teaching

Grant Woes

Yesterday I found out that one of my NSF proposals got declined. I was disappointed, as I think this was probably the best proposal I have ever written.

I read the comments and felt even more down. The comments indicated that it was poorly placed panel-wise.

It received 3 “goods”, and the comments were pro forma. First, the fact that there were a minimal number of reviews (usually there are more than 3 when the panel is well suited to review a proposal) was the first indication that there was no one there who would champion it. Second, the program manager had told me that theory proposals don’t usually review well just because; so this one didn’t either, even though the project is as applied as they come, I have plenty of preliminary data, and two enthusiastic in-house experimental collaborators who contributed letters of support. Comments were things like the proposal is poorly organized (Why did I not have a separate section on preliminary work as opposed to have each task  described in terms of what I have done and then what I  will do? Well, it has worked well thus far many times. Why is there no preliminary data comparing to experiments of other groups? Uhm, yeah, there are probably 6-7 figures showing exactly experiments from other groups versus theory without phenomenon versus my theory with phenomenon. Why is there no discussion on different materials used? Uhm, because they are well known and characterized and a detailed discussion is unnecessary for people at all in this field, while a brief discussion was indeed given.)

The thing with doing theory and simulation in the physical sciences is that, unless you want to be subservient to an experimentalist with DoD funding, there are not many agencies that fund purely theoretical work. And NSF allows for only a single submission window per year, and one proposal per division (which is pretty broad). People get creative and target several different divisions, but there are definitely whole topical areas that fall through the cracks. And I am tired of being shafted in experiment-only panels; I go through great pains to make the proposal readeable and understandable to non-theorists (not a single goddamn formula!) and then the panelists don’t even bother.

What’s funny is that this project is nearly complete. We have done well over 1/2 of it already with fringe funding (TA’s, internal fellowships, that sort of thing) so the story was as complete as I was ever going to write. There is no detail that I did not address because everything worth  addressing actually came up and was discussed in the proposal. As I said, I don’t think I ever wrote a better proposal, it was polished, and thorough, and just wonderful. And the criticisms just show it should not have been reviewed where it went.

I will tell you one thing: experimentalists to whom I show the work fall all over themselves with joy at the predictive capability of the simulation. As they should, because it’s unique and powerful. Maybe I will go against all I hold dear, clean up the code and allow for download at a fee. Maybe I should go with a Kickstarter campaign. I don’t need or want profit, but if everyone wants to use it, then I should be able to pay personnel to further develop it.

But I digress. Because there are not many agencies where a theorist of my ilk can get funding, every  three years I go through this cycle of despair: what if none of the grants get funded? What if I am completely out of money? What happens then?

I would not be as badly off as the people on soft money who lose their labs and their salaries (not common in the physical sciences, apparently common in the biomedical world). But not being able to have students would suck. I could still do some work on my own; but, in my department and college, how much you are worth locally equals how much money you bring in. I would suddenly become a lesser faculty member, and what I say would not matter as much as it does now.

My former postdoc is a junior faculty member elsewhere. He’s smart and overall just great, but has not been able to secure funding thus far in spite of writing grants continuously for a couple of years now. I can understand that he is panicked. If he doesn’t land a grant soon, he may never actually show to anyone what he would have to offer.

I never thought I would retire, ever. These days, I think I will retire when the time comes just to relieve myself of the need to stress about where the support for my students is coming from. As a full professor, I have A LOT of teaching and service. The time I have for research is spent on hunting for money. I wish I could spend that time advising students or writing papers or thinking about what we’ll do next.

It’s not the end of the world, and I am better off than many, perhaps most. Still lots of irons in the fire.
But I don’t think I want to spend all of my time this way.

When did it stop being important that we actually think and do science and instead what became important is scrounging for money to do the science?
It’s so exhausting and so effed up.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think scientists should be having completely free rein — it’s taxpayer money and stewardship is necessary. But we are at the extreme where considerably less good science is funded than proposed, which cannot be good.

I will lick my wounds for another day or two, but then it’s back in the saddle again, scouting new funding opportunities.

WTF Editor and What Professors Do All Day When Not in Class: A Two-Parter

I have submitted a paper to a journal that prides itself in rapid turnaround. It’s been a week and no action; it’s sitting on the editorial desk (well, metaphorically; rather in an inbox or a folder of some sort). I am getting really antsy, because they often send out for review within a couple of days from submission.

I have told myself I would give them 2 weeks and then nudge them. But I might have serious problems waiting that long… It’s a journal that does desk rejections, btw.

A few months ago, I had a Glam Wannabe journal sit on a manuscript for nearly a month and then desk-rejected.  I could have received a full review other places in the same amount of time. I was unbelievably pissed that they wasted my time like that. It will be a long, long time before I review for them again, I will tell you that. A$$holes.

What say you, blogosphere? How long do you allow the editors to sit on a paper before you nudge them to ask “WTF is going on? $hit or get off the can!” (Well, the polite version, anyway.) Do your actions depend on the typical or perceived or processing time for the journal? On how badly you want to publish in there? On how much coffee you’ve had?

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What do we profs do all day when we don’t teach? Well, here you go.

Smurf the Little had an owie ear, was taken to a doctor and then to daycare this morning by DH. However, Middle Boy puked repeatedly and quite grossly yesterday evening and last night, so I stayed at home with him today, as I didn’t have to teach. The Puker will be 8 this spring, so he’s not high maintenance, and he was also starting to feel better, so I was able to work. What I did today:

  • reviewed 2 proposals for two different federal agencies (one US, one Canada);
  • reviewed 1 paper (revision, didn’t take very long);
  • wrote 2 letters of recommendation;
  • edited a full-length conference paper a student is submitting;
  • edited a colleague’s paper, which I promised to do even though I also asked to be taken off the author list because I didn’t do much for the project;
  • hastily submitted belated paperwork and a report for an existing grant that I hope to get renewed and I really should be behaving better towards the program manager;
  • filed paperwork for a no-cost extension of a grant;
  • organized and submitted paperwork for a recent trip;
  • filed justification for airfare for an upcoming trip;
  • booked yet another upcoming trip;
  • emailed pretty extensively with two grad students on technical stuff, and talked over the phone with one of them;
  • emailed lightly with three or four panicked undergrads, who realized the reign of terror is upon them as they are taking a class with me;
  • emailed w/ some 20 or so other people about various upcoming meetings or scheduling midterm classroom for my huge class etc;
  • prepped class for tomorrow;
  • scanned some pages for student HW I had assigned yesterday because the library doesn’t have the undergrad text on reserve yet;
  • organized and submitted paperwork to establish an undergrad’s research position  and a add a grad student’s MS to a PhD in another department;
  • read/skimmed two papers that a colleague sent me as of possible interest (they were);
  • worked on my annual report that’s due in about a week;
  • worked on the figures for a manuscript that should be submitted likely by Feb 1;
  • obsessed/fumed over the fact that the stupid paper from part 1 hasn’t gone out to review (or come back desk-rejected) yet. Okay, this is not work, but it takes energy. Even though it’s only dark energy… BWAHAHAHA.

Not bad for a lazy overpaid layabout academic on sick-kid duty, huh? As you can see, I make a great secretary. Who dabbles in teaching and research.

I still haven’t done the stuff I need to do for the awards committee I am on, and I have yet to write the paper to accompany the invited talk I am giving in February (I really shouldn’t have accepted the invitation, I don’t like to publish conference papers — too much time on something people don’t read or cite). Two journal papers are nearing submission by end of February, and a grant too; I am chipping away at those as well, but didn’t today.

Teaching Asininements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musings on Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research University, Now With Words

I am at a major public research university. Sure, this is a university and teaching is important, for some definitions of important; anyone who says that research does not beat teaching to a pulp is a liar.

Bringing in extramural funding is the most important metric in most STEM fields. It translates into overhead dollars for the university. It also generally translates into high-profile work, for money means you are doing work that is “hot” and also money can pay for a lot of smart students and postdocs who actually do the work in many fields (with the exception of math and some fields like theoretical physics and computer science). The most highly paid and most coveted members of the faculty are those who do flashy, news-worthy, high-profile work. [Between research productivity and  funds raised is an implication (–>) rather than equivalence (<–>), i.e. money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for high productivity or flashy papers; there is such a thing as having too much money to efficiently handle. But I digress.]

We are professors, yes, but our peers and our administration care about research almost exclusively. So, where do teaching and service come to play?

Teaching has to be good. If it is bad, you will not get tenure. It has to be decent. But, anything better than decent, unless it is at the level of prestigious national teaching awards, is not rewarded. Being better than a decent teacher is all on you, and feel free to do it if it makes you feel good. But, if you are doing a better-than-passable job, people may (as I know from experience) ask what it is that you are not doing instead when you are wasting time on this silly teaching business. Not all colleagues are like that; in fact I have several in the department who really value and do an excellent job of teaching while also having some political gravitas. However, for the most part, spending considerable time on teaching is looked down upon by the most-research-productive colleagues, who sometimes consider teaching a nuisance that should be minimized or avoided to the extent possible.

ValueTeaching

For example, when I told a colleague that I give 3 midterms, hour-long and in-class, over the standard 2 longer evening exams (more frequent exams are less nerve-wrecking for the students because their grade does not hinge on any one exam so much, and it’s also less daunting for me to grade so I do it faster and they get the results sooner), the colleague told me that I must have too much time on my hands; he, who apparently must be the yardstick by which all workload is to be measured, has only one midterm (this is way too few for undergrads, in my opinion). So it’s not “you do this, I do that,” it’s an explicit statement that me doing something that I feel benefits the students is indicative of an unforgivable professional deficiency (not being busy enough). The same colleague told me “That’s loser talk” a few years ago when I complained that a grant was unjustly slaughtered in review (likely by this guy); needless to say, I am not discussing grants with that colleague again.

People who run very large groups and raise a lot of money generally have very hectic travel schedules and are overall very busy. I know from what students tell me that it translates into many cancelled and rescheduled classes, which is probably not a big deal for graduate students, but it is for undergrads, whose days are usually packed to bursting with classes, labs, project group meetings, and often part-time work. The extremely busy colleagues would often love to have the absolute minimal teaching load, and perhaps they should, for everyone’s benefit.

What about service? There are some important service assignments, and I understand and endorse that they have to be done. Many of them have to be done by faculty (e.g. serving on PhD dissertation committees, or tenure and promotion committees). My beef with service is threefold. First, there are people who really do the fewest and the lightest assignments; they tend to be either among the very high performers or, unsurprisingly, among the very poor performers (deadwood) who have mentally checked out. My second beef is that there are many committees that are pointless because what is needed is money, but the money is not forthcoming; while meeting to brainstorm and bloviate may appease whomever because it seems like something is happening, nothing really is, so the whole thing is a time-wasting charade. Third, service doesn’t do anything for an individual’s career unless it is a formal administrative position (e.g. you serve as department chair), and even so the gains appear… dubious.

The most aggravating part of life at an R1 university is that, during the semester, teaching and service can easily eat up your entire work week. I have several student papers to edit, I haven’t been able to get to them in way longer than I would like. We are dealing with a completely nuts situation, in which much of the core university mission work (teaching, service) takes up so much time that, if you are at all conscientious, your research — the only part that can potentially advance your career — suffers terribly; if you don’t want to neglect your research (or your career in general), you shaft the core mission or your personal life, usually both.

I don’t think faculty are at fault here. People do what is expected of them, and smart people read expectations very well.