Friday, November 28, 2008

Invertebrate Time

In the novel Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, the protagonist's wife and son move to London, leaving him in New York:

My family, the spine of my days, had crumbled. I was lost in invertebrate time.

Although my situation is not so sad and dire -- my family is away on a short visit with the in-laws -- I can relate to the feeling of being adrift in time, lacking the usual spine of my days.

I suppose I could go shopping today, supposedly the biggest shopping day of the year, but I have gotten this far in my life without feeling the urge to get up before dawn and lurk in a mall parking lot so as to rush into a store when it opens and immediately fill a shopping cart with on-sale electronic devices. Instead, I will enjoy my quiet invertebrate time by writing and thinking at home and at the office.

I plan to spend much of the day in my office, working on an interesting paper and trying to make progress on a proposal. There might be one or two other colleagues around, and a few grad students and postdocs, but the corridors will be empty and dim. It can be very pleasant working in a peaceful department building for a day or three.

I find that on the rare occasions when I have time alone with no teaching, no meetings, and no family responsibilities, I immediately revert to the working-eating-sleeping schedule I followed in earlier, less evolved stages of my academic life. I work long hours, eat at random times, and stay up most of the night. This isn't so great as a long-term lifestyle, but when you only get to do this once or twice a year, it can be quite fun being temporarily invertebrate.

The other day, my husband wondered if, years from now, we would revert to our pre-child academic lifestyle once our daughter grows up and leaves home, or whether we won't be interested in working such long hours again. In our pre-child life, we knew which near-campus restaurants were open all night (or at least very late), and our cats never knew when to expect us home. Our felines and our future grad students probably hope that we will not adopt a 20/7 work schedule.

In the meantime, I am enjoying my few days of invertebrate time, and then will be happy to resume normal life, especially since the term is almost over.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks for Not Moving to Bolivia

Thanks to Peggy Kolm for her nice review of my blog-book in Nature this week. It's great to have such comments from someone whose own women-in-science work I admire so much. And she's right about my writing for many different audiences, though she did neglect to mention cats in that list.

Anyway, the fact that I am getting increased blog traffic as a result of the review almost makes me wish I were posting something a little less strange today, but this is what I am thinking about:

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am taking time to reflect on the fact that I am thankful that this has never happened to me:

"In 1960, with sales [of Slinkys] down, Mr. James joined what his wife considered a religious cult and moved to Bolivia, leaving her with six children and the company. "
- from the obituary of the widow of the inventor of the Slinky

Well, I guess it wasn't all bad. She did awesome things with the company, which prospered (but even so..).

Perhaps I should try harder to find something else for which to be thankful? How about this:

I am thankful that the departmental accountant who left work without warning very early Tuesday, not to return until Monday, and who neglected to do a very essential thing that absolutely had to be done before the end of the month (i.e. Sunday), checked his email from home Wednesday morning and finished the task.

I got all my paperwork done on time, but he did nothing with it before leaving the office Tuesday without warning or even a message to say he hadn't done anything with my forms. I was just a little bit stressed out about this for 15.5 hours, but that's OK, the problem was solved in time.

The accountant, who fortunately had not moved to Bolivia and joined a cult but had instead started his holiday early, and I just exchanged pleasant Happy Thanksgiving emails, and all is well again. Life would be boring without a bit of accounting peril now and then, would it not?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pre-Holiday Test Fest

Would you give a quiz or test the day before a long (> 3 day) holiday break? For example, would you give a quiz/test the day before the Thanksgiving break?

Some schools in the US are not in session this week at all, but I think most are in session either Monday-Tuesday or Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday.

Is there a special place in hell reserved for professors who give an exam the day before Thanksgiving break and other long mid-term breaks in the academic schedule, or is this a clever way for an instructor to ensure attendance and/or to see who is serious about a course? Or is the day before Thanksgiving break (for example) just another day in the schedule and, if makes sense to have a quiz that day, so be it?

I will reveal my philosophy on this, at the risk of appearing nice: I never give a quiz the day before Thanksgiving break. Or Spring Break.

My no-quiz-before-breaks philosophy derives in part from my being ever-so-slightly nice on special occasions, but there is also a self-interested practical issue involved. I avoid giving make-up exams if at all possible, and many students have quite valid reasons for needing to miss the day-before-Thanksgiving-break class; e.g. long-distance travel to be with an ailing grandparent or to meet a new niece. These students would need make-up exams. I don't have to give them make-up exams, but I would, and then I would spend my week preparing extra exams and giving these exams and I don't really have time for that.

It is sad that so many students miss the awesome educational experience that is my day-before-vacation class, but it's also kind of nice to teach a smaller class, even if just for a day. There is a more relaxed, festive, and casual atmosphere than usual, and more students ask questions than usual (perhaps to distract me from my lecture, but that's OK). And some students who have never before spoken in class will ask a question. This is great. And sometimes I end class a bit early.

I like that the last class before a break has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, not an anxious test-taking one. And then I don't have to grade over the break either.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What Part of Prerequisite Don't You Understand?

Hi, my name is Student X and I have a few questions regarding Science as a major and Your Field. See, I am a transfer student from Another University and I have an interest in Science and Something Kind of Related to Science. I was not able to take any Science classes last term and I would like to take one this term. Your upper-level class in Z Science is offered next term and I was wondering if you think it would be a good class for me to start with? My Science background is a bunch of intro Science classes. If you can, please get back to me and let me know what you think. Thanks a lot.
-Student X

Student X,

The Z Science class has some prerequisite courses: LIST. It doesn't seem from your email that you have taken any of these classes. You need to start with these classes, including Y Science, and then you can take Z Science, which is offered every year.


I guess it's always worth a try to email a professor and see if the prerequisites are flexible or not. Despite the rude title of this post, some prerequisites are more serious than others, and some can be taken concurrently with the class for which they are a prerequisite (though this is typically noted in the course description).

I get email like this every year before the Z Science class. Some students have had a lot more science and math than Student X but are missing the most directly relevant prerequisite for my class.

In my extreme professorial youth I was sympathetic to tales of woe regarding the academic consequences of a student's not taking my Z Science class in a particular term, even without the prerequisites. For example, if a student takes Z Science first and then the prerequisite Y Science the following term, they may be able to graduate one term earlier than if they have to wait a year to take Z Science. In order for a student to graduate by taking Z and Y Science out of order, though, they must have taken other courses out of order, including ones that have Z Science as a prerequisite. So I figured: If my wise and all-knowing senior colleagues waived the prereq (my class), who was I to insist on the prerequisites being taken seriously?

That's what I used to think, anyway. Over time, though, I realized that even very smart and motivated students could only make up for the missing prerequisite classes by asking the TA's and/or me to spend substantial extra time helping them understand the prerequisite material. That wasn't fair to the TA's or me; neither of us have the necessary extra time to help a student make up for all that they have missed by taking the courses out of sequence. And for every smart and motivated student who struggled with the class and managed to get a decent grade with lots of effort and assistance, there were other, less smart and less motivated students who failed the course in much higher numbers than students who had taken the prerequisite courses.

Fortunately these courses are offered every year without exception and the schedule is organized to minimize overlap with other essential courses the students are taking if they take the Science classes in the correct sequence. This minimizes the number of students pleading for exceptions to the prereqs, but there is always at least one.

I no longer waive the prerequisite. I have had too many students get a poor grade or fail owing to their not having taken the prerequisite course(s), and then some of these students were angry at being allowed to take a course they couldn't pass; guess whose fault this was?

Some courses do have 'soft' prerequisites that could be waived if necessary, but in some cases the REQUired part of a preREQUIsite is there for a good reason.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Scientifiques avec Quelques Frontières

A conference being held next year in a certain country is making an effort to attract scientists from around the world to participate and therefore to make the conference as international as possible. I am on the organizing committee, though my role consists only of helping organize one small part of the conference. In fact, my role thus far has consisted of having my name on some lists, as all the text I have written has been ignored in favor of text written by two men with whom I am supposedly working on some organizational tasks. (My text was better, but whatever..)

Last week I was reading some of the conference literature, which makes an eloquent case for science not knowing political boundaries and how we should all come together and talk about science and learn from each other and it will be wonderful and so on. That's all nice, but in the midst of the glorious prose about science and scientists knowing no political boundaries was a phrase that went beyond using "he" as a convenient pronoun. The phrase stated without ambiguity that we the scientists are men.

I wondered what I am doing on the organizing committee of a conference that explicitly states that scientists are men.

I decided to investigate the origin of the statement. That men-are-scientists/scientists-are-men statement was in the English version, but the same sentence in the conference information provided in another language didn't specify gender and referred to scientists as "people". It was only in English that we scientists were men.

I emailed one of the main organizers of the conference, a long-time colleague with whom I don't always have the best working relationship but with whom I communicate on a semi-routine basis, and asked him about it. I said that it looked strange to me that, in a paragraph whose main purpose was that science knows no borders, there was an explicit statement that scientists are men. Science knows no political borders but it knows gender borders? Didn't this undermine the conference philosophy? Was that really the intention of the organizers?

My colleague wrote back immediately to explain that the text had originally been written in English, and he had translated it into the other language and had changed "men" to "people" in that language but not in the original text. He said that since I called his attention to the issue, he would change the original English text, which had been written by someone else who will probably be annoyed at having his words altered, and he would make sure that the conference literature was modified accordingly.

It wasn't a big deal, but I'm glad that science will know no gender borders in the conference literature.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Shared Evalues

When you team-teach a course, the students are supposed to try to evaluate each faculty separately at the end of the term, but in most cases it is not realistic to expect your particular contribution to be considered completely separately from that of your fellow teacher(s).

It may be very obvious to you what your specific contribution to the course was, and for you, as a professor, there is a dramatic difference in your experience depending on whether you are standing in front of the classroom talking or whether you are somewhere else during class (e.g., sitting in the classroom; working in your office; snorkeling around a tropic atoll). The combined efforts of the various instructors, however, created the class as a whole, and the students' overall experience in the class can't be perfectly compartmentalized.

This can be both good and bad for any individual instructor. Consider a course team-taught by two faculty with different teaching abilities: one good and one not so good. I am not going to discuss today what could be done to salvage a course that is partially taught by a bad teacher, nor dwell on how awful it is for students to be taught (or team-taught) by a poor instructor (though I do sympathize). In this discussion, I am going to focus only on the impact of disparate teaching abilities in a team-taught course on the teaching evaluations of the good teacher.

For the sake of discussion, let's assume that you are the good teacher. If I had time, I would graph the results, but for now, here are some possible scenarios for how your overall teaching evals might turn out:

If your colleague's teaching is truly ghastly, two possible outcomes for you are:

(a) Students will be so disgruntled about the awfulness of part of the course that no matter how good you are, your evaluations may suffer as students register their dissatisfaction with the course as a whole; or

(b) Students are so appreciative that you are not a ghastly teacher like your colleague that they will give you awesome evaluations.

The collective experience of some close colleagues and I have included outcomes (a) and (b).

I have personally benefited in my evaluations from teaching with a ghastly teacher, but I think that I benefited in large part because we divided the course exactly in half, and my colleague taught the first half. By teaching the second half of the course, I had many weeks to get the students feeling more positive about the class and this showed when they filled out their evaluations. Perhaps if I had taught the first half of the class, and then my colleague had spent the second half systematically destroying the students' psyches, they would not have had recent memories of liking my teaching. Their overall opinion of the course would have been negative. I don't know if my positive effect on the second half of the class made the students more forgiving of my colleague, but I rather think not, as his evaluations were rather savage.

I have a colleague who is an excellent teacher and who has also team-taught with an appalling teacher. In his case, though, the two instructors alternated teaching throughout the term, so it was more difficult for my colleague to have an overall positive impact on the course. I think that the students enjoyed the days he taught, but he had hints from student comments during the course that they might blame him for not fixing the problem of the bad teaching of the other instructor. In fact, some of the comments indicated that students thought that he was the real professor, and the other professor (a woman) was his assistant who substituted for him when he was off snorkeling in the Maldives*. Some students may have blamed him for inflicting his atrocious 'assistant' on them. In that case, the chances of benefiting from the better-by-comparison effect in teaching evaluations are not so good.

The variables in any team-teaching scenario include how you divide up the course in terms of responsibilities and teaching schedule, and what the absolute and relative magnitudes of the instructors' teaching abilities are.

Whatever the case, departments should carefully consider how team-teaching arrangements are structured, particularly when assigning assistant professors to team-teach courses. Team-teaching early in your career can be a great experience (and not just in terms of teaching evaluations; you may also learn important things about teaching if paired with an experienced teacher with whom you interact in a positive way) or it can be a bad one from which it is difficult to recover.

* He was not snorkeling in the Maldives (or anywhere). He was doing other academic activities on campus (research, advising, doing essential service activities etc.).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

An Anecdotal Account of An Alarming Absence of Awareness

For those keeping count: that's seven (7) A words in the title. I think I will stop there.

A friend of mine is team-teaching a class with another professor this term. I have written before about the benefits and perils of team-teaching. In fact, there are many different ways to organize a team-taught class. For example, team-teaching faculty in my department are encouraged to attend all classes of a team-taught course. In real life, however, faculty use at least some of the time when their fellow-teacher is teaching to get other things done (e.g. research, travel).

In the case of my friend, he and his team-teacher decided to organize the course in such a way that they mostly only go to the classes they themselves are teaching. Most recently, the other professor has been teaching for the past 2 weeks, but my friend returned to teaching the course this week.

As he was setting up his teaching materials at the front of the classroom, a student sitting near the front said:

Did you have fun on your vacation?

My friend, a very good-natured person except when insufficiently caffeinated, laughed in a considerable way at this question, and explained to the student that he had not been on vacation.

The student wanted to know what he was doing, then, if not teaching. There were still a few minutes before class, so my friend briefly explained about the research component of a professor's job at a university such as this one and mentioned he was writing a proposal to obtain research funding, and that proposal-writing was a very time-consuming activity. A proposal to do what? the student wanted to know, so my friend dove into an explanation of the proposed research.

I am glad they had this conversation. Perhaps there is now one less student at this university who is unaware that most professors here teach and do research*. Perhaps now there is one less student who thinks that when professors are not teaching, if only for a day or week or two, they must be on vacation or, at the very least, in a state of suspended animation in their professor pod, waiting to be re-activated just in time to put on their professor suit and head to class via the secret professor tunnels.

* In fact, I found this question surprising. I thought most students thought that we professors mostly did research and only occasionally emerged, with great reluctance, from our labs to mutter a few incomprehensible words to a class. It is quite possible, however, that I do not know what most students think. Another hypothesis is that many students think professors primarily do research, many students think professors primarily teach, and there are 7 (± 1.5)
students who know that professors' jobs are divided among research and teaching and service in various proportions.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

AA: Alcohol & Accountants

My obsession with insane accounting procedures and regulations is continuing unabated. I admit that I have not sought professional help for it, and writing about this problem in my blog has not helped much either because it has made me realize that other people have these same problems, and that is more scary than comforting.

It is tempting to write about the fact that at the moment I am totally unable to figure out, owing to accounting glitches, how much money I have in my grants or the fact that the online effort certification system seems to have gone berserk, but instead I think I will rant about another accounting issue that makes me want to gnaw off my eyebrows: getting reimbursed for a professional dining experience that involved no consumption of alcohol.

I could just as easily write about an annoying accounting issue regarding being reimbursed for a professional dining experience that involved consumption of alcohol, but I will leave that for another time.

Today I certified for the THIRD TIME that a meal, in which I took a visiting department seminar speaker to a small local restaurant for a casual dinner with one of my graduate students, involved no consumption of alcohol.

I don't really care that much about getting reimbursed for this small sum, but it is customary for faculty who volunteer to take department visitors to dinner to be reimbursed up to a certain reasonable amount. If alcohol is consumed, the faculty host must pay for the alcohol and must provide a separate itemized receipt.

It would have been totally fine with me if the visitor had wanted a beer or glass of wine or even a bottle of wine or 7 martinis.. whatever.. But the visitor did not want such things. The small local restaurant did not provide an itemized receipt, and I did not request one. I think it is quite obvious from the low amount of the bill for the meal that the only way we could have purchased alcohol with the meal is if we each only had a small bowl of iceberg lettuce for dinner.

The accountant refused my reimbursement request because I did not provide an itemized receipt, but said that if I wrote in an email message that I certified that no alcohol was consumed, I could be reimbursed. I wrote back and said "No alcohol was consumed."

A week later another accountant called me and said that I had to certify again more specifically that no alcohol was consumed as part of this meal and that I did not have an itemized receipt because I neglected to ask for one. I wrote in an email "No alcohol was consumed as part of this meal. I neglected to ask for an itemized receipt."

Today an accountant stopped me in the office and made me write on a piece of paper "During the dinner on DATE with VISITOR X, no alcohol was purchased as part of the meal. The receipt provided does not include any payment for alcoholic beverages. I neglected to ask for an itemized receipt." SIGNED FSP (in my best, most legible handwriting).

I asked if I should also write that I am very very sorry, that I admit that I showed a shocking level of negligence in failing to obtain the correct type of receipt, that I will try hard to get an itemized receipt next time whether or not alcohol is consumed, and that I will be willing to swear on a stack of accounting bibles that I did not purchase alcohol as part of the meal in question. The accountant thought about this for a moment and then said that it probably wasn't necessary to do those things yet and he would first try getting my signed letter past the next level of accountants.

That's nice, but aside from wondering whether academic accounting attracts insane people or makes them insane, what is it with this obsession with alcohol?

I can maybe see why the department might not want to pay for an alcohol-soaked dinner extravaganza involving consumption of many bottles of expensive wine and whiskey or whatever, but seriously.. Why are US universities so neurotic about paying for a visiting professor to have a glass of wine at dinner? I think it is bizarre, but it is by no means the most bizarre aspect of academic life.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Feast or Famine

To continue for at least a bit more on the topic of Department Seminars..

Some places provide refreshments before a department seminar, some places provide refreshments after, some provide refreshments during a seminar, and some provide no refreshments whatsoever.

Are refreshments important: for seminar attendance? for impressing the visiting speaker? for enhancing general socializing in the department? for sustaining a building's non-captive rodent population?

It depends on the refreshments.

Most indications are that refreshments help attract attendees, particularly of the student species and perhaps also others. I think it is also a nice social thing to do.

Does it matter when the refreshments are served or what they are?

For some people yes, for others no.

My personal preference is for refreshments after a talk, as this encourages discussion and socializing of department members with each other and with the speaker. If the socializing is after the talk (and the seminar is scheduled for a time that allows most people to stay for 15-30 minutes afterward), this is a good opportunity to chat with the speaker about what he/she just presented.

If talks are scheduled for rather late in the afternoon and many people have to leave immediately after the seminar, then it is best to have a brief social interval before the talk, ideally accompanied by some refreshments that don't have too dramatic an effect on the biochemistry of the audience.

As a speaker, I try not to take advantage of pre-talk refreshments if these items consist of cookies, doughnuts, and coffee. Even if I found the prospect of getting hyped up on sugar and caffeine just before a talk appealing, I think it would be a very bad idea for me to do so.

Apres-seminar refreshments encourage people to linger a bit and chat. I like this informal chatting time, as a speaker and an audience member. It's a nice way to unwind and talk to a variety of academic creatures, whether or not they are munching on tortilla chips at the time.

Friday, November 14, 2008

#1 Absolute Best Time (for a seminar)

From my travels around the US and other countries giving invited talks at universities, I know that seminar series can be scheduled for any weekday and are held at an impressive range of possible times of the day or evening.

I suppose a case can be made for why any particular day of the week is better for a particular department based on class schedules and other academic activities specific to that place, but in general:

Some places favor Monday because it is close to the weekend, making travel for visitors somewhat easier, but the week is still young and everyone is feeling energetic and ready to start off the work week by being invigorated by a stimulating talk on cutting-edge research.

Some places favor Tuesday because it isn't Monday, when people might not be quite ready to dive into the work week, but Tuesdays aren't too deep into the week that people have lost energy and focus.

Some places favor Wednesday, though it is hard to think of a good reason. Perhaps it is good to have a day in the middle to pause and do something different.

Some places favor Thursday because it is getting close to the weekend, perhaps facilitating travel for visitors who will have a 2-day visit, but it is not Friday.

Some places favor Friday because it makes travel easier for visitors and people are ready to wrap up the week by being invigorated by a stimulating talk on cutting-edge research.

In terms of time of day, mornings are probably the least likely time for a seminar series, but any time after (and including) noon seems to be fair game, up until about 6 pm (+/-).

Giving talks at noon is always a bit weird for the speaker because of all the food smells and food eating sounds that permeate the seminar room. In terms of attending seminar talks, however, I don't have a strong personal preference as long as a seminar is likely to be over in time for me to pick up my daughter from school at 5:30.

The poll below asks about what day of the week your department holds its most general seminar series involving outside speakers, whether or not this is your favorite/preferred day of the week.

On what day of the week does your department have its seminar series?
Friday free polls

What is the best time of day for a seminar talk to start?
Before noon
Early afternoon
Mid-afternoon (3-3:30ish)
Late afternoon (4 pm or later)
Evening (5 pm or later) free polls

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Is it useful if students read a paper or two written by a department seminar speaker prior to the speaker's talk? Are seminar-focused classes successful in their goal of getting students more involved and interested in seminar talks?

I have never taken or taught a course that was focused on getting students more involved in a speaker series, but I have given talks at many places that do this. My view of this topic is therefore an indirect one.

In cases where I have the opportunity to interact with some of the students who have read a few of my papers in advance of a seminar, I have asked the students whether they thought such paper-reading and accompanying discussion was overall useful. I make it clear that I am not asking them if they liked my specific papers and talk but am asking whether they find that the seminar-focused class is successful in its intended general goal.

I haven't kept track of the responses in any systematic way but my impression is that these seminar-focused classes do help some students be more interested in and get more out of the seminars, but that, at the graduate level, many students don't like these classes and don't think they are a good use of their time.

At the undergraduate level, students tend to be more positive. In that case, discussing a speaker's research before the talk might be the difference between understanding something and understanding nothing. At the graduate level, however, students tend to feel that their time might be better spent on other activities.

I think it must be difficult for one faculty member to handle such a course, but a team-taught course in which various faculty cycle in to help discuss papers/seminars in their field of expertise could easily end up being disorganized. From my limited database of anecdotal experiences, I tentatively conclude that these courses are well-intentioned but are difficult to implement in an effective way.

In some cases when I visit a university with a seminar-focused class, I am asked to recommend the paper(s) the students will read in advance of my visit. I always have a hard time with this because if I have published something, it is by definition old research already, and mostly I want to talk about my new work. I do try to mix old and new in my talks, using published work as a basis to discuss more recent and ongoing work, so in some cases it is possible to recommend a paper that is somewhat relevant.

In other cases it is more difficult. I have had students say to me after a talk "I wish you had talked more about what was in the paper we read." I can see their point, but why would I want to give a talk that was entirely composed of work that is already published? I might as well just stand there and read one of my papers to the audience. I like it better when the students or faculty choose which paper(s) to read because then I don't feel quite so responsible for disappointing them by not focusing specifically on that/those papers.

An even better situation (from my perspective anyway) is when students who are doing research in a field similar to mine read one or more of my papers, either in a class or in a research group meeting. These students don't tend to want or expect me to repeat whatever was in the paper(s) they read, and so are interested in new material. I've had some great discussions with students who have done this type of pre-talk paper reading.

For students not in my field of research, I hope that I give enough of a general introduction and conclusion, with various mid-talks attempts at highlighting the main points, so that even someone unfamiliar with my research topics will still get something out of the talk. If I succeed at that (and I'm not sure I do in every case), then the talk will have accomplished something whether or not students have read any of my papers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Credit Worthy

Continuation of yesterday's discussion of Department Seminar Attendance

If attendance at department seminars is required, should students get academic credit or should they get cosmic credit and a warm/fuzzy feeling of intellectual stimulation even if of the coerced sort?

Students should get academic credit for seminar attendance if it benefits their academic program to do so. In some cases, adding an extra credit or two can be can be helpful, but in other cases it is a problem. Attending seminars takes time, and if the intention of requiring mandatory attendance is to provide an educational experience, students should get some credit for that time if possible. The action of sitting in a chair in a room while a seminar is occurring is probably worth about 1 credit at a typical American university. [Some programs require more than just attendance; I will discuss this tomorrow]

In systems in which awarding academic credit is either not done or is not feasible, it may well be that mandatory seminar attendance cannot be enforced in any sane way. Even so, a department's philosophy and/or regulations regarding seminar attendance should be clearly stated to new students so that everyone knows what the expectations are and how these are to be met.

Department seminars -- whether mandatory or not -- should be during typical daytime/weekday hours. [I feel another poll coming on... but not today .. about what is the best day/time for seminars]

When I have been in departments in which seminar attendance is not required or is only required of first/second year grad students, most of my students attend regularly anyway, as do I. If attendance at seminars is recognized as important by faculty advisors, their students are probably more likely to attend as well.

The department chair can also send a strong message that seminars are important educational experiences (for everyone) and are a way that a department demonstrates that it is an interesting, interactive place. If budgets permit (and they may soon not permit), bringing in outside speakers is a way to advertise what is going on in a department. This can be very important for the general reputation of the department, and can therefore benefit all department members.

If I show up to give an invited talk at a university and the seminar room is filled with people asking questions, I will have a positive impression of that place as an intellectually stimulating place filled with energetic and curious people. If there are only a few sleepy people in the room, it will certainly not occur to me that I am boring or that my research topic is unappealing. Well, it might occur to me briefly, but I will then nevertheless conclude that the place is an intellectual desert and I will wonder why I was even invited if only one person wanted to hear my talk.

Summary: Attend as many seminars as you can. If students can get academic credit, that's good, but whether or not academic credit is bestowed, in the long run the cosmic credit may well be worth much much more.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Compulsory Education

An interesting comment on yesterday's post made me decide to take a detour from my semi-planned blog route this week.

New general topic : Department Seminars: Should attendance be required of graduate students?(note: I am in the mood to use colons today) (another note: I realize that some departments have more than one seminar series, but for the purposes of today's discussion, I will refer to the seminar series in the singular)

Related topic : If attendance is required, should students get academic credit or should they get cosmic credit and a warm/fuzzy feeling of intellectual stimulation even if of the coerced sort?

Other related topic: If students get academic credit, should the students be required to do something other than just be physically present in the seminar room during the talk? For example, should students participate in a pre- or post-seminar discussion of the talk? Read some of the speaker's papers? Write a summary of something (the paper(s), the talk)?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Today's topic: Department seminars: Should attendance be required of graduate students?

I have been in departments in which grad attendance was optional and in departments in which grad attendance was required and in departments that switched from optional to required systems. Attendance is definitely higher when it is required, and this is of course one of the motivations of the requirement.

It is a fact that, when attendance is not required, some students will attend anyway, some will never attend, and some will have intermittent attendance. (just like faculty)

It is too easy to convince yourself that you don't have time to attend a seminar, that you have other priorities, that your desk chair is much more comfortable than the chairs in the seminar room, that you don't want to disconnect from your iPod for even an hour, and that the title of the talk sounds boring and isn't even in a field you care about.

Being required to attend the departmental seminar eliminates that pesky decision-making process about whether to go to seminar or not. But then, if required to attend, you might sit there in the seminar, seething with resentment about being forced to attend rather than being trusted to make the decision to attend, and your anger at the controlling professors who are oppressing you leaves you unable to appreciate the seminars, even the ones that aren't horrific examples of PowerPoint abuse. You are further unhinged by bitterness when you look around the room and note that quite a few faculty are missing. What is their excuse? Shouldn't they be required to attend seminar as well? Hypocrites.

Faculty should attend seminar if they aren't traveling or on leave or otherwise unable to attend, but faculty are no longer students subject to requirements intended to round out their education. Faculty typically decide to require students to attend department seminars because attending such seminars is viewed as an important educational experience.

I wish that seminars need not be required and that attendance would be high without the requirement. Decades of experience, however, tell me that this is never the case, so I think it is fine to require at least the 1st-2nd year grad students to attend a certain (high) % of each term's seminars.

If you attend seminars regularly, you will realize that although many are in fact not so exciting, over time you learn some useful and possibly important things you wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to learn, you meet (or at least see) new people, you get ideas (about research, about how to give/not give a talk), and you are occasionally surprised by something extraordinarily interesting.

.. to be continued ..

Monday, November 10, 2008

Selling More Of It

Once you've come up with the perfect title for a paper -- one that will convince people to read past the title and one that does not involve a yes-or-no question -- you then need a compelling abstract and introduction. Today I feel like writing about Introductions because recently I've been involved in a paper in which a colleague and I differ greatly in our Philosophy of Introductions.

This colleague doesn't like introductions that spend much, if any, time/space talking about the larger context of the work. To him, this is fluffy decorative stuff that detracts from the paper's main purpose: to present new data/ideas. His preferred introduction goes straight to the most detailed and technical level of the paper: We did X and Y and here it all is.

I agree that introductions shouldn't go on for so long and in such a general way that the reader becomes impatient and thinks "So what did you do? What is this paper really about?". I do, however, like to start big and work my way to the more technical levels, as to me this a good way to explain why we did the work and why anyone else might be interested. It should be possible for most papers to do this is an efficient and interesting way.

I suppose I am also aware that my intended (= hoped-for) audience isn't just the small group of people in my specific field at its most narrow definition. I'd like graduate students and colleagues in related fields to understand my papers. That doesn't mean I explain every single term and concept in great detail as if writing for a non-expert, but it does mean that I don't assume that readers will immediately understand the motivation and context of the work.

When I give an invited talk at some universities, students read 1-2 or my papers in preparation for my talk and visit. In some cases this is part of an organized seminar intended to get students more involved/interested in the seminars, and in other cases the reading is part of an informal research group activity. Discussing papers with these students is actually a great way for me to figure out whether my papers are understandable to anyone but me and a couple of reviewers (albeit too late for me to fix any problems if the papers turns out to be rather cryptic to non-specialists). [note: In some cases I am asked to recommend which of my papers would be most suitable for this purpose, and in some cases I am not asked]

Based on this kind of feedback, I know that some of my papers are not very accessible to this broader audience. (note: "not very accessible" is a euphemism for a highly technical jargon-filled paper of uncertain purpose and result). That's OK, as long as some are reasonably accessible, e.g. review papers, slightly longer papers that have room for an expanded introduction, or short general-interest papers.

I was going to come up with a hypothesis about why some people hate general intro sections in papers and others like them and think they are important, but none of my hypotheses withstood even my own brief scrutiny. Example: The aforementioned intro-hating colleague is way more famous than I am and people are going to read his papers no matter what is in them; maybe he doesn't feel the need for extraneous intro material because he knows his papers will be read anyway. But then, it's not hard to think of other famous scientists who think that people will be fascinated by their every utterance and so they utter a lot, and a lot of it is not interesting.

Surely there is a happy compromise in even a fairly technical paper -- i.e. introductory text that gives the broader context but that doesn't wallow in it for pages and pages.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Selling It

No, this is not about FSP: The T-Shirt again. This is about selecting an informative and interesting title for a manuscript. How do you find the right balance between advertising the paper's larger context (a.k.a. putting an alluring spin on the paper) and giving a realistic indication of the scope and content of the paper?

Sometimes it is obvious what the title of a paper should be, and sometimes title selection requires a lot of thought. When the title isn't obvious, I like to write down some key words and phrases and then experiment a bit until I get something that I like.

Choosing a good title is important because you may be able to attract more readers with the right paper title. Even so, you don't want to be misleading; e.g. your paper may well be relevant in some way to the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and/or the origin of anything and everything, but it's probably not a good idea to title your paper The Origin of Everything unless you've really figured it out or are writing a novel, not a science paper.

In some cases, of course, the paper topic is of broad interest and it's easy to come up with a compelling title. In other cases, the research might well be interesting, but if you give a paper a very specific and technical title, you might lose potential readers who don't see (from the title) just how fascinating and relevant the work is.

One solution to the problem of wanting an interesting but realistic title for highly technical papers is to use a colon to separate a big-picture sexy part of the title from a more specific part of a title. For example, The Origin of Everything: Results of Synchronous beta-Floovian Vortical Inverse Calculations at High Woozy Number, and Implications gives the context and the specifics in one long glorious title.

Titles with colons do tend to get a bit long. They need not (e.g. My Research: Results), but they tend to. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps it's not so bad now that many people use referencing software and don't have to type out your egregiously long title, but even so, some people like titles with colons and some people loathe them. In fact, it's amazing how passionate people feel about the issue of No Colon vs.Colon in titles.

I have been part of quite a few intense debates about this very issue with my colleagues. Unless you are in a field with a strong tradition of colons or no colons, in which case there is not much point in debating the topic, try bringing up the issue of paper titles the next time you are at the pub or cafe with some colleagues. Don't be shy about it and say "Hey, what do you guys think about colons in titles?"; try to get a real debate going, e.g. by saying something like "People who use/don't use colons in titles are.." [pick descriptive word or phrase]. I have found that very few people have no opinion about the colon/title issue, though they may not realize they have such opinions until forced to take a side.

I suppose I am mostly anti-colon, but I don't get too twisted up about it if I decide the only realistic option is to use one. In fact, I just checked my CV and it looks like my No Colon to Colon ratio is about 3 : 1, though it seems to have increased over time. When I have a spare moment sometime, I may do a word count of paper titles and plot them up by year. I wonder if I am getting more terse. I might be.

There are many more related issues to explore in the future: What about paper titles that are questions? How do you balance the big picture vs. specific information issue in the introduction of a paper? Have you ever written a paper that begins with the word "On"?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Professor President

What are the implications of having a professor as President (again)? There are many possibilities:

- We professors can feel happy knowing that lots of people will vote for someone who is too professorial. Is professorial reserve now cool?

- Perhaps basic science research will be viewed as important. Perhaps there will be recognition by the new administration that there are significant reasons to study fruit flies and grizzly bear DNA.

- Perhaps the stereotype of professors talking but never actually accomplishing anything will fade away into oblivion.

- Perhaps some of our international colleagues won't be so reluctant to visit the US for conferences and other academic purposes.

- Perhaps our students will believe us when we tell them that they have to know how to speak in complete sentences to succeed in life and that they can't randomly make up words that sort of sound like they might mean something.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


In a country in which presidential campaigns last two years and Christmas decorations appear in stores in October, is it surprising that students contact professors more than two months before a new term begins to ask not-urgent questions about the class?

Or consider this: In some parts of the country, people try to guess when a certain event will happen: When will Lake Misgumpticaticus freeze solid? When will the first yellow-toed prairie sneetch first emerge from its burrow in the spring? When will the large butter sculpture of a cow entirely melt? and so on.

Which leads me to: What is the earliest that a student contacts a professor about next term's class?

I have already received my first email from a student who will be taking a class I will start teaching next year. The student is definitely taking the class; the email was not of the "I'm trying to decide whether to take your class so I need to know now if you are evil and/or boring" kind of inquiry. It was a non-emergency, non-essential technical question about the course logistics.

In this case,

t = 77,

in which t = the number of days between the first day of class and the date of the first email from a student about the class.


What is a reasonable value for t (in days)?
any time is fine with me free polls

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Fall Ahead

There are certain positions and awards that are time-sensitive based on the date of Ph.D. or the start date of the first tenure-track position. In the former case (date of Ph.D.), doctoral students who are considering graduating in December might want to consider whether it is better to have an earlier date (December's year) or a later date (January's year) on the Ph.D.

When I was finishing my Ph.D., I was really annoyed with one low-energy committee member who dragged his feet about reading the thesis and signing the forms. I could have been done in December, but because of this slow professor, the official date on my Ph.D. was the next year.

At the time, I was disgruntled, though mostly for irrational and personal reasons; e.g. I had set myself the goal of getting my Ph.D. in a particular year and at a particular age, but, since my birthday is in late December and this committee member was so slow, I missed my random personal goal and it looks like my degree took me one year longer than it really did.

In the long run, the slacker professor did me a huge favor. Years later I got an award based on years-from-PhD that I would have been ineligible for if I'd had the earlier date on my Ph.D. For that reason alone, the later date was well worth it.

A December date might be important in some cases -- e.g. you need a particular degree by a particular date for employment reasons -- but if you have no such requirement and if the 'extra' year doesn't make you seem like your graduate program took unusually long (e.g. forever), you might want to consider delaying the defense or the paperwork to get the next year's date on your degree.

Although you seemingly 'lose' a year in terms of how long you apparently spent in graduate school, you ultimately gain that year back in terms of the official start date of the rest of your academic career.

Monday, November 03, 2008

FSP: The T-Shirt

Wondering what to get that special colleague or relative for the next gift-giving event? Already given a chainsaw wood carving of a bear and a custom-made bobble-head doll? Now you have some new options for strange and semi-useless gifts to acquire via online shopping: FSP logo mugs, T-shirts, and mousepad (no socks, alas).

Why have I created these FSP logo items? Was my thirst for commerce not slaked by the FSP Book? There is no good answer, but if I were forced to come up with something, my best guesses would be:

(1) I was inspired by a friend who likes to go into bars and diners in remote and somewhat conservative areas of the country wearing T-shirts that say things like "This is what a feminist looks like." With an FSP logo shirt, he can be true to his convictions and yet not be such a focus of hostile stares and poor customer service; and/or

(2) In this pre-election time, I find myself in extreme need of distraction;

(3) I was feeling tired and was slumped on a couch with a couple of large and sleepy cats who did not want me to move. I reached for my laptop.. and had an idea.. and


FSP: The Mug was created.

Note that in addition to the FSP logo items, I have also created an even more aesthetically pleasing no-logo graph paper T-shirt. And not only that, but there are Options: graph paper on front of shirt, graph paper on back of shirt, or graph paper on back and front (my personal favorite).

A friend who provided advice on this project noted that, given that FSP brand-recognition is perhaps not so huge*, the mysterious letters FSP on a shirt might inspire some strange questions because people could just make up anything, even something offensive, for what the letters stand for. In fact, I think that would be excellent.

In my youth I used to wear a T-shirt with a 3-letter abbreviation on it, and I never tired of making up random explanations for what the letters stood for. It was amazing what people were willing to believe. So.. have fun -- I am FSP, and so can you.

* My competitors:

FSP is one of the biggest manufacturers of power supplies in the world.
FSP (File Service Protocol) is a file transfer protocol.
FSP is Finite State Process (a Java programming tool).
FSP Books & Videos sells products related to fire, police, and emergency medical services.
FSP (Free State Project) is "an effort to recruit 20,000 liberty-loving people to move to New Hampshire" (from their webpage, it seems that liberty-loving people must love guns).
FSP (Financial Services Professionals) is a group of stressed out people right now.
FSP is the airport code for St. Pierre and Miquelon.
Others: Freedom Socialist Party, Fiber Service Platform, Freeway Service Patrol, Full Service Provider, Forest Stewardship Program, Family Support Plan, Fragment Simulating Projectile, Financial Sustainability Plan, Female Sex Partner, Full Scope Polygraph, Flash Streaming Player, Failure Simple Path, Foreign Service Pay, Fuel Storage Point, Folsom State Prison.. (there are of course many more).