28 Apr 2017

Untenured and Untethered: Replacing Tenure-track Faculty with Adjuncts

Untenured and Untethered: Replacing Tenure-track Faculty with Adjuncts
Susie Sympson, PhD, began her career as a grocery store clerk. When an injury forced her to quit and she returned to school, she began dreaming of getting a PhD and becoming a professor. She achieved her goal, earning a University of Kansas doctorate in clinical psychology and becoming an academic.

Her dream didn't turn out as expected, however.

Sympson has been an adjunct psychology professor at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas, for the last 11 years. With an annual salary of just $21,000 for three classes a semester plus one in the summer, she hasn't put a dent in the principal of her $500-a-month student loan debt. And with such low pay, saving anything for retirement has been impossible.

"There's a lack of respect for our training and for us as colleagues," says Sympson. "The administration acts like adjuncts are a dime a dozen."

Sympson's case is far from unusual. Non-tenure-track professors now represent more than 70 percent of the academic workforce, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). As tenure-track jobs give way to what some call higher education's "adjunctification," it isn't just adjuncts who are suffering. The trend also has ramifications for student learning, research and even academic freedom.

Set up to fail

While many assume that economic factors are forcing schools to use adjuncts, the contingent workforce has grown fastest during boom times, says AAUP. Instead of investing in a tenured workforce, AAUP says, schools have invested in technology and facilities. Noting the low pay, long hours, long commutes, instability and lack of benefits, professional support and opportunities for advancement, a 2014 report by the U.S. House of Representatives describes adjuncts as "the working poor."

What happens when students are taught by professors struggling to make a living? A 2014 review of the evidence by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation cites lower graduation and retention rates and decreased transfers from two-year to four-year institutions. Those outcomes aren't the fault of adjuncts but of the last-minute hiring decisions, lack of office space and other supports and other working conditions adjuncts typically face.

That inability to perform to their highest potential can weigh heavily on adjuncts, says Gretchen M. Reevy, PhD, a lecturer in psychology at California State University, East Bay, who credits her union for making adjuncts like her some of the country's luckiest.

In a study of non-tenure-track faculty, Reevy and co-author Grace Deason, PhD, a University of Wisconsin La Crosse assistant psychology professor, found that adjuncts most committed to their school were more likely to suffer stress, anxiety and depression (Frontiers in Psychology, 2014). Other risk factors included low income, inability to find permanent positions and coping mechanisms rooted in denial or giving up.

And being adjuncts renders faculty less able to influence their institutions' administrations, adds Reevy. Adjuncts are typically excluded from governance bodies, so the growing preponderance of adjuncts means faculty have less sway.

"A lot of people aren't involved in curriculum decisions and so forth," she says. "The power is shifting from faculty to the administration."

Research suffers, too, according to an AAUP report. Doing research requires stability and continuity—luxuries many adjuncts lack given their year-to-year or even semester-to-semester appointments, the report emphasizes. In addition, adjuncts often cobble together jobs at multiple institutions or take on extra classes to make ends meet, so they have little time for research. Plus, institutions may not grant adjuncts access to laboratories or even libraries and often exclude them from professional development opportunities.

"Most people with PhDs want to do scholarly work," says Reevy, who has been teaching 10 to 13 classes a year for more than two decades. "It's a waste of their talent."

Realistic expectations

It's hard to know how many psychology professors are adjuncts, says Eddy Ameen, PhD, who heads APA's Office on Early Career Psychologists. For many, especially practitioners, being an adjunct is "a helpful but minor secondary source of income," he says. Ameen himself is an adjunct professor, a side gig that allows him to keep a hand in academia.

The American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) is trying to determine how many recent grads are struggling as adjuncts, says Joanna Streck, a University of Vermont clinical psychology graduate student who serves on APAGS's Science Committee. She invites adjuncts to email her about their experiences at apags@apa.org.

Although advocates are working to change the system via living wage campaigns, unionizing efforts and calls to create teaching-oriented tenure-track positions, being realistic about your prospects is key, says Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD, associate executive director of APAGS. "Students are being trained for positions that just don't exist anymore," he says.

Instead, he urges academically minded students to consider what used to be called "alternative" careers that will allow them to use their research skills in nonacademic settings. "When half of doctorates may not end up in academic settings anymore, they're no longer 'alternative' careers," he says.

Sympson agrees. "There's no way this represents any kind of a future," she says.

By Rebecca A. Clay

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26 Apr 2017

Gregory Ball and the Adaptiveness of Behavior

Gregory Ball and the Adaptiveness of Behavior
Gregory Ball
APA Fellow Gregory Ball has spent most of his academic career studying animals and birds, and using the findings to develop understanding about the human brain and behavior.

Growing up, Gregory Ball, PhD, learned a lot about birds from his father, who did his undergraduate and graduate studies in zoology. “He wanted to be an ornithologist,” he recalls, speaking to the American Psychological Association from his office at the University of Maryland, where he is a professor and dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Science and APA Fellow.

That experience helped shape Ball’s own future interest and research on the interrelation of hormones, the brain, and reproductive behavior. By studying nonhuman animals, in Ball’s case birds, “you can study relationships between the brain and physiology in a way that you can’t in primates and humans,” he said.

In his lab at the University of Maryland, his team is studying how the perception of song induces gene expression in the brain of birds and how early experience with different kinds of song might affect that gene expression. They also recently published a study looking at how hormones interact with the dopamine system to affect sexual motivation. “Hormones do their work by modulating neurotransmitters and we’re trying to understand the circuit that they interact with to do that,” he said. According to the study, the projection from the preoptic area of the brain to the ventral tegmental area, where the dopamine of one of four major dopamine systems originates, to the accumbens, which plays a significant role in the cognitive processing of aversion, motivation, reward, and reinforcement learning, is very important in that process.

One of the Ball’s favorite recent findings to come out of his lab is related to steroids. “People think that a steroid has a very general effect on behavior – that it just makes you more motivated, or stimulated to do something,” Ball said enthusiastically.

“And we’ve done experiments where we’ve put tiny amounts of hormones or hormone blockers on the brain and we’ve shown that hormones actually act in multiple parts of the brain in specific ways to modulate behavior. For instance, the desire to sing is controlled in one part of the brain, but the control of how well you produce song in a temporal fashion is modulated in another part of the brain.”

Ball first got swept up in the studies of brain function and behavior in animals while studying at Columbia University. He took his introduction to psychology course with Dr. Herbert S. Terrace, who, among other things, led the famous study of animal language acquisition in the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky. Ball began working with Terrace, who had studied under B.F. Skinner, the year after he began working with Chimpsky. He was intrigued by the studies of brain function and behavior in animals at Columbia (along with the then-contentious, now-settled debate between behavioral and cognitive psychologists) and began his longtime specialization in experimenting on pigeons.

Under Terrace, they employed the Skinnerian approach, which doesn’t take into the account private events – like thinking, perceptions, and unobservable emotions – as causes of an organism’s behavior. Ball said he sensed something was missing in studying the pigeons this way.

“They didn’t know if they were males or females, they didn’t know anything about pigeons. They were just animals that you put in the box and you saw how the stimuli affected them. And this is that Skinnerian notion that the organism didn’t really matter – that the contingencies of reinforcement were so powerful that the same thing that happens in a pigeon could be programmed to happen in [other animals].”

Despite disagreeing with the Skinnerian approach, he learned in his early work in Terrace’s lab that he could parse and further understand many topics related to the brain and behavior by looking at nonhuman animals. He began to understand the potential for studying animals other than humans and use the findings to develop understanding about the human brain and behavior.

Around that time, he met Dr. Rae Silver, who had just come to Columbia University and was studying the parental behavior of doves in their natural habitat. He became her first research assistant at the university, which he said was a key event in his career as a psychologist.

“It was another milestone in my career because I realized ‘Oh, this is it!’ You study the animal on its own terms, you study the natural behavior of the animal, and try to glean what you can about the general principles of physiology and the brain related to behavior,” Ball said. “And that’s when I sort of saw that by studying these relationships in animals, you can understand the evolution, the adaptiveness of behavior and put it in the broader natural context.”

After his formative years at Columbia, he earned a PhD in psychobiology at Rutgers University, and completed his postdoctoral work in comparative neuroendocrinology and ethology at Rockefeller University. Prior to getting hired by the University of Maryland in 2014, he taught at Rutgers, Boston College, and Johns Hopkins University.
Today, as dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Science, much of his time is filled with administrative tasks, but he still finds time to pop over to the lab and check on his staff’s research while sharing encouraging stories to inspire the next generation of academics to follow their dreams.

One story he always enjoys retelling is about growing up right down the street from the University of Maryland and how on one summer break from his studies at Columbia, he took a job cutting the institution’s grass.

 “[I tell them] I used to mow the lawn of the building that I’m now dean of,” he says with a chuckle.

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24 Oct 2016

Teaching Confirmation Bias Using The Beatles

Teaching Confirmation Bias Using The Beatles

Help your students understand and avoid cognitive errors.

By John A. Minahan, PhD

Confirmation bias is the original sin of cognition. In seeking proof for only what we’ve already decided is true, we open ourselves to unlimited errors of thought. Maybe I’m amazed at my horoscope's accuracy. That seems innocuous enough. But maybe I’m also disgusted, yet not surprised, by the behavior of a particular ethnic or religious group, or convinced that mounting casualty rates prove the imminence of victory in a war my nation is waging. Confirmation bias is a serious subject. That doesn't mean, however, that you can’t have fun teaching about it. In fact, a bit of fun may be just what your students need to loosen its hold.

A (good-natured) dirty trick. Confirmation bias usually gets a big assist from "not me" thinking. Begin this lesson, then, without appearing to. Casually mention how you went to the store the other day and got stuck in the slow line. Grumble about the other line always moving faster, then stand back and watch. Most if not all students will have a story about the same thing happening to them. Nod sympathetically and move on; you’ll come back to this later.

“Paul is dead.” Today's students love The Beatles, whose music now has all the fuzzy warmth of things associated with (gulp) grandparents. Vinyl records will make this lesson even more retro and cool. Play "Strawberry Fields Forever," in which John Lennon remembers the park where he played as a child. At the very end, we hear a distorted and barely audible voice. Play this brief segment several times and ask the class what the voice is saying. Answers will likely range from "I'm very bored" to "cranberry sauce" to a declaration that it’s just gibberish. Wrong. The voice is saying, "I buried Paul."

Some students will hear it; some won't. The key thing is that millions of people did, and for good reason: Paul McCartney, who had given the world such brilliant and beloved songs as "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby," died in a car crash in 1966. The surviving Beatles tried to keep it a secret, and even put an imposter in his place. But by 1969 the truth began to leak out, largely because The Beatles themselves, out of guilt-driven loyalty to their fans, had been planting clues.

If a few class members already know this legend, they can help you reassure the rest not only that Paul is still very much with us but also that The Beatles never dropped any hints about his death. What then gave this rumor such widespread acceptance? Once this question is on the table, so is an examination of confirmation bias.

The "proof." There’s a wealth of sources you can draw on (a representative list follows this article). Begin with the cover of the Abbey Road album. In this iconic image, we see the four of The Beatles crossing a London Street. Invite the class to view it as a funeral procession. In the front is John, whose white suit marks him as God. Ringo follows, wearing a preacher’s old-fashioned frock coat. After him comes Paul — or the Paul lookalike, wearing the kind of conservative suit you'd see on a corpse dressed for burial. He's out of step with the others (aha) and shoeless (the dead don't need shoes) and holding a cigarette (often called a “coffin nail”) in his right hand (Paul was left-handed). George is last, appropriately, because his work shirt and jeans indicate he’s the gravedigger.

Nearby, a Volkswagen has a license plate that reads LMW 28IF, which means "Linda McCartney Weeps" (Linda was Paul’s wife) and that Paul would be 28 if he were still alive. The police car on the other side of the road symbolizes the law enforcement officials at the scene of the fatal accident. How do we know Paul died in a car crash? Look at the car parked ahead of the Volkswagen and imagine a line connecting its two right tires; when extended, that line goes through Paul’s head.

By now, you should be hearing comments ranging from "Aren’t you just finding what you want to find?" (which is good) to "Yeah, I sort of see it" (which is better). Offer more proof: On the album’s back cover, some tiles on a concrete wall spell out "Beatles." A cluster of smudges appears to the left. Connect these “dots” and you get the number 3: Only three Beatles are still living. The tile containing the "s" in Beatles has a crack in it, meaning the band is no longer united — and hasn’t been for years. Remember the "I buried Paul" line? Now that we know what to look for, we can find clues aplenty, as many fans did when they pored over album covers, parsed song lyrics and played Beatles songs faster or slower or even (and most notoriously) backwards.

Fact and reason. Hopefully, your students will point out that it's possible to hear just about anything when the words are distorted enough, just as it’s possible to find proof if you've already decided what's true. Try passing out the words to any Beatles song. For example, "Love Me Do" expresses a wish for "somebody new" and "someone like you" — clearly a reference to the band’s need for a lookalike replacement. Except for this problematic fact: The song was composed years before Paul’s “death.”

More facts: the rumor began as a prank article in a college newspaper. The Abbey Road cover came about because The Beatles, having increasing trouble working together, decided on a simple shot of them crossing the street near their recording studio. Paul was barefoot because it was a hot day. The LMW 28IF license would encode no message about Linda McCartney weeping because Paul and Linda hadn't even met in 1966, the year he supposedly died. Plus he was 27 in 1969, and the "I" in "28IF" is a one.

How about some reasonable criteria for an imposter? Looking like Paul would be the easy part. He would also have to sing like Paul, and walk and talk and smile in that adorable way like Paul and compose instantly hummable tunes like Paul. Oh, and play bass. Left-handed. Which returns us to the key question: Why did so many people put so much faith in something so unfounded?

Follow-Up Activities

  1. Research The Beatles and their times. Maybe it was easier for their millions of long-time fans to believe in tragedy and conspiracy than in the truth: As Paul himself told Life magazine, he was "not dead, but the Beatle thing is over." And the band did in fact plant "secret" messages in their album art and music, albeit at random and in a whimsical mood just to see if anyone would notice; hence the distorted phrase at the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever" (which actually is “cranberry sauce”). Also, given that this rumor of death and cover-up was most virulent in America, and given that Vietnam was happening and Watergate was looming, perhaps the credulity becomes less incredible.
  2. Invent a rumor about a celebrity and then find the "proof." To counter the morbid tone of the Paul-is-dead legend, and to make this rumor feel all the more attractive, focus on something we might wish for instead of something we dread.
  3. Connect these discussions to more pressing or far-reaching scenarios. For example, a student believes that the C+ she just got on her algebra quiz proves she can’t do math. Having already decided she's a failure, would she not draw the same conclusion from an A-? Imagine then the healing effect of freeing herself from confirmation bias. This discussion may also lead to some complex and controversial issues involving race, religion, politics, ideology and morals. If handled with intelligence and sensitivity, such a discussion will help students not only generate testable hypotheses but also experience the compassion and empathy that critical thinking can elicit.
  4. Watch the live feed from the "Abbey Road Crossing Cam," which makes for strangely compelling viewing. The camera faces a different direction, but it's the same crosswalk. Generally, no more than a few minutes will elapse before someone stops in the middle of the street to be photographed recreating the famous scene, often to the clear annoyance of London drivers.
  5. Ensure no one leaves this lesson feeling judgmental ("Not me") by reminding students of their "other line always moves faster" discussion at the start of class. Why do we think that? Could it be we look for proof only during those few times when our line is moving slower and don’t look for proof during the many more times our line is not moving slower? The nonnormative is perceived as normative because the normative is not perceived at all. That is, the very rarity of the event makes it feel as if it happens continually — yet one more way in which confirmation bias creates its own reality. What if we could change that? We all engage in confirmation bias, which means we can all do something about it. "You say you want a revolution?” The Beatles asked. "You better free your mind."

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24 Oct 2016

Think Like a Scientist: Harnessing Current Events to Teach Psychological Science

Think Like a Scientist: Harnessing Current Events to Teach Psychological Science

Try these critical thinking activities to foster scientific literacy.

Every day the news media trumpet psychology-related findings with the potential to affect our lives directly and indirectly. And we do mean every day.

  • "Testing Neurons With Ultrasound" (Gorman, 2015).
  • "Study Does Not Link Breast-Feeding With Child’s IQ" (Bakalar, 2015).
  • "Effectiveness of Talk Therapy is Overstated, a Study Says" (Carey, 2015).

These headlines are just a sample from the website of one newspaper, The New York Times, on one day. In fact, the talk therapy article listed here even elicited a letter from the American Psychological Association pointing out that this article “was minimizing the clear benefits of psychotherapy that have been found over many years of research” (Anton, 2015), leading to an online dialog about psychology research. The media and other Internet sources, with their abundance of psychology-related material, provide a perfect proving ground for teaching scientific literacy.

A major goal of our courses — especially introductory psychology — is to teach students to be strong critical thinkers about psychology-related claims. This approach fits with current emphasis on teaching skills, and not just content, in the psychology classroom (see APA, 2013). In our opinion, the most important of these skills is scientific literacy.

To do this, we look to the growing body of research on how to teach scientific literacy. Most importantly, active learning, broadly defined, has been demonstrated to lead to better outcomes than straight lecture (Freeman, Eddy, McDonough, Smith, Okoroafor, Jordt, & Wenderoth, 2014). More specifically, Lovett and Greenhouse applied cognitive psychology research to the teaching of statistical and research methods concepts and developed several principles of effective teaching (2000). They found that students do not readily generalize new learning to other contexts. They also found that students tend to learn best when they can integrate new information into what they already know.

To help students build on what they know, we repeatedly dissect media examples so students apply psychological science to a variety of contexts. We start each class meeting by asking students to find psychology-related stories online — in major newspapers, on sports blogs, in political statements or even fashion e-zines. (For students without a connected device, we allow sharing. Alternatively, students can find an article before class.) There are only two rules: The article must be from the last 24 hours to demonstrate that psychology-related stories emerge every day, and it can’t be from a psychology-specific source like Psychology Today; it’s too easy when every story is related to psychology.

Without exception, students readily locate multiple examples — even in news sources that might seem far afield. Some are based on actual scientific research, like those in the headlines we opened with, whereas others are somewhat suspect, like the supposed relation of lipstick color to personality (Schultz, 2015) or tennis star Serena Williams’s superstitious belief in not washing her socks while on a winning streak (Brodie, 2014).

As instructors, we save the best of both scientific and not-so-scientific examples in our e-folders for the relevant introductory psychology chapter. Once a week, we engage in a longer-form exercise in which we introduce one example that offers opportunities for active learning. Over a 20- or 30-minute period, we use a four-part framework in which students:

  1. Identify the claim the researchers or journalists are making.
  2. Evaluate the evidence that is cited to support the claim.
  3. Consider alternative explanations for the finding.
  4. Consider the source of the research or claim.

Here’s a recent “ripped from the headlines” example. (For each step, we’ll include instructor preparation information.) A The New York Times blog post published on the same day as the articles listed above asked “Does Mindfulness Make for a Better Athlete?” (Reynolds, 2015). The reporter concluded that the study's findings “could mean that closely attending to our bodies might help us to be better, calmer athletic performers.”

Identify the Claim

In class, students read the article and identify the claim — in this case, that mindfulness improves athletic performance. At this step, we include a related interactive component. In fact, we choose articles that lend themselves to an activity. In this case, we might have students discuss in pairs their own anxieties about performance, whether in an athletic, artistic or academic endeavor. We would introduce some mindfulness techniques and have students practice them in the context of their own example. We might follow with a larger class discussion about how mindfulness might help performance.

As part of identifying the claim, we also ask students to talk about how the researchers have operationally defined the concepts they are studying. We encourage the students to think about different ways that the same concepts could be defined and measured, and how those differences might affect research findings.

Instructor preparation: Choose the article; develop a related activity that encourages active learning.

Evaluate the Evidence

Now we dig into the actual evidence, first by examining the source, in this case the blog post. The blog post tells us this research was published in a journal and conducted by scientists at a university, all good signs. It also tells us that the study was conducted on just seven elite BMX riders, all from the USA Cycle Team, who had their brains scanned while learning to identify signals of potential problems, underwent seven weeks of mindfulness training and then had their brains scanned again. Following the training, their response to the indicator of trouble ahead was improved, and they showed less “physiological panic.”

We then guide a discussion of the pros and cons of the study as presented in the news source. The pros include that university scientists were involved, and the study was peer reviewed. The cons include that there were just seven participants, with no random assignment and no control group. This is a within-groups design, and counterbalancing is not possible.

We then turn to the peer-reviewed journal article (Haase et al., 2015). In this example, we would inform the students that the researchers described this study as a pilot, acknowledging the small sample size. The published report also includes helpful graphs and brain scan images, some of which we would project so students could see the specifics of the data. We would reiterate the pros and cons that we gleaned from the article.

Instructor preparation: Locate and read the original source; identify specific information that will help students understand and evaluate the evidence.

Consider Alternative Explanations

For this step, we guide students to identify alternative explanations for the findings. We might do this as a larger group discussion or have students discuss in small groups first. For this example, we would discuss the lack of a control group and the possibility of confounds. But we would also discuss the alterative explanation that perhaps mindfulness led to different brain patterns — improved response with less “physiological panic” — without leading to improved athletic performance. After all, the researchers did not actually measure athletic performance.

We would ask students to identify where the blogger was careful to point this out. Specifically, she noted that “the experiment did not look at actual, subsequent athletic performance” (Reynolds, 2015). We would then point out that this is even more carefully discussed in the journal. The researchers explicitly point out that mindfulness training could have led to the results they reported “without actually affecting performance itself” (Haase et al., 2015, p. 10).

Instructor preparation: Develop a list of alternative explanations; locate and read any additional articles that relate to these alternative explanations.

Consider the Source

Finally, we compare and contrast the source we started with — the blog post in this case — with the peer-reviewed journal article. We talk about what to look for in a news story or other source that indicates that it’s based on research, including names and institutions of researchers and a mention of a published study. In cases in which there is no peer-reviewed journal article, like some websites that make wild claims to sell you something, we discuss the flaws of sources that don’t point to science.

Instructor preparation: Develop a brief overview (we use PowerPoint) of why peer-reviewed journal articles are almost always a better source than a newspaper, blog or website, and of what students should look for when evaluating these. This can be reused when this activity is repeated with a new source. We also recommend evaluating sources using the CRAP test (currency, reliability, authority and purpose/point of view) that can be found at many university websites.

This format for a recurring activity was developed based on research on the scholarship of teaching and learning and allows for active learning and repetition across contexts. In our experience, early in the semester, students have difficulty finding examples of psychological science in the news, unless a headline makes it explicitly clear that a given finding is from the field of psychology. By the end of the semester, they start to see psychological science everywhere — from sports stories to breaking international news.

Similarly, early in the semester, students have difficulty working through the four-part framework. But, just as many of them become skilled at noticing when psychological science is at play, many of them also become skilled at thinking critically about research. They learn to ask the right questions and to seek out appropriate answers for these questions — the mark of a budding psychological scientist.

By Susan A. Nolan, PhD, and Sandra E. Hockenbury, MA

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