Recommended reads #58


So many great things came my way this week, I’ve had to unload them a week early. Enjoy!

A survival handbook for teaching large classes. This is good stuff.

Mad Max: Field Assistant

As a professor, here are five really simple things you can to do help single parents in your classes. Keep in mind you might have a single parent among your students but not be aware of it!

Maybe there is no such thing as renaissance person. Maybe these people are merely expert in an unrecognized speciality.

Simon Garnier explains how the big four in football made sports predictable. (For Americans and Aussies, he’s talking about soccer.) If you watch the EPL on occasion and enjoy statistics, this is a wonderful read.

Some months ago, a video about predatory ants carrying millipedes with daisy chains went viral. This inspired an investigation that has now gone through peer review, and the natural history story itself is mighty cool, and well worth watching and reading.

Five big ideas that don’t work in education. This is not gobbeldygook.

Speaking of certain kinds of ideas in education, Joan Strassmann is teaching statistics differently. In her class, understanding probability, distributions, and statistical concepts is getting passed over, so that students can jump right into knowing how to do analyses.

Oliver Sacks writes about the Day of Rest, as he sees his life coming to its last chapter.

The general secretary of the international Astronomical Union, and amateur butthead, chose to praise women by explaining that they have a special gift in being more caring and more dedicated educators.

That Netflix parental leave policy just got even worse. Not all Netflix workers will get unlimited parental leave.

Here’s your feel-good light happy human-interest story if you need one. A barber that gives kids free haircuts if the kids read to him.

Matt Might — who has a penchant for writing the best explainers ever — just wrote an inspiring “How to get tenure” piece. It’s most definitely worth reading (as are all of his articles on his site). He explains how he handled some tremendous challenges and stresses, and emerged all the better by focusing not on tenure, but instead on the transcendent things that really matter. (In that message, it bears resemblance to the story from a Harvard professor about how she got tenure by not worrying about it.)  I am reluctant about recommending this as a piece of how-to-get-tenure advice because on that count, it’s an a posteriori explanation. If you’re trying to decide about what really matters in life, then in my opinion Dr. Might is spot on. If you’re trying to decide how to handle your life balance as a pre-tenure faculty member, then this could be good advice. But it wouldn’t be good advice about how to get tenure, per se. If you can’t be happy and well-adjusted in the six years before tenure, then you probably can’t do that afterwards either. Dr. Might didn’t get tenure because he didn’t worry about it, he got tenure because he performed exceptionally. That exceptional performance happened either because, or in spite of, his insistence on the right priorities. Choosing family as a top priority is necessary to be happy and healthy and well-adjusted, but it’s not a ‘how-to’ for tenure. I don’t think that Might is suggesting that his recipe for tenure is one for us to follow in order to get tenure. I think his message is that worrying about bad consequences can prevent us from focusing on doing what is most necessary and most constructive. He’s saying you can get tenure without driving yourself insane by following academic norms, and if you reject those norms you can still get tenure. On the other hand, rejecting those norms doesn’t necessarily get you tenure.

Since I mentioned that Harvard professor ‘treat your job like a postdoc’ advice piece from two years ago that everybody but me loved, I might as well re-share my misgivings that I wrote back when it came out.

It didn’t make the rounds as much, but just as enjoyable as Might’s “How I got tenure story” is this one from Holly Dunsworth, which might have more directly practical utility for those of you on the tenure track.

What’s in John’s Freezer? A visit to the bird collection in the LA Natural History Museum.

Since I know a variety of people at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I’ve been hearing about the continued horribleness of their now-former chancellor, Phyllis Wise, who just stepped down (or wasn’t allowed to so she could get fired) because of a scandal emerging from the Salaita affair. That’s was the newly-hired professor who was fired before getting to campus because he said things on twitter about Isreal and Palestine that the Chancellor didn’t like. Anyway, Wise made a point of deliberately conducting university business on her private email because she knew what she was doing was wrong. Here’s a recent take on it, if you want the salacious details.

Fivethirtyeight (that’s Nate Silver’s shop, better known as the presidential election stats dude) has an explainer about p-hacking. It shows how you can come to essentially opposite conclusions using the same dataset if you look hard enough, and explains how people often come to erroneous conclusions because of the way they handle data and they way they think about their experiments. I’m planning on including it in my biostats course this semester.

The AAAS Vision and Change report for undergraduate biology education is out from a conference they held last year. I haven’t read it, it looks like a tome with more self-congratulatory content than constructive examples, but that’s just what I saw from a quick browse, so go ahead and make up your own mind.

This year’s Burning Man has a huge number of bugs. (Mirids, I hear.) And people are freaking out, but really there’s no reason to freak out.

You probably heard how Ashley Madison got hacked. Ashley Madison is a site that married people pay a not-small amount of money to, to find other married people so they can have sex with one another. Now a lot of people have access to all of the email addresses (and more) on their website. This will result in some interesting consequences, with victims well beyond the people whose names appear in the database. Here’s a rundown on what the consequences of this data breach will mean.

Biodiversity conservation: the key is to not eat meat. Just putting it out there. It’s hard to argue with the numbers.

Mike the Mad Biologists dons a tinfoil hat but, well, data are data. It is hard to argue with the numbers, and I didn’t scrutinize it myself but I am never willing to underestimate the depth of nefariousness in electoral politics in the US.

Here is a love letter to PLOS One – an overly optimistic summary of the perverse incentives in the academic publishing environment in science.

While we’re on perverse incentives, this piece in PNAS hits home:

When universities publically brag that we are “Xth in federal research spending,” it is akin to an airline proclaiming, “we use more gasoline than any other airline!” or “we spend more per year transporting our passengers!” Consider the appearance and potential consequences if other segments of the national budget advertised in the same way: “The Army outspent the Navy and National Guard combined in 2015!” These proclamations offer nothing about what the public received for its money. Although winning grants is an exciting and necessary benchmark for researchers, the public’s interest is the degree to which we advance science with this massive investment.

Writing a doctoral dissertation improvement grant for NSF? Here are some very useful pieces of information and tips, including actual reviews of successful and unfunded proposals.

This essay about how British universities pick students is a great companion to the thing that I wrote earlier about NSF graduate fellowships being a part of the inequity problem in science.

Why botany matters in college. When I have taught an intro course on the ‘evolution and diversity of life,’ I spent more time on the evolution of plants than the evolution of animals, despite being an animal person (and also, an animal myself). So much of what happens in this world is tied to understanding precisely how plants reproduce, and how it came to be that they capture oxygen from the air and convert it into tissue, and how the changes in the environment have driven the changes in the biology of plants. So many biologists really don’t get how the alternation of generations in plants happens, and what the various parts of plants are. Understanding this isn’t just knowing stuff about organisms, it’s about understanding how our soil and air is the way it is. How this Earth breathes.

About writing clearly in academia: “I start the class with an exercise. I take a random page from a prestigious scholarly journal and make them compute the average number of words in each topic sentence. Then I take a page from whatever Jill Lepore New Yorker article happens to be my favorite and have them do the same. The last time I did this, the average for the “prestigious” journal was 46 words (versus 15 for The New Yorker), a number so outrageous that, whatever goals the author had in mind, communication wasn’t one of them.”

Last, I wanted to provide a very short report after finishing Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. It was a short read, but I still learned a lot from it. (I wrote earlier that it was “revelatory.” Then I read the quote on the back from Toni Morrison and found that she convergently used the term “revelatory.” So I’m a little proud of myself that I have at least I have that much in common with her.) There are two specific thoughts I want to share about this book. First, if you’re trying to get your mind around what it is to be a black man in the United States — or what it is like to raise a black son in these United States — then this book communicates that experience. Second, one thing I didn’t expect to find in this book, but was a major piece, was the transformative power of higher education. Coates’s life, and his view on the world, was changed by college. He is very frank and transparent about his own evolution. It’s amazing to see how professors and fellow students can change one another’s lives because of what a university is designed to be. I don’t think that is the point of his book, but as a person who works with college students all the time, it’s great to reflect on his story from that angle.

Okay, I said that was the last thing but it wasn’t. More on Coates: Here’s a great interview between him and Roxane Gay. She asked him about what it means to be an ally (as the term itself and how it is used can be not so helpful, as Alex Bond explains), and he summed up clearly why he’s not so jazzed about the ‘ally’ thing in a way that really put logical clarity to vague notions that I’ve been feeling. By saying that you’re an ally, that’s tacitly saying that it’s not your problem:

RG: How can allies best serve as allies? What is an ally? Are they needed?

TC: I don’t know. I think it’s probably terribly important to listen. It’s terribly important to try to become more knowledgeable. It’s important to not expect that acquiring of that knowledge — in this case of the force of racism in American history — to be a pleasant experience or to proceed along just lines. They certainly don’t proceed that way for black people. It’s going to be painful. Finally I think one has to even abandon the phrase “ally” and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.

Have a great weekend.