Why it is icky to offer free conference registration for student volunteers


Some academic societies do this thing where they offer free conference registration to a limited number of students, and in turn, those students earn their keep by donating their labor for to help run the conference (at registration tables, projection tech support, etc).

I think this is problematic.

You might think that this increases accessibility and allows students who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend the conference to attend. And I think you’re right about that. But just because a practice provides access, this doesn’t make it equitable or just. This practice brings students who are already at a structural disadvantage and then literally treats them like the hired help. Because these students are replacing workers who otherwise would have to be hired by the organizers.

The students who come from well-funded labs or who have the means to pay out of pocket aren’t going to be volunteering. They’re going to be there to fully enjoy the meeting, and they get to choose how to use their time.

The student volunteers are the hired help. Only they’re not hired. They’re the poors who have their labor extracted for free so that the Society can balance the budget.

I get that balancing the budget is important, and also that it’s hard. And I really get that it’s difficult and under appreciated work to do all the work in organizing the conference. Hats off to you. Thank you, in full sincerity. But also, please listen carefully when I’m saying here that there’s else something to change up to make the meeting more equitable and to stop othering the students who have fewer resources.

You might argue that volunteering gives students an opportunity to do networking and be exposed to science that they otherwise might choose not see. There is a bit of truth to that but if it’s such an opportunity, then shouldn’t the conference be charging students who want this networking opportunity extra for the privilege? Or at least let students volunteer at no extra charge? But you know that won’t fly. Because you know and I know that volunteering for free registration is metaphorically sitting in the back of the bus.

The bottom line is that these volunteer positions exist because organizers are trying to make the conference accessible in two ways: lowering the cost for everybody by reducing registration fees, and allowing some students who need the support to attend without having to pay for registration. Those are really good priorities. But operationalizing them by making poorer students volunteer to be able to have a seat at the table is Diversity 1.0. IWe can do better than that. We should expect better than that from our academic societies.

But what can societies do to make sure that students who can’t afford registration can still attend the meeting? I think there are a variety of more accessible ways to approach this.

You could increase registration fees to actually hire people to do the work, and then offer registration waivers for applicants who can’t afford it.

You could require full professors to volunteer.

You could require that every person who has attended the conference four previous times, on their fifth meeting they need to volunteer.

You could sweeten the pot for those who pay for registration but still volunteer. For example, many conferences only allow a maximum of one presentation per person. You could allow those who register to give two presentations. Or you could promise a better talk time slot for those who volunteer.And you can come up with a fancy ribbon or sticker or something for volunteers to make them feel good. (Which indeed would indicate more something tangible about being an “ally,” because that ribbon would indicate actual work.)

To be clear: You don’t need to ask the students in the society who are already already marginalized on the basis of their financial status to further marginalize themselves by having to work for free. You can find other ways to be creative and save money. As our current president (of the country, that is) has said: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget—and I’ll tell you what you value.”

And I’m telling you that making your poorest students have to provide free labor to have their seats at our table doesn’t indicate good values. You know this. Institutional change is hard, slow, and requires consistent effort. Maybe you could make this your next target to make your academic society more equitable?

Anyhow, I wrote about this a few years ago, but I thought I’d bring it up again as I noticed that one of my societies (the Ecological Society of America, of which I’m a life member, but not as a matter of honor but simply because I paid a bunch of money) is still exercising this practice.

Why doesn’t NSF redact horrible GRFP reviews that demonstrate overt bias?


The ongoing conversation about inequitable outcomes in the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) is scaffolded on a steady trickle of inappropriate remarks from reviewers that applicants share on social media.

Take, for example, the howler from this weekend, which said, “His Hispanic pride prevented him from seeking mentorship and advise [sic] from other [sic] that would have helped him avoid and lesson [sic] some of his struggles and progress further.”

Even taken out of context and imagining it was written with functional grammar, the content of this review is highly problematic. You can’t invent a universe in which that sentence is okay.

This isn’t just a one-off situation. I think that the vast majority of reviews are actually lacking in obviously racist bias, and the vast majority of them don’t even have classist bias. In my experience, which is not insubstantial, the reviews are by mostly from people who are thoughtful and are genuinely working with good intentions (if not constructive approaches) to broaden access and participation. But I also have seen a plenty of people in the process who aggressively do not aggressively do not understand the forces at work that structurally exclude folks on the basis of their identity and personal backgrounds.

It’s a problem because the review process involves the human beings who comprise our academic community. These problems are a reflection of us, and the racism in that review is a mirror for us to see ourselves. One thing to keep in mind is that these reviews are coming from the panelists themselves. The call is coming from inside the house.

So how bad is the situation? There are enough overt problem that Science wrote a news article about it last year and called it dysfunctional. I spent a few minutes searching twitter for screenshots of problematic reviews, and considering the volume of those you have to wonder about all the applicants who aren’t on twitter and how only the extremely rare applicant will make the choice to share that kind of thing publicly, and well, yeah. It’s a problem.

While the absolutely number of such damning screenshots is finite and perhaps small, this relative frequency belies the depth of implicit bias that happens. While I’ve seen some folks claim that the folks at NSF doesn’t care about this bias, from my observations and interactions, I’m confident that there is plenty concern about bias. But I think there’s more concern about bias in the process than there is about outcomes that may not result in broadened participation. I think there are varying levels of concern that process that winds up principally elevating those who have already had access to prior advantages. If you’re going to measure “merit” and “potential” — which are the building blocks of the program, that’s hard to do when you have a pool that has experienced different levels of opportunity. And measuring achievement relative to opportunity is a hard thing to do, especially when the reviewer pool is replete with people who have succeeded under the current system.

Anyhow, the specific question I came back to my slumbering blog to try to answer is: “Why does NSF share reviews even when they happen to be incredibly nasty and racist?” I obviously can’t provide any accurate answer to this because I don’t work for them and haven’t been involved in the stuff that program officers do. In the absence of an explanation from the GRFP program, I hope I might be able to shed at least a little light for those of you who know even less about how the place works than I do. Here are some unordered things I have to say about this.

  • As far as I am aware, NSF hasn’t made any kind of public statement about how it is that they end keeping reviews that have highly problematic statements. Which means that they end up being part of the process before winding up in the hands of the applicants.
  • Considering the funding rates and the number of awards, they get at least 10,000 applicants or so? This is a ginormous program. And each application gets a few reviews. I’m not sure it’s quite possible for every review to get that the level of attention that would be needed.
  • There is a small number of program offers who operate the process year-round. When they operate the review panels around the winter break, it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation where people who don’t operate the program are brought in to support the program.
  • Who gets to decide where the line is on what constitutes overt bias? I think there is probably a philosophy at work where transparency is valued and the idea that the occasional overtly biased review might be preferred to the idea that someone behind the scenes is tainting reviews by removing content that was intended by the reviewer. In my opinion, in a perfect world all of the reviews with overtly problematic bias would be simply deleted from the process before anybody on a panel would be exposed to them. But there a lot of this is a big grey zone. The howlers are very obvious of course, but that’s just the long end of a tail, and who’s going to draw that line. Maybe it’s better that no line is drawn so that we can see the reviews when they are a problem?
  • I think there is the prevailing philosophy (which I admittedly don’t radically disagree with, though I’m not sure if I agree with it) that overtly biased reviews are best addressed by not squashing them, but instead, by giving them sunlight. I’ve been involved in enough of these kinds of situations where I’ve seen problematic statements in reviews either get entirely ignored and that these statements just obviously devalue the weight of the review in general, and sometimes it’s brought up and discussed in the way you hope it would be discussed. (Then again, sometimes it’s me bringing up the issue and I don’t have knowledge of rooms when I am not in them.) I think it’s worth asking, “Is it better to just delete these reviews and move on, or is it better to share them so that everybody can see these horrible statements for what they are?” I think how you answer that question might be connected to your level of trust in the idea that most panelists find these horrible comments to be truly horrible.
  • I sure do hope that they find who these people are and make sure that they never participate in the review process again.
  • According to a current rotating program officer who took to twitter about the review process (though not explicitly about the GRFP), getting the content of a review redacted is quite a big deal.

One way to ameliorate this problem is to have a deeper reviewer pool. That’s a thing I’ve long been talking about. Of course this doesn’t fix the problem.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve mentioned on occasion the idea of limiting the number of applications from a given institution based on enrollment. Of course you’ll have several dozen undergrads from MIT applying each year, and relatively few from, say CSU Dominguez Hills. So if you think that there’s a problem with representation in the pool, then you can change the composition of the pool by making sure that you’re increasing representation from universities that have more representation.)

Anyhow, if you’re wondering why NSF lets these bad reviews happen be a part of the process, I’m wondering right along with you. But I also know enough about how bureaucracies work and how simple fixes to big problems are often not that simple. I think part of the accountability here is to make sure that when there are problems, that they get exposed to daylight. For those of you who have had the courage to be vocal about the bias you’ve experienced, thank you for your service, and I’m sorry that you have gone through this. You, and our entirely community, deserves better. (I suspect most everybody at NSF agrees with this too, but they aren’t well positioned to come out and say it for themselves.)

Recommended reads #207


Higher education’s other diversity crisis (the article is about Oxford, but really, it’s about everywhere)

Insect decline gets the Elizabeth Kolbert treatment in the New Yorker.

American teens are unwell because society is unwell.

Confidence. highlighted read

Women have been misled about menopause

The intersections of identity and persistence for retention in ecology and environmental biology with personal narratives from Black women – yes, this is an article that you can cite when you’re putting in your grant why you need to provide more support for Black women in field sciences. But more importantly, it’s a paper to read and digest!

Available evidence still points to covid originating from spillover. What up with certain US government agencies saying that covid was a lab leak, but without providing any evidence for this? So weird. Anyhow, here’s the take from a couple virologists that explains what we know and what we don’t know.

Did you know how extraordinarily out of date California water laws are? Maybe you can imagine, but if you want to know the details, here you go.

I think it was well established that Pablo Neruda was probably killed by poisoning, but now there’s more data for this.

Undergraduate research: course credit vs. getting paid


Undergraduate labor powers many university laboratories. Many of us faculty in primarily undergraduate institutions simply would not be shipping much product without this source of labor. And even in PhD-granting institutions, undergrads are often the labor that makes dissertations possible.

Oftentimes, this is unpaid labor. But in the eyes of many, this form of unpaid labor is not uncompensated. You see, the students doing this work are getting “paid” with course credit.

The financial magic of this arrangement, in which faculty wave a curricular wand want to convert graduation requirements into research effort, is deeply embedded among our accepted traditions. It’s the way the world works. Students and faculty just acknowledge that this is the way things have been, and the way they are.

Some folks make a distinction between the responsibilities of students and faculty, depending on whether it’s a credit or a paycheck situation. If a student is getting paid to work in the lab , then the idea is that we can have this student doing any or all kinds of work at long as it’s safe and reasonable. They could be simply washing dishes, or running samples through machines, or doing basic paperwork or data processing, without being asked or expected to make an intellectual contribution to the work. If they’re getting paid, then the people running the lab don’t necessarily have to feel obligated to provide a high quality intellectual experience.

But if a student is getting credit, then there’s the impression (and often paperwork to back it up) that the credit is associated with a learning experience. So students getting credit are typically getting a mentored experience where they are learning about the process of research, not just washing dishes or making media or whatever. They’re supposed to be growing as scientists, beyond appreciating the reality that replication can be extremely boring.

Here’s another feature of this accepted common practice that admit that I have never fully understood: When students are doing research in your lab and are getting a credit-worthy educational experience, we should not be paying them because it’s “double-dipping.” The idea, I suppose, is that if a student is getting credit for learning, it would somehow be unfair for them to also get paid for the effort the time and effort that they re putting into the process.

I’ve heard this ‘double-dipping’ argument from several institutions over several decades. But I never really bought the logic behind it, even when my lab was benefiting from it. I think I understand where this interpretation of fairness comes from, but I don’t think this idea holds rhetorical water, considering that we compensate students for educational experiences in so many other ways across higher education. For example, when student is receives a scholarship from the university to pay for their living expenses while attending school, they’re enrolled in a full course load while receiving money to go to school! Oh my gosh, is that double dipping? We have students in our department who go on paid internships, but also sign up to get credit for those internships. Oh my gosh, is that double-dipping! So, then, what’s the problem with paying a student who is doing actual work in your lab, while also making sure that they receive academic credit for this learning experience associated with this actual work?

So now that we accept the reality that students are regularly receiving compensation for their effort while also doing academic work for credit, what’s the problem with doing this in our own research labs using research funding and our departmental curriculum?

I do get how this makes things smoother for faculty. If we explain to students that they can get either pay or credit, then that looks straightforward on the face of it. But what we are doing is legitimizing the idea of gaining labor from students and giving them course credit as a form of compensation, even though that course credit costs us no money. While our time precious and there’s not enough of it, and we spend plenty of that time mentoring students who are receiving credit, it’s also a reality that funding for student labor is also sometimes hard to come by. Other than a thousand bucks here or there, I haven’t had funding for undergrads to work in my lab for several years. Which means that I could, in theory, recruit students and just ask them to sign up for credit instead of paying them. Which would make things easier for me. I mean, whether I pay students in my lab or not, it’s a lot of my time (well spent, but a lot of it) working with them. But if I don’t have to struggle as much to land the external funds to keep them on the payroll (and gosh, it is often a struggle), then that would be a plus.

I mean, really, what is wrong — what is bad — what is improper or illegal or unfair — about paying students while they’re earning credit for research?

Who is being harmed by paying students while doing research for credit? The only perceived harm, I suppose, is that some students are doing the same work without getting paid. I’m not sure how choosing to pay some of these students does a harm to students who are not being harmed. This isn’t treating the unpaid students more unfairly than they were being treated before. You’d just be doing what you can to reduce the number of people who are doing work without pay. I suppose it’s weird in a lab to have second-class citizens, some of whom are getting credit and pay, and some who are getting just credit, and also those who are just getting pay. But that’s not the worst thing in the world. And it’s better than having ones who are just getting credit or pay when some could be having both.

Some folks might say, “Well, your university is different than mine. Because most of your students simply can’t afford to volunteer 10-20 hours per week, it makes sense that you feel like you should pay the students who are working in your lab. But at my university, students are a lot more wealthy and don’t have to work jobs off campus, so they can afford to volunteer just fine.” But that, dear colleagues, is where I see the huge problem. Because whether you appreciate this or not, every university has students who are struggling financially. This is especially true at prestigious and wealthy institutions! And when we make a point of making opportunities in our labs accessible only to students who are available to volunteer, what we are doing is perpetuating the inaccessibility of research training that is experienced students who have the greatest need for support. This dynamic of expecting students to provide academic labor for free, which also gives them access to further opportunities in the field, is one of the major mechanisms that prevents equitable access. When you’re wondering how it is that NSF, NIH, and other agencies have been investing heavily into broadening participation but the needle has barely moved, it’s because of cultural norms like this — that think it’s okay to provide more opportunities to those who have the resources and the awareness to volunteer in order to get ahead.

Even though I had long been a willing participant in this system, I’ve never been quite comfortable with it. And at some point several years ago, I chose to principally opt out. (Note also that I’ve advanced to a position where choosing to opt out doesn’t really hurt me that much, so it’s a lot easier of for me to do this than other people.) By this I mean, I’m not bringing students into my lab and expecting them to do work that isn’t compensated with pay. If a student comes to me and really wants to work on something for credit even though I don’t have the funding for that, then I’ve supported that, but I’m not out there recruiting students and then asking them to make the choice between money or units.

I do think that it’s not horrible to run a lab on a ‘credit or pay’ policy. But I do suggest to you that it might be worth reconsidering and there’s no harm in getting rid of that policy, except perhaps to your budget. I also would like you to consider that actively running a lab of students who are mostly unpaid is an equity issue.

Good, bad, and worst dates for academic conferences


Looking at social media today, I have developed an unambiguous case of FOMO because I’m not at the SICB conference in Austin.

But did I even give any thought to attending this meeting? Heck no. A meeting during the January break? Count me out. Have I ever been to one of these meetings? Nope. This time is just too valuable for personal time and/or research for me*.

Granted, there is never a good time to hold an academic conference. We are busy people (which is not inherently a bad thing), and taking time away from family, work, and basically all other commitments to go to some distant place, all for the pleasure involved in listening, learning, and connecting with with science friends and colleagues, is quite a luxury. Finding that window of time when everybody is most available is impossible. Once an organization picks an annual time frame for that meeting, then people who are regulars at this meeting plan their calendars around them.

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The SLAC job market and disappearing jobs


Just in case you thought blogging was dead: I read an interesting blog post that I want to share with you, and comment on it in my blog.

This post was about disappearing faculty positions at Small Liberal Arts Colleges (SLACs), on a blog for early career philosophers. It points out enrollment declines in SLACs, and a notably substantial drop in the number of new tenure-track positions being offered at these institutions. The comments section in that post are quite illuminating and it communicates the precarity of being a tenure-track or tenured professor in an institution that may have trouble with enrollment and keeping the lights on.

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The adjunct hiring process is ridiculous


Once in a while, I get an email that sounds like this:

Hi everybody I know who is driving distance from campus,

We’re looking to hire an adjunct to teach [something] for us before the semester starts in a few weeks. Ideally this person has a PhD related to this topic and some teaching experience, but if you know of a grad student who is looking to gain experience teaching a course of record and would appreciate a few thousand bucks for a ton of work, please send them to us.

Sincerely, an overburdened departmental chair”

Meanwhile, let’s contrast this with the emails I get for tenure-track faculty positions:

Hi everybody in the entire galaxy,

Our department has opened up a tenure-track search in the area of [specialization]. Please encourage everybody to apply, because we want a really deep pool. That way, we can pick the candidate who has the most publications in the most impressive journals, has the biggest chance of bringing in big grants, and we need a large pool to convince HR that we are following their lightweight compliance process for equitable searches. The search will take several months and the position starts about one year from now. We anticipate spending a good amount of money on startup, there will be reassigned time from teaching for this person to launch well, and we work hard to support this person to make sure they earn tenure. We’re a great place to work, so send us your best!”

Sincerely, an overburdened departmental chair

I think we all appreciate the factors at play in our system that result in this dynamic. When we hire non-tenure-track positions, the process is slapdash, whereas tenure-track searches are whatever the opposite of slapdash is. I think it’s worth thinking about hat this slapdash hiring of non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty means for communities.

Adjuncts* are hired with little to no vetting because departments looking to hire these instructors are often in great need. Considering the workload and compensation associated with these semester-long gigs, when you find someone who is willing to take on a section, then many folks are positioned to be too picky. As far as I know, at most universities, the HR process for NTT faculty is wafer thin. Because it appears to be very common at some places for adjuncts to be hired literally moments before a class starts. Or maybe during the first week of classes.

I think in many departments, chairs are tasked with not only creating a schedule, but also hiring all of the people to teach those courses. There’s no hiring committee. The search process is whatever the chair decides it to be. If there’s anything in the process designed to create a fair and equitable outcome, then in every department that I’m familiar with, that’s entirely at the discretion of the chair who has to fill those slots. But this usually is little or nothing, because there are a lot of slots to fill and this search process is probably about 1% of the workload of the person who is responsible for filing these posts.

I have not (yet) been in this position, but I can’t imagine fitting in a full and proper search for every NTT position that needs to be filled in the midst of all of the other job duties. I think due diligence often consists of a phone call or two to check references to make sure that they’re not horrible, and maybe that’s as good as it gets. I once knew a department chair who joked/not-joked on occasion that hiring NTT faculty is just like hiring day laborers at the Home Depot parking lot (but that the pay and working conditions for the day laborer construction jobs was better).

Is this a problem? Yes, it is. What kind of problems does this cause?

First of all, does the absolute lack of any kind of fair hiring process for NTT instructors mean that you might be increasing the fraction of bad teachers? I don’t think so. I think you’re just as (and perhaps more) likely to bring bad teachers on board when you have a huge process of hiring a professor into a permanent position. Most of contingent faculty that I interact with are passionate about teaching and put a ton of effort and concern into their course. Are NTT faculty phoning it in? I would say that’s a bigger problem with tenured faculty. At least NTT faculty know that they’re being paid (albeit poorly) to teach, whereas tenured faculty might be under the impression that teaching is not necessarily the most important part of our jobs, and behave accordingly. While some NTT faculty are duds, let’s be honest here and recognize that there may well be a higher fraction of duds among the tenure-track and tenured professoriate. Even if you wanted to argue that the lack of a formal process results in more faculty who aren’t good at teaching, I don’t think that’s the biggest problem we have.

So, then, what’s my problem with the process if it doesn’t result in the hiring of bad teachers? Gosh, it’s hard to know know where to start.

While our institutions are exploiting NTT labor to some extent (and that extent varies greatly among institutions), we still are hiring for professional positions and there should be a transparent and equitable process. Think about all of the time and trouble that gets involved into hiring undergraduates for REU positions. Big applicants, statements, letters of reference, a committee. All for a position that pays a few thousand dollars over the summer and then ends. The amount of money for NTT positions is not smaller and all of those concerns about equity, justice, and representation matter. If the opportunity to become an instructor of record is one of the major stepping stones to becoming a professor (and in many places, it is), then how come the process providing access to such an opportunity is so darn inequitable?

I don’t know about your university, but at mine there is a sizable community of NTT faculty who are very important on our campus. Not only do they do so much teaching, they contribute in a lot of other ways (even if their employment contracts do not expect such a a contribution). They serve on our academic senate and help make big decisions about the institution. They help run our student research conference, and are advisors to student clubs, and so much more. (Not all NTT instructors have this level of engagement, but it’s been several times where I’ve worked with someone for months only to discover that they’re not tenure-track, and that they’re doing this stuff even though they don’t have to, but only because they want to.) There are many folks who are making a career out of this role. The people who evolve into this position come at it sideways, usually by getting hired by a departmental chair in a slapdash manner, and then they stick with it over the years.

I think it’s a problem that we have parallel professional pathways for university faculty, with one pathway getting more support, scrutiny, and respect. It’s been a while since I’ve written about how tenure-track faculty are essentially parasites of non-tenure-track faculty, but that situation still is exploitative, even if our universities have been working in earnest to professionalize what it means to be NTT faculty.

Perhaps one of the reasons that faculty and other people in universities aren’t investing enough into NTT faculty is that there’s such little care or concern invested when we recruit people into these roles? Everybody deserves respect and professional support, and perhaps we might begin this process as we should proceed: by putting thought and concern into who gets hired.

I honestly don’t know how to operationalize this idea of conducting a transparent and equitable process for hiring adjunct faculty, and if I were in the position where I was expected to do this, I would be asking, “with what kind of support?” Because we only are creating the academic calendar a few months in advance of when these job opportunities arise. And sometimes because funding is short, we can’t float sections we want to, and sometimes because of demand, some get added at the last minute. The HR and faculty affairs offices wouldn’t have the staff to handle this, and are we asking people to sit on more committees? What does this look like? It sounds like a disaster.

But what we have right now is a disaster, of a different kind, that we’ve just grown to live with. I don’t know what to do with it, and the lack of professional support for NTT faculty is a downright epidemic and the slapdash hiring procedures is just one small consequence of a much bigger problem.

Final note: this post isn’t about anything specific going on at my institution or at any other institution. It was triggered by one of those emails that I got this morning, but those emails are a steady trickle near as we prepare for a new semester. It’s not about you, it’s not about me, except for the fact that it is about everybody and you and me are part of everybody.

* a short note on nomenclature: “Adjunct” can mean a lot of different things. What are the differences among contingent faculty, adjunct faculty, lecturer, non-tenure-track instructor, and other terms of art? There are a lot of subtle differences, and some of these differences vary depending on the institutional context. (For example, in the California State University system, all faculty who are not tenure-line faculty are “lecturers,” that’s the terminology built into the collective bargaining agreement.) “Contingent” simply means that you’re hired at will and don’t have a long-term contract. This gets complex because some non-tenure-track faculty are more contingent than others, depending on policies and guidelines for employment in your university. (For example, in the CSU, the CBA provides for entitlement for NTT faculty who have been on the job for a little while. It’s not exactly tenure, and not a guarantee of future work, but it’s makes it harder to give those teaching assignments to anybody else.) “Adjunct” can be interpreted as a label that a person isn’t a part of the regular faculty, but they’re just a temporary add-on. So this term, when applied to folks who are a well engaged with the campus, isn’t quite appropriate and can be othering.

Recommended reads #205


A couple more research articles showing how teaching valuations are sexist. And the interaction effect with age is quite something. If you’re involved in teaching evaluations in any way, this is important to know about.

book: The Guidebook for the Engaged University

“Do I really want to be a professor?”

What a frog pandemic tells us about humans

It’s not too late to bid on items from Joan Didion’s estate

book: Women in Field Biology

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On bureaucratic obstacles to field experiences for students


If your university is like mine, then you hear a lot about everybody is working hard to make sure that students have exposure to high impact educational practices. We all want to make sure that while students are in college, that they have the chance to have meaningful experiences.

For students in a bunch of science fields, it’s pretty clear that one of the most transformative and impactful educational practices in our toolkit* is bringing students to places in nature for genuine field experiences. Yes, it’s possible to become an ecologist or a geologist without going into the field. But I think everybody who is getting professional preparation at the undergraduate level in the field sciences should have ample opportunity to go out into the field with their courses and their instructors, right?!

But it seems a lot of our universities aren’t on the same page. They might think it’s a good idea, but there are also so many bureaucratic obstacles to taking students into the field, that we’re doing it less than we should be. I know so many people who aren’t taking students on field trips simply because their institution is making it too hard to make this happen.

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NSF’s accountability for the Waterman award


Usually we talk about accountability when people are getting it wrong, and perhaps on the occasional moment when someone or some organization experiences appropriate negative consequences for their own actions.

That’s only the first step. Accountability includes taking the steps to right the wrong, to move forward doing the right things.

So: I’d just like to take a brief moment to say thank you to the National Science Foundation for showing some accountability and doing the right thing. Good on ya, NSF.

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Are REUs always good for students enrolled in MSIs? It’s complicated.


In my department, we have a complicated relationship with REU (Research Experience for Undergraduate) programs. We have several well-funded active labs on my campus that provide quality mentored research opportunities to biology undergrads, so students in our department do who want to have impactful research experience have access to them. However, it’s still valuable for these students to go to an REU program at another university in the summer. REU programs*, especially those in places with a bunch of PhD students around, may have a strong positive impact on the professional trajectory of students who are doing their undergrad at primarily undergraduate institutions. Even though academics are known for unnecessarily qualifying general statements with “may,” “might,” or “possibly,” the may that I italicized in the previous sentence was there by design. It might have a positive impact. Or it might actually have a negative impact. It depends.

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Recommended reads #203


An article in Slate about how folks in the humanities aren’t doing the off-campus volunteer academic service like they used to.

Profiles of faculty who made major career pivots because of the imperative to do more about the climate crisis. This really hit home for me. Two of their four subjects left faculty positions for other roles. So this article is 50% “quit-lit.”

This one is 100% quit-lit: I Left Academia to Work in a Pub Because I’m Working-Class.

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Systemic racial disparities in NSF funding


If you’re doing basic scientific research in the US, here’s a new must read. This preprint by Chen et al. dropped on Friday, entitled “Decades of systemic racial disparities in funding rates at the National Science Foundation.”

Using over 20 years of data on funding rates, they demonstrate that white PIs have been getting funded at higher rates than non-white PIs. It feels like the scope of this preprint is similar to what Ginther et al. documented for NIH in 2011. Since that time, the Ginther Gap has been central to discussions involving disparities at NIH.

I think the figures speak for themselves, so I’m going to just share some of them:

Figure 1 shows that white folks have consistently been getting more funding across the years.

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Why I don’t have trouble finding peer reviewers


I see this very often in social media, and also in conversation with other academic editors: it’s getting harder and harder to get find people who agree to review manuscripts.

I have no idea whether this reflects the general experience, or if it’s borne out by data. I of course believe the lived experience of my peers, and their accounts make sense given the steady (and absurd) increase in publication rates, with so many people working the manuscript ladder chasing prestige, all compounded by the difficulties of the pandemic. I imagine that some journals have tracked the invitation acceptance rate and how it’s changed over time and perhaps shared this — or maybe it’s in the bibliometric literature — though over the span of a couple minutes my searching powers came up short.

That said, I have to admit that getting reviewers to say yes hasn’t been a problem for me in the course of editorial duties. Even in the depths of this pandemic, I usually haven’t had to ask more than three to five people in order to land two reviewers. Each year, I’ve been handling dozens of manuscripts, so I can’t credibly pin this on the luck of the draw. I don’t know why I don’t have much trouble finding peer reviewers. It presumably is a complex function of the function of manuscripts themselves, the society affiliation of the journal, how and who I choose to invite, the financial model of the journal, maybe if people are more likely to say yes to me as a human being (?), and who knows what else. If you ask people why they say no, I’m sure everybody just thinks it’s because they’re too busy. But if you ask people why they say yes, then that where it might get interesting.

The title of this post is off because I clearly don’t know why I don’t have trouble finding reviewers, but it might be informative because I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing, and that might help y’all come to your own conclusions about the Why. I’ve just stepped down from all of my editorial roles, so I thought now is a good time to step back and reflect on how have I identified potential reviewers, and make an attempt at some generalized take-lessons from this experience.

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Hidden curriculum™ for mid-career faculty


Over the last few months, I’ve had some quality time with a bunch of other mid-career academics who are (also) experiencing an inflection point in their careers. We’ve advanced to a certain level, and now we’re wondering, “Where do we go next?” This state of mind has been amplified by the disequilibrium that the pandemic introduced into our jobs and our own lives. (Stay tuned to this space for more on that inflection point, perhaps.) Anyhow, another thing that floated to the surface was how the Hidden Curriculum™ is a problem for us too.

We usually talk about Hidden Curriculum™ as a mechanism of inequity for junior scientists. For example, undergrads aren’t aware of the procedures and cultural norms that of the grad school application process. Grad students are often unfamiliar with the schmoozing etiquette of the prevailing (upper-middle class white) culture in their discipline.

Some bad news is that the gatekeeping never stops.

What are some expectations, norms, resources, and pathways that aren’t transparently shared with mid-career faculty, but can be really important? Here are some examples that have come up:

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EEB Mentor Match 2022 is live!


This is just a quick post to let you know that EEB Mentor Match is now launched, and is ready for you to sign up! Please get the word out to your colleagues, students, and professional societies.

This program was designed to help students applying to graduate school find the support they need. If you feel like you could use some support in untangling the mysteries and challenges of applying to grad school and for fellowships like the NSF GRFP, then we are here for you. Please sign up to be assigned a mentor!

This program is a grassroots effort that relies on members of our community to provide mentorship. If you’ve volunteered in previous years, you may or may not have been assigned a mentee! Regardless, please do sign up this year so that we can assign students to mentors whose expertise best fits their needs.

Effective teaching is not standardized teaching


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.)

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Building and maintaining friendships as an academic


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.