Archive for the ‘Thoughts on Academia’ Category

A Grad Student Online Starter Kit

If you’re starting an academic graduate program, such as a Ph.D., and you’re hoping to eventually finish that degree with a meaningful reputation in your area of expertise (which is a prerequisite for academic jobs), then day 1 is a great time to unpack your grad student online starter kit. Here’s what I think a Ph.D. student should do in his or her first or second year of graduate school to get the train moving down the tracks.

1. Write a CV. If you don’t already have one, it’s time to start one, even if you don’t think you have “enough” to put on paper about yourself. You’ll flesh it out over time, and having the structure in place on paper will get you in the habit of thinking of your work as part of a larger project to build your reputation and expertise in a certain topic. I have a whole post on CVs. Make sure your CV stays updated and posted online for the world to find.

2. Make a website. Seriously. Make one. Many universities have robust profiles for their grad students, but even still, it’s important for you to control your own website where you can update your profile, post about the work you’re doing, and make yourself available for consulting opportunities. And you get to keep the website after you graduate and move from institution to institution. Get a free WordPress site, a Google Sites page, or something simple like that. Install Google Analytics if you can (it’s free). That way you can be a creeper and obsessively track where all your visitors come from. Buy a URL that represents your name and redirect it to your WordPress site and you’re all set.

3. Make a plan for posting your working papers online. It may seem scary to put your half-baked ideas out there, but the work of an academic is all about making ideas public and enduring brutal feedback. It’s really the only way you’ll ever be able to improve your ideas, too. Publishing your in-progress working papers somewhere public can also lead to early citations of your work and credit for your ideas being first on the market. Sometimes working papers get cited hundreds of times before they get published in a scholarly journal. Lakhani, Jeppesen, Lohse & Panetta’s HBS working paper is a good example of this phenomenon. You can always just post your paper on your own blog and label it “working paper – do not cite without permission” or something, which encourages people who read it to contact you first to see if there’s a more current published version to cite. Or you can start a collective blog with some colleagues and publish working papers there, or you can see if your supervising professor’s lab or collective has a website he/she would be willing to post your working paper to. Some universities have working paper series (this is common in professional schools around the country – business, public policy, urban planning). Some schools also subscribe to services like Berkeley Electronic Press’ online tools, which allow groups to start working paper series (and journals, by the way). But the most common platform where some of the largest and most widely read working paper collections can be found is the Social Science Research Network. arXiv (pronounced “archive”) is kind of like an SSRN for computing and science folks, too. You would be very wise as a grad student to start a presence on SSRN and/or arXiv and start pushing your working papers there.

4. Make a Google Scholar profile. These days, it’s all about IMPACT when it comes to research. As the Internet has allowed new journals to blossom and research to become accessible to people all over the world more quickly and easily, the idea that you demonstrate the value of your work by saying you published it in the “top” journal or the “most respected” journal in your field just doesn’t cut it anymore. You’re better off demonstrating the impact of your research by showing how much of an impact it actually has had on scholarship. That is, how often are people citing your work, at what rates, and in what disciplines? Google Scholar tracks citations for you. It’s not perfect, of course. Small-time conference papers and conference proceedings are probably overrepresented in Google Scholar’s tracking, and citations that appear in books are very much underrepresented, but as a general estimate, it’s a good way to show that, indeed, people are citing your work. Saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal]” is impressive, especially if you’re a grad student. But saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal] and it’s already been cited 10 times in other journals according to Google Scholar” is WAY more impressive. It shows your work is actually impacting the field rather than showing your work is important merely because it is basking in the aura of some traditionally recognized “top” journal (which may or may not actually be having an impact these days). I’m of the somewhat controversial opinion that someone who is getting their article cited is having more of an impact, no matter how top-tier or bottom-tier the journal their work appears in, than someone who has published in a so-called top-tier journal and has not been cited very widely. I have never heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise. Most of the time, when people disagree with me on this point, their arguments are founded on nostalgia, tradition, and other feel-good “evidence” that members of a discipline’s old bloc spew forth in knee-jerk response. So do yourself a favor and make a Google Scholar profile and start tracking your citations. (And hooray for me – I got to 600 citations today!)

5. Determine your online thought leadership strategy and do it. Yep, you’re a brand, whether you like it or not. Academics are seen as experts in something, and they get hired as professors because they bring with them a unique identity as an authority or leader on a given topic, however narrow that topic may be. To position yourself as a thought leader on your area of expertise (or, if you’re a grad student, as an emerging, aspiring thought leader), you need to start making your expertise known and trusted online as much as in person. You can do this by getting on some social networking sites and by blogging regularly on topics squarely in the center of your expertise or on topics of tangential relation to your area of expertise. You don’t need to be on every social media tool – this is a common misconception. Just do one or a few social media tools really, really well. If you choose Twitter, then tweet a LOT, and keep it professional and focused (Guy McHendry’s Twitter account is a good example of a focused, thought-leading grad student studying national security, privacy, cultural studies, and other topics). If you choose LinkedIn, then really take advantage of LinkedIn by getting your profile to 100% completeness and using LinkedIn groups effectively. Just find something and do it well. It’s perfectly fine to inject your personality, your sarcastic humor, or whatever into your social media presence (social media is social after all!), but just be mindful to keep your extreme opinions and any pictures of you doing keg stands hidden on your Facebook account or something. Once you start getting papers presented at conferences or published, too, make sure Wikipedia includes citations to your work on the appropriate entry pages. Some people think this is vain, but it’s not – not any more vain than someone writing a traditional encyclopedia article about their areas of expertise for a print encyclopedia. Wikipedia is one of the most valuable places you can grow your thought leadership because it’s so widely read. Make a profile on Wikipedia and add citations to your work (and the work of your colleagues…it’s not ALL about you) as appropriate. Just have a bit of humility and remember that you’re not THE sole voice on a topic just because you’ve published an article on it…but the Wikipedians will surely correct you if you overstep your bounds.

If you do all these things in tandem and have all of these pieces hang together in a constellation that is “you” online, I am confident you’ll have established an online identity and a reputation as an emerging leader in your field by the time you graduate. This will help you get jobs, get you invited to contribute chapters to anthologies, get you invited to speak at conferences, get you media interviews, and land you paid consulting gigs. And it may even make you known to grant teams, who might be looking for someone like you to round out their multi-million-dollar grant application. And forcing yourself to publish bare-bones CVs and Google Scholar profiles may even spur you to be more productive in order to flesh these presences out a bit.

I say this from my own experience. I track what people click on on my website, and I know this stuff matters. It has worked for me. So do it. Consider this grad student online starter kit your first bit of homework in grad school.

Anything else I’m missing here in the starter kit? Leave your comments below.

How to Protect Your Time

One of the most common common phrases that came out of my colleagues’ mouths as I approached the end of graduate school and began life as a tenure-track professor at a research-intensive university was “be sure to protect your time.” Or it was some variation of that: “don’t take on too many service obligations–protect your time for research” or “protect your time–be sure your teaching doesn’t detract too much from your research.”

I’ve been asked to sit on a few “how-to” advice panels for graduate students, too, usually focused on the What to Expect After Grad School theme or the How to Manage Your Time as a Young Professor theme. On these panels, too, the common sentiment from fellow panelists seems to be to “protect your time.” A dean’s promise to “protect you in your first year or two” is a common sales pitch for hiring, too.

I have never liked this whole idea of protecting oneself from other obligations. I don’t like the protection-from-threat metaphor, and I especially dislike what it implies about the value of teaching and service in the academy. Contrary to the title of this post, this post is actually about what “protecting your time” means, and why you should largely avoid the “protect your time” advice.

Protection from What?

As a professor, you have to balance the three-legged stool of research, teaching, and service (note: three-legged objects always inherently balance. Things with four or more legs tend to wobble when they are out of alignment…but anyway). In a research-intensive university, such as the one I work for, the expectation is that you should spend the majority of your time doing research, less time on teaching, and the least amount of time on service. At a regional state school, teaching and research obligations may be more equal, and at liberal arts schools or community colleges, teaching will probably take a front seat. At a research-intensive university, I’ve heard all kinds of percentages for how much time you should devote to research, teaching, and service, from 85%, 10%, 5%, respectively, to 50%, 30%, 20%.

Because so much of your tenure case at a research-intensive university is based on the research you’ve done, it makes sense to focus your energies in this area. It is true that you never really feel like your teaching is perfect, no matter how many times you’ve taught a course or how prepared you are for each lecture, and so in that sense teaching can come to dominate a lot of your time. And service is kind of a constant thing that you can get drawn into, as there are always committees that need members and journal articles to review. When people talk of protecting themselves so they can focus on research, they are mostly talking about the threat of teaching and service on their research time. Ick.

Say Yes, Because Yes Brings Opportunity

The actor Rob Lowe was interviewed last spring about his success. The stand-out point in the article is that he has learned that saying “yes” is the best way to open doors professionally. Here’s my favorite line from this interview:

“Yes is the beginning of the road. And the road hopefully leads to you staying relevant.”

When you say “no” to things, you’re turning down opportunities. You know that cheesy quote about how you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take? It’s true.When you’re asked to teach a new course, you may see it as a burden because you’ll have to do all this prep work to get up to speed on how to teach the course. But really it’s an opportunity to brush up on some stuff you may have forgotten about, an opportunity to teach a new stream of students you don’t normally get a chance to teach (i.e., different majors, underclassmen), and an opportunity to broaden your teaching portfolio, which will only make you more valuable to your department in the long run.

When you’re asked to serve on a search committee to hire a new professor, you may see it as a burden because search committees take a lot of time, require a lot of poise, and can sometimes lead to a lot of conflict through tough debates with colleagues. But, really, serving on a search committee is an opportunity to have a say in who your future colleague will be, an opportunity to shape the trajectory of your department long-term, and an opportunity to get to know colleagues at a deeper level, even if that does mean getting into some arguments with them over who to hire.

Teaching a new course, serving on a search committee, advising a student club, reviewing papers for a journal – all of these things require a lot of time, but they bring tremendous opportunities. They don’t eat into your research time. Rather, they can enrich your research if you know how to cull the value out of these non-research opportunities.

Ultimately, too, professors – like actors – are just hoping to stay relevant. They want to be seen by their peers as contributing in fair ways to a department culture and continuing to innovate in the classroom and publish groundbreaking research. Saying “yes” more often provides many more opportunities to stay relevant and useful.

Say Yes, Because Saying No is Selfish

I cringe when some colleagues say you should only put enough effort into your teaching so that you’re not a total disaster in the classroom. And I also cringe when colleagues say you should say “no” to as much service as you can, unless you are asked to serve in high-profile, powerful committee roles or if the scope of service work is ultra-specific to what your research interests are.

No one gets everything they want, and professors have a reputation as out-of-touch prima donnas already. Saying “no” to teaching and service obligations is outright selfish, in my opinion. It shows you think you’re above your colleagues when it comes to pitching in or doing your fair share of the work. It shows you think your research is more important and/or deserves more time and attention than everyone else’s work. And it shows you want to stay in your bubble and avoid opportunities to grow and develop and reach outside your domain.

But at a much higher level, especially for professors working at public universities, saying “no” is a waste of taxpayer money. Professors are civil servants in many ways. They are charged with the responsibility of educating the citizens of a state to be competent employees and critical thinkers. You can’t produce great students if you don’t put serious effort into your teaching. The taxpayers also expect professors to be collegial, to be efficient (as any government agency is expected to be), and to work hard. You can’t make the wheels turn in an academic organization if professors are always opting out of service. Professors are not independent contractors who have been blessed with a life of introspection and self-serving intellectual exploration. Professors are, at their core, teachers and members of cohesive organizations. They profess what they know, and they serve citizens as much through public service as through publication and the creation of knowledge.

Professors have very comfortable lives (well, the tenure-track and tenured ones do, at least. Adjuncts are still chronically underemployed, but that’s another post). They make good livings, they get summers off, they get to be around young people in well-maintained buildings and campuses, and, after tenure, it’s nearly impossible to fire them for speaking out in any way they see fit. For these great occupational comforts, professors owe it to the people to be productive, to burn the candle at both ends if they have a crunch of research to do in combination with a taxing teaching load and service obligations. They do not get to shake off these responsibilities. They are supposed to find ways to take on more responsibilities.

When to Say No, or, How to Protect Your Time if You Really, Really Need to

In two years as a professor, I have said “no” twice. It was painful and difficult to muster the courage to say no, but I did it – once to teaching a class and once to advising a student’s graduate thesis. I taught an online class once, then said no to teaching it again because I very honestly couldn’t take on the burden. I was set to launch a journal, travel a bunch for conferences, and pursue more than one book publishing opportunity. I very truly had a full plate. The “no” to the student was a similar case at the same time. Plus I had never met the student before and didn’t see even the slightest overlap in our interests or my abilities to advise the project. So…two “nos” in two years. I consider that a pretty good record, actually.

Sometimes you do need to say no. If your fate depends on having a certain number of publications on your CV and you’re far from reaching that goal, then it’s fine to say no just a little bit in order to pour more time into research. This still does not mean it is OK to say no to everything you simply aren’t interested in. It means that if you’re behind in your work, then you need to focus on your work. But there may be a deeper problem here. If you feel like you are running on all cylinders and saying no to teaching and service obligations and you’re still not being as productive as you need to with your research, then maybe you should reconsider being at a research-intensive university. Or maybe you need to start letting your work life eat into your personal life. I’m serious.

If you do need to say “no,” though, I recommend you be proactive about it rather than reactive. Let your dean or some more senior mentor colleagues know you’re struggling to get your research done and that you need to teach the same prep again next semester. Or that you can’t really take on anything else for the next few months. This lets your dean or your mentors know in advance you may be struggling, and it can spur them to action to figure out ways to help. It also demonstrates that you’re in control of what you’re doing, you’ve assessed your productivity, and you’ve come to a decision that you need to say “no” in order to stay productive on the research front. This is better than the reactive approach, which is you saying “no” when asked to do something and seeming like you’re complaining or weaseling out of something when the time comes.
As always, this is just my advice, not some set of rules that governs all departments out there. The point of this post is to start encouraging a healthier discussion of the “three-legged stool” of professor life and get away from the phrase “protect your time.” It’s also a call to consider your duty to your colleagues and the public when you decide what work you will and won’t take on, and how many opportunities you may be missing when you say “no.”

Cool Student Work

In just two years here at UNC, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on quite a few committees. By the end of the spring 2012 semester, four master’s students and one undergraduate honors student will have endured my advising in some form or another. This post is all about their work, which I think is really quite interesting. In order of defense date, here they are:

Miranda Volborth, M.A., 2011 (chaired by Lois Boynton)

Miranda‘s master’s thesis was titled Bands and Brands: Sponsor Messaging at Festivals. With an interest in the communication strategies of arts and music events, and with experience working on the Hopscotch Music Festival, Miranda focused her thesis on the sponsors at the SXSW festival, interviewing several of the brand managers and PR folks who were on site at SXSW. The thesis includes practical recommendations for music festivals, and it’s a great read. Miranda went on to land a job at Sundance Film Festival, which is right in line with the kind of thing she studied here at UNC.

Stephanie Silverman, M.A., 2012 (chaired by Dulcie Straughan)

Stephanie‘s master’s thesis was titled Twitter Takeover: An Examination of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team Twitter During the 2011 World Cup and Recommendations for the 2012 Olympics. Stephanie has a big interest in sports and social media, so it was fitting that her thesis examined the use of Twitter by the US women’s soccer team. She analyzed the tweets from the 2011 World Cup and provided practical recommendations for sports organizations of similar size and scope that are interested in using Twitter to build their brands. I’m interested to see how this research will impact the industry.

Eric White, M.A., 2012 (chaired by Penny Muse Abernathy)

Eric‘s master’s thesis was titled New Media in the Newsroom: A Survey of Local Journalists and Their Managers on the Use of Social Media as a Reporting Tool. Eric sent surveys (via mail…which is really old school, but which got him a huge response rate!) to reporters and editors at local news organizations in the major media markets in the Carolinas. The survey asked questions about social media use, perceptions of social media, and so on. His findings are impressive, and I recommend this thesis as reading for any news organization. My favorite finding? Turns out editors don’t really have a grip on the time requirements of using social media the way reporters do.

Barbara Zellweger, M.A., 2012 (chaired by Lois Boynton)

Barbara‘s master’s thesis was titled Karl Barth: How to Develop an Effective Online Hub for a Theologian. Barbara is the great-granddaughter of renowned Swiss theologian Karl Barth, and to pay homage to him, she focused her master’s project on the building of a really great website dedicated to his writings. The hope is that this website will become a gateway or hub for many other smaller Barth centers, archives, and research institutes around the world. Her practical recommendations for accomplishing this feat are also valuable for practitioners looking to do similar websites for scholars, theologians, or collections.

Emily Urquhart, B.A. honors, 2012 (chaired by me)

Emily‘s BA honors thesis was titled The Crowd’s Perception Matters: A Crowdsourcing Study of a Crowd’s Social Media Chatter. Emily’s thesis examined the Twitter activity surrounding Doritos’ Crash the Super Bowl contest, a crowdsourced user-generated advertising contest that has become a highlight of the annual Super Bowl ad-watching ritual. Through a content analysis of the many tweets sent out during the contest, she was able to identify how users perceived the contest as a whole, findings which have relevance for practitioners looking to start their own crowdsourcing ventures.

By the way, these great students are always open to entertaining job offers. Contact them (all their LinkedIn pages are linked to their names above)!

Graduate Studies in Crowdsourcing

A few prospective graduate students have reached out to me over the years about pursuing a master’s or Ph.D. focused on crowdsourcing. I suspect my crowdsourcing-focused colleagues at other universities have received inquiries as well. It’s not a simple task to advise someone interested in studying crowdsourcing at the graduate level what programs are the best fits. Graduate study is indeed all about fit, and crowdsourcing’s terrain is odd, its scholars far-flung, and its disciplinary location varied. For what it’s worth, here’s what I have to say to someone wanting to get a master’s or Ph.D. focused on crowdsourcing. I welcome my crowdsourcing-focused colleagues at other institutions to help round out my comments.

Which Crowdsourcing? – Navigating the Language

One of the most confusing parts about the study of crowdsourcing is how many interpretations there are of the term “crowdsourcing.” Heck, some people don’t even spell it correctly (Note: it’s spelled “crowdsourcing,” not “crowd sourcing,” “crowd-sourcing,” or “CrowdSourcing”). Because crowdsourcing’s theoretical roots can be traced to human computation, open innovation, collective intelligence, open source software production, and other concepts, some scholars working in these fields refuse to ever use the term “crowdsourcing” in their work. Some scholars don’t see crowdsourcing as a phenomenon distinct from these other concepts, though I have tried to make the case in my work that crowdsourcing is a unique, different kind of thing, part of a larger and more diverse landscape of online participatory culture phenomena. Some scholars lump Wikipedia and open source software and YouTube in with crowdsourcing, but I certainly do not. There are different interpretations of what crowdsourcing means as a scholarly concept, and there are even more haphazard characterizations of crowdsourcing in the popular press.

The point here is that if you go looking for a graduate program where some crowdsourcing scholars might be, you won’t find the whole group of us by search the term “crowdsourcing.” I consider Karim Lakhani and Luis von Ahn leading thinkers on crowdsourcing, but I don’t think either of these men have ever used the term “crowdsourcing” in their published scholarly work. Rather, you’ll find these guys publishing on issues of “open innovation contests,” “broadcast search,” and “human computation.”

The more familiar you can become with the scholarly literature on crowdsourcing, the easier it will be for you to track down a good graduate program for you to pursue these kinds of questions. Mine the bibliographies from the published work on crowdsourcing and see where that leads you. Learn the theoretical pathways through crowdsourcing and you’ll be able to identify where the fertile ground is for you to pursue your scholarly questions. There’s good research happening about crowdsourcing that goes by many names. The trick is to locate it.

What Discipline?

To my knowledge, there are no degree programs (yet) specifically in crowdsourcing. There aren’t even that many programs in Internet studies specifically (I know of two: Curtin University and University of Oxford). Because there aren’t many dedicated Internet studies programs, most of the people doing Internet research come from other departments. A look at those who attend the Association of Internet Researchers’ (AoIR) conference or who subscribe to the AoIR listserv will turn up a number of academic departments: sociology, information/library science, communication studies, journalism & mass communication, anthropology, art and art history, architecture, design, computer science and engineering, political science, business, urban planning, and so on. We Internet researchers are a motley crew (and AoIR is our island of misfit toys, a place where we can all be at home in our different-ness).

So how do you know which discipline is the best discipline to get a degree in where you can focus on crowdsourcing? Well, that depends on exactly what kinds of questions you have about crowdsourcing. If you’re interested in how to actually design and engineer crowdsourcing platforms and systems, how to optimize their performance, and so on, then you’re probably better off in a computer science program, or perhaps an information science or computer engineering program. If you’re interested in the performance of crowdsourcing applications (i.e., how to know when they’ve succeeded or if they’ve improved a business function), then an academic graduate program in business or management (academic: MS. As opposed to professional: MBA) would be the best fit. If you’re interested in how and why crowds form, how they are motivated, and their perceptions of crowdsourcing applications, you could look into a journalism & mass communication program, a psychology program, a sociology program, information science, and so on. If you’re interested in a specific topical domain, such as journalism or urban planning or governance, you could look to those programs (though be aware that some crowdsourcing scholars are engaged in research outside of their home department’s topical domain. I, for instance, am housed in a journalism school but frequently do work in urban planning and governance).

Crowdsourcing has its tentacles spread across many disciplines, and those of us who spend a lot of our time studying how and why crowdsourcing works and extending its reach into other domains and problems come from a variety of backgrounds. But the home department where you get your degree will color the way you approach questions about crowdsourcing. An M.A. in journalism and mass communication, for example, will require you to take required core courses in the department, such as Media Law and Mass Communication Research Methods. And a methods course in mass communication will focus on the methods and research of the discipline, which is influenced by theories such as agenda setting and other “classic” mass communication theories. And each university’s mass communication department has its own methodological bent, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative in nature. On the other hand, a master’s in urban planning will require you to take courses in land use planning and other practical courses relevant for planners. And a master’s in communication studies from a strong critical/cultural studies program where most of the professors are rhetoricians will no doubt inject you with that view of scholarship. Basically, you’ll get a big dose of whatever the dominant paradigm is at that university, in that department, in that particular program. If you’re not particularly drawn to, say, the topic of journalism, then a program in journalism & mass communication may not be the best fit, even if you’re hoping to work with a crowdsourcing researcher who teaches in that department (like me!).

After the required core courses, though, many graduate programs will let you carve out your own path, sometimes encouraging you to take course work outside of the home department or even outside of the university. Generally speaking, for graduate programs that do not have a strong lab culture (common in the hard sciences, this is where you basically affiliate with a lab and your graduate work is focused almost entirely on the work of a professor’s lab or grant), you will probably be able to write a thesis or dissertation focused on crowdsourcing if you’re persistent. Because crowdsourcing can tie so well into many theoretical, methodological, and topical domains, you have a lot of wiggle room to pursue studies in crowdsourcing within the bounds of a given degree program.

Questions You Should Ask When Checking Out a Graduate Program

If you want to study crowdsourcing, there are some key questions you should ask yourself when evaluating whether or not a program is a good fit. This check list works well with just about any topic you’re interested in studying, actually:

  • Is there a professor in  this program who studies crowdsourcing (or a related concept)? Is this professor willing to take on new advisees? Is this professor qualified to supervise my research? These are the most important questions to ask yourself. Graduate study is an individual pursuit, and scholarly life is about people, personalities, and individual research agendas. It would be better to go to a program that has just one professor who is a perfect fit for your research than to go to a program that generally fits your interests but doesn’t have any single professor who is a great fit for your particular interests. You go to graduate school to study with people, not to study topics. This is especially true for Ph.D. programs. There should be someone at that program who you admire, you should be familiar with his/her work, and you should be willing to work with that person closely for at least a few years. It’s also important to inquire whether that professor is willing to take on a new graduate student as an advisee. That professor may be booked solid with other graduate students and may say no to taking on any new ones until his/her current students graduate. A professor may also not have enough grant money to fund a new graduate student, and many programs are moving into a grant model where professors only get grad students that they can fund with the grants they win. And be sure that the person you want to work with is qualified, or allowed, to supervise your work. Some schools have faculties where only a portion of them are actually qualified or allowed by the university to supervise graduate work. Most universities have rules that say professors can only supervise graduate students who are pursuing a degree they already have, too, which means that a professor who has a master’s degree but not a doctorate may not be allowed to supervise a Ph.D. student.
  • Is the graduate program flexible enough to allow me to pursue my research interests in crowdsourcing? Some graduate programs are highly structured, where all or nearly all of your course work is prescribed for you. But some graduate programs are highly flexible, requiring only 1-3 core courses of all graduate students and letting you create your own path through the degree. Because there are no graduate programs specifically dedicated to crowdsourcing, you’ll probably want some flexibility to craft your own degree path. Figure out what’s required in the curriculum and what courses you’ll get to curate into your degree plan. Some of the most interesting work in crowdsourcing is interdisciplinary, so find out if you’re encouraged (or even allowed) to take courses in other departments, too.
  • Are there other professors in the program or in the university who have affiliated interests? Let’s assume you’ve found a great program that has one expert crowdsourcing scholar on the faculty you’re dying to work with. You still need to identify a few other faculty members to be part of your supervisory committee. Most Ph.D. students have to round up a chair (dissertation director) plus 2-4 other faculty members who serve as members of the supervisory committee (dissertation readers). Sometimes there are rules, too, that say that one of these other members needs to be from outside the department. It is important that there are other faculty members in that program or elsewhere at the university who are willing to serve on your supervisory committee and are capable of making sense of your research. If the crowdsourcing scholar you’re working with is the odd duck in the department, you may have some difficulty rounding up a committee that supports your work. And remember that crowdsourcing is an Internet-based phenomenon. If the rest of the faculty isn’t Internet savvy, for instance, it may be a challenge to round up a committee that can best support your work. This doesn’t mean professors are unable or unwilling to bend in new directions – if anything, it’s a joy to step outside your comfort zone to advise new students with exciting research questions. But it sometimes causes problems.
  • And then all the regular questions about grad school: Do they offer fellowship funding? Are the grad students and faculty collegial and welcoming? Is it in a place I want to live and can afford to live? Is this program going to prepare me for future employment or continued study in a satisfactory way? Am I ready to take on this commitment for the next few years? Will my family or partner kill me if I go to grad school? Etc.

The Outside Committee Member Option

Many schools are open to the possibility of having a student’s supervisory committee consist of one or more members from outside of the university entirely. Programs like Skype make this even easier. I had Karim Lakhani on my Ph.D. committee from a distance – he was in Boston, I was in Salt Lake City, and he attended my defense meetings via conference call. If you find that one program is a better home for you but you’re still eager to have one specific person on your committee from a distance, see if the university will allow that person to sit on your committee remotely and Skype in for meetings. This is becoming quite common. There are some technical headaches, but it’s generally a good thing.

So Who are the Crowdsourcing Scholars? Where are they Located?

This list is not exhaustive, and I welcome other folks studying crowdsourcing (and willing/eager to take on new grad students) to contact me and add their name to this list. Here are some folks studying crowdsourcing and related phenomena:

I welcome any other input from folks out there studying crowdsourcing. What do you think are the best programs for this kind of study? What other folks am I missing from this admittedly short list?

Defining Online Community Management

[This is a re-post from the Culture Digitally blog. Enjoy!]

New technologies make new economies, and new economies make new jobs. As a response to this, some of the most forward-thinking academic programs aim to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and more programs should follow their lead. Students of strategic communication–a catch-all term that includes public relations, advertising, integrated marketing communication and the like–should take note of a whole new class of jobs that has emerged in recent years focused on the effective management of online communities (see, for example, the Google Lunar X PRIZE’s recent job posting for an “experienced online guru” to manage the project’s many social media presences).

I predict we will see many more of these jobs that fall under the broad umbrella of “online community management,” and I offer this post as a first attempt to define this emerging profession and make a case for the relevance of strategic communication planning in this new domain.

Let’s take a look at “online community management” word by word:

  • Online: Online community management happens online. It may include offline, face-to-face or phone work, but it is, at its core, work that takes place via the Internet. Coordinating online stakeholders and customers is qualitatively different from coordinating face-to-face stakeholders and customers. Online communications can take place at far quicker speeds, across larger geographical expanses, asynchronously or in real-time, and under the veil of anonymous or pseudonymous cover. The volatile flows of the online mediascape require a different set of skills.
  • Community: Communities are both real and imagined. They have their own internal governance structures, lingo, and norms. They are simultaneously collective wholes with a common vision and interconnected individuals with specific needs. Members in the community may also come and go without notice, and online communities may collapse entirely with a mass exodus of participants.
  • Management: Management implies a strategic, purposeful coordination of resources to meet specific objectives. Managers are both secretaries and shepherds, taking note of the community’s needs and wants while moving the group toward a common goal. Effective strategic management also requires research, planning, evaluation measures.

The Centrality of Strategic Communication in Online Community Management

Relationships between an organization and its stakeholders (customers, clients, donors, employees, etc.) are usually “strongest when they are mutually beneficial and characterized by ‘win-win’ outcomes” (Heath & Coombs, 2006, p. 5), when they are symmetrical and two-way in the flow of communication (J. E. Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 1992; L. A. Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 1992), and when they are at the core of strategic communication practice (Ledingham, 2003).

The strength of seeing project and organizational management functions through the lens of communication is the emphasis on process rather than on preparations and outcomes or inputs and outputs. Strategic communication, then, involves investing in the process of maintaining relationships with stakeholders in order to achieve management goals. Because so many companies and nonprofits (and even government functions) rely on the maintenance of healthy, productive, and sometimes sizeable online communities, strategic communication is an apt framework for understanding how organizations can maintain relationships with these communities.

Generally, strategic communication practice follows a common campaign process. Described through a variety of acronyms, including PIE (Planning, Implementation, Evaluation) (Bobbitt & Sullivan, 2009) and RACE (Research, Action, Communication, Evaluation) (Marston, 1963), I prefer the granularity of Parkinson and Ekachai’s (2006) ROSTE method for strategic communication planning: Research, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, and Evaluation. Adopting a ROSTE approach ensures that strategic communication practitioners follow a deliberate, step-by-step process in the planning, execution, and ongoing maintenance of a project. This approach can work for the building and maintenance of online communities, too. Here’s how:

  • Research is an important first step – and an ongoing concern – for any online community manager. He or she should know the background of the community (demographics, etc.), its motivations, its history, and so on. He or she should also know about other case studies in online community growth and management, in order to learn the lessons of other practitioners and communities. Discovering this information requires undertaking situational analyses (e.g., SWOT analysis, social/political/economic analysis), gathering secondary/background resources, and conducting original empirical studies of the community.
  • Objectives should always be in place and should be revised regularly to respond to situational changes and organizational goals. Objectives should always be measurable and have defined time frames, and they should be informed by research. An example of a measurable objective: “To grow the online community by 20% in the next 3 months.”
  • Strategies are the ways in which the online community manager will approach these objectives. This includes overall messaging or plans of attack. Strategies are crafted to meet the objectives, should be grounded in research, and should involve creative problem solving.
  • Tactics are the on-the-ground methods for implementing the strategies (in order to meet the objectives, which are based on research. See how it’s all connected?). Tactics are the tools and means for executing the process.
  • Evaluation is as important as any other step in the process. Since objectives are always measurable, evaluation plans should seek to assess whether objectives were met. Evaluation might entail passive data gathering (e.g., through Web analytics) or active empirical methods (e.g., surveys, interviews, content analysis). As objectives are evaluated as successful or not, these findings become part of the future research file, and the cycle begins again. Though a linear or cyclical process described here, these processes are frequently smashed together, are iterative, and are constantly being revised to meet changing circumstances. The point is to remember that it’s a deliberate process with discrete components that connect to each other.

Tools of the Trade

Online community managers make use of a number of tools/tactics to do their job effectively. These include using message boards and chat spaces (anywhere the community members are communicating), using the tools of traditional media relations (press releases, etc.), and using customer service techniques for dealing with issues in the community in rapid fashion. Tools also include research and evaluation tools, such as social media monitoring software (e.g. Radian6), Web analytics (e.g., Google Analytics, Omniture), and a whole host of research methods (e.g., archival work, surveys, interviews, focus groups, online ethnography, case studies).

Why Good Online Community Managers Matter

Online communities are bubbling with creative potential. Online communities may be collectively intelligent, too, able to accomplish more than a host of individuals working alone might. It’s important for online community managers to know what motivates these communities, what their potential is, and how they can leverage these communities for business purposes or for the public good. We see this taking place today in crowdsourcing arrangements, in public participation programs for governance, and in a number of other co-creative activities.

Online community managers have a duty to make the best of these communities, and I believe the perspective of strategic communication has a lot to offer this emerging profession.

Notes

Bobbitt, R., & Sullivan, R. (2009). Developing the public relations campaign: A team-based approach (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
Grunig, J. E., Grunig, L. A., & Dozier, D. M. (1992). The excellence theory. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazelton (Eds.), Public relations theory II (pp. 21-62). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Grunig, L. A., Grunig, J. E., & Dozier, D. M. (1992). Excellent public relations and effective organization: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Heath, R. L., & Coombs, W. T. (2006). Strategic relationship building: An ethical organization communicating effectively. Today’s public relations: An introduction (pp. 1-40). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Ledingham, J. A. (2003). Explicating relationship management as a general theory of public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 15(2), 181-198.
Marston, J. (1963). The nature of public relations. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Parkinson, M. G., & Ekachai, D. (2006). International and intercultural public relations: A campaign case approach. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Bad Publishing Experiences

I’ve had my ups and downs with academic publishing. I’ve been rejected as many times as (maybe more than) I’ve had work accepted for publication. But a rejection within the normal flow of academic peer review isn’t a bad experience. It may sting a little, but in the end failure is a good thing if you know how to leverage that failure as motivation to do better next time.

The kind of bad publishing experience I’m talking about here happens on a whole other level. Book projects that fall through the cracks, editors who lie to you, reviewers who don’t understand the constraints of the journal they’re reviewing for – these are the kinds of bad experiences I’m talking about. In this post, I talk about some of these bad experiences and perhaps how to avoid them. Along the way I’ll sprinkle in my own tales of woe and those I’ve heard from my colleagues.

The Anthology that Never Happens

When I was a master’s student, I saw a call for chapters for an edited volume come across the CRTNet listserv. I was a fan of a TV series from the 1990s that had some groundbreaking themes regarding sexuality and gender and teens, and I figured an analysis of this series would make a great contribution to the anthology announced on the listserv. I contacted the two co-editors and pitched them my idea. They liked it a lot and encouraged me to submit a full chapter for the book. I spent weeks doing meticulous close readings of the series (which I had on DVD) and writing up what I thought was a really great analysis. I submitted it to the editors, got an acknowledgment of receipt, and the usual “we’ll let you know the next steps.”

Abandoned book projects are quite sad.

As time passed, I grew anxious. This would be my first substantial publication, and I was eager to 1) know how the publishing process worked in general, and 2) find out the fate of my specific chapter. Every time I inquired, which happened about every other month, the co-editors would tell me they were still looking at the chapters, they were waiting to receive some other chapters, they were negotiating with the publisher, or some other kind of “it’ll be just a little bit longer” response. Two years later – two years! – I was moving on to other projects, and I even landed my first publication elsewhere in the meantime. I inquired one last time about my chapter and found out the co-editors never really had a publisher commit to the project and that they were both overworked and probably wouldn’t be pursuing the book after all.

I wasted my time, basically – a lot of people wasted their time. And the chapter I wrote was so tailored to the book’s theme and technical requirements, it would have taken quite a reworking to send somewhere else. Plus, an entire book specifically about the TV series I analyzed came out the very next week. I missed the boat.

How you can avoid this scenario: Any time you’re thinking of responding to a call for chapters for an edited book, you should directly ask the editors up front whether they have already secured a publisher and what the exact time line for publication is. (Then, add 6-12 months to that time line, since it always takes longer to publish books than editors think it will.) If they don’t have at least some pretty firm verbal commitments from publishers, and if those publishers aren’t reputable, then don’t even think about sending in your work. It’s not worth your time, and you can easily send that chapter idea somewhere else as a journal article or to another book that already has a publisher lined up. Plus, book chapters generally won’t count for tenure as much as journal articles will, most anthologies are not peer-reviewed, and you chapter won’t end up in a searchable scholarly database for others to cite.

The Enthusiastic Editor who Reneges

I presented a paper at AEJMC years ago. At the end of the panel, a few people came up to the speakers’ table and made small talk about the specific research papers. As I talked to one person about my presentation, I saw this man behind him trying to edge in to speak with me. When my conversation kept going on, the man instead butted in, handed me his business card, and said (direct quote – I remember it well): “I want to publish your paper. Please send it to me.” On the card was the man’s name and university affiliation, as well as his affiliation as “Editor” of a well-known mass communication journal. I was shocked and flattered. I told him I would certainly send it in.

Two days after I got back from the conference, I shot the man an email thanking him for inviting me to send in my manuscript. I told him I wanted a week or two to incorporate feedback I received at the conference and that I’d be formatting the paper for his journal and sending it in soon. He replied and said that was great and he looked forward to seeing the paper. I spent a LOT of time reformatting the paper for this journal, a citation style I was a bit baffled by and had never used. I reworked the content of my paper as well. Now, this journal was archaic in its submission requirements, requiring me to snail mail in four copies of my paper to the editor. I mailed it in, and I was eager to see the reviews. I figured it may not be accepted, but at least I’d get some good feedback from the reviewers. And given the outright statement from the editor that he wanted to “publish” my paper, I hoped I’d at least get a revise-and-resubmit decision.

"I want to publish your paper" may actually mean "I want to lower my journal's acceptance rate."

Nope.

A week later I got a snail mail paper letter from the editor saying he was desk rejecting the manuscript and wouldn’t be sending it out for review. Not even sent out for review? You sat through my paper presentation at AEJMC and you said you wanted to publish the thing, and you wouldn’t even send it out for review!? You had me reformat my paper, print it out four times and pay extra postage to mail it to you, and no review?! There was no explanation in the letter, really – just that it didn’t fit and he wasn’t going to waste reviewers’ time on it. I hold a pretty strong grudge against this man and this journal to this day. It was one of the most un-editorly, unprofessional, and unkind acts I have ever witnessed in academia.

How you can avoid this scenario: Well, I’m not sure how you can avoid it, really. If the editor of a journal you (used to) respect comes up to you after hearing your conference presentation and says he “wants to publish it,” then you should probably send it in. In this case, I think this editor was just a jerk and a liar. Even if, once he read my paper, he found it actually did not fit the journal, he at least owed me a bit of a deeper explanation for why it wasn’t a fit (and perhaps why he may have initially thought it was a fit based on my presentation).

I suppose you can always try to pin people down when they approach you like that. Perhaps I should have countered at the conference and said “so you mean you’ll send my full paper out for peer review?” and gotten him to say “yes.” But I couldn’t have known that at the time. The point here is that some editors may say anything to get you to submit to their journal, and there’s more value in them wasting your time (i.e., they can claim a tougher rejection/acceptance rate by rejecting your paper) than you may be aware of. You may not be able to avoid the scenario, but you can do as I’ve done and tell your tale to as many people as you can, smear the name of the editor and journal as widely as you can, and discourage your colleagues and students from submitting to it.

The Misaligned Reviews

I know many colleagues who have had trouble with misaligned reviewers and editors, and I’ve experienced this a few times myself. Misalignment can mean at least two things: 1) the reviewers and editor offer conflicting evaluations of your work and reconcile those conflicts by either rejecting your piece, making you wait while several additional reviews are solicited, or giving too much weight to one of the reviews in the pile; and 2) what the reviewers and editor tell you does not line up with the technical requirements of the journal.

Misalignment is a common occurrence in the review process. Engineering a solution to bridge the gap is usually more difficult than writing the paper in the first place.

In this first scenario, which is quite common, you may be upset to see one cranky reviewer’s opinion carry so much weight. Or you may be upset that, even though the two reviewers kind of like your manuscript, the editor still disagrees with the reviews and rejects you. Or you may just get strung out while additional reviews are gathered, and in the end you still get rejected many months later. But the worst case scenario is when the editor extends a revise-and-resubmit decision based on the conflicting reviews, you revise your paper accordingly, you resubmit, and you still get rejected after the second round of reviews. This is the most painful because it sucks so much time and energy and because you end up trying to appease several people over a long period of time only to fall short. And some people go through several rounds of revision before getting the axe, which really sucks.

In the second scenario, which I’ve encountered twice, the reviews and the revise-and-resubmit decision ask you to add a lot of content to your paper, which is already at the maximum length allowed by the journal’s technical requirements. In one instance, I was asked to include the equivalent of about 1,000 words of additional literature and discussion to a paper that was already 100 words over limit when I initially submitted it…and yet the reviewers also wanted me to keep all my previous content more or less intact. It’s a confusing directive.

How you can avoid this scenario: Ask direct questions of the editor to make sure you have a clear understanding of what you need to get done and how you’ll go about doing it. In the case of conflicting reviews, you may need to side with Reviewer 2 while carefully, politely refuting all of Reviewer 1’s contrary advice. Peer review is supposed to be a scholarly conversation to improve your work, not a harsh judgment or gatekeeping process, so don’t be shy about trying to open up the conversation with the editor and with the reviewers (you’re never going to know who the reviewers are, and they won’t know you. But you can ask the editor to pass along your direct rebuttal letters to the reviewers when you resubmit, and frequently editors will do this anyway). And if the reviews ask you to add a lot more content to your already lengthy paper, point this contradiction out to the editor and ask him/her whether you should ignore the reviewers’ suggestions or ignore the word limit. The editor should have answers for your questions. It’s not supposed to be a guessing game for you.

Also, just get used to conflicting reviews. It happens, and it’s kind of the beauty of the peer review process. If your work doesn’t rub someone wrong along the way, then you’re probably not saying anything interesting anyway.

The Black Hole

I recently sent a manuscript to a well-known journal in my field. I sent this paper to a previous journal, and when it was rejected there (for not being theoretical enough…a common complaint of my work), the editor at that journal recommended I send it to this other journal, which was a better home for more practically focused work. So I sent it in. I’ll spare the details of the submission process and the back-and-forth with the editorial assistant (I never got to interact with the editor!) because it would reveal the journal’s identity, but suffice it to say that I did not get acknowledgement of receipt of my submission in a timely manner (and only when I prodded for it), and I got no follow-up about my manuscript along the way. I also was ignored on half the emails I sent to the editor and editorial assistant.

Black holes. Where nothing escapes. Where no one can hear you scream. Where your manuscript is probably not even under review yet.

During this waiting period, I heard from one colleague who let his paper sit at this journal for a full year, without hearing back on it, before he ultimately decided to withdraw his manuscript. I also heard from two other colleagues who felt the journal was just a venue for the editor to publish his friends’ and students’ work, and that the perception was that some work didn’t even have to go out for real peer review. Basically, the journal’s getting a shady reputation, despite the prestige of its editorial board and the visibility of the major organization that publishes it. I ultimately decided to withdraw my manuscript, and I CCed the associate editors on my withdraw email. Unsurprisingly, no response to that email either.

It was a waste of time for me. I sent my paper to a black hole.

How you can avoid this scenario: Follow up regularly. If you submit a manuscript on a Monday and haven’t received an email back saying it’s been received by Wednesday, it’s OK to send a follow-up email and politely inquire that it was received in good order. If it’s been under review for the typical time specified on the journal’s website (or, if it’s not specified, then 3 months, which is typical) and you haven’t heard anything, you can gently inquire about the status of your manuscript with the editor.

This is how I word that email, by the way:

Dear [editor's name],

I am gently inquiring about the status of manuscript, “[manuscript title],” [manuscript processing number, if applicable], that I submitted for review on [date you submitted it]. I look forward to a decision and the possibility of continuing the publishing process with [journal name].

Thank you,
Daren Brabham

And if you don’t hear back, keep following up. As long as you don’t get rude in your tone, you’re not bothering them. It’s an editor’s job to keep you informed about the status of your manuscript, especially after it’s been more than 3 months. And if you get the cold shoulder – especially if you’re also hearing bad things about the journal’s reputation along the way – then it may be time to withdraw your manuscript. If you do withdraw, a decision you should not take lightly, you should explain to the editors that you’re withdrawing, why you’re withdrawing, and probably also include a timeline of your contacts and their (non)contacts with you along the way.

You have to make tenure. You’re on your own clock. Don’t let a lazy or rude or nonresponsive journal editor get in the way of that pursuit.

The Change of Editor

Sometimes the editorial process is long – several rounds of review that take many months each, as well as a very long time from acceptance to actual publication. Sometimes editors will change during that process, and the new editor may feel differently about your article than the editor before. I submitted a manuscript to a journal almost a year ago. It went through one round of review and I was asked to revise it. I revised it, addressing all of the editor’s and reviewers’ concerns, and I sent it back in for a second round of review. I figured that the next decision I got would be for minor touch-ups or perhaps an acceptance. But while my paper was under review a second time, the editor suddenly resigned and a new editor took his place. This new editor – a good person, I should add – was left with a pile of manuscripts in various states of review. (The editor change also delayed my decision by about a month.) This new editor’s take on my manuscript, however, was that it needed yet another round of revision, this time to address different things (a complete rearrangement of my literature section). It’s OK – I understand. But it is a little bit of a let down. I’m currently working on the revision to send it back in for round 3.

When a new editor assumes the throne, you never know what will happen.

But this could have gone a lot worse. The new editor could come in and toss out a number of manuscripts that might be in their 4th or 5th round of review after a year or more, with authors feeling more and more confident they might get an acceptance decision next. That’s the power of an editor, and this kind of thing comes with the territory unfortunately.

How you can avoid this scenario: You can try to to appeal a decision with the new editor, explaining that you have made all the changes you’ve been asked to make prior to the new editor taking the helm. But this may not fly. It’s more common for editor changes to happen in such a way that late-stage manuscripts are shepherded through by the former editor, sometimes with various editorial footnotes stating that, though the new editor is listed on the journal’s masthead, certain articles were accepted by the previous editor. But sometimes editorial changes are sudden – editors are people, and life happens. You don’t have a lot of control in this scenario.

However, if you end up doing a few rounds of revision and the new editor ultimately disagrees and rejects your work, you can send your paper elsewhere. When you do send it to a new journal, you can explain in your submission cover letter that it went through a few rounds of review somewhere else and that, due to editorial changes, it didn’t sit well with that new journal’s editor. You can even include the reviewer reports and your revision memos when you submit to the new journal. The editor at this new venue will likely find your candor refreshing, and having seen how you’ve already improved your manuscript may make your review process there easier. Again, all of this publishing stuff is a big scholarly conversation. Better to just be upfront about your manuscript’s history.

 

Hopefully this is a helpful look at some of the things that can go wrong in the publishing process. You’ll probably have your own instance of bad luck in time, and the more you try to publish, the more you’ll run into these roadblocks. But, as always, keep pushing. You’ll stumble into some good luck eventually.

Templates, Rubrics, and (Not) Learning

By giving students templates and grading students on point rubrics, we are stifling their ability to think and learn. Teachers need to shift the focus away from rigid structures and expectations for students and toward looser frameworks for assessing larger objectives, such as mastery of content and higher order thinking.

My Tendency to Over-Teach

I’m no scholar of teaching and learning, but I’ve been doing both for quite a while now. I was in school, without taking time off, straight from preschool up through my Ph.D. And I started teaching college courses on my own in 2005 (and a year before that I was a TA. And in undergrad I also did a bit of student teaching at a high school). Any good teacher who takes the time to critically reflect on his or her methods and who really does care about the quality of his or her teaching will likely change things up every few years and try something new.

A grading rubric for a geology paper assignment. Are you as inspired to think critically and creatively as I am? I can hardly wait!

Lately, I’ve come to the realization that my tendency to “over-teach” is not doing my students any good. By “over-teach,” I mean that I tend to provide far too much detailed explanation, and that as I refine an assignment or my syllabus year after year, I tend to move toward templates and how-tos and away from ambiguity. For instance, when I taught the PR Campaigns course years ago, I provided vague guidance for what the actual deliverable (the PR campaign proposal document) should look like. I didn’t provide a target page length, I didn’t stipulate required sections and subheadings – nothing. Students turned in work that was of varying quality, varying length, and some of it just frankly missed the mark. I assumed that this variance in quality was a result of my ambiguous guidelines, and I probably graded the projects too generously, giving students the benefit of the doubt. After all, they can’t be expected to read my mind.

One of the biggest complaints students have about teachers (aside from being required to buy an expensive, crappy textbook) is that their expectations are not clear, that they are unsure exactly how they will be assessed. Indeed, “assessment” is a big buzz word in higher education right now, too. There’s as much effort put into planning how you’re going to evaluate the success of something as there is in actually doing it.

As the years went by, I found myself refining my PR Campaigns syllabus, to the point a year ago when I literally posted a template for the proposal document to the class website and had students work within it. I also had clear point values attached to even the smallest portions of the assignments over the semester. These point values were not only painful to calculate, but they tended to encourage bargaining. When a student knows something is only worth a few points in the final grade, he or she begins to weigh the costs and benefits of not doing it (losing the points vs. not having to put in the hard work). Students start to see the class as a grading game rather than as an opportunity to learn.

A Rubric Assignment vs. an Ambiguous Assignment

Some students – the ones who prefer grade gaming and bargaining – hate ambiguity. They want to know exactly what each element of an assignment is worth. Five points for putting my name on it? Check. Ten points for a thesis statement? Check. At least 3 paragraphs of literature review is worth 20 points? Check. And on and on. By the end of the paper, a student will think he or she has acquired all of the available points for the assignment. They assume they are starting from 100% of possible points and that you will be “taking” points away from them based on your “opinion” of whether they “deserve” the points. And then you grade it, and you tell them they really only “earned” 80% of the points. And then, because the student was in points bargaining mode to begin with, he or she challenges the grade, wondering why you “gave them” (or why they “got”) “only” 80% of the points. The battle rages on, with the teacher on the defensive.

When you know the teacher will hand out a grading rubric or a template for the assignment, why bother listening in class?

Now, on that same assignment, what if, instead of the points rubric, you were to say:

This paper must demonstrate your ability to synthesize the literature on X topic into a coherent, original analysis. It should follow all the standards of a college academic paper. ‘Average’ work earns a ‘C,’ ‘Good’ work earns a ‘B,’ and ‘truly exceptional and rare’ work earns an ‘A.’

It’s the same set of expectations, more or less, except that you’re shifting the focus away from points bargaining and toward encouraging your students to actually think about how to approach the assignment. Rather than run down a checklist, they know they will be rewarded for thinking about the learning objectives holistically, rewarded for creativity and analytical thinking, and trusted (not rewarded) to execute the paper with proper mechanics. Basically, they’re expected to produce college work, not automated robot checklist work.

A Return to Ambiguity

When I’ve tried ambiguous assignment prompts, I’ve received a range in quality. It’s frustrating to grade a motley collection of papers, but it’s even more frustrating to feel like a student is getting the best of you, feeling obligated to award points because they technically satisfied the rubric but didn’t produce work that demonstrated higher order thinking. When I’ve tried ambiguous assignment prompts, the worst papers are usually from the students who didn’t put a lot of thought into it anyway, who probably never met with me to sort through their ideas and let me steer them in the right direction. But the best papers that roll in on ambiguous assignments are truly the very best. They synthesize really complicated ideas, they come up with new “takes” on the world, and they challenge me, engaging me in a scholarly debate rather than boring me with the task of having to grade papers.

What I’m saying is that when I use a grading rubric or when I provide students templates and worksheets, I get consistently average work. And usually there’s a student or two in the mix that is smart enough to game the grading system and earn a high grade but who wasn’t smart enough to write a conceptually good paper. I resent these students, and they make me hate myself as a teacher, frankly.

But ambiguous assignments bring in a wide range of quality, and this is a good thing. Sure, some students do really poorly, but they often do poorly because they haven’t been reading for class or thinking critically, or they didn’t allot enough time to accomplish the task. But some students exceed my expectations and produce work that is sometimes good enough to publish. Teachers need to teach to their best students, not concern themselves too much with their worst students. This is especially true in college.

Teachers feel handcuffed to these explicit rubrics, and the work templates that go with them, because administrators don’t like reading teaching evaluations where students complain that they didn’t know how they were being graded. But teachers should give ambiguity a try. Students may just impress you.

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