearly as good as my “social studies” papers. In response, I said that I never liked “literature” anyway. My comment that day wasn’t completely true. I grew up reading a lot. My family had a set of abridged version classics such as Moby Dick, several works of Dickens, Mutiny on the Bounty, Black Beauty, and the work of Mark Twain that I read while in elementary school and junior high. I also read fantasy novels and had a love for Greek mythology. I remember enjoying The Great Brain series of books. Yet, it felt easy for my say that I didn’t like “literature.”

As literature lover, Hande was horrified by my response. She demanded that I never say such a horrible thing again. I reacted by re-igniting our longstanding argument over Catcher in the Rye. I hated the book and still consider it a waste of $8 (I read it for the first time 8 years ago on a boat ride from Turkey to Italy). She loved the book and we’ve been arguing about this for years. I’ve only recently come to understand the reason for this disagreement. We read books differently. She likes the characters – Holden, his teacher and sister Phoebe. However, the Catcher in the Rye has none of the things I look for in book – history, politics and details of social life/structure.

As a kid reading the abridged version of Oliver Twist or even watching the musical Oliver! I don’t think I ever thought much of the characters. Today, the characters are a blur. What stood out and continues to stands out to me were the conditions that the characters lived in. Orphanages and workhouses stand out in my memory more than individual characters. As I reflect upon the many books I’ve read, in general it’s not the characters or even story I remember. In Moby Dick, I was more fascinated by whaling more than with the characters. I remember harpoons and blubber, not Ahab’s obsession. In The Great Brain series, I was most interested in the technicalities of toilets being installed in the “frontier” West. The practical economic realities of collecting money from a fountain to live in a museum is one of the few things I still remember in the From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I don’t even remember why the kids were in the museum.

There’s magic in reading. However, for me the magic was never found in larger than life characters or the idea of adventure and fantasy. The magic for me was being able to see the past come alive, or how society worked. Basically, as a teen, I was reading as a social scientist. I wasn’t interested allegory, symbolism, and the things that most people celebrate when they discuss the joys of reading. I’m not interested in dreaming with open eyes. Rather, when I read fiction, I am searching for nonfiction in those texts. In other words, I disagree with Neil Gaiman’s statement that “reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.” I disagree with Gaiman’s assertion that fiction has a special place in activating our imaginations. While, I agree that fiction can be a gateway drug to reading, it doesn’t mean that nonfiction can’t inspire us.

We all read for different reasons, and we all read for different things. Today, I don’t read a lot of fiction. The last novel I read for fun was A Game of Thrones, and I believe prior to that might have been Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and before that Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down (over a span of 5-6 years). There might be some Dan Brown in there also. However, I enjoy reading nonfiction more than fiction. I know I enjoyed SuperFreakonomics more than any other recently read fiction

In conclusion, I don’t think people read enough. As an educator, I believe reading books is important. However, I don’t believe in the idealized myth of what reading is supposed to be like – reading a physical paperback novel and daydreaming. Reading nonfiction on an e-ink Kindle is still reading. It might be a different experience, but it can still inspire and provoke deep thought.

My reading list this summer consists of:

  1. Finishing my friend Jeff Howison’s book on Reagan.
  2. Bourdieu’s Distinction
  3. Robert Sampson’s Great American City

Happy Reading Everyone

Disciplinary Writing

I’m writing this as a rebuttal to my colleague Amanda’s blog post about writing. I fully understand the intent of her piece and appreciate the message she is trying to send to young writers. However, the idea that students should write from their soul troubles me greatly as a social science professor. The danger of telling young writers to come up with their own voice, is that they often interpret it as opinion or personal reflection in their papers. This is perhaps the greatest source of annoyance for social science faculty (and likely for those in the natural sciences as well). As someone who grades nearly 100 sociology papers a term, I am increasingly bothered by my students’ inability to write social science papers. They resort to MLA, because that’s how they’ve been taught for years. They extensively use metaphors and similes, because that’s how they learned to “show, not tell.” There are a number seniors who tell me that they’ve never written a research paper until they reached my class. Basically, my sociology colleagues and I need to (re)train our students in social science writing.

This does not just affect undergraduate students. Because high school writing and college composition is so heavily dominated by English departments, even graduate students often struggle to adapt to the norms and conventions of non-humanities fields. While Amanda is encouraging students to break the rules, I am arguing the opposite. Students need to learn the “rules” if they want to be taken seriously as social scientists. Duke University, for instance, has a guide to discipline-specific writing guide. Other discipline-specific writing resources can be found at the bottom of this post. I would argue that discipline-specific writing needs to be better integrated into K-12 and college curricula.

In most cases, writing is not simply about the author expressing their creativity. It is also about the audience. It is about communicating your ideas effectively to that audience. Different audiences expect different things. This is because different types of writing serve different purposes. The goal of creative writing is different than social science research writing. There are also different kinds of social science writing. Are you generating theory? Or reporting findings? Or is it a review of the literature? This all requires fundamentally different rhetorical strategies, and discipline (or even sub-discipline) specific writing. The strategy of “show, not tell,” is accomplished very differently in different fields. In order to effectively communicate ideas, the author must (reasonably) conform to the norms of the discipline.

Amanda emphasizes two things in her blog: voice and style.

I believe that ALL authors need to have a voice. However, different types of writing require different voices and styles. For example, ethnographers walk a tightrope where they need to ensure their voice does not overly impose their own subjectivity onto their “subjects” while still making their own argument. In some (not all) experimental and quantitative work, the author is often “reporting” results. It’s a matter-of-fact style in which procedure and results are front and center, not necessarily the author’s voice. Typically, the method chosen reflects the different goals and interests of the researcher, and in turn shape the writing. In fact, I would argue that voice, structure and style is very much tied to research method. The type of writing associated with different research methods has largely evolved out of the rhetorical needs of researchers to effectively make arguments, legitimize their work, establish credibility and make reliable claims. To deviate from convention is not just a risk, but poor social science writing. In some cases, it might even be considered unethical.

In conclusion, I want to offer different advice. It is actually a bit of advice that’s cobbled together from several professors I had in graduate school: Study the “type” of work published where you want to publish. Study the style and language of what you enjoy reading. In other words, learn to write like the authors you read. This does not mean give up on creativity. It means using successful examples of writing as a model for your own success.

Discipline Specific Writing Resources: