Monday, May 31, 2010
My family is swarming with active and retired soldiers and sailors, some of whom have spent substantial time in war zones, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, and several of my friends are married to military personnel. I have also had quite a few soldier-students in my classes in recent years. I can spend Memorial Day being grateful that not one has been lost.
I once asked an uncle, a retired Marine, what he thought about remembering people other than soldiers on Memorial Day. That is, people who have died in war -- any people and any war -- or Americans who have died in other service to the country. What about policemen and firemen? What about children in war zones? No, he did not think that was appropriate. Only US military personnel should be considered. That is what the holiday is for and it does soldiers a dishonor to include others.
I disagree. The only people I personally have known who died in war were those caught in the fighting in a certain troubled African country where I lived for a time as a child. These were my friends and neighbors. I am not in any danger of forgetting them, and I am not dishonoring anyone else by remembering them today of all days.
For many people this day is just a holiday, totally detached from its original intent. I must admit that for me it is mostly just part of a 3-day weekend as well. My daughter doesn't have school, so we sleep in a bit, hang around, admire the cats, maybe bake something strange but festive, and then I go to campus to work in my nice quiet office for a while. Maybe I will even clean a particularly cluttered corner of my office; something I've been meaning to do since last summer, or maybe the one before that.
But it is Memorial Day, a day for memories of family, friends, soldiers, sailors -- even people we never met but who are somehow important to us.
If you take time on this Memorial Day to remember important people in your life other than close family members or friends, how many of these people were your teachers, colleagues, mentors, or students?
Friday, May 28, 2010
A recent article in naturenews (Nature, 26 May 2010) discusses NSF's "broader impacts" criterion for proposals and notes that the definition of "broader impacts" is so broad that many PIs are confused. Although NSF does provide a handy list of examples, questions remain about what types and amounts of BI activities are most appropriate for a particular project (and PI).
Although some PIs do innovative BI activities, many do not. Apparently, the #1 BI in proposals submitted to NSF's chemistry division involves the training of graduate students and postdocs; an important goal, but that many of us do anyway. Hence the perennial question: Do BI activities have to go beyond what we usually do, or do we just have to do a better job at the advising/mentoring aspects of our job, or at least say that we will pay more attention to these things?
I don't know, but I found one of the relevant anecdotes in the article strange and unconvincing. The story involves the admirable efforts of a physicist, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, who conducted a project in 2001:
In many ways, it was typical of the kinds of things that NSF-funded researchers do to fulfil [sic] their broader-impacts requirement. She took three female graduate students on weekly visits to local classrooms, where they spent 45-minutes leading nine- and ten-year-old children in practical activities designed to teach them about electricity and circuits. The visitors also talked about their lab work and careers. In addition, Leslie-Pelecky did something less typical of broader-impacts efforts: she brought along education researchers to study the effect of this interaction on the children's perception of scientists.
Those assessments were startling, she says. After three months, most of the students said that they still weren't sure who these young 'teachers' were – except that they couldn't possibly be scientists. In their minds, scientists were unfriendly, grey-haired old men in white lab coats.
"And that's what I worry about with broader impacts," says Leslie-Pelecky. "There are a lot of people putting time and effort into [these sorts of activities] and they have no idea if they're making any difference or not."
The anecdote ends there, leaving me a bit confused. I can see being concerned that these kids didn't understand that the graduate students were scientists, but that doesn't make me worry about "broader impacts" activities. That makes me even more convinced that we need programs of this kind, perhaps with a different approach to explaining (in this particular case) that the young women were scientists. What else, other than meeting real live examples would convince these kids that scientists don't necessarily fit their image of scientists as cranky old men -- an image that surely discourages a lot of kids, especially girls, from considering science as a career option?
The article mentions the idea that the goal of BI might be better achieved if BI activities were organized at the level of the institution, involving people with expertise in such things, who would then involve certain faculty in particular programs.
There are some aspects of that idea that I like, but I think it would be a mistake to remove all responsibility for BI from the individual investigators. The BI criterion, despite the confusion surrounding it, is a move in the right direction: that of asking investigators to think broadly about their research, to pay attention to the training aspects of our research, and possibly to consider how our research affects the non-academic world.
Furthermore, in the individual project-based system for BI, there are many opportunities for creative integration of the "intellectual" and "broader" aspects of research. A centralized office of people who are experts on "broader impacts"-type activities, but who don't necessarily understand the science and engineering research itself, might not innovate in the same way that individual PIs can.
I also would be concerned about a system in which this centralized office called on "certain faculty" to be involved in BI. I have a feeling I know who these faculty would be and that level of involvement would vary drastically across the institution, with confusion about whether this type of activity was valued by departments, was appropriate for tenure-track faculty etc. etc.
I agree, though, that if the intent is to do effective outreach on a large scale, then that type of BI activity should involve those who have specific expertise and time to devote to such things. Perhaps there is a way to have the best of both types of systems: e.g., to have more institution-based support systems to help PIs with BI activities (some universities have this; some don't), yet without completely relegating the organization and implementation of BI activities to the institution.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Does it matter?
In my experience, what matters more is who the Dean of the College is, not what the College is.
And by who, I don't mean in what discipline the Dean's PhD is or what department is the Dean's official "tenure home", but rather who the Dean is in terms of their personality, administrative philosophy, and breadth of view.
I have known liberal artist deans who were excellent administrators of colleges of arts and sciences, and I have known others who resented the science and engineering departments.
There are also science/engineering deans who are fascinated by the liberal arts and see them as an integral part of any great university, and there are of course others who are contemptuous of the "research" done in liberal arts departments.
Deans of any intellectual background can be great or they can be evil political schemers who have favorite departments and less favorite departments for unfair reasons, erasing any benefit to some STEM departments of having a dean who understands the needs of a research-intensive science department.
So, my overall opinion is that the right person can do a great job leading any sort of administrative organization at a university, at any level.
But, I must say that I have had a few recent experiences that made me I wish that more administrators (deans and/or others) who have a direct effect on my professional life had experience running a research group or, at least, would listen to advice from those who do. I know that this experience does not ensure a wise and fair leader, but it's an easy explanation for some of the more baffling decisions made by certain administrators in my corner of academe.
Some important information that seem to be missing from the administrative world view of some of these people include:
- An understanding that we professors do not spend all of our working hours in our office. If we have labs, we may spend time there. For administrative purposes, in terms of keeping track of where we professors do our jobs, labs should count the same as offices. And some faculty conduct some of their research off-campus. And I don't just mean cafes.
- An awareness that postdocs exist, and that they are neither students nor faculty. In an economic crisis, the university can do all sorts of unpleasant things to faculty positions and salaries, but postdocs should be protected from these measures. Postdocs are typically paid from grants, so they should get whatever raises are budgeted in the grant, and the administration of their salaries and raises should not rest with a central organization that seems to have little understanding of the role of postdocs in a research university that is swarming with them. (Bizarre, no?)
- A realization that policies related to oversight of research conduct and grants management should not be so onerous that faculty spend a vast amount of time on administrative matters that should be simple, obvious, and straightforward rather than complex and time consuming (and that assume we are all thieving drug dealers who want to do heinous experiments on humans). For example, I object to the fact that my colleagues and I now have to:
- justify research expenses (again and again) that clearly can have no other purpose but research,
- spend our own money on research items or activities because it is so difficult to deal with the accounting system in a timely way (some research activities are time sensitive and the research will not occur if an order form is bogged down somewhere in the accounting system), and
- navigate an increasingly opaque system of measuring the time we spend on different research projects (especially in the summer).
I have been known to make this complaint (recently), but, even though it might be somewhat accurate in some cases, I know that it isn't a completely satisfying explanation.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Or, at least, they capture the energy and excitement of graduation ceremonies if these exist. My university is particularly skilled at conducting boring graduation ceremonies that suck the soul out of anyone daring to sit through one. That's part of the challenge of a BigU; in terms of the thrilling atmospherics of a graduation, it's hard to compete with a small but joyous crowd of graduating students and their families all packed into an historic quadrangle at a college.
I am quite choosy in my commencement speech grazing. I do not watch commencement speeches given by a university administrator. I am not that interested in celebrities who are famous for being famous. Some speeches I do not read/watch because I have read a synopsis, and that is enough for me. [Commencement speech 2010 trivia: Which speaker's speech included an endorsement of Louis Vuitton shoes?]
I am potentially interested in speeches by authors, journalists, scientists, and heads of state.
Some speeches I read/watched all the way through. For example, I liked Gail Collins' speech at Mount Holyoke College, especially this part:
Ellen [Goodman] said her women friends tended to be much happier than her men friends. And she theorized that was because the men had all grown up expecting to be president of the United States. But instead, they became state department officials or college professors. And the women had all grown up expecting to be receptionists. And they wound up as state department officials or college professors.
That refers to a generation before mine, but nevertheless the statement resonated with me.
For another example, I was intrigued by Rachel Maddow's speech at Smith College. It started with a description of events leading up to Prohibition, with a focus on the activities of Carry Nation (Google Carry Nation if you want to read about why she is known by this spelling as well as by Carrie). I had no idea where this protracted anecdote was going, although I hoped it was going somewhere interesting. And it did.
I would like to offer the hypothesis .. that personal triumphs are overrated.
And later in the speech:
Some dreams are bad dreams.
I like that. Graduates are often told to follow their dreams blah blah blah, but Maddow is right: Some dreams are bad dreams, especially those involving achieving galactic fame at any cost (even if the dreams are of the obscure academic sort within particular disciplines).
Another piece of classic commencement advice is typically along the lines of "Live each day as though it were your last". Maddow thinks that it is a bad idea to live as if you will never be older than you are right now.
I agree. Despite the carpe diem appeal of "live each day etc.", imagine if we really did live according to that philosophy. We might find it emotionally freeing to tell ourselves "This is the last time I ever have to grade a stack of illegible problem sets that have so many cross-outs and scribbles that the pages could be mined for graphite" or "I never again have to sit in this small room with all these obnoxious colleagues who say strange, irrelevant things (at length)".
Maybe it helps you get through these trying activities to think this way, but imagine the behavior of your colleagues at a faculty meeting if they really believed that they were never going to be held accountable for what they said or how they voted. Imagine how someone might behave if they knew that no student would ever question their grading decisions.
These are little academic examples of what is ultimately a cosmic point, but, speaking as a middle-aged person, I can see the benefits of taking the long view in life and work. For example, it would be nice to think that, little by little, in the various ways that we professors have at our disposal, it is possible to make a positive impact on someone's life (as teachers and mentors) or on the world (via our research, however impractical it is or seems).
At the very least, it is probably a good idea to assume that you will be accountable for your actions and that what you do and say can have an effect (for good or ill) on other people.
For no particular reason, I was recently remembering one of the summer students who came to work with my research group years ago. This summer student (SS) was 20 ± 1 years of age, and obsessed by the fact of being younger than anyone else in the research group that summer. I noticed this youth-mania right away because SS kept saying things to me like "I can read that sign at the end of the corridor, but, since you are so much older, you probably can't read it." (me: "Do you mean the sign that says [FSP reads sign aloud] or the invisible one next to it that only professors can read that tells me to tell you that people don't automatically lose their eyesight when they turn 40. And even if they do, so what?"
Even my 20-something grad students complained about this student. This SS made a 25-year old feel ancient and deteriorated. What was this SS thinking and what was up with the obsession with youth? And what would happen when SS turned -- eek -- 25, or 42, or .. (impossible to contemplate) 50+.
SS is now closing in on 30. Perhaps SS's definition of Youth has expanded, or at least 'matured'.
Perhaps SS now realizes that, if we are lucky, life is long (to paraphrase another part of Maddow's speech) and there are many interesting things we can do at every age.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Imagine that you find yourself in this situation (anecdote condensed and edited from the original e-mail): A friend and co-worker has lost his/her job. You think this person has been treated unfairly, but you don't know the official facts of the case. Rumor has it that this person had done unethical things, but you have worked closely with this person and had found him/her to be very professional and reliable. On the basis of your own very positive professional interactions with this person, you write positive letters of reference for faculty jobs.
You later receive credible information indicating that this person was in fact lying about a great many things to a great many people, and that there was substantial unethical conduct. You can no longer stand by the statements in the letters of reference that you sent on this person's behalf.
This person claims to have found a position that will begin in the fall, but you don't know if this is true and there is no one at that school whom you can ask informally. A web search doesn't turn up anything, but it probably wouldn't for a recent hire anyway.
Do you have an ethical obligation to contact the schools to which you sent the positive recommendations and inform them that you can no longer stand by the statements to which you signed your name? Would search committees and department chairs want to know this?
Aside from the ethical considerations, what might be the consequences of these now-discredited letters for your professional reputation, especially if you are an early career faculty member trying to get established? Are the consequences worse if you retract your statement or if you do nothing?
What would you do?
First, I want to reassure my correspondent that he/she should not regret writing the positive letters. The letters were written in good faith, based on personal experiences working with the colleague in question. The letter no doubt mentioned these positive interactions, perhaps providing specific examples. If there were no indications of unethical behavior in these interactions, the letter was a fair statement of what the letter writer knew to be true.
If the letter stayed close to the specific interactions that the letter writer had with this colleague, perhaps a retraction is not necessary. If, however, the letter writer made some broader statements that really should be retracted, perhaps a brief letter should be sent to the relevant search committee chairs and/or department chairs.
The letter need not elaborate on the situation, but could just say something like "Owing to facts that have come to my attention since I wrote the letter on behalf of Colleague X, I can no longer stand by the positive letter that I wrote on his/her behalf. Please retract my letter, if this is possible and relevant to your search." You can decide whether you are comfortable mentioning that you are willing to provide further explanation if necessary, and then list your phone number.
If Colleague X has a new job, there must have been more than one positive letter.
Another possibility is to discuss this with a trusted senior colleague -- e.g., a mentor or the department chair. Perhaps they can intercede in the situation, especially if there is a senior person with more direct knowledge of the unethical doings of Colleague X who would be willing to help figure out the best course of action.
But perhaps various readers will have various other suggestions..
Monday, May 24, 2010
Recently, nineteen CERCs were chosen after ".. a rigorous peer review and selection board process". This process involves a first stage, in which Canadian universities vied for the opportunity to get one of these Chairs, and a second stage, in which the selected universities "nominate leading researchers.. The final selection of chairholders is made by a selection board and based on the highest standards of research excellence."
In an article on May 18 in The Globe & Mail, the results of the program are described, including the fact that Canada was able to "poach" leading researchers from other countries and lure them to Canada with the millions of research $$ associated with these Chairs. The article effuses about the aggressive program of luring top researchers:
For Ottawa, it was one of the biggest bets on scientific research in a generation. But for the man at the centre of Canada’s worldwide drive to recruit top scientists, it was a “ballsy” play that at times resembled a bidding war for NHL free agents.
These CERC chairs are referred to by the following terms: star researchers, renowned scientists, foreign researchers, and, more generically, as "individuals", or simply "these people".
Two days later, The Globe & Mail realizes that it might want to mention that "these people" are all men. In fact, there were no women on the short list of 36. (see also another article on this topic)
That there were no women on the short list might have been the first clue that there weren't going to be any women in the final list.
Government officials noted that there was no "deliberate attempt" to exclude women. It just happened that way.
Well, that's fine then! As long as no one said "Let's not nominate any women for these lucrative and prestigious positions", then everything must be fine.
There are lots of comments on The Globe & Mail article, including the usual lame ones stating that the lack of women is not a problem because there are no qualified women in these fields, women are whiners to complain about being excluded etc. etc. Can we assume that these particular commenters are qualified to make this statement about the lack of qualified women?
I am having trouble believing that there are no qualified women among all the scientists in the entire world in the above listed fields. Was is really not possible to come up with a global short list of ~40 scientists that included at least a few women based on their accomplishments as researchers in the fields relevant to the CERC program?
Let's assume, just for fun, that there are qualified women. Why didn't any women make it through the rigorous selection process, not even making it as far as the short-list, not to mention the 19 finalists? Some possibilities listed in the article are:
..the tight deadlines for the competition, the areas picked for research and a competition where candidates on the short list had only a 50 per cent chance of winning probably all worked against female candidates.
I must say that none of those reasons are very convincing to me. Can someone explain the "tight deadline" reason to me with respect to why that would work against the inclusion of (qualified) women on the short list? And the areas picked for research? Are there really no female "star researchers" in "health and related life sciences and technologies"? Are the CERC men really so awesome that there are no women of that caliber anywhere in these fields of research? Even in "health and related life sciences and technologies"?
I also read that there are so few women in these fields that naturally the chances were lower for a woman to be selected. But give women 10 more years, and watch out! We'll be well represented then. The funny thing is, I've been hearing that since I was in grad school, more than 20 years ago. And I still don't believe that a short list of 36 "top researchers" in the world contained no women because there are so few women in these fields.
And then there's the women aren't flexible enough in their personal and professional lives to make a big move such as required by the CERC program explanation. Evidence: The University of Manitoba approached one woman researcher but she withdrew herself from consideration because of "personal reasons".
Alas, women had one shot at a CERC, and that opportunity was blown. Women have such complicated personal lives; there's probably no point in even nominating any women. [<-- sarcasm, in case you aren't sure]
I would be curious to know more about the personal situations of the 19 excellent CERC men. Do any have wives with academic positions or other difficult-to-move careers, and, if so, what happened to them?
And whatever happened to the stereotype of the single woman researcher monomaniacally dedicated to her research at the expense of everything else. Couldn't the CERC panel dig up some of those?
And can someone explain the 50% reason mentioned above? The short list consisted entirely of men, resulting in a 100% chance that the final list would be 100% men, so presumably the 50% reference is to some pre-short list stage of the selection process. Women only apply for prestigious big-money positions if there is a >50% chance of success? That will be news to many women researchers worldwide who routinely submit proposals to funding agencies with success rates of <<50%.
Anyway, lest anyone think I am bashing Canada, let me briefly note that I have longstanding personal and professional connections with Canada. Part of my family is Canadian. One of my relatives is the answer to a Canadian Trivial Pursuits question. I have lived in Canada. Some of my best friends are Canadian. I have been to all but some of the more remote provinces. I enjoyed a trip to Saskatoon not long ago. In February. I like Canada and Canadians.
But, like the US and other parts of the world, academia in Canada seems to be at a stage where, as long as no one is saying out loud "Hey, let's not hire any women" or "Let's deliberately exclude women from this lucrative and prestigious program", many will say there is no problem or, least, not a big problem.
I find it as disturbing as ever, however, that anyone with any real knowledge of the science and technology fields could sincerely say about the lack of women in a program like CERC: "It just happened that way", or "This type of program had various aspects that did not appeal to women researchers" or even "There are no qualified women anywhere in the world in these fields" (as is clearly proven by the lack of any women among the 19 selected CERCs).
That type of reasoning is rather CERCular.
Friday, May 21, 2010
- Professors at small colleges care about their students and therefore, lacking grad students, involve undergrads in research. Since there are more research opportunities for undergraduates at small colleges, students from large universities should be given priority in these summer internship programs.
- Professors at large universities typically involve undergraduates in their research. Since there are more research opportunities for undergraduates at large universities, students from small colleges should be given priority in these summer internship programs.
It is not possible to make a general statement like the ones above about small colleges vs. research institutions. You would need to specify institutions and disciplines.
When making decisions about applicants to an internship program with which I have been associated, we do not differentiate between students from small colleges and research universities. We look to see what courses they have taken, how they did, what they say about their interests, and whether someone at their home institution thinks they would benefit from a research experience. We do not expect students to arrive with research experience; we expect to provide them with a research experience.
Without even trying, we end up with a good mix of students from different types of institutions (small/large, public/private, prestigious/not), a gender ratio that matches the applicant pool (typically there are more female applicants than male), and a % of minority students that is low but nevertheless slightly higher than their representation in the student population as a whole.
What's not to like about these results? Apparently our program is not reaching the "right" students. We are apparently supposed to reach out and recruit students who do not otherwise have access to research experiences.
That's where the contradictory statements above come in because different people have different opinions about where the students-lacking-research-experiences are: Are they at small colleges or at large research universities? [Students from 2-year colleges have participated in our program, but most of our applicants are from 4+-year institutions.]
Of course they are at both types of institutions. Should our summer program really check to see whether the internship we offer would be the student's only chance at research? Should we institute a check-box on the application to ask students to promise that they are woefully isolated from all possibilities of other research experiences? Should we compile a list of those institutions that do a particularly bad job of providing research experiences for their own undergraduates and give preference to applicants from those schools?
I understand the importance of research experiences for students who want to continue in Science after they graduate, but, other than helping provide just such an experience for some students, I am not sure we can do more than seek out motivated and talented students who want to do an internship in our department, at our university, no matter where their academic home is.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Our experiences as grad students diverged, however, because I was fortunate to find myself in a department with an ambitious but supportive group of graduate students. As I've described in previous posts, I have remained friends and colleagues with many of my fellow graduate students, and in fact credit my continuing in academia to this remarkable group.
My friend found herself in a highly competitive and hostile department in which the graduate students undermined each other (perhaps imitating their advisers?) and were generally unfriendly. Some were pleased when a classmate failed because it reduced the pool of candidates applying for jobs.
My friend went on to become a successful math professor at a 2-year college, but her loathing of BigU lives on, undiminished after more than 20 years.
We were talking recently, and I asked if her son, who will be a senior in high school next year, is interested in big universities or small colleges, and she said, emphatically, that he will definitely go to a small college. Her son is interested in computers and possibly electrical engineering, but she is quite certain that big universities are terrible places to be a student. [Yes, I know that there are other types of universities, but I asked her about the extremes in the US higher education spectrum.]
I have found when talking to friends and colleagues about their offspring's college choices that, unless I also know the offspring well, it's difficult to discern the opinion of the parent vs. the opinion of the offspring. For this discussion, however, it doesn't really matter. What interested me is that my friend thinks that large universities are just like BigU: ghastly places to be a student of any sort.
If I had had no other experiences of universities other than graduate school, I would probably continue to share her opinion, despite having emerged from BigU with more positive experiences than she had.
Now, however, I disagree with this view about big universities based on my subsequent experiences at various other universities.
I therefore mentioned the following to my friend:
- Even 20+ years ago, I think that BigU was extreme in its lack of interest in its own students. Even back then, there were other big universities that did a better job of providing a good intellectual environment for their students. It's not a good idea to extrapolate from our BigU experiences of bygone days.
- Today, even BigU has programs for first year students, has an honors program, allows students to take courses in cohorts, has orientations, better advising, encourages research experiences, has more pleasant on-campus housing, and has professors who care about (and are rewarded for) excellent teaching.
A motivated student at a large university can have some of the same experiences that are so highly valued at colleges; e.g., small classes and research experiences advised by a professor.
Certainly there are major differences between colleges and universities, and I do not regret at all the fact that I went to a small college, but I have a very positive view of the educational experiences that can be found at the BigUs.
I am years away from exploring college/university options with my daughter, but unless she has her own strong opinions about college vs. university, I hope that we will look at both types of schools and see what each has to offer.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
- Excellent : Outstanding proposal in all respects; deserves highest priority for support.
- Very Good : High quality proposal in nearly all respects; should be supported if at all possible.
- Good : A quality proposal worthy of support.
- Fair : Proposal lacking in one or more critical aspects; key issues need to be addressed.
- Poor : Proposal has serious deficiencies.
Obviously it is important to get lots of Excellents, but it's possible to get a grant with some Very Goods. In some cases, it is possible to get funding with mostly E/VG but also a Good (or worse) if the negative reviewer amply demonstrates a lack of objectivity, knowledge, or sanity.
As is well known by those who have submitted an NSF proposal, a rating of Good is Not Good. Reviewers who interpret Good as indicating "a quality proposal worthy of support" are typically those outside the NSF system who think this description actually means what it says. It does not. Good is Bad.
A reviewer who has serious concerns about a proposal or a PI can do a lot of damage with a rating of Good, but Fair and Poor are the real killers. When is a rating of Fair appropriate? When is a rating of Poor appropriate? (Let's assume that the reviewer is objective and is not downgrading a proposal for evil reasons.)
In ~ 20 years of reviewing NSF proposals, I have only given a few ratings of Poor. From what I've seen on panels and other NSF committees, this is not just because I am nice; a rating of Poor is rare in my field of science. Also, I am not particularly nice.
For a proposal to be Poor, it has to be so bad that there is no hope that the proposed research will be successful in any way. A dull but otherwise solid proposal (i.e., "We are going to get some data but we don't really know why") is not Poor. Such a proposal might be Fair or Good, depending on whether anything of use or interest could be salvaged from such a study. A Poor proposal is apocalyptic. A Poor proposal has no redeeming qualities.
I have given more ratings of Fair than Poor over the years. Fair (in my opinion) indicates a flawed proposal but not one that generates feelings of anger or disgust at the stupidity of the proposed research. A Fair proposal involves poorly defined ideas and/or inappropriate methods. It is possible, but unlikely, that the research would result in anything useful or interesting, but awarding the grant would not be a major travesty; it would be a semi-travesty.
What if a proposal is not well written or organized but the research is not as bad as might seem based on how the proposal is written? That can be a difficult situation to assess. Does the bad writing and organization indicate a problem with the research design or implementation? Or are these aspects technical flaws that mask the excellence (or very goodness) of the research?
In these cases, I make a decision based on the research, but I may mention in my review the aspects of the proposal writing/construction that are problematic if it seems that these might impact the research. A proposal is not a manuscript, however, so I don't do any pointless technical editing.
If the PI has experience with writing proposals, the only technical flaws that are important to note are those that might indicate a problem with the research. An inexperienced PI, however, might benefit from advice about proposal writing; ideally this advice will be constructive and not patronizing.
Most proposals that I review are Very Good. A few are Excellent. More are Good or Good/Very Good (although split ratings are kind of lame). Some are Fair. Rare ones are Poor.
These ratings are important for determining whether a proposal is further considered, but an essential aspect of the review is the comments, which should match the rating. I recently read some reviews of one of my proposals and there seemed to be no correspondence of the comments and the ratings. Some of the most negative ratings had very positive comments; it was odd.
Just as with reviewing manuscripts, though, I know that my opinion is just one part of the process. If I rate a proposal as Poor or Fair (the equivalent of recommending rejection of a manuscript), I am not making the final decision to reject the proposal (or manuscript). I am providing my opinion, and this will be considered along with other input from other reviewers and panel/program officers (or editors, for manuscripts).
If my opinion is honestly given and is based on a careful reading of the proposal (or manuscript), then I don't feel bad about giving a negative rating. I might feel sympathy for the PI (author), but I was asked for my opinion, and I gave it, explaining the reasoning for my negative opinion. It's up to others to evaluate my review along with the rest of the review information and make a decision.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
How should you classify those faculty whose spouses stayed at home while the kids were young and then went back to work? I would not include them in my own count of stay-at-home spouses. My own calculation represents the % who have stay-at-home spouses right now, including those without kids but with a non-working spouse or long-term significant other.
I would also not include in my SAH category those faculty whose spouses have part-time jobs. Let's count employed spouses as employed spouses.
Monday, May 17, 2010
A common scenario that results in salary compression is when a new hire negotiates a high salary relative to peers or more junior colleagues in the same department.
You might think that such issues would become moot during an economic crisis. Many of us are fortunate to have secure jobs with decent salaries, however challenging it is to do our jobs with decreasing resources for teaching and research, and thoughts of alleviating salary compression must be set aside for now. For the most part, these issues are indeed temporarily on hold until we can be done with furloughs and pay cuts and unfilled positions and even terminations of positions. This was my impression, anyway.
For some reason a certain administrator recently told me that, although I had had (in his opinion) "a spectacular year" in terms of publications, grants, students graduated, teaching, service, honors etc., he was going to allocate what few extra resources he had at his discretion to some of the assistant professors. He said his decision is not based on "merit" but on what he thinks is fair.
OK, that's fine.. sort of. I am not going to argue that I deserve more of these scarce resources than my hard-working junior colleagues, and my morale is not crushed by this turn of events. My so-called "spectacular" year was made possible in part by the fact that I am a mid-career professor with an established research group that is functioning well. My younger colleagues are still building their research programs, and the contents of their annual reports should therefore by viewed in this context, rather than by a strict comparison of numbers of publications or grants etc.
And yet, there is still a very large difference between my salary and that of a peer (male) colleague whose higher salary is not based on the fact that he is more productive than I am (because he is not). He was hired as a full professor and negotiated a higher salary than what his nearest peer colleague (that's me) was making. My initially low salary has of course increased over the years, but not at a rate that would put me at the same level as this colleague anytime soon, if ever.
I told the aforementioned administrator that I understood and even supported his plan to help some of the assistant professors, but I also said that I didn't want my situation to fall entirely off the radar screen in future years, as I saw it as an equity issue. One could argue that my colleague is paid "too much" and that my salary is more appropriate for my position and job, but that still leaves me as a good example of a woman paid ~85% of what a man makes for the same job.
The aforementioned administrator replied that I should have done a better job negotiating my salary when I was first hired.
Ah yes, maybe I should have. And maybe the assistant professors who need an economic boost to bring their salaries in line with other young colleagues should have done the same thing or else they also would not now be in such dire need of assistance.
But for some reason, my poor negotiating skills are relevant here, not theirs.
I was OK with the plan until the administrator made this gratuitous swipe at the circumstances of my hiring more than a dozen years ago with a different department chair and in a situation involving a 2-person hire.
Why did he think it was reasonable to criticize my negotiating skills and not those of my younger colleagues? (FYI, these younger colleagues are all men). He was telling me that I should just accept my salary situation relative to my peers but he's going to help these other colleagues who are experiencing salary compression for the exact same reason that I am??
Lucky for me, I am doing quite well despite my evident flaws as a salary negotiator lo these many years ago (although this will apparently haunt me, or at least my base salary, forever), and I feel fortunate to have a secure job. I do not begrudge my younger colleagues the fact that they have an administrator looking out for their best interests. These young men are fortunate in this, despite their lousy salary negotiating skills.
And yet, although I think I will not pursue the matter further this year, I am not inclined to remain quiet about it in perpetuity. I work hard, I believe I am an asset to my department, and I should be compensated fairly relative to my peers, just as my younger colleagues are.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Last spring, I wrote about my efforts to get a group of people to work on a collaborative writing project. I tried a wiki for the first attempt, with little success.
Later I tried Google docs, which had some advantages over the wiki, but it was not significantly more effective or efficient than the classic method of sending lots of documents and parts of documents as e-mail attachments. Most text was sent to me, the main organizer of the project, and I compiled everything.
The group seemed to glance occasionally at the collaborative document online, and that was convenient because it reduced the number of drafts that I had to e-mail to everyone. We never reached the point, however, at which most participants were using the online document for their major editing. One or two did some editing of the online document, but most preferred the classic method of sending me comments or attachments by e-mail.
My being the group-write hub was convenient in some ways because I was able to work on the overall document bit by bit and integrate the various parts. In the end, the final document reflected significant contributions from a large number of people, each with a different style/format of writing, but the text ended up being coherent.
I think it is interesting that the online document/collaborative writing method wasn't particularly useful (or, at least, was not well used) for this project, and I still don't really know why my colleagues weren't comfortable editing the online document. I'm not sure what it would take to make an effort this like work well: different people, different project, different organization, different organizer?
I don't know all the participants of this particular project well enough to have any insight into their personal relationship with writing. It's possible that the online collaborative writing didn't work in part because of the organizational structure of the group. Although each group was semi-autonomous and had control over the content of its contribution to the final document, the organization had a specific 'director' (me) who was responsible for making the document coherent.
Perhaps the explanation for the lack of interest in editing the online document is the simple fact that it was easiest for everyone to send things to me, knowing that I would put all the pieces together.
Someday I would like to work on a truly interactive collaborative document. Perhaps the project would need to be shorter and simpler than the one I most recently worked on, so that each time a contributor accessed the document, it wasn't a monstrous task to digest all the recent edits and start in with new ones. And perhaps the project would have to involve an organizational structure in which everyone had an approximately equal role and responsibility for the final product (and/or no alternative but to work on the online document).
Thursday, May 13, 2010
The strongest impression that I took away from the talks was not about any new or interesting results, but about how the research was presented. The research topic is one that involves many different research groups from all over the world. These groups, some of which do not have very collegial relationships with each other, have been working on this research topic for a long time. There is a long long history of research and debate on this topic.
At the conference, the talks I attended were dominated by the history of the research groups: who did what when, who said what when, who was right, who was wrong (in the opinion of the speaker), and who was redoing the flawed work of others using a new and better approach.
This made me think. Certainly we should not ignore the relevant work of others when talking about a particular topic, but there's a difference between presenting research as if it is motivated by the personalities involved (who is right/wrong) and presenting research that is driven by fundamental questions and new ideas about how to make progress understanding them. The former seems more appropriate for a review of the history of a particular scientific endeavor, and the latter for a conference presentation on new research results.
If you think it is important to place your work in its historical context (relative to other research on that topic) and/or if you really want to distinguish your own work from those of others and/or settle scores, you may well be able to do this in a more effective way if you focus on the questions, ideas, and results, giving due credit (or criticism) in a way that does not dominate the substance of the presentation.
Of course, if your presentation is titled "I Am Right and Everyone Else is Wrong About Z", then go ahead and make it personal. You could even (as was done in a recent talk) include photos of the people who (unlike you) got it wrong. Maybe, if you are feeling like being very dramatic, you could have a big red X appear across the faces of those who (unlike you) have stumbled in their research endeavors.
I am certainly not implying that research is the work of faceless, nameless people whose identities are inconsequential to the progress of Science. If, however, you only have 10-20 minutes to present the latest results of your exciting work to a general audience that consists mostly of people who are not personally invested in the research itself, I bet many in the audience will want to hear your recent results and ideas and not see a presentation dominated by a graphic display of intra-research group animosity and/or boasting.
Or am I being boring and cranky/middle-aged, somehow not appreciating that research is a Sport and conferences are tournaments of some sort?
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Would you be more likely to present old (published) work than the latest (unpublished) results and ideas?
- Would you work harder to ensure that any images you project are either entirely of your own construction or, if borrowed from another source, properly credited?
- Would you spin your talk in a different way, in recognition of a possibly wider audience beyond those present during the initial recording?
- Would you do anything different about your dress, mannerisms, voice, piercings etc. knowing that you are being recorded vs. just speaking to those you can see sitting rapt in their seats in front of you?
Maybe that makes for a better, more focused talk. Maybe that makes for a more boring talk. I don't know, but although recording and distributing talks has many positive consequences, recording a talk and making it available for a wider audience is not a neutral activity and would certainly have some impact on talk content and perhaps also style.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
I looked at it recently, however, because I was semi-horrified to see a link appear on Facebook to the ratemyprofessors.com page of one of my colleague-friends. A student who is a "friend" of my colleague-friend had posted the link so that it showed up in the FB feeds of all the colleague-friend's friends. The student had done this to show his professor-friend how great the ratings were for a recent class my colleague taught, so the link was posted out of admiration and affection.
Even so, would I want a link to my evaluations on ratemyprofessors to appear on FB? Unlike my colleague-friend, I no longer friend (on FB) my undergraduate students, so this is unlikely to happen to me, but still I wondered: Would I want my (real) friends to see my teaching evaluations? Of course anyone can look these up at anytime, but I doubt most people would, unless a handy link appeared in their FB feed one day.
So I looked. My evaluations are quite nice; I need not lie awake at night in fear that a link will be posted on Facebook. The only surprise was how few there are, despite the large number of students I have taught in recent years. From the frequency with which ratemyprofessors.com is mentioned in articles and conversation, I thought that there would be more evaluations for someone who has taught as many students as I have.
I'm not sure what this means, but I have an unoriginal hypothesis, developed when I looked at the ratings for a colleague who had recently lamented the sorry state of his ratemyprofessor evaluations.
This colleague is an excellent teacher. The last time he taught a big intro class, the students clapped at the end of his last lecture. He got very positive (official) teaching evaluations. Nearly 100% of the students would take a class from him again. Students who hadn't expected to like the course instead found it interesting. The students loved him and were very happy with the class. Not one of them went to ratemyprofessors.com and wrote about this.
A few years ago, however, this same colleague was asked to team-teach the same course with a younger professor who was struggling with teaching. The course had some rough spots related to the times when the struggling professor was teaching, but my colleague worked hard to keep the course on track and to make it interesting (in terms of content) and fair (in terms of grades). The course was not a disaster, but it was not great. Quite a few students were inspired to go to ratemyprofessors.com and rant in a rather hostile way.
I can understand that students in this course may have had some difficulty separating the teaching abilities of the two different professors. To the students, it was one course, and they blamed both professors for the disorganization of one.
What is too bad is that the students in the later, excellent course were not similarly inspired to broadcast their happiness with their professor's outstanding teaching. If you only look at the evaluations for this professor on ratemyprofessors.com, you would not be tempted to take a course with this professor. That would be too bad, because he is an excellent teacher.
Of course, some professors do get rave reviews on ratemyprofessors.com. I was reading recently about the instructors who have the top ratings on this site, so there are some students somewhere who are sufficiently inspired by the excellence of their teachers to provide positive ratings.
At some universities, websites such as this may be the only way that students can get information (however flawed) about a particular professor. At other universities, the official teaching evaluations are available to students. I wonder if there is a difference in ratemyprofessors.com participation at different universities as a function of whether official teaching evaluations are available or not.
There are pros and cons of having official teaching evaluations made available to students, but at least these evaluations are a bit more comprehensive in terms of who participates. Or at least they used to be, back when evaluations were mostly done on paper in class, thereby capturing all those who weren't skipping class on the day of the evaluations. Now that many evaluations are done online, participation levels have dropped. Now that students can do evaluations anytime, anywhere, many don't.
The fear is that only those students who are unhappy -- perhaps the same ones who would be inspired to go to ratemyprofessors.com to share their complaints -- will now dominate the official (online) evaluations.
I personally have not experienced a downturn in evaluations, in part because I make a concerted effort to get students to do the online evaluations. I repeatedly remind the students (in class and by e-mail) about the evaluations, I request specific information in the evaluations, I explain why the evaluations are useful, and I share the %completion number with the class, showing the number increasing day by day. I typically end up with 80-100% participation, depending on class size (100% for small classes, closer to 80% for larger classes).
With these numbers, I can get a reasonably balanced view of how a course went, to the extent that one can get that sort of information from teaching evaluations.
It seems that we are all supposed to want to share everything about our lives with all our friends, but I guess I'm not quite on board with that yet. I am happy to share all sorts of information with my friends, but, however (mostly) positive my teaching evaluations are, I'd still rather not see a link to them appear one day on Facebook, wedged in between one friend's many graphic veterinary woes (TMI for dogs) and another's daily note to Jesus.
My evaluations might make more interesting reading for my friends than how I felt about my flight delays this spring owing to Icelandic volcanic ash (there are worse reasons for flight delays) or whether I liked the most recent books I read (The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman, and yes, in fact, I loved it; also The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte.. both excellent books), but, if I have a choice in this particular case (and I may not), I'd still rather not share this aspect of my professional life with anyone other than my department chair and a few hundred students.
Monday, May 10, 2010
At least one of the recordings was of a talk that turned out well, so I don't mind that this video exists. But somewhere out there on the internet is a video of me standing at a podium and reacting to the news that my talk does not exist in the symposium computer system. Somewhere out there on the internet in the same video there is a dramatic scene in which a tall scientist from a Slavic country stands up and loudly proclaims that he knows for a fact that my talk was uploaded to the system the day before. Then there is an action scene in which I rush to the place where I had left a briefcase containing a memory stick, which I then give to the A/V person to upload (again). Then I start giving the talk without any images until they miraculously appear and eventually I get caught up. For some reason I have never wanted to watch this video. The actual memory is still quite vivid enough for me.
In any case, I am OK with certain talks and lectures being preserved for educational purposes or for logistically necessary reasons, but for routine talks, I'd rather the experience be a fleeting one for both the audience and me. If someone wants to know more about anything I present, wants a copy of a slide, wants a reference or a pdf, they can let me know.
And now I have some questions for my readers about the general topic of being recorded while giving a professional talk.
Have you ever been recorded (video and audio) when giving:
- a conference presentation (either an invited one or a regular contribution);
- an invited talk at a university or college; and/or
- an interview talk?
If so, did you know about the recording well in advance? (i.e., not 5-10 minutes before you started talking, as happened to one of my correspondents).
What happened to the video of your talk? Was it put on the internet to reside forever for all to see, was it put on the internet so that a specified group of people could view it (e.g., members of a professional society, registrants at a conference), or was it for the private and temporary use of (for example) hiring committee members who could not be present for an interview talk?
Was it OK with you to be recorded? Were you asked permission? If you did not want to be recorded, did you feel comfortable about saying no? (Did you say no?)
Friday, May 07, 2010
Recently I observed something new related to photography during a talk: an audience member who took photos of a speaker he did not know personally.
Photography Man (whose name I don't know in real life) doesn't work at my university, but I've seen him at talks in my department before, and I have seen him take pictures of slides projected on the screen in front of the room. Until recently, however, I had never seen him take pictures of a speaker before.
I happen to know that he does not know the speaker personally and did not even meet her in person during her visit to my department. Yet he took a lot of photographs of her during her talk.
I was sitting a few rows behind him and became increasingly disturbed as he took photo after photo of the speaker, especially when she stepped out from behind a podium. The photo-man took some images that didn't even include her face -- just her torso. Then I watched him examine some of these photos, zooming in so that an image of her chest filled the screen.
This made me angry. I hardly listened to the question-and-answer session after the talk because I was thinking about what I would say to this man when we got out of our seats.
But then he left the talk as soon as it was over, before I could get over to him. I asked some of the people (all men) who had been sitting near me if they had noticed his photography activity. They had noticed, and also thought it strange that he was taking so many pictures of someone he didn't know.
These are public lectures and there are no official rules about audience behavior, although the expectation is that the audience won't be too disruptive. But does the fact that these are public lectures give any audience member the right to photograph a speaker without permission? I don't know, but I found this particular photographic episode disturbing.
If I see Photography Man again, perhaps I will ask him if he had requested the speaker's permission to take [anatomical] photographs of her. Maybe he will be sufficiently embarrassed and not do it anymore. Maybe he will dismiss my comments and continue with his speaker-voyeurism. Maybe I will ask his permission for me to take a photo of him taking a [headless] photo of a female speaker and then post my photo of him on the internet.
Thursday, May 06, 2010
This spring I went to an awards ceremony and felt my usual discomfort when a female student was given an award that is designated specifically for female students. The award always goes to a female student who is talented enough to get an award for which all students are eligible, so why should these women have to settle for what is in all ways (monetary, prestige) a lesser award?
In regard to this particular award, I have trouble separating my dislike of the general concept from the fact that the retired (male) professor who established the award was not a friend of women in the department. Or, I should say, he was a particular friend of certain women, but not in an appropriate way. To other women, including me, he was very un-nice. In days of yore, a favorite pastime of his was to mention his very close friends in high administrative places at the university and to inform me that if I disagreed with him about a certain issue, he could get me fired (I did not have tenure at the time; this is one of the reasons why tenure exists). I suppose he established this award for female students so that he could be seen as progressive and enlightened, but I think of him as patronizing and cruel.
These awards involve different issues from those raised by the existence of women-only social events that are sponsored by societies for the support of women in science, engineering, or other fields in which we are underrepresented. There are some similarities in motivation, but the differences are significant.
Women-only awards are perhaps well intentioned, but I greatly dislike them because they imply that the only way that women will get awards for intellectual achievements is if the pool of candidates is considerably narrowed. The specific women-only awards with which I am most familiar are low in prestige, low in reward ($), and in some cases (e.g., scholarships for students) the existence of these awards may result in better awards being preferentially given to male students because there is another option for female students. Women-only awards have negative unintended consequences and may defeat the purpose for which they were created.
I think that women can be overlooked by awards committees when it comes to recognizing scholarly achievements, but the solution is not to create special awards only for women; the solution is to start noticing women and not expecting us to do more than men to get the same level of recognition for our work.
A few years ago, my department chair explored the possibility of nominating me for an award given to women who have succeeded in Science. Fortunately he first explored this possibility with my closest colleague and with my husband, both of whom let him know that I would hate being nominated for this award. In fact, although I appreciated his considering me for an award, I would have found this particular one humiliating. To me it would be like saying "You're a pretty good scientist, for a woman."
I do not feel the same (negative) way about awards that recognize the achievements of women (or men) who have made contributions to improving the educational and career opportunities of women and girls. That's different from awards focused on scholarly achievements, even if being a successful scholar helps someone be more effective in other efforts.
I also do not feel the same (negative) way about efforts by organizations, including grants agencies and universities, to make a sincere effort to support the research of women scholars by making sure that women are not at a systematic disadvantage when it comes to funding or job opportunities. Ensuring that women are fairly represented in these ways should be part of ongoing, systematic efforts to eliminate overt discrimination and to ensure that more subtle forms of discrimination do not occur. These are essential efforts.
Organizations should examine the mechanisms by which awards for scholarly achievement are made. For example, who nominates candidates: a specific committee, or any individual working in the scholarly field relevant to the award? Are self-nominations accepted? Are there efforts to look broadly at the full range of possible candidates for the award or is there an unspoken assumption that only the most obvious best candidates will be considered? How are decisions made when considering nominees with similar records?
I think that if some pretty basic efforts are made to look carefully at nominees or applicants for awards and scholarships, women will naturally receive recognition for their scholarly achievements at a rate that is in line with the representation of women in their academic disciplines.