Why You Should Think Twice Before Asking Me (Or Anyone) For A Reference Letter

Posted January 16th, 2014 in Higher Education by davecopeland

In seven years of teaching, the requests have come from students who barely passed my class. They have come a day after graduation and stated the obvious when they read “I’m not sure if you remember me, but…” They have come addressed to another professor, thanks to forgetting to change the salutation when they were copied-and-pasted into emails to anyone that may be able to put a face with an email address and write the coveted glowing reference.

The deeper I get into my teaching career, willing I have been to give into my guilt and write them. “Will you write me a reference letter?” is often code for “Will you follow the specific instructions to write individual letters for the 10 grad schools and 10 entry-level positions I have applied for?” I tried to limit my reference-letter writing to students who received an A or B in my class and, later, an A. Then I tried to limit it to students who have taken more than one class with me or have given me some other way to get to know them beyond the 37.5 hours of classroom time I have with them in a given semester (assuming they don’t miss any classes).

I have tried to gently point out that, as an adjunct professor, my reference will not have the weight and impact that a letter from a full-time faculty member will have, particularly if the student is applying for a graduate program. I also point out that they may get a better reference letter from a professor who taught a class in which they actually spoke or offered some other way of helping the professor remember who the fuck they were.

And still the requests came.

Policies did little to deter them. If anything, they resulted in an email back-and-forth in which more time was expended explaining and reiterating my policy on reference letters than it would have been to simply drag out the boiler plate and send the damn letter. Refusal was often — coincidentally, I’m sure — followed with a shitty, anonymous review on Rate My Professor days, or even hours, after I had politely explained why writing a reference was something I could not do.

The biggest reason for not wanting to honor every reference letter request is it cheapens the ones I write for the students I actually want to write reference letters for. Right now I’m finishing up a round of letters for a former student who I feel genuinely deserves my time and effort; it’s been more than five years since she was in my class, but I still remember specific interactions and her efforts to actually learn something. She was one of those rare, contemporary students who figuratively asked “What can I learn in this class?” instead of “What do I need to get an A in this class?” Too often students mistake my genuine like for them as people with a firm belief that they can “excel in a graduate program” or “be a fine addition to your corporate culture.”

I don’t know if hiring managers and admissions committees actually read the reference letters; there must be some gems from the students who truly over-estimated the professor’s views of their abilities, and perhaps those blunt missives about a candidate’s shortcomings are helpful to people deciding between applicantss who all look alike on paper. But if those people are actually reading them, they will be reading even fewer from me thanks to my latest policy to deal with the glut of requests I get.

I’m not going to write them anymore.

Like most rules I make, there are instances where I will want to (and instances where I will) break my own rule. But the general rule of thumb going forward is prove something to me. Take multiple classes with me and show an intellectual curiosity that goes beyond getting through my class as another checkmark on the list of things you have to do to get to graduation. Understand that, in a typical class, I have less interaction with you than I would if you worked for me as a full-time employee for a single week. If the request is going to come a year or more after you are in my class, keep in mind I will have as many as 100 new students since then; if you didn’t make an effort to get to know me by showing up to office hours or staying after class to talk about your career plans, I may need a refresher on who you are.

And most of all, when I say no, understand I am saying no to benefit you. I’m saving you from the half-hearted effort I would put into writing the letter and pushing you to find that one professor or boss you really connected with who can write the types of letters that make the reader take notice.

Review of Lore, A Flawed Course-Management Platform

Posted November 25th, 2013 in Higher Education, Teaching by davecopeland

It’s been awhile since I wrote about teaching and tech, but here is something worth noting: stay the hell away from Lore.

Lore is a course-management platform that is free and that I eagerly adopted last summer for my fall 2013 classes at Bridgewater State University. There has been a long-simmering debate at BSUabout Moodle vs. Blackboard and I was afraid I would end up on the side of the loser and have to recreate all my courses. And even if I did pick the right platform for BSU purposes, there is still a good chance I’d have to recreate the online elements of my courses if I ended up teaching similar classes at another university.

It’s a moot point: because Lore was such a nightmare I’m going to end up recreating the online components of my classes over winter break anyhow. There was a point early in the semester when I decided to have my classes “power through” the Lore problems but I wish I had sucked it up and switched then. The frustration for my students is more-than-likely going to translate into poor end-of-semester reviews for me and the frustration for me is I felt like I was constantly wasting time in class to explain when assignments were do, how to submit assignments and how to work around Lore-inspired problems.

In other words, I wasted a lot of in-class time that could have been spent on course content and a lot of out-of-class time that could have been spent on course prep. Continue Reading »

First Step In The Next Phase Of My Life

Posted August 13th, 2013 in Higher Education, Life by davecopeland

This summer I learned I would be among the first PhD candidates for a new doctoral program in sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. What follows is the writing sample from my application, where I was asked to discuss my research interests.

Between 2004 and 2006 I spent most of my time researching what would become my first book, Blood & Volume: Inside New York’s Israeli Mafia (Barricade, 2007). Much of that research consisted of conducting long, in-depth interviews with Ron Gonen, a career criminal and a former member of the syndicate that operated in New York City in the 1980’s and who, at the time I first met him, was approaching his fifteenth year in the federal witness protection program.

Ron and I would speak on the phone for up to four hours at a stretch. When trust between reporter and subject had been established, he let me spend a long weekend in the flyover-country city he had been relocated to in 1990. Later we went – perhaps foolishly – to New York City so Ron could show me the figurative and literal scenes of the crimes.

“It must be cool, spending time with a guy like that,” said friends who were working on more mundane thesis topics for the MFA in creative nonfiction writing program at Goucher College.

It was cool, but it was also exhausting in an annoying sense. Ron is – and he will admit this readily – a narcissist.

Shortly after arriving in New York City in 1982 he wanted to go to a couples-only, cocaine-fueled swingers party on the Upper East Side. Ron hired a prostitute to accompany him instead of bringing his wife as he could not, he reasoned, bear to watch his wife have sex with other men. He sold cocaine to friends who ultimately became addicted and, in a few cases, overdosed. He broke the fingers of another close friend – one by one – who owed him money. He stole nearly $100,000 from a man he once thought of as a brother. His narcissism ultimately lead him to commit the ultimate underworld sin: Ron became a rat and testified against his friends to avoid stiffer penalties.

For Ron, feeling he was more important than his victims (or his family and friends, for that matter) as a classic narcissist would made hurting those people much less complicated.

In his new, law-abiding days his narcissism was more subdued but still a constant presence: he outright ignored my requests to open a window when he smoke cigarettes on our drives through his new hometown. He made me keep him company during a poorly attended open house in his new life as a realtor and making me drive 40 blocks through Manhattan in rush hour traffic because he couldn’t wait a few hours for traffic to die down to see his old, Upper East Side apartment. He interupted our interviews to take long phone calls without a nod of apology, and often ignored the fact that I was trying to conduct an interview if a friend or attractive woman stopped by the table we were seated at. When I started promoting the book, Ron would often imply to interviewers he was the author. When it was released, he took a stack of copies to his favorite watering hole and signed “his” book for friends.

The more time I spent with Ron, the more I thought about other criminals and alleged criminals I had written about in my 15 years as a journalist. They ranged from tax cheats to corrupt politicians. They included dozens of self-proclaimed innocent men in jails and prisons, half a dozen convicts who claimed they knew who stole paintings from Boston’s Gardner Museum in 1990 and large-scale dealers of every narcotic imaginable. As I thought about more than a decade’s worth of interviews – some one-time, 10-minute phone conversations, others that covered several hours or even stretched out over the course of several days – I saw a similar pattern. Most of the people I had known who viewed crime as a profession had a sense of self-importance – something that may have been called “confidence” in a more legitimate profession – that bordered on narcissism.

“I always thought Ron would have been successful no matter what he did,” Gonen’s American-born wife and 1980’s New York City party girl Honey Tessman told me. “He had that mind – he could have been a doctor, a lawyer – but this is what he chose and this is what he ended up being good at.”

For her part, Tessman was a key player in Gonen’s New York drug dealing operation and narcissistic in her own right; after Blood & Volume was released she refused to speak with me for more than a year because she felt the book had focussed too much on her husband and not enough on her.

Facebook, Twitter and a New Kind Of Narcissism

Blood & Volume suffered a fate many books have faced: great reviews that do not translate into stellar sales, meaning by June 2007 I was stuck with a closet full of remainder copies and an urgent need for gainful employment. I ended up taking a series of jobs as a tech journalist, arriving on my beat just in time to cover the rise of social media, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.

Within a year, social media went from being a seldom-heard term used solely by early adopters to a buzzword. Just as proponents of the new technology were pointing to the election of Barack Obama and its use of social media as an organizing tool as proof positive that the medium would open up a better, more connected world, Facebook was supplanting MySpace as the online social network of choice. Then, as now, the tech press has been reluctant to ask questions about the downside of this communications revolution.

Forget, for a moment, the very real and valid points about privacy concerns, identity theft, cyber bullying and a slew of other concerns that have been raised piecemeal by the mainstream media looking for an attention-grabbing headline. Perhaps one of the biggest problems with our new, social-media backed way of communicating is that it has the potential to awaken the inner narcissist in all of us. Does that awaken the inner criminal, scam artist and philanderer as well? Is not seeing your victims the same as not caring about your victims? And, at the very least, does this new way of communication, where people would rather text than talk, fundamentally change how we value and utilize relationships within society? Is the technology evolving so fast that social norms can’t keep up? Ultimately, I want to center my research around the idea that the new, technologically-enhanced ability to maintain more and more relationships ultimately cheapens those relationships and has the individual valuing the self more than the society.

As a journalist I have been, by and large, limited to the anecdotal nature of my qualitative research. But in my interviews with hundreds of people who create and use social media platforms, I have seen alarming trends and problems that would benefit from sociological inquiry.

Up until the summer of 2012, when I was preparing a course on Cyberculture and Digital Media for students at Bridgewater State University (where I have been a guest visiting lecturer since 2007), I saw it as a question best left for Communication Studies Departments. But as I planned lectures, led focus groups with students about how they used Facebook, Twitter, SMS text messaging and other forms of social media, I started to see a pattern: there was an assumption – sometimes right but often wrong – that the traditional rules of offline social networks carried over to online social media. I started to see social media and its implications on society and culture, as well as communication, as an inquiry best accomplished through sociological research like the course of inquiry I am proposing as a candidate for the PhD program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Quantity, Not Quality, Relationships

Consider, for a moment, statements from Bridgewater State University students I have collected in discussions, interviews and focus groups over the course of the 2012-13 school year:

  • “I think texting and social media sites isolate people from the real world,” says Taylor, a 20-year-old Communication Studies major who also told me she thinks “texting is the greatest thing in the world.”

  • “With the amount of time we spend ‘interacting’ with each other on various social media sites, when I stop and think, most of these people I haven’t had an actual conversation with in years, and haven’t seen them in probably a longer time than that,” said Kim, who was enrolled in my Social Media & Journalism class.

  • “I think that social media and texting has had a negative impact on the personal social skills of some individuals as it is much easier to write to someone over a phone or a computer than it is to talk in person,” Kristen write in an online assignment, while also noting she has more than 500 Facebook friends.

The new technology comes with the promise that it will be easier for us to connect – and stay connected – with other people. But as researchers from Robin Dunbar to Connected authors Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler have repeatedly shown, more relationships means less time devoted to maintaining any one of those relationships. That, in turn, dilutes the quality of those relationships.

It’s why you can easily have more than 1,000 Facebook “friends,” but you would never have that many friends within your offline social network. People immersed in online social networks (including, to a certain extent, myself), typically report feeling overwhelmed. The people I have interviewed see nothing unusual about checking social media sites before they get out of bed each morning and as the last thing they do each night, yet they also report high levels of distraction, an inability to focus in one-on-one conversations and reduced levels of empathy. Despite the high levels of stress that accompany the always-on lifestyle, they seem resigned to this fate.

“I probably send hundreds of texts every day, which sounds pretty ridiculous when you think about it,” Kristen concedes. “But this is what this world has come to.”

In my Cyberculture & Digital Media class I show students a brief documentary on Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist whose controversial experiments showed people can dissociate from their actions and see selves as an instrument of another person’s will. I was also hoping students would see that it was easier for people to mistreat a person they did not know and could not see or fully interact with, as was the belief of the people who served as subjects in Milgram’s research on conformity. Each semester the film sparks an interesting discussion among students when they are asked to consider social media in relation to Milgram’s findings.

“I think social media is even worse,” one student said after considerable personal reflection on the discussion last semester. “At least with Milgram, those people could hear the screaming. With social media, you can’t always hear the person screaming on the other end.”

I approach my doctoral research working with the idea that the quantity of relationships now possible thanks to digital social media has diluted the quality and strength of those relationships and, by extension, has made it easier for people to act unethically or even criminally. Ron Gonen was able to commit horrible crimes because he felt he was more important than his victims and the people he cared about. Does an inability to forge close ties thanks to social media make it easier for otherwise normal, law-abiding people to drop their morales when they go online? Are we desensitised to the notion that Facebook “friends” are indeed real people?

I am not a Luddite. On the contrary, I embrace and exhaustively explore most new technologies and believe the biggest benefit for readers of my work as a technology journalist has been the ability to demystify technology and show how it can change people’s lives for the better. But all of my work has been driven by the belief that good journalists – and good researchers – kick the figurative tires of every new idea and every new technology, asking questions and considering the potential downsides. One of the principles that was constantly in mind when I worked as a tech journalist, and one I hope to still hold close as I work as a sociologist studying technology’s impact on society is the first of historian Melvin Kranzberg’s six laws of technology:

“Technology is neither good nor bad; but it is also never neutral.”

A Case For Journalism Classes In Higher Education

Posted November 21st, 2012 in Higher Education by davecopeland

Undated photo of Tent City from the Bridgewater State University Website.

In each of the six Novembers I have taught at Bridgewater State University, a small but growing band of students have lived in tents for five nights. It’s part of the International Tent City program, designed to raise awareness of homelessness and simulate the tent cities homeless people live in throughout the world.

Some students spend a night in the tents for extra credit in a class; others spend all five nights (and last week, when this year’s event was held, that was pretty hearty given temperatures that dipped below freezing). The program has become so popular in its six years I heard unconfirmed reports of alumni coming back to spend a night or two in the awareness-raising event.

The timing of this Pete Earley post on his decision to not spend time pretending to be homeless and write a book about the experience contrasts nicely with Tent City at Bridgewater State. Book publishers have loved this idea ever since George Plimpton suited up to train with the Detroit Lions and write Paper Lion. It can be entertaining reading, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the experience. Continue Reading »

Dude, despite your PhD you’re an idiot

Posted October 18th, 2012 in Higher Education by davecopeland

I call bullshit on this post, as I tend to do with this particular blog, which is essentially a place for college professors to bitch about their students (if you have or will have college-aged children I suggest taking a look at this site somewhat regularly to get a feel of what the people you’re paying to educate your kids really think about your kids):

Two students were talking about a trip to California, during which time they’d have a day for just one Disney Park.  Which one to choose?
“Dude, just go on Wikipedia and get a list of rides for each park.”
“No way, Dude! I want to be sure I get the right information!  I guess I should go to a Disney site, right, to make absolutely sure?”
Ahhhhhhh.  I see.  So when it is REALLY important, then, they DO know places to look to be sure they are getting the right information!!!!
First, no students I know use Dude in the way that the anonymous author suggests. And frankly, college professors need to get over their hate for Wikipedia and understand the source before dismissing it. Students are going to use it whether or not we tell them to, so maybe it’s time to shut the fuck up with your whining about Wikipedia and figure out a way to teach them how to use it properly.

Rant: Don’t Send Your Kids To College To Learn Social Media And/Or Job Skills

Posted September 27th, 2012 in Higher Education by davecopeland

Not sure why this is shocking: Universities are failing at teaching social media

The only people who still think colleges are about job training are, well, everyone not in the system. Colleges and universities like to think they are above the petty work of vocational training, except when it comes to selling the school to prospective parents and their students.

In my experience, there are an alarming number of college professors who still see email as a burden as, in the words of one former colleague “it means students can contact me on the weekends.” And this was a professor in a communication studies department.

With that mindset, maybe college students are better off doing what they have always done: figuring out how to use and dominate the technology on their own.

I need your love: Please vote for my SXSW panel proposal (and maybe save a puppy)

Posted August 15th, 2012 in Higher Education by davecopeland

Every vote helps, and every time you share the link to my SXSW panel proposal on your social media outlets of choice, you save a puppy.

Well, I may be making that last part up, but it would be great if you could visit this link, vote and share so I can talk about the “Higher Ed Crisis: Remaking The U.S. University” at SXSW in March.

My SXSW Proposal: Making The U.S. University System Tech-Friendly (Voting Opens 9/17)

Posted June 27th, 2012 in Higher Education by davecopeland

Just submitted by first ever SXSW panel proposal. Once voting opens, I’m going to pull out all the stops to ask for your help. Here’s the solo presentation I’m pitching:

Higher Ed Crisis: Remaking The U.S. University

More people are enrolling in college than at any other time in U.S. history. While policy makers give half-hearted lip service to worries about a higher education bubble, they still pump money and incentives into increasing enrollment. High school guidance counselors are judged by how many students go on to college. And four-year, public and community colleges, which are getting the greatest influx of the new breed of students, play up the promised land myth: get into college and you’ll get a good job.

But the myth breaks down on the first day of classes. Academics see themselves not as providing job training but as living up to the university roles of research and turning students into well-rounded people. Those are worthy goals, but for the majority of students that means a fear of failure and a career in a cubicle. University career services help students polish resumes but not on how to start a business.

This talk offers a big-picture solution to the higher ed crisis.

Five questions this talk will answer:

  1. Should you send your kid (or yourself) to college?
  2. Why don’t more colleges encourage students to take risks?
  3. How can we reverse the anti-entrepreneur culture in higher ed?
  4. What does the perfect college degree for the new economy look like?
  5. Which schools/programs/majors are getting it right?

Every Major Is Terrible

Posted May 13th, 2012 in Higher Education by davecopeland

Funny comic about choosing a college major. See more. And choose your major wisely, says the guy who majored in sociology as an undergrad.

[ReadWriteWeb] Hurdles Remain Before College Classrooms Go Completely Digital

Posted February 24th, 2012 in Higher Education, Social media, Technology by davecopeland

OnlineUniversities.com came out with an optimistic infographic last week about how college classrooms are going digital.

But as someone who makes as much as a quarter of his income from teaching college classes in any given year, and who also spends a good amount of time speaking at conferences trying to help professors incorporate technology and social media into their curriculum, the view from the trenches is very different than the iPad-in-every-backpack proponents would have you believe.

This is not to say that tech isn’t changing the way we teach and the way students learn: it most certainly is. But probably not as fast as some people outside of higher ed think it is.

Read more at ReadWriteWeb.

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