Are recommendation letters a bad thing?

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In the past couple years, we have made progress in dropping the GRE, and now the pandemic has come through with a huge assist. Maybe that’s the final blow for the GRE, as programs are now dropping it permanently. Which means that people who cared about the GRE are now placing higher importance on other pieces of applications, including recommendation letters.

Which leads me to ask: Are recommendation letters a good thing or a bad thing? Of course, I don’t think this is a binary matter and there’s a lot of nuance involved here.

I have heard a variety of concerns about recommendation letters in the graduate admissions process, and I think it would be foolhardy for us to think that we’ve made a big amount of progress by getting rid of the GRE. The problem with the GRE is that it doesn’t reflect ability, research potential, or value to the academic community, as it’s more tied to wealth, access to resources, and the accumulation of cultural and social capital. You could say the same thing about recommendation letters, too.

Let me illustrate the problem with recommendation letters with a little, and wholly true, story.

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Recommended reads #178

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A landmark paper about gender inequities in academic advancement and funding by Rissler et al. just came out in Bioscience. I bet it’s going to become a classic. In this paper, the pool of potential applicants for NSF funding is estimated, and the rates of application and funding are evaluated. The tweet features Figure 1, showing the the frequency of (self-reported) men and women in tenure-track faculty positions by academic rank.

Just moments before Rissler et al. 2020 was published, Caroline Tucker published this blog post as an infuriating and heartbreaking illustration of the mechanisms at work. (You may recognize Dr. Tucker from her work blogging at EEB and Flow, as well as her research on biodiversity and trait-based ecology.) Just in case you wondered how bad the situation is and how much work is in front of us, please read the Bioscience paper and Dr. Tucker’s post.

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What’s up with the new NSF GRFP priority areas?

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The new solicitation for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program arrived last night with NSF’s daily digest bulletin. There were eight items they brought to our attention as changes from last year, but when I was going through it late this morning, the soundtrack screeched to a halt:

4. Although NSF will continue to fund outstanding Graduate Research Fellowships in all areas of science and engineering supported by NSF, in FY2021, GRFP will emphasize three high priority research areas in alignment with NSF goals. These areas are Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Information Science, and Computationally Intensive Research. Applications are encouraged in all disciplines supported by NSF that incorporate these high priority research areas.

https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2020/nsf20587/nsf20587.htm

Ummm, what?

I am simply asking, what the heck is going on? I’ve got a lot of questions.

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Introducing Earth Science Mentor Match

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This is just a quick post to let you know that there is now an Earth Sciences Mentor Match program available!

If you’re an undergrad in Earth Sciences who would like a more experienced person to help advise you through applying to grad school, and/or help you write an application for a graduate fellowship such as the NSF GRFP, then you can ask for a mentor! The program targets students who are in groups underrepresented in the Earth Sciences, and is open to all. Likewise, if you’re in the Earth Sciences and would like to volunteer to mentor, please sign up!

This program is designed to increase access and help make the playing field less inequitable to the BIPOC students who have been minoritized in these disciplines.

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Making sure your online course has what it needs

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For a lot of us, this Fall will be our first experience teaching fully online. This shouldn’t be like emergency teaching in the Spring. We can be ready.

I think it’s unfair to students if, yet again, we bumble through online teaching. What can do we do to make sure that our courses are designed to engage students and support their learning?

What works in a classroom often doesn’t work online, and what works online often doesn’t work well in a classroom. A lot of us will be stretching our skill set as instructors. At the very least, we can learn what is supposed to work online as we design our classes.

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Recommended reads #177

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Rich Lenski’s excellent guide: “How to write a response to reviewers in ten easy steps.” (As an author this is what I do, too. As an editor, this is what I like to see because it minimizes my effort searching through manuscripts for information, and allows me to focus on the science.)

More results on how the pandemic is affecting scientists unequally, including a larger reduction in research time for women.

There’s a news report in Nature about the financial challenges that scientific societies are facing because of cancellations of in-person conferences.

The facade of fit in the faculty search process

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Sign up now for EEB Mentor Match 2020

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Not everything about 2020 is horrible: We’re running EEB Mentor Match again! More than ever this year, undergraduates from under-resourced institutions need guidance to help them into graduate school. Undergraduates in minoritized groups can use a boost from those of us who have cracked the code to get into grad school and get funded.

We are pairing up students seeking support for fellowship and grad school applications with more experienced scientists who have agreed to give support and advice throughout the process. If you’re looking for a mentor, or you’d like to volunteer to be a mentor, please sign up!

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The balancing act of risk management and protecting long-term welfare of the institution

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It must be so difficult to be in charge of a university right now. This is a critical moment for the future of every institution, and every college and university is facing their own unique uncertainties.

In the previous post, I was saying how it is known and obvious that in-person teaching in the Fall is a very bad idea. Considering how many people are actually planning to teach in the Fall, I imagine they perceive this assertion as myopic or simplistic. Because there’s more to be dealt with than the virus.

Taking steps to keep the campus community safe can be expensive. Some approaches are better and more feasible than others, though you can only really know in hindsight. Whenever we resolve this epidemic in the US, the surviving institutions will be in recovery mode, and everybody in charge all want to be positioned well. This kind of forward thinking is necessary for the folks in charge.

In my privilege as a tenured professor in a (California) state university backed by a strong union, I have the luxury of knowing that my own livelihood is relatively well protected. But this isn’t true for everybody I work with, and our students are at very high exposure and face extreme challenges because of this epidemic. Nonetheless, I have some level of dispassionate distance on this issue. Nobody is going to blame me personally if my university bungles the response to the pandemic in the Fall. (And, anyhow, it looks like they’re doing a great job, by the way.)

The people who are making the decisions have some major responsibilities, including:

  • education of the student body
  • fiscal health of the institution
  • institutional reputation and prestige
  • risk management (safety and health of the community)

In our particular moment, who the heck can attend to all of these responsibilities simultaneously and do a good job for all of them?

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Thoughts on the absurdity of teaching on campus in the Fall

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Over the past several months, higher education has been a theater of the pragmatic and the absurd. At this writing, most colleges and universities in the US are planning to return students to campus and hold classes in person, with some kind of fig leaf precautions. At least, that what they’re saying they’re going to do. Looking at the landscape of the COVID infection rate, this makes absolutely no sense.

In sizing up the pandemic plans of most universities, I have no idea how to identify the boundary between denial and deceit.

Bringing people together on campuses is a recipe for spreading the disease. It doesn’t have to do with the dorms, or frat parties, or any of that. It’s just that teaching in classrooms will circulate the virus. This is known.

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Recommended reads #176

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An extremely helpful guidebook to HyFlex teaching. (Which is when courses are delivered both in person and online at the same time by the same faculty member. And which is what some of us are being expected to do in the Fall!?). This Georgetown site also has other helpful guides to prepping for remote teaching in Fall 2020, too.

When professors hit on students, it harms their academic performance. We know this because a series of experiments have now been published. How can you ethically do an experiment on this? Looks like you gotta read the paper.

Some folks did an experiment with a randomized design to find out whether tweeting about scientific papers improved their citation rates.

A meeting report from the Gordon conference on undergraduate biology education research. A lot of great stuff in there.

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Anti-black racism in STEM is pervasive, and we must change this reality

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This is a guest post by Morgan Halane.

“As a minority student, the applicant might serve as a role model to other such students interested in STEM careers. He has participated actively in a wide variety of outreach activities (none specifically targeted at minority students). This application has merits but a number of weaknesses temper my enthusiasm.”

I received this review back in 2014 after applying to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program (GRFP), but its impact has stuck with me since. Growing up in Sedalia, Missouri, a town nearly 90% white and less than 5% black, I imagined academia would be something better, an environment where my color would never be used against me, where I did not have to ever again hear people driving by in their trucks yelling the N-word at me as I waited on the corner for the bus. How naïve. Yes, the visible racism was still there- cotton balls strewn across the lawn of the university’s Black Culture Center, swastikas etched into the library carrels. I was used to this visible racism. What really stunned me was the invisible racism- the sinister biases that were so commonplace, so traditional, that it was hard to believe that they even existed. I felt and lived through their negative impact but there was no calling card left behind- no swastika, no Confederate flag.

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Recommended reads #175

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‘Keep the volume low’: Being black on campus

“The world has never been fundamentally fair and decent for most people in most places, and yet they manage to build lives full of meaning and suffering and joy.”

I shared this not long ago, but it seems that not everybody is yet aware of or talking about this landmark paper in PNAS. The summary says: “By analyzing data from nearly all US PhD recipients and their dissertations across three decades, this paper finds demographically underrepresented students innovate at higher rates than majority students, but their novel contributions are discounted and less likely to earn them academic positions. The discounting of minorities’ innovations may partly explain their underrepresentation in influential positions of academia.”

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Recommended reads #174

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Here is a piece of educational research on the relationship between undergraduate research and depression, another product Brownell lab at ASU. The article includes specific recommendations for those doing research with undergraduates to promote inclusive research experiences for students with depression. Sounds like a must-read for all of us with undergrads in our (currently virtual) labs.

When universities start teaching in the Fall, what choices does the pandemic give us? Here’s a full taxonomy of fifteen options. (Including HyFlex, which seems to be popular even though it’s also perhaps the most difficult for faculty to pull off well?) What is your university saying it will do, and what do you think they will actually do when the Fall arrives?

As if you didn’t know this, but: Colleges that are reopening are making a big mistake.

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Should we be using EdTech surveillance tools because of the pandemic?

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When we made the switch to online because of the pandemic, I imagine we all were asking ourselves: “How can students learn under these circumstances, and how can I possibly teach well?” Now that we’ve adjusted somewhat, I think now is the time for us to consider another consequential question: Which technological tools might be harming the educational environment of our virtual classroom?” In particular, is it a good idea to implement automated electronic surveillance of our students in this time of crisis?

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Recommended reads #173

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Teacher evaluation form for Spring 2020, from McSweeney’s

This is a very handy and straightforward resource to help you create an accessible online course.

Asking little kids to “do science” is substantially more impactful than asking them to “be scientists.” Just in case you wondered whether words matter, and whether subtle differences can have a big impact.

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The perils of survivorship bias in science and academia

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This is a guest post by Dave Hemprich-Bennett.

In academia and science we pride ourselves in being evidence-led. Our research stems from countless hours of painstaking work, yet when we give advice or plan our futures we fall back onto ‘common sense’, conventional wisdom and personal experience. However it is important to realise that we are not perfectly rational actors and so often fall afoul of basic logical errors, one of which is forgetting how unrepresentative we and our peers are of those we seek to help.

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The Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching

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While I’ve mentioned it briefly in the past, now I’m ready for the full announcement: my book is good to go and is available for pre-order!

One of my goals with this blog is to make evidence-based teaching practices more accessible to scientists who aren’t prepared for a deep dive into educational jargon and theory. I sometimes have been asked to recommend a book that does this, and I couldn’t find one. They say that you should write the book that you think the world needs, so that’s what I did. It’s an outgrowth of Small Pond Science, but it’s all new material.

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Why privilege should be part of our conversations as natural scientists?

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This is a guest post by Edauri Navarro Pérez.

During my years as an undergraduate student I noticed that different sciences have been moving forward to do more interdisciplinary work and because of this movement, I had the opportunity to work with amazing scientists that redirect the traditional scientific perspective and integrate it with other disciplines. I think this is amazing! My perspective on science is that science aims to understand the different components about life, but life does not only work in one direction. Because of this reason, we, as scientists, have been collaborating and developing new questions with different perspectives. As a result, we have been able to expand our knowledge on how to improve the way we address research questions.

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No, the pandemic is not making me more productive

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Thank goodness, nobody I am working with has asked or expected me to maintain my productivity at the level it was before All Of This started. Though from what I’m hearing from others, there’s some folks expressing that this social distancing is a great moment to write a crap ton of papers and grants. Yeah no, it’s not working out like that. For those who are positioned to do so, I wish you well.

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Recommended reads #169

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I hope you all are safe, well, and that your loved ones are cared for. I’m not positioned to give you a brilliant or witty post, but did want to share some reads.

The race to put thousands of miles of English walking trails back on the map

A new funding opportunity from NSF: PurSUiT (Poorly Sampled and Unknown Taxa)

We need to talk about Zadie Smith: Why an entire generation quit writing

The invisible labor calculator

A resource guide for transitioning your class online

The accusations were lies. But could we prove it?

And three pandemic reads that I think are really good:

How the coronavirus became an American catastrophe

The doctor who helped defeat smallpox explains what’s coming

How to science in a pandemic, from Gina Baucom and her lab

Oh, and definitely not least: Stephen Heard’s new book is now out! “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels” (amazon|indiebound) My copy has still yet to arrive! This definitely looks fun.

Changing pass/fail policies for this absurdly discombobulated semester

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Yesterday, I was reading how some K-12 districts were switching to a pass/fail model for this semester. Two beats later, I thought — hey — this is something that looks important to college students too.

This morning, I saw that higher ed twitter has been talking about it, and many universities have already taken action. And it’s part of the discussion in the slack channel for my department (which after some years, is no longer moribund). So, this is a thing (and it’s not my idea), and if your institution isn’t on it, perhaps this would be a moment for some leadership and bring it up with the policy makers?

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Recommended reads #168

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Here is a rather substantial list of sites with online laboratory modules for a great variety of STEM disciplines. If I was teaching a lab this semester, and was compelled to teach online on very short notice, I’d probably be spending hours combing through what’s available. It looks really useful for this moment that we are in. It was assembled by folks on a POD Network listserv*.

It looks like folks who have more than a tangential relationship to the Pruitt affair are now being quite mum, as Dr. Pruitt has done gone lawyered up and sent out a bevvy of nasty letters bearing what I imagine is letterhead from a very scary law firm. I only know about this from this news story that came out in Science yesterday. The kicker in that article, a quote from the EIC of Ecology Letters, pretty much sums up the slowly unfolding situation: “I don’t think it looks promising that a simple, nonfraud, compelling explanation will surface.”

From the pages of Nature: “You can’t fight feelings with facts.”

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Advice post: Teaching in the time of COVID-19

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Some of us have already stopped holding classes in person. It looks like a lot more of us will be making the shift online very soon, as the COVID-19 outbreak will continue to expand in the United States.

We have a couple months left in the semester. I don’t think anybody knows whether campuses that go to online teaching will switch back to campus before the semester is over? It looks like we need to be prepared to stay online through the end of the spring.

This post is for advice.

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How is your classroom management?

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Did you hear about the recent-ish story about the white professor who called the cops into his classroom to exert power over a black student in his class? By all reports, midway through a lecture, the professor commanded his student to move to a seat at the front of the class. And when the student explained that he was well situated in his seat and was sitting near a plug so he could charge his laptop, the professor decided that his request was an ultimatum, and he unwisely escalated the situation.

How can an incident like this happen? Of course, let’s be clear, it’s racism. The actions of this professor are symptomatic of deep problems in higher education and our country.

From a pedagogical perspective, how is it that a highly experienced professor could make such a poor decision?

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Recommended reads #167

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What if we didn’t grade? A bibliography.

Joe Travis’s essay for the E.O. Wilson award in Am Nat is a contemporary ode to the enduring significance of natural history that I think will emerge as a classic. There are so many pull quotes I’d could share with you, but, just go ahead and read it.

Conserving honey bees does not help wildlife. Always nice to see something on this topic in the pages of Science.

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