Technology Tools for Academics: Prezi

Prezi ( is, as the website says, a zooming presentation editor. It has many uses beyond giving a formal presentation, and I will highlight a couple of those here. You can really zoom in on a prezi, which makes for a lot of fun when presenting with it. How is works is you set up a “path” (marked by actual arrows or not) through which your presentation moves. In effect, it’s a kind of storyboard, and allows you to set up a non-linear narrative path for the story you are trying to tell.

I like Prezi because it is non-linear, it moves around, and it’s fun. It isn’t quite as well known as it ought to be, so it’s also attention-grabbing when you use it. It transforms a presentation from a dull series of texts into a fun, almost-interactive experience. It helps engage the audience, and anything that can help with that is a wonderful thing, in my book.

I first noticed it when a student used it for a capstone presentation, but it really caught my eye when two students at USF, Janelle Christensen and Charlotte Noble, used Prezi to put together a slick and powerful protest. They were protesting FL governor Rick Scott’s rant about FL not needing to fund disciplines like anthropology. As you can see, they did a stellar job. You can read all about that here, and view the Prezi here. On a related note, I think that particular Prezi would be a good teaching tool for an intro class–a sort of “this is what anthropologists do” lecture.

Prezi has some options that are free. I use the Edu Enjoy version, which comes free to anyone with a .edu account. It’s better than the base version because it allows you to keep your prezis private. The base version requires them to be publicly accessible. There are three main differences between the free Edu Enjoy version and the premium Edu version: more storage space (500 MB v. 2 GB), support within 24 hours, and offline desktop editing, which is not supported by the base Edu Enjoy version. And, of course, $59 per year.

I’ve used Prezi in class, to have students do presentations. It works very well as a group assignment, actually, because students are responsible for their portion of the Prezi. I introduced students in my gender class to Prezi, and asked them to use it to put together a group project on gender advertisements.

Prezi has a “meeting” functionality, which allowed the students who set up the prezi to invite other students in their group to collaborate on creating it. So, every student worked on their individual part of the prezi. This created some variation in the flow of the prezi, of course, but it had three advantages. First, students were less worried about “carrying” someone whose work was not of the same quality, and therefore compromising their grade. Second, I could tell students’ individual work apart and determine if they required a separate grade from the rest of the group. Third, they didn’t need to actually meet to work on their assignment, which always poses difficulties to students with full schedules.

My students really enjoyed using Prezi, and turned out some excellent presentations. They were good enough to use as an art installation, and had circumstances permitted, I would have liked to set one up.

Prezi’s non-linear format also allows you to put a little more text on than you ought on a regular Power Point. This is because you can break it up into smaller segments, but also because the interface lends itself more readily to more text. I think it’s because it is, effectively, animated–that offsets the visual ennui generated by more text.

Prezi can be used to make posters. I actually had a student in another class who laid his final presentation out as a neat poster, and then moved through it section by section. I imagine, if you are used to thinking in an ordered way, a poster format allows you to visualize your project as a completed product and would aid in organizing thoughts. You can also print out your prezi as a poster. I haven’t done so, so I can’t comment on the resolution. Here’s a prezi from Sarah Walkowiak (2011) at Brandeis on creating effective posters in Prezi. Here is a brief discussion on the Prezi forums about printing a prezi as a poster, and here is the Prezi link on how to print your Prezi (generally, not specifically as a poster).

I also had a student who used Prezi to organize his paper. He set out his thoughts, linked them with arrows to show how they flowed, added text that would go into his paper, and generally wrote it out in Prezi first. In other words, it was a kind of map of his paper. The graphical and non-linear format allows you to visualize your ideas as parts of a whole, and to set aside sections that do not fit into the final version, but yet are relevant to the thought process. You can zoom in to work on a specific section, or zoom out to think about the set of ideas as they work together. I really liked that idea, and will surely be trying it out myself.

As far as actual presentations go, Prezi is, as I said, a lot of fun. It captures audience interest, it allows non-linear movement and thought (so you can jump back and forth between ideas quite easily), and the zoom functionality adds another layer of movement to your presentation. You can, for example, visually depict that one idea is contained within another.

Now for cons. I have to say, there aren’t too many. It takes a wee bit of getting used to and figuring out, but it’s easy to play with, and it’s well worth spending the time to figure it out. One minor issue I’ve faced when using it as a presentation tool is that it can be a bit vertiginous. The trick with that is not to zoom in and out too far, and to try to keep each section relatively close the one that came before.

I had to send my presentation to the organizers of a conference I presented at this spring. Prezi allows you to download your prezi as a zip file that contains files to run it on both macs and PCs. This file can be quite large, though, depending on your prezi (mine had videos and photographs). This is where Dropbox comes in. As I said in my post about Dropbox, I simply put the file in my Dropbox public folder, and sent the organizers a link to the file. No struggling with emailing it from my end, I didn’t clog up their inboxes with a massive file, and all they had to do was click the link to download the file.

You can run a Prezi from your desktop and you don’t need to be online to run it. However, unless you buy the Premium version, you will need to be online to create and edit.

The one thing I will tell you is that Prezi doesn’t work with all remote clickers. It didn’t work with the clicker they had at that conference, and I had not used Prezi at a conference before, so I hadn’t brought my own. It threw me off completely. When I’ve used it in class, though, our school clickers have worked. Here’s the Prezi Learn Center wisdom on remote clickers.

Finally, I’d like to give you a couple of links to get you going. Here’s one on Prezi tips, and here’s another about how to make a good Prezi. Both are created by Adam Somlai-Fischer.

I hope this has been helpful. Prezi has a lot of potential in the classroom and in research, and I’ve found it a very good way to get students involved in a project and audiences involved in your talk. As with any tool, it takes practice to make a good prezi, but I’ve become better at it as I keep using it.

If you have other suggestions on using it, please do feel free to post comments.

Note on accessibility: a brief exchange with Kerim Friedman reminded me that not all excellent software is accessible, and Prezi is not. It seems screen readers cannot read prezis because of flash content. This is an important con, and I want to make note of it (thanks, Kerim). Also, as this post points out, many (all?) state-funded entities are required to use accessible software, and that will include the classrooms of state schools. For more discussion, here is a list of prezi forum topics tagged with “accessibility.” I’ll keep an eye out for changes.

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America at Work: Dave, painting

This is Dave.

Dave, painting

Dave was painting the trim outside the Barnes and Noble where I live. I saw him as I walked in, headphones on, his white clothes standing out against the black surface he was painting. I remember thinking to myself, “people paint those things?” I hadn’t really thought about it before, but in my head, I had this unformulated vision of some kind of paintbot streaming past the building, painting as it went. I know, that’s silly, but like I said, I hadn’t really thought about it. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Very few of us think about it.

Very few of us think about the people who build and smooth the world we live in. The ones who tuck in hotel room sheets, pick up trash, fill vending machines, check electricity meters, or paint the trim on chain stores in anonymous malls. And yet, without these invisible people, our lives would be so much less comfortable, so much less finished.

So I walked back out and introduced myself to Dave (who seems like a very nice man). We talked to each other about our jobs, about following dreams, the recession, outsourcing… He has been painting since he was eighteen. He owns his own business, painting both residential and commercial properties. He showed me a thingamajig he invented and patented, for paint cans, to keep the brush from dripping and to save paint (below).

And as we spoke, I was thinking to myself (admittedly caught up in some lyrical vision of the U.S.), this is the soul of America, this is why immigrants come here, this is the American ideal. Work hard, love what you do, innovate, be yourself, and (at least in theory), anything is possible. (In reality, of course, the idealist proposition fails those constrained by structural impediments, but that’s a story for another day. The point is, there’s a lot more you can do compared to, oh, India for example.) As I watched Dave paint, swiftly but careful with detail, I thought to myself, this is America at work. In this time of recession, insufficient jobs, and truly hard stories from embattled people, watching Dave paint the Barnes and Noble was a sort of zen feeling, in the sense that my getting caught up in the movements of the brush and the quiet of the sunny afternoon led me to a kind of dhyana.

We chatted briefly, but I enjoyed that chat. He loves his job. And as we talked, I was reminded of why I love mine. I really like talking to people, especially people who like talking back. I like listening to them and telling their stories. There’s a multitude of stories here, watching America at work.

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Technology Tools for Academics: Dropbox

If you need to share a big file, or have access to your files from anywhere, or share a bunch of photos or videos, or are paranoid about backing up, Dropbox is for you. I don’t want to spend too much time going over how to use it–it’s not that complicated. What I’d like to do is talk about how I’ve used it, or seen it used.

Dropbox allows you to store files online, but also–more usefully–to basically sync these with your computers so they also exist on there. In other words, if I have a Dropbox folder on my desktop at work, and another one on my laptop at home, and I can pretty much move between them and change files. When Dropbox syncs, it updates the changed files. It’s just that simple. Here’s a great post from Ryan Cordell at ProfHacker on using Dropbox as backup. It’s about two years old, but still holds good.

I’ve seen different uses. Someone once emailed the ling anth listserv to ask us to help identify languages on video clips they were using for a class (excellent crowdsourcing skills). The files were set up in a public Dropbox folder. They sent us a link, we clicked on it, and bam! We were in the folder.

I’ve used the same function to share large files, such as a presentation, my dissertation, and anything too big for my email to handle. It works sweetly. I recently shared a downloaded Prezi (as a zip file) that was too big to email via my Dropbox public folder. Just put the file in your Dropbox folder, right click to generate a link, and email the link to the person you want to share the file with. When they click on the link, they will get a download window with the zip file in it.

There are also Dropbox apps for iPhone and iPad.

I haven’t yet used it for teaching, but I like Moodle and it does pretty much anything I need it do. However, if you don’t have (or don’t like) your e-learning platform, Dropbox would work as a place to share files with students, or a way for them to share files with you via their public folders.

I used Dropbox recently (Oct 2012) to collaborate with a colleague on something we were working on together. I simply created a folder with all the files we were using, then shared the folder with him. It worked excellently. We both worked on the same files, and the folder sat on our desktops, so we didn’t have to log into Dropbox each time. It worked just like any other desktop folder. We were able to keep track of changes to the documents through the website–if you log into Dropbox, it will tell you when the file was last changed. So if you are collaborating with someone on work, Dropbox is a very good collaborative tool.

The even shorter version:

  1. Dropbox is cool
  2. Dropbox syncs between computers and is great backup for that dissertation/journal article/book chapter
  3. You can easily share files that are too big to mail
  4. Potentially a useful teaching tool
  5. Apps
  6. Collaborative work made easier

And if you click the link in the first paragraph, I get some free space 😉

Do try it. Unlike a lot of services out there, this one’s actually useful. And it’s free!*

*The basic version.

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Anthropology and Market Research

A long time ago, I was offered a job in a qualitative research company. I ended up not taking it, and returned to academics. That part of it is another story, but the company hired me through campus recruitment. They wanted someone with my set of skills. I remember being happy that they understood the value of well-done research with a solid foundation.

Flash forward about ten years or so. To last week, in fact. I was wandering through a mall with a friend; let’s call her Amy. A woman holding a clipboard came up to us and asked us, “Do you want to do a survey? You’ll get seven dollars! It’s about product packaging, and it will only take twelve minutes.”

I confess I have a hard time refusing people who administer surveys. I’ve done their job, when I was in college. I spend days calling people and trying to get them to answer surveys. It’s a terrible job. I had to meet a quota, they didn’t want to talk to me, many people yelled at me, and (as is generally the case with surveys) I didn’t have enough responses. It never occurred to me to fudge my data, but I discovered later that some other people who were doing the same job filled out some of their surveys themselves. It was a few more years before I really came to realize that that rendered the data meaningless.

Anyway, so here are Amy and I in the mall, and we say, “okay, we’ll take your survey, we could use seven dollars.” So she turns to me and this is how the conversation goes.

Woman: How old are you?

Me: XX years old (you don’t need to know, gentle reader)

Woman: Do you earn more than $XX000 in the year as a household?

Me: Yes.

Woman: Have you ever used X brand of paper plates?

Me: (thinking very hard now) I think so.

Woman: Do you use them more than five times a week?

Me: (horrified at the thought of such waste) No!

Woman: Have you ever used body wash?

Me: (okay, here’s what we’re really about) Yes.

Woman: Do you use it more than five times a week?

Me: No.

Woman: (to Amy) How old are you?

So at this point, I’m a little stumped. I’ve realized a few things:

1. She’s interested in body wash. I don’t use body wash, but it’s not like I don’t shower more than five times a week. I simply use bar soap. I already see an area in which their survey fails, which is that it could be a vehicle for increasing the product market, i.e. bringing the body wash to the notice of someone who hitherto does not use body wash on a regular basis. Would the new packaging do this? Aren’t companies interested in increasing their market?

2. I’m not getting seven dollars.

So anyway, Amy, being smarter than I am, answers “yes” to the body wash question. The lady takes us upstairs to where a young man asks us if we have ever taken a survey, explains it, and gives Amy a bunch of papers to sign, including a confidentiality agreement. He did not ask me to sign one, even though I was in the room and trailing around behind them. But because I’m nice, I won’t tell you what it is. I’m sure someone, somewhere, cares.

While she’s reading the paperwork, I talk to him.

Me: So, what’s your target demographic?

Man: Well, you know how we asked you all those screening questions? We’re looking for people between 34-54 who use body wash or bar soap at least five times a week.

Error! Error!

Anyway, I decide I don’t want to get the screener in trouble, she probably gets paid chickenfeed anyway. So I don’t tell the young man that the screening wasn’t quite administered properly. Maybe they were on a budget, or maybe she figured I didn’t shower everyday.

Man: We also screen out people who work for Wal-Mart, or the companies which produce these products.

Me: How do you get that information?

Man: We ask the survey takers.

Me: Nobody asked us that question.

Man: Huh?

Me: Nobody asked us that question. You don’t know where we work.

Man: (after a pause) Well, there you go!

Amy: *rolls eyes* I’m done.

Now things move on to the next phase. She is given a clicker, and pictures of display shelves in supermarket aisles are flashed on a screen in front of us. A camera positioned in front of Amy supposedly tracks her eye movements. I watch the man administering the survey. He is intent on his computer screen, though he continues to explain things to Amy. Have I mentioned he talks to us like we are five years old? Very annoying.

Then we get up and move to another room, where there is a computer with multiple-choice questions. Amy is shown some photos of the body wash in different packaging, and sits down to answer questions. I notice we have been taking the survey now for eighteen minutes, and we are nowhere near done. I wander around before walking into this room, and the original screening lady very sweetly asks me if I would like to wait outside.

“You might get bored. It’s just a bunch of questions.”

Me: (brightly) Actually, I’m terribly interested. I’m an anthropologist, you see.

She: (blankly) Oh. Okay. *shrugs whatever-ly*

I wander back into the room. At some point Amy starts clicking a little randomly. She is bored. Another flaw! The survey is too long. This is something so basic to survey administration, I’m surprised they didn’t think of it.

Finally we are done. Or so we think. The man escorts us into another room, with a mock display unit set up. He asks Amy to locate the product she currently uses. Incidentally, she couldn’t remember it, and when we were done and left, suddenly said, “I just remembered! I actually use their body wash!”

However, she still thinks she uses Dove, so she goes ahead and locates the Dove on the shelf. Then he asks her to locate Product X, their body wash. She quickly scans the shelf and does so.

Man: How did you locate it? Were your eyes drawn to the middle? Did the packaging stand out?

Amy: No, I just scanned the shelf left to right, top to bottom, and stopped when I saw it.

Man: Okay, so the packaging stood out. Was it easy to locate?

Amy: Well, once I saw it it was. Had I been standing in front or it, instead of at an angle, I might have seen it sooner.

Man: Okay, so the packaging stood out.

We gave up. As a matter of fact, I was right in front of the display, and saw Product X right away while Amy was still scanning, so her hypothesis stands a good change of being correct.

Why am I relating this long story? Well, because, as an anthropologist, I have some experience doing qualitative research, and a lot of basic things were being done wrong here. That meant the survey was inefficient, data gathering was flawed, and the resultant data were unreliable. Company X will base its packaging decisions on data like this, which means millions of dollars are eventually spent on data which are not entirely accurate.

Here are the flaws and inefficiencies, as I saw them:

  1. The screening was not done correctly and potentially introduced errors and confounding factors into the data. I’m merely talking about the questions here, because I don’t have enough information on how they randomized their sample or if there were other conditions prior to randomizing it.
  2. The screening eliminated potential customers who might have been willing to try Product X were it brought to their notice
  3. Errors, when pointed out, were not corrected.
  4. The survey was too long. This leads to the danger of boredom and of the survey takers filling out things arbitrarily just to be done.
  5. The most glaring flaw of all–not listening to the respondent. As with the last set of questions, the administrator overlaid his pre-defined responses onto Amy’s, thus falsifying data. What he said she said was not what she said at all.

How do you fix these errors? Well, you can and you can’t. All these errors were a result of careless or untrained survey administration. It’s not enough to tell administrators what questions to ask. You also have to impress upon them the importance of efficient and ethical data collection. It seemed to me that the survey administrators were a firm hired by Company X. In this case, the company may not have much option but to trust them to do their job carefully.

What does this have to do with anthropology? Easy enough. Companies need people with the skills to administer and oversee such market research projects. Anthropologists have all the required skills to do this job and do it well. We are trained observers and qualitative researchers. who understand the critical importance of sound data. As an observer, I was able to spot areas in which survey administration could be more efficient and useful to Company X. An anthropologist on their payroll could do a lot more.

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Academics and Real Life

Over the last few years, and particularly over the past few months, I’ve increasingly encountered statements like “academics don’t know anything about real life” or “academics don’t have real jobs” in the media and in popular discourse. I’ve heard it from friends who tell me I have an easy job, or who “joke” that I get paid for doing very little, and oh those lovely long summer “holidays.”

I feel somewhat strongly about this topic, so some sort of response is in order.

The primary question, of course, is what is meant by reality. Clearly, these statements aren’t meant literally. Academics don’t literally exist in some alternate realm which is outside the commonly encountered plane of reality. We live in the same world as everyone else. So this “real life” and “real” job is a metaphor for something else.

Perhaps it means our lives are easy? Okay, let’s talk about this. Most academics have a Ph.D., or are on their way to getting one. That means they have gone through grad school, or are currently going through it. What do we do in grad school? We learn to teach and do research. What does that mean? Well, first we go through coursework, which means we spend anywhere from 5-16 hours a day for anywhere from two to four years learning the basics of our discipline–theories, ideas, schools of thought, methods, how to do things, applicability, etc. We also use this time to develop projects and problems of our own, areas in which we eventually become specialists. Once our professors are satisfied that we know as much as we ought to know (or are ever going to know) about our discipline and our intended areas of specialization, we are tested on them. These tests are called comprehensive exams, and are extremely rigorous. Think hazing. They can range from intensive oral exams conducted over a few hours, or a few days, to extensive written exams conducted over a few months. Fail them, and usually it’s all over. All the previous years of work are useless–you’re out of the program. So these years are very stressful.

You’re also usually poor in grad school. Grad students may have assistantships, but they work very hard and earn very little. I’m talking about maybe on average $20,000 a year. Many of them support families on that money. I’ve known colleagues who had to resort to food banks. They may or may not have insurance, and may have to use free clinics. They may not have assistantships. Then they work full-time jobs and work on grad school, which is another full-time job. This is in addition to “normal real life”–marriage, family, kids. Grad students make sacrifices. They may not have very much stuff, or luxuries like cable. They may not have cars, even clunkers. Some go hungry for days on end so they can afford textbooks (particularly international students). Grad students put off marriage and children so they can dedicate themselves to their work, and because marriage and children are expensive and they can’t afford anything expensive. So, when their friends are earning the big bucks and have happy families and ten year-old children, grad students console themselves with the thought that one day, before they are forty, they might have those things too. And perhaps even cable with HBO.

Then you do research (you’re still in grad school). In some disciplines, like the sciences, you might already have been working on your dissertation project all this while. In anthropology, you spend the next year (or two, or three) doing research somewhere. You might be excavating at a dig, or measuring bones, or living with a group of people and learning about their lives–we do a lot of different things. Research also costs money. If you’re lucky, you’ll get funding from somewhere, but that’s looking bleaker these days. Usually you save, or take out loans, or compromise the parameters of your research, or stay in school a little longer (thus putting off the rest of your life a little longer) so you can do good research. Research–fieldwork–is hard work, and sometimes grad students give up and burn out at this stage, finding other, more stable jobs which they might actually be able to feed their families on.

Most come back to school, though, and start writing their dissertation. A dissertation is the final product of a doctoral degree. It can range from 50-100 pages, in subjects like math, to 300-500 pages, in subjects like anthropology. Some people even write 700 page dissertations, but we won’t talk about them. This writing process can take a year, or two, or six, or seven. It all depends on how lucky you are. If you’re lucky, you haven’t burned out too badly, your brain is still working, you haven’t fallen sick from hard work, exhaustion, and poverty, your partner still loves you (grad school leads to breakups and divorces at an alarming rate), and you still have funding. If you’re really lucky, your funding is a scholarship. If you’re less lucky, you have to work, but hey! You still have funding. If you’re not so lucky, you lost your funding, and have to find work. Time spent working is time not spent writing, and so you take that much time more to write. Remember, the life you want is still on hold, usually including marriage and children. This is particularly hard on women, but isn’t much fun for men either.

If you’re lucky, and not burned out, and disciplined, you can finish writing in a year or two. If you’re not any or all of those, if you have to work, or have a family that needs you, or burned out, it can take years. Some people give up, even at this stage, when the end is close. Academics suffer a high rate of burnout and exhaustion, and not just in the U.S.

When you’re done writing, you defend your dissertation. This is usually some sort of public meeting, with at least your committee members present, and they grill you on everything you did and didn’t write about. Then they say it’s okay for you to get your Ph.D.

I’m skipping over the bits where you spend a few months getting every comma and period in your book-length manuscript just so for the editors in the university grad school office. Also very stressful.

So, when you finish grad school, you are tired, exhausted, poor, burned out, emotionally drained, poor, often single, usually in your thirties, and did I mention, poor?

Now it’s time to find a job. Generally, people start looking for jobs in their last year of grad school. So in addition to being all the things above, and stressed about all of them, you are also spending a lot of time sending out job applications, and stressing about whether you will have a job or not when you leave grad school. This stress is compounded by the fact that jobs these days have hundreds of applicants. Even jobs few people would have wanted a few years ago now have at least a hundred applicants, and the bigger jobs that more people want have anywhere from three to seven hundred. At least in anthropology. So, in addition to all the other pressure in grad school, there is pressure to shine. Publish! Be a research rock star! Get a teaching award! Get external funding from a prestigious place! And sometimes, even if you have all of this, you just don’t have the right pedigree, so you’re not a “good” candidate.

So there are a number of job situation possibilities when you leave grad school:

  1. You get really lucky and get that wonderful job you wanted, and it’s tenure-track.
  2. You get somewhat lucky and land a decent job at a good school. It’s not tenure-track, but it pays well and the workload isn’t exploitative, and it will tide you through until next year, or the year after. Hopefully, by then, you have some job interviews lined up and you might get a tenure-track job.
  3. You get a little unlucky and don’t land a full-time job, but you have a few adjuncting positions. They will tide you through until next year, or the year after. Hopefully, by then, you have some job interviews lined up and you might get a tenure-track job.
  4. You get very unlucky and get nothing. You can hope your university gives you something, or seek options outside of academia.
  5. You are very unlucky and find nothing, but you haven’t defended yet, so you put it off until next year, and stay in school another year. Maybe by then the market will improve, and your CV will look better, and you will get a job. Life will just have to wait. Next year, you go through it all again.

Options 3 and 4 are risky. You can get stuck in a lifetime of adjuncting positions, with exploitative workloads, no job satisfaction, not enough pay and–here’s the kicker–no benefits. So no insurance. If you leave academia, you might not be able to come back, and you might not even want to, because earning a regular income is addictive.

And all of that is even before you start a job.

Let’s talk about those jobs. I’ve already mentioned the harsh conditions under which adjuncts work, but I confess I am one of the luckier ones and am not personally aware of the struggles of an adjunct.But even if we talk best-case scenario. You get a tenure-track job at a reasonably good or very good school. Now it begins. You put off having children for a couple of years more, because you don’t want your colleagues to think you’re not serious about your career, and having kids sends off that impression, apparently. You’re still poor, but you don’t think so, because you have benefits, and you think $50,000 a year is a helluva lot of money. You go out and buy a car, commit to a serious relationship, and maybe even get cable with HBO!

At work, you serve on a number of committees, because that is expected of you. You also do research, because if you don’t have five, or seven, or twelve high-quality publications in six years, you won’t get tenure. You also have to teach, advise students, grade, set up classes, prepare for classes, and answer emails. You would be surprised at just how much time all of this can consume. So what you do is, you work odd hours. that’s right, academic jobs are flexi-time. What this usually means is, we work longer hours that many people. We may work on our research at home early in the morning, answer a few emails from students, do the reading for our classes/make power points. Simultaneously, we makelunches, get kids ready for school, drop them at school or see them to bus stops, do the morning chores. Then we come in to school. Where we spend the day teaching, grading, writing, talking to students, serving on committees, attending meetings, answering emails. Then it’s time to pick up children from school, go home, make dinner, do evening chores, take kids to classes, feed them, put them to bed. Then you put up your feet (it’s been a long day) and get to work. Prepare for the next day’s classes. Answer emails. Do a little writing. Some people even go back to school and stay late.The next day, it’s all over again. So yeah, we have real jobs. We don’t work three hours a day–we often work ten or eleven, and that’s not counting all the stuff we do for our families.

Sure we have long “breaks.” They’re nice. We don’t have to go into work. That’s one of the benefits of being an academic, and it’s why many of us are willing to go into this line of work, which is a lot of hard work for relatively little money. This does not mean, however, that we don’t work during breaks. For many of us, this is the only time we can actually work full-time on our research. Academics are not just teachers–we are teacher-scholars, and we are obligated to keep up on our research. It’s part of our jobs. We also spend these “breaks” setting up classes, drafting syllabi, grading (in the early part of break), and doing other logistical work involved in getting ready for the next term. We send papers out for publication, or revise them. Many academics also plan babies to be born in breaks, so they might be busy managing new babies as well. Or older ones.

Then, if the stars align, after many years, you get tenure. And you know what most people do as soon as they get their tenure letters? For the first time in many, many years, they stop to take a breath. It’s the first time since you started grad school that you don’t have to worry about your job. So long as you keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s yours. You stop worrying about something for the first time. In your forties! I think we’re entitled to that little break, yes? Because it doesn’t mean we stop working.

And remember, the percentage of academics who get tenure is very small. I don’t know an exact figure, but I’ve heard that non-tenure track jobs account for about 75% of academic jobs. Many of these are part-time adjuncts who hold multiple jobs with no benefits.

So we know about real life. We work hard, we’ve been horribly poor, we’ve made hard choices and heart-wrenching sacrifices. We’re tired, exhausted, and weary with stress. And we work real jobs, difficult jobs, where we study all the time so we can teach your children. We also look out for them, listen to their stories of worry and fear, guide them toward choices we know will be good for them, and all of this with cheerful, happy faces, because our worries, fears, and stresses are not their fault and we get into the habit of not sharing.

We aren’t disassociated from how “real people” live. You’re disassociated from our struggles. And part of the reason is because academics don’t talk a lot, publicly, about how hard our lives are. Part of the reason is because some of us buy into our own bad press. Some of us still remember what grad school was like, and are overly grateful for every little thing we have. Some of us simply aren’t given to complaining in public.

So I don’t know what people mean when they say academics don’t know about real life, or don’t have real jobs. Our lives aren’t made of plastic. They’re as real as anyone else’s. We enjoy thinking, I agree, and spend a lot of time doing it. That makes us abstracted much of the time. Our minds are on something else most of the time. We live in our heads–when we can. Time is the greatest luxury for us, and so we grab it where we can–on the street, on the stairs, in the bathroom 🙂 We think everywhere! But we’re not fools with cushy, easy lives. Far from it.

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The Academic Interview: The Phone Interview

It’s that time of the year. Actually, it’s a little past that time of the year, but at least in anthro, most non-TT positions are interviewing right about now. So I thought I would give you my two cents on phone interviews, and what I think works and what doesn’t. This is based on stuff I have read all over the place, conversations with people who have served on committees and who have been successful candidates, and other fun ethnographic and autoethnographic data (these things work, in other words). Congratulations on your phone interview.

  1. Re-read your application: When you go into your phone interview, it might be a while after you applied for the position. So re-familiarize yourself with the advertisement and your application. Think of things you might want to add. Be prepared to expand on claims you might have made in your application.
  2. Make notes: If you’re on the phone, you have the advantage of being able to look at notes. Use it! Make notes on anything you think might be useful (including your application). Have a copy of your application ready, with important parts highlighted. If you’re on Skype or otherwise videochatting, and you need to use your notes, do so carefully and judiciously.
  3. Dress appropriately: If you’re on Skype, dress like you would for a face-to-face interview (suit). If you’re on the phone, they can’t see you, so it doesn’t matter. However, if you’re in your pajamas and unbathed and unbrushed, you might not be as alert. You know yourself best–do what you need to do to be fully alert.
  4. Know your interviewers: Sometimes the department interviewing you will let you know who is going to be on the call. It might be more than one person. Sometimes, it might be four or five. This can be very confusing if you are on the phone. Begin by looking at the websites of the people interviewing you. Pay attention to their interests and to the classes they teach. File this information away. If you do not know who is going to interview you, it’s a little more sticky, but you can be sure it will be someone from the department. Make notes on all of them. You’re a researcher. Do your research.
  5. Be prepared: There’s some questions you can be almost sure you will be asked, so be prepared to answer them. How would you teach the intro class in your field? Teaching techniques. Research plans/projects. If you are not done writing your dissertation, schedule for completion or defense date. They might ask you about other classes they offer, and if you could teach them. Identify areas they do not cover which you might be able to fill, so make note of those when you trawl their website. Ask if they would be interested in classes in those areas. How would you contribute to the research profile of the institution (if it is a research institution)? Publication plans. If you have won teaching awards, why you think you won them. Scholars you would focus on.
  6. Call back: If your interviewers call you without warning, thank them for calling you and say you’ll call them back. If you’re really busy, be honest (it’s my office hours/I’m just going to teach/I’m on a roller coaster) and tell them you’ll call them back. If you need to use the bathroom or eat something, tell them you’ve got something going (see above) and ask if you can call them right back. Even if you’re not busy, it might be a good idea (if you’re nervous) to ask them if you can call back in just a few minutes. Then take a deep breath, assemble your notes, and call them right back.
  7. Smile: It’s important. You can be a serious interviewee and still show that you have a sense of humor. Be pleasant. Be collegial. Be yourself (unless you’re, you know, unpleasant and uncollegial and crabby :))

I can’t think of anything else right now, but I’ll add them if I do.

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A Virus Ate My Homework: Technology in the Classroom

We’ve all heard it: “My printer didn’t work, Professor, so I can’t submit my paper on time.” Or, perhaps, “My computer crashed. Everything’s gone. I have to do it all again. Could I have an extension?”

They’re the technology excuses. Funerals are no longer held for beloved grandmothers who die with alarming and improbable frequency. Instead, they are held for computers, printers, or internet access (“I have to send you this email from my iPhone because my wifi is not working…”). Viewed from one (admittedly cynical) angle, technology is simply one more avenue for clichéd excuses to blossom.  I tend to give my students the benefit of the doubt, but I have to acknowledge that technology-related excuses, as a corollary of technology use, are on the rise.

How do I deal with it? The same way I do with grandmothers’ funerals and essay-eating pets. I lie back and let it all wash over me, tsking at my students with good-natured bonhomie. Students’ excuses are an irresistible force, and I’m too lazy, I confess, to be an immovable object.

The point toward which I am meandering, though, is that technology in academia is on the rise, and so, too, are problems associated with it. The Chronicle, for example, has an article which ponders the difficulties arising out of non-standard pagination (or none at all) on e-readers. Other technology-and-education issues which enflame the interwebs involve online/distance education (good? evil?), laptops in the classroom (good? evil?), smartphones during exams (you get the drift). And there are too many of these to link.

So here’s my two cents on the topic–the kinds of technology I have encountered, and what I do about them:

  1. Online classes: I haven’t taught one myself, I confess, but I do know people who have. There seem to be some problems associated with these. First, lack of adequate interaction. Teaching cultural anthropology, for example, is best done through face-to-face interaction, IMHO. Above all things, I have found students back-and-forth with me a lot in the classroom, working their way through concepts until they completely understand them. In online discussions, e.g. on Moodle, inertia takes over, and a gentle silence reigns over the kingdom. By their nature, online classes require disciplined and self-propelled students. Students have a hard time being self-propelled. Sometimes they don’t know how (which they learn through interaction with a professor), sometimes they have other things to do (children, jobs), and sometimes they just lack the discipline or desire. Also, interaction with professors doesn’t just occur in the classroom (or shouldn’t). I’m not certain of the mechanisms in place for this in online education. Finally, and this is really important but doesn’t get talked about as much, from what I’ve seen, managing and teaching online classes takes a lot of time. A lot. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they might even take more time than traditional, face-to-face classes. This is because, once again, online classes by their nature entail a lot of work–what, in face-to-face education, would be called busy work. Like responses to every reading. You don’t need them in a F2F classroom, because you can ask students what they think. When you leave the classroom, the interaction is over, and you don’t have to read it, think about it, and respond. Let’s face it, talking is faster than reading and writing. (Bear in mind here that I am not talking about people with disabilities, professors or students, for whom online education is not necessarily chosen for reasons of convenience. I come to them later).
  2. Synchronous technology: Not the modelling software, but using both F2F interaction and online interaction at the same time. I’m all for this. Moodle forums are a lifeline for extremely shy students, students with speech disorders, and so on. It’s all very well to say our job is to prepare students for the “real world”, but people who can’t, simply can’t speak in public for emotional, psychological, or medical reasons are very much part of the real world too. Since I started setting up forums on Moodle, I’ve found students’ worries about participation grades considerably reduced (which means they stopped harassing me about it :P). I also have managed to go almost completely paperless, and if I ever took my exam online, I would be completely paperless. Because students submit papers online, they are more or less multimedia. They link to websites, embed videos, include graphics…all while retaining formal citation practices, more or less. It’s great. It really is. And I save a couple of trees every term.
  3. Computers/smartphones in the classroom: I’m a little torn on this. On the one hand, I realize students use these for rapid reference and taking notes (I’ve seen students take notes on their wee little phones. And no, they weren’t texting–I checked). On the other hand, students use these for updating their Facebook status while I’m talking (“Bubbles McCoy is in ANTH 101 and bored to death, OMG!“). In the balance, I’m inclined to let them use their laptops and smartphones, but mount surprise checks and random inspections on occasion. Mostly, I admit, because I enjoy keeping them on their toes.
  4. iPods: No. Unless a student is using assistive technology like a smartpen, no headphones in my classroom. I usually know about students who need assistive technology because student disability services will let me know about other accommodations, but even if I don’t, I could tell because of the volume of the music blasting out of the headphones. Exception to iPod rule: students who use them to record lectures, but they cannot do that without my permission. And they don’t need headphones.
  5. Assistive technology: This is a no-brainer. Students who need such technology have to be allowed to use it. It’s really important, though, to keep up with the rapid changes in assistive technology. Braille displays, smartpens, hearing technology, recording devices,  video for Deaf students–it’s important to keep up and stay aware. The best way to do this is to stay abreast of the assistive technology news. That’s not easy. The next-best way, and one that is anthropologically easy, is to simply ask. If a student is using assistive technology, I just ask them what it is, how it works, and how it helps them. Then I ask them if there is anything I can do to make their learning experience easier. For example, I often use doodles on the board to explain concepts. I once had a student who was visually impaired, and after a discussion with him, simply stopped doing it, oriented my lectures toward verbal descriptions instead. Okay, it was really difficult to change my style. But I learned something new.

So those are my thoughts. I’m a technophile who’s not extremely tech-savvy, so this might sound rudimentary to some of you. I’m not a disability studies expert, so this might sound insufficient to some of you. But I try, and I live to learn. If you have ideas, I’m willing to try them, with my students’ permission, if I can get them to work for my class.

Edit: Do take a moment to read Kerim Friedman’s post on social media on Savage Minds. My two favorite lines from it:

[T]he technology itself is not as important as the social conditions in which it is used.

And, just a few lines down:

[T]he mere existence of these technologies does not imply that people will necessarily make use of them in a particular way.

It’s not directly connected with my post, exactly, but social media is one important kind of technology I did not mention in my post, except in a flippant way. I’ve known of people using Facebook pages for class discussions, or Second Life to hold classes in, or twitter to keep students appraised of updates to courses. I think that’s pretty cool, but I use Moodle for all of these. My philosophy here is simple. I could move my class discussions to Facebook, where my students are surely more comfortable, but I choose not to. I like to think they learn from my classes, and one of the things I would like them to learn is to separate spaces. Facebook is for home, Moodle is for school. These are different modes of communication with different purposes. To learn to work in a distinct professional space is, I think, a good life lesson. Thoughts, as always, are welcome.

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