Monday, January 29, 2007

Introduction to Introductions

This winter I will be traveling around a bit to give research talks at other universities. I have 4 talks coming up in the next month or so, and have just been checking out these universities' webpages to see what talk titles I gave months ago when I agreed to do these.

I like giving talks about my research, and I like visiting other universities and meeting new people. The most difficult part for me (not counting the random things like flight delays and the occasional unpleasant person one encounters), is The Introduction part of my talk. I don't mean the part when I introduce my topic, I mean the part when someone introduces ME and relates my academic life story to the audience.

There are many flavors of these introductions, depending on the whims of the introducer: if they know me or not, if they are comfortable speaking or not, if they are prepared or not, if they talk to me about the introduction before the talk or not, and so on. These are the main types, from shortest to most epic:

1. the terse introduction: Professor X is from the University of Y and she is going to give a talk about TITLE. [I am fine with this type of introduction]

2. the slightly longer introduction, with information gleaned at random from my CV or faculty webpage: Professor X got her Ph.D. from University Z and is now at the University of Y (some mention my previous faculty position at University W and some mention dates). [I am fine with this introduction as well as long as it is fairly short]

3. the even longer introduction by someone who has delved into my webpages at length, has my CV, and/or knows me: Professor X was an undergraduate at A College, got her Ph.D. from University Z, was a postdoc at University M, a visiting professor at B College, and Assistant Professor at University W, before finally moving to the University of Y, where she is now a Professor. She works on PHYSICAL SCIENCE TOPICS, and is here today to talk to us about BLAH BLAH BLAH. [This is not my preferred introduction -- it goes on for a long time if all of my academic historical sites are mentioned + other info, and I don't know where or how to look -- bored? interested? humble? bemused? The one good thing about these long intros is that you sometimes discover connections with some people in the audience and this can generate interesting conversations later.]

4. the Epic Introduction including all the above plus mention of various research and teaching awards and positions in professional organizations, journal editor positions, and mention of the date of every step in my academic career, and a statement to the effect that I am impressive. [I find these introductions painful; all that information can't possibly be interesting, and saying that I am impressive right before a talk raises expectations perhaps unreasonably high that my talk will BLOW EVERYONE AWAY as opposed to being merely interesting and/or cool.]

My ideal introduction, which seldom happens unless the introducer specifically asks me what I want said, is a rapid list of my career path. I think that this can be useful information for students and postdocs to see how someone got from point A to point B in their career. If the introducer asks me what awards I'd like mentioned, the only one I typically list is my NSF CAREER award, as this is an award people have typically heard of.

The most interesting introduction I ever had was years ago (early in my career) when the introducer told the audience that I was perhaps best known for having killed my advisor. This information seemed to stun the audience, and it stunned me as well, in part because my advisor was alive, and is in fact still alive. The introducer was referring to the fact that one of my committee members, an angry and bitter old man who disagreed with me (and most other people on the planet) about just about everything, died soon after I gave a talk on the major findings of my preliminary research. He definitely became very enraged during my talk (and was not shy about showing his feelings), but his death 3 weeks later was from cancer. In any case, if given a choice, I prefer not to be accused of murder when being introduced for a talk, even if it does get the audience's attention.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

To Confront or Not to Confront?

Friday's post -- and similar ones by me and others who write about encounters with people for whom women scientists/professors are invisible -- raises the question: What do you do when you have one of these encounters? Should you confront the situation directly then and there (and if so, how?) or not? I've touched on this before, but it seems to be a rather eternal issue. [executive summary: Distinguished Visitor encountered a male colleague and me in the hallway and ignored me completely, even my attempt at a handshake and an attempt to start a conversation]

Last week when I had this latest brush with invisibility, there was a group of students and postdocs (all male) witnessing the event, in addition to my colleague. I'm glad there were others around to see it, but because the situation was a bit humiliating for me, it was important to me that the focus stay on the visitor's appalling behavior and not on pathetic attempts by me to get his attention. So I walked away.

Even though this has happened to me many times before, it always takes me by surprise. It is never my expectation that I will be ignored. In this particular case, I thought I'd be meeting with the visitor the next day for a one-on-one conversation about scientific topics, and figured that would be the best way to demonstrate that I have interesting things to say (or not). The few times when I have dealt directly with one of these situations (typically with a sarcastic comment rather than a more aggressive approach), such as at a conference, I have felt it was a one-shot chance to make the point. I can't say I've changed anyone's attitude, but my hope is that maybe some of them will at least be more aware.

I talked to my colleague about it more after the encounter last week, and he said that he was (1) stunned, although he knows this happens all the time, and (2) disgusted, and wanted to get away from the conversation as quickly as possible. One of our junior colleagues invited this visitor, and was really proud that this Distinguished person was here in our department. This junior colleague came to my office after the visitor left, and he was so happy, saying things like "Isn't he great? Wasn't his talk interesting? He is such an amazing person, I'm so glad he came." I definitely did not have the heart to tell him that no, I did not feel the same way either about the visitor as a person or a scientist (I thought the visitor's talk was a classic example of someone who gets so famous that they think they can talk about anything, no matter how shallow, and everyone will be impressed).

So it goes. I will likely continue to deal with each such experience in its context and decide on the spot whether to confront it or let it slide.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Invisible Woman

It's amazing, but I have this supernatural ability to become invisible. It's almost like being a superhero. Almost, but not quite. I read somewhere that, given a choice between having the ability to become invisible and having the ability to fly, women tend to choose invisibility. Men tend to choose the personal flight option. There were some unflattering interpretations of that (women are sneaky, men are daring etc.), but that's another issue.

In any case, I don't see much use in being invisible. I have some experience with it, including this week, and mostly I find it annoying and, on occasion, humiliating. And the strange thing is that this amazing power to become invisible mostly kicks in around Distinguished Male Professors. The one who visited our department this week was a rather classic example of this species.

How I Became Invisible
A male colleague and I walked up to the Distinguished Visitor in the hallway, and the visitor stuck out his hand at my male colleague and gave him a manly handshake; they introduced themselves to each other. For some reason, I assumed it was my turn for a handshake and introduction. Social horror! He ignored me. I dropped my hand, but I introduced myself anyway, saying something like "I'm on your schedule for tomorrow and am looking forward to talking with you." He glanced at me, confused, then turned back to my male colleague, who was by this point very uncomfortable about the situation and extracted himself from the conversation. When we were out of earshot, he said to me "That was strange and creepy." Yes indeed.

I figured that today, in our individual meeting, the visitor and I would get on track and have a nice scientist-to-scientist conversation. With some of these guys, once they are sitting in my office, which is the usual professor-type office filled with books and miscellaneous scientific things, they have no trouble having a normal conversation with me about topics of mutual scientific or professorial interest. In contrast, during the encounter in the hall, he couldn't even see me.

Well, I didn't have a chance to run the office experiment with this particular visitor. I was the second-to-last person on his schedule, and he decided to go to the airport 3 hours early for a domestic flight, and pass up the opportunity to talk to me and a postdoc. He was probably tired after 1.5 days of visiting with people, but it was still rude. It's probably better that I missed this opportunity, though. I was originally on his schedule for yesterday, but one of my junior colleagues had to reschedule, and I offered to trade times with him. If I hadn't, I would have actually had to spend time with this obnoxious person.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

What Would Professor Jesus Do? (WWPJD)

Another example of: What Were They Thinking? (when they write reference letters for students applying to graduate school; 'they' being professors at the applicants' undergraduate institutions). Why mention a student's religion and degree of religious fervor in an application for a graduate program? It has no bearing on whether a student is accepted to the graduate program or not, and makes us question the judgment of the letter-writer because it suggests they don't know how to evaluate a student's potential for graduate studies.

It's clear I need to take a break from reading these files.

Students should not panic about the quirks of their letter-writers. There is a lot of information in each application packet, including 3 letters of reference. Admission is competitive, but no one with an otherwise strong application is going to be rejected because one letter-writer doesn't know how to write a reference letter. We also realize that students sometimes have only a few options of faculty who know them well enough to write a letter.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Students & Babysitters

This is another rant about something I don't like in reference letters, this time in letters for applicants to grad school: I don't like it when faculty letter-writers mention that a student was their child(ren)'s babysitter. Both male and female faculty do this, though the babysitters are dominantly female. I can maybe see mentioning it in a letter of reference for a job, as it signals reliability, but in a reference for graduate school?

I can probably be talked out of this opinion, but when I read in a letter that the student is an excellent babysitter for the letter-writer's child(ren), as I have read in a number of recent letters, I think it is weird. It doesn't affect my opinion of the student of course, but I think the letter-writer is being unprofessional. One letter I read today devoted a paragraph to how and why the letter-writer's kids "adored" the applicant. OK, that's nice.

If I make an effort to think of why someone would mention babysitting in a letter about a student's capacity for graduate studies, I come up with:

- the writer doesn't have a lot else to say about the student?
- the writer is trying to say in an indirect way that the student is nice and therefore not a hostile and strange nutcase?
- the student is reliable and trustworthy.

I guess it bothered me in particular today because of the juxtaposition of several applications I read: e.g., one for a male student whose letter writers emphasized his research experience and his leadership skills, then one for a female student who also has research experience and is a wonderful babysitter.

Score One for the Junior Full Professor

Today in a faculty meeting, we discussed a document concerning policies, criteria, and procedures for tenure and promotion. I pointed out that the document referred in several places to 'senior full professors'. I wondered aloud how long it took to become a senior full professor and why the document specified that only senior full professors should play a major role in the evaluation and mentoring process. When I said this, I was sitting next to a senior full professor who hasn't had an active research program since 1912 or so, and I like to think that the juxtaposition lent a bit of dramatic emphasis to my point. The associate and assistant professors in the room all supported the deletion of the word 'senior', and the deed was done. Just this little change now makes a few women faculty eligible for a position of responsibility in the department. Not a big deal in the scheme of things, but little victories are better than no victories.

In fact, the word 'full' was also deleted, as one of my colleagues pointed out that 'full' is not an official part of our title and that we are merely "Professors', unadorned by superfluous adjectives and unambiguously denoted by a capital P. I didn't feel as strongly about that part of the discussion.

More seriously, we are also discussing a proposal to put more teeth in our post-tenure review process.

[an aside: Does 'Score One' count as a sports analogy? Why do my thoughts so often turn to sports analogies after faculty meetings?..]

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Professorial Attire, continued again..

I am team-teaching a class this term, and today was my colleague's turn to teach. As I was sitting and (mostly) listening to my colleague teach today, I realized that he was wearing a shirt that he has had for a very long time. I don't know for how long, but we have been team-teaching this course together for most years of the last decade, and it was not a new shirt way back when. Then I started thinking about all the 'old' clothes that I still wear. And that reminded me of when I was in college and grad school and several of my professors wore clothes that they clearly had been wearing since they were grad students (or undergrads), and we students thought this was entertaining (and kind of sad, it must be said).

OK, so maybe wearing clothes from the 60's and 70's stood out more in the 80's and 90's than circa 1990 clothes do today? (she asks, hopefully). More likely, we have turned into our professors and lost all sartorial sense, if we even had any to begin with.

Random note: There was an optional spelling bee at my daughter's school today, and the kids got to decide for themselves if they participated. Not a single boy participated. Spelling is for grrls?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Firing Your Advisor

To follow a thread of this ongoing discussion about advisor-student matches.. there are certainly mismatches that occur, and it can be awkward to undo them.

Important information for the rest of this discussion to make sense: in my field, students work with a particular advisor from Day 1.

Over the years, I have had a few students switch to another advisor, and I've taken on a few who were switching from other advisors. In most cases, it was students who weren't doing well with classes, exams, or research and who thought that working with someone else might give them a fresh start. There are certainly situations of students switching fields/advisors once they get a bit of experience with the science and realize what their true interests are. I also know of a few cases of students switching because one advisor was too busy to give them much time, and another advisor provided a better research environment, and these switches have mostly been successful.

However, from what I've seen in my department, these successes have been much less common than the other kind of advisor-switches (i.e., struggling students trying to stay afloat). I guess we all want to give students a chance, or two or three, so we give these switches a try. From what I've seen, these seldom work out, but it would be nice to hear about some examples to the contrary.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Grad-Advisor Matching

As is clear from many of the comments on my last post, there are many different structures for how grad students get matched with advisors. There are pluses and minuses of each system, but I've been happy with the system we have; i.e., grads work with a specific advisor from the start. That means that from the start, I am responsible for helping design the best course plan and for getting the student started on a research project, and I like that.

Of course, the students are free to change advisors once they get here, as long as there is another advisor willing to take them on and they are in good academic standing (based on evaluation by the graduate committee). Advisors are also free to terminate their status as advisor with a particular student, although these decisions are typically made in consultation with a faculty committee.

I have co-advised students in other departments, including engineering departments, where the grad-advisor culture is very different. In one department where I have co-advised, student aren't matched with any particular advisor when they first arrive, but they choose in the spring of their first year. After that, all students are supported in full on grants, but they spend part of the time as a TA while they are being supported by their advisor's grant. I wasn't too happy with that, as my students spend a lot of time teaching while supported by an RA on my grants. Faculty in that department typically have lots of industry grants in addition to NSF grants, so it is probably easier in general for them to manage continuous funding whether or not students are TA's are RA's.

I prefer the system we have, in which my students spend some time as TA's (supported by the department), some time as RA's (supported by my grants and not doing any teaching), and (for the most outstanding ones) some time supported by fellowships. Another option is for a student to teach half the usual load and be half supported on a grant.

It's not a perfect system. Unlike the system used by the engineering departments here, there is more inequity. Some students have advisors with little or no grant support -- these students spend most or all of their time as TA's and may not be supported in the summer (though the department has some funds to give them some relief for a term or summer, and there are summer teaching positions). Other students are very well supported, including in the summers.

Even so, I like the present system because it has a lot of flexibility for both advisors and students. Students get a range of experiences, and we can adjust the balance depending on where they are in their grad program with respect to course load, exams, travel, and other considerations. I can also figure out in advance how many new students I want to accept to my group based on how many students are graduating, how much grant support I have, and so on. That's what I'm in the process of figuring out now for next year.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Best of Luck With Your Research

'tis the season for grad admissions and recruiting. I am feeling very positive about this year's pool of applicants for my particular research group. Of course, I don't know if any of my top choices will actually come to work with me, but that will all get sorted out in the next few months. At least it's good to have some excellent possibilities.

The top prospects are heavily recruited by many schools, and these students are in a very good position. The best applicants have lots of offers, get expenses paid to visit all the schools, and then have lots of choices. I think it is great that students who have worked hard and are motivated for graduate study have many opportunities so they can choose the best place for them.

One of my colleagues is feeling dejected about his grad recruiting opportunities this year. For his particular research specialty, there are some very strong groups at private universities, including a couple that have "Institute of Technology" somewhere in their names (including one where this colleague was formerly a postdoc). In a number of recent years, he has had some excellent prospective grad students; they visit, they are impressed, and then they accept another offer and send him an email that says something like "I wasn't expecting to be impressed, but I was. Even so, I'm going to go to one of these other schools. Best of luck with your research." He hates those emails.

This year, my colleague was contacted by a hot prospect student, knew that the competition included the I of T's, and was dreading going through the whole pointless recruiting thing again. The student saved him the trouble, though, by telling him that because our university was a backup school, it really wasn't worth it to spend the money on the application fee, so could the fee be waived? And if not, oh well, best of luck with your research. My colleague wrote back to say thanks anyway, but best of luck with .. everything.
[on the bright side, one of this colleague's recent Ph.D. students just got an excellent job at a research university]

Thursday, January 18, 2007

What Rates

It's grad recruiting time.. As part of an effort to look at web resources for prospective graduate students and how program rankings (NRC, US News etc.) might be used on the internet by prospective students, my department was looking recently at the rankings section of the website This site has a personalized system for giving an individual a list of grad schools that might be a good match based on specified interests and priorities.

Some of the categories that can be selected are straightforward: Do you want to be in a large department or small? Do you care if the program has faculty who publish highly cited papers? Options are: no importance, low, medium etc., with various gradations up to high.

Some of the categories are kind of strange: e.g., How important is it to you that "The distribution of publications per faculty member is uniform"? It is unspecified whether that distribution will be uniformly high, low, or mediocre. There is a similar question about the uniformity of citations.

The part that I found disappointing is called "Program Composition Measures". There is no category for selecting the importance you place on faculty diversity. There are categories related to the number of female graduate students and to the number of Ph.D.'s granted to women and minorities, but nothing about faculty. These data exist, and it is curious to exclude them from the selection criteria.

As part of a recent NRC questionnaire, faculty at PhD-granting institutions were asked what is most important to them about program composition measures, with a list of 7-8 items (I don't remember the exact number), including number of publications per faculty, citation index of faculty, number of external grants, and faculty diversity; ethnic diversity and gender diversity are itemized separately. You can only choose 4 items at most, so it is too bad that diversity is split into separate items. To me, it seemed like I had to choose between diversity (one or both types) and other items I thought were important as well.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What Is It About Harvard?

Harvard came up in conversation several times today.. and this reminded me of something that happened a number of years ago.

I once told a group of students about a scientific debate involving my research group and a group at Harvard. I explained the issue we were debating, then described how the Harvard group’s hypothesis differed from mine, and why I thought I was right. One of the students was incensed that I was besmirching Harvard, and said that I had no right to do this. This student, whose only connection to Harvard was via an alumni father, said that I probably had an inferiority complex because I was at a large state university. Interesting hypothesis, but just as flawed as that of the Harvard scientists who were soon thereafter proved wrong and who graciously and publically conceded that they were wrong and I was right. It was a minor thing -- the kind of debate that happens all the time in science, and sometimes gets resolved and sometimes doesn't. It does make one wonder, though: Do students really think that we have spent our entire lives in the place where we teach? Or perhaps that we spontaneously generated, full-formed as professors, right here in our offices?
[and, even if I had, why can't I disagree with scientists at Harvard?..]

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Men Submitting Abstracts

There are a several international conferences I would like to attend next year, and I am wondering how many of them I will actually be able to go to, considering issues of $$ and time and so on. I was just looking at the abstract submission instructions for one of them, and noticed that the template for typing in author names uses examples of "Man A", "Man B", "Man C". This will have no effect whatsoever on whether I decide to go to this conference, but couldn't the guys who came up with the template have used "Person A" or something like that? Yes, I know it's a little thing, but there are lots of little things like this.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


I am often asked whether I had any mentors when I was younger, but it's less common to be asked about what I will call anti-mentors: people who actively try to discourage you, but not out of kindness or wisdom. Perhaps I will write a relentlessly upbeat posting soon to balance these negative ones, but in the meantime -

My thoughts have turned to anti-mentors in part because of the occasion this week of the 80th birthday of one of the most virulent ones I have encountered in my life. I have had 2 notable anti-mentors, and one died 20 years ago. This is the other one. I was told recently that it would "mean a lot" to this person if I acknowledged his birthday, but there don't seem to be any birthday cards that quite express the depth of my loathing and contempt for this person, and I don't want to waste my time to make a suitable card. Furthermore, if I did send a happy little card with fond birthday wishes, he would take it as his due as a Great Man that even people he tried to crush pay him homage. No thanks.

I think that anti-mentors can be useful, to a limited extent. Of course life would be better without them, but in my own experience, the unfairness of it all and the anger I felt at how I was treated by them gave me an extra bit of motivation to succeed. It would be devastating if someone I respected had told me I was stupid and was never going to be a professor, but I didn't respect these people. "I'll show them.." isn't the purest of motivations, and it's not enough to get you where you want to go if you don't also love what you're doing (despite the jerks), but, even so, it can push you along at times.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Race to Obscurity

This week has been going very well -- one paper accepted, a manuscript submitted (excellent grad student first author), a couple of reviews completed, and some progress on various other manuscripts. Then today I heard that a group in Europe has submitted a manuscript that is on a similar topic to one of mine submitted last summer. On the scale of my typical papers, my in-review manuscript is rather huge -- lots of data, and a big synthesis of work that has been ongoing for more than a decade. So I am anxious. We are not talking about fame or fortune here, just a topic (and paper) that I care a lot about. I am trying to keep some perspective: if my paper is any good, it will be read; if their paper is good, fine.

Even so, although some competition can be stimulating and fun, this is not one of those cases. The other group has been aggressive and vocal about the fact that they don't like my work. They are also sneaky. They started working on the topic after I did, based on one of my papers from about 10 years ago. They didn't inform me that they were working on the same thing, even though one of this group had been in contact with me to get some information for an unspecified purpose, and I had helped him with some analyses. A few years ago, this group wrote what can only be called an 'attack paper'. I call it that because it criticized me by name in 17 places in a ~20 page paper, and didn't seem to have much purpose other than that. Fortunately, the paper was published in a low-impact journal, but even so, it was not a nice thing to see. I didn't bother to write a comment, as that would be (to use the eloquent words of one of the commenters to this blog) "feeding the trolls".

If I force myself to look at the positive aspects of this, I guess I could say that it is a good sign that other people think at least some of my research topics are important. I can think of 3 other recent examples in which other groups started working on topics that I started working on first. That is much better than being isolated, working on something no one cares about. Perhaps I am being stereotypically female, though, by wishing that everyone could just be nicer about all these 'races'. Not less competitive, just nicer.

But then, I am not always nice: I won a 'race to obscurity' with another group last year when we submitted manuscripts on related topics at the same time; mine appeared in December and theirs was rejected. I am not happy that their paper was rejected, but I was glad that my paper was published (first).

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Professor-Student, continued

Today I registered for the second term of the language class I started last semester, and I just acquired my new textbooks for the course.

The main challenge is of course TIME. The class meets 5 days/week, I am busy enough as it is, and I travel a lot, but I very much enjoyed taking the class last semester, so I want to keep going with it as long as I can. It was bizarre at first having homework every night and having to study for periodic quizzes and tests, but I got into the routine after a while. I liked feeling that I was making progress with the language.

One great thing about having class 5 days/week, in addition to how much you learn, is that you really get to know the other students and the instructor. I wrote last semester about how this was strange at first because I am at least twice the age of the students and older than the instructor, but we all got used to it and I really liked my fellow students and the instructor.

There were a few times when I was really stuck for what to say. For example, as I walked out of the classroom after an exam that I thought was kind of easy, the student walking beside me asked "Am I really stupid or was that exam impossible?". I made some sort of ambiguous sympathetic statement about a particularly difficult part of the exam, so as not to make her feel bad but at the same time not be too insincere.

After the first quiz and the midterm, the students started worrying that I was 'wrecking the curve', and we talked about it in class. The instructor told the other students not to worry about that because I was technically registered for a different section of the course, and I said "Don't you want your professors to get good grades?". They laughed and the issue sort of went away, except for occasional semi-joking pleas for me to fail a quiz.. or the final exam.

The instructor was amazing. She worked very hard to design a variety of different learning activities, and she was teaching 2 other classes. She also invited the class out for coffee and we had dinner at her house and a movie night. Even when I teach small classes, I seldom have the time (or social skills) to do things like that with my students. And I'd have to clean my house.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Today I got my course evaluations for last semester, just in time to help me prepare for the next semester.

I was relieved to see that my minimalist syllabus (with extra info on the web) from last semester was viewed favorably: 100% of the class of ~ 30 students said the syllabus was accurate and gave them the information they needed.

- 100% of the students felt the course stimulated them to think critically about the course material, said they would take another course from me, and believed that I had 'exceptional' knowledge of the course material. Thank you!

- 97% said I am prompt in returning graded material and providing feedback about student performance. The one student who disagreed with this statement must have been very cranky -- I ALWAYS give exams and homework back in the very next class after the exam or homework due date. Or maybe waiting 2 days seems like a long time to this person?

The most variable score was for a question related to whether the amount learned in the course was similar or different to student expectations. I never know what to make of this question. If a student expected the course to be bad and it was, then the course met their expectations and I would get a high score, and a high score is generally considered good for this question. If a student expected the course to be bad and it wasn't, I'd get a low score. The result is usually an uninterpretable range. Last term, most students seem to have learned more than they expected. I suppose that's good, but it seems to suggest they had low expectations, and that's not so good.

At my previous university, faculty had no choice about teaching evaluations being published for all to see, and I had no problem with this, although I would have preferred it if the reviews were accompanied by some factual information about the courses in addition to the student evaluations.

At my current university, we have to give permission for certain parts of the evaluation to be released. I haven't done this, in part out of inertia (you have to take the initiative to do it, and I just haven't), and in part because I think the evaluation questions are very poorly worded at this university. The question about whether the course met expectations is just one example.

Another very prominent question on the evaluation form has to do with whether the student liked the classroom. I don't get to choose my classroom, so what does this have to do with me or my teaching abilities? This question is always my lowest score. Last semester, 12% really liked the classroom, 69% had ratings ranging from good to very good, 15% thought the room was just OK, and 4% thought it was very poor. If my evaluations were published, I trust that students could sort this question out from the ones that have real meaning for a course, but even so.. it bothers me to be rated on this.

I suppose this question could be used to identify major problems with a particular room, but there must be other ways to acquire that information. The main value of this how-did-you-like-your-classroom question, however, is that it is entertaining for faculty to compare their results for the very same room. The 'goodness' of any particular classroom tends to fluctuate with time of day (early in the morning, the room is not good; it gets a little better up until lunch; gets worse again just after lunch, and then gets better until late afternoon). It is also interesting to compare the Room Question results for faculty who team-teach the same course in a single term. The results can be remarkably different. This shows that evaluations are best used to get a cosmic sense for whether a course worked well or not, and the results shouldn't be picked apart in detail.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


The fact that this blog is unable to satisfy, interest, or convince 100% of the people who read it reminds me in some ways of the experience of teaching a large class.

A major difference is that in the case of this blog, I don't care. In the case of teaching a large class, I always wish I could reach each student so that they will listen, understand, and be interested in science in general, and the specific course subject in particular.

There are so many variables in a large class at a big university, there is no way to succeed at this completely. In my last big class (hundreds of students), the number of students with their own or family illnesses/emergencies to deal with was considerable, and then there are the student-athletes who travel a lot, students with language difficulties, students with disabilities, students with complicated social lives, student not prepared to take a science class, students terrified of science, and so on. Being compassionate and (somewhat) flexible goes some way to helping these students, but there's only so much a science professor can do.

Even so, I like teaching the big classes, but am glad I don't do it every semester or even every year. This semester I will be teaching a mid-sized, intermediate-level course for science and engineering majors. Mostly this week I am working on updating the course content and thinking about trying a few new activities and different ways to explain/present things. That's the fun part of getting ready for a new semester.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Epic Syllabus

I am working on crafting the perfect syllabus for my spring term class: a syllabus that contains all essential information in an easy-to-read, succinct yet not cryptic form.. a syllabus that students will read and save and consult.. a syllabus that will encapsulate all the most essential points that I will make in the first class (as some students will not be there the first day and/or will not be listening).

Fortunately, I do not have to flounder around alone in this effort. I have been sent a 57 page document from a teaching resource center about what to put in my syllabus. I exaggerate just a bit about the length of this document, but if I followed all the links in it, 57 pages would surely be an underestimate.

Apparently, my syllabus should contain:

- my name, contact information, office hours, webpage url, TA names/contact info, textbook information, list of course prerequisites, reading assignments and class topics, format of class, date of all exams and other graded assignments, and special mention of policy regarding make-up exams, keeping in mind that I am required to give make-up exams to student-athletes and others traveling for University-sponsored events;
- a statement giving the University Senate regulations that apply to the relationship of credit hours to amount of out-of-class work assigned;
- my grading policy, describing what each letter grade or pass/fail grade signifies, and describing the possible circumstances and consequences of a grade of Incomplete.
- a statement about academic honesty, with particular mention of plagiarism (I wonder if I can just copy the paragraph provided for me or if I have to write my own);
- a list of academic resources for students (writing centers etc.);
- a list of relevant University libraries;
- a statement about University policy concerning students with disabilities;
- a paragraph listing resources for Non-Native Speakers (NNS) and other programs for international students;
- contact information for the University Counseling Services

I do not dispute that most, and maybe even all of that, is important information, but would a troubled student consult a syllabus to get help? Does my leaving out all but the first category of info in the list above send the message that I only care about assignments and grades? I hope not, but I fear that an enormously long and comprehensive syllabus will not be read, and that the most essential information will get lost in it.

Therefore, I will probably do what I usually do: make a short and concise syllabus to distribute in paper form, post the same thing on the course webpage, and provide links to all the rest of it from the course webpage. I will probably also include a short paragraph on what is acceptable regarding 'working together' on homework and on lab assignments and what is not.

As long as a syllabus contains the key information about office hours and grade basis and assignments/exams, does the rest really matter? I've created dozens of syllabi over the years and have never had a 'syllabus disaster' but also have never been convinced I've reached syllabus perfection.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Family Newsletter - 2006

I have been wading through a pile of Newsletters that arrived from family and friends while I was away. I have never been inspired to write one of these myself, as they are overwhelmingly boring, though I realize that is hypocritical coming from a Blog Author. Even so, why would I want to know the names of my nephews' elementary school teachers? Why would I want to know that my friend's partner's ex-husband visited them in April?

I realize that these Newsletters have been ridiculed by many before me. In the interest of fairness, perhaps I should write one myself, right here, so that I can fully appreciate the challenges of coming up with something interesting about my family's 2006 experiences. So here goes, my first and probably last Family Newsletter:

2006 News from the X Family!

We can hardly believe it, but it's time once again to recite at length the events of our year! It was a bit of a slow year for us, so we will probably make some things up and give extra details of our cats' health problems, just to fill up the page. Note that in this letter we will refer to ourselves in the first person plural to reflect the fact that large parts of this newsletter were written with our orange tabby.

We hate to boast, but in this case we must: we cleaned our house thoroughly for the first time in 8 years! This turned out to be fascinating because one of us didn't know the house was so filthy until we started cleaning, and another of us knew all along but never mentioned it. We have concluded that living in squalor has boosted the immune system of our offspring, accounting for her remarkable health and inability to acquire even the most common of childhood illnesses.

In other family news, the two professors in the family continue to have unhealthy but satisfying obsessions with inorganic substances and processes, with occasional thoughts about carbon and nitrogen but not too many. One important discovery that we made this year was that if you are in the wilderness for 10 days or so and you get sap in your hair on the top of your head on Day 2, with no chance of getting it out other than cutting your own hair with a Swiss Army knife and without looking in a mirror, you will be living with the aesthetic consequences of that for a very very long time.

The cats have had an amazing year. Z's prey total reached a new high. Torturing and killing small rodents no longer challenges him intellectually, so he has channeled his creative energies into artistically arranging his dead rodents on the walkway and front steps. We think he has a real flair for this, and have been looking to enroll him in some cat/art enrichment courses. In the meantime, we got him a YouTube account and he has been posting short movies of his rodent-killing prowess there.

Our daughter, who still spends an inordinate amount of time talking to small bean-filled animals, is doing well in school and in life in general. After losing a huge number of her front teeth in 2004-05, her mouth has decided to retain all the rest of its teeth until some unspecified time in the future, resulting in a distressingly long Tooth Fairy hiatus at our home. We have told her that the Tooth Fairy hates her, and are wondering if we should have said that, but figure we won't find out the answer for another 5-20 years.

That's about it for 2006, other than some travel, family visits, experiences with sexism, various awards, promotions and so on. Happy New Year!