Monday, January 31, 2011

Taking Action

A postdoc wrote to me about her discomfort with the fact that her supervisor is "involved" with one of his own grad student advisees, a former undergrad who then became this professor's grad student. Not surprisingly, the situation makes everyone else in the research group uncomfortable.

I can relate to that. When I was a grad student, I was very uncomfortable with the fact that my advisor was having an affair with one of his own students. I had just started grad school when this going on, but some of the more senior students wondered how it would affect their letters of recommendation; they were applying for the same faculty jobs as this woman.

Irony (?): One of these advisees later lost a tenure-track position because he was "involved" with female students. He was in the wrong era and/or at the wrong institution to be able to emulate our ex-advisor without consequences.

Back then, we believed that there was nothing we could do about our disapproval of the advisor-advisee affair. Our choices were to try to ignore it or quit. There was no administrative office at the university for complaints about such things, and my department didn't even have a graduate program advisor. Every individual advisor had sole authority over their research group. My advisor wasn't the only professor in the department involved with a grad student.

That was then; this is now. These situations are much less common than they were, but obviously they still occur. What to do?

Take action. It is too bad that anyone's postdoctoral or graduate school time has to be consumed by any of this, but it is important to alert someone.

Today, in the 21st century, all (?most?) universities have at one administrator whose job it is to deal with these situations and who are also sensitive to the possible consequences for the other advisees and for the student involved in the relationship. Ideally, a group of concerned students, postdocs, and others will organize the complaint together.

Possibilities for people or offices to be alerted may include:

- a university-level ombudsman, or perhaps a graduate or postdoctoral program office that deals with personnel issues and conflicts;

- the department chair;

- for graduate students: a department- or program-level graduate director who oversees the graduate program; or

- for undergraduate students: an academic advisor or counselor.

If the department is well run and there is a culture of respect for students and postdocs, department-level administrators may be supportive, but it's also possible that these people will be reluctant to confront a colleague about a situation like this. It's likely that they are aware of the situation, but have done nothing about it.

Depending on the situation, it might be possible to discuss the situation informally with a faculty member in the department, just to get a sense for how well known the affair is and whether the department has any interest in taking the lead in dealing with it. If I were the department head, I would want to know about this.

If the department is aware but hasn't done anything about it, the most effective course of action is to alert someone outside the department.

Ideally, it will not be difficult to find the relevant person or office responsible for investigating complaints of improper advisor-advisee relationships, but it might take some searching, depending on the institution. I just did a few test-searches on the websites of randomly selected universities, and it wasn't too hard to locate a likely office or at least a list of resources by searching on a few obvious key words.

Some universities have a Women's Center that may have a list of resources. At others, the relevant information can be found in the "human resources" webpages for students and staff. Some universities have administrative staff devoted to postdoctoral concerns.

I don't think any of us faculty are eager for our colleagues to be punished -- even the colleagues we don't like -- but I think the vast majority of us would like ethical rules about advisor-advisee relationships to be taken seriously. Professor-student relationships can occur, but the professor cannot have any role in the student's academic program, and most certainly can't be the student's grad advisor.

Long after I finished graduate school, I learned that a professor in my old grad department was involved with a former undergrad who was now his graduate student. Soon after I learned about this, I was at a conference at which I talked to another professor I knew from that department. He said that he and his colleagues were living in fear that the upper administration would find out and would take a dim view of the situation and that everyone in the department would suffer as a result. I said to him "Just imagine if the administration finds out that you all knew about this and did nothing about it. Even if we ignore for a moment that this situation is TOTALLY WRONG, don't you want to be the kind of department that shows some initiative on things like this? Aren't you even concerned about the student?" No, he just wanted this old professor to retire as soon as possible so the problem would go away.

So I told an administrator about the situation. I happened to know this administrator, so that made it easier for me to bring it up. The result? I don't know what further conversations or actions took place, if any, but the professor retired the following year (without scandal).

All this makes me skeptical that departments are willing or able to take action in these situations, hence my recommendation that someone beyond the department be alerted first. I hope that readers with more experience in the inner workings of administration or with direct experience with this type of situation will weigh in with alternatives, more informed advice, or other support.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Teach It Again

Someone I know recently had the experience of a not-so-great second time teaching a class, even though the first time had gone really well. However difficult it is to teach (including TA) a course the first time, I think the second (or nineteenth) time can also be difficult.


There are many possible reasons, including:

Class dynamics can change a lot from year to year. This is particularly true of small classes, but also applies to even very large classes. A few students can influence the atmosphere of a class, for good or not. So, maybe the first time you teach a class you are lucky to have a really nice group of motivated, polite, and happy students. But another time.. you get some less happy students (maybe for reasons unrelated to the class and your teaching), and some of them are vocal about their unhappiness, or maybe they are quiet and sullen and stifle class discussions by their glowering hostility. Just when you were starting to feel more confident about teaching this class, you start to doubt how you are handling the class. This can be an issue no matter how many times you teach a class, but after many years, you may develop strategies for dealing with it.

Perhaps you spent so much time preparing for the class the first time that you thought you could spend much less time the second time around. In fact, you may well be able to spend a lot less prep time the second time around, but beware: you may think that a lecture or lab that you spent hours creating and organizing the first time is fresh in your mind, but then when you're standing in front of the class, you realize you should have spent more time thinking about how to explain the concepts, the logic of the order in which you present the concepts, and in-class questions/activities to engage the class in the lecture material. You likely don't have to spend as much time as you did when you first taught the class, but, for some people (i.e., me), it can still take a lot of preparation to teach something again. It's easy to underestimate the time required.

The first time you taught the class, your life was simpler. You did not have as many other courses to teach, you weren't on so many committees, you didn't have as many (or any) children or pets or research grants or graduate students or postdocs. Things have gotten more complicated and hectic, and you don't have as much time to devote to preparing for the class or to helping students. You don't feel as organized and coherent as you did when you had time to prepare and teach the course the first time. The students sense that you are extremely busy, and some interpret this to mean that you care more about other things than about them.

There are some courses that I have taught so many times and with a reasonable amount of success (based on teaching evaluations) that I wonder how I would recognize if I needed to make a major change in the course and how I teach it. For example, if there were more than a few unhappy students in one of these oft-taught courses, would I just think to myself "I've taught this course n > 10 times without these problems, it must be their fault, not mine"? Maybe I would. Maybe I would be right, but maybe I would be wrong.

Early in my career, I thought that when I had taught a course n > 5 (or 10) times, I would eventually find the "best" way to teach the course, and then I would teach it that way forever. Now I think that the best way for me to teach is to find a happy balance between being sufficiently prepared (but not obsessively so), confident (but not too confident), and alert to the need for adjustments in the course depending on changes in the student population, course material (new advances in Science), life, the universe, and everything and anything.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Favorite Jerk

Last fall, I wrote about a student who was disrespectful to the TA of my course. I decided not to intervene unless the problem persisted. It did not. In the post, I specifically wondered whether I wanted to know the name of the disrespectful student (the TA did not provide the name in our initial conversation). I was concerned in part because I found that I was assuming it was a particular student, and maybe that wasn't fair -- maybe I was assuming the wrong person.

In any case, I did learn the identity of the obnoxious student, it was the one I assumed it was, and I ended up very much enjoying having this student in my class.

He had a gruff way of speaking and could be very abrupt, and even seemingly rude. He was often anxious. He worked very hard, was not exactly a 'traditional' student in some ways, and he did not always deal well with his stress.

He was unambiguously rude to the TA early in the term, but once the course was underway, he found that he was very interested in the subject. He asked lots of good questions (including some curiosity-driven questions that were only tangentially related to the course topic), and I even got him to laugh a few times. When he figured something out, he helped some of the other students. I found that I liked him. I would be happy to have him take one of my courses again.

I think it is important to have these reminders from time to time that negative first impressions of students can change into positive impressions with more interaction. Just as we hope our students will keep an open mind about us as professors (and people) and appreciate our hard work, so, too, can we enjoy teaching students who seem like jerks (at first).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Walk on Eggshells, Please

Whenever I write about a topic that involves the possibility of sexism -- or even an unambiguous example such as the one I described in a Scientopia post a few weeks ago -- there is almost always at least one comment from a man who is worried about having to "walk on eggshells" all the time to avoid sexist speech or actions, or from someone who wonders whether some women are maybe just a little bit (over)sensitive and therefore too quick to (over)interpret a benign comment as sexist when no offense was intended.

Pretty much any statement can be interpreted in a benign way. Even a seemingly blunt statement like "Women are not as smart as men" could be ironic! Or maybe it is even backed up by data if you define smart in a certain way that can be measured by a certain test on a certain group of people and ignore all other data to the contrary. And then poof! No more sexism. So easy.

I have been thinking about this "walking on eggshells" speech issue lately, and last week I decided to keep my eye out for an example of a statement by someone who apparently did not intend to make a comment that was sexist, homophobic, racist etc., but that nevertheless was (in my opinion). It turned out to be extremely easy. This will not surprise some people.

In a recent post by Scientopian The Meandering Scholar, in an anecdote about evolution, genetics, primate behavior, and the passive-aggressive behavior of men in bars, TMS wrote (on a napkin to be passed to a guy who had been rude about TMS' geeky T-shirt):

..and like your mom they even practice lesbianism

That little phrase took me aback, and I quickly scrolled to the comments and was relieved to find, after a series of "You are so awesome!!!" comments, some criticism of the mom-lesbian quip by ecologist and Zuska, who noted that this statement (and a related one about incest and the rude guy's sister) were inappropriate as insults.

TMS replied "That is neither what I said, what I implied or what I belive" [sic], a statement that seems to involve disputing the specific assertion that he equated incest with lesbianism.

OK, but it is unambiguous that adding the phrase "like your mom" to a statement meant to educate someone about the similarities between humans and primates was gratuitous and a very poor choice of words (even given the context). The phrase "like your mom" was meant to be offensive.

If that is the kind of thing someone is liable to say (or even write on a napkin in a bar), then I have no problem saying: "I think you should walk on eggshells" if that would help you avoid making statements like this.

Is anyone freaking out yet about this extreme opinion of mine? Gosh, I hope not. So let's try to explain it away so that we can all believe that, in fact, the mom-lesbian statement was not offensive to anyone. Perhaps it was even meant as a compliment!

A quick internet search confirms that certain primates, such as the bonobos, are known for their bisexual behavior, particularly the females. Surely this is why TMS made the statement, and perhaps even why he selected the lesbian mom wording instead of saying "and like your dad they even practice homosexuality" or something like that. Therefore, if we wanted to, we could assume that TMS was making a fact-based, educational statement rather than trying for the extra rhetorical punch of mentioning lesbian mom instead of gay dad.

And in fact that may well be the case, and this is another reason why this is such a great example. The statement was made to offend a guy in a bar (and his mom), not a general group of people. And yet.. it managed to do both.

So who cares if a bunch of guys scribble immature notes to each other in a bar? This is trivial. And that's exactly why I picked it as an example to discuss the question: Should people censor their informal speech to the extent of avoiding phrases like this one if at all possible? And my answer is: yes, please do.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Grads Moving Midstream

For a continuation of the discussion of the general topic of mobile (or potentially mobile) academics, see this post at Scientopia for a focus on Moving Grads.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Do You Care?

Prof-Like Substance has compiled a handy list of what advisors can and cannot expect of their "trainees" (graduate students, postdocs). Among the items under the CAN'T EXPECT heading is this:

3) Trainees to care about your promotion and tenure.

Well, I can agree with that to some extent. We certainly can't (and shouldn't) expect our students and others to care as much as we do. And, although to some extent the promotion and tenure of the professor does depend on how well their research group functions, ultimately the responsibility of managing a functioning, productive research group is the tenure-track professor's.


It is to the benefit of advisees if their advisor gets tenure for a number of reasons, including:

- A tenured advisor has a greater chance of staying around for the completion of graduate degrees and postdoctoral contracts.

- A tenured advisor's letter of reference for advisees might be more respected than a similar letter from a person who was denied tenure.

Those are practical reasons, but the most important one for me relates to my view of what a research group is: A research group is a community, and the various members of that community should help and respect each other. That includes everyone, from the PI to the new undergrad intern. Some have more responsibility than others, but the actions of each individual to some extent affect others.

I am not arguing against the essence of PLS's main point. Trainees can't really be expected to care about our promotion and tenure. I guess I hope that they care, in the sense of caring for the research team in general or even caring about how it affects their own careers in the near- or long-term.

It is time for a poll! Do you care?

Actually, the question is:

Do/did you care whether your advisor gets/got tenure and/or is/was promoted?

That's a lot of / options, but I am trying to be inclusive here. You can answer this question based on your current experience as the trainee of a tenure-track advisor or you can reminisce about how you felt in the past as the trainee of a tenure-track advisor. You can even answer if your advisor had tenure but an important committee member was tenure-track. Or, just so no one feels left out, not even postdocs, you can answer based on how you think you would feel if you were in the situation of having an advisor or mentor who was tenure-track, or if you weren't actually a cat.

Do You Care?
Ambivalent free polls
And, if you are so moved, you can explain your vote in the comments.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Proposal Yin and Yang

A few years ago, some colleagues and I pitched a 'high-risk' idea to program directors at a funding agency. The program directors were receptive, but funds were scarce (of course) and they suggested that we submit a full proposal through the usual channels, get destroyed in review, and then they could use the short-sighted negative review comments to support a case for circumventing peer and panel review.

Well, they didn't describe it exactly like that, and they did hold out the possibility that our pessimism about taking this idea through normal review channels might be unfounded -- perhaps we could get the full proposal funded on the first try!

So we wrote the proposal and were pretty thoroughly destroyed in review. Reviewers were convinced our central idea was misguided, even absurd. (spoiler alert: They were wrong.).

But we got a pilot project funded, and gave the project a try. I was convinced that the research was worth doing, but I thought it would be more difficult than it turned out to be (smug alert: I was wrong). In fact, within 6 months we had the results we needed to validate the idea and show that it was worthwhile to move forward with this line of research.

I don't really blame the skeptical reviewers. Although sometimes it seems like PIs need to do most (or all) of a research project before we can convince reviewers and panels that the project is doable (and worth doing), I admit that in this case, the idea was a bit surprising.

Nevertheless, armed with our new and exciting data, we started writing a full proposal again. The new proposal was even more fun to (re)write than the first proposal because we had the new preliminary data as strong and (I think) compelling core of the proposal. As the proposal-writing progressed, I kept reminding myself to look over the old reviews in case there was something worthwhile in there that should be dealt with in the proposal rewrite. Even in situations where reviews are overall not very useful, there might be something useful that can be mined from them.

For example, there might be some minor points that need attention. These might be minor, but it's a good idea to take these into consideration in case the proposal goes back to the same reviewers.

But I kept putting it off. At pretty much the last minute, I skimmed the reviews of the old, rejected proposal.

I am not usually such a coward about reading or re-reading negative reviews, and I didn't really feel particularly wounded by the reviews, even the first time I read them. I just felt like it would be a real downer to read those reviews again, and I was in a very good mood about the new proposal. Yes, I know we might be eviscerated in review again, but at the time of (re)writing, I was in that happy delusional state when I really like the proposal and am excited about the prospect of doing the project. I was reluctant to put a dent in that happy mood. And I knew that one of my colleagues had re-read the reviews in detail.

I mentioned to another colleague -- one who is not involved in this particular project -- that I needed to re-read some negative reviews of a proposal I was rewriting, and he said that he would rather have his fingernails ripped out than re-read old reviews of a rejected proposal.

That seems a bit extreme, but sort of captures the essence of my feelings about the matter.

I am not advising that anyone not re-read negative reviews when it is clearly in one's best interests to do so. It must be done, however unpleasant, but I think it is also important to find a way to minimize any damage such a (re)read might do to the positive energy that is driving you as you revise a proposal (or manuscript).

It occurred to me that, had I been thinking ahead when I read the reviews the first time, I could have jotted down any points worth addressing in a future proposal, and thereby avoided the full re-read later.

But if, like me, you don't think about that in time and you have to re-read the stupid reviews, perhaps the re-reading is best done in a pleasant cafe (or bar), or at home with your most sympathetic pet nearby, with your favorite music playing. Or you could re-read the annoying comments on a crowded bus or subway or at the dentist; that is, some place with unpleasant distractions. Or read them with a good colleague, take whatever is useful from them, and laugh about the rest.

My advice: Read them, but don't let them make you defensive (in your proposal) and don't let them stop you from enjoying writing your cool new proposal.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Guest Post: PhD Rhapsody

Like most bloggers, I suspect, I get frequent random spam-requests from individuals or organizations about doing a guest post. Maybe I am a control freak, but I am not interested in letting someone who sends me a form letter do a guest post on a topic that has little or nothing to do with academia, science, women, or cats.

Recently, however, a colleague of mine was ranting about a Certain Topic, and I was kind of intrigued/entertained, so I asked him "Do you want to do a guest post about that?" It turns out that there are few more effective ways to stop some people in mid-rant, but after thinking about it for a few days, a guest post on the rant-topic appeared in my inbox.

The topic is the belief that doing a PhD may be a colossal waste of time owing to uncertain job prospects, particularly in academia, and the amount of time that may be spent working hard for low wages while in pursuit of a doctorate.

In addition to the link cited in the guest post (see below), I would also mention the humanities-focused articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas H. Benton: The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind' and Grad School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go. Although my guest blogger is writing about the sciences in particular, some of the arguments about whether a PhD is worthwhile (or not) transcend academic discipline.

PhD Rhapsody, by A Guest Blogging MSP

In addition to the plethora of articles and books (and legislators) attacking universities today, there is relentless questioning of the value of graduate education. Professors are accused of taking advantage of graduate students, using them as energetic and dedicated (and cheap) labor to teach their classes, and conning them into committing a cardinal sin: doing a PhD! See for example
"The disposable academic - Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time" (The Economist).

The argument goes as follows: the PhD is designed, almost exclusively, to prepare students to enter academia, and since there are not enough professor positions to go around, we professors are setting students up for a bitter and dissatisfied life. Those in doctoral programs in science, for example, have wasted their most precious years on measurements, analyses, and lots and lots of useless reading. Altogether, the responsible attitude for a professor may be to stop taking graduate students.
This makes me think of musicians, a leap that requires some explanation.

I am a professor in the physical sciences, not a musician; I occasionally strum the guitar, but this is confined, thankfully, to the walls of my home (call it workout for the soul). But I have two children in their mid-twenties (contemporaries of my current PhD students), and they are both professional musicians. That is, they have made music their profession, and they are struggling artists. Through their training, they have mastered the limits and the possibilities of their voice and the beautiful implements they blow into.
Like all musicians, they use their virtuosity to express the emotions that are encrypted in a piece. It is hard work, it is often teamwork, it takes discipline, stamina, and financial endurance.

Musicians are “invited” to audition for orchestras, all expenses NOT paid; there are typically no sponsors to help purchase their instruments, which in some cases are bought with scary-size loans. Succeeding in music also takes motivation, inspiration, creativity, and the desire to work in harmony with others. Sounds familiar? These are the qualities we like to list in letters of recommendation for our students. I see in my children, like in my PhD students, the desire to develop a profession and make a living, but above all, I see the courage to do something about which they feel truly passionate.

So I’d like to argue, for a moment, in defense of the university PhD experience. Yes, there may be some evil advisers who use and abuse their students, and no, there is no guarantee that a PhD will lead eventually to an academic job.

Nonetheless, the PhD gives a chance, at the age when humans have arguably the right combination of training, creativity, and audacity (all classical composers had defined their styles by that age), to question the established and invent new directions.
It seems to me that the conditions under which graduate students develop their creativity are good. In exchange for some hours of teaching and/or research assistantship, the University provides the stage for PhD students to develop their talent. In comparison to other creative fields like music and the arts, this is a good deal, in my view, and it is difficult to think of more effective ways by which society can foster creativity, ingenuity, and inspiration.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Compared to What?

It is not uncommon for a request for a letter of reference -- for a faculty position or as part of an evaluation for tenure and/or promotion -- to include a specific appeal for a comparison of the candidate with others

Here are some examples of how this request is worded in instructions to external letter-writers:

Standard model/general: How does Dr. X compare with other individuals in his/her field at similar career stages?

Standard model/more specific: How does Dr. X compare in terms of research achievements, standing, and potential with other individuals in his/her field at similar career stages?

Advanced model/domestic: How does Dr. X compare with the best people in the US at similar stages in their careers?

Advanced model/global: How does Dr. X compare with the best people in the world at similar stages in their careers?

Advanced model/comprehensive: How does Dr. X compare with leaders in his/her field with respect to both current and potential future standing in the field, nationally and internationally?

I have worded these as questions, but the same thing may also be worded as a statement: "It would be very helpful to our evaluation if you would compare Dr. X with ..."

A common variant requested of current or former advisors of an applicant for a faculty position is for the advisor to compare the applicant with other advisees.

I don't have any particular compelling reason to argue against this practice, but, when writing letters, I ignore this request.

Many people comply with the request, and that is fine, but as a reader of many letters containing comparisons, I can say that I rarely find the comparisons useful, even if I know all the people involved (applicant, letter-writer, noted peers).

In my previous experiences on committees evaluating candidates for tenure, promotion, or awards in disciplines other than my own, the names of compared-peers are typically meaningless to me, and are used only for the departmental evaluation stage. I can maybe get something out of the peer's institution, but even here, I'd have to know the field fairly well because there are universities that have top-ranked departments in some fields but low-ranked departments in others. This applies to all types of universities, of varying levels of prestige and ranking overall.

One thing I find fascinating when I read these letters is that some candidates/applicants are compared to a completely different set of peers in each letter. For tenure/promotion, there might be 6 or 10 or more letters containing these comparisons for one candidate, each one listing different people as peers. That means that there is little agreement about what constitutes a peer and what constitutes an individual's "field".

This is particularly true in science and engineering fields that are highly interdisciplinary and that may involve very large numbers of researchers. Letter writers may be selected for their expertise in different aspects of an applicant/candidate's research interests, and so the letter writers may be familiar with different sets of peers.

Some letter-writers who make comparisons are quite general in their response: "Dr. X's research accomplishments are comparable to W (University of A), Y (University of B), and Z (C University)."

Others are more detailed: "Dr. X's research accomplishments are greater than those of W at the University of A, but s/he has not been as productive as Y at the University of B. Nevertheless, I rate his/her creativity as superior to that of Z at C University, although all of these are second-tier compared to T at the University of R." It is rarely clear what the basis of such detailed comparisons is.

Except when it is very clear, such as when the letter-writer specifies that s/he used a specific metric, such as number of citations, papers, or the h-index.

I am usually quite skeptical about claims that someone is "the next [insert name of genius-successful-famous person]". If the claim is based on the types of problems or methods used, or is at least backed up by some achievements to date, OK.. maybe. If, however, the letter is a vague prose-poem to someone's awesomeness, these comparisons are as believable as book blurbs.

Dr. X's last article in Nature could have been written by a young Charles Dickens!

Dr. X really knows how to write a proposal -- like Marcel Proust if restricted to a 15-page limit!

Dr. X's CV is an electrifying page-turner! The 2008 article in The Journal of Rigorous Science could have been written by Stieg Larsson!

Dr. X is that rare anomaly: an evocative and inventive scientist and prose magician, like Nikola Tesla and Virginia Woolf rolled into one!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Demographic Shift?

** warning: This blog post contains anecdotal information involving the statistics-of-small-numbers **

In my field, it is typical for graduate applicants to indicate which subfield they are most interested in pursuing for graduate research. Most applicants also typically indicate which professor(s) they are most interested in having as advisors. Although an admissions committee (in consultation with the department chair) makes the final decisions and offers, individual faculty (or, at least, representative faculty from research groups) also have a say in the admissions process.

Not long ago, I was perusing applications, and there were several surprises in them, all pleasant.

Surprise 1: Although my particular research subfield comprises less than 15% of the faculty in my department, we got about 30% of the graduate applications. This % of applications is higher than in previous years, but there has been an upward trajectory. I was therefore not surprised that the % was high, but I was surprised by how high it was. Possible interpretations other than that these data have no meaning: The subfield is hot, we are hot, or both. I am OK with any of those possibilities.

Surprise 2: Most of the applicants were female. And, when I made a first pass through the applications and considered only those that excelled according to the standard on-paper criteria (GPA, GRE scores, letters etc.), the resulting group of apparently outstanding applicants was 100% female. In my nearly 20 years of experience with graduate applications, this has never happened. [For those who are wondering/cynical: A male colleague who independently looked through the applications came up with the exact same list that I did.]

Surprise 3: Of the first-pass group of outstanding applicants, 50% of the US applicants identify themselves as minorities or biracial. In my nearly 20 years of experience with graduate applications, this has never happened.

Trend or blip? Significant of insignificant? I don't know, but I am intrigued.

Has anyone else in the physical sciences seen an increase -- dramatic or not -- in the number of female/minority applicants (i.e., members of underrepresented groups) to doctoral programs this year?

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Women's League

Today's post is at Scientopia, where I discuss the following statement, from a real letter of reference sent for a recent candidate for a faculty position:

[the applicant] is in the same league as other top female graduates [from this department]

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What Would John Stuart Mill Do?

This is one of the stranger (but not the strangest!*) anecdotes in Higher Education?, a book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus:

"When faculty members do have power, they often use it to resist. When [Colgate University president Rebecca] Chopp tried to enlist faculty to invite students into their homes so they could see professors in another setting, she found few takers. "They have tenure," she said, and sighed, "They do whatever they want."

Drat those tenured professors. There they go again, abusing the power that tenure confers. It would be much, much better if they had to fear for their jobs and felt they had no choice but to allow students into their homes.

Just because some professors work 60 hours a week and might want to keep some separation of home and work, doesn't mean they should be allowed to do this. And who cares what significant others and offspring (and pets!) might think about this? If you're related to a professor, their job is your job. Deal with it.

Haven't we all heard stories of legendary professors whose homes were open to their students at all hours of the day and night? Why can't we all be like that?

If we truly cared about our students, we would want them to come to our homes, gaze at our off-campus lives, and meet our families (and pets!) in situ. That way, we would not intimidate them so much and they would feel more comfortable coming to our office hours.

There are some professors, tenured or not, who enjoy having students routinely visit their homes and be "one of the family". Others want their home to be a respite from work, even if they do quite a bit of work at home.

I really don't see the reluctance of some professors to open their homes to student visits as a convincing argument against tenure or as supporting evidence for how little professors care about their students.

* My vote for the strangest part of the book is the paragraph in which the authors describe a "workingman" who "jumped on a subway track to rescue a child who tripped and fell." The workingman didn't think; he just did it. The authors posit that professors on that same platform would not have jumped on the track to save the child:

"We wonder if, had some professors been on the platform, would they have paused to ponder how John Stuart Mill might have parsed the choices?"

I wonder if that is a sane thing to wonder. Of course the professors would save the child. What better way to combine broader impacts, a synergistic activity, and outreach?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dear Andrew Hacker?

This is my blog-reply to an e-mail I recently received from Andrew Hacker, one of the authors (with Claudia Dreifus) of Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, and What We Can Do About It.

Dear Andrew Hacker,

You're welcome. Praising my ability to correctly spell names is setting the bar a bit low, but it's nice of you to say something positive.

I will now say something nice about your book: I agree with you about many issues. Examples:

There are too many mini-administrators, some (most?) are paid exorbitant salaries, and tuition is too high. I am concerned about the amenities arms-race that makes it a priority to have awesome fitness centers at a time when there is little money to provide adequate classrooms and other teaching facilities. I am troubled that so many "contingent" faculty, such as adjuncts, are paid so little, receive no benefits, and are not treated with respect. I think that post-tenure review should be routinely and consistently used to evaluate tenured professors, with consequences for those who are not doing their jobs well, particularly in teaching. There are outstanding students everywhere, no matter how lacking in 'prestige' the college or university.

We disagree, however, about the role of research in universities and colleges, and a few other issues (e.g., tenure). Comments from readers on yesterday's post have done a great job of addressing the researchers-as-teachers issue, including the role of graduate education in a university, so I will not focus much on that specific topic. Instead, I will explain why I did not like your book.

I did not like your book because it is little more than a string of unsupported anecdotes that justify your contempt for professors and your belief that most professors care little about teaching, don't even try to teach well, and try to teach as little as possible. Where are the data that support this?

In recent years, I have seen the teaching evaluations (student and peer evaluations) of every professor in my department and every faculty member being evaluated for tenure and promotion at a higher-level administrative unit in my university. The quality of teaching is very good, with only rare instances of poor teaching, even for the tenured professors. There is likely no general correlation between teaching skill and research success (on this we seem to agree), but I stand by my statement that teaching and research are not mutually exclusive, and are activities that can enhance each other.

I strongly believe that universities can do more to improve undergraduate teaching, and I see a strong positive trend in this direction, even as faculty are under increasing pressure to bring in more grants, publish more papers, and obtain more patents. Through my participation in searches at my own and at other universities, I have seen an emphasis on hiring faculty who will excel at both teaching and research.

In your e-mail to me, you mentioned that, as a social scientist and a journalist, you and your co-author need "evidence". When I read Higher Education?, I was hoping to see evidence for your conclusions and hypotheses. Instead, I saw anecdotes, such as one might find in a blog.

For example, your book starts with the story of a candidate who, in his interview for a faculty position, makes it clear that he is not interested in teaching and is only interested in research. The fact that he was not hired indicates to me that the system worked well, yet you used this anecdote to illustrate your hypothesis that professors don't care about teaching and try to do as little of it as possible.

Another reason I didn't like your book is because you distort facts to suit your purpose of showing how dysfunctional professors are. For example, you do not think that professors work very much. To show that faculty are overpaid slackers, you define "the basic academic workload" as "the number of hours when professors have to be at stated places at specified times." In your scheme, this includes only classroom teaching and posted office hours, and therefore professors at some universities make >$800/hour.

You have anticipated objections. In fact, you wrote that you "..can already hear anguished cries from the faculty club", and so you acknowledge that professors " something outside their classroom and office hours." Unfortunately, you are cynical about this something: "But the great bulk of it is less real than contrived: committees, department meetings, faculty senates, and yes, what they call their research.."

What exactly is your definition of "real"?

Yes, indeed, I do spend a lot of time on those other, possibly unreal somethings, in addition to what I call my research, including advising graduate students. You might think some of the committees are stupid (I do too) and that research should be a hobby for long weekends and summers (did you talk to any professors who run labs?), but you should count these hours in your calculations of how much professors make per hour.

Similarly, what is your evidence for your contention that professors don't work as much as they say they do? This seems to be it: "A story is told of a classroom where all the students were busy scribbling as the professor droned on. All, that is, but one, a young woman in the back row, who wrote down nary a word. How so? She had with her the notes that her mother had taken for that class during her own student days." That's the evidence? A possibly apocryphal story?

Another example: At one of the universities you visited, very few of the undergraduates you met had been to a professor's office "to discuss materials from a class". At another (Harvard), a student told you that it was "intimidating" to speak to professors, so students avoid going to speak with professors in their offices. And your point was what? As a professor and a scientist, I know better than to take what students say at face value. I need evidence that it is the fault of professors that students don't come to office hours for help when needed.

There are lots of other "interesting" ideas in your book: engineering is "vocational training", sabbaticals are "sojourns in Tuscany", mathematicians don't need tenure because what they do is not controversial.. the list goes on. I could also mention inconsistencies:
  • big football programs are bad, but 3 of your 10 favorite schools are Mississippi, Notre Dame, and ASU;
  • tenure forces universities to keep low-functioning professors, but tenure is a "feeble shield" that doesn't actually protect tenured professors from being fired;
  • research doesn't enhance teaching because, for example "The information with which a mathematics research project deals is usually inaccessible to undergraduates." (ergo.. the same must be true for all academic disciplines?)
In the end, the book fails in its central thesis about how research is harming US colleges and universities because the authors do not objectively weigh the positive and negative effects of research on undergraduates. There are no data, there are no anecdotes, there are no interviews with undergraduates who have done research, either with an individual professor or as part of a larger research group. There is nothing in the book about the rise of Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs or about how principal investigators on grants are encouraged (by funding agencies) to include undergraduates in grant proposals to enhance the "broader impacts" of research.

Participating in a small research project as an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college changed my life and led me to an interesting and fulfilling career (despite the fact that I have never spent a sabbatical in Tuscany). Working with a professor who was a leading researcher in his field inspired me more than all my classes combined.

You do not have to take this anecdote at face value, especially not from an anonymous blogger, but I feel that you are attacking, perhaps from ignorance, one of the greatest strengths of our higher education system.



Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Do Not Reply

An e-mail was sent to me in response to one of my essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education last fall. Before I show the letter, some background:

For the essay in question, the CHE editors chose the unfortunate title of "I Did Not Slow Down Once I Got Tenure", nixing my preferred title, "Myth of the Tenure Slacker". In any case, the main point of the essay was that recent books and media accounts presented academia, and in particular tenure, in a way that is unrecognizable to me. I proposed the following explanations for this disparity:

- news accounts are intentionally inflammatory; who wants to read about happy tenured professors, even furloughed ones, in a time of economic crisis?;

- the effect of tenure on professorial productivity is misunderstood and misrepresented; and

- there is a misconception that teaching and research are exclusive.

For those of you who have read the CHE piece, you may want to skip ahead, but for those without access to the CHE piece, with respect to the last point, I wrote about my own experience:

The question of whether being a researcher makes someone a better teacher has been much debated. I am sure that the answer varies from person to person, but I know that being a researcher makes me a better teacher because doing research gives me new ideas and insights for teaching, even for courses I have taught many times before. I know many talented teachers who are intellectually engaged without being active researchers, but what works for me is to rejuvenate my courses via my research. Furthermore, being an effective researcher requires some of the same skills that we need to be effective teachers: To get grants and publish our results, we need to be able to communicate what we did in a clear and compelling way, and explain to nonspecialists why our work is important. So, too, do we need to do that with the concepts, facts, and ideas we want to teach our students.

I then mentioned that I typically advise some undergraduates in research, providing them with experiences that help them make decisions about their post-graduation lives. I also wrote:

Research is valuable to a university in some ways that can be quantified, and in many ways that can't, such as the creation of a stimulating intellectual environment (presumably a good thing at a university) and the involvement of students (undergraduate and graduate) in research. We are training the next generation of researchers who are going to invent things, cure diseases, and/or provide new insights about the world (past, present, future). Despite the claims made by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in their book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, and What We Can Do About It, research activities are not responsible for the inadequate emphasis on undergraduate education at some universities.

Last week, I received this e-mail from Andrew Hacker:

Dear FSP:

Claudia and I want to thank you for citing our book. That you didn't agree with us isn't surprising. Still, we appreciate your spelling our names correctly.

In writing Higher Education? we visited dozens of campuses and spoke with scores of faculty members. Every single professor attested, as you do, that being able to do research enhanced their undergraduate teaching. So you have the profession on your side.

But as a social scientist and a journalist, we know better than to take what people say about themselves at face value. We need evidence that teaching by researchers is superior to that of others. Of course, we understand that academics have to justify their research, or at least try to, if only to explain their pleasant sabbaticals.

Don't bother to reply. I don't open anonymous e-mails, for obvious reasons.
Yours, Andrew Hacker.

I did not bother to reply by e-mail, for obvious reasons, but I will reply here in the blog tomorrow.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Clock Stops Here

On Friday, I asked readers to name universities that do not have a policy that allows for tenure-track faculty to 'stop the (tenure) clock' for the birth or adoption of a child. There may well be such institutions that are not known to FSP readers, but so far, no one has named any university or college in North America that does not have such a policy.

If that is an accurate reflection of the situation, then it is time to stop calling for this policy as a means to increase the number of women scientists in academia. The policy is widespread, but it either hasn't had time to have a positive effect or it is not being implemented in a useful and fair way.

Universities and colleges need to make the existence of such policies widely known to faculty and administrators, make clock-stoppage easy to implement for faculty and administrators, and ensure that there is no stigma or punishment attached to stopping the clock. For example, no one should be held to a higher standard because they chose to stop the tenure clock, and no one should be made to feel awkward or guilty for taking this option.

There will likely be some abuses of the clock-stoppage option, but the good will outweigh the bad. If the policy works as intended and is a routine option, perhaps academia will be a more viable option for more women scientists (and others), and tenure will not be seen as incompatible with having kids. I don't know if this will solve the continuing disparities described in report such as the one that motivated this series of blog posts, but it might help.

I have already seen much progress on this front. I have served on committees in which tenure-clock-stoppage is seen as routine -- just a useful piece of information to explain the date of hiring relative to date of tenure review -- and has no other meaning. That's as it should be. And from what I've seen, committee members who did not stop the clock (by choice), don't hold it against those who did make this choice.

It is clear, however, from comments to this blog that some individuals, departments, and/or institutions are reluctant to let go of the traditional tenure clock, as if this is time frame that cannot possibly be altered and maintain high standards. What if less qualified people start getting tenure because they had "extra" time? (or something like that)

Those who think clock-stoppage is an assault on sacred academic practices are kindred spirits to those who still routinely ask interviewees about their personal lives (marital status, kids) in an attempt to exclude those who stray from the traditional mode of the professor undistracted by ancillary issues (children, spouse, spouse's career). There has been progress in reducing the use of marital and parental status as a consideration in hiring, but it has never entirely gone away.

As usual, the problem ends up being a bit circular. It will be easier to increase the number of tenured FSPs with families when there are (significantly) more tenured FSPs with families. Perhaps as the number of MSPs in two-career couples increases and clock-stoppage becomes more of a general issue for men and women, universities will adjust to this important new reality.

Is that last statement cynical or hopeful?

Friday, January 07, 2011

Where the Clocks Never Stop

In the recent NY Times article on "Keeping Women in Science on a Tenure Track", already noted elsewhere in the blogosphere, part of a report (released last fall) by Berkeley researchers is summarized as follows:

"It recommends .. “stopping the clock” on tenure for women scientists who give birth, perhaps by giving an extra year before making tenure decisions, in effect giving them extra time to do research and publish."

Well, I guess we could discuss whether stopping the tenure clock gives women "extra" time or effectively gives them the same time as those who have not given birth or adopted a child during their tenure-track years, and I could also mention that clock-stoppage, where it exists, is also an option for men, but what I want to know is:

What North American universities do not yet have this policy?

Can anyone name names? Can we make a list? I think there should be a list, easily accessible by an internet search, of universities that do not provide for tenure clock-stoppage for the birth or adoption of a child. Does such a list exist? If not, let's start one here.

Are there many universities that don't allow tenure clock stoppage for birth/adoption of a child (or any other reason)? If it's only a few places, perhaps reports wouldn't keep calling for this as step to take to improve the disturbing statistics of the rates at which mother/professors receive tenure relative to father/professors.

I hope it is not a very long list, but even if it is, I'd like to take a stab at compiling at least some information; i.e., names of institutions that do not allow tenure-clock-stoppage. Even better would be a link to a list, if such a list already exists, but either way, it would be useful to get an idea about institutions (especially universities) that do not have such a policy.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Research Group Feedback

This post is over at Scientopia, and involves a discussion of how (or whether) to get feedback from research group members.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011


As I mentioned before the blog-break, I had to deal with some cheaters in my class at the end of last term. I am clearly not the only one.

I have dealt with cheaters before, but typically they are in large intro classes in which space limitations require students to take exams while sitting in proximity to each other in a large lecture hall where it is apparently tempting to glance (or stare) at the exams of neighbors or (try to) surreptitiously use an electronic device containing information that might lead to Correct Answers. It is much more rare for me to see cheating in smaller courses involving Science majors and/or graduate students. But it happens.

In my large intro classes, if the cheating is unambiguous, I give the cheaters a zero on the relevant exam or assignment and I make them sit in the front row for all subsequent exams. I don't single these students out -- I don't think anyone else in the rest of the class knows or cares where anyone sits and so the rest of the class is unaware that certain students are required to sit in a designated place. I do not give the cheaters a failing grade for the entire class; just for the cheated-on exam. Some of these students pass the class and some don't, depending on how they do in the rest of the exams. I outline my policies on the syllabus, with a link to the university's webpages on relevant matters.

When I detected cheating on the final exam of my recent class, I had to check my syllabus to see if I even dealt with this issue in this particular class. I knew I had a section outlining what I considered to be appropriate levels of group work on homework and lab assignments, but I have never (?) had to deal with cheating on exams in certain Science classes, and wasn't even sure if I covered this on the syllabus. It turns out I did. In fact, I had clearly copied the 'scholarly conduct' from my Intro class syllabus into my Science class syllabus (is that plagiarism?).

So I gave the cheaters a zero on the final exam because that's what I said I would do in these circumstances, and I filled out the university's form to report scholarly misconduct.

The cheaters in my recent class had otherwise done OK in the course, so they passed, but their course grades were much lower than they might otherwise have been without a zero on the final exam.

One of these students, who, after briefly trying the "We studied together" excuse, admitted to cheating on the exam, has been sending me repeated e-mails begging me to give him a higher grade because he may lose a scholarship. I feel very sorry for him and I enjoyed having these students in my class, but my policy is not "You will get a zero unless you have a really really good reason for cheating and you send me at least 6 e-mails begging me to raise your grade."

I have not always filled out official reports of misconduct, preferring instead to deal with cheating situations on my own. I believed the rumors that it wasn't worth it to file a report, that doing this would lead to all sorts of confrontational unpleasantness and probably result in the punishment being overturned. Certainly if a student believed he or she was unfairly accused of cheating, I heard them out and explained to them their rights to appeal their punishment, but in most cases the cheating was so unambiguous that students confessed and focused their efforts on begging for leniency.

Now I fill out the forms. I think this is the fairest way to proceed because it is systematic, is more clear-cut in terms of informing the student of their rights, and allows the university to detect repeat offenders.

In most cases, nothing further happens unless the student wants to appeal the consequences meted out by the professor, although additional steps are taken to deal with repeat offenders. These additional steps are out of the hands of individual faculty and are taken care of by administrators who are better equipped to handle such things.

The practical result of this recent incident for me is that I am now going to take the 'scholarly conduct' section of my syllabus more seriously for all my classes, no matter what the size or level of the course.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Beyond Cats

Broader Impacts. The broader impacts of my winter vacation included an international experience, which on occasion included admiration of non-feline creatures (Fig. 27).

Monday, January 03, 2011

Vacation Cats

What better way to start off the 2011 blog year than with some cat pictures from my recent trip?

This little cat, who appears to be highly caffeinated, joined us for dinner one night, sitting in the empty seat at our table.