Thursday, July 31, 2014

CV Gap Years

Every year I get asked to write letters for the evaluation of faculty at other institutions for tenure and/or promotion. My typical thought process on being asked to write a letter for someone I don't know well is: "OK, I've heard of that person/read their papers/seen them at conferences. Sure, I'll write a letter." Then I note the due date and send off a quick e-mail agreeing to write the letter. Most often the request arrives in the summer and I write the letters in summer or early fall. [If you click on the 'tenure' label in the frame on the right -- perhaps after scrolling down a bit -- you will see my previous comments on writing tenure letters.]

When it gets to be time to study in detail the materials relevant to the evaluation -- for example: CV, selected publications -- in many recent cases I have dealt with (recent = past 5 years) -- there have been complications. Example complications: unexplained gaps in the publication record (at least, unexplained to outside reviewers), lack of advisees and lack of publications with advisees, and/or few to no grants (and no research proposals pending with the individual as PI). In a recent example, I was asked to comment specifically on publication quality and quantity, grants, and other research aspects, but I found this difficult owing to some of these complications.

I can think of 'good' explanations for all of those complications. A gap in publications could be related to a massive time commitment setting up a lab and preparing new classes; it could also be related to personal issues that would not trigger an official extension of the probationary period and that would not be explained in a cover letter to external letter writers. Lack of advisees could be caused by unsuccessful attempts at advising students who quit or failed for reasons completely unrelated to the advising ability or practices of the faculty member. And we all know that it is difficult to get grants these days (although we still have to try, so a lack of pending research proposals is troubling).

The host institution is of course aware of all these issues, knows the context, and will likely do what it wants about them -- ignore them completely and focus on the individual's potential or treat them as fatal flaws that justify denial of tenure/promotion -- no matter what my letter says. And there are other significant factors (teaching ability) that are typically not known by outside letter-writers who are asked to comment on scholarship.

Sometimes I think that these letters are just a necessary formality and there is nothing useful that I can say in my letter. It's not constructive to think about that while working on one of these letters, so I try to think about how -- as a faculty member reading other people's letters for colleagues -- I find some letters to be quite useful. These letters can be useful not so much for whether the individual thinks the candidate should or should not be tenured and/or promoted but for the perspective they provide about the person's body of work.

So I try to focus on that aspect of my letters. After (re)reading some of the candidate's publications and thinking about their ideas and work and trajectory, I try to express what I think about that person's scholarship and their impact on the field. (I have written before about how I do not like to do comparisons with others in the field and I do not like to answer the question of whether someone would get tenure at my institution.) Writing in detail about the candidate's research may or may not be of interest to faculty and administrators but I think it's the best contribution I can make to the process, more so than any detailed comments about the data in the CV.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Room for Improvement

Student comments on my teaching of a particular course:

Great professor!
I have enjoyed this class!
I liked the readings.
This course required too much previous knowledge.
Professor very helpful with homework.
Homework very useful for class.
Well-constructed lectures.
Very organized lectures.
She speaks very clearly.
She answered my homework questions.
She provided images and charts to supplement the subject matter.
The in-class exercises were helpful.
I liked the practice exercises we did in groups during lecture.
I liked that she asked questions during class and this helped deepen my understanding of concepts.
Useful supplementary material to help us understand lecture material.
She explained the topics completely in class. Didn't use a textbook as a crutch.
It was great that lecture and lab material were well coordinated.
She was always ready to answer questions.
She was always willing to help with any questions.
She provided the subject matter very clearly.
The last project was too much work for this level of class.
Lecture presentations very clear.
I liked the in-class exercises.
You should improve your teaching methods.

Note that almost all of the comments are in the 3rd person (except for the last one), as if the students were writing to someone else about me, rather than writing to me with feedback. I don't know if it matters in terms of type and level of feedback whether the student is imaging an unknown audience or speaking directly to me (?). At evaluation time, I give a little talk to the class about the importance of this feedback and how it is used by instructors and the department/college/university, but I think there is still general confusion among students about what exactly the purpose of these evaluations is and who reads them and whether anyone cares what they think.

These are overall nice comments, and unfortunately also rather classic in that the criticisms are too vague to help me understand what the specific complaints are.

The last comment, despite being too vague to be useful in any specific way, is absolutely right. Despite being deep into my mid-career years, I don't want my teaching to fossilize. I want to improve. In recent years I have attended teaching workshops and gotten some ideas from those. When I team-teach, a faculty colleague is in the classroom with me, so I get some peer feedback. And last term, I jettisoned the too-long and too-detailed textbook and provided focused readings, including some that I wrote myself. That seems to have worked quite well (or at least no one said they missed having a textbook), so perhaps that counts as an improvement. I would also like to do some new things involving e-learning and have been to some workshops and meetings about that.

I am thinking about teaching because I was just looking at my evaluations, though mostly I am enjoying having lots of uninterrupted time for research. This week I even managed to submit a manuscript on which I am primary author. It's been about two years since I've been able to do that (and I don't mean to imply that I did it alone -- an excellent colleague was essential to the completion of this paper).

As I was finishing the paper (and a related grant proposal) recently, it occurred to me that I could create a new teaching module based on this work and incorporate it into the class for which I just received teaching evaluations (not, of course, as extra work but replacing some older material). Probably more than any major change in teaching style, a realistic way that I can improve my teaching is to find good ways to incorporate new material -- specifically, integrating New Science with Classic Science, so that students learn the fundamental stuff without which they are incomplete as scientists and people and yet are also exposed to new things that help them see where the field is at (including being exposed to unresolved questions that might inspire them).

Anyway, it's been a busy summer so far. My father recently asked me if my husband "also has the summer off" and I was actually quite calm about it this time. Have you had a similar conversation with anyone yet this summer? Parents? Neighbors? Friends? Students? Assuming that you do in fact work in the summer even if you are not teaching, did you (1) smile serenely and let them continue to exist in ignorance; (2) correct them (a) calmly, (b) not calmly; or (3) lapse into stony silence (if having a conversation) or send a glaring emoticon (if in e-contact)? (or other..).