How does college selectivity affect the jobs of professors?


Sometimes when I talk about teaching — and interactions with students in general — folks don’t really get where I’m coming from. Faculty experiences vary a lot from campus to campus.

I was talking with some folks in recent months about the different kinds of faculty jobs, and how to figure out what you want in a faculty position at a teaching institution. One person was arguing that the selectivity of undergraduate admissions was an important factor. At first, I disagreed, but on reflection, I see that selectivity of admissions is associated with a number of things that affect your day-to-day experience as a professor.

We all know correlation ≠ causation. Selectivity might not directly affect on our lives. But, that selectivity does say something about the students coming into our labs and classrooms.

The selectivity of university admissions is a complex beast — it’s no surprise that every university that wants to stay in business has a whole office dedicated to “enrollment management.” If too many students enroll, you’ve got a huge bubble that you can’t accommodate, and if too few students enroll, you might have trouble paying your bills. Selectivity is affected by the size of the institution, its prestige, the size of the endowment, the wealth of the applicants, public funding, geography, and who knows what else. I don’t work in enrollment management, after all.

But I do research and teach and spend time on university-level committees. And I’ve been a few kinds of places. On the professorly side of things, I think there are two things tied to admissions selectivity that do affect what our job is: how entitled the students are, and how prepared the students are. These vary greatly among institution types. Over course every place is different, but at the risk of overgeneralizing, here goes:

entitlementfigure.pages copy

The mean levels of academic preparation and entitlement among undergraduates vary among institutions.

When folks complain about entitled students, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve been there. I get you. I think respecting our students as adults and treating them as we wish to be treated is paramount. I think that’s true even when some students have absurd expectations of their professors as a result of over entitlement. Expecting things to be graded yesterday, asking you to change a grade without a valid reason, expecting you to be available 24/7, and demanding a recommendation letter with two days’ notice. It’s hard to not grow a thick callous when dealing with overentitled students.

But when people complain about how this new generation of college students are annoying and entitled and “we were like that?” I am so not there with you. I don’t get you. I don’t know of any reasonable evidence to support the notion that college students are more entitled now than they were when you were in college, whenever that was. And frankly, I deal with entitlement issues a lot — but my problem is underentitlement. The students that I work with have grown up with an educational system in which little was expected of them, and if they expected much out of their own institutions they would become disappointed in a jiffy. Students rarely ever come to me with unreasonable expectations. I am, however, frustrated that they often don’t advocate for themselves as much as they need to. Whenever a student comes to me asking to change score on their exam, it’s because I made an obvious screwup in grading. So, how many students who got graded incorrectly lacked the adequate quantity of temerity to approach me about fixing their grade?

I remember what it’s like teaching as a not-so-selective private institution where the students didn’t need stratospheric grades to get in, so long as they were paying full tuition. Both over- and under-entitlement pose professional challenges,  which are distinct from one another, especially when training researchers. If you had to choose a student population that leans on the over- or under-entitled side, which one would you choose? That’s not for me to say, obviously. I think if you approach people with respect, so that people are comfortable with you then they’ll be more comfortable with themselves in your classroom, and these problems get minimized. You’d think that empty office hours is not as bad as a line out the door of students who need something from you, but both kinds of entitlement problems harm learning outcomes one way or another.

Now for academic preparation. When a lot of people compare universities, they talk about the quality of the student population. Stuff like, “These undergraduates are great quality, they’re easy to teach, really bright and motivated, and I can get deep into complex material.” Or on the other side of the coin, “My students are of variable quality, I can’t really teach everybody in the room because there are other students who aren’t so smart and they’re holding others back.” Or something along those lines. And I have to tell you, whenever people talk about “student quality” it just makes me want to barf, if I don’t get furious instead. This link about “quality” sums up my thoughts on this really well. In short, some students are more prepared than others. If that makes teaching easier, then why do you even want to teach?

If you have students that more academically prepared, then they’re easier to teach because they’ve learned how to teach themselves. You could teach badly, and they’ll still learn. That’s not the case if your student population doesn’t have the study skills and experience with well-resourced high schools and family members that have attended college. How you teach, and maybe even what you teach, is structured by how well prepared your students are for college.

For students who are not academically well prepared, then they only have a couple options for college. They can go to a regional public university that will accept them on account of low admissions thresholds for GPA and test scores, or they can pay their way into a private institution that doesn’t have the endowment to attract students with high scores and grades. You can imagine working with students who are paying $5,000 per year for their college education is really different than working with students who are paying $50,000 per year for their college education.

I think institutions that have more academically prepared students enroll are a lot more variable in nature. There’s a huge campus cultural component to student entitlement, and in some large universities, the degree of student preparation (or motivation) is often highly variable. This variability might make the job harder. I think it’s difficult to generalize — I might suspect that some universities that have a high degree of student preparation might also tend to have overentitled students, but lacking direct experience with (say) Ivy League institutions other than brief visits, I’m not one to say so.

As for that time I said that selectivity is unrelated to our jobs as professors, I take it back. That said, in my job, I spend my time dealing with individual students all of whom have had distinct experiences. I’m not teaching and mentoring a population of students. I’m working with people. I’m sure hope I don’t let generalizations about the mean affect how I work with any individual.


On the ballooning of spiders and deep evolutionary branches


To keep track of projects, I use a sophisticated app called Moleskine. But early on in grad school, when I had a new project, I created a disk for everything related to that project. Like this:


One of these disks was labelled “Ballooning Spiders.” I had an idea for a side project that I humored for a few days.

I thought the ballooning behavior of spiders was pretty awesome. I still think the ballooning behavior of spiders is pretty awesome. I imagined it was quite likely that spiders could balloon across entire oceans. (Twenty years later, we know that’s true.) Continue reading

Parade of professors or solo scholar?


There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches. Continue reading

Recommended reads #76


Cards against humanities. You read that right, not humanity, Humanities.

This Puliter Prize-winning story by Kathryn Schulz about The Really Big One that will arrive in the Pacific Northwest. The letter for its entry into the Pulitzer competition said, “Schulz’s piece brings the seismological science to you, making it as plain and painless as a cake recipe. Yet it also leaves you with a visceral sense of what a full-margin Cascadian earthquake could feel like–and what its human toll could be. No surprise that the story has at last focused public attention on the need for precautionary measures. As of this writing, the piece–many months after publication–remains perched high on our Web site’s Most Read list. ‘The Really Big One’ brilliantly demonstrates how feature writing–drawing upon reporting, research, and most of all, the well-judged potency of prose–can rock our world.” So, yeah, read this article.

College professors aren’t that creepy. (Notwithstanding recent revelations from UC Berkeley further down this list.) Obviously, clowns are creepy. Gotta disagree about taxidermists though.Whoiscreepy

Continue reading

Impatience with the peer review process


Science has a thousand problems, but the time it takes for our manuscripts to be peer reviewed ain’t one. At least, that’s how I feel. How about you?

I hear folks griping about the slow editorial process all the time. Then I ask, “how long has it been?” And I get an answer, like, oh almost two whole months. Can you believe it? Two months?!” Continue reading

NSF’s Water Man award


When I was a tween, a cutsey feel-good book was a bestseller: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If we learn to solve problems as kids, that should help us solve similar problems as adults.

Let’s do a kindergarten-level exercise in math and pattern recognition. Can you figure out what shape comes next?seriesa

If you said star, you’re right! Congrats!

Let’s do another one. What shape do you expect to find next?


If you said star again, then that means you’re two for two. Good job!

Let’s look for another pattern:


What do you think comes next? If you guessed 2016, then you’re right! Your pattern recognition skills are fantastic! Continue reading

Using a grant writer


I’m working on a couple biggish grants at over the next couple months. I’m doing something that I haven’t done before, at least not as a PI. I’m working with grantwriters, under the support of my university. These are for grants to support a bunch of people doing a variety of things, with many organizational components that are only tangentially connected to the science. Continue reading

Education research denialism in university STEM faculty


Scientists regularly contend with irrational denialism of simple facts. In our classrooms, communities and the media, we hear patently absurd things like:

This is the logo of the Flat Earth Society.

This is the logo of the Flat Earth Society.

  • The world isn’t getting hotter, or even if it is, it’s not from carbon emissions.
  • Humans didn’t evolve from nonhuman ancestors.
  • Transgenic foods are unsafe.
  • Vaccines cause autism.

Any scientist who operates on the basis of evidence will regard those ideas as total bunk*.

But, as I’ve mentioned before, people aren’t rational beings. Especially when their emotions are involved (and they usually are), they’re not prone to think an expert is correct if their intuition tells them otherwise.

And scientists are people.

So I am not entirely surprised, but I am disheartened, when scientists are guilty of their own flavor of denialism: Education Research Denialism. Continue reading

Recommended Reads #74


41kUjfj5obL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_Have you ordered a copy of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl yet?

Here’s my review on Goodreads. A more professional review comes from the head of book reviews at the New York Times, who raved about it. And this is not a woman who raves about books. She says: Lab Girl “does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.” Continue reading

My path to science


Two years ago, Meg Duffy told the the story of her path to ecology. It’s a good story, why not go over and read it? I think it might be useful for more folks to tell their own stories. Here’s mine, about how I became an ecologist, with specialities in tropical biology and social insects.

As a kid, I didn’t collect bugs and I wasn’t a nature geek. Continue reading

What are office hours for?


What do you think office hours are for?

Office hours are drop-in* hours for students to see their professors. How should you spend this time?

If you don’t have students in your office, then you should probably be writing. Because we always should probably be writing, right? Or analyzing. Or doing a weekly browse of tables of contents. Or something else productive. If you’re me, you should be cleaning your office.

But let’s say students appear** for office hours, how are they supposed to be used? Here are some reasons students visit: Continue reading

“Open Science” is not one thing


“Open Science” is an aggregation of many things. As a concept, it’s a single movement. The policy changes necessary for more Open Science, however, are a conglomerate of unrelated parts.

I appreciate, and support, the prevailing philosophy of Open Science: “the movement to make scientific research, data and dissemination accessible to all levels of an inquiring society.” Transparency is often, though not always, good. Continue reading

Recommended reads #72


This student adds a woman in science to Wikipedia every time she’s harassed online. This keeps her busy.

Time management is the key to happiness: “Organization saves time mostly because it averts crises.” I think this is not an overstatement.

A grading rubric for job talks at small liberal arts colleges. This meshes with my experience pretty well. Continue reading

NSF makes its graduate fellowships more accessible


The US National Science Foundation has changed a rule for their Graduate Fellowships. As of next year, grad students can only make one attempt at landing a graduate fellowship, which is intended to increase the proportion of awards going to undergraduates. Continue reading

The case for open book exams


In the sciences, most exams are a closed-book affair. Is this a good thing?

Open_book_nae_02On some tests, I’ve allowed students a 3×5 card, or a one page “cheat sheet.” This is usually met with relief, or joy, or gratitude. When I tell students that they can bring in their textbook for the exam, they get even more relieved.

I might say, “Don’t be so happy, because this just raises the bar for what I’m asking on the exam.” But then, my students say that they feel like it’s not useful for them to have to memorize stuff. And they would prefer solving problems and applying information in novel ways. Even if memorizing stuff is important, it causes a lot of anxiety. Continue reading

Natural history, synthesis papers and the academic caste system


It’s been argued that in ecology, like politics, everything is local.

You can’t really understand ecological relationships in nature, unless you’re familiar with the organisms in their natural environment. Or maybe not. That’s probably not a constructive argument. My disposition is that good ecological questions are generated from being familiar with the life that organisms out of doors. But that’s not the only way to do ecology. Continue reading