Thursday, December 31, 2009

More LoR

Thanks to all who sent submissions to the Letter of Reference contest. Here are some more interesting examples, some of them clearly intentionally obnoxious and offensive:


Dear Admissions Committee:

I am heartily pleased to recommend to your graduate program Ms. Rebecca Hartley.

Ms. Hartley first came to my attention during my course, "The Music of the Spheres," during which time she tried to emulate some of the music we were analyzing, using her iPhone for texting. In 12-tone. I thought at the time that was an indication of a high degree of independence and creativity. Alas, although her enthusiasm was unbounded, her earned grade, which you can see in her transcript, was a C+.

I next interacted with Ms. Hartley when she asked to join my research group. Always willing to work with new people, I happily agreed. Ms. Hartley soon proved herself adept at such tasks as keeping the laboratory's Facebook page (which she instituted) up to date (however, not the lab's webpage). Whenever a volunteer was needed, Ms. Hartley was often ready to do the task, particularly if it involved a trip to Starbuck's. Ms. Hartley's research has made great strides since she's learned to use the laboratory instruments properly. Indeed, she is working on a poster to present her results at the next Sphere Musicology Workshop in 2010. I can't help but feel that Ms. Hartley's manuscript would be ready for submission by now had she only decided not to join her family on Lake Como for the 5 weeks of winter break (after having gone home for 2 weeks of Thanksgiving break), but then when one's mother calls, what can one do?

As for the rest of her undergraduate achievements, I know they are spelled out in her application and listed on her transcript: president of Delta Delta Phi sorority, head of the cheerleading squad (for football, basketball, and fencing), president of the Resident Life Food Committee (coffee division), food writer for the school newspaper (coffee bar reviews are her specialty), president of the iPhone Apps Club, and person-in-charge of the undergraduates' collective Facebook page, "Dickeyville College Experiences." Last year she had the lead role in the annual show, a salute to Dickeyville. It was quite the memorable performance.

In summary, I enthusiastically endorse Ms. Hartley for admission to your graduate program. She will make an outstanding student, in more ways than one. Yours is the program she is most interested in; she is not applying anywhere else. If she is denied admission, she has asked to stay on here, with me, for her Master's degree.

Professor Wimberly Wade
Dickeyville College


Dear Acceptance People,

I am writing to you to extol the virtues of one Mr. Joe Stone. Jim has been an undergraduate researcher in my laboratory since 1996 (?). Since graduating near to the top of his class in 2006, he has worked in my laboratory intermittently (during?) that time.

Jack is a hardworking and very bright individual, who has made numerous positive contributions to our team. As well as being extremely studious, she is a social individual and always manages to lighten the intense atmosphere that permeates a prestigious laboratory such as my own. A butterfly, one might say. This is a refreshing aspect to his personality. One flaw that could be a potential problem for John (especially in a world‐class laboratory with dangerous chemicals at his disposal) is his difficulty in resolving internal conflicts. His sociopathic tendencies could potentially negate his future interactions with colleagues, but since he has overcome his pornography addiction – I believe that this should not be a major issue. However, I feel you should ask him this directly. Joe is a fantastic brain. However, he does need to find the testicular fortitude within himself to succeed. His luck with the inferior sex has also improved exponentially, as has his general taste in aesthetics. I have noticed this personally. He is like a hybrid and good with the animals, however he should be monitored.

His particular research interests have meandered considerably throughout the time I have mentored him. However, I find a lack of ideological consistency within his train of thought. I have placed much responsibility on Joe. He has not broken yet. I admire a man with convictions, especially a man with a thetan level such as Joe’s. He has worked hard to improve this (by successfully calibrating an old e‐meter) and invests a significant amount of time in his faith. Indeed, he is president (?) of our university’s dance troop (? further clarification needed). He has a penchant for cycling and is quite good with the PCR machine.

I am convinced that with Joe’s natural vigour and eternal robustness, she will reach the pinnacle of whatever goal she decides to make. I will support this wholeheartedly. She is the creme de la mer of our crop. In conclusion, x is an ideal candidate for your programme for the reasons I have outlined above. I believe x will be an asset to your department and will thrive at an institution such as yours. I hope you will see x in the same light as I have, by granting him/her a position on your course.

With kind regards and kindred spirits,

Professor Sir H. Charles A. Ruddimutterigenered IX
BA MA PhD DSc MB BS ChB FRS FMedSci FRSL KD CBiol PhD (h’c) (Oxon)
Established Chair and Distinguished Professor of Freudian Zoology
University of Michael Jackson, Neverland, USA
Board Member, BAAADAAAAAAAAASS, Nobel Institute


To the Admissions Committee:

I am so excited to write this letter supporting Tommy Terrific’s application to your most prestigious graduate program. Although I am not an expert in your field of Science, I am an accomplished and world-renowned Harry Potter scholar and know a thing or two about magic. My work has earned me an endowed Professorship at a university even more prestigious than yours. Importantly, I also know a thing or two about Tommy, whom I have known since he was 2 years old. From this time, it was clear to all of us on the block that Tommy was not only the happiest toddler on the block, but also the smartest. His true gift is an unparalleled SCIENTIFIC INSIGHT. This gift exceeds even that of his parents, both of whom are world-renowned physicians at my university.

In closing, I urge you to admit Tommy to your graduate program in Science. Based on all that I know of him and his family, he has no choice but to solve the most important problem in Science during his research training. This will bring fame and fortune not only to Tommy, his friends and family, but also to your university.

The Scholar Next Door



Morrissey is applying to your graduate program and has asked me to write a letter of recommendation. I am quite happy to do so.

My interaction with Morrissey is limited to one course during the Spring term last year, Intermediate Hot Science, which he took as part of the requirements for his Science major, and which I taught. Although I cannot say I know him well, I can say with confidence that, unlike others who are just a hatful of hollow, he is an extraordinarily serious person.

I will be frank and say that my course is a difficult, quantitative, and rigorous class. Nevertheless, although not the top student in this or, likely, any class, Morrissey never seemed to lose the thread of my lectures, which are all very rigorous, despite his propensity to stare blankly at his shoes during class. Furthermore, he persevered in the course despite enduring an unusual personal tragedy; his girlfriend was in a coma for much of the term.

Based on my limited interaction with Morrissey, I would say that his main shortcoming, which might be overcome in a highly structured graduate program, is that he tends to be rather pessimistic. For example, when he asked me if I remembered him from the course last year and if so, would I be willing to write this letter, he said (and I quote): “I don't mind if you forget me. Having learned my lesson, I never left an impression on anyone.” In Morrissey’s case, this apparent pessimism might actually be an unusual form of modesty, as he has also been known to state “I’ll never be anybody’s hero”. I believe he also sings well.

In writing this letter, I find, much to my surprise, that Morrissey has become a central part of my mind’s landscape, at least for the moment. I take that as a positive sign of the strong impression that this young man makes on people who encounter him. Whether that is an indicator of success in graduate school is anyone’s guess at this point, but I strongly encourage you to admit him to your graduate program anyway. Even if you come to regret the enormous investment in time and money involved in trying to foster the graduate career of a dysfunctional person, I have no doubt that you will find the experience an interesting one.

I apologize for the possible lateness of this letter relative to your deadline. When Morrissey gave me the information for submitting the letter, he was vague about when it is due, saying only "How soon is now?", which I prefer to interpret as a profound rhetorical question rather than sarcasm.


Theo Smiths
Bob R. and Sheila C. McTruffle Professor of Rigorous Science


To Whom It May Concern:

This letter is a strong endorsement of Student X, who is applying to your graduate program. Student X has enormous potential for creative graduate study, and in fact has already amply demonstrated many important skills required for success in graduate research in Science.

My first indication that Student X was special came when I was supervising him in a research project to test the hypothesis that cats are more likely to sleep on top of a warm radiator than on a tray of ice cubes. Student X not only did the assigned tasks in a competent and cheerful way, but also moved the research in new and exciting directions by proposing that we include a variety of felines in our study; in our original plan, we proposed to confine our research subjects to orange tabbies.

Student X continued to exceed my expectations in every way. On numerous occasions I expected Student X to quit, whine, stare at me with an incredulous and/or sullen expression, or start writing a hostile post to his blog when I proposed what many would consider an unreasonable task or deadline, but his response instead was to get right to work, in some cases whistling a tune that surely was of his own invention. And if that wasn’t proof enough that Student X has got what it takes to do mindless tasks for years on end without complaining, consider this: Student X does not have an iPhone and does not even want one.

Student X presented the results of her research at the recent Thermofelinics conference, is intensely focused and motivated, and has outstanding communication skills (including writing!). In sum, Student X is the kind of person you want in your graduate program.

Morris Boltzmann

(note from FSP: I tried to slip this one past the FSP Editorial Board, without success, so I might as well confess that I wrote it. And the Morrissey one. But that's all, just those two.)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

LorR Results, continued

The following are apparently real Letters of Reference, but I think they are worth including here for their entertainment and/or horror value:

REAL LoR 1 (from "seat-of-the-pants scientist"):

XX is a student in my lab. She has made progress this year.


APPLICANT may be mediocre but her personal problems make it impossible to tell.


Marc X is a student whose self-perception of achievement is inversely proportional to his actual skill level. He is incapable of teamwork and unable to understand criticisms of his own work. I have had to put up with him in three classes. He likes to ask questions that he thinks demonstrates his superior understanding of the course material. He has an issue with handing in work on time and has had to hand in a second term paper in one of the classes, as the first one was a gross plagiarism. He particularly requested that I give him this letter of recommendation, although I twice said that I didn't think that this would be a good idea. We will be glad to see him graduate, just to get him out of our hair.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Letter of Reference Contest Results

Below is the unanimous choice of the FSP Editorial Board for our favorite of the Letter of Reference Contest submissions. The letter, written by Wendy Panero, has some of the classic elements of the LoR genre: a strong recommendation that is not backed up by anything in particular in the text of the letter, which was written based on little information.

To Whom It Might Possibly Concern:

I hope you accept the letter even through it comes two weeks after your deadline.

I would like to give Susie Student my highest possible recommendation for Your Program. She told me yesterday she was planning to apply, and since she begged me and said she gave me a really good teaching review, I agreed to write the letter.

Susie took my class, Introductory Rock Appreciation, this quarter. She earned a C, but I gave her a B- when she told me that the only reason she did so badly on the final was that her grandma died. Susie is among the top half of the students I have encountered here in my two quarters teaching at Massive State University, so I really would have enjoyed seeing Susie’s full potential in this class. She was working as a dog sitter for much of the quarter, however, so that took her attention from rock appreciation. While clearly disappointed that the course addressed actual rocks rather than the music she expected when she enrolled in the class, she did attend class most days.

I know Susie Student is an excellent match for Your Program.


Super Junior Faculty Member
Department of Inferiority Studies
Massive State University
Middle of the Country, USA

more tomorrow.. and the next day..

Monday, December 28, 2009

LoR Week

To get everyone in the mood for the theme of this week: Letters of Reference (for graduate school applications), consider first the dreaded Ranking Form that accompanies many such Letters of Reference.

Starting tomorrow I will post the results of the Letter of Reference contest.


Please rate the applicant to the best of your ability, making it clear what your frame of reference is (examples: all students you have ever known; students who took a certain course that you have taught at least 7 times; students who fit certain arbitrary biophysical parameters that you believe are significant even if this indicates something quite negative about you, not the candidate; etc.). In the space below, please also indicate how long and in what capacity you have known the candidate.

In your numerical rating, use the following categories:

Top 1%, top 2.5%, top 5%, top 8%, top 8.5%, top 10%, top 25%, top 50%, lower 50%, lower 25%, lowest of the low and/or scum of Earth.

Research ability:
Intellectual ability:
Scholarly capacity:
Ability to form thoughts:
Creative skills:
Capacity for innovative work and/or thought:
Potential for deep thought:
Ability to work independently but not too independently:
Ability to work well with others:
Ability to work well with a diverse group of people:
Social skills in a variety of academic settings and pubs:
Ability to express ideas in spoken form:
Ability to express ideas in written form:
Ability to express ideas using appropriate images and color schemes:
Clarity of thought:
Depth of commitment to chosen field of study:
Level of focus:
Depth of focus:
Degree of focus:
Quantitative skills:
Qualitative skills:
Analytical skills:
Graphical skills:
Ethical standards:
Emotional stability:
Knowledge in chosen field of study:
Knowledge of world geography:
Can he/she spell?
Potential to be a good teacher/TA:
Overall recommendation:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Merry Christmas Happy Birthday

According to Google, I remain at the top of the page for the phrase "Christmastime birthday". That's nice, and I am also strangely pleased that the little blurb that appears with the googled phrase is:

In fact, I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for the creator of "For Your Christmas Time Birthday" cards.

Although that sentiment is a bit extreme, it sort of captures the mood of how I used to feel about my birthday, which was seen as an inconvenience by some members of my family.

For a professor, though, it is a truly excellent time of year to have endless celebrations. The grades are in, the "I can't possibly have gotten a grade other than A" e-mails from students have subsided, and the next term is not looming too considerably large quite yet.

I will be traveling and relaxing and recreating and working intermittently on a proposal and some papers, will post an interesting but disturbing photo tomorrow, and otherwise will be back with the results of the Letter of Reference* contest in a week or so.

* Don't forget to send your entries to me by email ( on or before 24 December.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Why Even Care?

When discussing issues about teaching and teaching evaluations, there are always comments along the lines of:

- Why would a tenured full professor care about these things?


- Why even read teaching evaluations if they are so flawed?

The first part is easy to explain. Many professors at major research universities care about teaching. I am by no means alone in this respect. Getting tenure is a huge relief, but it doesn't stop us from caring about being good teachers and caring about whether our students learn what we try to teach them.

But why care about teaching evaluations? That question has a less obvious answer, in part because there are many possible answers. Speaking only for myself, I suppose I am a bit of a perfectionist, and I mine teaching evaluations for whatever useful information they might give me about how a course went and I look for clues as to what worked and what didn't. Even for courses that I teach many times, I change things from year to year, and I am interested in new input each time.

Furthermore, although I am a full professor who has been teaching reasonably well for decades, my teaching evaluations are examined as part of a post-tenure review process. At many universities, every professor is evaluated every year or so for research-teaching-service activities. When there is money available and university/union policies permit, the evaluation is used to determine merit raises. These are primarily based on research, but not entirely. You can get a merit raise for being an outstanding researcher and a mediocre teacher, but the raises become smaller or non-existent if teaching performance is dismal.

The evaluation of my teaching evaluations may also be considered as one component of the Chair's decisions about what I will teach.

Furthermore, some of my committee work involves evaluating professors who have been nominated for awards. Some awards are entirely for research, some are entirely for teaching, and some are for 'scholar-teachers' (or 'teacher-scholars'). For any award involving teaching, we look at teaching evaluations as one component of our deliberations, no matter how senior the professor.

Teaching evaluations never go away. You can ignore your own if you want, but if there are going to be people scrutinizing mine and making decisions about me, I want to know what is in them. If I am going to revise a course in format or content, I want to have some indication of what the students thought about the course.

Even my colleagues who are more interested in research than in teaching and who would be content to teach only 1 course/year nevertheless care a lot about the quality of their teaching. I know there are uncaring professors out there who would just as soon not teach at all and spend as little time as possible on their classes, but, as I've said many times before, I have only encountered a few of these. They may loom large to the students who are unfortunate enough to encounter them in a classroom and they may be favorite characters for the media to skewer when writing about research universities, but I am convinced they are a small and dwindling population.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Letters of Reference: The Contest

At about this time last year, we here at FSP had a contest to see who could write the best (= worst) Statement of Purpose to accompany an application to graduate school. The winning entry was spectacular in many ways, and other entries were also entertaining and/or scary.

This year, I would like to have a contest to see who can write the best (= worst) Letter of Reference for a student applying to graduate school. Letters of reference in general have a certain.. sameness to them, but letters of reference for students applying to graduate school have some special aspects to them, especially when written by a professor who doesn't really know the students particularly well.

The challenge is to capture that certain something about letters of reference, but feel free to let your creativity run wild in unexpected and horrifying ways.

There are no rules.

But there are a few instructions:

- Send your entry to me by email ( with the subject heading clearly labeled as an entry to the LoR (Letter of Reference) contest.

- Deadline: 24 December 2009

Entries will be examined by the highly caffeinated FSP Editorial Board and results will be announced before the expiration of 2009.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What To Do?

Doctoral students work hard for a few to >> a few years, focusing intently on research and, at many US universities, on taking classes for the first few years. It is an intense time, and for many it is a very stressful time, in part because there may be uncertainty as to whether there will be (appealing) job opportunities at the end of all the years of graduate study.

Graduate students and postdocs in science, engineering, and math have an array of possible career paths, and sometimes it takes a while to figure out what is the best option. Although some doctoral students know from the beginning that they want an academic career, some are less sure about this. Those who are uncertain are not necessarily less dedicated to education and are not destined to be lousy teachers.

Whether or not a grad student's career goal involves academia, many graduate students are teaching assistants for some or all of their time in graduate school. In the sciences, this typically means teaching labs or leading discussion sections. Being a TA is an introduction to teaching, but it isn't sufficient preparation for many who later become professors.

Some universities offer courses or workshops for graduate students and postdocs who are considering an academic career. Some of these courses also discuss aspects of acquiring a job, and some are devoted to teaching preparation (writing a syllabus, the mechanics of teaching). These courses are useful, but, again, are not sufficient preparation for teaching an entire class as a professor.

Considering these constraints and issues -- that doctoral students do need to focus quite a lot on research during their graduate studies and do not necessarily know that they want a career involving teaching -- is there a better way to prepare doctoral students and postdocs to be professors who both teach and do research? Being better prepared to teach would benefit both professors and students.

For now, let’s not worry about money or institutional resistance to dramatic changes or other major obstacles to reforming the system and consider whether there are ways in which we can reform graduate education to better prepare future faculty for the teaching component of their jobs. The money aspect is of course important because time = money, and adding teaching training would add time. Who would pay for this? How much would it cost? Let us ignore those questions for now.

If time/money were not issues, graduate students who wanted to prepare for academic positions could get more teaching experience, not just as teaching assistants in labs, but also as student-teachers responsible for the lecture component of a course (with close mentoring by an experienced faculty member), and eventually as instructors of a course (with some but less intense mentoring by a faculty member).

This would not be mandated, but it would need to be made clear that participating in such training is important for those considering an academic career. There would need to be a well-developed program of graduate advising that provided students with the information they needed to make informed decisions about this, and there would need to be departmental oversight so that advisors did not get to decide whether or not their advisees participated in such a system. There would need to be higher-level oversight of departments to make sure that grad students weren't simply being used as cheap teaching labor but were participating in a carefully organized career development program.

To learn to teach, you have to teach. I personally do not believe that courses that focus on pedagogical techniques are particularly useful. I have participated in teaching workshops and have found them to be quite useless, perhaps because these particular workshops were led by people who had absolutely no experience teaching the kinds of courses I teach in the type of environment in which I teach them and who were willing to toss out most course content in order to “teach students to think”. I'm all for teaching students to think, but I would also like to give them interesting things to think about.

But this is not a teaching workshop rant. I mention it here to explain why I am not proposing that grad students rush over to the education department/college and start taking courses there. And I hasten to add that I have colleagues in the education department, that I have worked with them on developing teaching modules, and that I am not totally against education specialists. I have, however, had some bad teaching workshop experiences.

In any case, in this unrealistic no-money-worries system, the teaching component would be an integrated aspect of graduate school, not something tacked on at the end. Professors have to balance their time between research and teaching (and other things), and it is important to learn some successful strategies for doing this. The current sink-or-swim approach of seeing which new professors will make it through tenure with their sanity, health, and families intact is not a great one. An integrated research-teaching experience in grad school or during a postdoc would also emphasize that teaching is not an afterthought or just something else we professors have to do so that we can focus on something more important.

This system would not be easy to implement because an instructor needs to convey confidence and must have the respect of the students, so the faculty mentors would have to be selected carefully and would have to know when to intervene and when to hold back, both for the good of the proto-professor’s training and for the good of the students in the class. The educational needs of the undergraduates in these classes are paramount, otherwise we are not replacing our current flawed system of letting inexperienced professors loose on undergrads with a better system.

I once offered to team-teach with, or somehow mentor, an assistant professor who was struggling with teaching. When I discussed this with the Chair, he said "If you have time to do that, you have time to teach the entire class yourself." He assigned the (large intro) class to me and gave the struggling assistant professor a break from teaching. This made me reluctant to volunteer to do such things in the future. In my hypothetical new system, mentoring activities would be factored into a senior professor's work load and would be valued by the department and the university.

I also think that such a system could be implemented without adding a substantial amount of time to a typical graduate program, but it would add some time. To pay for that time, funding agencies and universities would need to put more money behind so-called "broader impacts" involving graduate training.

- The importance of teaching, even at a research university, must be conveyed to graduate students and postdocs considering an academic career and must be emphasized during the faculty hiring process;

- Careful mentoring of professor in their first year, including peer evaluation of teaching, involvement in any on-campus teaching training that is deemed useful by the department, and possibly team-teaching with a sympathetic and helpful senior professor

- New professors should not be hurled into large introductory level courses unless they already have some experience with such courses.

Please evaluate this post by placing a check mark in one of the spaces below with a No. 2 pencil. Do not make stray marks.

The writer of this post seems like a person who might give me an A if I took a course from her.

_ Fervently agree because I am an A student and I would deserve that A.
_ Agree to some extent but I don't really want to commit other than being mildly positive.
_ Don't really have an opinion even though that indicates that I am a lame, spineless person.
_ Rabidly disagree because she is clearly an unhinged hysteric who hates snakes.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Do They Know It When They See It?

This post continues with the theme of Teaching Evaluations.

As I've mentioned before, I write not only from the point of view of someone who is evaluated by students for my own classes but also as someone who, in the course of serving on various committees, has spent much time poring over other professor's teaching evaluations. In addition, I team-teach with various faculty, so I see them in action in the classroom once or twice a week for a term, and then compare notes with them later when we see our teaching evaluations.

Teaching evaluations are flawed in many ways and should be viewed carefully, but most students know a disorganized instructor when they see one. A large number of consistent negative comments about technical issues such as a professor's lack of organization during class, missed office hours, classes that go way over the scheduled time, assignments that are turned back very late (or never), and other logistical issues are surely accurate.

I doubt, however, that students can accurately evaluate a professor's level of knowledge, the depth of a professor's interest in being a good teacher and, in some cases, whether a professor means to be as rude as he/she seems.

I do not doubt that there are unambiguous cases of professors being rude and insulting to students. Professors who are deliberately rude to students should face negative consequences for this destructive behavior.

But consider these examples:

I team-teach with a professor who cares about teaching and who treats students with respect. He is not, however, a warm and nurturing person. His lectures are clear, he welcomes questions from students during class and answers all questions in a serious way, he conveys interesting and important information during lectures, and he gives exams and assignments that are fair and relevant to the material presented in class. Is he considered a good professor? Not really. Each term, there are comments in student evaluations that he is "unapproachable" and "arrogant". He gets comments about how just because he is so smart doesn't give him the right to look down on students. I can see how students would find him fierce in some ways, but I have been attending his lectures for years and have never seen him be rude to a student or discourage 'stupid' questions. And he works very well with undergraduate students in his research group. He hates reading his teaching evaluations at the end of each term because it is such a demoralizing experience. Why can't students see through the frowns and appreciate the atmosphere of learning and respect? To me, this is a prime example of flaws in the current system of student evaluation of teaching.

And here is an example of a student who interpreted insulting behavior where there was none: A failing student came to my office to talk about her grade. She was extremely upset, near tears, and convinced there was nothing she could do to get a passing grade. I showed her that her grade to date was within range of passing if she passed the final, or even if she showed improvement over her other exams, and I offered to go over the review questions and sample exam with her, question by question, in person or by email. She did not take me up on this offer, nor did her attendance in class improve. In my teaching evaluations, this student (who provided enough identifying and specific information in her comment so that she was the only possible person who could have written it) wrote that she was extremely insulted by how rude I was to her. Her evidence: When she was so upset about the possibility of failing the class, I smiled at her. My smile indicated that I thought it was funny that she was failing and that I was happy that she would fail. She was outraged about this. I should be fired etc. etc. I suspect that many professors have similar stories.

The difference between these two stories is that, in the first case, there is a consistent pattern of criticism. In the second, the student's negative comment was a hostile outlier in an otherwise positive batch of evaluations. Hostile outliers are painful to read, but they are easier to ignore than the other kind, which can look convincing if they persist over time.

I see many hostile outliers in other professors' teaching evaluations. Unless there are many negative reviews with specific comments, many of us who are professors who evaluate teaching performance, in part by examining teaching evaluations, don't consider the hostile ones as significant.

If there is a consistent pattern, we need more information, and we typically have more information -- in the form of peer evaluations, which tend to be quite comprehensive. Also, in cases where there is a clear lack of respect, there are typically many specific anecdotes. In the case of consistent comments along the lines of "He/she was intimidating" but nothing more specific, it's quite possible that the professor has not done anything overtly disrespectful to the students.

I am already anticipating my teaching evaluations for this term. Overall my classes went well (says me), but there was one student with whom I had a persistent communication problem that bordered on the bizarre at times. Another student in another class was sullen and angry the entire term; apparently not because of anything specific to me or the class, but who knows?

Do others anticipate negative comments from students after a particular incident or conversation? I wish I didn't, but it's hard not to.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Strangest Thing

Eventually I will finish a post that contains my thoughts on What Should Be Done to train new professors to teach, but it's not ready to go yet. So, in the meantime, inspired by a comment from Kim, I will ask my readers a question:

What's the strangest thing you have seen in a classroom while teaching?

I don't think I have seen anything too bizarre. I recall one student who needed to have a little stuffed animal on her shoulder during every class. She sat near the front, and I found the scruffy little dog a bit distracting. It just sat there, but for some reason its beady little eyes looked evil to me. [I just made that last part up; I thought the dog-on-shoulder thing was bizarre, but it didn't really bother me.]

Monday, December 14, 2009

Rage Against the System

Last week's discussion of teaching and teaching evaluations made me reflect more on my own experiences as a student and a professor.

As a student, I only had a few awful professors. When I ended up in a class with a professor who was a poor teacher, I was mostly disappointed rather than enraged about my wasted time or not getting my $'s worth or whatever. I was fortunate that most of these professors were merely inept teachers, not cruel or unfair. I had one cruel and unfair professor (during a year spent studying abroad), and that was more than enough.

I always got something out of a course, even if it was mostly from the reading. I recall one class that was dominated by neurotic students talking about themselves rather than focusing on the reading or general discussion topics. The professor seemed to encourage such behavior, and one day I couldn't take it anymore so I jumped out of the classroom window when the professor's back was turned (the classroom was on the ground floor) and escaped. Even so, I enjoyed the reading for that class and I got a lot out of being exposed to new literature and ideas.

As a professor, I see how hard my colleagues work at teaching (yes, even at a major research university ). And as a professor serving on committees that look at teaching evaluations for individuals over a multi-year period, I know that a common feature of the files of professors who start out as bad teachers is evidence for improvement, steady or dramatic (as discussed last week).

Outrage about uncaring and rude professors is justified, but I don't think that well-meaning but (initially) inept professors should be castigated in the same way. It's not as if every graduate student is encouraged to, or even given the opportunity to, develop teaching skills and somehow declines to do this. In most cases, the opportunities do not exist or are insufficient training for teaching a class as the major instructor. You can blame the system, but it's not fair to blame the graduate students who become the professors who have little teaching experience.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Group Twitter?

There have been various times in past year or so when a current or recent member of my research group had some excellent and/or interesting professional news -- e.g., a job offer, a grant, a paper accepted/published -- and I have thought "Wouldn't it be great to tell everyone about this?"

Usually I end up mentioning it in an email if I happen to be corresponding with someone no longer in the department, or I tell the good news to current group members when I encounter them in the department.

This is a bit unsatisfying. So, should I set up a group on Facebook or use Twitter?

What are the pros and cons of each? I'd like various members of the group to be able to post their own news, so perhaps Facebook is more versatile that way?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

He Should Be Fired

'Tis the season for teaching evaluations (yet again, yet again), so in the spirit of this special time, I shall continue my intermittent evaluation of evaluations and teaching.

On quite a few occasions in my career, I have been a member of various sorts of evaluating committees that examine the research, teaching, and/or service activities of faculty within and beyond my department. In some cases these committees look at a single year of activity, and in some cases they consider a longer record. The latter cases can be quite fascinating, particularly with respect to an individual's teaching experience, because these multi-year records demonstrate in a dramatic way a very important but not surprising thing:

Most of us start out as not-great teachers.

I can't really defend my use of "most". Perhaps I should use "many", as I have not conducted a systematic study of this, but my impression from years of evaluating teaching evaluations is that "most" is probably correct.

To our students: We are sorry. Most of us don't mean to be lousy teachers when we first become professors.

But here's something cheering: Most of us figure out how to improve our teaching after just 1-2 classes within each level of course.

The worst evaluations I have seen for new professors have been for introductory level classes. Introductory level courses for non-majors at a university may be the most difficult kind of course to teach because of the (typically) large number of students, each with different priorities, interests, and learning styles, and because the physical environment (large lecture hall) may not be conducive to positive interaction between professor and student.

Some professors figure out how to improve their teaching with the aid of teaching development workshops; most figure it out just from experience. Student evaluations are important in the self-improvement effort because if something went really wrong in a course, many students comment on it. I always hope that among all the students writing comments along the lines of "You spent too much talking with your back to us while writing on the board", at least one, at some point during the term made a comment on this so that improvement could be made during the course. In many cases, logistical problems like that disappear from the teaching evaluation comments after 1 term.

In theory, some of us learn how to teach as graduate teaching assistants, but being a TA for a lab or a discussion section is very different from teaching a course, so, although TA experience does help, it's not enough. You have to teach a course to learn how to teach that course well.

So again, to the students: We are sorry, but unlike some other professions in which there is a training process for a major job component, many of us focus on research during our 'training' years and then are tossed in front of a class and expected to know how to deal with the complex logistics of teaching. You would think that, after spending many years sitting in classrooms, a person would know what to do and what not to do, but it doesn't work that way.

In some of my classes, students give presentations. These students are in the process of learning how to communicate clearly and effectively (in part by doing these presentations), but it always amazes me how common it is for them to do the very things that they no doubt hate in their professors: long text-filled slides (that they read), mumbling, lots of ummms, inability to answer questions on the spot, no (obvious) statement of the main point, or poor organization of complex information. Clearly, most of us need practice to learn how to convey information in an effective way to a particular audience.

And, unfortunately, we have a system in which professors practice on a class or two before eliminating some problems.

Years ago, I had a minor surgical procedure during which I noticed that the doctor was becoming agitated. He was also taking a very long time. I started getting nervous so I asked him if everything was going OK. He admitted to me then and there, while holding a knife that had already been used on me, that he had never done this procedure before by himself and it wasn't going as well as he had hoped. I asked, as calmly as I could, if it would be possible for him to get another doctor to help him, and he agreed that this was a good idea. A more senior doctor was sought and finished the procedure. I wasn't too happy about being the young doctor's first solo-surgery experience, but I figured: someone has to be the first patient.

I bet that now, years later, that doctor calmly does these procedures often and well. At least I hope that is the case. It is the case if the doctor analogy is at all applicable to professors whose first solo-teaching experience does not go very well. (The analogy does break down a bit after that, though, so go ahead and send your bitter anti-tenure rants and your "I had a professor who had been teaching for 47 years and was horrible" rants if you really must.)

I chose the description "not-so-great" above because, from what I've seen and read, most of the teaching problems are not course-destroyers. That is, most of us are not total disasters when we first start teaching as professors, and even among those who are, in all but rare cases there is improvement after a term or two.

I empathize with the students who are being practiced upon and who may have emotional scars (much like my little surgical scar that could have been avoided with a more experienced doctor), and I am always impressed by those who write evaluations such as "I know this is your first year teaching and [insert helpful suggestions]."

I even feel sorry for those who feel compelled to write, typically in all-caps: PROFESSOR X SHOULD BE FIRED. These students clearly spent months feeling angry, frustrated, and perhaps afraid of the effects of this awful course on their academic careers. I feel sorry for them, but I wish they could know that the professor needs advice (from both students and other professors) and experience, not firing. Advocating firing a new professor who is learning how to teach is not a very constructive suggestion, although perhaps in extreme cases such dire comments help signal the severity of the problems that need correcting.

That said, if someone has been teaching for many years and/or clearly doesn't care about teaching well and/or or has failed to learn how to communicate effectively and/or does not know how to deal well with student questions and course logistics, then such drastic comments are fair.

But in a professor's first year? No. Even though I appreciate how difficult it is for students who are in that first class of a new professor who is struggling to learn how to teach, I think we should all try to figure out a system that would minimize the painful disasters, try to be patient with annoying-but-not-too-terrible problems, and find constructive ways to make the teaching/learning experience better for faculty and students.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Mentor v. Supervisor

For various reasons related to my serving on an insane number of committees that review an insane number of CVs from faculty in many different academic disciplines, I see a lot of different CVs that vary considerably in their content and style.

Fortunately, most such committees have diverse membership so that there is almost always someone who can explain certain 'cultural' differences in CVs.

Sometimes, however, no one knows what to make of certain elements of a CV. For example, lately I have been wondering whether there is a difference in meaning as to whether someone "mentors" or "supervises" a postdoc.

Are these synonyms? If so, presumably the word "mentor" is chosen to indicate that the faculty-postdoc interactions involved a range of activities such as one might encounter in the new NSF-mandated postdoc mentoring statement that accompanies proposals that include funding for postdocs?

Or does "mentoring" mean that someone worked with a postdoc who may have acquired their own funding, whereas "supervised" means that the faculty got the funding for an idea they developed in a proposal? In this case, could "mentoring" include a broad range of levels of interaction, from "I gave the postdoc some advice from time to time" to "I was the primary faculty member interacting with this postdoc"?

What started me wondering about this was a CV that involved the "mentoring" of some postdocs, but the "supervising" of others. Without additional information, it's difficult to know what that means. It seems likely that "mentoring" in this case means interacting with postdocs who are funded by some source other than the faculty member's grants, whereas "supervising" means that the faculty member was more involved in the hiring of the postdoc for a particular project.

But I'm not sure. Has anyone used these terms, either as synonyms or as distinct terms implying different types of interaction?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

He Must Be Joking

Whenever I describe an anecdote -- whether from direct experience or not -- involving a possibly sexist remark by a man, the inevitable comment is made by someone that "He was joking". I have no trouble believing that in some cases "he" (perhaps even JFK!) was joking and I missed the humor, but I do not believe that men in general consistently make non-serious, *apparently* sexist remarks in jest and are, sadly, consistently misunderstood by women (or, at least, by me).

There have surely been times when I failed to find humor in remarks or situations that were intended as jokes, but in this post I will pluck an old war story from my archive and describe one of my experiences that helps explain my skepticism of the "He was joking" hypothesis. I think I have told various parts of the story of my postdoctoral adventures before; my apologies to long-time readers for any repetition.

Years ago, when I arrived at my postdoctoral institution, my supervisor told me to (a) go talk to Joe, a technician, about using certain equipment, and (b) go talk to Bob, another technician, about using certain other equipment. In both cases I had years of experience using equipment similar or identical to these.

Joe's office was filled with large posters of bikini-clad women draping themselves over red sporty cars. Joe expressed concern that I might break the equipment and said that I could only use the equipment if directly monitored by him. When my supervisor asked me if I'd worked things out with Joe, I explained about my apparent need for monitoring. My supervisor said "That's strange, all of the other postdocs use the equipment by themselves. Joe must have been joking." He told me to get a key to the room anyway.

So I went to the administrator-of-the-keys, who snarled "I don't work for you" when I asked to check out a key. I explained that my supervisor told me to get a key. No luck. So I told my supervisor that I couldn't get a key until he asked the key-person to give me a key. He sighed, saying that I must have misunderstood. None of the other postdocs had problems like this; they asked for keys and got keys.

Did I mention that I was the only female postdoc?

I also talked to Bob about using the equipment he oversaw, and he said that I could use some of it, but not all of what I needed to use. I knew that the other postdocs (and some grad students) used all of this equipment, so I explained my background and expertise and the fact that I needed complete access for my research.

Bob said that I could use Equipment A, but not Equipment B, although A was a much more complex piece of equipment than B. However, use of B was required before use of Equipment A, so being prohibited from B shut me out of using A.

But: Bob said he would run Equipment B for me. But: There was a catch. He said he would run B "If you beg me to do it." I said, "No, seriously, I need this by next week, so either I should use B, which I know well how to use, or you need to do this for me soon." He said "Only if you beg me." After failing to get a straight answer from Bob, I left, saying I'd be back to check on things in a day or two. I hoped that he was just joking or being weird.

When I went back to talk to him again, Bob said "I've changed my mind. You don't have to beg me to do this for you. You have to get down on your knees and beg me to do this for you." I explained that I needed to make progress with this aspect of my research and I either needed to do it myself or get his help. He just laughed, pointed to the floor, and said "On your knees."

My supervisor kept asking me when I was going to have some results and I said that I was having trouble getting Bob to let me use the equipment. My supervisor said yet again "None of the other postdocs have this trouble." I explained about the begging thing and my supervisor said "Bob is just joking around. Of course he doesn't mean it. Go talk to him again."

So I did, but nothing changed. Bob just grinned and pointed to the floor whenever he saw me. My supervisor asked Bob why I wasn't getting the work done and Bob said he didn't know why.

So I went to another university to use the equipment there.

Bob never let me use B, but, based on my trips to another university, I could use A. I tried to schedule time when Bob was not around because he liked to sneak up on me and scare me. And a favorite activity of his was pouring liquid nitrogen on my head. Ha ha! Such fun we had joking around in an environment of anxiety and pain.

My supervisor found my aversion to Bob irrational. Whenever he said "Why don't you go ask Bob this" or "Maybe Bob will help you with that", I found excuses not to go see Bob. My supervisor kept telling me that I was not appreciating Bob's sense of humor. He repeatedly said "None of the others have a problem with Bob."

Throughout all of that (and more), the unwavering opinion of my supervisor was that Bob and the others, including a senior professor with wandering hands and a grad student who liked to talk about punching his girlfriend, were always just joking around and I was not appreciating their humor. That may well be, but their so-called humor was in some cases too subtle for me and in others it was an obstacle to my research.

I got along fine with quite a few people in the department, but not with these joking guys.

My supervisor, who had never worked with a female postdoc before, was himself a very nice and decent person, but he could not believe that the problem was with these men; he had worked with them for years and knew them to be good guys. It made more sense to him that these guys were joking than that they were being (at best) patronizing obstacles or (at worst) insidious sexists who liked to humiliate women. Therefore, I must be the problem.

This postdoctoral episode could have had a major negative effect on my career but I circumvented the problem by publishing more than any of the other postdocs, something that was only made possible by my visits to another university. My supervisor may have found me difficult and humorless, but I got results and published them, and he appreciated that.

Back then, in that place and time, there was no one who could help me with this problem. I could have been more vocal about how I was (mis)treated, but there was no university office overseeing the working environments of departments or research groups, there were no other women to consult, and my supervisor was the department chair.

So is there any point in bringing up this ancient history? Other than explaining my skepticism about the "he was joking" hypothesis for certain behavior or remarks, does it prove only that I have lost all objectivity in the matter or is it a compelling example of how even well-meaning people can fail to see sexism that is happening in their midst?

Telling these old war stories makes me weary, but it also makes me aware that there has been a lot of progress in the working environment for women in science in the past 10-15 years. It is important to acknowledge that, while still continuing to work for even more improvement.

Monday, December 07, 2009

TMI Talks

Earlier this year, I heard a research talk by an FSP who inserted many comments about her personal life into her talk. During the talk, I was quite annoyed by this, but I had to mull it over for a long time before writing about it because I had to think carefully about why it bothered me.

I certainly don't mind if a speaker inserts some personal asides in a talk. A talk given by a human being should have some human elements to it. In the talk that annoyed me, however, the personal details were unusual in quantity and detail. Is that bad?

First I will give some (vague) examples. When presenting data collected a few years ago, the FSP mentioned that she was very pregnant at the time. This fact was not relevant to the data collection. At another point in the talk, she mentioned that during a later part of her research her daughter was a toddler and she had another baby. She mentioned her spouse several times and showed pictures of her children during the talk, interspersed with the scientific results and interpretation.

Is this useful information that gave the audience a more complete appreciation of the context of her research life and in particular provided the audience with an unambiguous example of a woman being a professor and a mother?

Or was it unprofessional and strange?

Would my opinion, which veered closer to the latter than the former, have been more positive if the research had been impressive? Was I anxious that some audience members might think that her research was unimpressive because she was a professor-mom? Why should she have to be a representative of professor-moms?

I have listened to many lame talks by MSPs and never assumed that any of them were representing their gender or race or place of origin or marital status or religion or anything but themselves (and maybe their departments). I hope I was not embarrassed by this FSP as an unimpressive representative of professor-moms, but I fear that I was, at least a little bit. This of course leads back to the usual point about how if there were more of us, none of us would be seen as representatives for all women, moms etc.

Aside from that issue, how much personal information is appropriate to include in a professional talk? I can see the temptation of wanting people to appreciate how difficult it is to do certain research activities whilst confronted with significant challenges, even if those challenges are of the personal sort. Even so, although we professors shouldn't hide the fact that we have families and medical issues and so on, I don't think we should make our personal lives a significant part of our research talks to professional audiences. The audience came to learn about your research; you: not so much. That type of information can be more effectively and appropriately conveyed during mentoring sessions, individual discussions, or social events (over meals and drinks), not to mention in blogs.

Perhaps it is a generational thing, one of my similarly-annoyed colleagues wondered. Perhaps we are curmudgeons who become unhinged at the mention of pregnancy or babies during a Scientific Talk?

I don't know, but if these TMI talks become a trend, I might have to add another category to my newly reformatted CV. Perhaps I will annotate my list of journal articles and conference proceedings based on my physical and mental health and that of my family, friends, and cats at the time. There are certain papers and conference proceedings that instantly bring to mind certain events in my personal life from the associated time and place; it just didn't occur to me to share this information in certain ways.

Friday, December 04, 2009


Every few months I get an email about this topic, so here goes:

Is it appropriate to give your graduate adviser a gift when you graduate?

I can't speak for anyone else, but I personally do not want gifts from my students, even the students who became friends/colleagues by the time they graduated. I don't know about other departments/fields/countries, but gift-giving is not routine in my little academic niche.

Every once in a while a student gives me a gift; these are mostly new international students who may be used to a culture of gift-giving. I accept the gifts with polite thanks.

Every once in a while a graduating undergrad is inspired to give me a small geeky gift to thank me for some extra efforts I might have made on their behalf -- e.g. lots of letter-writing, advice, and/or research opportunities above and beyond what is typical etc. That's fine. It's not necessary but I appreciate the sentiment.

My best guess is that in many cases a gift is not expected. If gift-giving were a tradition in a department, I think most people would know about it and therefore students would not be wondering whether they should get something for their adviser. The best people to ask are probably recent graduates.

I don't want tangible gifts, but consider this: Last year my graduating PhD students sent me heartfelt thank you e-mail messages, and I very much appreciated those. The messages made me very happy and, although I delete a lot of my e-mail, I kept those.

Advisers: Which would you rather receive from a graduating student: a sincere and moving thank you note or an aliquot of your favorite food or beverage (chocolate, wine etc.)? (Note: in this poll, 'both' is not an option. You can of course be anonymous, so feel free to be venal.)

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Let Them Eat Pizza

Inspired by a tangent in yesterday's post/comments and feeling that I have not previously delved in sufficient detail into the topic of Women's Mentoring Pizza Lunches, other than this attempt last year, I shall elaborate on this topic today. I shall do so by asking myself FAQ and providing the answers I give when asked these in real life:

What are these mentoring pizza lunches? Why are you mentoring pizza and/or women?

It is not uncommon for FSPs and other professional women who are invited as visiting speakers to another university to have an informal lunchtime discussion with students and postdocs (and others) about life/career issues. In some cases these mentoring sessions are a major motivating factor in the invitation to visit and sometimes they are an add-on feature to an otherwise routine visit by an invited professor who just happens to be female.

Are these only for women or can male persons attend as well?

Whatever my hosts arrange is fine with me. Most typically, anyone can come, but male persons almost never do (see related anecdote about men feeling excluded when all/most speakers at a professional event are female). Perhaps if male visitors were invited to talk about life/career issues as well, it would become more natural for anyone to attend these lunches.

I recall visiting only a few places where the lunches were specifically restricted to women. In at least one of these places, there were major problems in the department with male professor/female student interactions and the women who organized the lunch did not want these men to show up. That was a very tense place with issues for which I could provide no real help, but we had a very constructive discussion that seemed to provide comfort, if not confidence, to some of the women.

What do you talk about and/or what are you asked about?

The Big 3 are: (1) my career path, (2) when I had a child relative to my career path, and (3) how my husband and I managed to get jobs in the same place.

Do you have to eat pizza?

In my experience, 97% of these lunches involve the eating of pizza in a room in the host department. Also in my experience, these lunches typically involve my watching other people eat while I talk.

Do you enjoy doing these or are they a burden and/or humiliating because MSPs don't do these?

I enjoy them. I meet a lot of interesting people and we talk about important things. I think these mentoring sessions used to be more essential when there were fewer female students and postdocs, but I get asked to do just as many of them now as I did 10+ years ago.

These days, the mentoring lunches and the specific designation of women visitors as a distinct category from male speakers might be counter-productive in some ways. Even better would be if there were recognition that visiting male speakers might have interesting things to say about life/career, although I admit that it boggles the mind to envision certain Distinguished Professors being asked to do a pizza lunch with students and muse about their personal lives.

I once visited a university as a Distinguished Woman Speaker and found that the male students weren't comfortable talking to me about research. When I tried to talk to one male PhD student -- whose adviser had specifically arranged for me to meet in the hopes that I would give him some input on his work -- he asked me "Aren't you just hear to talk to the girls?". I replied "If you are unable to explain your research, I would be happy to ask your adviser to arrange for me to spend this time speaking with someone else."

I most prefer to have lunch with a diverse group of students and/or postdocs and talk about a wide range of topics, from research-related to career-related, but I certainly don't mind doing the FSP-as-role-model thing if requested to do so.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

My Revised CV

Based on the comments to yesterday's post, I have decided to revise the Invited Talks part of my CV as follows:

Selected Talks (2006-present)

key to symbols: * = inferior A/V equipment and/or lecture hall design; + = audiences that interrupt a lot during talks; $ = European university that hands you an envelope of cash after your talk; # = university where I got food poisoning at dinner with my faculty hosts the night before my talk

Talks that were just supposed to be talks but that turned out to be stealth interviews

University of J, 10/09
* University of O, 3/08
B University, 4/07

Talks at universities where I have a friend from grad school

BFF State, 1/07
+ Z Tech, 4/06

Talks that I gave because I was a so-called distinguished lecturer for an organization and so I didn't have any choice in where I gave the talks and might not otherwise have gone to speak at these places but ended up having a really good time

*# University of ZZZ, 3/06
Y State University, 3/06
* NW Y State University, 3/06
* NW Central Y State University, 3/06
Y College, 3/06
D State University, 3/06

Talks at the university where my collaborator Bob works

University of Bob, 11/08

Talks at universities to which I applied for jobs when I was feeling angry with my current institution

University of A, 3/07
University of N, 3/07
University of G, 2/07
University of R, 11/06

Talks that were at a university in my home state but that had nothing to do with my being from that state despite what my mother thinks

University of X

Talks at universities that have no women faculty in my field and that wanted an FSP to come and show their students and postdocs that such things exist

University of Y, 4/09
University of YY, 2/08
+ MSP State, 11/07

Talks that were totally random invitations by universities that were not considering me for a job and that apparently just wanted to hear what I had to say about my research and didn't ask me to do a pizza mentoring lunch with the female students/postdocs

* University of F, 11/09
+ University of S, 4/08
$ University of P, 4/07

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Today: A CV question

On CVs, it is common to include a list of invited talks given at other universities, research labs, professional organizations, or companies. Ideally the list will also include the date of each talk. I don't find the talk title to be particularly useful, but some people include these.

It has come to my attention that there is a divergence of opinion on the following issue related to the Listing of the Talks:

Should you include interview talks? You don't have to indicate them as such of course, but should you even list them with other invited talks?

Some of my colleagues think this is unethical, but I don't see a problem. An invited talk is an indication that a place is interested in your research, whether it be just for a visit or for consideration for hiring. Why not list the places that invited you to give talks, for whatever reason? Am I missing something re. the ethics of this?