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.)

I don’t have the energy to write a(nother) crafted essay about the educational-industrial complex, faculty development, administrative expectations for faculty performance, and what good teaching looks like. But I want to offload a bunch of thoughts, in an unordered set of observations related to the concept universities are trying to standardize our teaching.

-In general, I think that university administrators (deans, vice provosts, provosts, associate deans, et cetera) really do want students to learn and they want us to teach effectively. When universities are enacting programs and policies in which they’re claiming to support quality classroom teaching, I’m thinking that the motivation here is simply that these folks actually want to see effective classroom teaching. While there is no shortage of tuned out or malevolent folks in charge, most of them are often doing this because they really care that students are getting what they deserve out of college. I don’t think there’s an ulterior agenda, other than perhaps craven careerism, but there’s no motivation to make us teach badly.

-Most people who are teaching in STEM have little to no training in teaching. And even worse, a lot of us are aggressively disinterested in evidence-based decision making.

-(By the way that’s why I wrote a whole fricking book to try to convince scientists that we should be using peer-reviewed evidence of what works rather than our instincts and whatever stray practices we inherited from our prior experiences.)

-Let’s say that you’ve ended up in charge of making sure that university students are learning effectively, and then a pandemic hits and everything goes to hell. And you realize that you are working with a bunch of professors who have never taught online before, are not trained in pedagogy in general, and you also have a lot of your teaching being done by graduate students who are woefully under compensated and are in grad school primarily to do research rather than teach your courses. That’s a really sticky situation for you, isn’t it?

-I’ve had so many conversations with scientists who are supremely curious about teaching well, and many who put in the work to learn about evidence-based teaching practices. Just like university administrators want us to teach well, we want to teach well too.

-There are as many teaching styles as there are effective teachers. There’s no single path to teaching effectiveness. And a teaching style that works well for some people might not work well for others.

-Just because you like teaching a particular way or you anecdotally suspect your students are learning because you’re teaching well, this isn’t evidence that you are using effective teaching practices. Just because there are many ways to be a great teacher, this doesn’t mean that you’ve found one of those ways.

-I’ve also had lots of conversations with science faculty who are convinced that they’re teaching in a highly effective way even though there are mountains of research showing that what they’re doing can be vastly improved. Also they’re using approaches that amplify inequities and disparities making it harder for folks who have identities different than themselves.

-When you have a lot of STEM professors who aren’t willing to stay fresh and respond positively to professional development about effective teaching, what the heck are you supposed to do?

-When you have been presented with evaluations and assessments showing that students of color are receiving a lower quality of education that your white students, and you know that the faculty are not using approaches designed to reduce this disparity, what’s the best way to work with faculty to repair this institutional failure?

-I firmly believe that to be effective, teachers need to teach using approaches that they think are effective. If there’s some set of teaching practices that are “best” and “most effective,” the implementation relies on an instructor who is invested into the process. You can’t just require us to teach a particular way and expect it to be good unless we are invested and think that it will be good. (I’ve been lightly dragged about this point, but I stand by it.)

-It’s quite clear that wholly lecturing isn’t as effective as a variety of active learning approaches. There’s so much evidence on this. Considering how lecturing amplifies educational disparities and active learning reduces them, folks have made the argument that teaching principally with lecturing is downright unethical.

-So how do we engage fellow scientists with being inquisitive about pedagogy and choosing to adopt practices that are effective? This question has been so critical to me that I wrote a whole (short and highly approachable) book to put into their hands, as folks who are not yet engaged in the evidence-based pedagogy are very much the intended audience. But for reals, how do we promote institutional change and speed up the rate of implementation of effective teaching practices without generating the perception that we are advocating the standardization of teaching?

-There is a massive toolkit of effective teaching practices that instructors can draw from, that suits the needs of their students, the institutional context, the content of the course, and their own style and preferences. But considering that most STEM instructors in universities aren’t trained in pedagogy and a lot of them are reluctant to get substantial professional development, how can one engage in the details of effective teaching when there’s little opportunity to have a conversation about the fundamentals?

-What’s up with universities where teaching performance is valued by everybody on campus except the people who give you tenure, raises, and promotion? Perverse incentives abound.

-If The Man is actually trying to make us teach in a standardized way, my inclination is that this is because this is the simplest or most likely way to make sure that effective practices are being used and that ineffective practices are being minimized. If there are lot of people who aren’t engaged in the process, then the attempts at standardization might be perceived as the only way to ensure base level compliance with minimum expectations? If an instructor demonstrates that they’re clearly invested in using evidence-based practices and are doing some level of work to show that they are working (you know, “assessment,” but you don’t have to call it that), what administrator in their right mind would try to standardize what this instructor is doing?

-The bottom line is that we all want to make sure that students have positive experiences while learning what we want them to learn in the course. There are a bunch of ways to get to that destination, and I think everybody knows this. But unless we start hiring all of our instructors on the basis of their preparation for and commitment to teaching (which frankly, that’s not happening in higher ed outside 2-year institutions and some fraction of SLACs), is it fair or realistic to expect instructors to craft a bespoke classroom experience for their students using detailed knowledge of state-of-the-art pedagogy? Wouldn’t it be better to say, “do these few things, we know they work,” and take it from there?

-I don’t know the exact quote or who said it, but it goes along the lines of, “If you want someone to do something, make them think that it was their own idea.” In the context of STEM teaching in universities, it’s clear that most of us don’t respond well when being told how to teach. But a lot of us do quite well when we get the idea that teaching a particular way is our own idea. I’m not sure that faculty development people really have picked up how to finesse this vibe among scientists, but that’s key to success. And for improving student learning.

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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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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(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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Recommended reads #198

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On the origin and development of the Birds Aren’t Real movement.

How learning feels now (after so many months of COVID)

preprint: Gender Imbalance in the Editorial Activities of a Researcher-led Journal [which happens to be eLife]

A Giving Pledge for Rural Public Universities

And yes, it’s been a month since the last one of these posts, but honestly that’s all I’ve got for the moment! I haven’t been reading much journalism of late. But in other reading, I’ve been enjoying the trilogy of the Third Body Problem by Cixin Liu and the Broken Earth trilogy by NK Jemisin. And I’ll be starting on Klara and The Sun soon.

Cheers.

Can we talk about Field Camp?

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A few years ago, I was spending time with some geologists and they were telling me about Field Camp. That it’s a standard requirement of most Geoscience programs, but also that it’s highly problematic.

I just googled a bit, here’s what I learned. According to UW Milwaukee, “Field camp is a tradition in the education of a geologist. It is an intensive course that applies classroom and laboratory training to solving geological problems in the field.”

Gotcha. My colleagues are saying how problematic field camp is, but I don’t quite see it yet. Could you tell me more?

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Startup funding opportunity for new PUI faculty in Biology

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This is just a drive-by post to let you know that NSF-Biology just launched a new opportunity to provide start-up funds for new faculty working in Primarily Undergraduate Institutions and Minority-Serving Institutions.

This is the link to that program.

For this program, “new” faculty means within your first three years of a tenure-track position. If you’re at an MSI that is not a PUI, then it needs to be not a very high research intensive institution (Non-PUI MSIs with Carnegie Classifications R2, D/PU, and M1-3 are just fine. For example, UC Irvine is an MSI, but it’s also an R1, so new PIs there don’t qualify. But that’s okay, because I can imagine the startup available to new PIs at UCI get for startup.)

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Recommended reads #196

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A short quiz for my students in lieu of asking about their vaccine status or requesting that they wear masks

You do not have to be a revolutionary to see that some kind of [climate] upheaval has already started and that it can only really be delayed or mitigated than stopped entirely. If the goal of the Biden era is to slow history down, he needs to admit that this new, dangerous era has already begun, and that the old solutions no longer work.”

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Project management software for you and maybe your lab

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It’s really easy to get caught in short-term minutia and lose focus on the big picture stuff that really matters.

I’ve been trying out some project management software, because I think I’m juggling enough short-term, medium-term, and long-term projects and goals that this might be the a better for me to stay on track. I’m hoping that this can help me align my time and effort in a manner that represents my priorities.

Up to now, I’ve just been using a Moleskine (and some notes on my computer/phone), and it’s done the job really well. No real complaints. My attempt at a switch isn’t being triggered by a particular time or project management crisis that I’m trying to avoid, it’s more about staying on track with my evolving priorities.

The one that I’ve heard the most about is Trello, which I know some bigger labs use to manage all kinds of operations, though this seems to be a rather weighty and designed for teams, and organizations with many teams. I’m more interested in just keeping track of stuff for myself, and maybe looping a few people in if they’re interested.

So, what to use? I asked this question on twitter, and the response thread has a lot of useful responses. Below is the upshot that I’m taking out of this.

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Research productivity during mid-career and beyond

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Apparently, I am “mid-career.” When I registered as a reviewer for the NSF GRFP, that’s the box I checked because according to their registration form, “mid-career” is 10-25 years of experience. (If you’re counting from my first full-time faculty position or from receiving my PhD, I’m 22 years in. If you’re counting time in grad school, I’m 27 years in.)

Though I’m arguably mid-career now, soon going to be a “senior scientist.” Hmm.

My job has evolved over the last several years, from actively avoiding admin work, to taking on faculty leadership roles part time, and now I’m doing this stuff even more*. I’m doing the kinds of service leadership work that is taking up a good part of my time. A lot of my job is no longer about promoting the success of my lab and the students working with me, but instead about helping build the success of other people in my academic community.

This is the kind of transition that is typical for senior scientists. However, the way this transition plays out for those of us in PUIs is very different than how it plays out in R1s and other doctoral-granting universities.

What’s the difference? Productivity is limited by the personnel at hand, and this effect become more and more pronounced for PIs at PUIs as they advance in their career. My N=1 of personal experience tells me this, but also, I do see this reflected in the complicated career arcs of peers and what we expect of others.

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Recommended reads #195

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These recommended reads are all about reviews.

A review of an essay: The problem with rigor. “The rhetoric of rigor turns pedagogy into pathology.”

A review of a tv show: the chair is peak jeans in church culture – I think there is something for absolutely everybody in Brandon Taylor’s review even if you are one of the academic who have yet to watch The Chair. I thought it was insightful about the what TV is and what TV isn’t.

A review of a book: How not to talk to a science denier.

A review (the other kind of review) of Long COVID.

A review of the geographic distribution of GBIF records: “Sampling biases shape our view of the natural world

and lastly a historical review of the ethnocentric origins of the myth of learning styles, which I had absolutely no idea about and this is something that I wish I knew many years ago. Here’s a link to the journal article but here’s one you can read.

NSF needs more non-R1 GRFP reviewers, please sign up!

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I have a little something to admit. I just registered as a potential reviewer for the NSF GRFP for the first time. (That’s the Graduate Research Fellowship program, for the noobs). I’ve been on here for years talking about the program: how it works, how the outcomes are inequitable, how we can do our part to increase representation in the applicant pool, yadda yadda, but I’ve never even tried to put in the work and become a reviewer until now. Does that make me a hypocrite? A little bit, yeah.

Are you interested in becoming a reviewer? You can sign up here with a copy of your CV and let NSF know that you’re available. The whole process took me about five minutes.

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Planning lab “boot camps” for after the pandemic

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A pair of gloved hands holding a micropipette and twisting it to adjust it.
image by Figueiredo

My department just had a great idea: We’re planning “boot camps” to train students with the basic lab skills that they missed out on during the pandemic. The pandemic isn’t over yet, so we’re still in the planning phase. What is your department doing to get your students caught up?

The idea is that over winter, spring, or summer break, students can sign up for a 1-unit course (at no cost to them), and they will be able to do the stuff that we couldn’t do when labs have been virtual. Lab skills like pipetting, serial dilutions, PCR, electrophoresis, microscope use, slide preparation, plating, centrifuging.

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Recommended reads #192

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Ten simple rules for productive lab meetings

I Signed Up to Write College Essays for Rich Kids. I Found Cheating Is More Complicated Than I Thought.”

What The ‘Return To The Office’ Fight Is Really About – I thought this was a fascinating explanation about how people want to use the office environment as a way of exercising their soft power over others.

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Update on fixing a racist common name for an ant (and a moth)

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A couple years ago, I shared with y’all about an old screwup of mine, and how I was planning to take steps to fix it.

To make the long story short, I explained how I had coined a new official common name for the ant Aphaenogaster araneoides, back in a prior decade. I only realized later that this name was problematic and constituted a racial slur.

The good news is that problem is fixed, thanks to the leadership of colleagues running the “Better Common Names Project” in the Entomological Society of America. So the former common name of A. araneoides is now surpressed as of this week, and now we can just call it A. araneoides. Which is fine with me. After mulling over a variety of alternative common names, I realize this species doesn’t need a common name.

While I’ve been concerned about this for a few years, I wasn’t able to change this when I wrote the original blog post. Because it was an official common name approved by the Entomological Society of America (a status that I had applied for back in the day), then this change would also have to be approved the common names committee of the ESA. After some informal inquiry, I was led to believe that a name change would be contentious and not likely to be approved — in part because there was a moth named with the same slur (and a worse entomological etymology), and the major economic and environmental role of this species, with broad use of the common name, would mean it would be an uphill battle. So what did I do? Well, I have to admit, I did very little. I was mulling over how I would go about my proposal to the committee, and was trying to find a new and better common name, but simply stalled. And then the movement last summer related to civil rights awareness seems to have resulted in a change of heart in the ESA, also with a change of leadership. So now, now only were they open to suppressing the old common name — they took the matter into their own hands and did it without me formally asking. How about that, eh?

It’s nice to see this kind of tangible movement on this issue in my professional society. I realize that of course there is a long, long, long way to go to build an equitable community of scientists, and that we’ve seen very little or no actual progress in the past few decades. Just look at all that money that has been poured into diversity initiatives, that hasn’t changed the composition of our field. So clearly, we need to do more, and do things differently. Is changing a common name going to fix all that? Of course not. But it’s a slight indicator that folks are more willing to change now than they were two years ago.

I’ve talked to a few media outlets about this, and if you wanted to dig into the news about this, that’s straightforward enough. But feel free to discuss this here and I’m glad to discuss this in the comments here.

A personal existential crisis about biodiversity and climate change

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When did you first realize the scope and the scale of biodiversity loss and the impact of climate change? Did it hit you like a metric ton of bricks falling from a pallet at a construction site? Did you feel like you were slowly sinking underwater in a still lagoon when you realized the weight tied to your ankles? Or was it like you finally put the pieces of the puzzle together just enough to make the picture? Was it like you were in a darkroom, creating prints of your negatives and you see what’s been hiding in the shot the whole time? Or was it like you watched the basketball video and saw the gorilla on your second view?

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Time for summerbatical

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After three semesters of fully remote work, I feel like I really could use a sabbatical. I imagine a lot of you feel the same.

Being able to have a sabbatical is kind of quite a professional perk, but I’m not yet eligible to apply for another sabbatical, as I was on sabbatical during 2016-2017. (How did I spend that sabbatical, you might ask? Here you go.)

But I have the next best thing: a combination of tenure and spending this summer off contract. No employer can expect anything of me until mid-August? That’s not so bad, eh?

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