Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Worst Case Scenario

In my November contribution to the "Catalyst" section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, I wrote about how I typically deal with some rather minor instances of being insulted -- specifically as a woman -- in a professional context. I have written about this topic here in the blog as well, so I was not surprised by the various responses.

In the essay, I did not discuss major harassment or discrimination -- just the routine type of gender-specific insults. Even so, there was the usual comment saying that readers should not assume that it is common for women to experience this type of thing. For example, Woman X is Y years old with Z years of experience and has never ever been insulted or experienced any type of disparagement related to gender etc. etc. and therefore wants younger women to know that my experiences are unusual.

OK, that's great that some women never experience anything even remotely resembling sexism or obnoxious behavior related to gender, and it is worth noting this. Even so, all of us (me included) need to be careful about not extrapolating from our own experiences to the rest of the universe.

I am sometimes reminded of this -- in the opposite direction on the harassment spectrum -- by some of the e-mail that readers send to me, relating horrific tales of long-term, systemic discrimination, harassment, and abuse that is ignored and even encouraged at an institutional level. This is occurring today, in the US and elsewhere.

The problems described by these women are far beyond my experience, and they are far beyond any simple fix. They are at the level of class action suits or other courses of legal action; they are at the level of alerting the media and trying to get someone to expose the abuse.

The data are there -- there are documents detailing the abuse, there are numbers showing the career trajectories of women at these places, there are records showing the non-response or ineffectual response of upper administration to repeated examples of severe problems.

This is not the experience of all of us, but it should not be the experience of any of us.

As the recent example of Penn State has shown us, even crimes against children may not move the upper administration of some institutions to take action if apparently sacrosanct segments of an institution are involved. So what then can be done about situations that are not as shocking but that nevertheless should not be allowed, such as a pervasive culture of mistreatment and harassment of women and the perpetuation of a hostile work environment?

A question I have asked before but need to ask again:
  • What can a woman, or group of women, do in these extreme situations, other than quit/leave? 
What if you don't have the energy, resources, or time for a lawsuit, but nothing else has worked? -- that is, when no amount of presentation to upper administration of documented evidence has brought anything resembling a constructive response.
These incidents are not confined to any particular kind of institution (public/private, large/small), but it does seem that women at certain types of private institutions have fewer options for pursuing their complaints. (Discuss..)

There should be a mechanism for investigating these situations and finding a reasonable remedy, and if there is no institutional will to do so, there should be outside pressure, from the legal system, the media, donors, and/or the public. And in an ideal world, those who bring such suits or actions would not have their careers destroyed in the process.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a way to do this without causing harm to the people -- in this case, a group of women -- who are already being harmed.

What to do?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Not So Secret

There was a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "5 Big Secrets Your Staff Wishes You Knew". Great title! Click. The essay is aimed at professors, and I am sure that many of us professors want to learn things that will help us interact better with staff. This is one of the useful things about the Chronicle -- it provides information from the point of view of all sorts of academic citizens at all sorts of institutions, so we can better understand each other.

OK, so what are The Big 5? I must say that I found them disappointing, even as I appreciate the main point of the essay: be respectful. It's sad (and cynical) to call this a secret, but it is good to be reminded anyway. It is something that we probably all forget more than we should.

In any case, here are The Five Secrets, in case you missed the essay:

1. Don't call them secretaries. The author of the essay is an academic program specialist. Most of us have administrative assistants in our department offices. Many have bachelor's degrees; some have more advanced degrees.

OK. Most of the professors I know don't use the word "secretary" anymore, but I can believe the word is still used now and then. I understand that "secretary" comes with some negative connotations, but at the same time, I don't think it is cool to slam secretaries, past or present, with this:

If you treat your staff members as mere secretaries, they'll probably act like mere secretaries. You won't get much constructive work out of them. But if you treat them like professionals, you might be surprised at how helpful they become.

Why assume that the people (most of them women) who are or were known as secretaries are/were not competent professionals with many or all of the same skills as the modern administrative assistant? Is the author (a man) referring to stereotypes of female secretaries? Is that why he used the word mere?

And I didn't understand the point about level of education in the context of level of respect. Surely the author is not saying that we should respect someone with a bachelor's degree more than someone without? That would undermine the entire point of the essay, in my opinion, because it leads to the conclusion that those without a PhD should automatically respect those with a PhD, and I don't think the author feels that way (nor should he, or anyone). I think the main point here is supposed to be that we should be aware that some staff are highly skilled.

The hint of retribution if we don't get the title right is also a bit disturbing. I have taught classes in which some of the students didn't know I was a tenured professor. On coming to my office hours, some expressed amazement that I had my own office, considering that they thought I was an adjunct. So what? Although I was not happy about the underlying assumption (woman = adjunct? or should I say contingent faculty?), I was not offended that they didn't get my title or tenure status right. Should I have become less constructive and helpful with these students? I can't imagine doing so.

2. Staff have deadlines too. This is a good reminder for us all. We all have deadlines, and we should all be considerate when we need something done now(ish). I think many of us can relate to this. We professors too-frequently encounter students who request letters of recommendation a day or two before a deadline, administrators who need something done yesterday, and staff members who forget to tell us that there is a new form we need to fill out (today). Ideally, we can try to minimize the number of times we ask someone to do something at the last-minute, but it does happen to us all, alas.

3. Staff can 'lead the way on technology.' That's great, but no one in any department I have been in has had anyone on the administrative staff who could 'lead the way on technology', no matter what their age (or my age). I suppose the main point here is to get to know the staff and their abilities.

4. Staff don't always think in the abstract. This one surprised me the most because I wondered: and professors do? This is where I scrolled down to see where the author works; in what kind of department do the professors always think in the abstract? The author is in a college of medicine. Scary.

It is strange to assume that faculty wander around thinking in the abstract all day. Many of us spend our days teaching and dealing with research management issues (grants management, keeping track of our advisees, writing reports, filling out forms that keep changing.. ). I wish I had more time for abstract thinking.

5. Staff are people too. I'm sorry that anyone would consider this a secret, but again, I can appreciate that the point is worth making.

This 'secret' seems particularly aimed at a certain species of condescending professor. Apparently, "The professorial supremacy complex inflicts far too many in your ranks". I am sure this is true, and for anyone who has to deal with those of us who think or act this way, surely even one is too many.

In some cases -- for example, asking a staff member to do something at the last-minute before a deadline -- I wonder how much of our (inadvertent) rudeness relates to the fact that we all have too much to do, that many of us are under quite a lot of pressure (even those of us with tenure), and that staff have to deal with large numbers of faculty with different styles and abilities in terms of organization, deadlines, social skills etc. Those aren't excuses, just reasons for explaining what might seem as rudeness or lack of respect, or even a "supremacy complex".

I understand why the author felt compelled to write this essay. As I have described before, sometimes, when I am spending some time in the main office of my department, I am mistaken for a staff person by someone who isn't a regular member of my department, and I am frequently struck by how rude people are when they wander into a department office and talk to staff.

Several times I have been abruptly handed pieces of paper and told to give this to So-and-So. What to do? Say "no" and hand it back without further comment (perhaps giving a bad impression of the real staff, who are unfailingly nice) or send the rude person to one of our hard-working staff people so they can be interrupted and ordered around as well? Typically, I will smile and say something like "I am Professor Z and, like everyone else here, I'm very busy, but if you want your (whatever) delivered to the right person, you can do it yourself. There are mailboxes over there, and a directory of offices in the hall." This sort of works.

Anyway, despite my criticism of the content and tone of the essay, I will say again that I appreciate its premise: staff should be treated with respect -- but I would add that this applies no matter what their title or how many degrees they have. The same goes, of course, for how staff treat professors, no matter what the professor's title, age, gender, ethnicity etc.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Style

Warning: This is not the most important post I have ever written, but it's Friday, not to mention the Friday after Thanksgiving, although I did take the afternoon off yesterday (but not, alas, today), so this is all I'm good for in the way of posts right now.

A (true) story that entertained me:

The other day, I rode my bike to one of those stores that sells Everything. For the ride, I had rolled up my pant legs, not having remembered the handy velcro strap that I sometimes use; the right leg was rolled up more than the left leg. When I arrived at the store that sells Everything, I forgot to roll them back down. I was no doubt too busy thinking about Awesome Science Things, or something.

This is relevant because, as I was standing in an aisle gazing at an astounding array of vegetable peelers, two older women stood at the end of the aisle and talked about me, loudly.

The 50-something year old woman said to her 70-something year old mother, "Look at HER! She has her pant legs rolled up!"

I was taken aback. My first thought was: JERKS.

Only then did I realize that I'd forgotten about my rolled-up pant legs, but surely someone with rolled up pant legs, even if a bit asymmetric, was not worthy of this kind of attention? I looked down and saw that the asymmetry was not even too noticeable, as the right leg had mostly unrolled itself as I walked.

Were they visitors from some planet in which rolled-up pant legs were illegal or taboo?

Then the 50-something year old woman said "See, it's just like I was telling you. THAT is the STYLE." The 70-something year old woman just made a hrrmph-like noise, so the 50-something year old continued, loudly, pointing at me and proclaiming 3 more times that what I was wearing was THE STYLE. The older woman grudgingly agreed to get some pants with rolled-up legs for her granddaughter, but she was not happy about it.

Even so, how thrilling for me! To be the epitome of STYLE! Such things do not ever often happen to me.

Too bad these women were wrong.. and strange.. and unpleasant.. and I feel sorry for the granddaughter, who will be getting a gift(?) that is not actually THE STYLE according to anyone except perhaps middle-aged, absent-minded, bicycle-riding FSPs (unless -- maybe! -- that is what she aspires to be?!).

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How Nice Are You?

In 2008 at this time of year (that is, the Thanksgiving holiday in the US), I had a post about whether or not I give exams just before a major holiday break (I do not). As usual, there were some interesting comments, but I think this question deserves a poll in 2011.

In this poll, a "No" answer implies a deliberate choice to not give an exam or quiz before a major break (you can explain why in the comments).

An answer of "Maybe" implies that you don't really pay attention to holidays/breaks and you just create the schedule however makes the most sense for the class/topic; if a quiz falls just before (or just after) a break, so be it.

A "Yes" answer implies that you deliberately schedule exams just before a break because .. (explain in the comments); e.g., this ensures attendance, you'd rather give an exam just before than just after a break, you are evil etc.

Do you give exams just before a major holiday break?
No, never
Maybe, if that's the way the schedule turns out
Yes, very often or always free polls 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Take Down

For some reason -- or, possibly, for no reason -- the manuscripts I have been sent to review lately have been of a certain type: the type of paper that has an interesting dataset or idea that would make an interesting focus for the paper, but the authors instead choose to spin the paper as an attack on someone else's idea/s. That is, the papers seem to be aimed mostly at criticizing someone else's published work and proposing something different instead, even if that something:
  • isn't all that different from the original idea they are trashing;
  • isn't nearly as interesting as what they could focus on instead (says me); and/or
  • isn't supported by their own data.
These cases are different from those in which there is clear evidence that a published idea or dataset is wrong and that wrong needs righting.

I have disproved the work of others before (including one of my early grad advisors, who hated me for it), but I don't derive any particular pleasure from it -- at least, not on a personal level. As a scientist, I can appreciate the sweeping away of an old, bad idea and replacing it with a beautiful new idea that explains things, and I feel satisfaction and pride if it's my research that does this or helps with this process, but I don't enjoy an attack for the sake of an attack.

For that reason, I find it hard to understand when someone else chooses -- and it is a choice -- to go that route when there really isn't much of a point to doing so. That is, when some researchers try very hard to find something, anything, no matter how unimportant, to tear down, and focus on that so much that the rest of their work is subsumed.

Yes, I know that sometimes there is personal animosity involved, but in the cases I recently encountered, the people involved actually get along quite well, at least as far as I know. The attacks in the manuscripts under review are not vicious or personal; they seem almost formulaic, as if the primary authors were told that this was the best way to write a paper that will be noticed (cited) or that they should be sure to distinguish their work from that of others.

In fact, the primary authors of these manuscripts have all been PhD students or postdocs. Maybe they are trying to make a splash? I think the papers could be really nice contributions if the focus were more on the substance of the research, not on some far-fetched or unfounded undermining of a minor point in some other publication. 

Probably my reviews will sound patronizing to the authors, and of course they and the editors can ignore my advice, but I think it is a mistake to go negative when there is nothing to be gained by doing so.

If you have gotten advice, particularly as an early-career researcher, about the best way to set up a paper, did that advice include anything about this issue? For example: framing a paper as an argument or attack is a good way to write a paper (no matter what), this is a bad way to write a paper, only do this if you think you are totally justified and it is an important issue etc.?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

To Stay or Not to Stay

Over in Scientopia, the topic of discussion today is whether it is bad to stay at the same institution for a postdoc after a PhD, and various other scenarios related to staying vs. moving on at different academic stages.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Can you think of a (good) reason why a journal would need to know the gender of authors and reviewers?

A reader wrote to me with this question, as a result of being required to select a gender-revealing option when registering on a journal's website. This option was separate from one asking for the professional title (Prof., Dr., Prof. Dr. etc.). It was not possible for this person, even after communicating with journal staff, to register without checking this box. In fact, the journal staff insisted that this information was essential because otherwise communication was too difficult and would involve the awkward use of "he/she" in letters, or perhaps embarrassing mistakes if the gender of the person wasn't clear from their name.

I can think of reasons why a woman would not want reviewers and editors to know her gender, but I can't think of a good reason why reviewers and editors would need to know the gender of an author or reviewer. It occurred to me that a journal might want to keep track of how many papers are published by male vs. female authors (or lead authors, in fields that make this distinction), but that is not the reason the journal gave to the reader who wrote to me about this issue. In that case, the concern was making embarrassing mistakes in using pronouns in correspondence or that someone would be offended if referred to as he/she instead of by the correct pronoun.

If a journal did want to keep track of gender data, those data could be separated from individual papers, so that editors and reviewers did not see it for any particular individual or paper. 

If you are writing to someone whose gender you do not know, why would you even use he/she or his/her in direct correspondence with them? This is a real question. Am I overlooking something?

In my role as editor and reviewer, I do not need it; 'you' is nice and direct, or I use the person's name or title. In correspondence about someone, I can use their title, a term such as "Reviewer 1" (if they are anonymous, you shouldn't use a pronoun anyway), or I refer indirectly to "the author/s", depending on context. The journal with which I am most closely involved is based in Europe, with close ties to Asia, North America, and Australia. It is more formal than many North American-based journals in its correspondence traditions, but even so, we do not need to know the gender of authors or reviewers.

Yes, I know about Frau Professor, Herr Professor etc., but those can be options for those who prefer those titles. There should not a requirement to inform a journal of your gender before you submit a paper or review an article.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Nature Error

OK, OK, yes I saw the stupid "Futures" story(?) titled Womanspace in Nature in late September, I read the comments (many of which are great), and I agree that Nature should not have published this thing, not just because it is offensive, but because it is bad -- bad writing, bad story, bad way to crank up traffic on the site -- and should not be in a journal, not even in an obscure corner of a journal website. The editor showed appalling judgement.

Many of the ensuing comments are great, and I don't have much to add, except that some of the comments struck me as outstanding examples of classic responses flung out whenever there is a suggestion that something just might possibly be sexist or at the very least offensive to many people. In the case in question, that something was written (and published in Nature) explicitly for male readers with female significant others, portraying women in general as having certain shopping tendencies, and including generalizations that would be unthinkable to write about people of, say, a particular religion or ethnicity (but are apparently OK if you are writing about women as a group).

One of the classic responses is along the lines of: "I was just joking. If you weren't so humorless you would see how funny I am." I have written about these "jokes" before. They have no place in a professional venue.

The other insidious classic response is the "My wife wasn't offended by what I wrote and she is a woman and not only that but she is also really smart and I sometimes do the cooking at home and therefore my participation in what is traditionally a very female household job makes me by definition a non-sexist, hear me roar."

Or something like that. Variations on this are "I am that man's wife and I thought what he wrote was very funny" (so he is not sexist; see the comments in Nature, including the one from the author's wife) and/or "I am a woman and I wasn't offended".. ergo, the author is not a sexist.

I am not sure I am following the reasoning here. Is it that men are only sexist if they say they are, but they never are if someone else says they are? And any woman can speak for all other women (just as we apparently all shop the same way) and therefore if only one woman is not offended, sexism doesn't exist, even if many women (and men) were offended? That is, sexism can never exist, it can only not exist?

I think I am beginning to develop a hypothesis. Maybe Nature will publish it?

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Today in Scientopia, I discuss issues related to the independence, or lack thereof, of graduate students, and whether the preferred amount of independence in research is a good match with the advisor's preferences.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Man Boy(cott) 2011

This is a repeat topic, but it's something that keeps happening, so here it is again.

There is a conference that is of some interest to me. It's not a super-major conference and it is not urgent for me to attend, but it will be an interesting group of people, and I expect the level of intellectually stimulating conversation and exchange of ideas to be high, making the trip worthwhile. I think that I will go to the conference.

And then I look at the list of keynote speakers: all men, no women. I won't specify the exact number of speakers, but let's just say it is in the vicinity of 10, so it's not as if there's just one or two.

The conference topic is one that involves many women researchers worldwide. I can easily think of several without even trying. By "without even trying", I mean that without specifically trying to think of women researchers -- when I just think of people doing interesting research in this field -- many of these people are women.

[Note: I am rather peripheral to this topic, so am not implying that I think I should have been invited; I do not think this.]

Sometimes when I encounter these all-men slates of keynotes for a conference that I'm not sure I want to attend, that fact tips the balance for me and I do not go. If, however, I think the conference will be overall worthwhile anyway, I may go, and I will likely speak with the conference organizer, asking about the lack of women speakers.

Last time I wrote about this, I asked for comments on whether an all-men slate of keynote speakers would be a non-issue, a maybe-issue, or a deal-breaker for readers in their decisions to attend conferences. There were many interesting comments, with of course the usual wide range of opinions. Today I am asking the same question, but in poll form. This tends to increase the number of responses, but of course we lose a bit of the nuance, so feel free to leave a new or repeat comment on the topic in addition to voting. 

Does an all-men speaker slate influence your decision about whether to attend a conference?
No, it is always a non-issue for me.
It can be a deciding factor.
Yes, it is a deal-breaker for me. free polls 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

No Particular Interest

Like one of the commenters on yesterday's post, I too was interested in this part of Grafton's NYRB essay, and in fact had planned to write about this today:

.. vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. The desire they cherish, Arum and Roksa write, is to act out “cultural scripts of college life depicted in popular movies such as Animal House (1978) and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002).” Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies”—and thirteen hours a week studying.

There seem to be data to support the existence of these "vast numbers", although I think that reality is (of course) a bit more complicated. That is, it is possible for there to be students who want to have Classic College Experiences (of the non-academic sort) and for these same students to have some, but varying, levels of interest in their classes. They might be taking my intro-level Science class because the university forces them to take a Science class and, despite my best efforts, they will not develop a lasting interest in Science, but that doesn't mean they aren't interested in any of their other classes. It is the challenge for all of us who teach to try to interest as many students as possible in our classes -- not by playing fun little games and handing out A's -- but by engaging their intellects, which, despite popular opinion, do in fact exist.

For the sake of discussion, let's be cynical (or realistic?) and assume that the data are correct: most students in college don't care about academics. They just want to hang out with their friends (in person or via social networking), go to the gym, watch their favorite TV shows, and do just enough studying so that they can go to their professors and whine about how they deserve an A because they worked really really hard.

What are we supposed to do about that? In the context of a discussion about Our Failing Universities, is this something we can fix? Or is this an intractable problem that we inherit from Our Failing K-12 Schools, which might be inheriting it to some extent from Our Failing Families and a national culture of anti-intellectualism? I am only sort of being serious here, but there is a real question: What can universities and colleges, administrators and faculty, do?

As an all-powerful but somehow, at the same time, powerless professor, here is the awesome array of tools I have, as an individual, for attempting to influence the academic interest-level of my students:

- I can try as hard as possible to make my courses as interesting and relevant to students, making connections to their lives, explaining complex concepts in a clear way, and providing stimulating examples and questions that make them think, even after the class is over.

- I can give them homework, reading, and other assignments that are specifically designed to enhance the course materials and provide for a deeper understanding and time for reflection outside the lecture hall. (In theory -- some universities specify how much homework can be given, tying the amount to the number of credits each course is worth; for example, a 3-credit course can only have 3 hours of homework assigned each week, keeping in mind that "hours" of homework is a malleable concept for each individual).

- I can encourage students to seek research opportunities, with me or with other professors, explaining why this might be interesting and useful, but mostly just making students aware of the possibilities.

- I can try to get to know as many of my students as possible, even in a large class, so that I am not just a talking head in front of a classroom, but a real person who knows their name and who clearly wants to engage them in a shared teaching-learning experience.

- I can keep track of how my students are doing, identifying any problems early and trying to help students learn strategies for succeeding with academic work.

- I can participate in teaching workshops to try to improve my teaching and to get new ideas from colleagues for ways to present difficult course material or to teach large classes in a more effective way.

What else? That's already quite a lot, and I think many of us at least attempt to do some or all of those things, with varying levels of success depending on some factors that are within our control and some that are not. And we can be particularly effective at some or all of those things if we are only teaching 1 (maybe 2) courses at a time and can really focus on them.

But is it enough? Now let's assume that we are all super-teachers and can do all those things (well) in every single class, no matter how many classes and students we are teaching, and get our other work done (a bit of research and advising and service here and there) and maybe see our families once in a while. Would our universities stop failing? Can professors reverse the trend? Can we overcome disinterest, disconnection, and sloth? Can we forget salary freezes, inadequate classrooms, the ever-increasing number of administrators asking us to fill out new forms adding up how we spend our time, and scandals involving highly-paid athletic coaches? Can teaching well save the institution?

__ This isn't preschool happy time. If students don't want to learn, that's their problem, not mine.
__ No, I wish we could help, but there are too many obstacles that are beyond our control.
__ Maybe, probably not, but we should try anyway.
__ Yes, it would fix a lot of problems if most professors were excellent teachers.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Never Say: No One

It is always with great trepidation that I read an article about Our Failing Universities, even an article written by a professor rather than a journalist out to make a splash, and even an article in a publication that I greatly admire and enjoy reading (such as The New York Review of Books).

In a recent issue of NYRB, there is a review/essay by Anthony Grafton titled "Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?" (not Are They Failing, but Why). The essay mentions, at least briefly, 8 recent books with titles (and subtitles: every single one has a subtitle!) such as:

The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get The College Education You Paid For. I have not read this book, but I hate the title (and the subtitle) for a large number of reasons that I can't explain without seeming professorial in the negative-stereotype kind of way.

OK, I will obliquely mention one reason: Do you have faculty lounges at your university? What goes on in them? Or is "Lounges" a verb here?

Anyway.. here's another one:

The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. I am not really sure what it is that matters, but without reading the book (just the review), I probably agree with the author that there are too many high-paid administrators doing who-knows-what other than making the rest of us do time-consuming pointless things. But mostly I want to know: Have the faculty really fallen? What does that even mean? That we have no say in anything anymore? If so, why am I still on all these committees? Can I quit them? And if the faculty have truly fallen, where are we? It makes me want to say: We are here! We are here! We are here! (Seuss, 1954)

I am skipping over a few other books that have exciting words such as Exclusion and Assault in the title, and others that have already been much discussed in the blogosphere, here and elsewhere.

But I don't want to skip this one: Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Again, there is that scary and definitive why. This book is, according to Grafton, "a.. recent polemic against the corruption of the humanities". Alas, that is a topic on which I cannot even pretend to have any insight. Within my very limited socio-professional universe, all the humanities professors I know even reasonably well seem to be quite entranced with the meaning of life, unless they are secretly corrupt, and that is why they all wear so much black. Or perhaps the corrupt ones never leave their offices (or faculty lounges!?) and so I have not met them. Or maybe they are at your university, but not at mine.

In any case, what do we think about statements such as these, from the essay:

Particularly in the natural and social sciences, professors are encouraged to feel that it is legitimate to devote most of their energy to research.


The message is clear: no one sees classroom learning as a primary pursuit.

We have all seen statements like this before, and I have discussed them before. But I will ask again: Which professors? Where? Certainly there are research professors -- who typically raise some or all of their money from grants -- but most of the science professors I know are serious about both research and teaching, and see these both as important parts of their jobs. If, however, someone devotes 60% of their time to research and 40% of their time to teaching, the statement is true, but misleading. And that brings us to the second excerpt.

Does no ones see classroom learning as a primary pursuit? Is the emphasis on the word "primary"? If so, then perhaps that statement is also true for many professors and administrators at large universities. Classroom learning is just one of many aspects of a university. Even so, the statement is misleading and is an unfair criticism of universities, administrators, and professors of all sorts.

Classroom teaching is not my primary pursuit, but that doesn't mean it isn't as important as research, including research involving undergraduates. Does it have to be more important for more people for our universities to stop "failing"? My colleagues and I teach, advise, do research, and participate in various service activities in our departments, universities, professional communities, and beyond. We are busy people, doing many different things, most of which contribute to the vitality of the university and many of which directly or indirectly benefit students.

I am not saying that universities are perfect and that there aren't many things to fix, but it is quite rare to see the good and the bad considered in a fair and thoughtful way. Maybe (almost) no one would want to read such a book.

In the end, though, this is why I liked Grafton's essay: because he concludes that these books are not constructive contributions to the large task of figuring out how to fix the problems with US universities. He ends his essay:

..  public discussion and scrutiny would become much more productive if informed writers captured the texture and flavor of the American university .. The novelists discovered this territory long ago. Where are the great journalists? They will find students who manage to do excellent work and many more cases of wasted possibilities, and they might gain some insight into why.

Friday, November 11, 2011

That's Stupid

If you are (or were) a graduate student and your advisor suggests that you do something that you think is incorrect or stupid, what do you say? (or what did you say?) I am not talking about unethical or immoral suggestions, but research-related suggestions/ideas that you think are in error, ill-advised, impossible, and/or idiotic. I am curious as to how many people feel (or felt) comfortable disagreeing with their advisor.

Do/did you:

1. Say nothing and do the stupid thing suggested because it's somehow easier/better to do what you're told.

2. Say nothing and do the stupid thing suggested because you are probably wrong and your advisor is probably right and the reason you think the idea is stupid is probably because you don't understand it.

3. Say nothing but find a way to avoid doing the stupid thing suggested (because you are convinced it really is stupid).

4. Ask some questions to make sure you really understand the suggestion, and, once you are convinced it really is stupid, tentatively suggest that maybe that isn't a good idea (maybe even suggest a better idea), or some other response that involves a bit of thinking, exploring, discussing.

5. Say "That's stupid" (or a more polite equivalent) and explain why you think so. If you say something like this, I am also curious as to whether this is an easy thing to say to your advisor (who perhaps enjoys debates about ideas and doesn't mind being corrected) or whether it is extremely difficult (because your advisor might have a bad temper, hate criticism etc.).

I can think of other possibilities, and I am sure there are many more I have not thought of, but mostly I am just curious about the range of responses.

Does anyone think there are trends by academic discipline or are the results likely to be completely scattered because all fields have a wide variety of personalities?

The reason I was thinking about this aspect of grad-advisor interactions is because I was remembering an incident in which a grad student misunderstood an advisor's suggestion. The actual suggestion was very reasonable (says the advisor, who is not me, by the way) but what the student thought the advisor said was bizarre. The student did it anyway, without question. That's a somewhat different case, but is a variant of option #2 above. In this case, the advisor in question doesn't think there was any lack of confidence involved by the student; the student just didn't think and did what s/he (thought s/he) was told.

When I was a student, I used to do something approximating #4, but sometimes it would be a multi-stage process. My advisor would make a suggestion (in fact, he rarely gave me any suggestions or directions, but it did happen on occasion) and, if I didn't understand it, I would ask a few questions, but then I would go away and try to figure the rest out myself. If I figured out what he was saying/asking, fine; if I still didn't, or if I convinced myself he was wrong, I'd go talk to him again. I think that approach is quite common.

Is the direct approach of #5 (even the polite variant) the most rare? As an advisor, I have found it to be somewhat rare, but I think that as long as there is a healthy dose of the #4 approach (questioning, but in a more tentative way), some good discussions can take place and stupid ideas can be discarded and replaced with better ones.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mad Libs Gone Mad

Letters sent to me as a prospective advisor of prospective graduate students who are prospective applicants to the graduate program in my department continue to arrive, with more appearing in my inbox every week. As usual, and as I have described before, these letters are quite mixed in their level of sophistication.

Here is an unscientific conclusion from my reading of these letters:

I have not seen any correlation between size, type, prestige, and/or location of the undergrad school and whether the letter is impressive or naive.

Excellent, focused, professional letters can come from anywhere. Clueless, naive and (inadvertently) obnoxious letters can come from anywhere.

The only somewhat predictable characteristic is that students from certain countries tend to send form letters, probably to many different professors, probably in the hopes that at least some will reply. I have wondered about this strategy and whether it is effective. The large number of possible recipients might increase the yield of replies, but the obvious form-letter nature of the letters (especially the "Dear Sir" ones sent to female faculty) discourages replies.

The strangest e-mail that I have received in recent months from a prospective applicant was sort of like a form letter, but it was also sort of like a Mad Libs template into which the student had inserted relevant information for each recipient, but not in a particularly smooth or knowledgeable way. The letter went something like this:
Dear Professor of Science,

My name is Student, and I will be graduating from University in spring 2012. I am looking into graduate programs for the fall, and am interested in your research program. Will you be taking on any new MS/PhD students next year? [<-- all that is fine so far]

In particular, I am fascinated by your work on "Title of old, obscure paper that is an outlier in my usual research topics" and how you applied [incorrect name for a technique] to [something I never did] in "Title of second paper that doesn't have anything to do with anything else listed so far." I would like to work on topics like this under your direction as advisor at [name of my university].

Attached is my CV.


OK, so he tried. He looked up some of my papers, picked a couple that may have looked interesting to him, maybe took some notes of some words in the abstracts or titles, and put this information in the letter.

B for Effort.

I think this can be a very good approach if you know what you are doing and if the things you are writing about are at least a little familiar to you, so you are not just stringing together Science Words and paper titles in a possibly-strange way. If this student had showed the email to a professor, chances are the professor would have seen some of the problems right away, without even knowing anything about me or my work.

We have debated cluelessness here in this blog before. When I have described clueless students, particularly undergraduates who are just starting to navigate the complexity of the graduate school universe, many readers can relate to the feeling that there are unwritten rules and things you are supposed to do and not do (but you have to figure these out by trial-and-failure first).

And so it is, and maybe that's how internet resources (including blogs) can help a bit. But beware..

For example, I have written posts in which I supplied templates for various types of academic letters, with blanks for personalized bits of information. These templates are mostly just to give a sense for the types of information, appropriate length, and scope of various types of letters. I hope they are overall helpful, but if you stick random words in the blanks, you end up with something that is likely more incoherent than what you'd come up with by writing the letter entirely on your own.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Killer Questions

Today in Scientopia, I discuss a reader's question about how/whether students can ask aggressive, possibly undermining questions of speakers without appearing to be obnoxious jerks.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Get A (Different) Room

To the young couple snuggling in the meeting room during the afternoon session on Awesome Science at the X Conference:


You were sitting in the approximate middle of the room, and there were lots of us cranky old professors sitting behind you, thinking you were being unprofessional and disrespectful of the speaker to have your arms wrapped around each other and to be basically sharing one seat during the session. Although the session was quite well attended, there were plenty of seats for all, so you could have each had your own.

Even some of us who think that academia should be more flexible with respect to work-life balance -- for example, that it's great that parents bring their young children to conferences and that grad students should (occasionally) be allowed to take a vacation or even sleep -- thought that your behavior was inappropriate.


But that's just what I think. Let's ask the readers of FSP:

If you were sitting in a conference session trying to listen to Professor Z present her latest research results and to Dr. Postdoc's inspiring attempt to impress potential employers, and you saw a couple of entwined twentysomethings sitting in front of you, snuggling and sniffing each other's hair and necks, would you:

A. Think it was cute, sigh at the romance, and say "Young love, how special!"?

B. Avert your gaze and focus on the talks?

C. Snort in disgust and be very grateful that these young people were not from your institution?

D. Poke them and/or ask them to go somewhere else? (alternatives: toss something at them or do something else unobtrusive but possibly effective, without disturbing the session)

E. Other.

I went for the gaze-aversion approach, and was mostly successful, particularly during interesting talks. I found it difficult to ignore the snuggling couple completely, though, so as soon as I could, I changed my seat to be on the other side of the room and unable to see them when I was watching the presentations.

Before I could move to another seat, I saw a colleague glance in the direction of the couple and then, when he realized what he was seeing, he looked around and caught my eye. The expression on his face -- amusement, disgust, surprise, all of the above? -- made me laugh, so at least the snuggling couple provided some entertainment.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Monday Pop Quiz!

Sorry to spring this on you, but I wanted to make sure that you have all been keeping up with the material. This little quiz will help me see how you're doing, and to identify any concepts that are particularly problematic for the class, so I can be sure to focus on those in my lectures in the coming weeks.

Yes, I know this quiz is not on the syllabus. It is a so-called pop quiz. I did put on the syllabus that I would give you some of these throughout the term; I just didn't say when. That's the whole point of them. The fact that this is the first one was not intended to lull you into a false sense of comfort that there wouldn't be any, but if it had that effect, I must say I'm not too ripped up about it.

And no, I don't care if you do better on quizzes if you listen to music, you can't have your ear buds in during the quiz.

The Quiz

Let's say that you happen to read a journal article that was published > 1 year ago and you see that your own (quite old) publications are cited. But: you don't like how your published work is cited in this article -- the authors didn't mis-cite you in any egregiously wrong or unethical way, but you nevertheless don't like how they did it. For example, maybe you feel that they put too much emphasis on some things that we know now that we didn't know >20 years ago when you published your cited paper(s). Or maybe you don't like how they wrote that their results might be in conflict with some results in one part of your old work. What do you do? Do you:

(a) Make an unhappy huffing sound, shrug your shoulders, and forget about it. Maybe you will mention it to the authors if you see them at a conference, but otherwise, it's not a big deal.

(b) Write a brief but polite e-mail to the primary authors, explaining your discontent and then waiting to see how they respond.

(c) Write a formal comment and send it to the authors and ask if they'd be interested in writing a reply, perhaps for publication in the journal in question.

(d) Write a formal comment and send it to the editors of the journal and let them deal with contacting the authors to see about a possible reply, perhaps for publication in the journal in question.

(e) Fire off an angry e-mail to the editor of the journal, insulting the integrity of the editor and the journal as a whole for publishing a paper that contains this unjustified attack on you and your work. Be sure to include lots of dramatic adjectives that show -- unambiguously -- just how shocked you are that this paper was published in a journal you used to respect. 

Time's up. Put your pencils down and pass your quiz forms to front.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Should She Do It?

Today in Scientopia, I reluctantly sort of give some advice about intra-department relationships, in response to a reader's e-mail about her particular situation, but mostly I request comments from readers on this general topic and/or specific situation.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

You're Invited

Speaking of talks, I am reminded of an invited talk that was given by an early-career scientist at a conference in the past year or so. I was very happy to see this talk on the schedule. I am a big fan of giving invited talk slots to the youngsters, as they might actually have something new to say, and I admire this particular person's work.

Invited talks by senior scientists can be quite interesting and useful as well, even if they are mostly a review of published work. But, as I've discussed before, there is a difference between giving a thoughtful review talk that integrates a lot of information and gives some perspective gained through time and a review talk that consists entirely of recycled, old material, resulting in a talk that could have been given at any time in the last 28 years and be exactly the same except for the number of wrinkles on the speaker's face.

The aforementioned invited talk by the early-career scientist was a big disappointment to me for the same reasons I have criticized talks by more senior people. It turned out to be a 'review talk', except that the amount of time represented by the work being reviewed was of course much less. The talk I saw could have been given 4-5 years ago. The figures were all excerpted from published work, none of the information was new, and there was no attempt to synthesize or reflect.

I wondered if my opinion of this nothing-new talk was so negative because I had higher expectations of the speaker than I would for a more senior scientist. That is, I guess I wouldn't be surprised if certain senior scientists gave a recycled talk, but I wasn't expecting it from this younger person, so I was even more critical than I would otherwise have been. Maybe.

So then I tried to think of reasons why this early-career scientist might have given a nothing-new, recycled talk. My purpose is not to criticize this individual (more) but to discuss the general issues raised (at least, in my own mind) by this incident.

I should note that the individual in question does not have a tenure-track job (yet) but is searching for one. This is one obvious reason why it's not a good idea for an early-career person to give a lame conference talk, invited or not, whereas a more senior person might not be harmed at all. But perhaps I am being too negative (again). Let's consider:

Reasons why such a talk may not have harmed the early-career person's chances of employment, with parenthetical statements undermining my attempts to come up with such reasons:

1. No one with any role, however indirect, in hiring decisions that could affect this person was in the audience (I consider this unlikely, but I don't know);

2. Even if there were potential future colleagues in the audience, they may not have been familiar with this work and so didn't know just how recycled the talk was (maybe.. but the speaker gave correct attribution to all the figures, and it was clear that they were all from a publication from > 4 years ago);

3. The main thing is that he was invited to give a talk, demonstrating the esteem in which he is held (I share this esteem -- even now -- but note that the conference session organizer is a friend/colleague of his);

4. It was just one talk; give the guy a break (OK, but I saw some excellent talks by other early-career scientists competing for the same jobs; to the extent that these conference-impressions are important, it's clearly better to give an awesome talk than a boring recycled one);

5. Maybe he was asked to give a review of his old work? Maybe that's what fit best with the theme of that session and he reluctantly agreed, although he has lots of cool new work he would rather have presented. (Sure, that happens, but I think if I were in that position I would be certain to explain the situation at the beginning of the talk. I'd say something like "I've been asked to talk about my work on xxxx, although most of that dates from a few years ago now", and then I would try to add something new -- make some new figures, synthesize some old and new results and ideas..)

If the individual in question was a tenure-track professor, being asked to give an invited talk, however boring it turned out to be, might outweigh any negative effects of having given a lame talk. Invited talks can be listed on the CV as such, and, aside from the possibility that a cranky letter-writer might have sat through the dismal talk, the most people reading the CV and making an evaluation won't know anything about the content of the talk beyond its title.

I don't have a problem with that. If the recycled talk was a one-time thing, it shouldn't harm anyone's career if things are otherwise going well. And if the recycled talk was yet another sign that an individual has not had any new ideas or results in 5 years, then there will be other evidence of that.

But: If someone who is still applying for jobs is given the opportunity to give a talk at a high-profile conference, whether or not the talk is invited or is one of many selected from submitted abstracts, if at all possible, don't blow the chance to say something new and interesting.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Out of Practice

Do you practice your conference presentations before giving them? What is your career stage?

In my case, I used to practice my conference talks, but now I never do, so for me, the answer was yes but is now no, and the change is definitely related to career-stage. I do not think this is unusual. Whether it is a good, neutral, or bad thing is another question.

If you used to practice talks but now you don't, do you remember when you stopped? I don't, but I am certain that I practiced my talks through my postdoc and perhaps for a while as an assistant professor. I just don't remember if I stopped practicing talks before or after tenure; I think it was before, but I am not sure.

Although I don't remember when exactly it was, I do remember having an anxious thought, just before giving one of the first talks I had not practiced, "Maybe I should have practiced this talk..", but I only felt that way the first few times I gave a talk I had not practiced. The feeling went away either because (1) I was satisfied with how the unpracticed talks went (i.e., I never felt after a talk, "OMG, I should have practiced that talk."), and/or (2) I am delusional about the quality of my talks.

I hasten to add that I typically finish my talks well within the time limit, so my lack of practice does not have negative consequences in terms of talk duration. Whether my talks are less coherent as a result of not-practicing: I'm not the one to ask.

I am certainly not advocating not practicing, particularly for early-career people. For those inexperienced at giving talks, I have seen very-not-good talks (on the first or second practice) turn into awesome talks with practice.

I am also not saying that I don't put much preparation into my talks. I think about them quite a lot, and I run through various options for the intro in my head, in some cases jotting notes. I just don't do a practice run of the whole talk in advance.

For some people, practicing (and practicing) before a talk provides a sense of greater confidence about the talk. Each practice run might be slightly (or very) different, but by giving the talk in advance (to a friendly group, to your cat, to yourself), perhaps many times, you know how to pace it and you know how to deal with the all-important talk introduction and transitions between topics. There is no question that this is useful (and I think people presenting posters should also have a few introductory lines prepared). It's just that, at some point, some of us decide (for better or worse) that we don't need to do this.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Ending It

What do you do when you are giving a talk at a conference and you have a lot more to say but not enough time to say it all as you had hoped?:

Behavior 1a. Ignore the almost-out-of-time signal and even the totally-out-of-time signal and plow on to the very end as if there is enough time to go through every slide, including a text-rich conclusions slide (or two!), which for some reason has to be read, word-for-word, all the way through.

Behavior 1b. Acknowledge the almost-out-of-time signal but continue to the very end anyway, not skipping any slides, not even the conclusions slides. This type of person apparently speeds up, and perhaps occasionally interjects "I know I'm out of time, but..", and then they keep going. The fact that they are out of time does not motivate them to skip a slide, not even the conclusions.

Behavior 2. Don't skip any of the research info slides, but skip reading the conclusions slide(s). May show the conclusions slide, but say "I'm out of time, so I'll just stop here."

Behavior 3. Skip some or all of the remaining research slides, and go right to the conclusions slide(s) and read them aloud. (opposite strategy of Behavior 2)

Behavior 4. When warned of approaching the time limit, say "I'm just about out of time, so I'll stop right there", thereby possibly leaving time for questions and discussion.

Note that I am only considering the types of people who reach the time limit when giving a talk. Some people finish on time, and this post is not about them.

It is my considered but perhaps unreasonable opinion that it is the rare talk of 10-15 minutes duration that needs detailed text-filled conclusions slides. I typically find these boring and a waste of talk-time. Conclusions slides can be useful if the talk topic was very complex (owing to the topic or the lack of skill of the presenter) or if the presenter is not entirely comfortable speaking English, or whatever the primary conference language is. In those cases, a conclusions slide or two can be helpful for summarizing what was just presented. If, however, the text-filled conclusions slide(s) are just a summary of what the speaker said 2 minutes ago, it's a waste of time for a speaker to read them to the audience, particularly if there isn't time for this.

At the various conferences I have attended this year, I have seen all of these behaviors (and more? did I leave any out?). I always wonder what someone is thinking by going (way) over the allotted time, especially if they are given abundant warning, by automated signals and session leaders, that the time is almost up, and then up, and then more than up. There is one person I know who commonly talks for 20-30 minutes for a 12-15 minute talk, ignoring all of the increasingly urgent but apparently ineffectual pleas for him to stop. [If I were convening a session in which this person wanted to give a presentation, I would assign him a poster, not a talk.]

I am reasonably sure that it is rare for the audience to be thinking "Oh no! Time is up already?! I wish that person could on speaking for much much longer!"

For me, anyway, the main interest and appeal of conferences is not so much the details of what is presented in talks but getting a general sense for what is going on, having informal conversations with people I wouldn't otherwise interact with or even meet, introducing my students and postdocs to the wider Science World, and all that kind of thing.

It doesn't punch a hole in my conference experience if some speakers talk for a few extra minutes, but life would be a tiny bit better if fewer people did this, and especially if they don't read their text-filled conclusions slides, word-for-word, all the way through.

Question 1: Is it mostly the more senior people who go beyond the allotted time for a conference talk? I have seen people of all ages and talk-experience level go beyond their allotted time, but I think it is more common for more senior researchers. This may be in part because students and other early-career people actually practice their talks and therefore know how long their talks are likely to be, whereas we older people are more likely to wing it a bit more and/or to think that our every word is a precious pearl of wisdom.

Question 2: Are the professors who speak longer than the allotted time for a conference talk also the ones whose classes go beyond their scheduled time?