Friday, October 30, 2009

On Neatfreakiness

When I was in college, one of my science professors had very extreme requirements about the organization of the homework we turned in. The problem sets had to be completed on a certain type of graph paper, and all writing had to be in block capital letters written with a particular type/hardness of mechanical pencil. The pieces of paper had to be stapled in the upper left corner. There were restrictions on the amount of visible erasure allowed, and crossed out items were strictly prohibited. Answers had to be surrounded by a rectangle (not a circle). We all thought this professor was a total controlling neat freak and that this might be a sign of derangement.

And then I became a professor and understood how he came to be like that.

Last weekend I spent considerable time grading assignments and exams for two classes. I am requiring e-assignments as much as possible, but some assignments and exams are more practical with a handwritten component. The parts that are submitted as spreadsheets and graphs are mostly fine (though some students create horrendous spreadsheets of unnecessary complexity and with bizarre or no labeling of cells and columns), but the parts that are written by hand and turned in on paper are, in some cases, even more painful and impossible to read.

Some students do not staple the pages and do not write their name on every page. The first thing I have to do when confronted with a pile of homework assignments is to do the stapling for some students or else the pages might get scattered. I am considering requiring a staple (in the upper left corner).

Some students use scrap paper for their assignments; this is environmentally commendable, but it is hard for me to read the real assignment between the lines or in the margins of the non-assignment text. Others tear out pages from a spiral bound notebook, leaving little hanging pieces of paper to get caught in things and scatter around my office and home and cats. I am considering requiring a certain type of graph paper.

Some students use black or red or green permanent marker that runs through the paper and leaves marks on other pages, making everything hard to read. The number of crossed out areas and convoluted arrows and hard-to-find answers is considerable for some students. I am considering requiring neatly printed letter in pencil and prohibiting crossed out answers and hard-to-find answers.

Actually, I'm not really going to do any of those things. The emotional and physical energy required to create and enforce such instructions probably exceeds the emotional and physical energy required to deal with messy homework by students in my small classes this term. Such requirements would make me unhappy and it would make my students unhappy.

Furthermore, we professors expect (hope) that our students will put up with a bit of disorganization in our teaching, so ideally we will all be a bit patient with each other.

But still.. one recent assignment was so difficult to read that I discussed it with the student. I said "You teach labs. You know what it's like to grade a messy assignment. It would have taken you 10 minutes to redo this neatly so that I could read it easily. Why not do that?". The student smiled and shrugged.

My new plan is to attempt to figure out the student's method and answer, but not to try too hard. If I can't figure it out without great time and effort (and guessing), I will take off a lot of points, scribble (semi-legibly) a note saying I can't follow their answer, and let the student come to me and show me what they did.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bias Bingo!

This is so cool.

Instead of playing Gender Bias Bingo alone on my computer, however, it would be much more fun to have a bingo card and bingo chips to bring with me to faculty and committee meetings, or to carry around with me in the halls to use as the need arises. There are even occasions when it would be useful to have in my office, on airplanes, at conferences, and during visits with my family.

One of the goals of Gender Bias Bingo is to teach women and men how to recognize bias in their own experiences, but a portable GBB might also help bias perpetrators be more self-aware. Perhaps some people need help learning that they shouldn't criticize women for being assertive and admire men for being aggressive, question whether a woman's idea is her own, ask a father who takes care of his kids when his wife is traveling etc. etc. etc. If someone yells BINGO! after an incident, and clicks down a bingo chip onto a portable GBB board, this might inspire a conversation, or even some quiet reflection.

Portable GBB bingo is not my idea. It is something that my friends and I (and, I think, some commenters to this blog) have occasionally expressed a wish to have during particularly fraught meetings or conversations. It would certainly make a useful gift for that special academic in your life, and would be equally appropriate, though perhaps not equally appreciated, by that not-so-special academic in your life.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Paid for What I Think

As a result of my taking undergrad language classes for several years, I get all sorts of email targeted at students. Many of these are enticing job opportunities, such as:

What would you say if you get PAID for What You Think!!

I would say: I already do!? I am a Professor and I get PAID for What I Think!

Sort of.

In fact, quite a lot of these job opportunities involve getting PAID for What You Think (!!). Isn't that kind of like being paid to be a professor? Somehow I think that is not the type of job that these ads have in mind, especially since the last ad I received promised up to $220 per hour.

I'm not quite in that pay range yet, but perhaps I can forward the ad to my chair to show him that some undergrads are making a lot of money for What They Think, so why shouldn't I? I suppose this isn't the best time to be discussing salary with the department chair.

Mostly I am happy that I have a job right now, and also that I have temporarily defeated the evil administrative demons who were preventing me from giving raises to postdocs even though I have the money in my grants. At least now the postdocs can be paid a little more For What They Think.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Not To Say

If you are a program officer for a major funding organization (example: NSF), here's what not to say to a young female scientist who asks you for advice about a particular funding opportunity for which she is considering applying:

I'm not supposed to say this, but.. you're female, you're young.. [smirk/wink].

I wasn't there, but my young colleague told me about this conversation, which offended her. The program officer is inexperienced and (fortunately) in a non-permanent position, but that is little comfort to my young colleague.

Here's what I want to say to the new guy at NSF:

Please leave your paranoid sexism at home when you go to work.

Please start from the assumption that a female scientist might get funding based entirely on intellectual merit. Yes, I know that one aspect of the NSF broader impacts criterion is to "broaden participation of under-represented groups", and to some that statement is synonymous with "unqualified women will get funded at the expense of more deserving men" and "women think they should get funding just for being women", but look at what that particular young female scientist with whom you were conversing has already accomplished. She has done some extraordinary work and published a lot. Don't patronize her.

And please look at the data showing the distribution of NSF funding with respect to PI gender for your program. I've seen it and know that it clearly demonstrates that women do not have a special advantage over men for funding.

And while you're at it, look at the data on proposal success rate as a function of geography. Then ask yourself whether you would ever say to a white male scientist from, say, North Dakota or Idaho:

I'm not supposed to say this, but .. you're from an EPSCoR state.. [smirk/wink].

Well, maybe this particular person would say that, come to think of it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Strident, Humorless & Shrill

Women now comprise half the work force and have made impressive gains in some professions. An essay by Joanne Lipman in the NY Times on Saturday notes these data but makes a compelling case that they are misleading. Making up half the work force is not the same as having equality. Women still make less money than men, are not taken as seriously, and are not treated with respect at the same level as professional men.

I liked the essay, but one thing about it surprised me. Near the beginning, Lipman wrote:

My generation of professional women took equality for granted. When I was in college in the 1980s, many of us looked derisively at the women’s liberation movement. That was something that strident, humorless, shrill women had done before us.

I am of her generation of professional women, but my college friends and I never took equality for granted. We were not derisive about the women's liberation movement, and I don't know (well) anyone my age who was.

To my friends and me, the women who came before us and fought for equal rights are heroes.

We believed that people who bought into the stereotype of feminists as strident, humorless, shrill women were ignorant. My Republican uncles thought of feminists that way. And my postdoc supervisor, who used to tell jokes about feminists who were strident, humorless, and shrill, and then when I didn't laugh, he took this as proof of at least the humorless part.

These were older, conservative men. None of my friends felt this way, though I must admit that I don't know anyone who has worked at The Wall Street Journal as did Lipman. My friends and I thought Gloria Steinem was (and is) smart, glamorous, and cool.

It was interesting to read an essay by a successful woman who is similar in age and educational background (I looked up where she went to college) and who has been surprised at not being treated with as much respect for her talents and accomplishments as she would have been as a man. I have not been surprised by similar professional experiences in my own (much more modest) career, but we've ended up with the same opinion, writing about similar topics.

Friday, October 23, 2009

When 2007 Was

At a conference earlier this year and during some talks by visitors to my department in recent weeks, I noticed something. I heard, on multiple occasions, variations on the following two statements, each made by different people:

I published this in my recent paper in 2007.

I published this many years ago in my 2007 paper.

So, was 2007 like yesterday or was it a long time ago?

A reasonable hypothesis is that speakers of a certain age would think of 2007 as recent whereas the youngsters would think of it as a long time ago. There may indeed be some speaker-age effect on the observed phenomenon, but I have not seen a strong correlation between the age of the speaker and the perception of 2007 as being in the recent vs. distant past. Instead, I have seen (= inferred) a correlation between the productivity level of the speaker and the perception of the distance between now and 2007.

My hypothesis:

Those who have published many papers since 2007 think of 2007 as ancient history. Those for whom a 2007 paper was and still is a big deal (because there have not been (m)any other papers since then) think of 2007 as a recent date, not matter what the age of the speaker.

I further posit that these statements are most commonly made about a speaker's own publication(s). Publication years by other authors may be devoid of editorial opinion unless the publication was truly very recent (example: This paper by X just came out in Science); i.e., more a statement of fact than perception.

I do not yet have enough data to be entirely certain of these observations, but after I noticed a tendency for some speakers to editorialize about the distance between now and 2007 (or 2006 or 2005 etc.), I became obsessed with keeping track of these statements about time perception in talks. This post is motivated by the most recent of these incidents.

I have also been keeping track of the oldest publication date for which someone uses the word "recent". The record so far: 2005, though 2007 is by far the most common "recent" date.

And I wonder whether 2007 will be displaced by 2008 next year and fade into the distant publication past.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stop the Clock

A professor friend of mine recently noticed something in her department: all of the tenure-track women (except her) had stopped their tenure clocks for various reasons: e.g., for childbirth or for issues involving school-aged children with disabilities. All of these women used their unclocked years very 'productively', according to my friend, and ended up with more publications and grants listed in their promotion and tenure files than did my (single, childless) friend. My friend was feeling stressed out about her publication and funding record in comparison to the records of these colleagues.

Last summer, I wrote about an issue that is sort of related to this: whether or not someone has a "baby gap" in their CV owing to time away from research, most likely related to having a baby. In the ensuing discussion, it was clear that some of us who are fortunate enough to have a healthy baby and be healthy ourselves may use maternity/paternity leave or stopped-tenure-clock-time to get additional research done. I don't think anyone would deliberately procreate as a way to get ahead in their publication record (a strategy that has so many negative aspects to it, I shall not comment on it further), but if you find yourself able to get some work done at a time when you supposedly are not able to get much done, why not do so?

Ideally, universities and colleges will have the resources to give all tenure-track faculty a pre-tenure research leave of a term or more, or, at the very least, a reduced teaching load for a while. If this is not possible, presumably the expectations for tenure and promotion are adjusted accordingly. When I write a letter for someone's tenure and promotion review, I always look at their teaching load and use that as one element of my determination of whether their research quality and quantity seems reasonable.

I can see why my friend is stressed out about her situation and why she is comparing herself to her colleagues in this way, but I think that any productivity boost that comes from an unclocked year taken for family or medical reasons is unlikely to be so immense that it creates an uneven playing field (<-- sports reference!).

There are many factors that determine how many publications and grants one ends up with when the P&T file is submitted: professional factors and life factors, some of which are under our control and some of which are not. I think it is unwise to feel hostile towards those who stop the tenure clock, as if they have an unfair advantage.

Feeling that clock-stoppers have an unfair advantage is sort of like feeling that women in general have an unfair advantage -- "They had to hire a woman" is similar to "She wouldn't have gotten tenure if she hadn't stopped the tenure clock for a year". Although I chose not to stop my tenure clock, I strongly believe that tenure clock stoppage is something that the academic community as a whole should embrace as a way of making academe more appealing to a more diverse range of young faculty.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Remotely There

How much has Skype/teleconferencing etc. reduced the need for professional academic travel? For me, not at all. These things have reduced the number of traditional phone calls to a very low number, but there has been no decrease in conference travel or travel to other universities to give talks, just to mention two common reasons for professional travel.

For some committees involving geographically dispersed people, we can do some or all of our committee business by email instead of meeting in person, but when we used to meet in person, it was before or during a conference. We still go to the conference, we just don't do committee meetings there.

Technology has not affected my need to travel a lot, but it has increased the level and style of participation of geographically remote colleagues in some of my research group's activities. At some research group meetings, we have had the face and voice of a colleague (typically an international colleague) transmitted via a laptop sitting on a table. It is great fun to rotate the laptop around so that the colleague's head can be facing the person who is speaking.

I can't imagine anything reducing the need to be at a conference in person or to travel to another university to give a talk and meet people. I can, however, imagine having less money for these things, thus reducing the opportunities for travel, but the benefits of in-person interactions in different professional settings is much greater than what can be accomplished via technological methods for transmitting voices and images.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On Not Being There

It can be difficult to balance a typical research university professor teaching load with a typical research university professor research activity level, not just in terms of the time required to do both when physically in one's own department but also (and perhaps especially) when some travel is required. I have already been on two major trips this academic year, and have two more scheduled before the term ends. How is this possible for someone who also teaches?

This is a question asked by one of my non-academic friends on Facebook. She was surprised to read that I was on the road yet again last week and wondered how I could do that and teach.


- Very careful scheduling of travel dates, if possible, to minimize classes missed.

- Very careful scheduling so that exams coincide with some missed classes (but only if this doesn't involve strange twisting of the schedule to place exams in times that make no sense with the course schedule).

- Team-teaching (very important for me).

- Selective use of substitutes, possibilities for which include colleagues with whom one trades teaching, postdocs or grad students who want to get some experience teaching a class or two, and postdocs or grad students who are paid to do substitute teaching.

The postdoc/grad substitute option must be done carefully and selectively and not be an oppressive or unfair burden on them or lead to an unpleasant experience for the undergrads in a class because of the challenges of parachuting into someone else's class to teach. Example: Last year a senior grad student wanted to teach a class or two for me; he thought it would help his application for academic jobs to have this experience. I organized the course schedule so that he taught for me while I was at a meeting, he did a terrible job, the students hated him, I had to redo the important parts of the lectures, and I don't think my substitute enjoyed the experience much either. Other substitutes have been great, but it can a bit hard to predict who will do well and who won't.

I have to travel for essential research purposes (it is part of my job) and I have to teach (it is part of my job) and the collision of these two priorities in time and space leads to some complex logistics. I try to work something out that allows both to happen in the best way possible for everyone, but sometimes I succeed in this and sometimes I don't.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Advanced Retreat

Has anyone been to a good faculty retreat? Has anyone been to a constructive, useful retreat that accomplished something substantial that could not otherwise have been accomplished in one or more non-retreat faculty meetings?

Has anyone left a faculty retreat with warm collegial feelings and no regrets about spending all day or at least part of a weekend with department colleagues?

In the hopes that such things exist or that some people at least believe that such things exist, I searched online for information on how to have a good/effective faculty retreat.

Some of the advice I found makes sense and seems rather obvious, though apparently not to some of the people organizing the retreats in which I have participated. For example: A successful faculty retreat requires advanced planning and organization of the discussion topics and tasks to be accomplished. Yes, yes, yes.

Some of the advice involves retreat activities that would make me run away: Play bonding games! Bring a nerf ball! Watch a movie together! Chew bubblegum! No, no, no.

I suppose one school of thought is that the random behavior that characterizes shorter faculty meetings might eventually converge into constructive action in a longer faculty meeting held at a remote, peaceful location.

My school of thought -- what one might reasonably call the negative, doesn't-play-well-with-others, you-are-so-cranky-you-are-probably-part-of-the-problem school of thought -- is that faculty retreats are a few orders of magnitude more painful and time-wasting than regular faculty meetings, an effect that is magnified by being in a remote, peaceful location with certain colleagues.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Short Work

[further apologies for sporadic comment moderation during some busy and logistically challenging days]

In a class that I am teaching this term, I spend a lot of time writing, drawing, and equationing on the board at the front of the classroom. In some classrooms, I can, without too much undignified stretching, cover the entire board with exciting scientific words, letters, and glyphs. In my classroom this fall, however, I can only reach the lower half of the board without standing on a chair.

It's not a large board, so I spend a lot of time erasing. If I had more space, I could keep important information on it longer and have it there to refer to during later parts of a discussion. Life would be better.

Lowering the board would be the most sensible way to solve the problem for me, but my taller colleagues (i.e., everyone else in my department) would then be inconvenienced.

Perhaps in less economically dire times the department would get a new, larger board or would acquire some other means by which I could write and derive and sketch to my heart's content, but that's not going to happen this year (or next).

This is not a complaint, just a random musing about having to deal with some technical challenges when teaching in the classic on-the-board style. It is vitally important that I keep my board-writing as organized as possible, especially when in the midst of a long series of sequential etchings, but I am finding this very difficult owing to space/height limitations.

Today, however, I was quite thrilled by the sight of my (taller) co-instructor kneeling on the floor so that he could reach the bottom of the board. So far this term he has been able to fill the entire board without doing this, but the nature of his scribblings today for some reason required that he not reach down too low to write. Hence, he knelt. Somehow, this cheered me up and reduced my feelings of frustration with only being able to reach part of the board.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Night at the Library

Note: My apologies in advance for sporadic comment moderating for a few days.

For various reasons related to a complicated weekend schedule and other activities the rest of the week, my daughter and I ended up at a university library on a Friday night not long ago so that she could get some books for a school research project. Her teachers require that students extract some information from books (the physical kind or electronic equivalents), in addition to some fact-mining from encyclopedias and assorted websources. On this particular Friday night, we set out in search of physical books.

I do go the library from time to time and I do work some Friday nights (but not in the library). Even so, it had been a while since I went to the library on a Friday night.

I brought my laptop and parked myself in a central area to do a bit of work whilst my daughter foraged in the nearby book-filled aisles.

Before we set out on our library expedition, I had several questions:

1. Would there be anyone else at the library on a Friday night early in the academic year?

2. If so, who?

3. Would there be any books published in the 21st century in the library stacks?


1. Yes!

2. There were students at the library that Friday night. There were student study groups, there were individuals poring over texts and taking notes, there were students using computers, and there were students snoozing in comfy chairs. The library was quite well populated given the day and time.

In fact, it was so well populated that I found it difficult to work given the number of distractions, including loud music leaking out of the ear pods of nearby studiers. Memo to me: If you ever work in the library again, bring noise canceling headphones and/or your own music.

3. Re. book vintage: the books my daughter found were all quite ancient. I know there are 21st century books at the library, but these were few and far between in the part of the library we visited that night. All the books my daughter checked out were published between 1950-1992. Her particular research topic can be approached with aged sources, so this was not a problem, but I hate for her to think that books = old information, internet sources = new information.

This term, I happen to be teaching a course that requires my students to go to a campus library and use library resources. I teach this course or one like it every ~2 years or so, and over time there has been greater and greater resistance by students to making a trek to the actual library building and going to the immense effort of reading physical books. You would think that I was asking the students to walk 12 miles in the cold and rain to read stone tablets with barely decipherable etchings.

Although I don't feel too much sympathy about this issue, I do know that students have complex and busy lives, so I have done quite a lot to reduce the number of library trips required. For texts that we use a lot, I lend books to the students (I have been acquiring used copies and the class is small enough for me to provide these books to everyone) and/or I provide photocopies of relevant pages/chapters and/or put pdf files on a secure website. Some books are complete enough on GoogleBooks to allow online reading of the relevant chapters.

At the beginning of this term, I was gearing up for the usual, if not increased, resistance by students to the library visit requirement and found.. none. Absolutely none. All the students have done all the library reading every week without a single complaint.

Do I just happen to be lucky enough to have an amazing class of polite and motivated students or has a trip to the library become a nice change of pace from sitting in front of a computer and reading from the screen? Or both?

My recent Friday night visit to the library showed me that students are spending time in the library as a convenient and quiet place to study or to meet other students for group discussions. This was a very heartwarming revelation for me and made me feel much more positive about the library-visit requirements in my own classes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Escaping From the Garden of Meaning Over the Wall

Re. writing and how to advise others to improve their writing skills, good ol' Strunk & White is commonly dragged out as a source for useful information. Others think this is a bad idea. (Note: see comments from yesterday's post for better suggestions)

At one point, when faced with a graduate student whose writing skills were so extremely bad as to make it seem almost more likely that he was an extraterrestrial masquerading as a human than to believe that he had graduated from reputable schools with BS and MS degrees, the latter involving the writing of a thesis, I acquired the most recent edition of Strunk & White. My thought was that I would give this to him as an additional aid in my effort to get him to use verbs and punctuation and perhaps eventually paragraphs.

I had consulted S&W at various times in my youth, but as I flipped through S&W in my most recent encounter with it, I quickly realized that this book was not a good choice for a writing guide to give to my student.

Certainly there are useful parts, such as the section on words that are commonly misused. In addition, I know that I should consult the section on hyphenation more often, and I don't think anyone has ever been harmed by learning about subject-verb agreement from Strunk & White.

Even so, it is a deeply weird book.

It is hard to choose from among many candidates for my favorite passages, so I thought it might be fun to share a few, and see if readers want to share their own favorites. Here are some of mine (quoted out of context):

gut is a lustier noun than intestine

Some writers.. from sheer exuberance or a desire to show off, sprinkle their work liberally with foreign expressions, with no regard for the reader's comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English.

Even the world of criticism has a modest pouch of private words (luminous, taut), whose only virtue is that they are exceptionally nimble and can escape from the garden of meaning over the wall.

.. writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.

And never forget:

Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Literally Doomed

At a recent faculty meeting, my colleagues and I debated the eternal question of how to teach our graduate and undergraduate Science students to write. We went over all the usual ground, everyone had their say (at length), and nothing was resolved. It was a typical faculty meeting, in my experience.

The usual approaches were mentioned:

Should we encourage our grad students to take additional writing courses in the English department? No, this doesn't typically tend to help with science writing, although it may help with some of the most appalling problems with grammar.

Should we assign a lot of writing in our undergrad and grad science classes? We already do this in some classes, but other classes can't reasonably incorporate a writing component.

Should we, as grad advisers, continue to work on writing issues with our advisees? Yes, of course we should, but this is likely to continue to be a major effort without dramatic positive effect for some students.

At about the same time that my faculty colleagues and I were having this most recent discussion of the writing issue, a visiting lawyer-relative bemoaned the lack of writing skills in many of her lawyer colleagues, young and old. She wondered: How did they get through law school without learning some basic writing skills?

How does anyone get through any high school or college without learning basic writing skills? Clearly some people do just that.

In our graduate students, my colleagues and I see no difference in the writing skills of graduates of elite liberal arts colleges vs. large universities, public or private. We encounter excellent writers from small colleges and from large state universities, and we encounter abysmal writers from small colleges and from large state universities.

From what I've seen over the years, the problem of writing-challenged students is not confined to science vs. non-science majors or to university vs. small college students.

This is not a rant about lousy writers. This is a blog post that wonders what to do about lousy writers. Who can help them? And how?

The answer to the question about how people with > 16 years of education can have such a problem writing is surely because writing is so difficult for some people, even when they have been given much advice and have had years of opportunities for practice and improvement.

Note: I am not talking about writer's block or other emotional issues about writing, although such problems may be connected in some way to writing ability. I am speaking here of the ability to construct a clear and logical document.

Some people, with practice and advice, learn to improve their writing skills, but is it possible that some cannot? And if so, what can we do for them?

For a couple of my graduating graduate students with particularly severe problems writing, after years of efforts by all concerned, I have had no further advice for them on the topic of how they can improve their writing skills. Instead, my departing advice to them was that they collaborate with people who can write well. In a research team, each person can bring a strength to the group effort; those who can write can help those who can't write (but who can add something else that is important to the research project).

I am certainly not saying that if my students haven't learned to write with my help, they'll never learn, but of course I am not the only source of writing advice for my students. They have numerous opportunities for writing documents of various length and purpose (term papers, exams, conference abstracts, proposals, thesis chapters) before and during their grad school experience, and they get feedback from many people (fellow students, writing tutors, advisers, other professors) during revisions of drafts. Nevertheless, despite all this input, improvements for some are minor to non-existent.

Of course it would be best if every science PhD could write well on their own, but if someone hasn't been able to do this by the time they get to their dissertation, and only get through the dissertation writing with great pain and a lot of help, what are the chances they will ever write well?

Can we conclude that further improvements in these cases are unlikely, or am I being too pessimistic and not realizing that perhaps all the writing advice over the years may have been insufficient and/or of the wrong sort?

If we can give up on a writing-challenged person's potential for improvement, the options are for them to seek a non-writing kind of career or to find alternative ways of succeeding in an academic career in science despite this handicap (e.g., seeking collaborators with writing skills). I don't know how often the latter arrangement works, but I do know that such situations exist.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I Could(n't) Teach That

Some of my colleagues and I are divided on a particular issue related to the teaching of undergraduate Science classes for majors. I am talking about the "core" classes that we teach our Science majors: the courses that cover the designated most essential topics in our Science. In most departments, faculty typically teach the core courses closest to their area of research expertise, and perhaps some courses that are sort of related.

CAMP 1. Some of my colleagues think that any one of us could teach any one of these classes. We have all taken these or similar classes as undergraduates, and even though we may not have studied certain topics since that time, we are smart people with broad knowledge of Science and we could each learn enough to teach any undergraduate course in our department.

CAMP 2. Other colleagues think OK, we could teach these courses.. if we had to.. but the courses would not be good because we would not be able to provide the depth of experience that can make a course successful and interesting. Perhaps there are some instances in which a non-specialist approach or perspective would benefit a course (and certainly there are examples of the opposite case in which a specialist of a topic is unable to teach a course well), but in many cases we wouldn't be able to provide much more information than what a smart student could teach themselves by reading a textbook.

I am more in Camp 2 than Camp 1, and I don't think it is just because I live in fear of being asked to teach a course that would require a vast amount of preparation on a topic for which I do not have deep knowledge. I don't mind being outside my comfort zone in terms of knowledge and I love learning new things, but I still don't want to run the experiment to test whether the Camp 1 people are right.

At small colleges, faculty teach a wider range of classes because there are fewer faculty to teach the core classes. That's fine -- I did the same when I taught at a college -- and I am not arguing that we can only teach (well) those courses most directly related to our specific research focus. But I think there are limits to what most of us can reasonably teach well with sufficient depth of knowledge to handle challenging questions, use supporting examples beyond what is in textbooks, and keep up with the latest developments in the field.

Maybe those things aren't important. Those in Camp 1 would argue that we could each master the fundamental concepts of each core class and be able to teach those. OK, sure, we can do that, but again I ask: Would the classes be any good?

This is mostly just a thought exercise, at least at the moment. If hiring freezes continue, however, we may find ourselves in a situation in which core courses need teaching, but the core people have left and not been replaced.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Secret Life of Deans

At some point in the second hour of listening to what was supposed to have been a 45 minute talk, I happened to glance at a distinguished professor and Dean who was sitting near me -- a gray-haired, 65-year old gentleman in classic male professorial attire. And then my attention was diverted, but not by the talk.

No, I became riveted by this sight:

The distinguished professor had a Hello Kitty! Band-Aid on his leg, just visible above a sock when he crossed his legs.

Therein lies a tale, I am sure.

I considered, and rejected, various ideas for how to work Hello Kitty! into a post-talk conversation with him. One of the better ideas (in my opinion) was to fake a minor injury (perhaps on my leg) and ask him if he had a Band-Aid. An even better idea was convincing a colleague to do this instead of me, but he refused to do it, although admitting to being deeply intrigued.

I suppose I will never know the reason for the Hello Kitty! Band-Aid on the deanly leg. Who knew that Deans could be so mysterious?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Fire Levels

Yesterday I mentioned something about the "fire" that some of us have for research. If you have this "fire" it means that you are deeply fascinated by research and discovery; you are motivated by a strong desire to investigate and answer questions; you are thrilled by new results and ideas.

Perhaps some people have this fire always. Definitely some never have it. For others -- perhaps most of us -- the flame flickers and may even appear to be extinguished at times.

If I were to graph my research-fire level vs. time, the time averaged result would show a steady presence of research-fire. If you looked at specific data points, however, you would see some extreme wiggles in the curve, including some very low points (though nothing like what one of my PhD students experienced in the lead-up to the defense). In my academic career, there have been months/years, especially during my student years but a few in the post-PhD years, in which events conspired to squelch my enthusiasm for science, research, academia or all three.

The research-thrill always came back. Typically the fire-squelching was driven by some sort of harassment or by major problems with co-workers or students. Through the bad times, however, I never completely lost my interest in research; sometimes it just seemed like the interesting parts of my job were overshadowed by the awful parts. On a few occasions I wondered if it was worth it to keep going or whether I should figure out a new career plan.

I haven't felt that way in a long time. The curve on the research fire level graph has defined a rather high plateau for the last 10 years or so, with only one valley of any note.

I think that once you find a good environment and are fortunate to have the opportunity to do the research you want to do, the research-fire level can stay high and can withstand the occasional negative things that happen in the course of any career and life. After a while, something that would have been a crisis or at least the cause for major anxiety and/or sadness doesn't have such a significant or sustained effect anymore.

Tenure helps with this, of course, but so does knowing that you have written successful grant proposals, you have successfully advised grad students and postdocs, you have received good teaching evaluations, and you have published papers (that were cited). Then, even if a proposal is turned down or a paper rejected and even if a vindictive student writes a scathing evaluation or a grad student flames out, you know that life goes on, the research and teaching fun will continue, and the disappointments will be interspersed with more happy events.

That perspective is one reason why I like being middle-aged. Perhaps it is the only reason, but it's a pretty good one all the same.

Tonight my mood (but not fire-level) has taken a minor hit because it turns out that the exciting research results I was expecting have been postponed for a couple of weeks. Unlike holidays and birthdays, which come on schedule, research results can be delayed, alas.

Data Kittens

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Data Happy

When I was a kid, I had the classic childhood experiences of being extremely excited by holidays and birthdays and other special occasions (getting a new kitten!). The days of being thrilled by such things are long gone (new kittens excepted), but birthdays and holidays have been replaced by new thrilling events in my life. Some of these new thrilling events are in my professional life.

This week, I am feeling very excited about getting some new Science Results very soon. I CAN'T WAIT TO GET THESE RESULTS.

If the results are not great, I will be rather crushed. I have learned to deal with the disappointment of getting nautical-themed dishtowels from my mother for my birthday nearly every year, but I'm not sure I'm ready for the disappointment if these much-anticipated results do not live up to my expectations. If the results are boring or bad, I'll deal with it, move on, recover etc., but I hope I don't have to.

But if the results turn out to be as great as I expect/hope them to be.. it will be just like getting a dozen new kittens.

I'm not sure why the anticipation of interesting research results reminds me of childhood. I don't think data-anticipation is a particularly childish thing, but the feeling of excitement leading up to the revealing of the new results reminds me of that old-time thrill of special events. And I am counting the days.

Among a certain circle of colleagues of mine, there is the tendency to classify grad students as to whether they have a passion for research or not. There are various terms for the passion-for-research characteristic, many of them involving words like "fire".

It is not a requirement that grad students live and breathe research and only research -- I hope that we can all appreciate a hardworking student who has other interests in life -- but even a non-monomaniacal student should (ideally) want to investigate (and be given the opportunity to investigate) some questions or problems that they find deeply interesting. They should (ideally) feel the urge to discover things, and then also feel the excitement of discovery when it happens.

I have advised some students who truly had this "fire" for research. They just had it in them -- I did not teach them this. For those students, my hope is always that the stresses of grad school won't extinguish these feelings, that they will back up their "fire" with hard work, and that they eventually emerge from grad school with a degree and a still-flaming interest in research, and then go on to make all sorts of new discoveries that I can't even imagine.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

F = 2

Whenever I find myself on a new committee or on a committee whose membership changes from year to year, it is a reflex for me to scan the list of committee members to see if there are other women on the committee. My heart sinks if I am the only woman (F = 1), and I feel immense relief if there is at least one other woman (F >= 2).

When I am the only female member of a committee, I may or may not have the same status as the other committee members, depending on how obvious it is that I am the token female. There have been many instances in my career in which I have been added to a committee because the committee had to have a woman member. In some of these cases, my opinions have counted for less and I have been criticized by other committee members for being "biased" in favor of women or women's issues. I hate being on these committees, although in some cases it has turned out to be important that I was there.

I like being on committees that have at least F = 2. On those committees, we women are treated as equal members of the committee -- as people who were chosen for our expertise, just like the men. It's amazing the difference F = 2 makes compared to F = 1.

I was just thinking about this today because I was scanning the list of a new committee that I joined this year. To my relief I saw that there is one other woman. Now I don't even have to think about it any more. We will just be a group of scientists and engineers getting together to discuss things and do a task.

The day seems far off when such committees of scientists and engineers will have equal numbers of men and women or random gender ratios that arise when people are selected out of a gender-balanced pool, but for now, I am grateful when F = 2.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Not Advisable

Part of my job is to give advice. I am an adviser of students, and I serve on committees and panels with an advisory role. Reviewing manuscripts and proposals involves giving advice. And, although it's not part of my job, I respond to (some) e-mails from FSP readers asking for advice.

I prefer to give advice that helps explain or at least explores some options, ideas, and/or relevant facts that someone can use make a decision. Giving advice doesn't require saying "You should do THIS" (or THAT).

Of course in my professional life I do sometimes have to say "(I think) You should do THIS" (or THAT). You should take this class. This paper should be rejected. We should hire this person and not that person. Such things are part of teaching and advising and making professional decisions.

When it comes to complex issues involving other people's decisions about school, work, or life, however, my interest in telling someone what to do decreases dramatically. That is why I am not very good about providing useful advice to those who send me email. Questions like: Should I quit the PhD program because I live far from my boyfriend? Should I tell my adviser that I detest his/her advising style? Should I accept a visiting professor position? Is it a bad idea to have a baby before I get tenure?

If I were to answer for myself, based only on my own life experiences and thinking only of what has or would work best for me, my answers to those questions are: no, no, yes, and no.

If I were to answer for someone else, my answers are: I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, and I don't know.

I don't mind getting emails with questions about Major Life Decisions (though I can't respond to all the email that I get). Sometimes it can help to get another perspective or to bounce an idea off someone else, even (or perhaps especially) someone you don't know. I hope, though, that any advice (such as it is) that I give is just one part of the dataset used in the whole complex decision process.

The most difficult question for me to answer is also one of the most common questions that I get: Should I leave [my graduate program, postdoc, tenure-track/tenured position] so that I can live with my [geographically distant] beloved?

These emails are all from women. I hope that somewhere there are an equal number of males who have similar questions about their own careers.

Friday, October 02, 2009


Team-teaching has its perils and rewards. I have team-taught quite a lot over the years, mostly with compatible people, and, with few exceptions, I have found the benefits to exceed the chaotic or unsavory elements.

There are some classes I have team-taught many times over the years. There is one class in particular that I have team-taught at least 15 times. In this and other oft-(team)-taught classes, when I am not teaching and am sitting among the students listening to someone else teach, I may or may not take notes. If I do take notes, it may be to note new and interesting things in my colleague's lecture or to jot down something that will help me figure out what I need to teach when it is my turn. In some cases, I take notes to help keep me awake and alert.

The person with whom I typically team-teach is an excellent teacher, but there are a few lectures in particular that I'm not sure I can face a 16th time. I suppose it would be rude if I sat in the back of the room, sent text messages to my cats, and read blogs.

My team-teaching experience this term has thus far been very different because I am team-teaching a new class. In this new class, the primary classroom activities are talking and writing on a board. My colleague and I don't use lecture notes or Powerpoint in this class and we recently realized, after the first class, that we will have no visual 'record' of what we teach, for use when next we teach this class. It would, however, be useful to have such a record.

Creating and teaching a new class is a lot of work, and 2-3 years from now when I/we teach this course again, it would like to refer back to an archive of course materials from this term.

We therefore decided that one person would take notes while the other person is teaching. We both participate in every class in which we are both present, but typically one person is at the front of the class leading the discussion and the other is sitting with the students, mostly listening.

We decided to try to make these notes as complete as possible so as to have a good record of what exactly we covered. This will help us gauge the amount we can reasonably discuss in each class, what types of topics needed greater coverage (perhaps guided by questions from students), and what worked/what didn't.

Of particular interest for future improvements of the course will be keeping track of how we make transitions between topics and how effective we are at explaining certain concepts. These are difficult things to make notes about while also trying to copy everything that is written on the board. This type of note taking involves the same issues that students face when taking notes in a fast-paced course on a difficult topic, with some additional challenges.

During my student career, I was pretty good at taking notes that proved useful for later studying, but I have struggled with note-taking of the sort needed for this team-taught class. I know that I should write down everything, but sometimes, if my colleague is discussing something that I know extremely well and/or find obvious, I forget that I need to write it down anyway. Then I suddenly realize that I have a gap in the notes and I try to jot a few things down as a reminder, but while I do that I am missing some of the new information being presented.

Other times, my mind wanders as I ponder how my colleague has chosen to explain something and I consider whether/how to add to the discussion, either at that moment or later, and then I find a few more minutes have gone by and I have not been taking notes. Once again, my colleague is erasing the board of things I have not written down.

No, we are not going to do anything of an audio/video sort. We are going to accomplish this (or not) with notes.

I would give myself a C for note-taking so far in this class, but the academic year is still young and I hope to redeem myself by mid-term. My colleague isn't doing any better with his notes, but that doesn't make me feel any better. It will not be a disaster if we fail at our note-taking, but it would be nice if we could create some kind of useful record.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Not You

A recent phishing scam involved an unknown and nefarious person who sent an email to faculty in my department 'from' one of our departmental colleagues who had an emergency whilst traveling and needed a quick infusion of cash. This scam is surely being repeated in other departments/universities.

The fascinating thing is that this email appeared to be from the only person in my entire department who actually might end up unexpectedly and unannounced in a foreign city and then lose wallet, phone, and everything else and suddenly need money sent. This person is also the only one who is likely to attempt such a transaction entirely by vague email to colleagues.

Given that the basic scenario was actually kind of believable in the case of this particular person, the other fascinating aspect involves how various other departmental colleagues detected the scam. I have conducted an unofficial poll, and there are two strong contenders for the primary red flags:

1. The email opens with a polite statement that says the sender hopes that we and our families are well. Our real colleague would never ask about our families (or us).

2. The email, although not well written, is surprisingly cogent and includes capital letters and punctuation. That would be very uncharacteristic of our colleague.

This made me wonder what would signal a scam email (or blog post) that appeared to be from me but was not really from/by me. Would a giveaway be references to sports or other important American Cultural Icons? Photos of dogs? A poem extolling my fondness for university accounting systems? An ode to faculty meetings?