Author: xykademiqz

Purple balls are awesome. When made out of glass, that is.

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.

Paper in Chains

I think my paper might be held prisoner, but I don’t know why or when its sentence will end.

We have this result that’s pretty cute, but our first choice journal returned it without review as not hot enough.

So I thought a bit about where to send it, and since it was written as a letter and honestly should be a letter, I decided to send it to a professional society journal that has a letters section and that has a flavor similar to the original journal.

It’s been a month and nothing, except that someone looked at it at the start of week 3 and changed its title. The status says it’s still with the editors,  so it wasn’t sent out for review yet. (For reference, in my field the expectation is that an editor will do something in no more than a week. Occasionally it’s longer, but that’s an exception rather than the rule.) I have sent a couple of email inquiries, and nothing. My last email even said,  politely, “$hit or get off the can,” as in, if you don’t want it, fine, let us know so we can go elsewhere. Still nada.

I worked with the assigned editor before while he was at another journal, where I publish often, and he was always slow and very invasive (he’d change titles and make us change font in figures, things like that). I was so happy when he left that journal, because he was a veritable hurdle for my work in a specific area — not even negative, just slow and very anal. Now he’s at this new journal and he definitely hasn’t gotten any faster in responding. The new journal publishes some good papers, but it hasn’t lived up to its promise — I bet people never wanting to send there again, like I’m feeling now, has to do with it. You can’t have a high-impact-factor journal in my field if it takes you a month to even touch a paper.

My student is getting antsy; he wants his paper published, and I understand that. In most other journals, we’d already have the reviews in or would be close to getting them.

At this point, I am inclined for my next communication to simply be a notice of withdrawal. The question is how long to wait. Another week?

What say you, blogosphere? What have you done in the past in the case of nonresponsive editors who seem like a black hole for papers? 

Regrettable

Over the past few months, I have made some notable mistakes in how I spend my time and energy.

***

I participated on a funding-agency panel, led by a program manager who’s not funding me. At the same time, I had a bunch of proposals to mail-in review for a program manager at another agency, who is actually funding me. I prioritized the review of the proposals for the panel and was late a few days with review of some of the proposals in the mail-in batch.

Why was this a bad idea? The program manager on the panel was not at all interested in what I had to say, and was visibly annoyed with me whenever I opened my mouth.  I think he envisioned I would just silently fill the double-token position (theory plus female). I put a lot of effort into the reviews for this panel, and I prepared really well to present the proposals where I was the lead, but I don’t think it mattered (except perhaps for the potential awardees); the program manager was not impressed. Sure, I met some nice panelists and I read some nice proposals. (Btw, all the cool kids are using 11 pt Times New Roman for proposals.) But, I could have and should have just stayed home, because this program manager will never give me any money.

For this, I was late with the proposal review for the program manager who has been unfailingly supportive for years, both with money and with giving me high-visibility service, and who has been very appreciative of my work and contributions.

I will never again so stupidly prioritize the work for the people who haven’t already shown me support or kindness over those who actually have.

***

All the proposal reviewing has cut into my publication plans. I postponed the submission of a couple of papers in order to deal with the review load, and all  I have to show for it is… A bunch of not-yet-submitted papers and a bad taste in my mouth because I ended up going to the stupid panel.

***

As I wrote before, instead of working on a proposal, I am finishing up a paper from hell for the conference proceedings.

I am only stuck doing this because I promised I would give a talk to an industry colleague, and from there on this talk has been a gift that keeps on giving (not) — it seems ever more money and more time of mine keeps sinking into this favor.

I must become ridiculously discriminating about the conditions under which I am willing to give an invited talk.

***

Ever since much (all?) of NSF went to a single submission window for unsolicited proposals, and with restrictions to only submit one per cycle to a given division, people have been creative about finding ways to target multiple programs.

Last year, I received good reviews for one of my proposals, but no money. There was not  much I could improve, and from the program manager’s feedback I figured they simply didn’t want to fund that type of work. But, there was another program where the proposal would nominally fit. Unfortunately, over the past few years, the interim program manager there was extremely discouraging of the type of work similar to mine. Finally, a new, longer-term person took that position, and is again welcoming the proposals akin to what I do. This new manager gave me very specific feedback and encouraged the submission to his program in the fall 2016.

What’s stupid about all this is that a colleague from another institution wanted us to write a collaborative proposal to the same program and I went with that instead. The joint proposal was a ton of work and, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think it turned out that well. I also got stiffed in the budget. I would love for us to get funded, but I am not holding my breath.

So I blew my annual shot at this program by prioritizing what turned out to be a not particularly strong collaborative proposal over a very good, polished proposal of my own.

***

Working on this collaborative proposal ended up being way more time than I had envisioned and had cut into my single-PI submission to a different division. The latter turned out okay, but could have used another week of polishing.

So the less-than-great collaborative proposal ended up being in the way of not one, but two of my single-PI proposals.

***

The common theme is that I am not self-serving or discriminating enough when people want my time and effort. Yeah, I know I write about this a lot… It’s a work in progress.

I am miffed with myself for making some of these stupid choices, which ended up with more unnecessary work for me, took me away from the much needed relaxation time, yet will not only fail to benefit my career, but have explicitly thwarted other important maneuvers.

Weak, xykademiqz. Your game is weak.

The Laws of Credit Dynamics

The (faux) field of credit dynamics studies the motion of intellectual attribution in scientific collaborations.

The first and second laws of credit dynamics are:

1) A vast majority of readers mentally attribute each research paper to just one of the authors in the author list.

2) The attribution of a scientific paper always flows toward the most famous author in the author list, regardless of who actually conceptualized or did the work, or where the best-known author is in the author list.  

Corollary 1:

Even though you, as a graduate student or postdoc, did all the work and are first author, everyone likely thinks the paper is your advisor’s intellectual baby anyway.

Corollary 2 (lies at the intersection between the field of credit dynamics and the field of patriarchal bull$hit studies):

If the case of similar seniority and fame, the credit will always flow towards the male and away from the female scientist. A sizable offset in seniority and fame has to exist in favor of the female over the male contributor in order for the community to start attributing the work to her and not him. 

***

From Corollary 1 follows that, when you are a brand new assistant professor and you write your first few grants, those grants cannot be proposing trivial extensions of the work you did in your PhD or postdoc group. Why?

First, those papers are not really your papers. They are mentally attributed to your famous PhD/postdoc advisor, even if you feel ownership of them 100%. You have to come up with something that will be your niche, not the next 3-4 papers that you would have done had you stayed there for an even longer postdoc.

Second, I have seen many junior faculty spend tremendous amounts of time writing many, many grants that will all get dinged in review as too incremental, because the proposed work looks like it could just as well be done in the PI’s former lab, and much faster anyway.

The following seem to be some of the biggest issues people face when they become PIs, especially if they trained in famous labs:

a) The new PIs overestimate how highly they are really regarded once they are no longer basking in the glow of the advisor’s big name.

b) They overestimate how much they can do with their own startup package, a brand new lab, and brand new students while, honestly, not knowing yet how to really do the PI job, because all they know is a flush, well-equipped lab, full of experienced people and working like a well-oiled machine.

c) They view the work the same way they did as postdocs, looking at the next several experiments and a handful of papers, rather than realizing that their job is to develop an entirely new research program for the next decade or so, and with an often modest initial budget.

When you are a new PI, with untrained graduate students and limited resources, you have to think much harder and smarter than before. You have to think at least 5 nontrivial steps beyond the obvious extensions of your PhD/postdoc work. You have to develop a unique style in picking interesting problems to work on. The problems you choose to work on better not be of the low-hanging-fruit variety, because with a group that’s both untrained and small, you are unlikely to get to the easy pickings first.

I am midcareer and I still revel in identifying a hard, perhaps long-standing open problem and solving it by relying on my group’s unique expertise, much more so than I care for being yet another participant in the latest fad. While the latter yields more citations in the shorter term, the former warms my heart and is, I believe, ultimately a much better justification for me having a place in science at all.

Invited Sucker

A colleague from industry is co-organizing a fairly major conference in his field. He invited me to give a talk in the session he’s in charge of. I said sure, mostly as a favor to him. But, it turns out that I am responsible for all the expenses, including registration, and it’s not a conference I would normally go to. Okay, I can live with that, although the money is not trivial and I could have spent it differently. But, being that this is an important conference with considerable industry presence, showing my face there won’t be a total loss, and the networking will hopefully mean better job prospects for my students.

Then, at the eleventh hour, I find out that there is a mandatory paper to write.

I know there are fields like CS, where conferences are the primary mode of knowledge dissemination. In contrast, in my field and many others, conference papers are virtually irrelevant; they get neither read nor cited, yet they persist as a myth of relevance in certain old-fashioned subareas, so I occasionally get blindsided, like I just did, into writing a paper I don’t give a toss about. However, the paper cannot completely suck, since it’s going to be on the web for posterity, so I am now spending my weekend writing a full-length paper for a conference I don’t care about, when I should be working on a proposal or, you know, actually having a weekend off once in a blue moon, like normal people.

At this point in my career, the answer to “Would you come and give an invited talk?” is mostly:

Thanks for the invitation, but before I can respond, please let me know which expenses you plan to cover (e.g., registration, lodging, travel).

Apparently, I now also have to add:

Do I actually have to do any of the following:
— have the talk recorded;
— make slides available to the organizers ridiculously early (i.e., more than 15 min before the talk; have you actually ever met an academic?); 
— make my slides available on the web for posterity; 
— write a paper (that I don’t want to write and that nobody will read)?