Friday, March 30, 2012

Pronoun Fail

In my seemingly never-ending quest to find the best, most user-friendly, flexible, non-annoying, and free collaborative workspace in which to share ideas and data with a particular large research team, I recently set up some trial workspaces using various platforms. I didn't want to send out invitations to the entire group until I decided which, if any, we would be using, so I only added one guinea-pig colleague, just to test things out.

He was surprised when one of these sites sent him an automated e-mail with a link for joining and with some text that said (in slightly modified form):

FSP has created his own project so that he can communicate with his colleagues and friends.

I looked in the profile options to see if I could select a gender, but this is not an option. Apparently we are all, by default, men.

Yes, I wrote to the company.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Starting From Zero, Again

This comment, from a postdoc, on Monday's post intrigued me:
I think it would be depressing to teach a similar course over and over again. It would feel like every year you go back to point 0 and have to start with another set of ignorant students all over again.
In fact, it's not depressing at all. Sure, certain aspects of teaching the same course over and over can get tedious, and that's one reason why many of us make changes to our course content from time to time, but, at least for me, it is not depressing, and certainly not for the reason the postdoc proposes.

In fact, that's part of the fun of it for me: hitting reset, starting over, beginning with a new group of students who don't yet know the awesome things you are going to teach them (this is not the same as being "ignorant"), and then watching them progress through the term. If all (or most) goes well*, it can be very satisfying. Surely there is an annoying analogy involving gardening/farming and the seasons, or something like that?

[* that is, not too many high-maintenance students, no cheaters etc.]

It's the same with advising grad students, and that's not depressing either.

Does anyone agree with the postdoc about feeling depressed (or other negative feeling) about having to start over at "point 0" with each new group of students? Or perhaps people who feel that way won't pursue a career involving teaching(?). And if they do pursue a career involving teaching, will they always feel that way, or see that, in fact, the rebooting aspect of teaching is not depressing? It would be particularly interesting to hear from someone who thought that it might be depressing to start from the beginning again and again, but found that it wasn't. Or vice versa.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Changing of the Syllabus

Thinking about yesterday's discussion of differences in teaching Science vs. Humanities topics, I wondered how often we professors, over time, change the syllabus of the courses we teach, and, if they do change, why they change. By the phrase "over time", I am trying to say that I mean changes over the years, not within a particular term.

I think it is entirely possible, in any discipline, to teach a "classic" topic that doesn't change dramatically from year to year, or even decade to decade, no matter how much the broader field itself has changed. And then there are courses on "topical" topics, that include or focus on concepts or methods that were unknown in the past, perhaps even in the fairly recent past; this, too, could apply to any discipline, even if not to every course within every discipline.

I was thinking about some of my "classic" science courses in this context, and realized that they have actually changed quite a it over the years, not in terms of the core concepts, some of which have remained unchanged for a long, long time, but in the examples I discuss. There are new applications that did not exist a decade ago (or less), and if I taught the course the same way that I did 20 years ago, students would learn the basics but not be aware of how these can be used to do Modern Science.

I don't think I could specify exactly how much these courses have changed with time, but a very rough guess would be somewhere between 20-40%. In some cases, these changes are reflected in the syllabus (in terms of the list of course topics) and in some cases, not so much. That is, the listed topics are the same, but what I say about them has changed a lot over time. I refer here to changes that are driven by advances in the field, not variations I might introduce to keep from being bored with teaching the exact same thing year after year.

The above discussion refers primarily to undergraduate courses and to some advanced courses, but, for me, graduate seminars are a different beast. The topics of graduate seminars that I teach change significantly over time. It would be impossible (or, at least, very unwise) for me to teach the same graduate seminar over the years; things (including the scientific literature) change too much, too fast for that. I could organize a seminar on the same or similar (very) general topic every 10 years (for example), but the content of the seminar would be very different each time. I would think that this, too, could be said for many other disciplines.

Have you ever taught a course that literally could stay pretty much the same year after year, for a long time, perhaps even decades? Or, (more likely, I think) if you teach a course with content that can, should, and does change with time owing to advances in your field, how much does it change (per whatever unit of time is relevant to your situation)?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

No Ability to Grasp

In a recent posting on the New York Review of Books blog, Charles Simic, Pulitzer-prize winning poet and professor emeritus of literature and creative writing, states that "Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal". His evidence for the spreading of ignorance comes in part from polls showing that large numbers of Americans believe certain things that are known to be false about recent and current events, and also from his experience as a college professor: 
Anyone who has taught college over the last forty years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year. At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught. Teaching American literature, as I have been doing, has become harder and harder in recent years, since the students read little literature before coming to college and often lack the most basic historical information about the period in which the novel or the poem was written, including what important ideas and issues occupied thinking people at the time.
I will not discuss in detail his ideas about the role of the media in spreading propaganda and disinformation, or why so many Americans believe (or are willing to believe) obvious lies about our own recent history (not to mention the present), except to disagree with this point: "In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more." There are many examples throughout history (in the US and beyond) in which much attention has been paid to those speaking nonsense from ignorance. Even so, I agree with Simic that current trends are disturbing.

But Simic also writes: "to have it [disinformation] believed requires a badly educated population unaccustomed to verifying things they are being told", which feeds back into his experience of teaching for 40 years. That's the part that interests me because, in my ~20 years of college teaching, I have not seen a shocking decline in how much students coming out of high school know, as he describes in the excerpt above. [I am also ignoring any discussion of college-educated vs. not college-educated people in the context of the current US election-year explosion of ignorance, and am focusing here only on Simic's personal observations of a decline in college student knowledge and intellectual abilities.]

Why haven't I seen this change in how much students know and can learn? Did the change happen >20 years ago, so the biggest decline precedes my teaching experience? I can't evaluate that from my own experience, but I admit to being skeptical that students in the good old days were more accustomed to "verifying" things that they were told. In fact, today I think that many students are deeply skeptical of what they are told, and we professors have to make a concerted effort to be convincing in our explanations.

Or is the difference not so much my relative youth as a professor but the fact that I teach Science and Simic teaches Literature? He writes about how students today don't have much context to understand literature because they don't read much (relevant) literature before college, and they don't know about history, even the history of places where they grew up (he gives the example of New England mill towns). It is therefore more difficult to teach these students.

In Science, we require less context of that sort (particularly of the historical variety), although we expect our students to know (some of) what they have learned in previous science and math classes. As long as they have learned something in their previous science/math classes, I can take it from there and teach them what I want them to know in my Science classes, whatever the level and format of the course.

But Simic doesn't just say that students haven't accumulated certain facts before arriving in college, but that they also ".. have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught". That's different, and, if true, should also apply as much to Science as to Literature, History etc.

I get as frustrated as any teacher does when some students do indeed fail to grasp a concept (or basic fact), despite being given ample opportunity and assistance. Even so, at every type of institution at which I have taught, I have found that every course contains students with a wide range of abilities. A challenge for me as a professor is to teach them all. This has not changed in my 20+ years of teaching experiences at different colleges and universities.

Another possible explanation for my failure to discern a decline in student abilities over the years is that I am oblivious. I am skeptical about this explanation, but I do not reject that possibility out of hand. I think when we are intensely focused on something for a long time, we can lose perspective. Perhaps I have been "dumbing down" my courses bit by bit over the years, progressively adapting to the declining abilities of my students, so any decline in student abilities was imperceptible to me (?). However, if I had taught the same course in 1992 and then not again until 2012 (assuming that my teaching abilities remained the same and it was a course that could be taught the same despite the passage of decades..), perhaps I would see a difference (?). Somehow, I don't think that is the explanation.

At the moment, I am intrigued by the Science vs. Not Science possibility. I wouldn't want to take this so far as to say that teaching (and learning) Science requires less of an intellectual engagement with, or curiosity about, the rest of the world, as compared to history, literature, and so on. I don't think that is the case. But perhaps some fundamental aspects of (college-level) Science can be "grasped" more easily (that is, with less background information) than, say, a 19th century novel? For example, in this context, is it easier to explain the second law of thermodynamics than the poems of John Greenleaf Whittier?

What do you think? Have any of you long-time teachers seen any change, for better or worse, in overall student ability to understand what you try to teach them? Please give the time-frame of your observations (in years), your academic discipline, and any ideas you have that might explain your observations.

Monday, March 26, 2012

High-Maintenance Equation

A colleague and I were discussing the teaching of large classes (~100 students) and how/whether this is substantially different from teaching a class with 30 students or 300+ students. This is not the first time I have had this conversation in my life, but it is always interesting to hear what others think.

Of course part of the answer to the question of whether there is a difference relates to the structure of the class and whether you have grading support etc., but to the extent that we can generalize, what are the main factors in similarities vs. differences in teaching a lecture-format class of 30 or 100 or 300 students?

Aside from issues such as ability to learn student names, we agreed that a rather major factor affecting the experience of teaching is the number of high-maintenance (HM) students in a class. In a large class, there is a greater chance of encountering HM students, and more of them.

What are examples of HM behavior? It is important that I explain that I do not include in this category students who ask a lot of questions unless the questions are repeatedly and insistently of the 'just tell me the answer so I don't have to think about it or go to class or read the textbook' or similar variety. Just asking a lot of questions does not by definition make a student HM. (See also discussion last year of how HM student behavior is not unique to students; professors do many of the same things when in the role of 'student'.)

Lots of unreasonable requests (for things the student could easily look up on their own), lots of whining and excuses, and/or frequent begging for a better grade are possible components of HM behavior. Students who require a lot of help are perhaps technically HM in some ways, but if they are working hard to understand the course material and are sincere, then I would put them in a different category.

So, just considering the most difficult, soul-destroying type of HM students: Is their effect on your energy level and emotional state diluted by the large number of non-HM students in a class? I would say no (mostly). The type and frequency of HM behavior and the number of HM students are the major factors, not the overall class size. This is a hypothesis that I propose, for discussion.

That is, if you have a class of 100+ students and 1 very HM student, is that somehow less of a drain than if you have a class of 30 students and 1 very HM student? And if you think it is, can you write your personal equation that relates total class size, number of HM students, and their cumulative effect on you?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Too Much To Expect

Imagine that a certain professor is involved in two particular "service" activities that are rather time-consuming. We will call them Activity 1 (A1) and Activity 2 (A2). It doesn't matter what they are or whether they involve institutional service (to the department, college, university etc.) or professional service (to the wider community of people involved in a discipline). And let's ignore for now the fact that many of us are involved in more than 2 "service" activities in any given year.

As happens from time to time, people on committees or boards or other service groupings need to find other people to join them in these activities. Maybe someone left, maybe there is a regular cycling of people through these service organizations or units, maybe it's just time to invite someone new. So the people currently involved in this service activity (in this case, A1) come up with a list of names of others to approach about joining them, offering a wonderful new opportunity to do even more service and spend all that excess leisure time.

Now there is a list of names that needs discussing: who would be good to work with, etc.? It emerges that one criterion for eliminating people from consideration is the fact that some are also committed to spending time on A2, so it is unlikely that they can be involved in A1 and A2.

But.. wait a minute.. you are involved in A1 and A2! Why was this not an issue when you were invited to be involved in A1?

You have a hypothesis.

Does anyone want to guess what this is, or at least propose their own?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

An Office of One's Own

In a comment last week, someone stated that grad students are "4 to an office", as if this is a general fact. Is it? Maybe it is common, even if you count cubicle farms with low partitions, but many departments seem to have at least some (or many) private(ish) office for grad students, with doors and maybe even a window (!).

I know I have written about offices before.. apparently, I have devoted at least 15 posts to the topic of "faculty office", and I recall a few mentions of grad offices before as well (such as the fascinating topic of whether professors ever venture into the grad office zone). And yet, I don't think I have ever probed the question of grad office-sharing. The topic came up indirectly in a recent post on background noise and distractions when a student is on the phone trying to have a professional conversation, such as in a phone interview; hence the comment about "4 to an office".

When I was in grad school, I had a different grad office every year, each one better than the one before. I graduated from a make-shift cubicle (some bookcases arranged around a desk) to shared offices to a private office (no window, occasional dead rodents behind the walls, but I loved my little office-cave). Even when I shared an office, I never had more than one office-mate in my immediate vicinity (i.e., two desks in a small room with a door), although in the overall "office space" there were maybe 15 of us (and we all shared one phone). I was quite content with these offices, and always felt that I had a good place to work, even if none of these offices could be described as aesthetically pleasing spaces. 

Despite years of private offices as a postdoc and professor, I occasionally get to relive the shared-office experience during sabbaticals and other extended visits to other universities. For my first sabbatical, for example, I shared an office with a very polite and mostly quiet person who, I eventually realized, was being slowly driven mad by the fact that I had different ideas about office lighting, door position, and various situations involving the windows. In my view, when I was alone in the office, I could have the lights, door, windows arranged in whatever way I wanted, and then when my office-mate appeared, we could find a compromise, but this person wanted everything to be a certain way even when they were not there, and certainly everything had to be back the way it should be when they showed up at the office in the morning or after some time away during the day. This became kind of stressful.

These had not been issues when I had a shared office as a grad student, and only partly because we had no windows; I was lucky to share an office with compatible people, all of whom are still good friends of mine. An incompatible office-mate can really affect your ability to work in 'your' office, including how you feel about going to the office and spending time there. If you have more than one office-mate, the chances increase (exponentially?) that one (or more) will be annoying, or worse.

And yet, I think it is a good thing to have an office plan that facilitates interaction, so that grad students aren't just toiling away in isolation in private offices, at least not for the first few years of grad school. The informal discussions that I had with my office-mates in my general office area were some of the most interesting and significant intellectual experiences I had in grad school, leading in one case to a paper that I wrote with another grad student.

So, '4 to an office' certainly doesn't sound pleasant, but it might not be entirely dire. Many research labs have grad students desks scattered around in and near them, so no one has their own office with walls and window, but everyone has their own space to work. It might be difficult to work at times, but there are also lots of good interactions as well. Another possible arrangement to foster interactions is to have private or semi-private offices arranged around a central area where people can gather (quietly).

Questions of the day: How many grads to an office (range or typical) at your department? Is this scheme (whatever it is) seen as good/bad/indifferent?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mentoring Madness

Today in Scientopia: discussion of a recent comment that mentoring constitutes a "summer camp buddy-system" for those lacking the initiative to figure out how to do their (academic) job.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Don't Laugh

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch in a campus-area dining spot, and was sitting near a group of undergrads who were having lunch together. During lunch, one of the students got a phone call that seemed to be related to a job opportunity or internship; the phone conversation mostly consisted of the the student's answering questions about courses, other work experience, and career goals. The student's tone of voice was serious and the topics were of a professional nature.

I don't know why the undergraduate (UG) didn't just run outside as soon it was clear that this was an important call, but UG did not leave. UG remained sitting with friends, who were silent for a while, listening to their friend answer questions, but then they started trying to make their friend laugh. Even if UG hadn't run outside with the phone when the call first came, why did UG stay even when the friends started making embarrassing sounds in the background and making gestures and comments to make UG laugh, with some success? Maybe it wasn't as important a phone call as it seemed to me, an ignorant eavesdropper, but I was puzzled as to why UG stayed, clearly having trouble remaining serious and focused on the phone call.

It reminded me of a time when I was talking on the phone with a potential postdoc (PPD). We were in different countries, so it had not been possible for us to meet in person, and this was our first conversation other than e-mails. The conversation occurred at a pre-arranged date and time, and was specified as an interview. It started fine, but then it was clear that someone in the PPD's vicinity was trying to make them laugh. I could hear some muffled sounds in the background, and then the PPD would try not to laugh. It made the conversation difficult because I kept hearing the PPD's stifled laughs, completely disconnected from our conversation, and sometimes I had to repeat a question because the PPD was distracted. The stifled-laughing/muffled-background sound wasn't a brief, one-time interruption; it was protracted and it was really annoying

I suppose I could have said something, ranging from "Could you please stop that? It is annoying," to "Do you need a minute to find a quieter place for us to continue this interview?", but decided it wasn't worth it. (Question for readers: Would you have said anything?). I asked myself, "Is this a deal-breaker?" and decided it was not. Even so, it was puzzling to me that the PPD thought this was appropriate behavior during an interview.

One of these incidents involved an undergraduate, one a graduating PhD student; one is male, one is female; one is from the US; one is not. And yet the two incidents seemed otherwise very similar.

Something else that I wondered about these two incidents, aside from not understanding why anyone would risk losing a career opportunity for such a stupid reason: What do the interviewees think about their friends who interfered with their interviews? I think ultimately it is the responsibility of the interviewee to avoid or stop these background jerks, but since they didn't in these two cases, were they at least angry with their friends, assuming that these interviews were at all important to the interviewees?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Proposal Excellenzzzzzzzzz

When I am asked to review a grant proposal by a program director at NSF (doesn't matter which program), I almost always say yes. There have been a few cases that I can remember when I was sent a proposal quite far out of my field of expertise, and I said no to those, but it is rare that I am asked to review proposals that I have no reasonable basis to judge. This is not because I am so awesomely expert in so many things but because the program directors do an excellent job of targeting reviewers.

Of course, saying yes to review a proposal on a topic that you find somewhat-to-very interesting doesn't mean the proposal will be good (or very good). And, unless you have reviewed proposals and/or manuscripts by the PI/coPIs before, you may not know in advance whether it is likely to be well written or not.

So it can be hard to predict what the review-experience is going to be like, even if you have some basic information at the time of agreeing to the review. I am thinking in particular of a proposal that I reviewed not long ago. The proposal was on an interesting topic, the writing was mostly good in a technical sense, and the proposed work involved what seemed to be the appropriate approach (methods etc.), and yet.. it was extremely difficult for me to read more than a page without flinging it aside (or, in reality, the electronic equivalent of flinging, as I was reading it as a pdf).
Why? Because it was so so so so boring to read this proposal. It was very painful.

Is my attention span getting shorter as I get older and busier and more jaded? Do I need lots of insightful illustrations and formatted text telling me what is important? Do I have to be grabbed in the project summary and/or first paragraph of the project description or else I have trouble being interested in the proposal? Answers at the end of this post.

Eventually I did read the proposal all the way through, of course, and I even re-read what I thought were some critical parts, but it was a slog from start to finish. I had to work really hard to figure out that the proposed work was of some interest and significance. The PI did not highlight the significance, but it was in there, somewhere.
I have written about related issues before: How hard do/should we as reviewers work to see the good (or excellence) in a proposal that has some technical flaws? In many cases, the flaws are in the writing, but in this case it wasn't so much how the sentences were constructed (each one by itself was fine), but in how the proposal as a whole was framed. If I had to work so hard to extract the interesting essence of the proposal, does that mean I will/should rate the proposal lower than I would if the proposal were technically excellent (in addition to containing interesting proposed work)?

(I am ignoring, in this particular discussion, the issue of giving early-career people a bit of a break; i.e., not expecting proposal perfection for those who haven't written many or any before.)

I fear the answer is yes, in a way. There was no way I was giving this proposal a rating of Excellent (the highest rating for an NSF proposal). If the proposal itself had been really well put together, showing more vision in general about the work and how to explain it, it could possibly have been in the Excellent range, but given what I saw in the proposal: no. Ignoring the fact that some of the shortcomings in understanding the proposal may have been my own, can I assume that the dense, complicated, non-linear, dry presentation of the proposed work is an indication of how the research itself will be undertaken, understood, and communicated? I decided the answer to that was also yes, and hence my overall positive but not-Excellent review.

That might sound harsh, so let me say that my first impression of the proposal was even more negative, but my opinion improved with more careful reading and thought. The proposed work is good, even very good. In the end, my rating was quite positive, and (I hope) backed up by what I wrote in my review. So:

Is my attention span getting shorter as I get older and busier and more jaded? Yes

Do I need lots of insightful illustrations and formatted text telling me what is important? Maybe -- it would be nice, anyway. Of course, writing "The hypothesis to be tested is ..." in bold italics underlined and set off with an indented bullet, surrounded by spaces and maybe some nice subtle shading and prominent on page 1 of a proposal doesn't guarantee you won't get a reviewer who writes "It is not clear to me what hypothesis is being tested", but one can reduce the chances of getting comments like this.

Do I have to be grabbed in the project summary and/or first paragraph of the project description or else I have trouble being interested in the proposal? Not this time, but I think in general, yes. I eventually forced myself to sit down and read the whole proposal carefully, painful though it was to do so, and saw some interesting things buried in the dense text, but I wouldn't want to risk this myself when writing a proposal. Perhaps my review would have been more positive if I hadn't found it a huge chore to read the proposal. An annoyed, weary, bored reviewer is probably best avoided.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Some people tend to send epic emails (I am guilty of this), and some people send characteristic emails that might as well be text messages, even if they type the message using a full-sized keyboard. At the moment, I am most entertained by the terse text-emails.

I have seen some of these emails recently, both from people who only send this type of email. These messages read almost like a strange form of poetry, although they don't seem to follow any obvious rules about number of lines or syllables.

I can't include the exact emails of course, but I can create my own versions that try to capture their essence. I hope that some readers will consider this a creative writing challenge and provide their own versions of terse academic-emails one might receive from colleagues (or students!).

I call this first email-poem: "I want to send you random out-of-context information about myself"

Check out this link.
It mentions me.
This topic is important.

And this one, which is a bit longer, is entitled: "I want you do something for me (guess what it is)"

We need to write another proposal.
It should be mostly [method].
We need to do this soon.
Someone else will do it if we don't.
We are the best ones to do it.
This is urgent.
The program director hates me.

Isn't that beautiful, in a way?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spring Break 2012

It is mid-March, and I feel compelled to write something about Spring Break. Last year, I was impressed to see that more than 80% of professors who responded to my online poll reported that they were working during the Spring Break week, most on campus (and happily so). The results were very similar for postdocs, although (not surprising) a greater % of postdocs stay on campus (postdocs don't really get Spring Break anyway because every week is Spring Break for postdocs?!). The numbers were similar for grad students working over the break, most of whom also stay on campus.

One interesting result from the poll, keeping in mind the small numbers of participants involved of course, is that fewer professors who stay on campus to work are unhappy about it, as compared to the % of happy working-on-campus grad students. Why is that, do you think?

Possibilities to explain why more professors are happier (as compared to grad students) to work during Spring Break:

- Professors have lower expectations re. happiness. We are just happy for a break, any break, and even if we have to work during the break week, it's great to have that week to get caught up and prepare for the rest of the academic year. It's not as if most of us can go anywhere during the break week anyway.

- By the time you get to be a professor, you have already displayed a dangerously high level of affection for the campus environment; why would you want to go anywhere else?

- It's nice being on a quiet, emptier-than-usual campus. Lines are shorter at your favorite caffeine-supplier. This can equally apply to grad students, of course, but one hypothesis is that this is more important to professor (see hypothesis #1 about reduced expectations re. happiness).

- Grad students can still remember what it was like to have a real Spring Break, and aren't far enough along yet on the academic spectrum to appreciate staying on campus. Yes, I know that many undergrads don't go anywhere for Spring Break, but chances are that undergrads don't spend the entire week on academic pursuits; grad students are still too close to these youthful experiences.

I can think of a few more possibilities, but this is your assignment for Spring Break: come up with some more creative reasons to explain the data.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Academic Fish Ponds

In Scientopia, a reader wonders whether to try to move from a Top-20ish graduate program to a Top-5 university to maximize chances on the academic job market in the future.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Part of the Problem

For a large conference in my general field, I was asked to be the (sub)convener of one particular session within an overall larger theme session. Each (sub)convener was asked to invite two speakers. For the particular focus of my assigned session, there were some obvious possibilities, and I was pleased when the first two people I invited both accepted. My only thought for 'diversity' issues when making these invitations was to try to get at least one non-North American speaker (there were many excellent choices), and in this I succeeded.

Both of 'my' invited speakers are male. I was therefore dismayed when I saw the final list of all invited speakers for the theme session. All of them are male. All of them. Of the ~15 conveners, I am the only woman, so perhaps it was my responsibility to invite at least one woman? (<-- said in a sad, semi-sarcastic tone of voice)

When I was mulling over my possible invitees, there was one female scientist in the group I considered, but it turned out that she was unavailable. Maybe similar things happened with my male co-conveners.

I don't know, but it looks bad (to me) when I see a long men-only list of invited speakers. There are talented women in this general field. I suppose it is possible that all were busy or otherwise unavailable, but even so, it's dismaying when there are so many female students and postdocs, and yet we didn't come up with an invited speaker slate that includes even one woman.

So I ended up being part of the problem, perhaps in part because of the compartmentalization of the speaker-inviting process and/or my mistaken assumption that there would surely be some women invited for some of the sessions, without anyone making a particular effort. I should know better by now.

If we had first pooled our names of potential invited speakers, it would then have been obvious whether the list was extraordinarily imbalanced in some way. We could have discussed overlooked-but-excellent choices for particular topics, and helped each other with suggestions. In addition, some conveners could have realized that when deciding between two or more outstanding choices, perhaps a diversity issue should tip the choice one way or the other. I wish one of the high-level conveners had been keeping an eye on the list and been willing to make some comments to us lower level conveners. Or maybe, since I think it is important, I should just reflexively invite women whenever given the opportunity, on the assumption that no one else will?

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Acolyte Stage

In the not-so-distant past, a colleague said, in reference to a promising young PhD student being advised by another colleague (not at our university), "He's just going through the acolyte stage right now."

The context was that this grad student seems to 'worship' his advisor, not in an obsequious way, but in a soaking-up-knowledge-like-a-sponge way, and showing deep appreciation for the research of his advisor, who is quite successful and famous (in the obscure way that one can be famous in a sub-sub-discipline of academia).

In this sense of the term, acolyte is used in a non-religious sense, except that the word worship is commonly used with it. In looking up the word and its various meanings and connotations, I learned that it is also the name of a horror movie that I have no intention of seeing (I hate scary movies).

Is there a difference between calling someone an acolyte (in the academic context) vs. a protégé (which also seems to be the name of a movie) (or protégée)? Protégé can technically just mean 'someone who is advised or mentored', although I think it is more commonly used to imply something closer to the meaning of acolyte in the sense that my colleague used it. (and that's why I don't really like the term protégé.)

My colleague was not using the term to criticize the student in question (he thinks very highly of this person), but he was amused by this student's apparent advisor-worship. He also clearly thinks it is just a phase that some students go through. I somehow missed this stage when I was a student, but I can think of a few of my fellow grad students who could reasonably have been described in this way (including one, mentioned in an ancient post, who even started dressing like our advisor, in turtlenecks and tweed jackets).

I don't think it is overall very common for students to go through an acolyte stage, but it is also not so rare. Agree/disagree?

I also don't think it is necessarily a bad thing (I realize that may seem like an obnoxious statement, speaking as an advisor, as if I wish my students were acolytes, when I most certainly do not wish they were), as long as it is quite brief and evolves into a stage involving more perspective (including the ability to be critical of the advisor's work) and, eventually, acting more like a colleague to the advisor. How brief is brief? A year, maybe two? Agree/disagree?

Do you know any academic acolytes, past or present? Do you think it is a stage, and if so, is it a harmless one that evolves into a more mature perspective, or is it a troubling sign of an inability to be independent and objective?

Friday, March 09, 2012

One Man & a Baby

A couple of years ago, I mused about what I called "TMI Talks" -- professional talks in which the speaker inserts a lot (too much?) personal information that is not at all relevant to the talk topic. Is this unprofessional and annoying (particularly if the talk isn't very good otherwise) or is it a nice example of showing that scientists (and others) are human and there is more to life than just research? Curmudgeon that I am, I came down on the side of believing that most of this personal info should be left out of professional talks. A bit is OK, but not a lot.

Today in Scientopia, I discuss a somewhat-related topic, related to the relentless out-of-context mention (by men and women) of their parenting activities. Annoying or cute? Unprofessional or a normal part of the slow move towards more family-friendly culture in academe? Does it matter (to you) if it's a man or a woman bringing up baby (in conversation)?

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Too Much of Too Many Things

Not long ago, I was informally looking at someone's research and teaching record, as a prelude to their tenure evaluation. This was not in any official evaluation capacity (I was not writing a letter), and this was not someone at my own university. It was more of a "take a look at this CV and see if you think this person has a chance" kind of thing.

Based only on what I saw in the research record, this person has little or no chance of receiving tenure at their university, which expects a certain amount of activity with respect to publications and grants.

But then I looked at what this person has done in terms of teaching and advising, just in terms of time spent on these activities (I had no information about quality), and it was a lot. It was immense, considering that the university also had moderate research expectations of its science faculty.

I am missing some important information about this situation, such as whether this person could have decreased the number of courses taught by obtaining grants and 'buying' out teaching time, but just from what I saw, it seemed like there was a huge mismatch between expectations (by the university) and what was humanly possible (for the tenure-track professor).

I have written before about how I feel fortunate that my job has a good balance of teaching-research-service in terms of expectations/time for each. If all of these components of the job are valued by the university, and if we are evaluated based on how well we do with each of them, then we need time to do them. That seems obvious, but I know there is disagreement in the land about how professors should spend their time.

I should note that my positive view of the teaching-research-service balance in my current job is not just based on how I feel now, as a tenured professor; I felt the same way as an assistant professor, at least in terms of teaching and research expectations. I did feel that I was doing more service work, particularly in the department, than some of my peers, but it wasn't anything I couldn't handle (and I believed that I could have said no to some of the committee work, without consequences, if I had wanted to).

I also realize that just because I think my job has a good balance (and I would say the same thing for my job at my previous university), that doesn't mean that everyone else thinks the same thing about their similar professor-jobs in my department/university. The reasons why I have this positive view are many and complex, including my being happy to work a lot, enjoying doing many different things (though not necessarily too many or all at the same time), and the flexibility of of my department in determining teaching schedules.


Do you feel that you have a good (reasonable) balance of what your institution expects you to do? Or is there a big mismatch between, say, teaching load and research expectations? (It would be helpful to specify career stage, discipline, general type of institution.)

If you do feel there is a big mismatch, do you think this is a general feeling shared by your colleagues in your department/institution, or is there a lot of variability within your unit? Is there anything that can be done about this mismatch, or is it hopeless in the face of widespread belief that professors don't teach enough, and yet should also be pulling in the big grants and publishing in Nature or Science every few months, while serving on 9 committees and doing outreach?

If you feel that there is a good balance in your job, is this also a widespread view in your department/institution, and is there someone in particular responsible for creating this good work environment? (dept chair, college dean, provost, president..).

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Bio Hazards

Some grad students and postdocs who write to me have advisors who abuse the advisor-advisee relationship by making unreasonable demands on their advisees regarding how they spend their work time, how their time and contributions are credited in publications, and (in the case of grad students) how much time they spend as students before being awarded a degree. In some of the worst cases, the advisors make specific or veiled threats that their future letters of recommendation for the student/postdoc will only be positive if the student/postdoc does what the advisor (unreasonably) demands. The students/postdocs are trapped, fearing for their future careers. (This fear of letters of recommendation also occurs in other situations.)

Most, but certainly not all, of these emails are from students and postdocs in the biological sciences, and specifically biomedical/biochemical fields. As I've discussed before, that could be because there are more people in these fields, or it could be because these fields have a greater propensity for misbehavior, based on the size and structure of the research labs. I don't know (but there are many interesting comments on the post linked to previous sentence).

Some of the scenarios described in e-mails sent to me by anxious students and postdocs seem very clear-cut examples of unethical behavior by advisors. I hope that in at least some of these departments and institutes, there is a mechanism by which students and postdocs can get help and these advisors be held accountable for their repeated 'irresponsible conduct in research'. It doesn't seem like there is, or, at least, it doesn't seem like students know about the possibilities and/or feel that there are any reasonable options.

And that leads me to my question of the day: What are the mechanisms by which advisor-advisee problems such as these can (theoretically) be resolved? 

I am particularly ignorant about the biosciences, but there is likely quite a lot of variability in this answer as a function of institution type and size, across all academic disciplines. My impression, however, is that large biomedical/biochemistry/bio-etc. labs operate as semi-autonomous units in which the PI sets the rules, even if some of these rules would be widely recognized as abusive. (tangent: Don't these PIs have to undergo Ethics Training and attend Responsible Conduct in Research workshops? Don't they see themselves in some of the classic case studies discussed in these workshops?). Advisor-advisee problems can be difficult to resolve even in departments in which there is some degree of oversight, but what recourse do students have in PI-ruled kingdoms?

Even in cases in which there is a mechanism by which students can get help from faculty and administrators, the most difficult issues remain: a student who has a lot of time and effort invested in a research project doesn't want to have lose ground and experience even more disruptions (i.e., sometimes it is easier just to put up with an awful advisor and get out as soon as possible); and
a student with an abusive advisor may be reluctant to complain, fearing the consequences for future career opportunities (the letter of reference anxiety, common to all types of harassment situations).

I will give one specific example of a conflict and resolution situation with which I am familiar, just to show that it can work out in some cases. At University Z, an advisor didn't think a grad student had done enough work to attain the degree, even though the student had been in the grad program for longer than peer students and had (in the opinion of some) accomplished at least as much as others who were awarded the same graduate degree from that department. The faculty had some sympathy for the advisor, who was justified in being frustrated by the not-great work done by this student, but the student had a job offer, and the offer depended on the student's having the graduate degree. The advisor was not willing to budge; the student needed to do more work or no degree, even though the advisor had no grant to support the student's further research. The rest of the student's committee and the departmental graduate program advisor examined the available information and disagreed with the advisor: they felt that the student had done enough research of sufficient quality to be awarded the degree. The advisor refused to sign the relevant forms, so the graduate program advisor and committee members took care of the paperwork, the student got the degree, and is now happily employed.

This worked out in part because the student no longer needed the advisor's letter of reference; in the future, if a letter is needed, the graduate committee members can help with this, bypassing the angry advisor.

That incident had a happy ending; I suspect that most do not, but it would be useful to have more information, in part so that we are all better informed when students ask for advice.

Therefore, I am interested in hearing about examples from different departments, institutions, and academic disciplines:
  • Is there a good way to resolve serious problems in your department/university/etc.? 
  • How much is your department (etc.) willing to get involved in advisor-advisee issues, when problems are detected? and
  • Even if there is some process on the books for resolving serious problems involving advisors and students, do students ever find it reasonable and useful to pursue these options, or is the conflict resolution process seen as something that sounds good in theory, but has too many pitfalls (or is just a bunch of empty words in a document somewhere, to make administrators feel better)?

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Hate Stage of Writing

This post was inspired by the recent comment of a colleague, who told me that he knew it was time to send a manuscript off for review because he "hated" the paper; meaning, he was tired of reading it over and over. This is not the same as hating the content of a paper.

At least for me, the experience of writing a paper goes through different emotional stages in terms of how I feel about the paper. The urge to graph this phenomenon may overwhelm me in a few minutes, but let me at least start by writing about writing.

Ideally, the beginning stages involve affection for the topic and high interest in the writing. It would be bad to start off with negative feelings about a paper. I am trying to think of an example in which I approached a paper with loathing, boredom, and/or exhaustion, or even indifference; I am sure there have been examples (some papers have to be written whether we want to write them or not), but I think this is rare for me. I think I tend to start off feeling interested in, and happy about, the writing.

I should say that writing isn't something I just sit down and do at the 'end' of a project; it tends to be an ongoing process, but there is of course a start to all things; that is, the day when I open a new document and give it a title and start outlining/writing the content of the paper.

OK, I just glanced at my CV. There have been some papers that were painful to write, but this was mostly owing to co-author issues, not to any lack of affection for the topic of the paper. I think I can say that I have not started writing a paper in what I will call the hate stage of writing.

That comes later, if it ever comes. When does it arrive and how long does it last? That varies from paper to paper.

Now I am going to have to graph this. I am going to select four (4) not-too-old papers from my CV -- papers in which I was the primary author or otherwise involved in a major way in the ideas, data, writing etc. and that were written recently enough that my memory of the experience has not faded too much. For each of these papers, I will graph the writing experience, from start to finish. In this case, 'finish' means the point at which all revisions are done.

In this graph, there is no absolute time scale, of course, as the time frame of each paper varies considerably: time from start of writing to submission, time in review, time for revision and maybe re-revision etc. I have scaled each writing experience to fit my arbitrary graph.

Note that most of these selected papers never get to the (total) hate stage, and I certainly didn't submit or finish any of these papers in the hate stage. For me, the submission stage isn't at the highest level of positive emotions about a paper, but it doesn't seem to correspond to a hate stage either. (Does it for you?)

I think the green and red curves are fairly typical of papers that involve certain easy-to-work-with colleagues. There are some undulations, mostly related to routine fatigue in constructing a paper, but my interest level and affection for these papers remains quite high. There may have been some syn-revision dips related to annoying reviews of the green and red papers, but these papers started and ended with positive feelings.

The purple paper is one that I mostly enjoyed writing, though I had to do some heavy lifting for a co-author or two, and that got a bit old towards the middle of the project. Nevertheless, my feelings about the paper, even at the very end, were mostly positive.

And then there's the blue paper -- major co-author issues account for the dips towards dislike (but never deep hate!) of working (and working) on this paper*. This might be where a real time scale would be informative; not surprisingly, the blue paper in real life took much longer than the others, and that was a significant factor. Even so, I was feeling overall positive about it at the end. And if I plotted the post-publication emotion level for this paper, it would be quite high, as it was (mostly) worth all the trouble.
* Some of you who know me may think you know which paper this is, but I am pretty sure you are wrong in your guess.

I know that for some people the entire process of writing is in the hate stage, and that is a problem for you and, in some cases, for those who work with you. But, assuming that you are someone who can enjoy some of the experience, but not necessarily the entire thing, do you submit a paper in the hate stage, or does that stage occur at some other point in the writing process, or never for most papers?

Monday, March 05, 2012

But What About Me?

Sometime in the past year or so, I was skimming through a magazine produced by my undergraduate college -- the kind of publication sent to alums and others, probably mostly for the purposes of inspiring donations to the college, but of moderate interest anyway for the articles and other news items.

Not surprisingly, this publication's articles focus on interesting and unusual things being done by graduates of the college, as well as current faculty and students. I almost always find something of interest to read.

In this particular issue of the publication, I was struck by a letter written by a fairly young graduate of the college ('young' in this context means only 'younger than I am'). She was complaining about the fact that the publication focuses too much on people who have had interesting, successful careers or who are involved in other time-consuming activities such as volunteering. She is a self-described "stay-at-home" mom with 2 young kids, and so she doesn't "see herself" in the magazine. This made her feel alienated and it made her also feel that perhaps, in the eyes of the college, she was kind of a failure.

That letter is something I would classify as a But What About Me? kind of letter, and I found it puzzling for several reasons. OK, in some ways I could understand it -- after all, this entire blog is like one long But What About Me? letter -- but I was nevertheless puzzled by a few things, such as:

1. I can certainly appreciate her point that a relentless message that career = success, no career = failure, would be demoralizing (if you saw things that way and let them get to you) or at least dismaying, but I have seen articles in this college publication about the decisions women make about career and family, and there is frequent mention of career-family issues. There are more articles about this than there are about science professors. Did this particular woman miss these articles, or did the fact that most articles are about people with interesting careers somehow obliterate the presence of the family-focused articles?

2. Does she really want to read approving articles about stay-at-home moms in more issues of this particular publication? I couldn't relate to this: I don't want to read more articles about people like me. I want to read about different people.

3. And that leads me to my next question: How do we define different? Perhaps the woman who wrote the letter has only two bins: women with careers (= different from her) and women staying home to raise their kids (= same as her). And perhaps others have different bins: for example, when I read an article about a woman who has had a career as a musician, film-maker, dancer, writer, artist etc., I am interested because I am learning something new about someone with a very different life. Similarly, a woman who has decided to stay home with the kids has a different life from me, and although I might not be so fascinated to read about her daily life, there are interesting aspects of it, including the decision to do this, what happens when the kids are older etc. It's just a different bin. I don't identify with the dancer more than with the stay-at-home mom just because the dancer and I are both pursuing careers. That's my perspective as someone with a career and a family, anyway.  Perhaps this perspective also stems from the fact that some of my best friends from college have stayed home to raise their kids, and I don't think of them as alien 'others'; we still have a lot in common.

So then I started thinking about this concept of bins, and how many we see when we look at the rest of the world, recognizing that the number changes depending on context. In the specific context of my reading my college glossy-mag, I think my bins are scientists and non-scientists. Within the non-scientists bin, there are many possibilities, including ballerinas, politicians, and stay-at-home moms.

This is one of those musing, picking-apart kinds of posts, without the intention of criticizing an individual, in this case the letter writer (although it may seem that way). I am most interested in learning about different perspectives, and in that sense the letter I am describing was very interesting and got me thinking; in fact, I don't remember anything else that was in that particular issue of the college magazine, even though I am sure it was festooned with successful career people.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Vegetarian Zombies


My teenage daughter and some friends came up with a list of possible topics for a character in a theater project. Scan this list and see if you can detect the one that I think does not belong in this list:

Person going through a divorce because he cheated on wife
College student sleeping with best friend's girlfriend
Fifteen year old breaks up with boy/girlfriend over FB
15 year old loser -- family issues, no money, school drop out
Bartender -- free alcohol, works late, loves job
Stripper -- paid well, diseased boyfriend trouble
Meth addict -- depression, well-paid job, boyfriend troubles, no friends
Prostitute who is beaten up by a pimp
Kid starting college - doesn't want anyone to know his mom works there
Gay teenager about to come out
Guilty serial killer
Vegetarian zombies
Tiger Woods
Drug addicted wrestler
A drunk priest
A man addicted to helium

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Expanding (or Contracting) Grad Universe

If you advise PhD students, do you have an advising philosophy in terms of the scope of projects for students just starting their PhD research? I know there are big labs in which grad students are cogs and do a particular part of a large project involving many people, and I know there are fields in which the PhD research is entirely student-driven, from idea to dissertation. In my field, there is a lot of variability, and this gives some flexibility in advising style. To some extent, the scope of the project can be modified to suit the student's interests and abilities, but, at least for the early phases of the PhD research, the advisor's philosophy about types and scopes of projects is the starting framework.

I ask my question about advising philosophy in that context. I think the question is applicable in cases in which the advisor determines the project (or, at least, most of it) and in cases in which there is more room for the student to take the research in new directions.

Here are two examples of different approaches:

The Contraction Approach: The advisor starts grad students on projects that involve several to many different components, sees how the students do or what particularly grabs their interest, and then the dissertation research proceeds accordingly. In some cases, no contraction of the scope is necessary, but in others, some components of the project are jettisoned. I think this is a reasonable approach as long as what is left still comprises dissertation-level research. Of course, another possible outcome is that the student does not succeed with any component of the research, even when the scope has been reduced, and then everyone has to make a new plan.

Pros: Students are exposed to an array of possibilities and, ideally, one or more will catch their interest and therefore what ends up being the dissertation research is what most interests the student.

Cons: Students can be overwhelmed. Particularly if a student doesn't know how to organize their time to make progress on their research (perhaps while also taking classes and/or working as a teaching assistant) or is easily discouraged by the obstacles that always arise in the course of research, having too many choices can result in no progress on any of the possible research avenues. 

The Expansion Approach: The advisor starts students on one or a few research activities, sees how they do, then the research expands from there depending on student ability and interest. In some cases, the expansion can be rapid and large; in others, not so much, but still represents a widening of the project's scope from the beginning stages. I think this is a reasonable approach as long as the student knows that the research scope must widen from the first small steps, and there is good communication about how much expansion is expected/desirable.

Pros: Students can master some fundamental techniques or concepts before moving on to new or more complex aspects of the research, building a strong foundation for later research.

Cons: Students may be bored by the first research activities, particularly if these mostly involve technical things, and may therefore never become engaged in the overall research. Also, students may feel that the early research activities are "enough", and anything else is "too much". It may not be clear how fast or how much the scope needs to change, so it can be difficult to move the research much beyond the early stages.

I suppose we could also add The Plateau Approach, in which the research activities are pre-determined, and the students just has to start on them, do them, and finish. That isn't necessarily as cog-like as it sounds, but I focused on the other two approaches because those are closer to descriptions of advising methods I have tried.

In theory, the Expansion Approach makes a lot of sense to me, but in practice, I now tend towards the Contraction Approach, even though it has pitfalls as well. I have had too many situations, mostly early in my advising career, in which the Expansion Approach resulted in a student who could never see the "big picture" of the research and who couldn't (or wouldn't) move beyond the early stages of the research. In my field, that's fine for undergrad research or an MS, but not for a PhD.

Of course every student and every project is different, so even if an advisor has an advising philosophy such as one of these (or something else), it's good to have some flexibility. Even so, this brings me back to my original question about whether you, advisors of PhD students, tend to have a particular approach that you favor (because it works? because you think this is how things should work?) when advising PhD students.