Month: March 2017

Written Praise

Often, as I read the external letters of evaluation written by experts in support of the tenure cases of stellar junior faculty, I wish these young professors knew how highly the senior colleagues thought of their work. Some of these letters are full of genuine praise and admiration.

If you are an academic, it’s likely that you sometimes — perhaps often? — fell insecure about your professional standing. How could you not? Everyone around you is smart and successful, and the competition for funds and top publications is fierce. There is very little, if any, direct affirmation; you only ever get it indirectly through accepted papers, citations, invitations to give talks, or an occasional award. I bet it would feel really good to read, black on white, how much your professional peers and elders admire and respect you.

PSA: Deadlines

If you want me to do something for you and I say I will, I will ask you to give me a deadline. Once I have the deadline, I will do my best (and will usually succeed) to deliver what I promised by said deadline.

BY SAID DEADLINE. This means not much before the deadline. Actually, it often means exactly on the day of the deadline.

DO NOT pester me twice a week within the three weeks preceding the deadline. This annoyance will not make me work faster (I am already working as fast as I can, trust me) or help me prioritize what you need over other things. It will just make me even more pissed, and I am always plenty pissed to begin with.

If I am late, then by all means remind me that I am late.

But if you really wanted your stuff three weeks earlier, then you should have made that your deadline. Otherwise, bugger off and don’t bother me until the deadline.

On Teaching, Yet Again (Part 2)

Here are some things that came up over the past few weeks as I thought about the teaching performance of that junior colleague of mine.

Here is a hodge-podge of things that I think work for me, or in general. I am assuming here a semester system, and a typical 3-credit course equivalent to 150 min of class time per week. I am sure you can extrapolate appropriately.

Also, I assume you as the teacher have some say in when and where you teach (e.g., you can request that your class be offered 2x or 3x per week, you can put in requests for a certain type of classroom or a certain time of day, etc.) I also understand that my R1 privilege is showing in that I (and my colleagues) typically teach 1 course per semester, and that, if you have to teach 3-4 courses per semester, many of the things I will write about are simply not feasible.

So here are some specific things one can do to be more effective as a teacher without sacrificing all their time to teaching:

1. More frequent, shorter class meetings
With undergraduate courses, teaching 3x a week for 50 min is better than 2x per week for 75 min (the kids call the latter “power lectures”).
Most faculty love to teach 2x per week because this frees up their time for non-teaching pursuits. But these 75-min slots are too long to keep focus and are a bad idea for undergraduates. Either take a few-minute break or teach 3x per week.

2. Right timing of due dates for homework. Being available to students
Do not have homework due too early in the week. Assume that undergrads work on homework within a day or two before the due date, and if those days are on the weekend or early in the week — before they get a chance to see you or the TA (if you are lucky to have one) for office hours — they will feel lost and will feel that you don’t have enough office hours. Even if you make yourself available for 10 hours a week, unless those are timed properly, you will get very little student appreciation for all your availability.

I usually have the HW due on Wednesdays if I teach MWF (on Thursday if I teach TR), and I have a discussion usually on Monday late afternoons (or Tue afternoon if teaching TR), and at least one and usually two office hours slots between Monday and the due date for the HW. While I start with some office hours at the beginning of the semester, if I don’t have high attendance, I will poll the students and move the office hours around so they are aligned with both the due dates for HW and with their availability. This is another way to ensure that both you and they get the most of the time that you do devote to office hours.

I also have additional office hours before each midterm.

3. Weekly homework
I assign a lot of homework and I do it weekly. They get a break after we’ve just had a midterm, but other than that I have homework due every week, on the same day and at the same time, and the turn-in is all electronic, so they get to keep their homework while the copies are being graded.

4. More frequent exams
More frequent feedback is better. More frequent, shorter exams, covering a few weeks worth of material are better at keeping students working continuously and stressing less about each individual exam than longer, higher-stakes exams. The downside is more frequent grading for me. But, grading all exams myself lets me see what they do and don’t know and helps me get to know my students better.

5. I teach my own discussion
I know, it’s more of my time, but it requires no prep (I already have to assign homework and write the solutions anyway), so it’s really no big deal to work extra examples or homework problems with the students during discussion, and it helps me to get to know them better. Everyone is more relaxed and everything is more free-form in discussion.

The only downside is that perhaps the students could better relate to a TA (smaller age difference) and it would be good to get someone else’s perspective besides mine. But, considering that the TA support has been going down the drain in my college, it’s really not between me and the TA but between discussion with me and no discussion at all. Most lower-level classes with a lot of math and physics really need a discussion, and the students invariably hail it as very useful, because that’s where we work out the problems in gory detail.

6. I know every student’s name
I don’t know if I would be able to pull that off in a 400-person class, but I can definitely do it in a 100-person class. It takes me a couple of weeks to remember their faces, and from there on it’s not hard to slowly attach names to faces. By midsemester, I know everyone by name, and I can call them out. I think knowing the names makes a huge difference, because it makes the students more accountable. They feel like someone gives a damn if they are there or not, if they are doing their work or not. It makes a giant class a little more personal.

7. Find the classroom and time of day that works for you
Many of my colleagues like to be done with teaching early in the morning, twice a week, and then go do other things.
I like to teach in the afternoons because that leaves mornings for intellectually nontrivial work. By midafternoon, I am already somewhat spent, so I can go teach — it gets my adrenaline pumping better than a second cup of coffee! I can keep going for several hours after class on the adrenaline high alone. (At night, I do sleep like the dead after the days when I teach.) But if you teach midafternoon, be ready for sleepy students — teaching in a dimly lit auditorium because you use PPTs is a recipe for student snoozing. I am vehemently in the markers-on-the-white-board-and-talk camp. I use the projector when I have a good reason, i.e., when I want to show something that cannot be easily drawn, but otherwise it’s all the lights on.

I have a set of classrooms that I strongly prefer and always request (and I can usually get what I want, because I teach in the afternoons, when the demand is low).

8. Keep the lecture interesting
If you are going to teach lecture style, you have to give the students something to focus their attention on. Ideally you will speak loudly enough so that the whole class can hear you  (I am quite loud myself) or you need a microphone; you will  move around the classroom,  gesticulate, write and draw on the board… Something should always be happening in front of the students. Some of my colleagues call it (derisively) entertainment; I think these are the basics of keeping people’s attention focused on you. I don’t see that it’s some sort of badge of honor to bore the hell out of your students by intentionally making sure they are not entertained.

A junior professor whose class I attended was, to be completely honest, boring as all hell. Speaking in monotone, not moving away from the lectern, dimly lit classroom, 75-min time slot. Pretty much anything he could do wrong, he did.

9. Caring matters
I can’t guarantee this helps, but I think it does — I really, genuinely, like undergrads. They are totally adorable. Me being a mom has a lot to do with my warm feelings towards undergrads. They remind me of my kids, and I probably remind them of their moms (it’s scary that I could actually be the mom to all my undergrads — I would have been a mom in my very early twenties, but totally feasible). I  do kick their butts with the material, make no mistake, and they sweat and huff and puff, but they don’t seem to hate me for it. I think students respond to genuine caring; if you read random comments on RMP, you will see many students talking about a professor caring about their students’ success. If they perceive you as genuinely caring, they will follow you through large amounts of work and very challenging material.

The students need this human connection, they need to know that you really care that they do well, and ideally that you care about them as people (see the bit about knowing their names). That’s why MOOC were always stupid.


This all started as I was thinking about the less-than-stellar classroom performance of my junior colleague.

Here’s the main thing: you cannot say that you care about the student success but at the same time treat teaching as a nuisance, something in the way of your research, and do everything in your power to minimize the time spent on interacting with students. Students notice that. 

That is ultimately the main problem with the junior faculty member in question.  On the one hand, of course, he’s on the tenure track, he should be focused on his research, which he is most definitely doing. Yet he says that he wants to improve teaching, but his actions speak differently. He focuses on maximizing the time he’s able to travel and has scheduled his class accordingly; he has minimal and fairly poorly scheduled office hours (honestly, to me it sounds like he purposefully scheduled them so that no one shows up). Again, all justifiable and likely prudent for a junior faculty member, but definitely coming across as not particularly giving a $hit about teaching.

He was a bit angry at his student evaluations and said it didn’t mean he couldn’t teach, as he could teach grad students just fine (don’t we all?), but that the problem was that the students in the undergraduate course were not motivated. See Part 1 of this essay — you have to teach the students you have, not those you wish you had, and anyone can teach a motivated student. I am not convinced he can teach all that great, honestly; I didn’t want to share how excruciatingly bored I was in his lecture; maybe I should have.

I gave him some of the logistical pointers above, and hopefully some of them work for him to get a better connection with students without too much extra time. We as a department have to show that we have intervened and made him take seminars and workshops to improve his teaching, and my written evaluation of his teaching included specific recommendations as to these resources.

Overall, he is an excellent scientist, so I don’t think he will have problems getting tenure. But I don’t see him doing the heavy lifting when it comes to the department’s teaching mission in the future.

On Teaching, Yet Again (Part 1)

I cannot wait for this semester to end; it’s mostly because a couple of major service obligations will end with it, so I will no longer have to deal with some very difficult people. There are people who, once they’ve grabbed onto some power, develop — or perhaps just give themselves the permission to manifest? — disrespect towards their colleagues that is both staggering and frightening. And how easily some other people will roll over in the face of bullying by someone they perceive higher in the hierarchy is just nauseating. One reason we have tenure is so we wouldn’t have to tolerate being bullied by the administration, FFS.

But this was me having my tiny ranty vent. Or is it a venty rant?


I mostly wanted to talk about teaching, and what it means to teach well.

I am a very good teacher. How do I know? I get great student evaluations, I have very high attendance in all of my lectures, and even though I really challenge the students — trust me, I make them work really, really hard — they rise to the challenge. I have nearly twice the enrollment in my courses than the colleagues who teach the same class. I have also heard from multiple sources that students wait for when I teach a class to come and take it, and a number of students take 2-3 classes with me. (/brag over)

A few weeks ago I heard, yet again, the annoying assertion that high student evaluations don’t mean that you are a good teacher, and that it means that you are just entertaining your students and that you are an easy grader. I resent this implication, and honestly, that sounds like sour grapes: if it were that easy to get high student evaluations, everyone would get them. But it’s not easy, and students are not stupid. Maybe the following depends on the school, but I teach at a public school and the students in my classes are for the most part not spoiled, lazy, or entitled. Most are here to learn, and they appreciate being taught well. They also appreciate a professor who takes the time to get to know them, who has a clear schedule of assignments and exams, returns graded exams promptly, has enough contact hours, and who generally shows that he/she cares about student success.

There is a lot of research showing that student evaluations of teaching aren’t a very good predictor of teaching effectiveness. Student evaluation also tend to show bias against female instructors. (I believe these studies exist, but I don’t have links. If anyone has links, please leave them in the comments.) However, the last few times when this came up, whenever I asked the person who advocated for abolishing teaching evaluations for how we should measure teaching effectiveness instead, there was no definite answer. People said exit surveys, evaluations after follow-on classes, etc., but nothing really that would produce a quantitative metric. Student evaluations are not the only thing we submit for tenure here, there are also reviews of teaching by senior colleagues, and other documents in the tenure dossier that can put a candidate’s performance in context (e.g., compare to others teaching the same type of course). At least here, it’s not like the evaluations are the only piece of information we look at.

In the language of mathematical logic, we seem to want equivalence between teaching effectiveness and some quantitative metric, but we really just have an implication. (A–>B is true, but B–>A (the same as !A–>!B) is not necessarily true, and thus A<==>B is not true).

The relationship between evaluations and teaching is similar to the relationship between the h-index and research excellence. A person with a high h-index is probably making an impact on his or her research field; that doesn’t mean that the person with a lower h-index isn’t. Similarly, a person with high teaching evaluations is likely a good teacher; that doesn’t mean that one with lower evaluations isn’t. Also, there is such a thing as an h-index that is too low (for a given field and candidate seniority) and there is such a thing as teaching evaluations that are too low.

I don’t think quantitative metrics are evil. They don’t mean everything, but they do mean something.


There is a junior faculty member who is struggling with teaching some lower-level large-enrollment courses. His teaching evaluations are quite low. I visited his class a few times, as we require for tenure, and I am not surprised by evaluations at all. I could have predicted his scores for last semester based on just sitting in one of his classes. I gave him feedback after that class, but I don’t think I was blunt enough.

We all wish to be teaching only the students who are highly motivated and interested in the subject; this is your typical upper-level electives or graduate course demographic. However, the students who already come interested are easy to teach; you just have to know the material, and even if all you do is transmit the information passably, they will learn, they will feel great about learning, and your evaluations will be great, too.

However, that’s not how it works. You get whom you get. In large-enrollment, lower-level required courses, many students don’t want to be there. Many are unprepared. It is very easy to lose and never recover swaths of your audience. That’s where you see a difference between really good teachers and everyone else.

You don’t get to choose the students you get; you have to find a way to teach the students you actually have in your class.

In order to teach, you have to be able to connect with your students. This is paramount in getting them to come to class. And, for some faculty, at least among my colleagues, it is hard to connect with students because they cannot get over what really boils down to a level of disdain — that the people in the class are not bright enough or worthy enough, or else they would understand the teacher’s awesomeness or the supposedly inherent awesomeness of the course material.

Teaching well requires a level of empathy: to be able to put yourself in the students’ shoes, to try to see the material and yourself from their perspective. And their perspective may not be the perspective that you ever had yourself, because most students are neither as talented for nor as interested in the field in which you got your advanced degree as you are. The teachers who make jokes in class or bring props and demos are all trying to do that — connect with a novice learner who might be quite different from them.

You need to figure out what it is that they need from you. And the more abstract the concepts are, the more important it is to come up with good examples that hopefully translate to the real world. And you don’t have to give them the full mathematical artillery the first time around. At first exposure, lead with intuition and follow with the formalism.

*** to be continued (blogger got too sleepy) ***

Kindergarten Adventures

I volunteer to help in Smurf’s Kindergarten classroom for about 45 min per week, on most weeks. Usually, I walk around and help the kids as they try to trace their letters or read their little books. Sometimes I read a more complicated text to a small group of 3-4 kids.

Today one kid came up to me as I was reading to Smurf and another boy and point-blank asked if God were real. I was taken by surprise and responded, “Well, that depends on what you believe.” To which the kid responded, “No, that’s not about believing. My parents say that God is real.” Then Smurf chimed in, “My mom doesn’t believe in God, and neither do my brothers. Our whole family doesn’t believe in God.”  I said, “Different families believe different things. Some families believe in God and some don’t, and that’s okay.” Another girl spoke up. “My family believes in God.” Mercifully, the teacher came by. “Yes, different families believe different things, and that’s all okay.” Somebody added, “My dad says I am too little to talk about God!” which I think might be the best contribution to the conversation.

I am now honestly a bit worried that the teacher will get in trouble for having me in her classroom when some kid goes home and tells their parent that Smurf’s mom doesn’t believe in God and says that different families believe different things.


I never know how much of a physical boundary I’m supposed to have with the kids.

One little boy came today and started touching my hair and asked what it was; I said it was hair (he is African American, so I am guessing my hair is different from his mom’s). He slowly pulled two strands on the two sides of my head, lifted them up, then let them fall, then picked them up and brought them together on the top of my head and said, “You look silly!” “Yes, I bet I do!” I laughed. But then another kid came and tried to pull my hair, and Smurf got upset. “Leave her alone!”

Some kids will come and want to climb onto my lap or give me a hug. I am not the teacher, so I honestly don’t know if that’s okay. One kid came up to me today and asked for a hug; I gave him a half hug and said I didn’t think I was supposed to give hugs to kids who are not my kid. I feel bad denying the kid a hug, but I’m not sure what the proper response would have been. I need to talk with the teacher.


Smurf goes to a public school. His classmates are all unbelievably cute.

I see that some kids come to school with just a cup of apple sauce for lunch (which my kid has for dessert, after an actual lunch). Some come reeking of cigarettes. About a quarter of the class has serious issues sitting still, and I wonder how much of it has to do with not getting enough sleep or not eating well.

One friend who is an elementary school teacher says that, for some of these kids, age 5 is already late. Their lives have been so stressful and so chaotic since they were born, that the brains didn’t get wired the way they would have in a more stable situation… And they face lifelong behavioral issues, inability to concentrate, poor academic achievement, the inability to soothe themselves, to manage their anger or frustration… It breaks my heart that some of them never really had a chance.