Month: December 2014

Dear Santa

What I want for Christmas this year is to, for once, not have to spend most of the kids’ two-week winter break trying to somehow squeeze in more time to work. I just want to do what I imagine normal state employees with vacation time do — take the time between Christmas and New Year’s off and actually focus on family or travel or getting some rest.

I want to, for just a little while, not constantly feel the guilt because of the looming mountain of work. I hate it that the only time to make significant strides in research or writing papers is between semesters, which makes it impossible to ever take a vacation. I love my work, but I hate it that there is never enough time for it and that I dread stepping away from it, because it just means that more work awaits my return.

Dear Santa, I wish I could have a winter break that is actually a break, without there being hell to pay once it’s over.
But, I know it might be too late to ask for it this year, especially because I have deadlines coming up and a ton of travel. I hear you are quite the globetrotter yourself!

If it’s easier, you could just talk to the Federal Grants Fairy, the Tooth Fairy’s second cousin twice removed, and put in a good word for my outstanding proposals. That would be swell! I have just the space under the Christmas tree for a notice-of-award printout, all rolled up and tied up with a pretty red ribbon…



Faculty Retention Bits

Every so often I am reminded that money rules everything.

I am at a major public research university. It’s a very good school, and it has a lot to be proud of.

When we recruit, we try to recruit the best of the cohort. Often, we are successful. Alas, the more successful we are and the more stellar the faculty we are able to recruit are, the less able we are to retain them.

There are superstar faculty who stay here because of the quality of life, especially when their kids are young. Sometimes they leave eventually, in their 50’s or 60’s, once the kids are grown.

But there are those for whom professional ambition is insatiable. That’s not a bad thing. People are entitled to make whatever professional choices make the most sense. What is disconcerting is watching the exit process unfold.

The ambitious colleague becomes more and more demanding, requiring more and more gymnastics from the department, college, and university administration. Many of their needs get met. Funds for their salaries and equipment get raised via complicated intramural channels involving department chairs, deans, provosts, dozens of staff, and possibly people whose job is to find loose change between sofa cushions. Other faculty hear about the ordeal and are not crazy about it.

But it’s not enough. There are always more requests for everyone’s time, for more funds, for more of various things (lab space!) and less of various other things (teaching! service!).

At some point, there is simply no more money to be had. This is a public school — there are limits to how much of a raise or how much space or how much discretionary funds one can get.

The ambitious colleague moves, and leaves behind irritated colleagues who are tired of all the provisions that were made in the name of retention, an exhausted department chair, and a very dissatisfied dean.

I wish we could, when we interview, screen for “Is this person going to be a pain in the a$$ and waste the time of many people for many years, making them cater to their many whims; will this person deplete the good will towards the department and the retention funds that could have gone to someone  who actually wanted to be retained?”

Some people say “Well, you got a good person even for a short amount of time. That’s better than not having recruited them at all.”

Sounds true in theory, right? I am not so sure, though. The first order effect is, yes, the good work that the good person has done; but, if they are junior or have been here for just a short while, it is questionable whether their limited presence is a marked net benefit to the department, considering that the department invested money into the startup  package, and would take some time to make good on the investment. The second-order effects of having someone who is difficult on board include straining the budget, pissing everyone else off, and having multiple staff members spend time on servicing these extraordinary requests. When renormalized with the hassle, a lot of very difficult high fliers are not really highfalutin enough to justify continued retention maneuvers.

On occasion, the person is not being difficult,  and makes a good case (infrequently!) for more money or equipment. This is where I wish we were able to afford to keep the colleagues and I envy the schools who swoop them away.


As of a few years ago, if you are an employee of my university, you must purchase airline tickets through the singular university-approved vendor. That is, if want your ticket reimbursed before the trip; if you dare buy a ticket in any other way, you have to wait until after the trip to get reimbursed.

Somebody lined their filthy pockets with this deal.

For domestic flights, you can use the online reservation system (based on the Concur platform, which I take is quite common), but then at the end there’s an agent who checks the reservation and finalizes it, then skims a fee. What annoys me awfully is that a) every time you call or email them, they charge an additional fee (even if all the calls are in regards to the same trip); b) you cannot book international flights, no matter how simple, through the online tool, you have to call or email the agency; c) you have to use the agency even though you can get lower prices pretty much anywhere online (I like Kayak for price comparison). If I want to take the better deal found elsewhere — because, you know, it’s my grant money and it doesn’t grow on trees, and we as PIs are supposed to be good stewards of these funds — I have to use personal funds and then wait until after the trip to get reimbursed; that’s fine for domestic flights where it’s OK to buy a ticket 2-3 weeks before the trip, but not for overseas travel.

I have two complicated, multi-city international trips this summer; I have no intention of having several thousand dollars sitting on my credit cards or having to be taken from my savings while I wait for reimbursement more than half a year from now. So I contacted the agency with the preferred itinerary. We have exchanged several emails regarding this trip. Every leg is more expensive than found elsewhere, and that’s sans fee; I am dying to find out how much of a fee the whole ordeal will incur.

And that’s why we can’t have nice things.

15-min Improv Blogging 2

1. I just received a revision of a paper I had previously reviewed. I gave them a very positive and enthusiastic first review, but required that they do two things, which I know they can do, as some of the authors have done them before on similar systems, and which I know would require a few weeks of work; the cost of the additional work is not onerous, as it’s computational. They came back not having done anything to the manuscript. They wrote a response in which they argued that what I had asked them to do was a great idea and something they should ideally do, but that it would take too much time (I disagree) so they just don’t want to do it right now.

A word of advice to anyone who will ever submit a paper for peer review: you should not expend all your time and energy on the response letter, arguing with the reviewer. If you don’t want to or cannot do what was required, then do something else instead. You have to make some edits in response to what was required. A comment, a reference, a paragraph of discussion along the lines of what the referee requested and why it is a good idea in principle but not right now and might be done later.

How can I accept your paper when you have made absolutely no edits whatsoever to it? As if  my first report never happened.

Err on the side of more editing rather than rebutting.

2. I am not an entrepreneur. I don’t want to be an entrepreneur. I just looked at the funding call from one of DoD agencies for technology transfer/small business proposals. Under one topic, they want to fund the development of a simulation tool that might well have the pics of me and my collaborator on it. But I don’t want to develop a commercial tool. I don’t want to have a company and sell the code. I don’t want to supervise people developing user interfaces. I want to develop codes to address scientific problems that are too complicated to tackle without computers.

In my area, dissemination of codes is not as common as it perhaps should be. There are all the usual culprits — people don’t want to lose the competitive advantage, they don’t have the time or resources to develop the user interface, they don’t have the time or personnel to provide user support for potential users of the code, and they are afraid that if they freely share the source code (which is generally not pretty or clean) they will be found lacking. Additionally, the lack of sharing in my area happens because of a big bad dragon (let’s just say a very difficult colleague) being very territorial about the existing dissemination resources; as the resources exist, it is hard to get money to develop new ones for free dissemination, yet the existing ones are basically under siege. Maybe I will just start posting source code on my group website with a disclaimer: Use “as is” and don’t bug us if you can’t. It’s free; how much user support do you expect?

3. It is starting to fully dawn on me just how much travel I have next year. It’s a lot. There are 9 trips I already know of. Ugh.

At least I got to lie low, sort of, this semester. But the time has come to pay the piper.

I spent a lot of time last night booking flights, paying registration (I am nowhere near done). Now all those receipts have to be submitted to accounting with appropriate justifications.
And of course once I am done with all of trips, reimbursement has to be filed.

Isn’t it awesome that PhDs get to spend many hours of their time doing travel booking and reimbursement? No need to hire administrative assistants when professors can do this work at no extra cost. Next, PhDs empty trash cans and clean the toilets at the university, then take over facilities management and do all the repairs themselves. This is an excellent use of their professional qualifications and as a side benefit no one has to hire cleaners or skilled repairmen. Imagine the savings!

Teaching Asininements

I am fuming. I am about to teach for a new (to me) undergraduate course with large enrollment. This course is usually taught by people in an area other than my primary one, but I am helping out because the other area is temporarily understaffed. Now I find out that this course, which had traditionally always had TA support, will no longer have a TA at all starting next semester because reasons.

Great. I have a huge new class and no help in the semester during which I have travel once or twice every month and have a major proposal renewal due. Yes, I know, I can have my graduate students help me,  and I fully plan on having them help, but that’s not the point. First, my students are paid as RAs on grants to do associated research; if they are doing a TA’s job, a TAship should pay for that. Second, I feel blindsided.

This ordeal brings up another aspect:  who teaches undergrads. We are having increasing student enrollments (a good thing) and I am one of the people who does a good job with undergraduate courses, as per student evaluations; also, I like teaching undergrads, they are fun. As a result, I end up teaching undergrad courses a lot. More often than average, it turns out. It is now virtually expected that I would teach undergrads: when I recently expressed that I wanted a graduate course next year, I received “But we can’t staff required courses!” Well, maybe you should ask one of the people who always seem to teach advanced electives or graduate courses.

Being a good department citizen sucks, because then everyone expects you to continue to be a good department citizen, forever and under all circumstances. Rather, I should follow the lead of my self-centered colleagues, who not only routinely get out of heavy instructional or service duties, but when they do decide to grace the department with some of their good will once in a blue moon, everyone thinks they are just wonderful. 

Navel Gazing: On Energy

In a comment to a recent post of mine, Zinemin asked  (and Ana seconded):
I have a question for you. I would be really curious to read what you would say about the topic of energy, since this is something I am currently thinking about.
It is clear that you operate on a very high level of energy. Most people would be overwhelmed doing a quarter of what you do. Why do you think you have such high energy? Is this genetic? Your upbringing? Very high motivation? Your way of thinking about things?
Have you had phases with low energy? Do you feel like you are “using up” your energy over the years, or do you have some way to replenish it?
I am asking this because I feel like I have used up a lot of energy over the years I spent in science and it is only slowly coming back, and I am not sure if I will ever be at the level that I was before. You however seem like you must have only become more energetic with time…. maybe it is like in sports. Some athletes have ruined their knee at 28, others are still successful at 40, and maybe it is small differences in how they move and how they manage themselves that make all the difference….”

I don’t know how I seem to people who only know me from my writing on the blog. Sometimes, when I read some very old posts, I wonder “Who the hell wrote this? This sounds nothing like me.” To be honest, I don’t think I am particularly energetic at all; I actually think I am quite lazy. I am not a poster child for anything really. Plenty of what I talk about falls under “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The way I envision a successful and respectable academic is someone who is lean and healthy, eats organic food and is possibly vegetarian, drinks water and sometimes unsweetened tea (rarely coffee and never soda), gets plenty of sleep and gets up early to exercise (bike or run or swim for miles), comes into work and works with inspiration and creativity and 100% focus for 8-9 hours while bathing in exercise-induced endorphins, then leaves in the evening to spend time with their lovely family. This person has a great work-life balance, spending weekends on enriching activities with the kids, who also run and bike and eat their vegetables, even ask for seconds! Their house is immaculate, as is their office. Order is everywhere. They have a standing desk in the office. This person is very eloquent, even-keeled, and universally loved and respected. Their jokes are PG and don’t make anyone uncomfortable, ever.  This person has a knack for politics and would make a fabulous administrator if they ever chose to go that route. Everyone asks how they do such a marvelous job of being a scientist, teacher, parent, and adventurer.

I know a few such people. They are the ones who should be dispensing advice, but I would be very surprised to find that they read blogs. They also might well be from Mars, as far as I am concerned, because how they operate is very alien to me.

I am basically the polar opposite of the ideal academic, so you don’t want to emulate me. Even I don’t want to emulate me, but I have little choice in the matter. But, hopefully, this essay helps the likes of me a little bit.

I don’t sleep enough, and I don’t exercise. I should lose weight. I don’t run, bike, or swim. I eat everything, and with great gusto. All of my family eats meat. Our younger two kids barely eat any vegetables (not for lack of trying on our part, I promise). Coffee is almost as important as air to me (I drink tea only when ill or when completely out of coffee and too lazy to go buy some). I would say that any semblance of balance I have in my life is because I have a  family and kids don’t thrive on chaos: kids need regular meals and sleep and time with their parents (all our kids are healthy and smart and get lots of rest) , so I do work regular hours and I don’t work too much over the weekends, except at crunch time. When it’s crunch time, I can work like a maniac, 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week; I am fortunate to have the stamina, I love every second of it, and crave being able to do more of it.  If I didn’t have a family, I would probably lead a very unbalanced and unhealthy life. My family weekends are embarrassingly low-key; we laze about in our pajamas and/or sweatpants, have kids over for playdates, and do chores (of late also chauffeur Eldest everywhere all the time; I am starting to appreciate the prospect of him driving at 16).  But DH and I are spread pretty thin and do what we can to steal some time for ourselves (individually and together). I have blogging, he has video games (hence the late bedtimes). We have a lot of chores between us.

Everyone in the academic enterprise is smart, and most people are smart enough to be successful. There is a great degree of luck in success, but personality also plays a role in how things turn out. There are a few aspects of my personality that I think have been useful for me to have. I am not saying they are necessary or even anywhere near ideal in general, but I think they are strongly correlated with my professional and personal standing (I am happy with both) in the overall mishmash that is my personality.

Accepting failure, embracing imperfection. First, I accept that nothing is perfect and I accept that I am imperfect and that I will fail at stuff (perhaps I anticipate failure to a fault). I think I have had this internalized since an early age. This enables me to be resilient, i.e. I do not get completely discouraged in the face of failure, and it the basis for my pigheadedness. Alas, this also means that I am probably too focused on the possibility of failure and am probably less bold in my professional life than I would be if I thought success were a virtual guarantee (I know several people whose self-confidence I wish I had; but then, they may simply be smarter and better at their job than me). Expecting the worst all the time does tend to wear you out. This is in no small part because of my upbringing; lots of gloomy specimens where I come from. But here’s an example of how tolerance of imperfection is a good thing. I used to smoke pretty heavily, and, like many smokers, tried to quit a number of times unsuccessfully, but I always knew that sooner or later I would have to quit. I quit when I got pregnant with baby No 1, then started again about 4 years later, but then about 1.5 years thereafter I quit for good after several fits and starts. During the 1.5 years, at some point I realized something had changed in me, and that I was seriously nearing quitting. I think you really need to get sick of yourself and your habit to do it. I quit for good after having started my faculty position 10 years ago and haven’t smoked since. In contrast, the guy whom I dated for years before I met my husband (15.5 years ago) and who was my smoker-buddy for much of my early twenties, still smokes. He has always waited for some sign from the heavens that he would be ready, because he said he wanted to be sure he would quit once and it would be for good, it would stick. He is a perfectionist all over, which got tedious and is one of the reasons we broke up. After years of him wanting for the stars to align perfectly (where we lived, where we worked) so we’d get on with our lives together or consider kids, at some point I said “Screw this” and I left him and the country. I am guessing stars haven’t aligned yet regarding his smoking either.

As I said above, when it comes to research, I operate in burst of high productivity followed by periods of near uselessness; at crunch time, the high-productivity periods involve long hours with high focus and feeling high on all the adrenaline. When I am feeling useless, I do all the other stuff like teaching, writing homework solutions, various service, book hotels and flights, reimbursement. I can do all these with very little intellectual engagement or inspiration, so I do them. That way I don’t feel like a total procrastinator and the times when I am in top form are spent on the tasks that require it. A big part is also knowing when you can perform intellectually demanding tasks and when you cannot. While I can write homework solution for an undergrad class or file for trip reimbursement even after not sleeping for 2 days, I cannot write a strong rebuttal to a scathing review or a competitive white paper for a funding solicitation without having my wits about. So I believe this also falls under working around imperfection: maybe Tuesday I have no inspiration for research, but I can do all this other crap. Or maybe I have to take a short nap in my office (I cannot stress enough the importance of a chair that’s conducive to napping. Clearly, I will never have a standing desk). But on Wednesday, I might crank out 1/3 of a brand new proposal and successfully troubleshoot with a grad student who had been stuck for weeks.

Restlessness/boredom and inability to adopt traditional organization paradigms. I am not sure this is a good or a bad thing, but it is a part of my personality, and a very important one. I have accepted it  and organized my life and my work around it. I get bored really, really easily, with everything. Every routine that I have ever come up with has to be rehashed frequently because I can’t take it. I can plan and pre-cook meals for a week in advance, but I will get bored with it after a few weeks, then will resort to spur-of-the-moment cooking during the week after work for a while even though it’s more tiring. There are people who are organized, make lists of everything and that works for them. Lists make me physically uncomfortable, because I have never been able to put in a list everything that goes in the crazy head, and trying to do that causes me discomfort; I use a calendar on the phone for things I will likely forget, like dentist appointments and student defenses, and set up two alerts for each, but the rest it just in my head, I can’t do lists.

I also cannot take too many standing long-term commitments (e.g. commit to a collaborative meeting every week on Thursday even though much of the time is wasted and is better spent me writing) because they cause me anguish and I bail on them (my long-term commitments begin and end with my family and my students). God knows it is unbelievably easy to get overcommited in academia because there are heaps of service to go around (some useful, much bullshit) and many people seem to feel useful when meetings happen, no matter how pointless or unproductive they are. I am a horrible meeting-avoider, so instead of bailing, I just automatically say no; indulging this aspect of my personality has done wonders for my happiness. (I also minimized seminar attendance. Sometimes, seminars are fun and useful. Often, they are not. It’s OK to miss them when they don’t seem of interest. It really is.)

Basically, I try to keep my schedule in flux as much as I can. Long term weekly commitments are: teaching, office hours (I cancel them if there’s no homework due or if we’d just had an exam), weekly faculty meeting (skipped when possible), once-a-month university meeting, and my weekly group meeting (skipped when overworked or students have exams or too many people out of town). Everything else is done via email, if possible, or scheduled on a need basis (PhD defenses) or only 0-2 days in advance (1-on-1 with students). I will absolutely not do long-term meeting commitments other than listed above. Instead of having my will to live killed by meetings, I have some big blocks of time to do writing and reading in, and am much better at keeping them uninterrupted then I was as a noob professor, even though I am much busier now.

There is an aspect that people sometimes ignore: people who have a lot of meetings or a lot of travel seem busy and very important. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about looking busy and important enough. I am mostly over it; yet, ironically, I am busier and more important than ever. But with fewer meetings.

Being in touch with what you want. This is really key for long-term sustainability of anything that you do. Being able to somehow sift though everything that you are supposed to want or be, and get to the bottom of what you really want. This can actually be very hard, and it’s not a straightforward process. And even if you know what you want, you may feel like you don’t have the right to go for it, or that it’s not the right time, or that your going for it will hurt someone (all of these have happened to me more than once). Even here it helps to take it easy on yourself and allow for imperfection; maybe you don’t know what you want today, but will in a few months. Maybe you don’t have the guts to go after what you want today, but you might later. I know that I generally always know, deep inside, what I want, but very often don’t act on it, and nearly 100% of the time I delay doing what I know is right (this is balanced by me speaking out sooner than ideal 100% of the time). But ultimately being able to take understand what you want and allow yourself to have it is critical for happiness.

OK, finally, the question of energy. As I said, I don’t think I am very energetic, maybe I just give off a different impression with my writing. I probably would have more energy with more exercise and a cleaner diet, devoid of stimulants like coffee. I have done that a few times, even lost like 30+ lbs on WW, but it was too restrictive and not a sustainable lifestyle for me. After 5 months I felt too deprived to continue and I went off the wagon, then because I’ve been-there-done-that my boredom issue kicked in, so I have never thereafter been able to get back on that same program. I will have to find a way to get more energetic and more fit without boredom or too much deprivation. At least temporarily. I will wrangle some unicorns while I am at it.

As for the energy to do work, people tell me it goes in cycles. I currently feel very good about my work (apparently, has been lasting for over a year now), after having made changes to my MO that I had long wanted to make but thought I shouldn’t. I dropped some collaborations, I dropped some research topics, and I started doing the work I was interested in with my students. Some of these collaborations used to come with meetings that I found tedious, useless, and requiring too much commitment from me. All these “droppings” had a profound effect on my motivation at work. A few years ago, I though I had completely lost my mojo and the professional future looked rather bleak, as in “Why am I doing any of this? Everything is stupid.” But then I realized I was doing way too much what I thought was expected of me and too little what I wanted. So at some point my feeling miserable overcame the anxiety about doing the wrong thing, and that finally gave me the courage to do what I wanted to do all along.

I think people often assume that there is a fault with the things that they want and they deny themselves (I am not talking about candy, although who doesn’t like candy? but things such as changing fields of research, or job, or partner). Sometimes what you want is hard to get or dangerous or imprudent, sometimes it hurts others, but if you are constantly feeling unhappy and tired, but are physically healthy, it’s worth asking whether there are things deep down that make you unhappy and that could be changed, and what the reasons are that you are not changing them.

For instance, I would like to live someplace warmer or where we have more friends. But, I like the department, I am respected, and after 10 years family and I are settled. This is the kids’ home. My husband loves his job. We have it good here. So I am ultimately OK with staying put and not acting on what I want, for now.

But chasing funding fads and not being able to catch my breath because I am constantly pursuing what others think is important as opposed to what I think is important? I have tenure now, I don’t actually have to do that. It used to make me deeply, profoundly unhappy, and it spilled into my personal relationships. So I went back to doing things my way, and even did some work where my personal style was applied to the topics others are interested in, which resulted in unexpectedly warm reception. In research, like in art, you have to be authentic: if you don’t burn with love for your work, no one else will.

So how do you replenish energy? Barring physical issues, I think the key is to understand what you really want, and identify what is stopping you from pursuing it: is the goal truly unrealistic (e.g. a 42-year-old woman playing in the NBA) or a little risky (changing jobs or careers) or at the level of disappointing someone (mom will question why you sunk all those years into a PhD or into a specific boy when nothing came of said PhD/boy)? Give yourself  the permission to go after as many of the things that you really want as you can, without putting anyone in jail or needlessly endangering anyone’s life, limb, sanity, or long-term well-being.

Dear readers, what helps you replenish energy? 

Down the Memory Lane: Math in K-12 Science Classes

Zinemin has a great post on understanding physics (and math) in high school.

I started writing a comment, then it got so long-winded that I decided (for once) to not hog other people’s comment threads with my verbosity, but to put it all in a post. Here’s what the comment would have been (Zinemin is a physicist, so some of the verbiage is more physicist-friendly than entirely general).


I grew up and went to grade school and college in Europe, so my experience as a student is quite different from what I see that my kids and students experiencing.

I think I started falling in love with math sometime in primary school (we had grades 1-8 as primary school, then grades 9-12 as secondary/high school). I had a wonderful math teacher in grades 5-8 and I think that made a ton of difference. (By the way, all teaches in grades 1-4 were what would here be education majors, but to teach grades 5 and onward the teachers had to have a bachelor’s degree in the subject they were teaching.) My primary school math teacher made everything clear and I remember looking forward to practicing at home from the books of problems (we didn’t have homework in most subjects past grade 5, just collections of problems from which to work at home); I remember doing problems in algebra and proving congruence of triangles. I think this confidence that I gained in grades 5-8 never left me when it comes to math.

I started having physics as a separate subject in 6th grade. I remember one of the most appealing aspects was the fact that I got to use my beloved algebra; we did the basic mechanics stuff — motion with constant velocity or constant acceleration; ballistic motion. We must have done the concepts of force and energy, because  I remember making my dad teach me some basic trigonometry during the summer after grade 6th because I wanted to do inclined-plane problems. The physics lab was beautiful, I still remember these posters with the basic SI units, derived SI units, common prefixes. The physics teacher was excellent.

In high school I had a great math teacher throughout, and a great physics teacher in grades 11 and 12. My physics teacher in grades 9 and 10 sucked, when we covered thermodynamics and much of electromagnetism, and I still feel like I don’t know them very well. This is of course ridiculous, since thereafter I won awards in all sorts of physics competitions, I went on  to major in theoretical physics and get a PhD in a related discipline. Still, there is a faint visceral insecurity about those particular classical physics topics stemming from this wobbly initial exposure, even though I use thermodynamics and electrodynamics all the time in research and teaching.

I started loving chemistry in high school, because I had several excellent teachers who showed us what the underlying laws were and why. I even went to chemistry high school competitions (I could titer with the best of them).  During high school, I developed a deep distaste for biology because all that my two high school biology teachers ever made me do is cram and regurgitate their lectures back to them; I still occasionally have nightmares about answering questions about the nervous systems of nematodes. I never particularly cared about the nature/outdoors (the kid of the concrete jungle and all that), so all the botany stuff was lost on me. I really enjoyed what falls under basic cell biology (e.g. what different organelle do, the role of RNA). At one point, in perhaps sophomore year, we were learning about neural synapses, and based on what she taught, it seemed to me like I could think of synapses as little capacitors that can get charged of discharged; I don’t remember the details other than that I came up with this simple circuit-level model of how information travels through a network of neurons based on how I understood what she had taught and based on what I knew of electrical circuits; the teacher was very rude and dismissive, she said something about not being interested in my silly ideas and to take the stuff to the physics teacher, and that she wanted me to learn the material exactly as she had lectured. So yeah. I don’t like biology because my fee-fees were hurt. Even though intellectually I recognize the importance and difficulty of problems in biomedical sciences, something deep inside me cringes and shrivels whenever someone proposes a collaborative project that veers anywhere towards bio.

These early exposures seem to have a pronounced effect on how much confidence we gain, and confidence appears critical for later achievement. But I digress…

My Eldest is like an education experiment for me and my husband, because the system is very different from what we are used to and we have no idea what comes next. Where I went to school, the system was challenging and very good for smart kids, while average and below-average kids were left to just get bad grades or flunk and generally never do well. The US does a much better job catering to the average future citizen, presumably because the above-average ones are expected to find a way to excel anyway; they sometimes do, but they rarely do if they are poor.  (nicoleandmaggie write a lot about challenges in getting access to education for gifted kids).

In connection with Zinemin’s post, I am witnessing my Eldest in the US pre-college education system and it is appalling how little connection is made between math and any of the sciences. Eldest is a freshman in high school, and they have integrated science (won’t have physics separately till junior or senior year, and even so only as an elective). This year, so far he’s had a unit of physics here and there, but they do not use math at all. You should have seen how they covered light that we observe from different stars, and inferences about star temperature or distance from color and brightness; it made my skin crawl. The math needed for the Stefan-Boltzmann law or Wien’s displacement law is really not that hard, a high school student could understand the power emitted per unit area of what’s essentially a generalization of the heater on the stove goes as temperature to the fourth, or why the intensity decreases as inverse distance squared from a source (such as a lightbulb; or a star). But it was all very qualitative, completely hand-wavy, with vague concepts such as perceived brightness and actual brightness (no definition of either and no textbook; based on the problems assigned, I managed to decipher the two to be, respectively, the intensity of light here on Earth (power per unit area) and total power emitted from the entire surface of the star; the fact that one is called perceived brightness and one actual brightness and they don’t even have the same units makes me want to break something. Once I deciphered what was meant, I was able to help my son with the work, but you should have seen his resistance. He is very good at math and can definitely do the manipulations needed for the calculations (it was a problem with three stars and their perceived/actual brightnesses and sizes and distances from Earth, so very simple algebra was all that was needed). Eldest just didn’t understand why I would want to inflict this math on him when the science teacher didn’t do it, it wasn’t necessary, and everything could just be handwaved. This is the only physics unit I saw him have this year; he might have had more, he just didn’t need help (he has excellent grades overall). But from what he mentioned  in passing, most of the integrated science focuses on biology, a little chemistry, some geology and some astronomy, but nothing with even with a little math.

When I try to show my kid what I do for research, he zones out within 20 seconds because it is boring, and cannot understand why I would want to work on the stuff I work on because boooooring. This attitude appears common and continues into college. My undergraduate students still seem to think that they can be taught things in our physical science discipline without using math, as if math were some cruel curiosity that has no real use or connection to the concepts. It pains me when I hear this. Math is the language of nature and the fact that we can speak it is nothing short of miraculous.

Musings on Teaching

What makes a good teacher? I am sure that people who work in education have precise metrics for what effective teaching means.

I am not an education scholar, but I do teach, so doing it well is important to me (and to most of the readership, I am sure). I am at a research university, which means that teaching is an important aspect, but also one that is secondary to research. It is not faculty who unilaterally decide to focus on research. The prestige and grant funding that come from research are what drives this emphasis, which is enthusiastically endorsed by university administration.

In my view, there are roughly three important facets of traditional teaching. The performance art of teaching, the 1-1 or small-group interactions with students (discussions, office hours, emails), and the course materials (including exams).

The performance art of teaching: being “good in the classroom,” being charming and engaging. Being able to convey your knowledge clearly and effectively. At research universities, some of the best in-class teachers-performers are indeed the well-funded and successful researchers. This should come as no surprise, as the ability to explain and engage are as important when impressing panel reviewers as they are when trying to animate sleepy undergrads in a required freshman course. Being an interesting lecturer correlates strongly with good teaching evaluations: students highly value being engaged. This aspect of teaching is also one that comes much more easily to some faculty than others; for those who are naturally charismatic presenters, it doesn’t take much time or effort to mesmerize the crowd.

The second part are 1-on-1 or small-group interactions. The flipped classroom strives to eliminate the lecture in favor of small-group interactions that follow out-of-class viewing of videos. In a traditional classroom, these may be office hours or a discussion section. Few-people interactions are very beneficial to student learning, but many students don’t take advantage of them. Holding frequent office hours, for instance, where only 1-2 students show up, requires a lot of professorial time, but likely has a very small effect on teaching evaluations, even though it helps a lot to those who show up. Also, spending a lot of time on email is one of those things that everyone expects, so you will likely be penalized in evaluations if you don’t do it, but won’t be praised if you do. Gotta love the thankless effort.

Finally, there are the course materials. In my opinion, good course materials (I include exams in this category, as a good exam is not just a test but an education opportunity) are critical for student learning and require considerable time to create. These days, many people teach with PPT slides. It works for some, perhaps many people, so kudos to the readers for whom it does. I appreciate that PPTs take a ton of time to make, so the effort is not lost on me. But I have always hated PPT lectures as a student, as they made me fall asleep. The teachers who worked with PPTs alone generally didn’t move from the lectern, which further made everything more static and my narcoleptic self would just doze off. Good homework assignments and projects (and their equivalents in the humanities), which  really bring key concepts into focus and enforce what was done in class, are hard to develop. In my view, this is exactly the most important part of learning for the students, because they don’t really retain anything until they try to apply what they think they grasped in lecture to actual concrete problems. That’s where they see they didn’t get all they thought they got. However, copious or difficult materials that really lead to learning are not necessarily widely appreciated by students, especially not in the short term, i.e. not on the time scales relevant for student evaluations.

Some of the best lecturers I have had didn’t end up teaching me much in the long run. The lectures were breezy and fun, but the breeze and fun came at the cost of rigor and substance. On the other hand, some of the people that I learned the most from were pretty boring in the classroom, but the materials that we had to go through really did it for me and made me learn. Of course, it is quite possible and perhaps not even rare to have a teacher who is both charismatic in the classroom and a master project/homework creator. My absolutely best teacher ever was the author of a beloved textbook classic, magnificent in the classroom (not what you would call charismatic, but still strangely captivating), and giving the best, most interesting exams I have ever had in my life — they profoundly affected how I design my exams these days. I remember loving his courses and looking forward to his brain-teasing tests; most of the graduate student populace dreaded them as tricky.

Sometimes people say that great teaching doesn’t require a lot of time. I would say that great lecturing probably doesn’t require a lot of time. I am the first to say that I can work an undergraduate classroom quite effectively with very minimal preparation. While a traditional lecture with an enticing teacher is where interest might be sparked, learning doesn’t happen until the students themselves do the work.

My best teacher ever said that 20% of the students will do well no matter how poorly you teach, 20% will do poorly no matter how well you teach, and there is the middle 60% where your teaching can make a difference, so they are the ones we should be teaching to. Based on my experience, a good teacher inspires a student to want to put in the work and learn; a great teacher organizes the course and makes the materials such that even the students who are not inspired end up learning the essentials, in spite of themselves.