Archive for: February, 2011

Guest Blogge!

Feb 13 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

This has been a while in the works, but we've got a guest blog(ge) up and running around these parts. It will be starting up this week and be kicking ass well into May.

The premise is simple, basically Scientopia members nominate blogs we read that we think you should too. Those who accepted a guest blog spot get two weeks to write here and bring their unique voice and style to you. The first post can be found here.

The schedule for the first round is as follows:

February 13-26
Zygoma and Frautech

February 27-March 12
Thony C from The Renaissance Mathematicus and bloggers from Disability Studies, Temple U.

March 13-26
Rue from Outdoor Afro

March 27-April 9
KJ Haxton from Endless Possibilities v3.0 and Patrice Brassard and Émilie Pérusse-Lachance from Le Physiologiste

May 8-21
Scientist Mother


No responses yet

Having a second is completely different from the first

Feb 11 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Last year around this time I was frantic. Things in the lab were ramping up in a big way, I was trying to get a handle on juggling everything that comes with this job, I was writing a few new proposals and I was teaching my first real undergrad class. That class was my nemesis. Not the students, but the slides. Oh, those fucking slides. And the grading. And organizing the lab. Etc.

As some background, I took over an existing class and was generously given all the materials from the previous person who taught the class. This was a tremendous help, but also skewed my perspective on how much work the class was going to be. I figured I could teach it roughly the same way that it had been in the first year, with a few tweaks, and see what worked and what didn't. In the following year I could revamp some things and everything would be great. I was wrong. Very wrong.

By week two I knew I was screwed. It turned out that the previous person and I just lecture very differently and I had to dump all of the old slides. I also changed a major component to the lab before thinking hard about how that would affect parts of the class, which meant I created a bunch of fires I then had to put out. If I hadn't had an extremely competent TA the whole thing would have been a train wreck.

The class took a heavy toll on me, especially when I got behind on things and was facing 10 slides at 11:00 pm for the next morning's 75 minute lecture. I tried finding ways to have the students to more during the class, but as a new teacher, I had a hard time finding the right balance to keep them interested. Lack of sleep and the constant feeling of under performing was rough. By the end of the semester I was oatmeal.

The good news is that this year has been very different. Rather than feeling like a constant struggle, I've been able to make adjustments to the course and the slides far more easily with the experience of last year behind me. Even with the minor addition of a second class for a short period of time, I still feel like I'm on top of everything that needs doing. Granted, I don't have a ton of time for much else while teaching both classes and I have a few things that need writing, which are getting back burnered. But at least I have the time to make those things happen and it is not a choice between not sleeping and dealing with the writing.

After a very painful initial introduction into teaching, the second go-round has been much smoother. I know everyone says the third time is when you can shift into cruise control, but the difference between this year and last has made me think "Alright, I can do this." rather than "OMG MYHEADGONNAASSPLOAD", which I was dangerously close to last year.

So, if you are currently struggling with your first, just know that the second one is easier.

Wait, what did you think this post was about?

6 responses so far

Dressed for... teaching?

Feb 10 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

Just a quick poll today for those of you who have, or are, teaching in any capacity.

15 responses so far

Why average is a bad way to measure temperature

Feb 09 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

Me: Hello, I'm just wondering if there is something you can do about the temperature in the classroom I teach in.

Facilities Guy: What's the problem?

Me: Well, on Monday it was 60 degrees and everyone was wearing coats. Today it was 85 and could have passed for a sauna.

FG: It's set for 72.

Me: But it is never actually at 72, rather at least 10 degrees in either direction. And there is no way to change it in the room when I get there to determine whether layers need to go on or off.

FG: Yeah, it is centrally set and works on an average.

Me: Allowing a 20 degree standard deviation?

FG: What?

Me: Nothing. Is there any way that we can get it closer to that 72?

FG: You can open windows.

Me: The room doesn't have windows.

FG: Right, then no.

Dude, Fuck. Sigh....

12 responses so far

The interview dinner

Since interview season is in full swing I thought I would get something up that has some relevance for some of the people I know going through this process. If you've missed Dr. Becca's TT advice aggregator, you may want to check that out as well. There's a lot of good advice there but I though I would tackle the interview dinner today. Typically, this is on the night between your two day interview, often after your formal seminar and with a small group of 4-6 faculty.

The purpose of this dinner is sort of a "get to know you" kinda thing. IME, the conversation is less centered around science and more for the group to get a feel for what you do outside of work and for you to ask questions about the department, the university and the area. People may talk about their families and the schools in the area and you can make a call as to whether or not you discuss your own family/relationship status. The main goal of the faculty is to determine if you would be the type of person they would get along with for potentially the next 20 years and your main goal is to figure out if you are willing to do the same. I have found the dinner to be the least formal aspect of the interview, but no less informative for both the interviewers and interviewee.

Although informal, don't assume that people won't notice a lot about you. As such, here are a few suggestions.

1) It should be obvious, but don't get sloshed. A glass of wine with dinner, sure. Three? probably a bad idea. A bottle or two might be bought for the table, but if people keep offering to fill your glass (and they might) use the "I want to be sharp for tomorrow" excuse and stick with water.

2) If you have dietary preferences or constraints, either make them known ahead of time or check the restaurant menu online to make sure it will be suitable. Better to not make everyone uncomfortable by revealing that you are a vegan while sitting in a steak house.

3) Remember that you are there for the interview, not the meal. Don't take forever deciding what you want to eat or have 34 caveats to your order. You don't need to subtly send the message that you are picky or really difficult. Again, if you are, check the menu ahead of time and decide then what you want. Less time looking over the menu, more time engaging the faculty.

4) Don't pick the most expensive thing on the menu, nor the messiest. A whole lobster is probably a bad idea, on both fronts.

5) Enjoy yourself. The dinner should be fun and an opportunity to get to know people a little. Having some humorous anecdotes and don't let the conversation lag into awkward pauses if you can help it.

19 responses so far

Don't drink the water...

Feb 07 2011 Published by under [Life Trajectories]

Not to be out done by ScientistMother, GMP or Isis, we've also re-upped our membership in the Grow Your Own Club. At our current family size of 3.35, we've just exceeded the national average. Brace yourself blog folk, for Tales of the Weer One.

27 responses so far

Wait, does anyone else smell irony in the air?

A noticed a link on FaceBook the other day, purportedly about the failure of the American education system. I followed it to an Op-Ed piece in the Boston Globe that assploded my unintentional comedy meter.

It starts off looking like the piece is going to be a discussion of the new book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses’’, by two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The Op-Ed piece cites it as claiming "that 45 percent of the 2,300 students they analyzed showed no improvement in a range of vital skills, from critical thinking to writing, over the first two years of college" Without having read the book, I won't comment on whether what they tested was valid or not, but that hardly matters for discussing this article, because that is where references to anything other than random opinion stop.

After managing to read the jacket cover of the book, the author decides to investigate this important nugget by informally survey three friends who are grad students, because, "After all, they weren’t in college that long ago themselves, and are often on the front lines of lecturing and grading younger collegians." Clearly this, and the fact that the authors claims his friends are at good schools, is credential enough to render judgment on the US education system as a whole.

Without providing any details about the field these friends are in, the level of students they are talking about, how long his friends have been graduate students or the sample size of students they have interacted with, the author goes on to quote his friends on how horribly unprepared college students are there days. Though mentioning in passing that his friends' random opinions are "anecdotal" (no shit?), they do serve as the sole source for his wannabe-expose of college students and the horrible teaching they receive.

"Grading easily is “definitely the custom,’’ wrote Kelly.... Mike pointed to a skewed incentive system... Jill pointed a finger at the lack of supervision of inexperienced adjunct professors" So, we've got easy grading, incentive to make students happy instead of rigor and those damn adjunct profs who just don't care. Oh, and plagiarism, but that comes at the end of the article.

I won't argue that these types of problems crop up in our educational system and that are issues. I have talked very recently about trying to balance what I think the students should learn versus how they expect to be taught, and it is a struggle to find the right balance.

But, when you include text like "Their students had trouble with the bare basics of making or analyzing an argument. Jill said that her students’ papers 'are replete with sweeping generalizations and overly simplistic and overly confident perspectives on complex issues.'’’ might not you want to avoid using sweeping generalizations and overly simplistic and overly confident perspectives on complex issues? Would it be a good idea to make or analyze an actual argument? Or perhaps this was actually a report produced by one of Jill's students, because the author falls into the exact traps that he bemoans. I realize that as an Op-Ed piece it is welcome to be the most basic piece of tripe it wants to be, but it is clear there was no class on irony in Mr. Singal's educational background.

I'm pretty sure that not a day goes by without someone claiming that the system done been broke and how students waste their money and most shouldn't be in college, etc., etc., puke. Education certainly needs to be more of a focus in the US. I don't know about you, but whenever there are state or town budget cuts where I live, it seems like the schools are the first to take it in the teeth. K-12 education needs improvement and support, just as the university system does, but IME, 95% of the stories we hear are about 5% of the students. This is especially true when one contacts three friends and says "Hey, I'm writing an opinion piece about how bad education is in the US, give me some fodder!"

Chicken Littles have never solved anything and bad writing is bad writing, whether in a news paper or in a college book report.

5 responses so far

Caution! May become extremely boring after 50 minutes

Feb 02 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

My teaching this semester is driving me nuts, but not because of the content or amount. I am in the midst of teaching two courses and the material overlaps significantly. Despite this, the classes could not be any more different.

Class 1
Subject: "BakedGoodsology"
Size: ~60 students
Meets: 50 mins, M/W/F around noon.

Class 2
Subject: "Pastryology"
Size: ~30 students
Meets: 75 mins, T/R morning (college morning, not real morning)

For Class 1 I am teaching the portion of a broader class that specifically relates to my more specific Class 2. As such, a large amount of the early material for both classes is similar. Both courses are upper-level courses populated by a similar level of students. I therefore assumed that the two classes would react to the material is roughly the same way, but I could not have been more wrong.

Class 1, despite being the larger of the two, is actively engaged and I rarely have to wait for a response to the questions I often pose during the lectures. Looking around the room I typically see the vast majority of students either taking notes or looking back at me, at least doing a decent job of appearing to be paying attention. The students ask good questions and seem interested in the material.

Class 2 is like teaching the undead. Same material, same questions, same (probably bad) jokes and only the sound of crickets to greet my pauses after a question for the class. When I look around the room I see as many tuned out blank stares as I do students paying attention. WTF is going on? The only real differences are the time of the class, the length they are sitting there, size of the class and the room, otherwise we are covering roughly the same stuff.

The difference between the two is as perplexing as it is maddening. If I were not dealing with Class 1 I would be concerned that my teaching style is completely wrong for this stuff, but I now have an experiment suggesting that is not the case. My best guess is that the length of T/R classes puts students in a mindset to be less engaged, but I could be completely wrong. I would be curious if others have experienced something similar.

11 responses so far

Culturing a workaholic

Feb 01 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Way way back as a wee PLS in grad school, I can distinctly remember thinking that I would never be PI material because I couldn't imagine working as hard as my advisor. Nights, weekends, holidays, didn't matter. If I sent an email I would get a response within an hour, and this was before phone-enabled internet access. The dude just worked. He has a family and they would often steal away to go skiing or boating, but if he was in town he was typing something.

I went on to do a postdoc anyway and had a second advisor with similar habits. "Great", I thought, "How am I going to pull this off?" My postdocs hours were decent, but there was rarely a time that I HAD to bring work home or work full tilt on the weekends. I did sometimes, but I was pretty successful without clocking massive hours. It was good.

I have been in my current position for 2.5 years (*shudder*) and something subtle has happened. I have progressively starting working more and more hours as layers of responsibilities have been dropped from above. I realized this weekend that my work-free days are rare, when the discussion of what we were doing over the weekend mainly centered around whether I was going to be working from my office or home. I don't know when it got to this, there wasn't a single event or moment when I decided that I needed more hours working, but after dinner and once we have read the Wee One her bedtime story, I'm off to my self-imposed basement banishment.

I don't know how else to get everything done that needs doing or keep on top of the bazillion little things that come up on a constant basis. Perhaps I'm just more inefficient with my time than others, but despite not seeing how I could work the kind of hours my previous advisors do, I'm starting to realize that it isn't really a choice. The choice is between getting things done and letting balls drop all around you. At the moment I am choosing the former, for how long I don't know.

31 responses so far

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