March 31, 2007
No, I haven't fallen off the face of the earth. I'm still in Baltimore, and have had trouble getting internet access at times when I can blog. Right now, however, things are a bit slow in the exhibit hall at the ACRL conference and my colleague has wandered off to look at other exhibitors, so I turned off the external monitor and logged into the blog. I have had so much to write about since I have been here and it has been frustrating not to be able to write about it. I promise a full report when I get back. In the meanwhile, I'll just say that librarians can be surprisingly nice when they are out of their libraries and don't have to worry about shushing people or preventing book theft. And it is good that they are nice, because Baltimore is currently crawling with librarians. Everywhere I go, there they are (I can recognize them by their buns and glasses, and the fact that they are all carrying ACRL tote bags). On Thursday night I even found myself surrounded by librarians in a bar! I did manage to escape them last night, however, by heading down to the South Baltimore/Federal Hill area. I guess they don't stray too far off base. Back to work now, but more tomorrow from Ann Arbor.
March 29, 2007
On the Road Again
I missed you yesterday, dear Reader, but I have a good excuse for not posting: I was en route to Baltimore to staff the ICPSR exhibit booth at the national meeting of the Association of College and Research Libraries.
I arrived safely yesterday, checked into my hotel, and spent the evening wandering around the harbor area. Today I went to the Convention Center first thing in the morning to get my exhibit booth set up. This was the scariest part of the whole trip. I had a very half-assed training on setting up the exhibit booth, which pretty much consisted of the ICPSR human resource assistant telling me that I am too short and that there is no way I'll be able to do it myself. The exhibit booth is a 10x10 foot pop-up frame, which then gets plastered with ICPSR information. I have a friend who used to design these things for a living, and she said the challenge was to create an impactful booth that could easily be assembled by one person. I guess the designers of our booth weren't imagining it being set up by a 5'3" tall woman. Fortunately, when I got to the booth space, there were two tall chairs and, standing on these, putting the booth together was actually pretty easy. The hard part was turning the booth's shipping case into a podium. There are some extra pieces that snap on, and then velvet panels that go around the whole thing, attached by magnets and velcro. But I just couldn't get the side panels to stick, so they are standing out at an angle, making the whole thing look pretty low-budget.
I expected it to take about an hour to set up the booth and it ended up taking two, so I'm glad I went early. The most infuriating thing, however, was the people who work here, who are supposed to be here to give any help we need. The whole time I was setting up the booth, four of these guys were standing around chatting in the booth next to me. They never once offered help, though they did make eye contact with me a few times. Instead, they were busy loudly discussing:
- The fact that restaurant smoking sections are too small (one guy said that he wanted to open his own all-smoking restaurant, where the nonsmokers have to sit in the basement
- The fact that the surveys showing that a majority of Marylanders don't like to be around smokers are biased because they only survey Democrats
- Why they need guns
- The overly restrictive nature of Maryland's concealed weapons laws
I wasn't quite sure why they had to have this conversation right next to my exhibit booth but, as soon as I finished setting up and left to wash my hands, they disappeared as well. In any case, my booth is set up, no thanks to them, and now I'm off to find some breakfast.
March 22, 2007
Yoga at Work
Last week a yoga class started up in my office on Mondays and Wednesdays at lunch time. Our teacher comes to us (from where, I'm not sure), and we clear away the tables in one of the downstairs conference rooms and set out our yoga mats. There are ten of us in the class, but only about seven on any given day, and it only costs us $5 each per class (though we had to pay in advance for the whole 12-week series). But really, what an awesome deal. Doing yoga in the middle of the work day is such a fantastic break and the fact that I don't have to go anywhere except downstairs makes it even better. I feel pretty lucky to work for an organization that lets us do this (it would be even better if they had organized it for us and paid for it, but no workplace is perfect). The only part I don't like is changing from work clothes to yoga clothes and back in a bathroom stall -- it feels too much like middle school P.E. class!
March 20, 2007
According to the Drug Abuse Treatment Outcome Study, a majority of adolescent drug addicts believe that "people who suffer unjustly in this life will be rewarded in the afterlife." What does this fact say about the relationship between religion and drug abuse?
February 28, 2007
The Evolution of Terminology
When I look at old surveys at work, I am intrigued not only by what questions the interviewers were asking (for example -- "if your wife earned more money than you did, would it cause problems in your marriage?" -- I'm so not joking: this was in the 1970 Detroit Area Study), but also by how they ask. For example, the 1965 Student-Parent Socialization Study asked white students if they had any "Negro" friends. After about a month of working here, I had gotten used to seeing the word "Negro" in surveys from the 1960s and 1970s. My jaw absolutely dropped to the floor, however, when I saw the question in the Socialization Study asking students their religion. The choices included all of the various Christian, Catholic, and Orthodox denominations, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and Atheist. The other choice was not Islam, not Muslim, but "Mohammedan." Being an (erstwhile) historian, I have, of course, seen the word "Mohammedan" used for Muslims, but not since the nineteenth century! I had no idea that sociologists -- yes, sociologists with Ph.D.s -- were still using this term in 1965.
February 17, 2007
Yesterday at work I spent a couple of hours helping our webmistress Wendi do some user testing of the new ICPSR website. She found two people who were not terribly familiar with ICPSR or the website, brought them in, and we watched them do various tasks on the new website to see how easy it is for users to find various types of information. One of the users commented that the link to log into MyData was difficult to find up in the right hand corner of the page, to which Wendi replied that the login link was modeled after the Netflix website, where it is also in the top right corner. Modeling our website after the Netflix site seemed particularly apt to me because ICPSR is pretty much the Netflix of social science data. Wanna see the 2000 Census? Or the most recent wave of the General Social Survey? Just log into ICPSR and download it. But ICPSR is better than Netflix because you never have to send the data back!
Since we are the Netflix of data, our data turns up everywhere. Yesterday the topic of Science Friday was the 1990s decline in the crime rate. And how did the criminologists on the show know that crime had declined? From analyzing the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), courtesy of ICPSR. Pretty much any survey or study of anything social- or political-sciencey, or any kind of census or opinion poll you hear cited anywhere is archived at ICPSR. But nobody has ever heard of ICPSR because we never get cited. Janet Lauritsen, one of the criminologists on SciFri yesterday, mentioned the NCVS, and mentioned that the data was collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, but never mentioned the fact that scholars can get this data from ICPSR. My first job at ICPSR was finding publications that had been based on ICPSR data, which was pretty easy for the publications whose authors actually cite ICPSR, but for every one author who does, there are several more who don't. So if ICPSR is the Netflix of social science data, we are the underground Netflix of social science data -- you have to be in the know in order to know where to go.
February 10, 2007
Last night at the fourth session of my Kaplan Teacher Development Program, I fully understood for the first time why it is important for the teacher not only to know the answers to all of the example problems, but also to know exactly why each answer is right. Our training sessions are organized around a series of teachbacks, in which we prepare lessons that we will eventually teach to a real class and present them to our fellow trainess, who pretend to be the students. In my training class, there are three of us who are preparing to teach the GRE, and two who are preparing to teach the SAT. One of the SAT guys was up in front of the class doing a teachback on short verbal, and we were on an "improving paragraphs problem." The question presented a short paragraph, and then asked how to improve one of the sentences in the paragraph, with five answer choices. One of my fellow students eliminated all but two -- B and E -- and the guy doing the teachback said, "on test day, you can stop when you find that B is the right answer." The problem, readers, is that B wasn't the right answer; it was E. So I raised my hand and asked why E wasn't the right answer. The guy doing the teachback couldn't answer my question, and replied, "I'll explain to you during the break why E is wrong."
Now this might have been a good response if E really was wrong, and if the rest of the class knew exactly why E was wrong and I was holding things up, but the fact of the matter is that E was right, and by that point the other students were chiming in, saying that they also thought E looked better than B. The guy doing the teachback just kept saying that B was right until our trainer got up, looked at the teacher's manual, and found that E was, indeed, the right answer. Now if I had been a real Kaplan student at that point, paying over $1000 to be there, I would have walked out and asked for my money back, for two reasons: first, because my teacher didn't know what he was doing; and, second, because he didn't treat my question with the respect it deserved. By saying that he would tell me at the break why I was wrong, not only was he saying I was wrong, but he was saying that I was so wrong he didn't have time to deal with how wrong I was. It probably would have hurt my feelings even if I had been wrong, but, again, it would have been the correct response if I were slowing down the rest of the class. But, usually, if a wrong answer looks good to one student in the class, then it's probably a trap answer and it probably looks good to other students, so the teacher should explain why it's wrong. In any case, however, I wasn't wrong, and it is disorienting for a student to feel that her teacher is less smart than she is (as I learned in middle school).
After last night's object lesson, I felt that I should study extra-hard for next week's fifth and final session, in which we could be asked to teach anything from the first math lesson or first verbal lesson -- a total of five hours of class! I may not have anything resembling a life this week, and, sadly, I'm not sure how that will make this week different from any other week.
February 04, 2007
As if going back to work full time wasn't enough, I have also been moonlighting for the past few weeks. That's right, I'm working a second job, training to be a GRE prep teacher at Kaplan. I call it working, even though I'm still in the training phase, because the training is paid and certainly feels like work, though sometimes it feels more like being a student.
I applied for this job way back in the fall, when I didn't know what I was going to do after leaving grad school. It was something I had always had at the back of my mind as a fallback or a way to earn some extra money if I ever found myself in a tight spot. However, I had never actually pursued it before because the idea of for-profit education makes me very uncomfortable. Kaplan is a huge money-making enterprise, profiting from students' test anxiety and desires to get into the "best" colleges or grad schools. I also hate the idea of students being able to basically buy higher test scores. It means that the kids from the wealthiest families are also going to get into the best colleges and get the best jobs after. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit that I did take a prep class for the SAT when I was in high school, but it wasn't through a private test prep company. It was at Loyola Marymount University and it was both cheap and accessible.
In any case, when I found myself faced with the prospect of unemployment, I went to the Kaplan website and applied. The first stage is basically just a screening to make sure that I had, indeed, scored in the 95th percentile when I took the GRE, which is Kaplan's minimum for teachers in Ann Arbor (apparently they only have to have scored in the 90th percentile in the rest of the country). Back in 2000, when I took the GRE, it was a different test than it is now. There were three sections -- verbal, quantitative, and analytical -- each scored on a scale from 200 to 800. Reader, I only scored in the 95th percentile on verbal and quantitative. I don't know what happened to me on the analytical section, but it was by far my lowest score. Happily, the GRE has since done away with the analytical section and now includes "analytical writing" instead -- two essays scored on a scale from 0 to 6. So I passed the initial Kaplan screening, despite my dismal analytical score.
The next stage of the application process was the audition, in which we were supposed to teach a five-minute non-academic lesson. I taught "How to Ride a Taxi in Accra, Ghana," which was a lot of fun. Apparently the audition went well, because I was then invited to training.
Training is the third phase of the application process. That's right, even though they are now paying me, I'm still not all the way in. Training involves five four-hour classroom sessions, each organized around a different set of "core competencies" that Kaplan teachers must have. The heart of the training is the "teachback" where we prepare and teach the lessons to each other as if we were in front of the actual class. The trainer then critiques each teachback and gives us "action steps" for improvement. If we don't improve sufficiently, we're out.
I have to admit that I have been having quite a bit of fun in the training. My trainer is awesome (he was voted regional teacher trainer of the year for 2006) and the two other trainees are really nice. Two weeks ago we did reading comprehension; last week we did quantitative; next week we will be teaching "short verbal," which includes sentence completion, analogies, and antonyms. In addition to getting to continue to work on my teaching and people skills, I'm enjoying learning about the logic of standardized tests, even though I never plan to take another one.
Working for a giant corporation (Kaplan is owned by the Washington Post), however, is very different from working for a state university. In some ways, it reminds me of working at Starbucks and Hot Dog on a Stick. To begin with, the customer is the highest priority: our number one goal is to "delight the students." Second, everything has to be done according to a precise method. Just as there is only one "right" way to cook a cheese stick or make a latte, we are only allowed to teach the "Kaplan method" for the GRE. Finally, at Hot Dog on a Stick, there was a list of words we were never allowed to use: dog, corndog, fry/fried, grease, no. Similarly, at Kaplan, there is a list of words that we are expected to work into our presentations as many times as possible: Kaplan, homework, online resources, test day, higher score, GRE. Every time I say "doing your homework and using Kaplan's online resources will help you get a higher score on the GRE on test day," I feel like the world's biggest tool.
January 26, 2007
Those Wacky Pollsters
My favorite thing about my job is the amount of bizarre information I come across. While working on the documentation for the November 1995 ABC News HMO Poll, I learned that the second-to-last question was, verbatim: "what's your favorite on Thanksgiving dinner -- the turkey, the stuffing or the cranberry sauce?" The last question was, "is that the white meat or the dark meat?" I kid you not. If I were a sociologist, I could use this dataset to write a dissertation on whether or not there is a correlation between liking dark meat and having a particular type of health insurance.
In case you're wondering, out of 1005 respondents, 487 (48.5%) preferred turkey, 356 (35.4%) preferred stuffing, 117 (11.6%) liked the cranberry sauce best, 27 (2.7%) expressed a different favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal, 4 (.4%) don't celebrate Thanksgiving, and 3 (.3%) had no preference. Of the 487 who answered turkey, 318 (65.3%) prefer white meat, 115 (23.6%) prefer dark meat, 53 (10.9%) like both equally, and one person (.2%) refused to answer.
January 24, 2007
I officially start work at 7:30am, which is early enough, but today I got in at seven, not for any good reason, just because I could. I usually talk on the phone from 6:30 to seven and then leave for work, but today I didn't have my phone calls, so I was ready to go at 6:30. It is always dark and pretty quiet out when I walk in, which surprised me on my first day. I really expected the sun to be at least partially up by seven, but I guess that, since Ann Arbor is on the far west side of the Eastern time zone, the sun rises here about an hour after it rises on the East Coast. Today it was even darker and quieter. The joggers and dog walkers who might be out at seven are definitely not out at 6:30, and I only saw one other brave soul walking to work. Walking down Main Street, the only business open that early is Starbucks, and the Christmas lights in the trees are still lit from the night before. It almost feels like going to work at night. The nice thing about going in early in the morning is that it is still light when I walk home in the afternoon. David and I are pretty much on opposite schedules: he walks in to work in the daylight and walks home in the dark. In fact, we are on opposite schedules in just about every way -- some nights we only overlap in bed for about four hours, and there are days when he has his first meal while I'm having dinner! It is actually kind of a nice arrangement because I can take care of early morning business and he can take care of late night business. The problem, however, is that we don't get to see a whole lot of each other, and sometimes I wonder if there is some kind of law of nature preventing us from being in the same place at the same time for too long.
January 18, 2007
One of the things I disliked most about being a historian was working in the archives. And what am I doing now? I'm working full-time in an archive. But being an archivist is totally different from being a reader. Being a reader is like being a long-term guest in your fusty great-aunt's house, while being an archivist is like having your own house.
Working at ICPSR, I have my own office (okay, it's actually a cubicle, but it is quite large) that I can decorate and dwell in. When I get in to work, I can take off my coat, get a cup of coffee, and settle in. I can leave personal items here overnight and I have a picture of my husband on my desk. As a reader at the various archives I used in London, I had to put all my stuff into a locker, taking with me only what I could fit into a transparent plastic bag. In the National Archives of Ghana, they didn't even have lockers or bags -- I just had to leave my stuff at the door, bringing in only notebook and pencil. And that was the other thing -- as a reader, I could only use pencils with no erasers. As an archivist, I can use pens, highlighter, erasers, whatever. As a reader, I hated not being able to retrieve documents myself (especially when the archivists didn't know where they were), and I resented the stupid rules about how many boxes I could have out at a time. At the Bodleian Library I even had to swear an oath not to light a match in the library. Maybe if they just turned the heat up a little, I wouldn't have to burn documents to stay warm! I'm also allergic to dust, which frequently made handling the documents unpleasant. As a reader, I couldn't drink water or coffee while I worked, and had to leave the reading room every time I got thirsty or had to pee, getting searched on the way out and having to show ID to get back in. What a pain! Here I have my water and coffee right on my desk, and the bathroom is just around the corner. As a reader, I was just a visitor: the staff treated me with suspicion (I wasn't even allowed to wear a jacket in the freezing-cold Wellcome Library because they thought I would try to smuggle documents out) and none of the other readers wanted to talk to me because they were busy doing their own work. Here I work with other people (nice people, who I like), and I can always chat with them when I need human contact.
ICPSR is also a very different kind of archive than the ones I used as an historian because we archive data rather than documents. Our data is all stored in computers, so readers don't come here to use it; they simply download it from our website. Furthermore, no documents means no dust and no boxes to lift, cart around, or shelve. It also means that preserving our data and its documentation is a technological problem rather than the physical problem of document preservation: rather than worrying how to keep paper from crumbling, we worry about how to maintain computer files that will still be useful when various software packages become obsolete.
But the best part of being an archivist rather than a reader is that I get paid more :)
January 13, 2007
Having been out of the full-time work force for the past three and a half years, I had forgotten what the weekend means. Technically, the weekend is just Saturday and Sunday, both of which were still days of the week when I was in grad school. Certainly in grad school I didn't have class on Saturdays or Sundays, but I had to read, write, meet with classmates, and sometimes even attend lectures. I still set my alarm for 6am, and I still worked about twelve hours, just as I did during the week. Weekends were especially meaningless during semesters when I only had class two or three days a week or when I didn't have class at all. Technically, most of the week should have been weekend, but my days without class were actually my most productive days. That is, until the end of 2005, when it all went to hell. Since then, weekends have been meaningless because I wasn't working period!
But on Friday afternoon, when people around the office started getting this weekend-anticipation buzz, I remembered what it was like back when Saturday and Sunday were magical days. In the working world, the weekend is sixty-three hours in which I don't even have to think about my job. From 4:30pm on Friday, when I leave the office, until 7:30am on Monday, when I return, I am free. I don't have to look at data or think about documentation. The word "homework" is meaningless. In fact, I couldn't take work home with me even if I wanted to because it is all on the ICPSR server, which I can't access from home. I also can't go into the office and work on weekends because I'm not exempt and I haven't been authorized to work overtime. So I am really and truly free. And what am I doing with this free time? Staring at a computer screen -- just like I do at work!
January 12, 2007
Early on in our relationship, David developed the nickname "Troublemaker" for me, and not without good reason: when I am around, xerox machines jam, toilets clog, and coffee makers overflow. I did, however, manage to get through almost three full days at my new job without causing any major disasters, but that streak ended yesterday when I tried to make an afternoon pot of coffee.
It was 2:30pm, I had just finished my lunch, and I knew I wouldn't make it to five unless I had a hot cup of coffee (rather, decaf, but that is another story for another day) in my hands. Given the fact that I have been drinking coffee since I was fifteen and even worked at Starbucks for a whole summer, one would think that I know how to make a pot of coffee. And I do -- in fact, I know how to make a damn good pot of coffee. But I don't always know how to get the coffee into the pot as opposed to on the floor. It seems that each time I use a new coffeemaker, I end up with at least one pot on the floor until I get the hang of it. I did it at David's mom's wedding, I did it in the History Department (fortunately none of my committee members witnessed it!), and yesterday I did it here at ICPSR. I felt particularly stupid yesterday because the problem was that I hadn't inserted the filter holder far enough into the machine, which meant that its hole wasn't lined up with the hole in the top of the coffee pot. Quick action resulted in most of the coffee ending up in my cup and in the water pitcher, but enough landed on the counter and the floor that I used up all the paper towels mopping it up and had to go to the bathroom for more. Perhaps if I had been drinking real coffee instead of decaf I might have noticed that the filter was out of alignment before it was too late. I guess I won't be losing my nickname anytime soon.
January 09, 2007
So here I was on my lunch break, reading Bitch, and there it was: a reference to my new/old employer. Okay, it wasn't a direct reference, and the magazine never actually named ICPSR, but in an interview with Christine Whelan, author of Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women, Whelan mentions that her argument is based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics's Current Population Survey. The CPS is, of course, archived right here at ICPSR!
Back to Work
I haven't blogged much about the status of my job search in the past few months, not because I wasn't making any progress, but because I didn't want to jinx anything that was in the works. As of today, I am officially back in the labor force. I have returned to The Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (aka ICPSR), which is where I worked before grad school, and also where David works. ICPSR is the world's largest archive of computerized social science data, and is housed right here at the University of Michigan. We archive census data and all kinds of social survey data, including the General Social Survey and the Survey of Consumer Attitudes and Behavior.
My official title is Research Technician Senior, but I haven't quite figured out what that means. I do know, however, that I will be working with my dear friend Sanda on the Data Documentation Initiative. She has already explained to me part of what I will be doing, and I have to admit that it was rather overwhelming.
Coming back to work has been a bit strange. I'm in the same building where I worked before, but in a new cubicle that feels very empty and far away from my work group. I'm grateful that so many of the people I worked with before are still here, but there are some people who have left, and many new people I need to meet. Strangely, I'm having trouble navigating around the building because a whole new wing was added on after I left. Even though I'm still in the old wing, I'm having trouble remembering, for example, how to get from my cubicle to David's office. And it is very bizarre to be working in the same department as David again. People keep asking if we are still an item, and then I get to tell them that we are now married!