Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How I spend my summer "vacation"

My family members are pretty much the only people who don't assume that I have the whole summer off, like a K-12 teacher. I actually like the ebb and flow of the academic calendar--except for when I was at National Lab, I lived this way my whole conscious life! I do remember when I was a grad student, sitting in the office with my groupmates, and wondering what our advisor did over the summer. So here's how I plan to spend my summer this year:

1. Academic travel: I have plans to meet with a couple of my collaborators face to face. I am also attending a major conference in my field. I like summer conferences, because I can focus on the conference without the nagging feeling of the teaching I am missing/falling behind on.

2. Research push: Several of my students are sitting on projects that are 70-80% of a story. I am planning on doing a major push to get these manuscript ready (if not written in a first draft) by the end of the summer. Towards this end, I have several undergraduate researchers in the lab this summer, half of whom will be running control or repeat experiments to validate our results. I actually have time to interact with my undergrad researchers over the summer other than hello/goodbye and group meeting.

3. Paper push: I have two or three manuscripts sitting on my desk that need polishing/editing to get ready for submission. I want to get these done over the summer when I (sometimes) have uninterrupted blocks of time to write.

4. Proposal writing: I want to get proposals roughed out and drafted for the fall proposal season so I am not teaching and frantically writing at the last minute this year. I have 2 planned for summer submission and 4 planned for fall submission. It is better to spread the writing out so the proposals stay fresh.

5.  Cleaning up my courses: I am actually mostly done with this--I do it in the first weeks of the summer while I still remember well what worked and didn't. I am teaching the same courses next year, so I spent some time cleaning up my lectures, marking up assignments for editing, and writing notes to myself on what I should improve for next time. I'll pick this back up again a week or two before classes start to get ready.

6. Catch up on literature in my field: I really miss just reading papers that are interesting. I got to do a fair amount of this when I was on sabbatical, and I would like to carve out time for it in my normal work life. This year, I was unsuccessful, so I will try to restart the habit this summer.
7. Vacation! I hope to spend at least a week without working. We'll see if I can do it!

Most of my summer plans involve tasks that are best done in largish blocks of time. In the absence of teaching and service obligations, I am hopeful that I can be really productive. We'll see how much of this extremely optimistic list I actually get done.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Recruiting in a time of uncertainty

How are you handling it? Funding my students keeps me awake at night. I dropped my target steady state group size, which actually works better with my management style anyway. While I always want to recruit quality, a mistake in smaller group and with less funding cushion is much, much more painful. I am being VERY careful with who I am taking. In this case, I am attempting to select for enthusiasm, work ethic, and scientific curiosity (better predictors of success than GPA or pedigree, in my experience). Unfortunately, this also means I am only taking students with research experience, because I can't afford for someone to try it out for the first time in my lab and decide it isn't for them.

I am fortunate, because in my field it is possible to do research without lab techs and postdocs (I have exclusively students right now). Postdocs in my field last 1-2 years, so a one year contract with a possibility to renew is the norm, which is helpful in the current funding climate. At ProdigalU, postdocs are still more expensive than students, but students come with a 5-6 year time commitment. This compares poorly to the usual 3 year timeline on grants in my field. It is definitely possible to start a student on a project and then run out of money part-way through the PhD. I worry deeply about this, but so far, I have been able to string together related projects in such a way that my students don't get disrupted.

One may say that there are too many PhDs, and that reducing the number of PhDs is a feature, not a bug of the current funding situation. I don't doubt that this is true in some field and specialties. That said, my students are finding jobs that use their degrees (though it has taken up to a year for some). As is the norm in my area, most of my students are interested in industrial positions, not academia. While I of course think my students are really good, I would think that if there were too many PhDs in my field that some of my students (even if very good) would be unable to find good jobs and would move on to other things. This has not been my experience so far. I actually don't think there is much of a connection between the demand for highly trained workers and support for their training. Aside from the long lag time due to the time to degree, companies can always import trained people from other places if they have unmet needs. And universities will always be able to fill paid student positions as long as the money is there, regardless of whether the students are employable at the end. If there is an actual interest in reducing the overall number of PhDs, I would think that a strategically planned reduction (that targets overpopulated areas) would be much better than random chance, which is what we are getting with the current system.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Electronic gadgets in class

As I move into the curmudgeon stage of my life, I find that I can articulate what annoys me more (maybe because more things do?). One thing that really annoys me is when students use their phones in class. There are three main ways I see students interact with their phones in class, ranked here from most annoying to least:

1. Forget to turn their ringers off
A cardinal sin! This annoys everyone in the class. Worse when using an obnoxious ringtone. Even worse when during an exam (when cellphones are forbidden, and stored in the back/off to the side so the ringtone can't be turned off).

2. Constantly check their phone
I find this really distracting when I am teaching. The motion draws my eyes, and then I find myself wondering what is so important. It also annoys me that the student is obviously not paying any attention to the lecture. Why bother coming, then? It is just like coming to the lecture and then reading the newspaper, and just as obvious. Students forget that from the front of the room, I get a pretty good view of every seat, so it is pretty noticeable when someone keeps checking their phone. It is hugely distracting to neighbors as well, whose eyes are also drawn by the motion and the screen. 

3. Students texting/Facebooking/whatever on their phone
Somewhat less distracting than #2 because their is less to draw attention, but seriously why come to class if you aren't going to pay attention. I know lots of people think they can multitask,and both text and pay attention to the lecture, but loads of studies have demonstrated that this is BS, and the constant attention swapping makes effective learning impossible. Students may think that their professors don't care about teaching, but I do, and I put a lot of effort in. Texting in class feels like a slap in the face, and I find it extremely rude and distracting.

4. Students keeping their phones in their laps for the whole class
This is at least an attempt at subtlety. Students doing this may not realize this, but from the front of the room, this looks like the person is staring at their crotch for the whole class, which looks very bizarre.

Strangely enough, students using laptops in class is a lot less annoying (to me anyway--I suspect someone browsing in class is probably pretty distracting to their neighbors!). I have seen many students who take notes on their laptops, so there is at least the plausibility that the student is working and paying attention. I distribute my notes electronically, and so it isn't that odd that someone might prefer to use them that way as well. That said, I am well aware that some of the laptop using students are probably doing something else. If they are, it is less disruptive than a phone. There is less motion involved, and I can't see the glow of the screen, so it is less attention grabbing.

I was talking about this issue with a colleague, who is considering banning cellphones entirely in class. Have any of you tried it or thought about it?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Student demands

I am not sure if students are feeling more entitled, feeling less intimidated by authority, have less tolerance for BS, or are just plain ruder, but the number of unreasonable demands I am getting via email seems to be going up each year. It is not all of my students. In fact, I think the demanding students have just gotten more demanding, not that more and more students are being demanding, if that makes sense.

For example, grade grubbing is probably as old as grading. That said, this is the first year I received outright demands for higher course grades without an accompanying sob story or other justification, just the statement that they really want/feel like they deserve a better grade. Most of the sob stories were probably BS, or at least not a justification for a higher grade, but still, there is something much more off-putting and self-centered about "please raise my grade because I want a higher one."

More and more students (in fairly large courses) have been asking for individual meetings to discuss course material rather than attending office hours (which are often sparsely attended anyway, especially when far from exams). I always ask what other class they have during my office hours so I can consider the timing for my future scheduling, and many of them don't have a conflict, they just want to meet me one-on-one, and don't see why I shouldn't be able to accommodate them. If I press them, they just want to meet me alone, again with no justification other than that they want to. 

Many students ask if my classes are recorded (which I really don't like doing), and get upset if the answer is no. I really dislike recording classes--attendance ends up much lower, people get very upset when there is a technical glitch that ruins the recording (often out of my hands), and a decent number of students end up binge watching the lectures a night or two before the exam, which does their education no service. But I've been hit in course evaluations about not caring about my students for not recording lectures, and I fear that this will be the new norm.

Students also don't seem to understand that prerequisites are required not just as hoops to jump through for a degree, but are in fact a guide to what knowledge they are expected to have before coming to a class. I teach a physical science (at the sophomore level right now), and I have had many students surprised that I expect some skill with math, even though calculus is a prereq for my course. I had a student tell me they don't integrate, and another tell me that it was so unfair that they lost points on an exam for not remembering how to manipulate exponents, since this is a class in science not in math. I've had many students tell me that expecting them to remember things from freshman science courses is unfair or unrealistic, never mind that my course builds on that material.

In addition to being demanding, I find that more students are falling on the disrespectful side of informal. I've been addressed as "Hey Prof", as "Yo!" and by my first name, all of which I find fairly disrespectful for an undergrad taking a class with me. I generally like the relationships I have had with students in my courses. The students who attend class, and come to office hours generally do well, and I have had good interactions and conversations with them. I am not super-formal with my students, but I am also clearly not their friend or peer. I am not the kind of person who demands respect for my authority, but quite frankly, disrespect like this won't translate well into the wider working world. This is one aspect I struggle with, since I also don't want to spend my teaching time teaching email and professional etiquette.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Conference travel

Conference travel is really important for getting your name and your work out there, for networking, and for keeping up with what is really going on in the field that either is unpublishable or not published yet. As a lifelong introvert, I've really had to work at effective networking. It took me a while to figure out how to make the most of conferences. As I've gotten older, I find that I like the big society meetings less and less. A big meeting is huge, which means it is hard to just run into people, so key meetings have to be planned. Everyone is always running somewhere. The talk quality is highly uneven, especially since giving a quality 15-20 minute talk is really hard for an inexperienced person. Conferences always exhaust me, since I find spending so much time with people tiring, and the always on nature of a meeting is very draining. The endless busy-ness of a big meeting makes this worse for me.

As a student, I loved the wide range of topics, the exhibitions (with their swag) and the opportunity to put faces to the names on papers. Now that I am more established, I find that I am much happier to send my students to the big meetings, and attend smaller, more focused meetings myself. I still get energized from a good topical conference, and I love the opportunity to get up to speed quickly in a new direction by listening to expert talks rather than reading a lot of papers. That said, I find when I get back from a big society meeting, I am more likely to just be tired than to be excited by science. I do attend one big one per year, since it is a good idea to be seen, but I don't really miss it when I don't go for some reason. I guess there is no avoiding turning into a curmudgeon with age!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

On service

I've written about service before in pieces of various posts. Service keeps the University running, and is essential to a functional department. However, the service load is distributed incredibly unevenly, which is a source of angst and frustration. I am the kind of person who likes to do a good job at the things I do, so I do put in quite a bit of effort in my service. This means I get asked for "favors" a lot. At this point, I've spent enough years at ProdigalU that I actually have (and can articulate) a service strategy that works for me.

1. Ignore the service slackers as best as you can
It is a truism that some people blow off service without any penalty, thus carving out more research time for themselves. This is incredibly and maddeningly frustrating to those of us who try to do a good job on service and STILL have the same sorts of research and teaching time pressures. This is exactly the same thing as those who blow off teaching (though we have very few of those in my department, to be honest), and I try my very best to ignore these facts as much as possible in my day to day life.

It is worth talking up your service contributions when merit raises are being considered. It is also worth bringing up service contributions when being asked for yet another "favor" from the Chair/Dean/whoever. Otherwise, I find that getting worked up about the unfairness of the service load is like getting worked up about the unfairness of life--yes, it is true, but getting frustrated and unhappy about it just hurts me and makes me more stressed out.

2. Try to pick up service obligations that you at least find interesting
No one really enjoys committee work, but it is much easier and more enjoyable to do committee work that 1) leads somewhere and 2) is at least somewhat interesting. I have enough years here to know which committees at the department level meet and do nothing vs. those that don't meet and do nothing vs. those that meet and get something done. I try to make all of my service tasks fall into categories 2 and 3.

Currently, my main service task does require a fair amount of effort, but it is vital to the department, and I can see the fruits of my labors pretty easily. I also enjoy the topic, and find it an interesting exercise. I don't really mind doing this sort of task, because it doesn't feel like wasting time. After my sabbatical, I asked to return to this position, because I would rather do service like this than many other possible options.

3. Since most people care about the department, but don't want to do the work themselves, they will follow your lead if you have a strong vision and can articulate it reasonably well
This is related to my point 2. One of the reasons I like my main service task is because it has a real impact on the department. In the course of doing my service tasks, I found that if I had an idea I wanted to implement, it was pretty easy to get people on board if I could explain the details clearly, concisely, and enthusiastically. Most people are aware when something is not working well, but don't necessarily want to solve the problem themselves. If you can give them a potential solution to back, most people are willing to give it a shot. This makes my work more enjoyable, since I know that my effort will go somewhere, and even better, that it is in the direction I think is best. As a result of my service position now (which concerns a topic I care about), I have an outsize say in some aspects of how our department works.

4. Saying yes to easy and/or interesting tasks helps you say no later to onerous or crazy-making ones
You have to say yes some of the time. You may as well say yes (or even volunteer) for some easy stuff, so that you can say with all honesty that you have a pretty full service load when future unpleasant tasks crop up. The last minute assignments are usually to difficult or frustrating things. May as well agree earlier to easier stuff.

5. People (even service slackers) do notice when you do service, so make sure they don't take advantage of you!
This may not be to your benefit (since it means people know who to ask for "favors"), but it is true. Everyone knows who the slackers are, even if there is no real penalty for being one. Having a reputation for doing the things you commit to and for getting things done is a good thing, even if there are no immediate rewards. That said, it is definitely possible to be taken advantage of. It is definitely possible to overdo it, and it took me a while to figure out when and how to say no. I think I am at a reasonable balance now, where I do enough useful service to keep things going (and feel like I am doing my part) without it being a major drain on my time. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Active learning in the classroom, flipped or otherwise

This started as a comment, but became a post when it started looking like a novel! There is a really interesting discussion going on at xykademiqz's blog in the comments section (starting here, where commenter idm asked about active learning). Xyk's comments about flipped classrooms sync with my experiences, namely that in a flipped classroom, the class covers less material AND that it is easy to screw it up so that the students learn nothing. While it is certainly possible to do a bad job in a lecture based class, I think it is harder to do it so badly that students may as well have not taken the course. In my field, less material per class means that even if done perfectly, flipping all the classes would mean that students either take much longer to a degree, or start out well behind colleagues coming from unflipped programs.

Like Xyk, I find it really irritating that active learning now means no lecturing. I find that I can get students to ask (and answer!) questions in class, even in a room of 200 students. In my lectures, I often stop and poll the students/get them to ask questions/have them set up or solve a problem/demo something or show them a video showing a concept in action, etc. Even an audience of researchers really excited about a topic loses focus if a seminar goes on too long. A lecture-based class does not necessarily mean the professor drones on for the full class time every time. (Also like Xyk, I was an extreme introvert as a student, and would have hated flipped classes and found it difficult to learn if I were forced to interact with others the whole time).

Another commenter (Alex) points out a really interesting study in physics, which suggests that students learn concepts better in a flipped classroom (consistent with most studies), but learn problem solving better in a lecture-based classroom. This is not too surprising to me. Students learn problem solving by wrestling with problems, and they do more of that as assigned homework in a traditional class than in the 150 minutes of problem solving in a flipped class. Plus, watching someone problem solve in a video is not the same thing as doing it live, where you can interrupt if you get lost or confused.

Back in the olden days when I was a student (which was well before flipped classes became a thing), some of my smaller, focused, upper level courses were taught in a hybrid style, where at least some of the class time was used for interactive problem solving (usually one student at the board working a previously assigned problem, with the class discussing the strategy and/or comparing strategies). This was really effective--I still remember some of those classes many years later, especially ones where I was at the board! This mania for flipping things also forces people for whom that style doesn't work well to go against their strengths, just as forcing everyone to lecture would hurt those for whom a more active/flipped learning teaching method is better. As with anything, there is a time and place for everything, and perhaps entry level STEM is not that time or place (at least for folks expected to have problem solving skills like scientists or engineers).

Monday, February 27, 2017

Can we return to funding stability?

In the olden days (i.e. for my PhD advisor) in the physical sciences, the funding strategy was simple--get in with a program officer at one of the major funding agencies for your bread and butter grant. Then supplement that with additional proposals. For ProdigalAdvisor, his core grant was DOE. As long as he was productive, the renewal of this grant was more or less guaranteed. It was enough money to support 2-3 students, or a student and a postdoc if budgeted carefully. He knew his PO well, and had regular contacts.

The upsides to this, compared to our current situation are obvious. First, having semi-permanent funding enables risk taking in other proposals, since they aren't make or break for the lab. It also means less time spent proposal writing and more time on other things. Next, it makes the disconnect between PhD time (5-6 years in my field) and grant time (usually 3 years) less painful, since it is unlikely that funding will end mid-PhD causing a shift in research topics midway through. Finally, the reduced mental overhead of near constant worry about funding improves pretty much everything. Because funding was not guaranteed without productivity (and POs do come and go), there was still pressure to produce, but not as acute, and not to the exclusion of all else. 

However, there were also significant downsides to this system. The main one is that it HEAVILY favored people hooked into the Old Boy Network, who could be introduced to the POs they need to network with to get into this kind of favorable funding situation. POs tended to stick to people who reminded them of themselves when younger, which suppressed diversity big time. It also heavily favored older established scientists (who were hooked up with semi-permanent renewals) over younger, upcoming scientists (who had to fight tooth and nail for funding until they could hook up with a PO willing to fund their careers). POs tended to stick with "their" stable of researchers, even past the point of when they were producing good science. Finally, it reduced the "nimbleness" of the funding agencies to change research directions and priorities as situations changed.

Is it possible to get the good of stability in funding without the bad of locking in the status quo for years and years? I don't really know. It seems that both systems were about equally likely to favor famous, established groups and also about equally meritocratic (though the optics now MIGHT look a little better now). Diversity is better now--the Old Boy Network is still present, but not quite as dominant. Risk taking in research is probably less common than before, due to the danger of being unfunded. There always were people who wanted to push the envelope/got bored with their current areas/were creative scientists of any age, but these people could get to stable situations in the past that are much more difficult to reach now. My PhD supervisor, with his semi-guaranteed DOE grant, was not a superstar with a megagroup. He was just a "normal" PI.

I am much, much more worried about funding than my advisor ever was. All of my colleagues are also worried. I spend a huge fraction of my time writing proposals, and I know I write many, many more than my advisor ever did (not just conjecture--we've discussed it since I moved to the TT). Both systems favor flashy science that can be packaged up and sold, and extroverted people with good networking skills, which doesn't necessarily correlate with important science and research talent, respectively. The modern funding schemes favor trend following, and rapidly move funding into and out of areas when they become hot and cold, which is not necessarily a good thing in basic research if we want to develop a deep understanding of something, which takes time. It sometimes seems to me like we moved the deck chairs around to generate at least the appearance of a more meritocratic, inclusive approach and called it progress, while forgetting that the quality of the experience for those in the system is also important.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Teaching a new class

The first time I taught a class, it took me (on average) 6-8 hours per hour of class time to prep, not including exam writing, homework assigning, or grading, which is obviously unsustainable. As I got more experienced with the material (and with teaching), I could drop this down to 30-45 minute per hour of class time. The first time I taught a new class, I was panicked to think I'd be back to 6-8 hours, but teaching itself is a learned skill, and I find it takes a lot less time to prep even new material.

Less time, that is, than 6-8 hours. It still takes me a long time to prep new material. I like to do a good job, so I try not to skimp on the class prep. Before I start a new course, I dread the extra work. It seems like a huge mountain of additional stuff I don't have time for. That said, I find that once I am into it, it goes faster than I fear, and I enjoy it. I like learning new things, and I find that having to explain things to students helps me deepen my understanding, even of material that I know fairly well. When the course includes things I haven't really used since I was a student, I find that my much deeper knowledge base now makes me appreciate things I glossed over as a student. It is still a ton of work, though.

My department here at ProdigalU does a good job protecting TT folks pre-tenure. Most people get to keep the courses they start with for their whole run to tenure. Post tenure, our department tries to give people a minimum of 3 years with a new course. However, since life happens (with emergencies and sabbaticals and family leaves and everything else), sometimes people have to shift more often.

I think it is important to rotate instructors. Not just from a fairness perspective (since we all know that some courses are more work than others), but from a teaching perspective as well. I find that 5-6 years is the ideal time for me to have a course before swapping. The first 2 years, I am still getting a feel for the material and how the students respond to it. I'd say I am at peak teaching performance (for me, anyway) in years 3 and 4. By year 5, I find that I am getting a bit stale in the class. Definitely by year 6, I am ready to move on.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Summer undergraduate research

'Tis the season for making summer plans, and undergrads are looking for research opportunities. I love having summer undergrads in the lab--they are usually super excited to be there, and I enjoy interacting with them. We've had great undergrad students in the lab so far. About a third of them end up co-authors on publications, which is win-win for everyone. I always ask my grad students if they want to mentor someone before signing them up for it, and many of my grad students ask for summer students even before I get to ask them about it first.

This year, for the first time, I am relying exclusively on interviews to decide on whether I will take a student or not. I have never been a huge believer that GPA is a good way to award these kinds of opportunities, so I thought I would put my money where my mouth is. With one caveat: I want students to be fairly compensated for the work they do in the lab, so low GPA students may need to figure out how they can do this (with my help, of course).

I strongly believe that students should receive cash or credit for research, which is after all, work. Since the coffers are a bit bare right now, I am telling all potential students that they must do one of the following: 1) meet the requirements to take research for credit (3.0 minimum GPA at ProdigalU) and sign up, or 2) apply for and receive a research award to cover at least half of their summer stipend, or 3) qualify for work-study so they can be partially paid through that program over the summer. This is something that actively troubles me, since while I don't WANT to have to consider GPA, with my funding situation the way it is, I have no choice. So far, half of the students I've interviewed are specifically looking for research for credit opportunities, since they are taking other classes anyway and would like to get some research experience as well. The other half plan on applying for summer fellowships.

We are fortunate because ProdigalU has loads of summer research fellowships students can apply for, but that usually doesn't help low GPA students. I haven't had any approach me yet about research this year, but if they don't qualify for work-study (and a large fraction of our students do), I will have to turn them away. I am not sure what to do about that--I literally don't have the money to pay full freight on an undergrad. At the same time, it is unfair to limit research opportunities to students wealthy enough to be able to volunteer. Summer research is a really different experience than undergrad research during the academic year when students are pulled in many directions by their classes. It is very sad that these possibly life-changing opportunities are pretty much the first thing to go when research money gets tight.