Infrequently asked questions

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This post is for your questions. Do you have a question? Ask it in the comments.

As this site has grown in visibility, and my social media has more exposure, I’ve been getting a surplus of unsolicited questions. Some folks are looking for personalized career counseling, others are just trying to understand how universities and work, others want to know about ants, others are just curious about my opinion on stuff, others are wondering about diversity and equity issues. A few are interested in my personal life.

I think it’s usually great and nice that I get these questions, and I’m flattered that folks think my feedback would be useful. But I just don’t have the time to deal with all of them on an individual basis. Up to this point, I’ve engaged with a few, others I’ve replied with a polite answer that I don’t have the time, and I’ve ignored adversarial ones. I really don’t like blowing people off. This all isn’t unique to me, I realize, I’m just being transparent about how I’m handling such inquiries.

As an experiment, I’ve created this post to field such questions. I can direct them to ask here, where I everybody can benefit (or not) from the answer. (Also, other readers can chime in with their thoughts too, though my plan is to just provide an answer rather than engage in an extended discussion, which y’all can do if you so wish.) If your question involves such detailed personal things that you wouldn’t want to be public (even if anonymous), then it can’t be dealt with here. But then again, I don’t have the bandwidth for that kind of counseling anyway.

Okay, so, here you go. Fire away. Anything you wanted to ask me?

9 thoughts on “Infrequently asked questions

  1. Thanks for your posts in general! They’re a great resource.

    I have a few question:

    First, I remember reading your posts about your job trajectory. Knowing what you know now, do you have any advice in particular for people at SLACs with heavy teaching/administrative loads who are considering applying to higher-tier SLACs or public universities?

    Second, do you have any advice on preparing job applications for more seasoned folks? Updating a research statement seems fairly straightforward. Updating a teaching statement seems a bit less so. Asking for letters of recommendation seems awkward.

  2. Hi! Okay, here’s a stab.

    1. I know lots of folks who were in tenure-track jobs at low-prestige SLACs and moved on to R1s and R2s, or some other kind of institution, though come to think of it, I’m don’t know of anyone who has gone from a less prestigious SLAC to a more prestigious SLAC. What would I suggest for folks who want to move on or “up” to a better-resourced institution? I think the foundation is maintaining a CV that looks competitive. I mean, it looks competitive without having to make any excuses about the teaching load. You have a CV that, research-wise, fits in at first glance. Another thing that I’ve noticed that people who move on have solid external funding. If you’re hiring someone fresh out of a postdoc, you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to have an NSF or NIH grant. But if you’re getting someone who has been in the game for multiple years, then I think search committees are done looking at potential, and they’re now looking at what you actually are, and it has to match their hopes for a more junior hire with less experience. I mean, yes, folks will take into account your work history relative to productivity, but unless your record shows that you have a record of the productivity they expect, then it’s hard to move.

    I’m sure folks have moved from less-prestigious SLAC to more prestigious SLAC, but the only ones that come to mind are for senior scholars, who are well established in their field, and they are hired into admin or for an open rank search. Because reputation is so huge in the SLAC world, there’s a often stigma associated with coming from a lower-ranked SLAC. So I think this is a hard move to make for people who are already on the tenure-track. I think this stigma doesn’t apply to people who take visiting positions, as they’re just “doing their time” and it’s part of their training.

    Another thing and moving on is having AMAZING recommendation letters. You need to reassure them that you have positive reasons for moving, that you’re succeeding and well loved where you are, and that you’re a great fit for the place you’re looking to move to. Which is a hard needle to thread. It would need to come from a senior faculty member from your current institution who knows you well, ideally in your own department, who would say that they’d hate to lose you but if they ended up getting this job then you’d wish them well because you recognize that it’s something that you want and is good for you. A letter from someone relatively prestigious in the field is probably important, too, though keep in mind that search committees might not know people prestigious in your own field, so a prestigious institutional affiliation might be a proxy.

    I wrote some more about moving on/up here um… five years ago: https://smallpondscience.com/2013/05/27/teaching-universities-as-the-farm-league/ I’ve glanced at it and don’t see anything I disagree with at the moment.

    1. Job applications for more senior folks. I have applied for a very limited number of jobs since I’ve become full, and had success landing interviews, so I guess I’m not screwing this up. For a teaching statement, of course you need to say what you can teach, and provide some information about your past teaching performance. But I think the most important thing is to communicate that you continue to take teaching seriously, have a guiding philosophy, and that you are still working to grow as a teacher. Acting like you think you’ve reach some kind of plateau as a teacher, and are working to just maintain that plateau, shows some level of ignorance because the ground is always shifting and you’ve got to got to keep adapting. Letters of recommendation is awkward. I think you only need a single letter of recommendation from your own institution, just to convince them that you’re not fleeing some kind of scandal. If you have a prestigious senior mentor at a different institution, that would be one letter, and a second letter could be anybody who has known you for a long time, perhaps seen you teach, and understand your research program, and could put a nice letterhead on their letter, and you know they’ll take it seriously and can write a great letter. For your own institution, is there anybody who you’re close enough with to ask for a letter who wouldn’t rat you out? If you don’t have that kind of relationship with someone in your department, then do you know someone in another department who knows you as a responsible citizen on campus from committee work and such? Senior level hires typically only request letters at the short list phase, which is a relief that you don’t have to ask for these letters that often. But if you’re applying for Asst Prof positions after being an Asst Prof for several years, then, yeah, you got to find such a person to write you a letter.

    Hope all this makes sense and is relevant.

  3. I am at a SLAC(U?). When I was hired, the institution was on a decent trajectory for small institution research. I loved it! However, as student enrollment has dropped, admin has increased, and budgets have dropped, we have become a desperate place where faculty are constantly asked to do new unfounded retention tasks (working a career both at 8am on Saturdays, teaching “high school” versions of our courses in other cities 4X a week, providing one-on-one psychological counseling to each of our students, etc. etc.). Meanwhile, interest in faculty professional development has dropped to zero. With high teaching loads, there is not time.

    Campus has become miserable. Moral is low. Departments are full of petty vicious fights within and among groups.

    I am not young, even if I just got tenure. I worked in my field for 10 years outside of academia, so I see the exploitation. I can be quite vocal. Most of my colleagues avoid conflict, so they say nothing in public, while many are giving up and starting to “check out”.

    Here is my real question! I have put conscious effort into using my time to the fullest. I put a lot into my courses while still being cognizant of the “teaching trap”. I keep a strong dedication to my research. I stay focused on professional development. But, I also know that being vocal hurts my productivity. It also tires me emotionally to pay attention to these matters. How do I maintain my level of productivity in such a vile environment? Do I just avoid conflict too?

    • Dear anon at the SLAU, I’m sorry you’re in such a position. Here are some questions that I have, and maybe those answers can help guide you to decisions that can make your situation more livable.

      In the long term, will the institution be financially secure? Or is it possible that declining enrollments could end up in a spiral in which the institution might fold or wholly shift, perhaps leaving you without a job? There are lots of folks that predict that small institutions that have proportionately small endowments are going to be facing even harder times. So one question here is to figure out if you need to be formulating a definite escape plan or whether you’re working to find a way to make the job more tolerable because you’ll be there for the long haul. Do you have personal reasons (off campus) for not wanting to move?

      Do you think it’s worth huge personal costs to make efforts to help change the institution, when the people best empowered for cultural change on campus aren’t making those changes?

      What specific constructive outcomes do you foresee from being vocal? Will being vocal increase budgets, will it reduce the admin/faculty ratio, will it help students in a direct manner, will it have long-term positive outcomes for your career, will it change what happens at your institution?

      Remember that Margaret Mead quote about a small group of thoughtful citizens making a difference. Do you have a small team that you can rely on, with a practical plan that you can act on? Do you want to build one? Where are the power centers on campus and where can you have influence?

      I realize you asked me a question, so let me try to come up with an answer. How do you stay productive in such a vile environment? Should you avoid campus conflicts to focus on your own productivity? I think how you answer the above questions for yourself would inform this, but in the absence of this context, I’d say that you need to look out for yourself first. Institutions do not look out for the needs of the individuals in their employ, and your university and its admins are is presumably about itself (and the students, hopefully) more than you. Everybody is replaceable, no matter how important a role they play. So if speaking up on campus harms your long-term success, remember to look out for number one. On the other hand, if you think that speaking out in such a horrible environment can actually make a real difference, then maybe that activism would be a good thing? But I think if there’s a campus culture problem, and poor resource allocation, then going it solo as an associate professor without a huge team behind you is typically a quixotic venture. The problem is, presumably, accountability for who is holding the purse strings, and complaining about this situation might have a greater impact on you than it would anybody else. For all of the talk of shared governance, this usually only happens for some aspects of the institution, and it sounds like the problems on your campus aren’t the ones that faculty are equipped to change unless you start a coup. Maybe I’m reading this all wrong, but those are some of my initial thoughts.

      • Terry,
        Thank you for your thoughtful reply. You seem to have pegged the situation even without me going into great detail. Ultimately, I do think I need to think about an exit plan.

        In answer to one of your main questions, I do not have a team behind me (maybe a silent one, but that is not helpful), so it could potentially hurt my reputation to be the one “complaining”. Also, the decisions being made are ultimately made by admin. In the past few years, even if they ask for faculty input, it has been ignored. This left many of the faculty apathetic–this has become our culture on many levels. You have made me see that issue is critical.

        I have been in a large lab that was closed in a parallel situation. The time we took fighting it was moot, and I think it had a great cost on my productivity. It is clear I should not repeat the past.

  4. From a facebook request: Long-time blog reader here–your blog has really helped demystify the academy and the process of doing science…thank you for your thoughts and advice! 🙂

    I’ll be working as a teaching assistant for the first time this fall. Can you recommend any resources (articles, books, websites, anything!) that you’ve written or come across that you think would have helpful advice for a first-time TA?

    Also…do you have any advice for a first-time TA and graduate student? I’ve taught and run informal science education programs and taught in K-12 classrooms, but it sounds like it’s going to be a completely different situation. Any advice would be appreciated…I’m so anxious about my first day!

    • I need to get the final edits in on my book, I’d recommend that! 🙂 But in the meantime, I think there’s a bevvy of resources, though some are thicker than you might want and others might not be right for what you need.

      Here’s a post from earlier, with resources I have to think about improving your teaching. It might be much for those just starting out, though: https://smallpondscience.com/2018/03/26/what-to-read-to-improve-your-teaching/

      In addition to the links in there, this link that I just googled up is from WashU for their grad students and seems to cover the standard bases well: https://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/resources/course-design/tips-for-faculty-teaching-for-the-first-time/

      In addition to those, here are a few thoughts about where people stumble that you can try to avoid. If you’re teaching the lab, then from the students’ perspective, it’s your course and you’re in charge (even if you don’t feel like you are and it’s not your curriculum). It’ll go more smoothly if you take full ownership (even if the course coordinator things you’re not entitled to it) and you establish a clear instructor-student boundary. The we’re not-so-different-in-age-so-I’ll be-more-of-a-tutor-than-a-professor thing falls apart once the instructor starts assigning grades. Dressing up helps.

      I know this isn’t that much, but hopefully this will help.

  5. We all know that student evaluations can be brutal and aren’t the best gauge of teaching effectiveness. I’m in my second year working at a SLAC and I have a couple of things going against me with regards to evaluations:

    A) I’m female and youngish (several studies show that this is a disadvantage, especially with regards to male student evaluations),

    B) I teach only classes required for the Bio major (so all student have to take them regardless of interest),

    C) I’m an introvert (which can come across as unapproachable)

    D) I’m trying to use the pedagogical research about effective learning in my classes, so I use active learning a lot– including traditional flipped classrooms, and a lot of peer problem solving group work (some students dislike the extra effort my class requires and complain that I’m not teaching them anything)

    E) The administration weighs student evaluations heavily when considering teaching effectiveness

    My evaluations tend to be love or hate, but the negative responses seem to be louder when it comes to my yearly review from the administration.

    Short of going back to the traditional lecture, I’m trying to brainstorm ways to raise these evaluations. I was wondering if you might be able to offer any advice about this?

    One thing in particular that I’ve wondered about is what to say to students JUST before I hand out evaluations. Is there a way to prime them to be respectful, to be relevant, to recognize the weight that these comments hold?

    • It’s unfair/unfortunate that the deck is stacked against you in a few ways out of your control. I’ve seen enough evaluations from professors using active learning to see how this can adversely affect scores and comments that can be misinterpreted, especially by faculty who aren’t doing active learning.

      I think it’s really important that the university is able to contextualize the identify of the faculty and the implicit and explicit biases of students when filing out these forms, but of course, that’s something that you have little control over. Ideally there are senior faculty in your department you understand this and can put eval scores in proper context during the process.

      I wrote a post a while ago about how to juice teaching evaluation scores
      https://smallpondscience.com/2014/02/24/avoiding-bad-teaching-evaluations-tricks-of-the-trade/ though I haven’t read it since then, but I’ll mention the a couple key things that come to me right now.

      It sounds like you’re still doing it in paper, not online? That totally changes response rate, timing, and all that.

      1. One way to make sure there are no surprises is to do your own evaluations throughout the semester, two or three times, give students an evaluation form with questions that you want the answers to. In a mid-semester evaluation, give them a copy of the university form, and ask them fill it out specifically for you. That should give you an idea what the final evals will looks like, but also give you time to adjust course as need be.
      2. For what it’s worth, here is what I learned to do when I handed out evaluations (before we switched to online). I would write my own evaluation form with some specific and some general questions, that they would fill out anonymously and hand in to me. I’d tell my students I wouldn’t look at them until I turned in the final grades. Simultaneously, I’d hand out the university form. I’d tell them that I wouldn’t get to see them for several months, so it wouldn’t help students in the next semester (which was true of course), and that this form wasn’t so much for me to improve my teaching, but for my bosses (chair, dean, provost) to decide whether it was worth keeping me on campus. I told them that my bosses used the evaluations not so much to improve my teaching but to decide whether or not I could keep my job. If they had lots of feedback about improving my teaching and they didn’t care if my bosses read it, then my other feedback form would be the best way, and I’ll take them to heart. Since I already had been doing these evaluation forms throughout the semester, then it would be clear that this is a genuine way that I wanted to get feedback from students rather than game the system.

      Hope this helps?

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