The adjunct hiring process is ridiculous

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Once in a while, I get an email that sounds like this:

Hi everybody I know who is driving distance from campus,

We’re looking to hire an adjunct to teach [something] for us before the semester starts in a few weeks. Ideally this person has a PhD related to this topic and some teaching experience, but if you know of a grad student who is looking to gain experience teaching a course of record and would appreciate a few thousand bucks for a ton of work, please send them to us.

Sincerely, an overburdened departmental chair”

Meanwhile, let’s contrast this with the emails I get for tenure-track faculty positions:

Hi everybody in the entire galaxy,

Our department has opened up a tenure-track search in the area of [specialization]. Please encourage everybody to apply, because we want a really deep pool. That way, we can pick the candidate who has the most publications in the most impressive journals, has the biggest chance of bringing in big grants, and we need a large pool to convince HR that we are following their lightweight compliance process for equitable searches. The search will take several months and the position starts about one year from now. We anticipate spending a good amount of money on startup, there will be reassigned time from teaching for this person to launch well, and we work hard to support this person to make sure they earn tenure. We’re a great place to work, so send us your best!”

Sincerely, an overburdened departmental chair

I think we all appreciate the factors at play in our system that result in this dynamic. When we hire non-tenure-track positions, the process is slapdash, whereas tenure-track searches are whatever the opposite of slapdash is. I think it’s worth thinking about hat this slapdash hiring of non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty means for communities.

Adjuncts* are hired with little to no vetting because departments looking to hire these instructors are often in great need. Considering the workload and compensation associated with these semester-long gigs, when you find someone who is willing to take on a section, then many folks are positioned to be too picky. As far as I know, at most universities, the HR process for NTT faculty is wafer thin. Because it appears to be very common at some places for adjuncts to be hired literally moments before a class starts. Or maybe during the first week of classes.

I think in many departments, chairs are tasked with not only creating a schedule, but also hiring all of the people to teach those courses. There’s no hiring committee. The search process is whatever the chair decides it to be. If there’s anything in the process designed to create a fair and equitable outcome, then in every department that I’m familiar with, that’s entirely at the discretion of the chair who has to fill those slots. But this usually is little or nothing, because there are a lot of slots to fill and this search process is probably about 1% of the workload of the person who is responsible for filing these posts.

I have not (yet) been in this position, but I can’t imagine fitting in a full and proper search for every NTT position that needs to be filled in the midst of all of the other job duties. I think due diligence often consists of a phone call or two to check references to make sure that they’re not horrible, and maybe that’s as good as it gets. I once knew a department chair who joked/not-joked on occasion that hiring NTT faculty is just like hiring day laborers at the Home Depot parking lot (but that the pay and working conditions for the day laborer construction jobs was better).

Is this a problem? Yes, it is. What kind of problems does this cause?

First of all, does the absolute lack of any kind of fair hiring process for NTT instructors mean that you might be increasing the fraction of bad teachers? I don’t think so. I think you’re just as (and perhaps more) likely to bring bad teachers on board when you have a huge process of hiring a professor into a permanent position. Most of contingent faculty that I interact with are passionate about teaching and put a ton of effort and concern into their course. Are NTT faculty phoning it in? I would say that’s a bigger problem with tenured faculty. At least NTT faculty know that they’re being paid (albeit poorly) to teach, whereas tenured faculty might be under the impression that teaching is not necessarily the most important part of our jobs, and behave accordingly. While some NTT faculty are duds, let’s be honest here and recognize that there may well be a higher fraction of duds among the tenure-track and tenured professoriate. Even if you wanted to argue that the lack of a formal process results in more faculty who aren’t good at teaching, I don’t think that’s the biggest problem we have.

So, then, what’s my problem with the process if it doesn’t result in the hiring of bad teachers? Gosh, it’s hard to know know where to start.

While our institutions are exploiting NTT labor to some extent (and that extent varies greatly among institutions), we still are hiring for professional positions and there should be a transparent and equitable process. Think about all of the time and trouble that gets involved into hiring undergraduates for REU positions. Big applicants, statements, letters of reference, a committee. All for a position that pays a few thousand dollars over the summer and then ends. The amount of money for NTT positions is not smaller and all of those concerns about equity, justice, and representation matter. If the opportunity to become an instructor of record is one of the major stepping stones to becoming a professor (and in many places, it is), then how come the process providing access to such an opportunity is so darn inequitable?

I don’t know about your university, but at mine there is a sizable community of NTT faculty who are very important on our campus. Not only do they do so much teaching, they contribute in a lot of other ways (even if their employment contracts do not expect such a a contribution). They serve on our academic senate and help make big decisions about the institution. They help run our student research conference, and are advisors to student clubs, and so much more. (Not all NTT instructors have this level of engagement, but it’s been several times where I’ve worked with someone for months only to discover that they’re not tenure-track, and that they’re doing this stuff even though they don’t have to, but only because they want to.) There are many folks who are making a career out of this role. The people who evolve into this position come at it sideways, usually by getting hired by a departmental chair in a slapdash manner, and then they stick with it over the years.

I think it’s a problem that we have parallel professional pathways for university faculty, with one pathway getting more support, scrutiny, and respect. It’s been a while since I’ve written about how tenure-track faculty are essentially parasites of non-tenure-track faculty, but that situation still is exploitative, even if our universities have been working in earnest to professionalize what it means to be NTT faculty.

Perhaps one of the reasons that faculty and other people in universities aren’t investing enough into NTT faculty is that there’s such little care or concern invested when we recruit people into these roles? Everybody deserves respect and professional support, and perhaps we might begin this process as we should proceed: by putting thought and concern into who gets hired.

I honestly don’t know how to operationalize this idea of conducting a transparent and equitable process for hiring adjunct faculty, and if I were in the position where I was expected to do this, I would be asking, “with what kind of support?” Because we only are creating the academic calendar a few months in advance of when these job opportunities arise. And sometimes because funding is short, we can’t float sections we want to, and sometimes because of demand, some get added at the last minute. The HR and faculty affairs offices wouldn’t have the staff to handle this, and are we asking people to sit on more committees? What does this look like? It sounds like a disaster.

But what we have right now is a disaster, of a different kind, that we’ve just grown to live with. I don’t know what to do with it, and the lack of professional support for NTT faculty is a downright epidemic and the slapdash hiring procedures is just one small consequence of a much bigger problem.

Final note: this post isn’t about anything specific going on at my institution or at any other institution. It was triggered by one of those emails that I got this morning, but those emails are a steady trickle near as we prepare for a new semester. It’s not about you, it’s not about me, except for the fact that it is about everybody and you and me are part of everybody.


* a short note on nomenclature: “Adjunct” can mean a lot of different things. What are the differences among contingent faculty, adjunct faculty, lecturer, non-tenure-track instructor, and other terms of art? There are a lot of subtle differences, and some of these differences vary depending on the institutional context. (For example, in the California State University system, all faculty who are not tenure-line faculty are “lecturers,” that’s the terminology built into the collective bargaining agreement.) “Contingent” simply means that you’re hired at will and don’t have a long-term contract. This gets complex because some non-tenure-track faculty are more contingent than others, depending on policies and guidelines for employment in your university. (For example, in the CSU, the CBA provides for entitlement for NTT faculty who have been on the job for a little while. It’s not exactly tenure, and not a guarantee of future work, but it’s makes it harder to give those teaching assignments to anybody else.) “Adjunct” can be interpreted as a label that a person isn’t a part of the regular faculty, but they’re just a temporary add-on. So this term, when applied to folks who are a well engaged with the campus, isn’t quite appropriate and can be othering.

Recommended reads #205

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A couple more research articles showing how teaching valuations are sexist. And the interaction effect with age is quite something. If you’re involved in teaching evaluations in any way, this is important to know about.

book: The Guidebook for the Engaged University

“Do I really want to be a professor?”

What a frog pandemic tells us about humans

It’s not too late to bid on items from Joan Didion’s estate

book: Women in Field Biology

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On bureaucratic obstacles to field experiences for students

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If your university is like mine, then you hear a lot about everybody is working hard to make sure that students have exposure to high impact educational practices. We all want to make sure that while students are in college, that they have the chance to have meaningful experiences.

For students in a bunch of science fields, it’s pretty clear that one of the most transformative and impactful educational practices in our toolkit* is bringing students to places in nature for genuine field experiences. Yes, it’s possible to become an ecologist or a geologist without going into the field. But I think everybody who is getting professional preparation at the undergraduate level in the field sciences should have ample opportunity to go out into the field with their courses and their instructors, right?!

But it seems a lot of our universities aren’t on the same page. They might think it’s a good idea, but there are also so many bureaucratic obstacles to taking students into the field, that we’re doing it less than we should be. I know so many people who aren’t taking students on field trips simply because their institution is making it too hard to make this happen.

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NSF’s accountability for the Waterman award

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Usually we talk about accountability when people are getting it wrong, and perhaps on the occasional moment when someone or some organization experiences appropriate negative consequences for their own actions.

That’s only the first step. Accountability includes taking the steps to right the wrong, to move forward doing the right things.

So: I’d just like to take a brief moment to say thank you to the National Science Foundation for showing some accountability and doing the right thing. Good on ya, NSF.

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Are REUs always good for students enrolled in MSIs? It’s complicated.

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In my department, we have a complicated relationship with REU (Research Experience for Undergraduate) programs. We have several well-funded active labs on my campus that provide quality mentored research opportunities to biology undergrads, so students in our department do who want to have impactful research experience have access to them. However, it’s still valuable for these students to go to an REU program at another university in the summer. REU programs*, especially those in places with a bunch of PhD students around, may have a strong positive impact on the professional trajectory of students who are doing their undergrad at primarily undergraduate institutions. Even though academics are known for unnecessarily qualifying general statements with “may,” “might,” or “possibly,” the may that I italicized in the previous sentence was there by design. It might have a positive impact. Or it might actually have a negative impact. It depends.

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The ‘great resignation’ in academia and the larger mental health crisis

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This is a guest post by Rob Clark.

Higher rates of faculty departing from academia is a reflection of the ongoing mental health crisis.

The mental health crisis is not unique to higher education, but instead is a systemic issue being felt across all walks of life. For example, dramatically increased rates of depression are attributed to the COVID19 pandemic, with about 1 out of 10 people reporting depression symptoms prior to 2019 and up to 1 out of 3 people in 2022. Similarly, symptoms of anxiety mood disorders are up to 47% in the US. In the U.S. this problem is exacerbated by a fatigued and overwhelmed healthcare system. In my own experience, it has been exceptionally difficult to get timely mental healthcare – – It took me 16 months to get an appointment with a prescribing psychiatrist. The counseling center I currently use has a waiting list of over 50 patients. I currently live in a densely population area with decent healthcare system and the situation is baffling.

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Recommended reads #203

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An article in Slate about how folks in the humanities aren’t doing the off-campus volunteer academic service like they used to.

Profiles of faculty who made major career pivots because of the imperative to do more about the climate crisis. This really hit home for me. Two of their four subjects left faculty positions for other roles. So this article is 50% “quit-lit.”

This one is 100% quit-lit: I Left Academia to Work in a Pub Because I’m Working-Class.

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Systemic racial disparities in NSF funding

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If you’re doing basic scientific research in the US, here’s a new must read. This preprint by Chen et al. dropped on Friday, entitled “Decades of systemic racial disparities in funding rates at the National Science Foundation.”

Using over 20 years of data on funding rates, they demonstrate that white PIs have been getting funded at higher rates than non-white PIs. It feels like the scope of this preprint is similar to what Ginther et al. documented for NIH in 2011. Since that time, the Ginther Gap has been central to discussions involving disparities at NIH.

I think the figures speak for themselves, so I’m going to just share some of them:

Figure 1 shows that white folks have consistently been getting more funding across the years.

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Why I don’t have trouble finding peer reviewers

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I see this very often in social media, and also in conversation with other academic editors: it’s getting harder and harder to get find people who agree to review manuscripts.

I have no idea whether this reflects the general experience, or if it’s borne out by data. I of course believe the lived experience of my peers, and their accounts make sense given the steady (and absurd) increase in publication rates, with so many people working the manuscript ladder chasing prestige, all compounded by the difficulties of the pandemic. I imagine that some journals have tracked the invitation acceptance rate and how it’s changed over time and perhaps shared this — or maybe it’s in the bibliometric literature — though over the span of a couple minutes my searching powers came up short.

That said, I have to admit that getting reviewers to say yes hasn’t been a problem for me in the course of editorial duties. Even in the depths of this pandemic, I usually haven’t had to ask more than three to five people in order to land two reviewers. Each year, I’ve been handling dozens of manuscripts, so I can’t credibly pin this on the luck of the draw. I don’t know why I don’t have much trouble finding peer reviewers. It presumably is a complex function of the function of manuscripts themselves, the society affiliation of the journal, how and who I choose to invite, the financial model of the journal, maybe if people are more likely to say yes to me as a human being (?), and who knows what else. If you ask people why they say no, I’m sure everybody just thinks it’s because they’re too busy. But if you ask people why they say yes, then that where it might get interesting.

The title of this post is off because I clearly don’t know why I don’t have trouble finding reviewers, but it might be informative because I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing, and that might help y’all come to your own conclusions about the Why. I’ve just stepped down from all of my editorial roles, so I thought now is a good time to step back and reflect on how have I identified potential reviewers, and make an attempt at some generalized take-lessons from this experience.

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Hidden curriculum™ for mid-career faculty

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Over the last few months, I’ve had some quality time with a bunch of other mid-career academics who are (also) experiencing an inflection point in their careers. We’ve advanced to a certain level, and now we’re wondering, “Where do we go next?” This state of mind has been amplified by the disequilibrium that the pandemic introduced into our jobs and our own lives. (Stay tuned to this space for more on that inflection point, perhaps.) Anyhow, another thing that floated to the surface was how the Hidden Curriculum™ is a problem for us too.

We usually talk about Hidden Curriculum™ as a mechanism of inequity for junior scientists. For example, undergrads aren’t aware of the procedures and cultural norms that of the grad school application process. Grad students are often unfamiliar with the schmoozing etiquette of the prevailing (upper-middle class white) culture in their discipline.

Some bad news is that the gatekeeping never stops.

What are some expectations, norms, resources, and pathways that aren’t transparently shared with mid-career faculty, but can be really important? Here are some examples that have come up:

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EEB Mentor Match 2022 is live!

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This is just a quick post to let you know that EEB Mentor Match is now launched, and is ready for you to sign up! Please get the word out to your colleagues, students, and professional societies.

This program was designed to help students applying to graduate school find the support they need. If you feel like you could use some support in untangling the mysteries and challenges of applying to grad school and for fellowships like the NSF GRFP, then we are here for you. Please sign up to be assigned a mentor!

This program is a grassroots effort that relies on members of our community to provide mentorship. If you’ve volunteered in previous years, you may or may not have been assigned a mentee! Regardless, please do sign up this year so that we can assign students to mentors whose expertise best fits their needs.

Effective teaching is not standardized teaching

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There was a comment on a recent post that I’ve been chewing over for the past week, that gets at the heart of what’s (I think is) ailing effective STEM teaching.

This person was explaining why they had been tenured for a decade and now are choosing to leave the professoriate. Among other reasons, they were explaining how their university is expecting them “to deliver standardized experiences to a lot of students.”

I feel like this short statement is replete with experiences, assumptions, problems, and truth that deserve some exploration. (A younger me might have said that this statement needs to be “unpacked” and thank goodness I’m not that person now.)

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Building and maintaining friendships as an academic

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I just made a few new friends, perhaps.

After more than two years of pandemic-induced isolation, I had the privilege of a week of quality in-person time with fellow Earth Leadership Fellows last week, and so many were just wonderful human beings. The experience was highly valuable and I learned from everybody. Having gone through this experience, it makes sense to me how so many of the former fellows (not to mention the current ones) are among most impactful and visible scientists working on critical environmental issues. We’re gaining skills and perspectives that will help us do work that will actually change things. You’ll probably hear more from me about that stuff later, but now I want to talk about the friend thing.

I think one of hardest parts of being an academic is the expectation that you move, often huge distances, several times throughout your professional development. You get close to people, and then you move. What do we do with those roots that we grow? Do we box them up with a root ball and hopefully they’ll survive a transplant? How many of us are just potted plants moving around, never putting roots into the ground?

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On the exodus of faculty

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A lot of folks, with tenured positions, are choosing to get out of the university game to do other kinds of work. A recent issue of Nature has a particularly strong piece of journalism that dives into “the great resignation.” This article has resonated with a lot of people. Perhaps we’ve only seen the the above water portion of this iceberg.

In my university, I can think of some recently-tenured faculty members who have stepped out for jobs in consulting, industry, and funding agencies. These were people who were good teachers, productive researchers, and appreciated by their colleagues. Who enjoyed their students. From where I sit, this leaving-professoring-for-another-kind-of-job is a very real thing.

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Planning for safe and inclusive field research

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Fieldwork can be the best part of being a scientist. But when unprepared or abusive leaders take trainees into the field, they can cultivate an unsafe and harmful environment. So It’s nice to see that National Science Foundation is taking steps to improve the safety and inclusivity of field research. NSF is now proposing that projects with fieldwork component have a plan for field safety, which includes creating an environment promoting dignity and respect, and prevents conduct that is “unwelcome, offensive, indecent, obscene, or disorderly.”

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Recommended reads #201

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Since it’s been quite a while since the last post, I’ve accumulated a particularly good crop of reads.

Trees don’t rush to heal from trauma and neither should we.

A math professor from Columbia applied his own skills to demonstrate the extraordinary and counterproductive measures that his own institution has gone to in order to game a ranking system run by a magazine. Absolutely bananas. This is absolutely damning. Here’s the executive summary and here’s the long-form version. (And here’s the NYT article, but I haven’t read it, but I’m linking to it because it’s the local paper.)

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Updating my perspective on “predatory” journals

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It took a while for the rise of the internet to destabilize the academic publishing industry, but still the major for-profit publishers have been adept at consolidating their racket. Academic institutions, and individual academics such as myself, continue to be fleeced and are donating money to corporations in a sector with an absurdly high profit margin. If you’re reading this site, you presumably are aware of all the disruptions in academic publishing that have been facilitated by the internet: preprint servers, scihub and libgen, open-access fees, journals that are entirely open access, and so called “predatory” journals.

Let’s talk more about “predatory” journals.

These journals seem more parasitic than predatory. These publishing venues are merely taking advantage of the perverse incentives that we have developed in higher education.

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Benefits of virtual conferences for ecology and conservation research

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Note: This is a guest post by Lauren Kuehne and co-authors of Kuehne et al. 2022.

Hot on the heels of Catherine Scott’s excellent post in early February, where she summarized Skiles et al. 2021 on how virtual conferences shifted conference attendance, we want to share a brand new article in Conservation Biology related to the same topic. In it, myself and 13 colleagues in the aquatic sciences outline why we think scientists should critically consider virtual conferences not as a stopgap measure, but one that can transform research networks, accelerate knowledge sharing, confront sustainability challenges, and better reflect the global nature of environmental research. 

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On the legacies of Ed Wilson and EO Wilson

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After E.O. Wilson died in the final days of 2021, we have have been treated to detailed remembrances of his accomplishments, his kind and gentle nature, and his immeasurable impact on several fields of science. Among fellow myrmecologists, Wilson indubitably is one of the greats, and for many, he was the greatest. When I once had the fortune of presenting in a conference session that Wilson had attended, that was an honor. I didn’t know him personally, but I have many colleagues, and some friends, who were mentored by him, and benefited from his generosity and good will. Everybody I know who had interacted with him in any substantial way had wonderful things to say about him.

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If your society is serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion, you need to keep having online conferences

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(Also, obviously, online conferences have lower carbon footprints)

Many traditionally in-person scientific meetings have shifted to virtual formats during the COVID-19 pandemic. As an attendee (and organizer) at several virtual conferences over the last two years, I heard a lot of people talking about how they look forward to conferences being “back to normal” next year, or sometime in the future. I will state up front that while I find in-person conferences exhausting (I am an introvert and the non-stop social context is overwhelming), I generally find them both personally and professionally rewarding and can absolutely understand all the reasons other people enjoy them. I also get that a virtual conference is never going to be the same as an in-person meeting. Obviously they are different. But as much as I and others who have traditionally attended and benefitted from in-person conferences might enjoy them and the opportunities they provide, if we are serious about our stated commitments to DEI (and if you or your professional society haven’t at least made a statement to this effect, I’m not sure where you’ve been the last two years) we need to think critically about the “normal” conference model and who it excludes by its design. Now, I am not saying that we have consciously designed conferences to exclude people, but that the system in which they have evolved has resulted in a structure that actively excludes. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to collect data that makes this very clear.

A recent paper by Matthew Skiles and colleagues investigated the impact of the switch to online scientific meetings in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I encourage you to read the paper, but I will highlight some key results here:

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(Not) all rankings are bad

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Standard university rankings may or may not be bollocks, but they are a destructive force.

This is because of Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

What a world we live in, that the country’s largest and most wealthy universities have collectively decided to cede institutional power to the editors at the US News and World Report.

A new national ranking came out, and they found that my campus is #2 in the country! So maybe I’ll start caring about rankings? wink. But I do think it’s worthwhile to see what we might learn from The Economic Mobility Index. It ranks “schools [that] enroll the highest proportion of students from low- and moderate-backgrounds AND provide them with a strong return on their educational investment.” Here’s a thread from one of the authors with a bit of an explainer.

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Recommended read #200

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Welcome to the “what he said” edition of rec reads.

I have one link for you: An essay by Dr. Jeremy Yoder about the response of the evolutionary biology community to a poorly crafted essay about the legacy of E.O. Wilson.

I could excerpt bits but really, the whole thing is a must-read, so just go on and read it.

Not only does Dr. Yoder have valuable things to say about how our scientific community has allowed a destructive person to remain in their community as a peer, this also is a gorgeous piece of prose. I didn’t write about this whole affair because I wasn’t sure if I could hit the mark just right, and I’ve seen others miss the mark. Here goes Jeremy getting it right with tone, context, kindness, clarity, and strength. It takes time to write so well and I think he’s done a public service to give us a lodestar as we move forward.

Recommended reads #199

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Hi, it’s been a while. I hope you had a nice holiday break? I think there are some real gems in here.

The Professor: “Maybe the most powerful person is the one who dares to refuse the gift.”

Lessons from Dr. Henley’s PhD

Why the science of teaching is often ignored

Note the date on this article and you’ll find it was quite prescient: The Pandemic Movie of Our Time Isn’t Contagion. It’s Jaws.

A nice bit of science blogging from Brian Enquist about Yoda’s Power Law and the origins of macroecology.

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Yes, things are hard for everybody right now

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This was the worst semester ever. We all are worn too thin. I’ve had one conversation over and over this semester, with colleagues who are now in their fourth iteration of pandemic teaching:

“Is this the worst semester ever for teaching?”

“Yes, yes it is.”

While each phase of this pandemic was rough, the consensus seems to be that this semester might have been the roughest. A lot of us have already tapped out our reservoirs of resilience. We’re also seeing an amplification of a mental health crisis.

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We know exactly what to do about sexual misconduct in the field

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Last Thursday, many months of investigative reporting culminated in a comprehensive and detailed article about the prevailing atmosphere of sexual misconduct in the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The article describes the tolerance of multiple serial offenders, and how STRI has not shown any sign of yet attempting a substantial process to repair this culture. Many survivors came forward for interviews, and yet this is only a tiny fraction of those who could have come forward. And there are even more who have stayed away because they were forewarned.

If you haven’t read this article yet, please do so. Here’s the link again.

This story hit close to home for me in a few ways: as a tropical biologist, as a person who personally knows a few of the survivors in the article and more who were not in the article, as a PI who has regularly sent students to work in tropical field stations, and as a director of a field station who is responsible for developing a healthy and safe institutional culture.

There’s one thing I want everybody to know about this situation: We know what should have been done. It is easy to know what needs to be done. There is a clear literature for this situation. The National Academies released a major report in 2018 that specifies clear steps that leaders must take to address the epidemic of gendered misconduct in STEM. Just weeks ago, the Workshop To Promote Safety In Field Sciences produced a report that provided “52 recommendations targeted at improving field science culture change, as well as misconduct accountability, policy, and reporting.”

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