The statistics of busy, or the management of approachability


In one Seinfeld episode, George puts on an annoyed busy-all-the-time act at work. Consequently, nobody bothered him with work.

Academia is a cult of busy. We all are very busy, and often complain about it when we shouldn’t. However, being busy is part of becoming more efficient.

Here are a couple claims:

  • In academia, the null hypothesis is that people are too busy to deal with your concerns.
  • People are often poor judges about what another person thinks is important.

When people come to see you about things of no consequence, that is a Type I error. In this case they rejected the null hypothesis that you are too busy for them when in fact you are too busy for them. The probability of a Type I error is alpha.

When we act busy, we reduce alpha.

When others fail to approach you with something that is important to you, then that is a Type II error, as they accepted the null hypothesis that you are too busy for them but in fact you have time for them and their issue is important to you. The probability of a Type II error is beta.

We can minimize beta by acting open and free with our time. However, if we minimize beta, than we increase the threshold for a Type I error, and we get our time frittered away.

This statistical analogy of availability and time management falls apart at this point: In science, a Type I error is more grievous than a Type II error. In personal relations and mentorship, a Type II error can be catastrophic. Getting your time nibbled away piece by piece is problematic. But, it’s a lot worse when a student with a critical concern doesn’t come to talk to you, or when a colleague with a great collaborative opportunity thinks that you don’t have the time.

The people who need our time the most are the ones who feel anxious about wasting our time.

The marginalized people in your midst, who most need help and advocacy, feel the least entitled to make avail of your time. I really, really want people to approach me when it matters. It’s my job to be there for students and colleagues. If students are not comfortable approaching me about things that matter, then I’m doing my job badly.

On the other hand, if I was maxed out on the approachability meter, then it would be hard to get through any given day. There has to be some kind of balance.

However, of late, I’ve totally botched it. In the last few months, I’ve had two students with smallish-scale concerns that could easily have been addressed with a short conversation or set of emails. I’ve tried to let these students know that my job is to be there for them and to discuss matters like this. But, at the same time, I have presumably been projecting the fact that I’m busy with all kinds of stuff. So they didn’t bring these things up to me. And then these small problems grew, so that they were no longer small problems. And then because they felt bad that they didn’t approach me when it was a small problem, they avoided bringing the big problems to me, even though it was critical that I find out about these problems as quickly as possible to attempt to fix the situation that was now beyond the students’ ability to fix.

Not only did this create big problems for the students, but then they became big problems for me. They really should have brought these things to me earlier. I can’t blame them too much for not bringing it to me, because they felt that they couldn’t approach me at the time. That’s my bad. My students need to know that i’m available for them and that they’re my highest priority. I say this with words, and I try very hard to be welcoming, but my actions apparently belie my my attempt to be approachable. As I get older and more different from my students, this approachability problem isn’t getting any easier.

In statistics, the way to keep alpha low but also maintain a low beta is to use statistical approaches that maximize the power of the analysis (large sample sizes, robust tests). There are some people in my midst who manage to be approachable when it matters, but deflect or avoid the stupid stuff that saps away their time. That’s some kind of time management ‘power.’ I might have been professoring for more than 15 years, but I’m still puzzling through how to finesse this without resulting in the occasional laboratory meltdown.

Recommended reads #38


Ecologist Timothée Poisot has what I think is a remarkable insight about the myth/cult/phenomenon of busy in academia. This is one of those topics that causes people to people spill lots of neurons and ink, often recycling a lot of the same notions. But this one is different and worth your time.

Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth recently had a new addition to her family, and uses the opportunity to explain a lot about human evolution, the various reasons that c-sections happen, and more.

The latest addition to our National Park system is the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. Here is an attractive photographic history of the San Gabriels so you can appreciate why they’re special.

Alok Bang just published a great commentary in Current Science:

Increasing importance placed on quantity of publications and its adherence to career rewards is changing the way science is done where quality has taken a backseat. While quantity with quality is welcome, current practices are promoting the former at the cost of the latter. This piece comments on misplaced importance given to quantity, resulting into lack of scientific creativity and advancement, as well as increased scope for scientific malpractices.

Epidemiologist Tara Smith explains The Hot Zone is part of what drove her to become an expert in infectious diseases. And now, the same book is the bane of her existence. Definitely a great read to contextualize attitudes towards Ebola in the United States at this moment.

A great interactive infographic from the Washington Post: 100 students start college. Who graduates?

Matt Jones, a colleague of mine down the hallway at CSU Dominguez Hills, has a blog about inquiry-based learning in math. It looks like great stuff.

Are inquiry-based approaches unfair or harmful to shy students? This piece from Times Higher Education explores ideas provided by commenters on previous posts over the last couple months.

If you teach conservation biology, here is a rallying cry for the importance of your work, from Dezene Huber.

The US Congress has always been partisan. But it’s only in recent years that this partisanship has actually prevented people from working together, and this piece in Esquire explains from the inside exactly how messed up things are.

You may have heard of Axios Review, which gets a set of reviews for your manuscript and then shops it around to a variety of journals on your behalf. (I’m planning to give it a try soon.) In a fresh comment on an older post about Axios in Dynamic Ecology, Nancy Moran expressed reservations about the for-profit nature of the organization, which elicited some interesting replies. (Note that when I use the word ‘interesting’ I am using the word literally, not as a euphemism. I mean it’s interesting, that’s all. Now that the word literally has lost its meaning, I guess we need another word to replace it, other than just saying actually literally.)

A big-time educational expert (Grant Wiggins, co-author of Understanding by Design, a rare gem in the ‘how to teach’ genre) wrote a really great blog post about what it’s like to be a high school student. It has many things that are simultaneously obvious and overlooked.

Here’s an inspiring short interview with Robin Wright, who just received the Genetics Society of America’s Elizabeth W. Jones Award for Excellence in Education.

There were a few great stories from NPR I wish to mention: First, is from the son of the remarkable Geoffrey Holder, who shared his story about his last moments with his father. It’s a combination of , touching, maudlin, and celebratory. This is as good as radio gets. Second is about the history of the slide rule. I remember when you could find slide rules in thrift shops, but in recent years, you now find them in antique galleries. The third one is about the history of women in computer science, and has a very convincing just-so story to explain how the proportion of women has declined in computer science since the 1980s. (It has a lot to do with machines like the Commodore 64, which I remember getting for Christmas when I was probably about twelve years old.)

Ian Street is enthusiastic about a new BBC botanical podcast, and has such a great pitch for it, I’m looking forward to hearing it.

From Piotr Naskrecki comes a tremendous explanation for the importance of scientific collections, and the requisite collecting work. As long as you can overlook a condescending remark about vegetarians.

Meghan Daum has thoughts about privilege-shaming: “In making privilege an accusation rather than an observation, we’re essentially buying into the idea that everyone, regardless of the circumstances they’re born into, can make it on their own if they try hard enough.”

A post in Dynamic Ecology from Margaret Kosmala about How to get a Postdoc is great advice that should be helpful near the start of grad school.

A long blog post by Kathy Sierra was reprinted in its entirety in Wired. It’s entitled: Why the Trolls Will Always Win. I found it to be a revelation. It tells a horrific story about how trolling escalated to downright terror, and how the only thing that really can fix the problem is the intervention of police. But that still doesn’t even fix the problem. The narrative of the story is unfortunately not unique, but the author is in a unique position to understand and explain the origin and perpetuation of trolling and harassment, and how non-facts introduced by trolls can bizarrely become part of conventional wisdom. This isn’t a cautionary tale, because it can’t caution you against doing anything to fix the situation, other than shutting up and letting the trolls win. It’s enraging, and packaged in a powerful and depressing explanation about why things happen the way they do.

Harvard is getting sick of paying for-profit publishers for journal access and is asking its faculty to publish in open-access journals, and avoid outfits like Nature and Science. If anybody in Boston is reading this, could you remark on how that’s workin’ out for you?


For links, thanks to Sam Diaz-Munoz, Rachel Gallery, and Hope Jahren.

Having “The Talk” with students


Recently, I posted on my regular blog about two separate incidents at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. One was a male allies panel gone horribly awry, and the other (which was all over the news outlets the next day) was a statement from Microsoft’s CEO about how women should trust the system and not ask for raises. Continue reading

Does your campus allow Federal Work Study awards for undergraduate research?


I used to have Work-Study students doing research in my lab, when I was visiting faculty at Gettysburg College. Then I got a job somewhere else, and I couldn’t do that anymore.

The university where I now work does not assign Work-Study students to work with professors, just like my previous employer. There was a clear institutional policy that prohibited using Federal Work-Study awards to fill undergraduate research positions. Continue reading

The Church of High Impact Practices


Educational fads come, and educational fads go. A dominant fad at the moment is “High Impact Practices.” Several years ago, George Kuh wrote a book about High Impact Practices that has come to dominate discussion in universities throughout the United States. If you want the nutshell version of the book, this seems to be a good summary.

I doubt anybody is actually reading the book. Continue reading

Recommended reads #37


Continue reading

Writing a review: thoughts from the trenches.


Somehow I’m in the middle of writing three review papers so I am gaining some perspective on writing them. The first one is basically my own fault; I started thinking a lot about nectar rewards and how they fit into my research. That thinking lead to a talk last year on some of my ideas to a bunch of like-minded folk at the Scandinavian Association of Pollination Ecologist’s meeting. Main lesson from my experience: never end a talk asking if you should write a review (and/or for interested co-authors) unless you really want to. Continue reading

When are minority-focused conferences the best choice?


Sometimes, the title has a question mark. The body of the text usually has the answer to the question in the title. This is not one of those. I don’t have an answer to this question.

Have you heard of SACNAS or ABRCMS?* These organizations put on a big science conference somewhere in the US each year. (SACNAS is passing through my own city next week.) Continue reading