Thursday, January 31, 2008

Team Player

This semester, I am team-teaching a course. There are many things I like about team-teaching, especially if I like the person with whom I am team-teaching and if the technical aspects of the class (e.g., constructing the syllabus, grading, managing the course webpage) are evenly divided.

In my department, we are supposed to attend all the classes in a team-taught course, not just the ones we are actually teaching. The main reasons for this relate to the hypothesis that this provides the best educational experience for the students.

In addition, in theory, if we fully participate in a team-taught class, we get 'credit' for teaching 0.75 of a class rather than 0.5. This is meaningless in my department, where teaching loads are not strictly assigned, but that's OK with me. I would rather have a flexible system than a rigid one that counted teaching loads down to a fraction of a class.

Some challenges of team-teaching include the following:

1. You and your colleague have very different teaching styles. Similarly, there might be a significant disparity in grading philosophy, accessibility to students, and/or ability to communicate.

At my previous university, I used to teach the second half of a course. The first half was taught by someone I liked a lot as a colleague, but who was very fierce with undergraduates. He was in fact quite scary in class. By the time it was my turn to teach the class, after Spring Break, the students were terrified, hostile, or both. It took them a week or two to realize that I wasn't going to yell at them or tell them they were stupid. I was very nervous about this course because I was an assistant professor and my co-teacher was a full professor, but he respected my teaching and we had some constructive conversations about how we could both improve our teaching of this class.

Some of my most positive experiences with team-teaching have been with graduate courses, perhaps because of the more flexible format of these courses and the fact that I team-taught with very compatible colleagues.

2. You have to teach with a truly loathsome colleague. The incident I described above involved teaching with a difficult but not loathsome colleague. Teaching with a loathsome colleague has only happened to me once and it was very unpleasant. The colleague with whom I was team-teaching exhibited some creepy behavior towards female students and did not respect either the content or style of the classes I taught. He made no secret of his contempt for me, and after many of my lectures, he would slither to the front of the classroom and make some remark about what I had just taught. "How innnnn...terrrr...esting that you taught that concept that way. I have never seen it taught that way. I wouldn't consider doing it that way myself, as the classic way has always worked for me. Do you think the students got anything out of what you just did?"

3. Team-teaching can be as much work/time - or almost as much work/time - as teaching the class yourself. Team-teaching adds some complexities to the logistics of teaching, but you won't really know what these are and how much time they will take until you've taught with a particular person a time or two.

Sometimes team-teaching can take more time than you think it will. A few years ago, my department chair asked me for ideas about how 'we' could help a younger colleague who was struggling with teaching. This colleague had been assigned to teach a large class the following term, and the chair was concerned about how that would go. I had taught the course many times, so I offered to team-teach it with my colleague. I thought that by teaching the course together, I'd be helping my younger colleague have a less stressful semester, and I thought it might be interesting working together on a course. I don't actually know if this would have worked or whether it would have been more stressful for my colleague. I never got to find out because, although I was already teaching another course that semester, the department chair decided that if I had time to team-teach, I had time to teach the entire course myself. He gave the struggling teacher a break from teaching and loaded me with an extra course.

Team-teaching is a great way that faculty with different fields of expertise can together create an interesting course and provide a dynamic learning environment for students. When it works, it's great. When it doesn't, it's grisly.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My Grad School Application Essay

The statement that accompanies a student's application to graduate school in Science can be an amazing thing to read. I know that these statements are very difficult to write, and I surmise that some students are not given much guidance about the content and tone of the statements. Furthermore, some students do not yet have their research interests very well focused. These are not fatal errors if the overall application is strong.

I am always impressed when I read a well-written, focused statement that has interesting content. These students are at an advantage not only for admission but also for recruiting scholarships. An applicant can be admitted to graduate school with an unsophisticated statement, but obviously it's preferable to have a good statement. I'm sure that the requirements for a good statement vary from place to place, but here are a few basic things that I like to see (or not see) in an application statement, especially for a Ph.D. program:

1. What do you want to do in graduate school? You do not have to be intensely focused on a narrow topic at the time of application. There is time to figure that out once you start your graduate program. Even so, if your statement gives faculty the impression that you are applying because you don't really know what else to do and maybe you'll give grad school a try.. that's not good. Present yourself as a serious student with sincere interest in the general field of study for which you are applying. This part of your statement should have content based on your experiences thus far.

2. Do not discuss your childhood. Most faculty don't care about your childhood chemistry set or your shell collection or even the telescope your great-aunt set out in a field one summer night to show you the immensity of the universe. Do not describe a walk on the beach with your dad when you were 5. Do not mention your favorite teacher in 4th grade, not even if she let you watch a cocoon being built. Do not talk about how awesome it was the first time you read Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan or even Richard Feynman.

3. What are some significant academic or work experiences you have had that are relevant to your application for graduate school in Science? Relevant items here would be research experiences and rigorous classes.

4. Make some effort to tailor your statement to the department to which you are applying, but don't go overboard about it. Just show that you have a realistic reason for applying to a particular department. Be sure to check over your statements carefully before submitting them so that you don't send a statement to University Y that says that your dream is to study at University X.

I am not going to take a stand on the issue of whether one should start the essay with a quotation. I personally prefer quotationless statements, but certainly wouldn't hold it against a student, unless they quote Emily Dickinson.

Fortunately, my actual graduate application statement has been lost to the sands of time -- I am sure it would be very embarrassing to read now. I have no idea what I wrote, but it was likely very naive. In the absence of the original, and because I have been reading so many of these statements lately, I just now decided to write my own statement (again). Instead of trying to write a good essay, though, I decided it would be easier and more fun to write an awful essay, ignoring the boring 'rules' I listed above.

Disclaimer: My fake statement is not meant to be contemptuous of actual student efforts, as that is not how I feel when I read these statements, however bizarre, even though I am a curmudgeon.

A Sample Essay for an Application to a Science Graduate Program, Inspired by Real Essays
but not quite to the point of actual plagiarism

How many roads must a man walk down, before they can call him a man?

Bob Dylan wants to know the answer to this question and so do I. I have always loved quantifying impossible things, and I want to continue to do so in graduate school. I would not stop at counting roads, though, because counting roads means looking down. I also want to look at the sky.

How many times must a man look up, before he can see the sky?

That's another thing that Bob wants to know, but in this case we disagree about the important question. I want to know how many times must a man look up before he can really know the sky and what is in it. The sky has always been a mystery to me ever since I was a child. What is the sky? We must know this before we can count things in it. I do not like science fiction though. I love science.

In the classes I have taken as an undergraduate, my professors have attempted to teach me many things, but the things I want to know are not in books.

I have always collected things: shells, pebbles, cats. I even tried collecting staplers for a while to try to get over my fear of them, but although that didn't work well, it shows that I am not afraid to face obstacles and at least try to overcome them. Now my passion will be collecting data.

I think that the graduate program at the University of X is the best one for me because you have a lot of faculty who count the atoms in our universe and our planet. Some of these atoms even make up Bob Dylan, his roads, and the sky we both want to look at and know.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


The comments on the previous post about summer internship programs for undergraduate science majors raise interesting issues:

Typically, REU* students come from universities/colleges other than one's own -- how do you balance working with REU students and working with students from your own institution?
(* REU = Research Experiences for Undergraduates)

Ideally, of course, you work with both, if you have the time and resources to do so. I like having undergraduates from my own institution working with my research group. These are the students we know and love, and I think we also have a responsibility to give our students as interesting an educational experience as we possibly can -- for some students, that involves working with their professors on research projects. In addition, there is a continuous supply of talented and motivated students who are interested in getting some research experience, either for academic credit or for pay. If you start working with students before their senior year starts, they can be involved in more in-depth research projects than is possible in a summer internship. Right now, I've got 3 undergrads working with my group.

Summer interns work on a very focused project for a short amount of time. This limits what you can do, but it is possible to accomplish something interesting and possibly significant in a summer; some of my summer interns have co-authored papers with me based largely on their summer research projects. In addition, some REU students continue their summer projects once they are back at their home institution. Several of my REU summer students have done this very successfully, presented their results at national meetings, and had their choice of graduate schools.

A large number of our REU applicants come from small liberal arts schools. These students want to experience a big research university to see what it's like, and I think it is important that they have such opportunities.

Funding agencies seem to be losing track of the most important aspects of the internship programs.

I don't mean to disparage the importance of learning to work collaboratively and travel around in a herd of science students all wearing the same T-shirts, but I think that the intellectual content of the research programs is the most important element. If a program has a demonstrated record of providing an excellent experience for students, that should count for a lot. We came close to losing our program because the funding agency wasn't sure if we were providing enough of a 'cohort experience' for the interns. Cohort experiences are apparently favored over students being locked in isolated basement labs with analytical equipment that makes strange humming sounds. I don't get that. OK, I do, but..

Grad students and postdocs end up doing a lot of the advising.

This is certainly the case in some instances. I don't think any grad student or postdoc should have to advise an undergraduate if they don't want to and if it is not specifically a part of their job as a research assistant or postdoc. Some grad students and postdocs want to advise or help advise students, and I think they should be given the opportunity to do so, provided that the project is reasonable and so on. I know of quite a few cases in which this advising/mentoring experience was important when the grad students/postdocs were later considered for faculty positions.


Involving undergrads in research -- whether in the summer or during the academic year -- is a very good thing. It does not always work out -- I have had my share of negative experiences working with dysfunctional and/or annoying students (who no doubt would say similar things about me) -- but when it works well, it's great.

Monday, January 28, 2008


A week or so ago I went to a talk that wasn't in my field but that was being given by someone who -- a long time ago, as an undergraduate -- had participated in a summer research program that I had created and then directed for many years. These summer internship programs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REU, to use NSF-speak) have been proliferating in the last decade or so, and this is a great thing.

At the beginning of the talk, the speaker credited the internship program with inspiring his decision to go to graduate school in Science, get a Ph.D., and pursue an academic career. The speaker's main inspiration was his internship advisor, but I considered myself to have been indirectly thanked anyway, and that felt good.

Over the last 10 years or so, some of my colleagues and I have tried to track as many of our former interns as possible to see what career paths they have followed. It is not surprising that so many have continued their education and pursued academic careers -- these internships attract students who are starting to think they might want to go to graduate school. Even so, the results of surveys we give the interns indicate that a significant number are unsure going into the summer program, and are using the internship specifically to test the waters and see if research is something they want to do.

It is therefore encouraging that even after a summer of challenging research experiences, so many undergraduate students are interested in continuing on to a career in Science. Undergraduate courses are important and can be inspiring in their own way, but there's nothing like doing research to really see the exciting possibilities.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Going Postal : Reference Letters

The past few weeks have involved much reading and writing of recommendation letters for undergraduate students applying for graduate schools, and writing of letters for graduate students applying for faculty positions/postdocs. I have written before about some issues related to evaluating and writing such letters (and random rants here and here). Today what is obsessing me is just how complicated it has become to keep track of all the different ways that different universities want this information conveyed to them.

It has always been a problem getting students to produce an organized list of the required forms, addresses, and other information well in advance of deadlines (i.e., > 1 week), but that is chaos I can deal with. What I am talking about is additional chaos that makes the entire letter-writing enterprise seem like something out of a novel that parodies Academia.

Faculty positions/postdocs: Some universities want a letter sent by email as an attachment; some want an emailed letter but also need a hard copy to follow at some point (by the evaluation date, at some unspecified time later, or only if the candidate is offered a job). Others only accept a letter on letterhead sent by regular mail. At some universities, the letter goes to the department or head of the search committee; at others the letter goes to an employment office (please include the position requisition number in all correspondence). This is annoying but still a manageable amount of chaos. But then there's:

Grad school applications: This has become an insane process. I hate the online forms with their 57 questions about whether the applicant is in the top 1%, top 5%, top 10%, top 25%, top 37%, lower 12%, or whether I have no basis for judgment of certain aspects of the student's intellectual and social skills. Some online applications have tiny little boxes for written comments, so I have to write a separate letter if I am going to say anything more than that Mary is smart.

Some forms can be filled out online, but only after the student has done their part by entering relevant information and waiving/not waiving their right to see the letter. Others require the student to print out the form with this information and give the paper copy to me, although the point of interactive text-boxes eludes me in these cases. Some of these letters I have to mail; some I have to give to the student in a signed/sealed envelope for them to include with their other application materials, except those that are online.

Some students send me links to reference forms without having filled out their part of the form first. Some of the links they send me don't work or are links to the wrong form. Some students have to send me their social security numbers, date of birth, application number, and shoe size before I can fill out my part of the form. Every place has a different due date.

If the average student applies to 6-7 graduate programs and there is not much overlap in the programs/universities to which they are applying and if you happen to be a professor who teaches required courses for majors and therefore interacts with grad school-bound undergraduates..

At some point during this process in recent weeks, I resorted to the sanity-saving measure of bypassing the online forms and just writing reference letters and either emailing them directly to the relevant departments or printing the letters and giving them to the students to mail in a sealed/signed envelope. I made the necessary communications with departments/graduate programs to ascertain that my students will not be harmed by my failure to fill out all the little interactive text boxes and click on the pull-down menus in the charts divided into random categories.

I did fill out some of the stupid online forms before realizing that the system is broken and that faculty need to rise up as one and protest this insidious form of oppression. If any of the candidates for President of the United States will promise to reform the online reference system for academic letters of recommendation, they just might get my vote unless they don't believe in evolution.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Spaced Out on Beowulf

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while may be starting to get the impression that I do not entirely enjoy faculty meetings. I believe at one point I raised the possibility that they cause brain damage. Or maybe that was grading.

Even so, I try to be a good department citizen and attend faculty meetings unless I am traveling. My level of participation, however, fluctuates quite dramatically from meeting to meeting, depending on the topic and my caffeine intake.

In the most recent faculty meeting, I was doing pretty well in terms of paying attention, participating, not making eye contact with certain sympathetic colleagues when insane and trollish colleagues spoke, and so on. At some point, though, I must have mentally vacated the premises. I was not aware of this, however, until tonight.

Tonight at dinner my husband said "What did you think about that strange episode at the faculty meeting when Colleague X started talking about Beowulf?" [note to readers: I am in a Science department. We are of course all intellectuals and into multi-inter-transdisciplinary studies, but we do not typically discuss literature at faculty meetings.]

I laughed, assuming he was making a joke in a highly oblique way, as is his wont. I said something random in reply, like "Oh yeah, and that was great when Colleague Z started quoting from the Upanishads." [note to readers: I totally made that up. Colleague Z did not quote from the Upanishads, or anything.] My husband was silent for a moment, as is not typically his wont, and then he said "Um, no really.. didn't you think it was kind of strange? He went on and on about it."

I was stunned. How could I have missed a long rambling speech on Beowulf at a faculty meeting? I was there and I remember Colleague X starting to speak about something, but I don't remember anything he said.

Colleague X is a truly excellent example of deadwood, but I don't think that is why I tuned him out. In fact, I will take this opportunity to say that just because a colleague is deadwood, that doesn't mean that they can't be immensely likable. I am very fond of this particular colleague, who is a very kind and amiable person who should retire soon.

In any case, I apparently did space out completely. I don't remember what I was thinking about, but it may have been one of the following:

- Which among the applicants for graduate work in my research specialty should I accept to work with me?

- Why do so many grad applicants start their research statement with a quotation? Is there some Guide To Applications that suggests doing this? Why would a grad applicant for a Ph.D. in Science quote Bob Dylan in their application? (Why isn't anyone quoting Beowulf?)

- I have been doing the most major cleaning of my office in the past decade, and maybe the biggest cleaning ever. I am contemplating throwing out some notebooks and textbooks I have kept since college and graduate school. Should I throw them out after all these years? Why keep them? Why not keep them? If I throw them out, after not looking at them for decades, will I then regret it?

- How do I reply to a stressed out author whose manuscript I am editing and who is trying to get out of doing major revisions without which his manuscript is inadequate in important respects? Should I accept his manuscript just so he will stop sending me emails about his wife's ghastly gynecological problems? No, I can't and won't do that, but I do wish he would stop sending me those emails. I do not know him. I do not know his wife (though I know a lot about her innards).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

R1 Reality

Both of the following occurred at the same time in the same Science department at a research university:

1. A senior professor tells a candidate for a faculty position that "teaching doesn't matter" for tenure, only research, so there is no point in even talking about teaching during an interview.

2. The department Chair won't permit online teaching evaluations because of concern that not enough students will fill out the forms and the tenure files of assistant professors will then be lacking critical data on their teaching, thereby jeopardizing their tenure cases. Similarly, some assistant professors are worried that their teaching portfolio isn't impressive enough and that this might tip the tenure decision against them.

Which is reality (such as it is)?

Case #2 is closer to reality (in my opinion, and since this is my blog, I am the Decider). The assistant professors need not panic so much about having an awesome teaching file, but their anxiety reflects the importance of research and teaching.

Case #1 describes the actions of an insecure person trying to impress a young faculty candidate by emphasizing how rigorous the department is when it comes to research. Strangely enough, aforementioned senior professor is also deadwood (in my opinion, and since this is my blog, blah blah blah).

I think it is becoming uncommon for anyone to be promoted at this and many other research universities unless they are at least good at teaching (i.e., not awful). You don't have to be a superstar teacher, but you have to demonstrate that you are a reasonably effective teacher by the time you come up for tenure review. [I am of course excluding from this discussion those faculty who are on 100% research appointments, and discussing only those from whom both research and teaching are expected].

In the last few years, I have not seen a situation in which a research-star-but-lousy-teacher came up for tenure, although I know of such cases from a while ago. This may be because people who seem like they will be bad or uncaring teachers are seldom hired in the first place anymore -- at least not into jobs involving significant amounts of teaching. Of course it is possible for a hiring committee/department to be wrong about whether someone will be a good teacher and/or fail to predict that someone will have an incapacitating crisis that negatively impacts their teaching, but there is at least a sincere effort to gauge teaching ability.

I could be very wrong, as happens from time to time, but despite the increasing emphasis on research and teaching at research-oriented schools, I don't think that brilliant researchers (who can't/don't want to teach) are being driven away from Science, thereby depriving the United States of creative scientists who will lead the way to solutions to major problems facing our nation. Ideally there will be enough research faculty positions at universities, as well as jobs in national labs and in industry.

The "we're so serious about research, we don't care about teaching" posturing of the senior professor in Case #1 might have gone over better in days of yore, but these days it is a deeply disturbing (and inaccurate) thing for someone to say to a faculty candidate.

About 10-12 years ago, I once saw the reverse situation, in which it was the candidate who was doing the posturing regarding teaching vs. research. When faculty compared notes, we realized that the candidate had told me (the assistant professor) that he only cared about research, was not interested in teaching, and would rather hire postdocs than deal with students; he told the tenured professors that he was interested in teaching but only at the graduate level; and he told the Chair and the Dean that he would teach anything they wanted him to teach, as he was deeply interested in undergraduate education. He was not offered the job.

More problematic are situations in which a tenure candidate is an amazing teacher but a mediocre/unproductive researcher. Being an excellent teacher can tip the scale to a favorable tenure decision, but I have also seen cases where tenure was denied anyway, although some of those cases led to lawsuits that resulted in tenure in the end (especially if students mobilize to protest the eviction of a beloved teacher).

Some of these situations are complicated, but the fact remains that professors hired to do both research and teaching at R1 universities these days are expected to be good at both.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sharing Professors

A colleague of mine at another university is teaching a course that he has taught before, but not recently. This is the first time he has taught this particular course in the PowerPoint Era. I have taught this course more recently and more often, so he asked me if I would be willing to send him all of my class materials for this course. Converting an entire course to a new format is a huge amount of work -- almost as much work as teaching the course for the first time, especially if you haven't taught the course in a long time.

I was happy to help my friend, and I sent him all my course materials. (Long-time readers of this blog may recall a previous mention of my friend/colleague who was a - in fact, the - bridesmaid at my wedding -- this is the same guy). Other colleagues and I who teach this same introductory level course also share course materials with each other. For this particular course, I have shared course material with ~ 7-8 colleagues in my own department and beyond.

Helping each other in this way isn't (necessarily) being lazy; it's a great way to get new images and ideas. Last year, an assistant professor and I shared course materials for the same course, and this worked out well for both of us. He was teaching the course for the first time and I was teaching it for the millionth time, but we have different fields of expertise and so each had zippy images and ideas for different parts of the course.

Similarly, I hope the friend to whom I just sent my course materials will in turn send his revised versions back to me for when I teach the course next year. There are some topics on which he is more expert than I am, and I am looking forward to seeing what he adds or improves for those topics.

Although my presentations get better with time owing to their being rejuvenated by new material obtained by this sharing, there will never be a time when I have the perfect set of prepared presentations for this class. The great thing about Science is that there is always something new and interesting to talk about -- and to figure out how to teach -- so the course material is always changing.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Deadwood: End of an Era?

Some colleagues and I were recently comparing notes about some of the other universities we had recently visited to give invited talks. One thing we talked about was the number of deadwood faculty we encountered. We mused (in an admittedly obnoxious way) about whether there would always be a similar number of deadwood -- that is, a continuous supply of new deadwood will replace the retiring deadwood -- or whether the number will eventually decrease owing to a change in hiring/promotion criteria and decrease in tenure-track positions in the 1980's. Perhaps it is ageist even to ask the question, but we wondered:

Will there ever be a time when there are substantially fewer deadwood professors, or will there always be a pod of them in most departments?

Most departments, even highly ranked ones, have a certain number of deadwood faculty. These are typically older faculty who got their Ph.D. in the 1960's-70's. In the sciences, the vast majority are white males, owing to the demographics of academia at the time these professors were advancing through the academic ranks. (Note to those unfamiliar with U.S. academia: There is no mandatory retirement age. You can be a professor forever if you want).

By deadwood, I don't mean someone who has slowed down a bit in their research productivity with time. There will always be older faculty who do less research than they did in their youth -- this may well be the case for me eventually -- and there are some excellent ways to rebalance the distribution of research - teaching - service to accommodate this in a fair way.

By deadwood, I mean someone who has never been productive but who advanced through the academic ranks at a time when standards were different. Deadwood faculty are professors who, by today's standards, would not have made it as far as they have. The hiring process was very different > 30 years ago, there were more jobs available for at least part of the time when some of these professors were hired, and the criteria for tenure and further promotion were not as stringent.

It's of course impossible to know whether some current deadwood professors would have had a more active career if the culture and standards had been different in their academic youth. And it's difficult to know whether these faculty would be more active now if post-tenure review were more rigorously applied. Nevertheless, given the current situation and considering the hiring/promotion patterns of the last few decades, my hypothesis is that the number of deadwood faculty in most departments will decrease in the future.

In contrast, my colleagues, one of whom would win a gold medal in the Cynical Olympics, thinks that there will always be enough of a supply of new deadwood to replenish the ranks. These colleagues think that, although tenure is still a terrifying process, most faculty at most institutions get tenure. One of them proposes, though, that one difference in the near future might be that there will be more deadwood associate professors, on the assumption that those who barely make it to tenure won't muster enough energy in the 4-6 years after tenure to make it to the next promotion.

It's too soon to tell which hypothesis is correct, but perhaps it's not too soon by much.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Apres-tenure Glow

A younger colleague was recently awarded tenure and is of course very happy about this. In his case, tenure was not such a sure thing, adding additional anxiety to a process that is stressful anyway, and, now that tenure is assured, accentuating his feelings of relief.

This colleague is still basking in the relative security and prestige of associate professorship. One aspect of his basking is to decline to help with some activities that he formerly did as an assistant professor. Recently, if one asks him to help with something, he typically says "I don't have to do that. I have tenure." or "Ask X to do it. He's an assistant professor."

I am happy for him, but I find these comments obnoxious and I hope he gets over this particular phase soon. I don't think he was particularly burdened with university and professional service tasks as an assistant professor, so I attribute his recent behavior to post-tenure exuberance.

That's fine, but his refusal to help with some tasks means more work for others, tenured and non-tenured faculty alike. And if he keeps doing such things, at some point he will no longer be a happy tenure puppy but a slacker tenure dog, and that's not nearly as cute.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

My New Material

In a conversation this morning, a colleague and I convinced ourselves that we are a lot like aging rock stars. Perhaps there are some differences, but there is at least one compelling similarity of which we are aware.

We have both been giving a lot of invited talks on our research this year, and in most cases the inviting department or session organizer wants to hear about research we have already done/published. They want to hear our old songs, but we wanna play our new material. Is anyone convinced by this awesome analogy yet?

I suppose I could give the same old talk over and over again, but I would go out of my mind with boredom. I would rather lose my mind in a more interesting way. Furthermore, an oft-repeated talk would become stale and I would be reduced to mumbling through it and sighing a lot, and maybe occasionally flicking my laser pointer at an image.

What my aging rock star/professor friends and I typically do of course is keep some of the old stuff and add some new material to it. The challenge of this approach in terms of giving a talk is that you have to make the entire talk flow -- you can't just abruptly end the 'old' part of the talk and then say "OK, now I'm going to talk about something that interests me."

Also, if you add new things, you have to cut some of the old things -- not cutting anything and therefore giving a longer performance might work for rock stars, but here is where we professors part ways with our musical colleagues. Giving a longer talk is not a good option for speakers, however fascinating the research. Talking extremely fast to cover extra material in the allotted time probably isn't a good idea either.

In some cases, deleting old images creates a problem because this information might be important for understanding the context of the new work. In that case, I make one or two new images that synthesize the information in deleted images. Then I can cover the old information quickly but clearly and move on to my new research/songs.

And that's when I get to pondering just how much work it is to update a talk. I am cranky about it right now because I am deep into making new images and figuring out what I can toss and what new material I can fit in. Once the new-and-improved talk is done, I am pretty sure I will be glad that I took the time to do all this.

Once it is done, I will also feel good about the fact that I have new results to present, and some things to say about the research I want to do in the near future. There is always something new to do, and therefore there is always something new to talk about. I think someone should write a song about it (but never sing it the same way twice).

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Cowardly Professor

Last semester, my daughter participated in an event that took place at the university, and I ended up spending most of the day at the campus center. Parents weren't involved in the event, but we had to be nearby for an undetermined amount of time. Some parents dealt with being in all-day limbo by making tag-team arrangements with other parents. I brought work with me, so I camped out in a lounge at the campus center (for 7 hours) with my laptop.

Spending 7 hours at the campus center was kind of interesting. I wouldn't want to do it every Saturday, but it was actually a pretty good place to work. I had a comfortable chair near a power outlet and I could acquire stimulating beverages from a nearby purveyor of caffeine. I was quite content.

The strangest part of the experience was when a group of students sat near me and studied together for a test in my general subject area of Science. These students were very confused about some very basic concepts. This ignited a raging debate in my head, as I argued with myself about whether to help them.

My first thought was: I'll offer to help them. They might be freaked out that a professor overheard them being clueless, but they clearly need help.

Then I heard them talking about how much they hated the class.

So I thought: Well, I'll help them anyway. It doesn't matter if they love or hate the class, they need help.

Then I heard them talk about how they never went to class and were going to do the absolute minimum to pass. They made crude remarks about students who like the class and who ask questions in class. Then they said rude and rather cruel things about the professor.

So I thought: I will challenge them to a duel.

No, so then what I really thought was: That's still OK.. I guess. When I was a student, my friends and I sometimes had unkind thoughts about some professors, and we expressed these thoughts aloud to each other when we were alone (or thought we were). Besides, if these were my own students, I would help them no matter how reprehensible their attitude or language.

But then I thought: When I was a student, it would have destroyed me if a professor had heard me say even a much tamer version of what they just said about their professor and the class. If I reveal that I am an eavesdropping stealth professor, these students will be horrified. They will worry that I will tell their professor what they said. They will be so distraught that they will develop anxiety disorders and binge drinking habits and then they will fail their classes and their lives will be ruined and it will be my fault.

So then I had the admittedly cowardly thought: I'll just tell their professor that some students in the class are having particular trouble with concepts X and Y, and my colleague, if so inclined, can send out a mass email or deal with the issue in some other neutral and anonymous way before the exam.

Then I moved to the other side of the room, away from the unhappy and confused students.

I felt guilty about not helping them. A braver professor would have cast aside all qualms and just barged in and helped the students, or at least tried to. A braver professor would have cheerfully helped the slacker students and given them the gift of knowledge, instilling in them a love of science and respect and affection for the professoriate. I am not that braver professor. [undergrad readers: What do you think I should have done?]

If I ever have to spend a weekend day hanging out in the campus center again, I think I will wear my special Science Professor hat (and socks) so that it will be obvious who/what I am. Then I would be happy to answer questions from random students studying for an exam in my field, and students sitting near me would know that they can make rude and salacious comments about their English professor, but not about their Science professor.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Upon returning from my Winter Vacation, I waded through the usual stack of holiday newsletters, in which I read with great fascination the names of my nephews' elementary school teachers and the names of distant long-dead relatives unearthed by my geneology-obsessed relative (living relatives were dispensed with much more efficiently), and gazed at collages comprised of hundreds of tiny photos that might contain images of people (or their pets?).

In December 2006 in this blog, I wrote an attempt-at-humor parody of such newsletters and said that that would likely be my first and last newsletter. I am going to stick by my campaign promise, although the statement was slightly inaccurate in that both last year and this year I am in charge of my department's annual newsletter.

Putting together the department newsletter used to be the job of a staff member who only managed to come up with a boring and ugly newsletter-like thing every few years. Last year, the new department chair decided that someone else should be in charge of the newsletter and appointed a faculty member who is not very active in research. This faculty member was offended to be asked to do a task formerly done by a staff person, and did not work on the newsletter.

Question 1: Who should put together the department newsletter?

I don't know, but I volunteered to do the newsletter because I think it is important that the department have a newsletter and I like to write and maybe I have a masochistic tendency to take on ever yet more service activities. Whatever the reason, I don't really know who should be responsible for producing the department newsletter. Some departments hire a technical writer with experience producing media-savvy brochures, some departments have a staff member who puts together a newsletter, and some departments have a faculty member assemble it. I suspect the latter option might be rare at a research university, but I don't really know.

Last year, creating the newsletter was a huge task because (1) I had never done it before, and (2) It had been so long since the previous newsletter that there were many things to write about and there was a huge pile of unsorted data to sift through and organize (alumni/ae news, donations, scholarships/awards etc.). I had a lot of help writing the newsletter (various faculty, students, and staff wrote parts of the newsletter), but it was still a lot of work.

I have agreed to be the Newsletter Editor again this year, but only for this year. I think that this job should rotate around the department every year or two so that different people are involved in it.

Last week, the department chair asked to speak with me. Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Department Chair (DCh): Now, I know that you think that someone else should take over the newsletter next year, but to be honest, when I consider all the faculty in the department, the number who have the appropriate skill set to produce a great newsletter is very small.

FSP: That's OK if the number is small, as long as the number isn't one.

DCh: The number might actually be one, and that one is you.

FSP: As I recall, last year you initially assigned this job to Another Professor. You must have done that because you thought that Another Professor was capable of this task. [<-- I thought this was a fairly clever response, as it left the chair the choice of admitting that there are non-me options or admitting he had been wrong in his initial choice of newsletter editor, and I was betting he'd do the former. Alas, I was wrong.]

DCh: I was wrong.

FSP: No you weren't. I think Another Professor would do a great job with the newsletter. Creating a good newsletter is not a 'skill set' that I alone possess.

DCh: Let's talk about this more next week.

(FSP thinks: We can talk, but .. no means no)

Question 2: How many professional service activities can one person do and remain sane?
(or is even too late to be asking that question?)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Grateful Data

A colleague visited this weekend to do some research, and I spent a lot of time helping him. This was a pleasure because this type of research is something I greatly enjoy and because I like this colleague very much. I was also happy to help him because he has been such a great help to me over the years, although we have never collaborated directly in research.

We had the same grad advisor, although not at the same time. My weekend visitor was already a professor at another university when I was a student. He visited his old grad department from time to time when I was a student, and he was one of the few people who took me seriously as a researcher at the time. I remember very clearly how much I appreciated this, and I will be forever grateful to him for his kindness and respect.

He has continued to be a kind and supportive colleague over the years, providing cheerful advice and assistance whenever needed. He has been particularly helpful to me (and many others) in terms of the teaching aspects of being a professor.

There is much talk about the importance of mentors and others who support younger scientists. For those of us who are now at mid-career or later, the most typical way for us to 'give back' is to try to be good mentors in turn and support the next generation(s) of scientists. It is nice, though, when the occasion arises to help the specific individuals who helped us when we most needed it, and that's why I am so glad that I could help my colleague this weekend. In addition, we got some very excellent results, and that is thrilling in its own right.

Friday, January 11, 2008

They Couldn't Have Done Better

By coincidence, two different male colleagues emailed me about two unrelated issues today. Both commented on something I had written and both made the exact same comment that both intended to be a compliment:

I couldn't have done it any better.

Thanks, guys! Is that the ultimate compliment, or what?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Women Over Forty

The NY Times today has an article about how older women (> 40 years old) may be more supportive of Hillary Clinton than are younger women. The author of the article attributes this split to the fact that younger women have "grown up in a world of greater parity " and therefore "seemed less likely to allow gender to influence their vote".

The article quotes a 73 year old former professor of women's studies; she is a Clinton supporter. Her 39 year old daughter, who works for a "nonprofit feminist organization", is not because, as she (the daughter) says: “Senator Clinton’s struggles are not my own, and they are not those of my generation of women,” and “The idea of a woman being president just does not seem to be as powerful or as revolutionary to me as it does to feminists of my mother’s generation.”

This blog post is not about Clinton vs. Obama vs. anyone, and I am not proposing that women vote for Clinton because she is a woman. Nor I am implying that I will vote for her. I am writing about this article because the quotation above from the 39 year old woman made me wonder whether I somehow missed an important event in American history: has there been a woman president before? I am quite sure there has not been. How would it not be revolutionary to have a woman president of the United States?

And why would a "nonprofit feminist organization" even exist if the US were really a society in which the gender of politicians truly didn't matter? I wonder what this organization does. I wonder if this woman ever reads the news. Is she aware of all the sexist comments that have been made about Clinton? Methinks these indicate that gender is an issue in this election.

The part about Clinton's struggles not being this younger woman's "own" and not of her generation really annoyed me. I am apparently showing my age by my reaction, but is it only the > 40 year old women who still struggle to be taken seriously, to be paid the same fair wage as men for the same job, and to have the same opportunities? This younger woman can vote for whomever she wants, but if she thinks that the struggles of oldsters like her mother and me are confined to our generations, then I hope she gets a clue for her 40th birthday.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Price Check: Faculty Meetings

Although faculty meetings can be hazardous to one's emotional well-being, they are nevertheless a seemingly necessary evil. Attendance is not mandatory, but it's best to go if you can. Sometimes, however, professional travel and other responsibilities conflict with faculty meetings, and it is not possible to attend. In these cases, you can typically give an opinion by email or leave a proxy vote if something of significance is being decided.

In some cases, it is possible to arrange your travel so that you don't miss a faculty meeting, but an itinerary that allows faculty meeting attendance might be more expensive than one that involves missing the meeting. A colleague and I were discussing this situation recently, and wondering what price we would put on attending a faculty meeting.

Assume that a meeting is not a momentous one at which a hiring or promotion decision is being made. Assume that one is a reasonably good department citizen and tries to attend faculty meetings if possible. Assume also that the various possible itineraries are basically the same other than their cost, but the cheaper one requires missing a meeting and the more expensive one allows attendance at a meeting. How much is a routine faculty meeting worth?

This is what we decided through the first round of intense discussion and bargaining at a local cafe: (the prices listed indicate the differential between the hypothetical itineraries)

$25: definitely pay the higher price and go to the meeting
$50: pay the higher price and go to the meeting
$100: think about it for a few minutes, but then pay the lower price and skip the meeting
> $100: don't even think about it, just pay the lower price and skip the meeting

So, it seems that my colleague and I would place the value of a routine faculty meeting somewhere between $50-100, though perhaps on the lower end of that range. I propose that routine faculty meetings are worth $57.25, but I would be willing to bargain.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Women Drivers

A friend of mine from college is worried that she is being a bad role model for her preschool-aged daughter because her daughter thinks that women are ‘just’ moms and don’t typically work. Her daughter has already decided not to have a career when she grows up. My friend plans to resume her career after her daughter starts school, but for now is a so-called stay-at-home mom.

I wish she wouldn't worry about this. Over the years, her daughter will see many women doing many different jobs, and will come to understand her options and choices.

This conversation reminded me of an incident from when my daughter was in preschool years ago. One day as I dropped her off at preschool, one of her friends said to me “You drove a car here.” I replied “No, actually we came by helicopter today. We always take the helicopter on Thursdays.” The little girl was not to be deterred from what she knew to be a fact, and she said again “You drove. In a car. I saw you driving.” Having little choice, I admitted to this, and, since it was not particularly interesting, tried to change the subject.

But the little girl persisted. “You drove.” Yes, I drove. “You drove a car.” Yes, I drove a car. I asked her why she kept talking about my driving. Lots of parents drove their kids to preschool. It would be a very long walk from our home. The little girl said “But moms don’t drive.”

Aha. Her mother didn’t drive, a fact of which I had been unaware, so in her universe, moms didn’t drive. Until she happened to see me driving that day, she had never noticed that some (in fact, most) moms drive cars. It had not occurred to her that any moms drive. I was stunned and she was stunned and my daughter seized the opportunity to try to convince her friend that her cats also drove cars.

Today, this little girl would probably be very surprised if I reminded her of this story. Of course women drive! Her universe has expanded, as will that of my friend’s daughter.

Monday, January 07, 2008


The FSP family has returned from its annual winter expedition to an interesting place. We went to see “the most beautiful floor in the world” and it was amazing.

Before visiting the most beautiful floor in the world, we spent some time in a big European city. The city was festooned with banners for a contemporary art exhibition at one of the city’s museums; it was impossible to miss these banners. The exhibition featured the work of a childhood friend of my husband’s, and it was strange to see this person’s name everywhere we went.

One day as we waited to cross a street, a city bus went by with a large advertisement for the exhibition and the name of the artist in gazillion point font. My husband remarked My name will never be on the side of a bus.

Our daughter wanted to know why his name would never be on the side of a bus, even if he does really really well in his professor job and becomes as famous as it is possible to become as a scientist. So we discussed the concept of limited fame, and types of fame other than that involving movie stars, presidents, and artists with exhibitions in big European cities. She was particularly intrigued by the concept of academic fame – i.e., that you can be internationally known (in your field) and technically be famous, but not in the name-on-the-bus kind of way. Then she wanted to know exactly how many people read our papers.

We are emotionally prepared to answer many difficult questions from our daughter about life and the world, but not this question. Her dad replied “4”, but that’s not right, except for maybe a few papers. He’s got some papers with citations in the triple digits, and presumably there are also a few people who’ve read but not cited his papers. I asked her Would you be impressed if the number were in the hundreds? She said no.

Then she wanted to know who is more famous: her mom or her dad. We argued about this for a while. My husband says I am because I’ve coauthored a book that is presumably more widely read than a typical paper and because I've written papers on a wider variety of topics than he has, but I think he is because his papers have more citations. We also argued about the sizes of our respective academic ponds and whether one is more likely to be famous in a small pond or a large pond. If your pond is small, are you more famous because everyone knows your work, or are you more famous if your pond is large and therefore more people might know your name?

We never agreed on the answers to any of these profound questions, but after that conversation, every time a bus went by with the artist’s name on it, my daughter and/or I poked the semi-famous MSP in the family and said Loser!, and then we all laughed.