Friday, July 23, 2010

Hyper Mellow Break Time

Not long ago I had dinner with some friends who have known me for ~30 years.

At one point, late in the evening, after we'd been talking for a long time, one of my friends said to me "You're so mellow. You've always been a really mellow person."

Another friend literally spit out her wine and screamed "Omigod, she is the least mellow person on this planet!"

I'm not sure what that means. I am moody? At least one of my friends was drunk?

Or that people, even friends -- even very good friends -- will perceive each other in very different ways. This is not surprising, but it may mean there is no hope of us ever being understood by our colleagues and students and others who know us less well and who interact with us in more stressful circumstances.

It may also mean that I am simultaneously a nice, mellow person and a hyper-aggressive, competitive jerk.

In an effort to find a good mellow-hyper balance and to recharge and to focus intensely on Science while my daughter is away at a summer camp, I am taking next week off from blogging.

Thanks for reading, no matter what you think of me, my life, my choice of topics, and how I present my views.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Telling It Like It Is?

If you are an adviser of graduate students. and if prospective students contact you to ask you about your research and research program:

1. Do you encourage prospective students to contact your current or recent graduate students for a student-eye-view of you as an adviser, for information about the department climate etc.? (why/why not?)

If you encourage this type of contact:

2. For how long do you suggest recent graduate students as sources of useful information? Within a year or two of when they graduated, for longer than that, or for much longer (especially if they say nice things)? That is, what is the shelf life of graduated students as resources for new students?

3. Do you 'cherry pick' the current/former students whom you list as good sources of information, or do you tell prospective students to contact any of your students?

4. If you are selective in your recommendations, is it because you think it most useful to mention those students with interests that seem most similar to those of the prospective student, or do you specifically avoid your crankiest students?

My answers are:

1. I encourage contact, as long as it's OK with the student being contacted and asked for their time/opinions.

2. This was actually the question that started me thinking about this topic. I lose track of time so easily these days, I'm not sure of the answer. Maybe a few years? At least 2 but less than 5ish?

3-4. I encourage contact with anyone, but may point out a few particular ones with similar interests.

Some of my colleagues use different schemes, so I suspect there will be no consensus, but I'm curious as to whether there is a dominant philosophy with respect to these issues.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Assorted Infants

Not long ago, a colleague at another university asked me for advice about being the parent of an infant. He is about to become the parent of an infant. I am the parent of a teenager who was an infant about a thousand years ago. My first reaction was "I have no idea. You are asking the wrong person for advice."

Then I realized that my reaction was kind of strange given that I often write about "academic infants" and children. When my daughter was a baby, I was an assistant professor, so why, if both stages of my life were equally distant in the past, was I be more reluctant to give advice about babies than about assistant professors?

Perhaps I shouldn't even attempt to give advice about either. Or perhaps I should start dispensing baby advice. Or perhaps the fact that I spend my days surrounding by assistant professors and even more youthful academics, whereas I don't spend much time with babies anymore, makes one more of a remote experience than the other.

When my daughter was little, big kids, especially teenagers, were rather terrifying. Now that we are in the teen zone, it's the teenagers who are rather fascinating and the little kids, especially babies, who are strange and terrifying.

Middle schoolers are very complicated creatures, but they definitely have their charms -- kind of like associate professors.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

All in the Family

Sometimes, as graduate advisers, we work with students or postdocs who previously worked with friends and colleagues of ours or who came from the same academic institutions we attended in our younger days. Sometimes, as teachers and advisers of undergraduate and graduate students, we are the ones whose students go off to work with our friends and colleagues.

In my field, there is no avoiding this, even if we wanted to. By the time we professors get to the mid-career stage, we have many connections with other faculty and institutions in the US and far beyond.

Of course such 'networking' can be taken to an unhealthy extreme; for example, if an adviser only accepts to work with student who come from one of a few institutions or research groups and assumes that anyone else is unqualified or not worth the risk.

My topic today, though, is not about the existence of such networks and whether they are good or bad. I am interested today in an issue that is related to this type of networking:

If one of your own former advisers or a close colleague or a friend 'sends' you a student or postdoc, does the performance of this advisee affect your relationship with your colleague?

Perhaps it doesn't if you oversee a large lab with a large number of personnel who pass through with limited close interaction with you. But what if your advising situation is a bit more personal, and the performance of an advisee has a noticeable impact on your research environment and progress (not to mention your mental health and that of others in your research group)?

I was thinking about this recently when I visited one of my former advisers. Every time I see him, he apologizes profusely for one particular student he recommended to work with me. This student was a minor disaster. He is clearly embarrassed about it, many years later. I always remind him that he later sent an awesome student my way. If there were some cosmic equation that accounted for the goodness and badness of students, the awesome student more than made up for the minor-disaster student.

Nevertheless, he still feels bad about the bad student. Perhaps he worries that it will negatively affect my opinion of him and his reference letters for other students.

In this case, I don't hold the disaster student against him because he recommended this student in good faith. Even if he hadn't recommended a subsequent awesome student to work with me, I would have forgiven him the disaster student because the problems could not have been foreseen based on the nature and extent of his interactions with this student.

Other cases are more complicated. For example, a colleague who once highly recommended a different dysfunctional student subsequently told me that he had a feeling that this student would be a disaster. I don't know if (1) he really did have a sense of foreboding but gave the student a strong recommendation anyway, or (2) he actually didn't know but didn't want me to question his judgment. What a choice: to lie or have someone think you have poor judgment.

As I said, this type of situation in general is complicated, and my response depends on various factors:

- Is the colleague in question a perpetually optimistic person, willing to give someone a chance even if they have shown no obvious skills for research? If so, perhaps they weren't lying (by omission or otherwise) but were truly unable to see the problems that would arise. This is unfortunate, but it's hard to get angry at someone for this.

- Is this colleague trying to pass along a problematic person so that that person will be someone else's problem? Colleagues who do this don't necessarily intend to cause problems for someone else. Perhaps, in another example of delusional optimism, they hope that a new place, new people, new program will be just the ticket for solving the pre-existing conditions displayed by these problematic people. Or perhaps they really do just want to send them along so that they are someone else's problem, and aren't concerned about what happens, as long as it isn't their problem. In this case, their credibility is shot with me.

- Perhaps, as in the first anecdote, the colleague didn't have sufficient information to predict a problem. As long as the letter of recommendation is clear about what the extent and nature of the interaction was, I harbor no ill will towards these colleagues.

- Is the advisee's problem specific to interacting with me? I am not necessarily an easy person to work with. Perhaps the advisee did well with a different research environment, structure, adviser etc. but is having major problems working with me and/or my research group. I am not necessarily the best judge of this, but there may be some clues. If this is the case, the letters writers are of course not at fault.

Whenever we accept a student or postdoc as an advisee, there are risks involved for both advisee and adviser. Will it work out or not? Some situations will and some will not, despite our good intentions and best efforts.

Even so, a scenario that might negatively affect my interaction with a colleague is the one in which they knowingly send me an advissee for whom they have ample evidence of dysfunction. It can be difficult to determine when this is, in fact, the case; in my decades of advising, there are perhaps only 2 colleagues whose credibility is shot with me in terms of their recommendation letters.

Important note: Prospective grads/postdocs need not panic about these situations because applications typically involve multiple letters of recommendation (as well as all the other application materials) so it highly unlikely that your opportunities would be harmed by having one non-credible letter writer.

What is the experience of others? Has anyone had their working relationship with a colleague affected by the dysfunction of a former student/advisee of that colleague?

Monday, July 19, 2010

My class is like the melodie that's sweetly play'd in tune

A colleague of mine recently got an e-mail from a student with a question about the Science Class For Non-Scientists that he will be teaching in the fall. The student wondered:

"what is your class like?"

I am sure that my colleague wrote back (or will eventually write back) with some information, although it is not clear exactly what the student wants to know.

It occurred to me that it would be fun to think up fake answers to this question, using the simile construction "my class is like..".

These answers would not be of the sort that would be appropriate to send to a student wondering whether to take your class, unless your purpose is to discourage enrollment and/or let the student know in advance that you are a bit strange. No, the purpose of this is just for fun.

You need not use a simile from a poem, novel, song, or movie, but you can. You can also make up your own entirely new simile. It need not even make sense, not even to you, but ideally it will capture some aspect (tangible or not) about your class. Examples:

My class is like a glass labyrinth.

My class is like a drunken nematode.

Go wild, like rabid lemmings in a world without cliffs.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Oppressed Men Poll

From a comment yesterday:

..Since I was male nobody spoke up for me. I imagine that if FSP were in my department, she would have been so immersed in the troubles of women, to realize that there are suffering males too.

I hope this goes a bit towards appeasing your sentiments on oppression against women. Men are also oppressed.

My sincere feelings of sympathy for this male student are doing battle with my repulsion at his imagining that it's not possible for women (or, at least, this woman) even to be aware that others may have problems as well.

But it's Friday and this comment has inspired a poll. Technically, only women should vote in this poll, but of course, on the internet, no one knows if you're a man etc.

Women of the blogosphere: Are you so immersed in the troubles of women, that you do not realize that there are suffering males too? This is a yes/no question. In the comments, you can elaborate if you want.

Do men suffer too?
No free polls

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Personal Growth Experience for Sexist Jerks, reprise

A few years ago, I posed the question:

What do you do if someone you know to be a long-time sexist jerk is selected for a position of responsibility in a professional organization that directly impacts the lives of women academics, their funding, and therefore their chances of career advancement?

The context: I was upset to learn that a certain person had been given just such a job, but I felt that there was nothing I could reasonably do about it except feel anxious. The man had already been hired into his new position, and I did not feel that a "Oh by the way, he has a problem treating women (and some men) in a respectful way" note from me to the institution that hired him would do anything but show that I was an oversensitive and possibly vindictive person.

The optimists among us hoped that this position of responsibility would be a 'personal growth' experience for him, and that he would become a more mature and respectful person, as required by his new position. I had known him for >20 years and was skeptical that such a growth/maturity episode was going to occur anytime soon.

That was a few years ago, and now we know how the story turned out. This man did not experience any personal growth, and may even have gotten worse once in a position of power. He was quickly removed from all official roles that involved making decisions about research involving female investigators. His behavior towards women in his new job was apparently deemed unacceptable by the people who worked with him, and they took action to limit the damage. I was very impressed that they did this.

I would have been more impressed if he had not been hired in the first place. This man was hired based on his research record, which was very good, but his appointment to this job had shocked quite a number of people -- women and men -- who had seen him in action over the years at meetings, as a reviewer, as a colleague. It really would not have taken too much effort for his potential employers to find out more about his attitudes and methods of working with other people, an important component of his new job. His behavior in his new job was totally consistent with his mode of operation in the decades before.

And now he's moved on, I know not where.

At some point during this man's time in that particular job, he told a mutual colleague that I had always been very competitive with him, even when we were undergraduates. My apparently long-term competitiveness with him was news to me. When we first met, I didn't even know if I wanted to go to graduate school, and, if I did go to graduate school, I didn't know if I wanted to get a PhD, and even if I did get a PhD, it didn't occur to me to imagine myself at a big university (at the time, I was interested only in possibly teaching at a small liberal arts college). Competitive Sexist Jerk Guy, however, had known he wanted to be a professor at a big university since he was 2 years old. Perhaps he was projecting his own competitiveness and/or his disappointment (bitterness?) at never having the sort of career he wanted, whereas I ended up with that sort of career.

I think he's a sad person with lots of emotional problems that may be far beyond his control, but it's a lot easier for me to feel sorry for him now that he has moved on.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Despite Our Natural Inclinations

One thing that interests me about the recent Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education study is how certain media outlets have summarized the results.

According to the study, there may be differences in job satisfaction among untenured faculty in different disciplines at research universities (physical science professors are the happiest). There are also differences in job satisfaction levels between men and women within a particular discipline. The biggest gap is in the social sciences.

The study didn't ask faculty why they were answering survey questions the way they did. Any explanations presented in media reports are from interviews with people musing about the results of the study.

For example, in the Inside Higher Ed article on the report, there is an interview with Rosanna Hertz, the Classes of 1919-50 Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Wellesley College and "a member of the Council of the American Sociological Association and .. that board's liaison to the association's Committee on the Status of Women in Sociology."

She describes how she has seen:

.. frustration among junior faculty about the tenure process. "Many say that they don't understand the tenure criteria," she said. "They ask 'Do I need a book? How many articles do I need?' They want to quantify it in a way that's not always quantifiable."

A Huffington Post article, which links to and cites the Inside Higher Ed article, summarizes this point as:

Pursuit of tenure often stumps female instructors who wonder what exactly it takes.

In fact, Professor Hertz didn't single out women faculty in her statement, but since we are trying to figure out why the women are so unhappy, I guess we can ignore the confused men for now.

Hartz also notes that faculty in the physical and biological sciences typically work together in labs and therefore have a lot of contact with other people. Social sciences faculty, however, may be more isolated. For junior faculty, therefore, particularly those who would like some guidance, "it can be more difficult to chart a path".

Without any context, the Huffington Post turned this into: new female professors looking for mentors struggle to find them.

For some reason the HuffPo condensing machine decided to skip over the paragraphs about the lack of female full professors (despite the large number of women who get a PhD in social sciences), and about the female economists who feel they are "passed over for promotion in favor of men" who in some cases may be less qualified.

No, we can skip over all that complicated, irrelevant stuff and get to the final point worth noting: that women who do research in fields outside the mainstream of economics (e.g., on gender and inequality issues) may be marginalized and may have trouble getting tenure for research in those fields.

OK, I believe that, but this is summarized as: Furthermore, women tend to get pushed into the gender studies departments, despite their natural inclinations.

This comparison of the source article and the HuffPo summary is not intended to bash the Huffington Post in particular, though it would be consistent with my natural inclinations to do so. Mostly I am interested in how a 'summary' of the findings of a study is not just incomplete (perhaps to be expected in a summary) but contains a fair amount of fabrication, resulting in a rather dim view of women faculty.

In just three short sentences, we learn that women faculty are confused, struggling to find people to advise them, and pushed into research fields that go against their nature. We do not learn that women are passed over for career opportunities and promotion. We therefore do not learn why untenured women faculty in the social sciences are much less satisfied with their jobs than are their male peers.

If you are dissatisfied with your job as a faculty member, whether tenured or untenured, in whatever field, what is the #1 reason for your dissatisfaction? Is it related to the specific place where you are employed, to something more general to your field (does your research go against your natural inclinations, whatever those are?), to your lack of tenure (yet), or something else entirely?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Shiny Happy Professors

News flash:

Physical science professors are happier than professors in other disciplines.

This professorial happiness index was calculated by considering "teaching hours, university expectations for tenure, ability to balance work and home responsibilities and time for one's own research."

The slide show is awesomely strange.

The #1 happiest physical science professor is shown standing in front of a chalkboard covered with drawings and equations that will be familiar to many of you. He is doing an experiment at the front of a large lecture hall and appears to be explaining what he is doing. One student may be raising his hand to ask a question. Alternatively, he is pulling out his eyebrows; our view is blocked and we can only surmise.

#2. In the next slide, a "humanities" professor is standing in front of a desk covered with papers. He is holding a book, and appears deep in thought, eyes narrowed. The chalkboard has only one word on it: Madness. Say no more.

#3. The environmental science professor is standing in a marsh.

#4. The business professor is wearing a tie, speaking in the atrium of a building filled with well-dressed people. He seems to be making a speech.

#5. Representing the only-medium-happy social sciences is a woman holding a book titled "Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement". This is the only female professor in the slide show. Are we to surmise that her research interests focus on women?

#6. The medical people are wearing lab coats! Does anyone know what the Professor of Medicine is pointing to? What are those greenish blobs on sticks? Please tell me they are not organs.

#7. You may be thinking that the Physical Sciences Professor photo is my favorite, but you are wrong if you are thinking this. The Biological Sciences professor (also wearing a white lab coat!) is way more awesome. There are dead things floating in jars in the background, there is a very large dead thing in the arms of the professor, and the expression on the professor's face is.. inscrutable, but somehow.. wise. Perhaps he is mad?

#8. It is too bad that Math & Engineering are at #8 and not higher because these guys are clearly having a lot more fun than some of the bio/med people even though they don't get to hold large dead things. They aren't wearing lab coats, but in their own way, they are very geeky-cool. (Why are Math & Engineering lumped together? Was it a tie? I guess if you can lump all of "Humanities" together, you can combine Math and Engineering?)

#9. The Education Professor is only a small part of his photo, which mostly shows a highly engaged classroom of hand-raising and smiling students, who don't actually look like traditional students; some guys are in ties. Are they grad students? Robots? Why are so many of the women wearing pink? The students have name cards in front of them; clearly the professor cares about them as people (although, unless it's the first class, he doesn't have a good memory; it's not a large class, so why doesn't he know their names?).

#10. What exactly are the "Health and Human Ecological Sciences"? Anthropology, apparently, but why would that include Health Sciences? I don't know, but the guys in the photo are clearly scientists because there is a copy of Nature on the table. There are some impressive tomes on the shelves behind them. These guys seem to be part of a panel of experts debating or explaining the timing of migration of humans into northern Europe. They appear to be very unhappy, or mad. Perhaps that is why they are at #10 in the list.

#11. Visual & Performing Arts. Why so sad? The people I know who are in the V & PA all seem like happy people who enjoy their jobs, but maybe they hide their pain when they are around me, a happy physical scientist with the best professorial job in academe?

So now I need to do my own scientific study of the happiness index of FSP readers. When you vote, I want you to search your heart for the best answer and not be competitive and try to get your field to be at the top (or bottom) of the list.

The question is simple, and the factors on which your answer is based need not be limited to the professorial components of the Harvard Graduate School of Education study (the results of which are listed above). In the comments, to provide more background, you could give more information, such as: humanities professor, 1; environmental science postdoc, 7; or math graduate student, 3 (with the number corresponding to your answer to the poll). The results will be completely uninterpretable, but might provide some entertaining diversion on a summer day.

On a scale of 1 to 11, how happy are you?
1 : happy happy happy
11 : not happy at all free polls

Monday, July 12, 2010

Being There, Postdoctoral Edition

How much do you work? More than you want to? As much as you want to? Whatever your answer, do you get to decide or do you feel you have no choice, either because someone else is determining how much you work or because you are trying to meet certain expectations of productivity for your career stage and trajectory?

We could discuss whether professors work too much (to get tenure, to get promoted) or too little (for the amount they are paid, especially once tenured), or even whether graduate students work too much (according to them) or too little (according to their advisers). Those topics have been discussed here before.

But what about postdocs? Although some postdocs are funded by fellowships, many postdocs are supervised by and accountable to the professor (PI) who is paying their salary from a grant. There is likely to be a written contract setting out the salary for a year or more of the postdoctoral position, but other important things, like expectations of working hours/day and productivity, vary considerably from professor to professor.

There is, in theory, a framework that specifies the amount that graduate students work, and there is an administrative structure that oversees the education and training of graduate students. Whether or not those hours are reasonable (too much/too little) or enforced is another topic. Nevertheless, students are the responsibility not only of individual advisers but also of departments and other administrative units that deal with aspects of graduate education. There are graduate program advisers, deans, and so on.

It is more rare for there to be an administrative structure that oversees a university's postdoctoral researchers. Such things do exist; some universities do indeed have an Office of Postdoctoral Education or Affairs or Services or whatever. In some cases these are just 'resource centers' and in others they have some oversight role in the hiring practices and supervising of postdoctoral researchers.

Ideally, the postdoc and supervising professor(s) will discuss issues such as expectations and working hours and so on, perhaps even before the postdoc is hired. Does anyone want to guess as to how often these conversations occur in advance? In most cases? Rarely? I think my best guess would be closer to 'rarely' than 'often'.

So what do you do, then, if you are a postdoc and your faculty supervisor tells you, for example, that you must work at least n hours every day (including weekends), and n is a rather large number (say, 11-12 or so)? What if those hours are specified -- e.g. "Be in the lab/office every day from 8 AM to 8 PM or 9 AM to 8 PM" (or whatever suits the faculty supervisor best)?

This post is in response to an e-mail describing exactly such a scenario.

Maybe specified hours are OK with you and you were going to work those hours and more anyway. But what if you feel that you are getting a lot of work done but you want/need to leave the office at, say, 6 PM every day? Whether or not the postdoc is risking their future career by working less than their PI's preferences depends a lot on the attitude and philosophy of the professor.

I personally don't care what specific hours my postdocs work as long as they get some interesting and useful work done and are obviously making progress with their research. I would like to talk to them and otherwise communicate with them regularly, but they certainly don't have to work the exact same hours that I do.

Years ago, I had one postdoc who was an extreme morning person. I am an extreme nocturnal person. It was often the case that we overlapped for an hour or so in the middle of the night, just as I was finishing up working for the day and the postdoc was starting the day. This was very convenient and efficient when we were working on something together.

And as for how many hours someone should work: that varies depending on the working style and efficiency of each individual. Some people can get as much done in 8 hours as others can in 12 or more. It makes more sense to me to agree on some (reasonable) expectations as to what needs to get done by when. These are topics for continual discussion and reconsideration as a research project progresses in its typical non-linear fashion.

If you feel you are being forced to work unreasonable hours, in number or at specific times, I don't have any good advice except to gauge the flexibility/sanity level of the professor specifying these hours. Perhaps once you have established yourself as a good and hard worker, you can have a chat about a more flexible schedule. If you can continue to do excellent research and be available for communication (in person or electronically) for an acceptable number of hours each day, a reasonable person would let you work out your own schedule.

If the supervising faculty is inflexible, this is useful information to pass along to others contemplating working with this person, not as an undermining criticism, necessarily, but as information you may wish that you had had prior to accepting your position. And then, most likely, you probably need to just work those hours, do a great job, get a great job, and become an excellent mentor to your own postdocs and grad students, allowing them more flexibility than you were given.

Question: Have any of you readers made use of a university Office of Postdoctoral Stuff to deal with work-related issues such as working hours?

Friday, July 09, 2010

In Which I am Thanked for not Being Biased Against Men

An alternative title for this post is:

Now I've Seen Everything (in a review)

To explain:

One possible example of a broader impact that can be mentioned in an NSF proposal is the extent to which the proposed research activities broaden the participation of underrepresented groups.

A topic of past discussion in this blog is whether to list yourself as a broader impact, if you are the PI or co-PI and are a member of an underrepresented group.

I don't mention myself as a broader impact in proposals anymore. At an earlier stage of my career, on at least one occasion I included myself, as one item in a list of BIs, and I got slammed in review for it by someone who took it as evidence that I was using my gender as an unfair tactic to get a grant. Never mind that I wasn't telling anyone anything they didn't already know (i.e., that I am female) and that it was therefore not a particularly clever tactic; including this factoid as an item in a list enraged at least one reviewer.

I stopped listing myself, not because I was afraid of getting such a negative reaction again, but because I changed my approach to the BI section. I used to adopt a comprehensive approach of noting all BIs relevant to my proposal. Now I just focus on what I think are the most important BI activities or elements of my proposed research.

Also, I got older, and it's not clear whether a tenured female professor fits the BI goal of broadening participation etc. anyway, except in a rather indirect way.

That brings us up to the present situation:

In one review of one of my recent proposals, I was thanked by one reviewer for not mentioning myself or other women involved in the project as a broader impact. The reviewer was very happy to see that my proposal was therefore not obviously biased against men.

OK... you're welcome.. but you know what? Even if I wrote in the BI section that the proposed research involved female investigators and therefore in some way helped broaden the participation of an underrepresented group, this does not demonstrate bias against men. It would be stating something that is part fact (I am the female PI whether I mention it in the proposal text or not) and part opinion (my involvement in research broadens the participation etc.); no men were excluded or oppressed to produce this proposal.

I think the reviewer was mostly expressing relief at not having to read what is apparently an annoying/enraging statement about the underrepresentation of women in Science; clearly the reviewer has seen such statements in other proposals. The reviewer comment was meant as a compliment, but I think the comment was inappropriate in a review and makes me wonder at the reviewer's comments in proposals by women who do mention that they are a broader impact. If I had mentioned in the proposal that women investigators were involved in the research, would the reviewer have rated this proposal lower, just because this obvious fact was explicitly stated?

I don't know, but, at the very least, thanking a woman PI in a proposal review for not mentioning that she is female is kind of weird.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

But We Pay a Lot of Money

A few years ago, a certain blogger referred to me as a curmudgeon. This is a great word, but I am not sure it applies to me all that well, at least not most of the time, but today I have decided to try to live up to the word.

I was an undergraduate at a school that had a reputation for educational excellence, and I had an overall excellent experience. Even so, I took classes from some professors who were great teachers, some who were mediocre teachers, and a couple who were truly awful teachers (and tenured).

My tuition, room-and-board, textbooks etc. were paid for by a combination of family contributions, student loans, and my salary from part-time jobs. At no point did it occur to me, even in the worst of classes, to be angry that my time and money, or my family's money, were being wasted. I assumed that a range of educational experiences was to be expected even at the best of schools. Although my friends and I agreed to some extent on which professors were great and which were not, we didn't agree completely. In fact, one of the professors I thought was particularly ineffectual and boring was a favorite professor of some of my friends, and there were other examples of disagreement. This, too, seemed normal to me.

It's true that I didn't pay my own way through college, and so my perspective is likely affected by that circumstance, but my parents are not wealthy, and I was very aware of how fortunate I was to be at that college.

My own experience as an undergraduate and my later experiences as a professor make it difficult for me to understand the point of view of students who are angered by any example of less-than-awesome teaching in one or more classes during their undergraduate years.

Of course it would be great if every class were excellent and every teacher dedicated and talented. I don't think we should just sit back and accept mediocrity or lame efforts at teaching -- I've written before about how there should be programs and encouragement etc. to promote teaching excellence -- but neither should we toss out university faculty who are OK (but not great) teachers because these professors do not meet the high and variable standards of their students for teaching ability.

I am not talking here about the evil, erratic, truly bad professors. Following on yesterday's (and many other previous) posts, I am talking here of good-but-not-great professors. Whenever I write about this, there are always comments from students who will not accept professors who are less than excellent. They are paying a lot of money in tuition etc. and do not want their time or money wasted.

There are many explanations for why a course might not be totally excellent, even when taught by someone who wants to be a good teacher. Consider a new professor who has never taught a class before. Some new professors are amazing teachers from the very beginning, but many more of us make beginner mistakes. It can take a long time to get a PhD, and many PhD students do get some teaching training, but even a better system of teacher training before a new professor stands in front of his/her very first class does not ensure a 100% excellent experience for all students in that class. It's just not possible.

Experienced professors who are generally very good teachers might not be great in every class. Sometimes we create a new class; there might be some rough spots the first time it is taught. There might be one or more difficult students who consume a lot of the professor's time and energy. Some professors are given an extremely heavy teaching load in a particular term, and this might affect quality of teaching; not to the extent of making the course a waste of time, but perhaps to the extent of making it less of an inspiring experience than it could be. Are the students being cheated of their tuition $ if some courses are like that?

That is the question of the day. Where do you fall in the range of opinion on this topic?:

- Universities are like that. Life is like that. We should not be satisfied with mediocrity, but if it happens from time to time, we are not enraged by it and do not feel cheated by it and decide that the education system is broken and all professors are getting paid too much to do too little. We understand that teaching is only one part of the job of a professor at a research university, and many (most?) universities actually do value both teaching and research. Students benefit from an environment of research and discovery and intellectual challenge, even if it doesn't trickle down to every class taught by every professor. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect every single professor to be an outstanding teacher at all times, especially if the evaluation method is teaching evaluations by students just before they take the final exam or turn in the final paper/project for a course.


- Mediocrity is totally unacceptable in any course by any professor at any university or college. A university professor's #1 job is teaching undergrads, even if the university defines it otherwise, and therefore professors should devote most/all of their time to their undergraduate students. Did I mention that undergrads pay tuition? This is more important than research grants, publications, patents, other discoveries, grad/postdoc advising, and other service to the university and beyond. Professors can do those things on nights and weekends, when not grading exams or papers or getting ready for their classes. FSP is a curmudgeon.

- Other..

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Check Your Cynical Level

Let's consider scenarios similar to those posed by Alex in a comment to yesterday's post:
  • Assistant Professor #1 at a major research university does pretty good but not outstanding research (however that is defined by the norms of AP#1's field/department/university), and is an excellent teacher and adviser.
  • Assistant Professor #2 at a major research university has met or exceeded the criteria for excellence in research, but is a mediocre teacher.
Note that AP#2 is not a horrifically awful teacher who mumbles incoherently while scribbling on the board and immediately erasing the scribbles, who then gives exams that are completely unrelated to anything presented in class or the textbook, and also, this professor likes to kick puppies.

No, AP#2 is a mediocre, somewhat uninspiring professor who maybe kind of bores students, but is able to convey some information.

As posed by Alex, the questions are whether these people should and will likely be awarded tenure. Depending on your answers to the should vs. will questions, you can assess your degree of cynicism about the system. If I made AP#2 an unintelligible puppy-kicker, then we could really see how cynical you all are.

But if you do that, you will be off-topic and that is the same as writing in the margins of your exam despite being told that you should not do this, and I know that you wouldn't want to do that.

Of course, not all MRUs are the same, and the answers to questions posed for these scenarios, if they occurred in real life, would vary from institution to institution and department to department. But ignoring that complication: How do you vote? It would be most helpful if you indicate in your opinion whether you are or have been a professor at a major research university and therefore are opining from direct experience, or whether you are making a slightly more remote guess as to what you think the results would be.

My opinions:

If AP#1 really did fall short of research expectations, it is likely that he/she would not get tenure. But: I have seen exceptions to this. I have seen faculty of the Teaching God/Research Failure species be initially denied tenure at an MRU, but have this opinion overturned on appeal.

Should AP#1 get tenure? Technically, no. If the criteria for tenure were not met, then AP#1 should not get tenure. In the real world, though, there is some wiggle room. In at least one example of a Teaching God/Research Failure tenure denial overturn, I didn't have a problem with the decision overturn and awarding of tenure because I think there is room at a big university for some Teaching Gods. In the case of this particular colleague, I have managed to co-author one paper with him in the past 15 years, but other research projects have died owing to his research lethargy. This has been frustrating, but I appreciate him nevertheless.

What about AP#2? I think AP#2 would and should get tenure. The key for me is the word "mediocre". It is unreasonable to expect that we are all excellent teachers. We can hope for better than mediocre, and there should be programs and mentoring and encouragement and such to help us become better teachers (no matter what our career stage), but mediocre is not and should not be a tenure-killer at a research university. Unintelligible, unfair irredeemable puppy-kickers should not get tenure no matter how great they are at research, but teachers who get a "C" for teaching should be allowed to pass.

Tenure means you probably get to keep your job, but, in my experience, it doesn't mean that you can do whatever you want, be as lousy at teaching or research as you want for the rest of your life, and never make another improvement in your skills ever again. If a mediocre teacher is awarded tenure, there are ways to provide incentives to improve; in my experience, these range from merit raises (when such things exist) to variation in teaching assignments/teaching load depending on teaching effort and ability. That's being a bit cynical, actually, to suggest that only self-interest would drive someone to improve their teaching; some of my colleagues work at becoming better teachers because they want to be better teachers, even after getting tenure.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


Recently I was reading some online discussions about student opinions re. recent cuts in instructional staff owing to budget woes at various major research universities in the US. I read complaints from students who were upset at the loss of beloved (mostly non-tenure track) instructors, and who were angry that their universities did not give these instructors tenure so that these good teachers could stay instead of the loser professors who were tenured. An oft-repeated opinion was that universities should consult students about hiring, firing, and tenure decisions, and that the lack of consultation of students indicates that universities treat students "like children" by not involving them in personnel decisions.

This relates to yesterday's post in that it involves student perception of the goals and structure of a research university and the work done by professors at such universities.

Most of us teach, do research, and participate in professional and institutional service, but undergraduates have little idea about these other aspects, and don't have the information or expertise to evaluate faculty in these other respects. You would think that undergraduates at a research university would be well aware that their professors spend a lot of time doing research, but some don't seem to give this much thought.

I fully support the inclusion of students in some aspects of the hiring and promotion of faculty who teach and advise students. Students should be encouraged to attend interview talks and to participate in discussion opportunities with candidates, and to give their views on candidates for tenure and promotion (but see here and here for what this involves and why it can be complicated).

Student opinion should be one piece of information considered along with all the other factors in hiring and promotion/tenure decisions. If a candidate is rude or patronizing to students, or if a tenure-track faculty member has a consistent record of poor teaching (as demonstrated by a variety of evaluation methods), this is important information.

For students, however, to criticize a university for not bestowing tenure on their favorite teacher (whether tenure-track or not) shows a lack of understanding of all the elements involved in personnel decisions. I am not going to get into the complicated general issue of the large numbers of non-tenure track instructors at universities, or the economic factors and implications of this situation. Nor am I implying that universities always make the best and most fair personnel decisions, whether or not in an economic crisis. Clearly they do not.

Nevertheless, I think that for students to feel "infantilized" by a university for not being consulted more in employment decisions shows a misunderstanding of what is involved in faculty jobs.

I can understand the frustration of students who, after all, are reacting to the loss of a talented teacher, but I don't feel "infantilized" when my medical clinic hires doctors without consulting me and other "customers" of the clinic, despite the fact that my health and life may be at stake in these decisions. I have to trust that the powers-that-be know what they are doing, know how to evaluate excellence in medical personnel, and will (try to) make the right decisions. So it is with other professions. Academe is not special in this respect.

Even so, I think it is good for students to speak up when a valued teacher's contract is terminated or a talented teacher is not awarded tenure. I have seen such decisions overturned, including in tenure cases, owing to the actions of a group of articulate and well-organized students. The important thing in these cases is that the students convincingly explained and documented the major positive impact that these instructors had on them, rather than just going on the internet to trash their university administrators because an instructor who is "a really cool guy" lost his job.

Is there a way to avoid misunderstandings like this in personnel decisions at universities so that students don't feel so angry when an apparently inexplicable decision is made regarding the employment status of an excellent teacher? Probably not, but those of us at universities could do a better job of explaining our jobs to students, and students who are critical of university personnel decisions could make an effort to find out more about what is involved in the jobs of various species of professor.

If a university seems to have made a truly unfair and bad decision about the hiring/firing/continuation of a beloved teacher, even in an economic crisis, I hope concerned students will speak up in a clear and convincing way and gather as many like-minded people (students, faculty) as possible to do the same; these efforts might have an effect.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Teachable Moment?

Not long ago, I got an award for my research accomplishments, and was surprised, when the award was announced in my department, when a number of undergraduate students congratulated me on my "teaching award". The department chair's announcement didn't actually specify what the award was for; I suppose he thought most people would recognize the award by its name, but he wasn't thinking about the undergrads. With no other information than the name of the award and that it was "prestigious" (a bit of kind hyperbole), some undergrads assumed it was a teaching award.

I think the misinterpretation stems in part from the fact that these students know me best in my role as a teacher. I am sure they are all aware that their professors are both researchers and teachers, and I talk about my research in class, but still, my main interaction with these students is as a teacher.

I didn't correct those who congratulated me on my "teaching award", as I was unable to think of a good way to do this without making them think that I value research over teaching or that I didn't appreciate their kind words.

Yes, I know there is a possible sexist element to their assumption that I got a teaching award. Would students assume that a male professor had received a teaching award if the only thing they knew about the award was that it was "prestigious" ? I don't know.
I do admit that I sort of wish they knew it was a research award (because it was), but I am taking the congratulations of my students as a compliment. Perhaps they assumed it was a teaching award because they like me as a teacher? I certainly can't complain about that, especially since I am (apparently) so kind and sweet.

I think this anecdote mostly illustrates the fact that undergraduates -- even those at a research university -- see their professors primarily as teachers. It makes sense that they are most aware of what most directly affects their lives, but it is a reminder that there may be a disconnect between how we see ourselves (in my case, as both a research and teacher) and how our students perceive us.

This episode also reminded me how quickly some of us change roles -- emotionally/mentally -- once the academic year is over. If we had been deep in the academic year when I had these interactions with students, I wonder if I would have been as surprised. Given the timing, though, I was, at least in my own mind, deep into research mode. My students reminded me that, even when I think that I am wearing my research hat, I am still their teacher.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Who Cares What They Think

Some of my readers are in the process of selecting Names to put on lists of possible letter writers to comment on their tenure dossiers. Some of my readers are obsessing about this, as I myself once did.

Some people who evaluate these dossiers think that such letters are essential to the process; others think the letters are essentially worthless. Yet it's hard to imagine any application or nomination process, including tenure and promotion, without them.

So: How to choose the Names that go on the list? Previous discussions of this topic have covered such issues as: Should you leave out obvious names in the hopes that those will be the ones selected by the department/tenure committee? (Short answer: Yes, maybe you should do that to some extent, but don't leave out all the most obvious names).

Today's discussion, by request: Is the degree of "famousness" of the letter writer important? Do such letters have more weight than letters from less famous people, or would a very positive, thorough, and convincing letter from a qualified but less famous person have the same (or more positive) effect?

Some people do weight Letters from the Famous more and some do not.

I have witnessed many times the phenomenon in which someone on a committee is awed that an Academic Superstar -- a Nobel Laureate, for example -- wrote a letter for an applicant or nominee. In extreme cases, letters by former students of Nobel Laureates are given particular weight, as if the genius* of an adviser is automatically passed on to all students.

[* Let's not discuss whether all Nobel Laureates are geniuses.]

This happens, but it is always controversial. Someone else on the committee typically rolls their eyes and makes a sarcastic comment. On all-university committees (e.g., for awards), humanities faculty are particularly good at rolling their eyes when another committee member slavers over a letter from a Nobel Laureate in Science, although I wonder what they would do if someone had a glowing letter from J.M. Coetzee or Toni Morrison.

On the various committees on which I have served for hiring, promoting, and awarding, many of us are impressed by letters from Big Names if -- and this is a big if -- the letter is thorough and shows that the Big Name really is knowledgeable about the candidate's research. Certainly such a letter is useful if the BN has interacted with the candidate and has substantive things to say.

I am, however, profoundly unimpressed by letters from Big Names if the letter consists of little more than a terse statement to the effect of: "To whom it may concern: By taking 2 seconds out of my day to instruct my assistant to affix my electronic signature to this letter, which says nothing but which has a really nice logo, not to mention my illustrious name on it, I herewith bestow my acknowledgment that the applicant seems to exist and probably does pretty good work because he/she is associated with my lab/institution/colleague. Please find attached my impressive CV."

Such letters are of no use. If you get a letter from a Big Name, you should hope that the BN will take the time to write a letter with content, otherwise you may be better off with less famous but conscientious letter writers.

But of course you don't know if the less famous people write thorough letters or cursory letters either.

How do you know if a letter writer is conscientious so that you can plug the relevant variables into an equation and determine who should be on your list? I know I have discussed this somewhere before.. somewhere in a post deep in the archives .. but I am pretty sure my answer has not changed: in short, you (probably) don't.

If you are trying to decide which people should go on your list of possible letters writers, whether or not you are agonizing between listing Professor Nobel or Professor Non Nobel, maybe you can get some information from others who recently went through a similar process in your field, maybe you have a mentor who has seen letters from these people before, and/or maybe you have had varying degrees of interaction with these people and can guess how much effort they might put into a letter.

If you really don't know and can't find out through reasonable means, you might as well flip a coin, or list Professor Nobel even though you don't know him/her well because it would be cool if that worked out, and then don't worry about it (too much) because your dossier will be seen by faculty who have seen thousands of letters of reference and have experience sifting through the rubble and won't hold one uninformative, terse letter against you.

My advice, in summary:

- A detailed and impressive letter from a respected but not cosmically famous person is better than a cursory letter from a Cosmically Famous Person. Committees are influenced by the prestige of titles, institutions, and awards, but if you have awesome letters from respected people in and beyond your field, don't worry that you haven't yet managed to hang out at the conference hotel bar with Professor Nobel.

- Make sure that as many names on your list as possible are people who are likely to be able to write knowledgeably about your research. If you think it is important that you have at least one Big Name, go ahead and put one on your list if it is at all reasonable for you to do so based on your research field and accomplishments. But: be conservative about the number of BNs on your list, unless you know them well.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Paranoia the Destroyer?

Paranoia has been such a great inspiration for Art, including of course memorable song lyrics like these:

Girl, I want you here with me
But I'm really not as cool as I'd like to be

'cause there's a red, under my bed..

Paranoia, the destroyer
Paranoia, the destroyer
-- the Kinks

Paranoia, paranoia
Everybody's coming to get me

Just say you never met me

I'm running underground with the moles

Digging in holes

-- Harvey Danger (original erroneous attribution corrected)

(Feel free to submit your favorite mention of paranoia in a song, poem, or other artistic venue.)

But what of the role of paranoia in our daily lives as scholars and teachers?

A reader wrote to me wondering: Is there a healthy level of paranoia that we should maintain to protect our work and, as advisers, the work of our students and postdocs? Or should we try to trust everyone as much as possible, despite occasional reminders that some people really are out to get us?

I have worked with extremely paranoid people from time to time, and I know that I don't want to be like them. I had one colleague for a while who did not even trust me to know everything relevant to the project we were supposedly working on together. He was very secretive, even lying at times to protect information he thought I would steal from him and .. well, I don't really know what he thought I would do with it, other than use it for the work we were doing together. He had no basis for not trusting me in particular; he was like that with everyone.

He was so afraid that people would steal our work (or something) that he constantly criticized me for telling other people "too much" about our research. We annoyed each other at approximately equal and elevated levels, wrote one paper together, and that was it for me. From time to time he has approached me about new projects to work on together, but I always say no. I have told him that our working styles are not compatible and I am too busy stealing other people's research.

I also have a daily reminder about another incident involving Paranoia. The lock on my office door is a special kind that was installed years ago because a postdoc was breaking into my office, stealing things, and hacking into my computer because s/he wanted to find out what I was doing/saying about him/her. Perhaps I was stealing the postdoc's research? Perhaps I was writing mean things about the postdoc in unsolicited letters to other universities? Alas, the lack of evidence for any of these activities did not assuage the postdoc's paranoia, nor did all the cute photos of my cats.

That situation was extremely unpleasant and could have resulted in my being permanently paranoid about postdocs, but in fact I have found that I do not assume in advance that all postdocs will break into my office. The only reason I haven't gone back to a standard lock is because I just haven't bothered. If I did go back to a standard lock, I am certain that I would not spend my days worrying that psycho postdocs were rummaging around in my office when I wasn't there.

But what about more usual situations, such as when we send papers and proposals out for review, or plan the content of a talk? How paranoid should we be? I know from experience that some people will use ideas from unpublished research and try to scoop the original authors, but, in my experience, these have been rare events. I try to put my absolute best ideas and data into manuscripts, proposals, and talks, preferring instead to communicate these things rather than worry about the potential actions of unethical evil-doers.

I have always done so; it's not just a tenured professor luxury thing. It is my preferred mode of working.

I can do this in part because my research has little to no immediate economic value (i.e., no patents will result), and that surely simplifies things for me. The decisions I make are therefore primarily influenced by (1) my relatively low level of daily paranoia, and (2) my wish to communicate my best research results as soon as I am confident about them.

And, except in the most egregious cases (some described in earlier posts), I let it slide even if I suspect that someone is pursuing research that was "inspired" by one of my proposals, or manuscripts in review, or talks about work in progress. We all get ideas from each other in various ways, and it's not worth spending time having paranoid thoughts about the competition. I'd rather just keep doing my work in the best (yet most efficient) way that I can, and confine my paranoid obsessing to a bit of ranting over a double espresso with a colleague now and then.