Month: August 2016

Graded Exams Distributed by Drones. Not

American academics all know about FERPA. Basically, in college, a student’s education records are not to be disclosed to anyone but the student without the student’s explicit consent.

In day-to-day operations, that means we should not be sharing information about the students’ grades on homework or exams with anyone but the student.

I am more careful than many of my colleagues in this regard. For instance, in my hallway, there are still piles of last semester’s graded uncollected HW for classes taught by some my colleagues, with students’ names and in some (misguided) cases even the student ID number clearly visible on the assignments. These piles linger until they are collected or thrown away.

I have been collecting HW and returning comments and grades electronically for years, so nobody but the student (and me and the grader, if I have one) can see the student’s HW scores.

As for exams, I think multiple choice exams are an abomination, so my exams test the student’s ability to set up as well as solve a problem, and have to be graded by a human, which in the absence of adequate TA support is generally me (yes, even for 100+ people).

When I bring back graded exams, I don’t leave them out there in piles for people to collect, as doing so would make everything visible to everyone, and would also cause chaos and mayhem, with everyone digging through the giant pile. Instead, I come in 10 min early and I start distributing exams — I call each of the students by name and hand over the exam to them. I go through the whole pile 2-3 times as the students trickle in, and am usually done 5-10 min into the class. Then, as everyone has gotten their paper, we go over the course stats and I do the problems on the board. (By the way, I try really hard to learn all students names, and usually by mid-semester I know everyone’s names even if the class is 100+ people; giving the exams to each of them individually really helps remember who’s who.)

Sometimes students ask me if they can pick up the exam for one of their friends who didn’t come to class, and I only allow it if they can show me that they have received a text or an email from the friend to the effect of “Joe, could you please pick up my XXX 123 midterm? Thanks! -Jane”

But, other than that, I find that students don’t particularly care about their classmates’ scores and are focused on their own. Often, I will have several students in my office after the midterm wanting to discuss their grade and I ask every single one of them if they are okay with the others being in the office as  we discuss the exam or if they would prefer to be alone; the vast majority of students don’t mind if there is anyone else around.

So I think I am mindful of student privacy and try to make sure the information is not needlessly or carelessly shared.

Which is why I was really taken aback by a student comment I received after last semester’s class.

This was a student in a large class, where students sit jam-packed in rows, each row seating 6-8 people. If someone sits in the middle of their row and not in the first or last row of their block of rows, I have so send their paper to them through the hands of the folks closer to me, because we are as yet not using drones for targeted distribution of graded exams.

This student (I don’t know who, since this came out in anonymous course evaluations, but I have a hunch) complained that me returning exams was causing zir (zir=him or her) a lot of anxiety, because when I return exams I am not subtle; the score is written on the front page and, since the student sits in the middle of the row, all of the students to the left or zir (or right, depending on where I am at that point) see zir core, as they pass the test on to zir. Apparently, me returning exams this way, in which the student’s score might be seen by 3-4 people who generally don’t give a toss and just pass it along, is causing this student so much anxiety that ze avoids coming to class on the days when I am supposed to return exams. The student requests that I pass the graded tests face down, or that I write the total score and percentage on the second page (as opposed to the first page).

I have been a prof for 12 years, and was a TA for years before that, and it never occurred to me this would be an issue, so I want to see what people here think.

On the one hand, I do not want to violate students’ privacy, but I had no idea that someone would be this inconvenienced by a practice that I feel is really benign. I also really don’t want to cause people anxiety, if I can help it. But, I also need to be able to do my job and do it in a timely manner. I have no intention of writing the total score on the second page, but I could return the papers face down; however, remembering this extra step — to flip the exam paper after calling the name out and right before sending it down the row — will take me some time to make a habit, because I do walk around with giant piles of papers with the names up (so I could actually see the names and distribute them).

On the other hand, my gut reaction to the comment was that the student was overreacting and was being unreasonable in zir expectations. First, this student greatly overestimates how much others in the class care about zir scores; I don’t think that I have ever seen anybody glance at the paper of someone whom they don’t know and who just happens to be sitting in their row. Second, the student does not know or appreciate the fact that many, many precautions have been taken to ensure zir privacy already, and that in a large class it is very hard to do work that involves exchange of graded materials between instructor and students in anything resembling a timely manner, unless everything is done electronically (or I actually get those drones).

My gut reaction is to dismiss this comment as whiny and overly demanding, but I do not trust my gut, because I am aware that my gut is calibrated to the school system I went through, where everyone knew everyone else’s scores (all exam scores were posted in the department lobby, and in grade school and high school all grades were read to the whole class); everyone knew who the smart kids where and who the not-so-smart-kids were, so shaming was liberally employed as a way to push people to improve performance.

So cannot dismiss the comment is whiny and overly demanding based on my gut. I do not know if I should dismiss it at all as a one-off and go back to business as usual, or if this is something I should think about henceforth when distributing graded exams.

What say you, blogosphere? Ignore as one-off and/or unreasonable or act to correct my exam-distribution practices? I seek counsel from those among you who have had more experience in the US educational system, which has much higher expectations of student privacy than Europe or Asia (I don’t know about South America, Australia, or Africa).

A Geeky Pop-Culture Update

I had great plans for this week. I was finally going to take a week off work, sleep in (younger kids’ last week at camp) and take daily walks, take care of some long-standing errands, and recuperate after an exhausting summer, in order to be refreshed before going into what promises to be a very busy school year.

How silly of me to make plans! I came back from a trip Friday night to a feverish Smurf. He’s still ill with what appears to be a benign but highly uncomfortable primary infection with the virus that is exceedingly common and gives people cold sores. He’s feverish and has mouth sores, so he hasn’t eaten much in four days. So I have spent the last 4 days and likely will the next week or so (these mouth sores take 7-14 days to heal, poor baby) with a whimpering Smurf lying across me, both of us watching movies pretty much all day. Do not ask how many times I have seen Kung Fu Panda 3 (which is pretty great, btw, on par with the first one; I don’t even remember the second one). Also, all Lego short movies on Netflix are hilarious. I recommend Lego Ninjago and Lego Marvel Super Heroes (gotta love the angsty Spiderman).

I also got sick after the mad push to a deadline along with travel last week, so all the cartoon watching with an adorable albeit sick Smurf has been a really welcome forced vacation. Even if I wanted to cheat on myself and my vacation plans (which, let’s face it, I totally would, because the new-semester barrage of emails has already started), now I can’t, and I am actually somewhat relaxed. Since Smurf and I are at home, Middle Boy invents reasons to stay home from camp, too… So basically we are all home (except DH), which is nice. Smurf and I are semi-quarantined, which means no touching the rest of the family and I wash hands like crazy when I invariably have to do stuff for the kids.

But, onto nicer things! I have been wanting to post about some fun pop culture for a while, and finally I have a bit of time!

Two books I recently read and enjoyed:

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. Oh, how I enjoyed this book! It was a page-turner and left me with such a lovely high after I was done! I cannot wait for another adventure in the same universe (coming this fall — squeee!) It was really nicely written, very unassuming, fluid, clear. The beauty of the writing reminded me of another favorite, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August… Whose author Claire North, incidentally, wrote a blurb that IMHO perfectly encapsulates the book:

“… [I]t is joyously written and a joy to read.


Then I picked up an oldie, The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin. I have read some of her books in my native tongue, but this was the first novel of hers that I have read in English. While I have always enjoyed her writing, I admit that I was surprised to see some spots where the turn of phrase was really jarring. Anyway, this was a beautiful story about belonging, what it means to be at home, and what it is that one really needs to be fulfilled. The book, published in 1974, is also (and some would say primarily) a political study of anarchism (akin to libertarian socialism) versus capitalism on sister planets Anarres and Urras, how any political system is open to abuse and corruption, and what it means to be really free. This book belongs to the Hainish Cycle.  (The book’s Wiki page is quite exhaustive.)


I am also disappointed in my nerdy brethren because they have been giving perfectly good movies bad rep all summer long. I am here to tell you to go see the blockbusters; they are meant to be fun and they do deliver, and they do it better than most summer offerings. Enjoy them and don’t believe all the negative reviews.

Warcraft. I don’t play the game. I live with a diehard World of Warcraft player (DH) and a son who occasionally plays. I also don’t particularly care for fantasy as a genre and I didn’t know the story behind WoW (a.k.a. “the lore”). But now I sort of do. As a standalone movie it was well done. The Orcs were great, the story was compelling, the movie was not too long (I will never get back all the many, many hours wasted on freakin’ Hobbit; it takes longer to see all the movies  than it does to read the goddamn 330-page book). But Warcraft is good, visually pleasing, and fun, and what makes it even better in my mind is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.


Star Trek Beyond. I loved it! I loved it about as much as I loved the first one in the new series,  Star Trek (2009), which is a lot. I am willing to go see it again. An awesome new space station, new alien species, fun banter between Scotty and an important alien female character (although annoying that Scotty keeps calling her “lassie”), also exchanges between Doc McCoy and Spock, excellent employment of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and the associated joke, Idris Elba as the villain– what’s not to like?



Ghostbusters. It’s pretty funny! Not the funniest thing I have seen in ages, and a few parts drag on (Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are serious-ish characters and have been underutilized, IMHO), and the villain is not particularly cool. But Kate McKinnon as the crazy gadget nerd is absolutely hilarious, as is Chris Hemsworth as dumber-than-a-rock eye-candy receptionist. Leslie Jones has some of the absolutely best lines in the whole movie. And all of the old Ghostbusters make cameos, which was really cool.



Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. There is nothing wrong with this movie. Perhaps surprisingly, Ben Affleck is actually an excellent choice for Batman in this context. I read all the awful reviews and I have no idea what it is that they saw. Watch it, the movie is cool. I am also looking forward to seeing Suicide Squad and later Superwoman, as I think DC movies have been undeservedly getting bad press.




Among the TV shows, DH and I are enjoying Killjoys and Dark Matter and looking forward to the return of The Expanse and Orphan Black.

Also, among Earth-bound shows, we enjoy Suits, and I would like to enjoy Stranger Things (it’s really cool) if I weren’t so much of a wimp, because it’s really scary so I can’t sleep.

Dearest, geekiest blogosphere, which books, movies, or shows have you been enjoying this summer? 


The most obnoxious comment I have seen in a long time showed up in a review of a proposal for someone’s young investigator award. A colleague from a highfalutin institution (whose name shares 2/3 of its characters with the agency that James Bond works for) has written not once but twice in the same report that the candidate did well while in grad school and postdoc, but as independent faculty not so much. I am very glad the colleague pointed that out, because the applicant could have fooled me, with all the papers published and major grants received since becoming a tenure-track faculty member. The colleague also wrote (I can’t believe this) that the applicant is at a university that is “not very reknown [sic] as a major research institution” so “it may be challenging to recruit strong postdocs.” Way to rub it in and remind the applicant that they are no James Bond! We wouldn’t want them to get a big head!  As if the applicant doesn’t already know, and much better than the reviewer, how hard it is to get good people at places that are “not very reknown” and is still able to do what seems to me like really cool work.

Repeat after me: There are excellent people at every school. There are excellent people at every school. There are excellent people at every school. Do not assume someone is feeble-minded or needs you to explain their situation to them because the US News and World Report doesn’t rank their school as having one of the top 5 grad programs.

Question from Reader: Junior Female Faculty as Supervisor of Similar-Age Male Trainees

A long-time reader (LTR), who just finished her second year on the tenure track in a STEM field at a major research institution, wrote to me, asking:

I would love to see a post on mentoring male postdocs, or more generally male trainees who aren’t much younger than you, as a starting professor. 

How do you convince them you have the same authority as their male PhD advisors? That you mean what you say, and that your requests aren’t suggestions? I notice the male faculty have no problem giving their new postdocs verbal advice or tasks and having it followed, but I’ve had two disasters already where postdocs refused to do any work and covered it up.”

“How do you determine if male postdocs will be respectful ahead of time and maintain productivity? Is there away to get around natural authority issues? I’ve lost quite a lot of start-up money already and there aren’t any tenured women in my department to ask.”

She has a postdoc who is a little over a year out of a PhD with her same-age, longtime male collaborator. The postdoc has not been making any progress on any of the postdoc projects and has been requesting a lot of vacation time. To compensate for poor progress on postdoc projects, he has been promising drafts of collaborative work done during PhD, but, when pushed and given specific deadlines, revealed that these drafts were nowhere near submission and in fact not based on publication-quality data. It also turns out he has been bypassing LTR completely and instead communicating with his PhD advisor alone about these drafts (while on LTR’s dime, of course).

My initial reaction was to cut losses and let him go as soon as possible, at which point LTR revealed that she worried about how it would look, since she had very bad luck with her first postdoc, whom she had to fire only a couple of months in, after he had committed expense-account fraud. She now worries that she will be viewed as a poor postdoc advisor, hard to please, or otherwise unreasonable. I completely understand how she feels, and I wish I could guarantee that she won’t be judged by her department colleagues the way she fears she will. I also know that a male junior professor in her shoes would not have the same fear, because men are not constantly in danger of being perceived as unreasonable, especially not when they display assertiveness or even anger. On the upside, once it’s tenure time, what will count most is papers and grants, and if her record is strong, nobody will care very much about early advising issues. But she has to do as much as she can with the startup he has left, which means she cannot afford to waste it on people who are not productive.

First, I think LTR got royally screwed by her longtime male collaborator, who was the postdoc’s PhD advisor. While it may be possible that sexism on the postdoc’s part plays a role, my reading is that this individual was always problematic — deceitful and lazy; there is no way this postdoc was an excellent graduate student. I asked LTR and she revealed that the PhD advisor was cagey when pressed on the issue by phone, and it turned out that the postdoc wouldn’t write his own papers even as a grad student. Dumping what you know is going to be a problematic postdoc (because he was a problematic grad student) on your longtime collaborator is extremely uncollegial; it is a completely douche move. You don’t do that to any colleague, and especially not to a collaborator, and worse yet a junior faculty member whose career can be completely derailed by poor initial hires. The first action item would be to put LTR’s male collaborator on the “selfish and untrustworthy” list. Sadly, I have met a number of rising stars or rising-star wannabes who are extremely self-serving; this fellow appears to be one of them. Maybe it’s not optimal to sever the collaboration right now, but I would definitely not consider him among the people who have my back. And would likely never again hire anyone else from his group.

Second, what to do with the postdoc who has nearly a year left on his contract?

The short answer is: a) Read the contract in great detail, as it will specify what you are able to do, and b) document all future interactions. Namely, when your subordinate, whom you are supposed to mentor and whose career you are supposed to help and nurture, behaves as a douche towards you, doesn’t do the work, and treats the position with you as an entitlement, the subordinate loses the benefits of advising and gets reduced to an employee, whose duties (and repercussions for shirking them) are spelled out in the contract.

Option 1) Sever ties as soon as possible. Many male colleagues would do just that. Look into the contract, see what it says you can do, what the cause is with which you can terminate. Usually these have some clauses for inadequate performance and some lead time before severance. Generally, you would have to have a written trail, which means dates by which something has to be done, then if not done a deadline for improvement with termination following if not improved, finally followed by termination.

Option 2) Ride out the contract, while attempting to get as much work out of this person as possible, with as little emotional involvement on your part. Considering that LTR is worried that firing a postdoc would look bad, I would advise this option, while getting all business with this individual. First, set very firm boundaries and deadlines for him, with repercussions in writing (email is fine) in terms of gradual salary reduction if possible for not meeting them, or losing vacation time, or even severance. No more “mister nice LTR.”

Both options require a paper trail, firm deadlines with specific tasks, and documented repercussions. They differ in whether you want to terminate or you want to hurt first (reduce earnings) to get some work out rather than terminate right away.

I know this sounds very cruel, but as I say, “This is not a game, we are not playing science. We are doing science professionally.” There is actual money and time involved.

I wish I could say that I no longer have issues with disrespectful trainees. They don’t happen as much as they did when I was younger, but they do happen. People see that you are nice and friendly, and mistake it for weakness and perhaps stupidity. Then when you get all Robocop on them, they are taken by surprise. But, as a wise woman once said, “Better a bitch than a doormat.” Of course, “bitch” here means just being assertive, i.e., a behavior that would not raise any eyebrows if exhibited by a man.

What is different once you are senior, and what LTR will get better at with experience, is: a) identifying group members who are a good fit, b) being able to swiftly act to remedy a problematic situation because you have encountered a similar situation before (good news — trouble comes in a finite number of flavors), c) being a better mentor and being able to get useful work from people who are less than ideally motivated, d) not being pressed for time like on the tenure track and thus having more breathing room.

Is there any way to predict who’s going to work out as postdoc? Ideally you know the person while they are a grad student, have heard them give talks, and they come from a trusted colleague. But unless I am confident the postdoc would be a good one, I find it’s better to rely on graduate students, because after 2-3 years a grad student I have trained is better at the work we do than a random postdoc. While having a great postdoc is a blessing for the group, hiring a postdoc is risky in general — if the match is bad, the postdoc’s career can be ruined for good, and they are not cheap. I know biomedical fields rely on postdocs, but in many physical sciences it is not necessary to have a postdoc in the group once you have an established pipeline with some senior grad students. I have always been much more comfortable with this approach.

How do you ensure someone is respectful? That’s tough. You can’t make someone be respectful — they either are or they aren’t. I have had many respectful male group members; I don’t write about them on the blog often, because they don’t give me headaches. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the most respectful and easy-to-work-with students have come from the countries that are very patriarchal. For instance, I have had several students who are more or less moderate Muslims from the Middle East; they have had excellent technical skills and have been nice to work with. I have also worked quite well with folks from different parts of Asia (some religious, some not). In my experience, the most difficult young men that I have worked with have been from the US and some parts of Western Europe. These guys have exceedingly high opinions of themselves, their knowledge and abilities. Often, they are indeed excellent and some of the conceit is warranted, but I am not going to kiss their a$$; they may be capable, but they are not omniscient and they are sometimes (often?) wrong; also, I am the boss and that point seems to need emphasizing quite bluntly for some of them. Often, it is enough to say something along the lines of, “It seems you think you don’t have anything to learn from me and my group, and don’t seem to respect me as your advisor. You are free to leave and join a group where you feel you can learn something, I am not stopping you. Take a few days to think if you want to leave the group. If you decide that want to stay, things will have to be considerably different. We will talk again on [a specific day].” That’s generally been enough to shake people up.

Ideally, we all like each other and do science together. The trainees don’t have to like me, but should ideally not hate me, because if you hate your advisor, you should really find another one. What’s not negotiable is that we should all act professionally, do our jobs, and respect each other. Me being nice and accommodating is a privilege, not an entitlement. After all, I control the money, and there is a reason why I am in this position; those who think I don’t have anything to teach them or who think I am not worthy of their respect are certainly not entitled to my time or funds. There are other people who can do their job. There are plenty of smart people in the world.

Robocop out.

LTR, best of luck!

Blogosphere, please share your thoughts in the comments.