Month: May 2018


Saveedra says: “Interesting that you put forward the money paid by students as a reason for teaching to be taken seriously. A corollary, I suppose, is that where tuition fees are very low (my own shade of godforsakia) efforts should be accordingly reduced.”

I guess my previous teaching post does sound like that, doesn’t it? I’ve been thinking about whether this is really what I think and feel and no, I don’t really think that the quality of education is commensurate with payment. But, I guess that I do think and feel that the amount students pay for tuition can and perhaps should be wielded in the face of those who are university faculty yet for some reason don’t think that doing a good job teaching undergrads is part of their job. Why? Because often they cite money (specifically, money they brought in) as the reason not to teach or not to teach well/spend effort on, so perhaps money talk is what they understand.

I did my undergrad in a country where you pick your major as a freshman and your studies are completely focused from day one. None of the breadth requirements that we have in the US, in part because our public high schools taught kids much more in quantity and breadth than what I’ve seen here. I know this is an obnoxious thing to say, but it is true, as I can attest after one of my kids has been through K-12 in a state with good public schools and graduated with high honors (he has 4.0 GPA + a number of AP credits). Anyhow, my undergrad education was free because I was one of the top performers. Lower performers paid on a sliding scale etc., but I wrote about it all before and I don’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole again.

In Godforsakia, my ancestral home country, professors and TAs were married to their courses: course A was only ever taught by Professor X; discussion/labs for course A were only ever taught by a certain TA or TAs. Teaching assistantship was not like in the US: instead, it was a faculty apprenticeship. You became a TA through a selective job recruitment process, it was a permanent job with salary and benefits (one of the benefits being grad school for free) and nearly complete autonomy over discussion content and the written portion of each exams (yes, TAs wrote written exams and graded them). Being a TA also meant that, eventually, after the PhD, you would become a professor after someone retired and vacated a course for you to teach/marry. But before becoming professors, people had years of teaching experience as TAs.

Even so, some professors were great teachers and some were not. Some were downright terrible. Most had big egos (few students dared go to office hours to disturb these sacred professorial beings; they made do with discussions and TAs). Professors were not paid great, but their jobs were secure and carried high societal status.

In the US, I know that some of the best teachers are at community colleges (the least expensive for students and not overly financially rewarding for faculty). There are also fabulous teachers at primarily undergraduate institutions, which themselves range in terms of price from inexpensive state schools to very expensive private ones. So all these typically give undergraduates excellent educational value.

I’d say research schools (again, some inexpensive some extremely pricey) are those where the quality of instruction is most highly variable. I know people who are dedicated and talented teachers (I’d like to think I am among them) and I know those who don’t give half a $hit. I really, really wish we didn’t hire or tenure the latter, ever. I also wish we didn’t hire or tenure people who have single-gender or single-ethnicity research groups (yes, they definitely exist, still). We faculty speak of this among ourselves, but the thing is you can’t tell the future (and assuming you can reeks of bias). By tenure time, if someone has money and papers and their letter say they’re great, they will get tenure, unless they have grossly violated conduct (e.g., not shown up for classes or abused students or staff). That’s the ugly truth at research universities: there’s service, and there’s teaching, but they are the bastard children while research is their heir-to-the-throne sibling.

There are good teachers at research universities, but they are good because they inherently value that part of their job. Unfortunately, if someone doesn’t value teaching and devotes all their efforts to research that brings money, they will often be able to do so with impunity. I don’t think it’s possible to convince them that teaching is, in fact, important. My musings here have to do with finding ways to compel such people to pull their weight in teaching. Money probably has to be involved in the compelling.

On Teaching, Take Eleventy Gazillion

I have to rant about teaching a bit (again).

I’m doing course assignments this year and a relatively junior faculty member just tells me that he doesn’t want to be in rotation to teach a certain required undergraduate course any more. He just doesn’t want to! Why? Well, he taught it three times and his evaluations were always bad, “ruining his excellent teaching record.” His record is not excellent. Anyone (you’d hope) can teach well an upper-level graduate course in own specialty. Tbh, he’s not fabulous even there based on the numbers; there are much better people. My own grad students took his courses and do not consider him particularly good.

The freakin’ ego on people, seriously.

So he just doesn’t want to do it. And there’s a senior faculty member who doesn’t want to do it either, for the same reason (bad evals).

I have blogged about this course before. The material is hard and abstract. It’s not easy to teach, and it takes a ton of thought and time to do it right. But I have taught it many times and I’ve always received good evaluations because: a) I really care that the lectures are engaging; b) I learn everyone’s name even though it’s a huge class because that increases student engagement and class attendance; c) I carefully craft homework and exams; d) I have a ton of office hours, with extra ones the day before the exams; e) I often teach discussion. It is absolutely possible to get good evaluations in these large undergraduate courses, even as a woman instructor, but it requires a lot of work.

Here are some things I have suggested that the colleague do in order to help him engage students more. (Btw, I sat in on his classes several times. He knows the material, but he is deathly, deathly boring. If I were the student, I’d likely stop coming to class. )

I suggested to switch to three times a week instead of twice, as undergrads needs more contact with the material, plus the material is hard and they can’t keep focus for that long. He doesn’t want to because he wants to spend minimal time on teaching and focus on research.

I suggested he teach discussions or introduce more office hours (he has them once a week) to increase contact time with students. He doesn’t want to because he wants to spend minimal time on teaching and focus on research.

I suggested he get comfortable with the course materials: maybe find a different book or make his own notes; tailor the homework and exams a little bit rather than use previous-year materials made by someone else; decide what to focus on, maybe cut some material out or put something else in. His answer? He doesn’t want to because he wants to spend minimal time on teaching and focus on research.

So, to summarize. You have poor teaching evaluations because you don’t care about teaching at all and don’t want to invest time or effort into it, and undergrads are not stupid and can tell who cares and who doesn’t, and most of them do actually appreciate people caring about teaching. Now, since you didn’t want to put in the work and got poor evaluations you want us to reward you by never having to teach this course again.

It makes me livid because the reward for doing a good job with time-consuming teaching assignments is getting to do even more time-consuming teaching assignments, which cuts down your time for research.

The reward for bad teaching? Less teaching and more time for research, and thus more money and prestige and the ability to look down your nose at those poor suckers like me who end up picking up your goddamn slack. You can even say that we must enjoy these labor-intensive teaching assignments so it’s our own fault that we keep getting them, otherwise why wouldn’t we get out of them like you did?

I fuckin’ hate my colleagues who seem to think students are a nuisance. These young people and their families pay good money and go into debt to learn in our classrooms, so how dare you do a shoddy job, you self-absorbed piece of $hit.

And I hate it that the higher-ups just shrug and appeal to fairness to students when they create two strata of faculty, those who are too precious to teach undergrads and those whose research time is apparently worthless and who can be manipulated with these calls to fairness to students. I want it to be worth more to teach well a large undergrad course than a small graduate seminar. I want the effort recognized and rewarded. I want the colleagues who are selfish to be penalized for it, not rewarded with more research time.

Listen, I like teaching undergrads. They are adorable and hilarious. But I hate that teaching undergrads is considered lowly by my colleagues, that it’s considered $hit work unbecoming of true intellectual genii. I want us all to pull our weight teaching undergrads and I want us all to do it well. Evals suck? Do better. Evals still suck? Maybe a penalty of some kind, then, but definitely not an effective teaching release, for chrissakes.


Hi everyone and sorry, for I have been a delinquent academic blogger.

I spend too much time farting around on Twitter (not the academic one, the flash-fiction one) and it’s been great fun. It does sink up quite a bit of time, though.

Considering that my love for the job is below lifetime average, it’s kind of funny that I am getting good funding news. I submitted four single-PI grants this academic year; right now, one declined automatically after four months pending on account of review still ongoing when the new broad agency announcement came out; one was funded last week; one is likely to be funded as I got reviews an an opportunity to respond; one is still pending. Not too shabby! I also have one that started last year.

Which means I will likely be nice and well funded if I want to take a sabbatical the academic year after next (2019-20). This will be year eight since my last sabbatical, which I spent caring for a newborn, writing what would become my bread-and-butter renewable grant, and organizing a major conference in the city, so no, no rest or recuperation. This time around, I will at least be able to sleep, and I would like to go to the UK and maybe Germany for a few months. I could have taken sabbatical this coming year, but this coming year is one of big transitions (Eldest starting college, Middle Boy starting middle school; also new students coming in as the old crop graduated) so I decided to wait and I think the decision was a good one.

At my university, every seven years we are entitled to either 1 semester at full pay every or 2 semesters (must be in one academic year) at 65% pay (I think this last percentage might vary a bit by college, but I am not sure).

The question is: do I take a full year at 65% salary or one semester at full salary? 65% salary will be tight but probably manageable if we’re a bit careful and I will have a nearly fully funded summer. The fuckin’ mortgage is, as always, the most gargantuan expense. Apart from that, we have a kid in college. I think we will be OK but 35% is a substantial salary cut for the primary earner in the household. (DH and I left grad school with debt because we had no savings going in (on account of having originated from Godforsakia) and then we had a kid in grad school and very low stipends and Augmentin hadn’t gone generic yet and the kid had recurrent ear infections… Anyway, we’re fine now, but we don’t have giant safety cushions that some people have at our age, in part because we opted for slower paying off of everything and a slower general savings rate in order to buy a house sooner rather than later. We already paid $300k post tax for daycare for three kids (five years of daycare costs ~$100k per kid). And we plan to fund everyone’s college. We also didn’t prioritize saving to the extent that it would eliminate all vacations and fun and various activities for the kids, which is what some frugal people do; our attitude is that kids are only little while they are little. Anyway, this is just to preempt people from scolding us why we aren’t flush and why I can’t just drop over 1/3 of my 9-month salary without thinking about the finances. (If I go to Europe for any length of time, I will apply for fellowships to cover the stay, because my actual salary is needed to hold the fort here.)

Anyway, that’s on my mind. Over the past week I’ve mostly focused on grading, but that fresh hell is finally over. When I teach these large undergrad courses, it completely paralyzes almost everything else.

Except fiction writing! That’s been going well. I had my first bona fide horror piece published and my first science fiction forthcoming, both in genre magazines. Other than that, I have had a fair bit of literary fiction, slipstream, and humor out since I started submitting last summer. I have more science fiction and a personal essay currently under consideration. And some really nice ideas for humor. The Twitter literary community is wonderful and being part of it makes everything so much better.

I am ready for a summer that’s not as crazy as my past summers have been. Plans: catch my breath in terms of research, read a textbook in a different field, get three papers out that have been on the back burner, get my newbie students actually geared up on their projects. Maybe for once I don’t have to obsess about what I will send to NSF in the fall (one current NSF grant, one still pending). Take a weeklong vacay with family, take the Littles to some day trips throughout the state. Likely host brother-in-law in August (DH’s brother).

This is Eldest’s last summer before he goes to college (insert weeping gif here). Middle Boy is starting middle school. Smurf (remember when he was born?) will turn seven (!) and start second grade in the fall. My age will become divisible by both five and three squared.

What have you been up to, academic blogosphere? 

Sabbatical thoughts/ideas? 

Summer thoughts/ideas?

What would you like to chat about as we’re enjoying the absence of committee meetings and middle-of-the-night email requests for homework deadline extensions? 



So, today I received N (N=125^(1/3)) detailed written reviews of my competitive grant renewal (mail-in review). N-1 are positive, from completely glowing to enthusiastic but with some specific requests for clarifications.

The Nth is negative, as in — there is nothing new here and the proposal is just awfully written and diffuse and should have been narrower in focus because the PI attempts to do too much (not sure how the scope can be too broad if there’s nothing new, but whatever). The lack of novelty is detailed as this one specific group somewhere in Europe doing something related, so apparently no one anywhere else in the world gets to do anything similar. Another aspect is that there are all these well-known techniques, so why doesn’t the author use them? Because those techniques give A and I am after B, for which there are currently no techniques, hence I propose to develop one.

I don’t know if men ever get reviews like this one, but I do receive them with some regularity, for both grants (more often) and papers (less often). Basically, the reviewer has decided that he (likely he, from the statistics (few women in the field) and the general know-it-all tone) doesn’t like what I’m selling without necessarily investigating what that is. The lack of novelty is decided based on some vague idea that, somewhere else, someone more respectable and/or reputable than me (i.e., someone the reviewer knows) says they have done something that sort of sounds like what I say I’d do, so the more respectable and/or reputable individual must have completely solved the problem for all eternity and there’s no need to look into any of it by anyone ever again (in reality, the person may have published a paper or two to scratch the surface of the problem).

If there is something unclear, especially in a proposal, I am not given the benefit of the doubt that I do know what I am doing. The assumption is never competent until proven otherwise. The default is that I can’t possibly know what I am doing, that whatever I proposed couldn’t possibly be new or fulfill a legitimate open need. You know, if the problem were really as interesting and important and unsolved, as I claim, someone more worthy somewhere else would have thought of solving it already.

There is no such thing as a perfect proposal. This benefit of the doubt some people are given and others are not (despite high productivity with earlier funding) is the difference between getting funded and not. This is why, with another agency, I was recommended for funding but just below the funding line at least three times (as bloggy friend Alex says, “I’m the best of the worst”): When the funding is scarce and there is only money to fund 1-2 grants, you give the funds to those you trust will do a great job, and I am just not the most trustworthy of the lot. “But her emails!” must have been the grant reviewers’ thoughts.

Such bullshit, seriously.