Recommended reads #163

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It’s been a whole month since the last one of these? How about I prune this down to the gems, how about that?

You want to write for the public, but about what? This is a short and very sweet guide to being an academic in public. It does a great job of explaining how you need to talk outside what you have been trained to think what your lane is.

Rationality vs Reasonableness — how do people consider them to be useful measures of judgement in our daily lives? This is some cool science. (also, did you catch my recent deficit model post?)

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Some ideas for better office hours

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Welcome back to a new semester! I don’t know about you, but I am often generally unpleased with how office hours go. Either there’s the crickets/deluge dynamic, or the students who really think would most benefit from coming in don’t. I don’t have any magical cures, but I have heard a variety of suggestions about switching up office hours to make them more accessible. Maybe some of these are new to you, eh?

-Don’t hold office hours in your office. Hold them in a more public location, such as a campus coffeeshop, or a non-quiet part of the library, or (when the weather improves), outside. Why do this? Because professors’ offices are intimidating and they’re our territory. Also, because some students have had bad experience interacting privately with professors, meeting in public is kinder to them.

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The deficit model of science communication

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This is central concept for science outreach. Some interactions today have led me to wonder whether we are all on the same page, so let me ask you:

Early in the days of this site, I started eavesdropping on conversations among experienced science communicators. I kept hearing over and over that we needed to kill “the deficit model” with fire. And then I did a bit of reading, and it was easy to see what they were seeing. For professional science communicators, it’s frustrating to see scientists who dabble in outreach using the deficit model, because they’re just getting it wrong and fouling the environment.

The deficit model of science communication is the idea that the target audience has gaps in their knowledge of science, and that through outreach, we can teach people and fill in these gaps. There’s a long history of research to show that this Deficit Model doesn’t work.

Seriously. Explaining science to people doesn’t lead to them understanding or accepting the science. It’s weird, right? People are irrational. Including us.

I’m not an academic expert in science communication. So when it comes to learning more about the deficit model more formally, I’ll point you to the academic literature. And wikipedia.

I see the irony that I’m here to spread word about the ineffectiveness of the deficit model by simply informing you about it with evidence. According to the deficit model, this isn’t expected to work for people who are simply browsing this blog periodically. So, what am I supposed to do?

Science communication experts tell us that we need to use narrative, and put the stories first that engage people with feelings. This is what the evidence tells us.

So if I’m really trying to convince you to drop the deficit model when you talk about science with non-scientists, I really should be doing this by telling a story. And I do have a great story for you! About how when I used the deficit model, it failed miserably! It’s a hilarious story! (Here’s the link to the post with the story about ants and snakes, which you presumably haven’t seen if you are new to small pond within the past five years).

I genuinely think that our understanding of the ineffectiveness of the deficit model is important for the future of our species, because collective action on climate change requires more of us to become passionate about switching to a clean energy economy. And we’re not going to get there by teaching climate science.

When you’re talking about climate change, feel free to mention the evidence, but more importantly, tell stories about how climate change has affected you and people you love, and find out how climate change is affecting the people you’re talking with, and tell that story. If you’re discussing the evidence, there are so many compelling stories about how people have uncovered evidence of climate change and how we are causing it, such as the folks behind the Keeling Curve. And the people being impacted by droughts and floods and fires and wars over access to water and hydrocarbons. For people to believe that rapid action on climate change is necessary, change must come from the heart, which means we’ve got to speak from the heart.

How university endowments predict, and don’t predict, teaching loads

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It’s typically exciting to find out that your hypothesis is wrong – and I was wrong! Here’s my back-of-the-metaphorical-envelope analysis of the poll that y’all completed a few weeks ago.

I predicted that teaching loads were negatively associated with endowment size. I expected that the more money an institution had, the less that the faculty taught. I also thought that this effect would be most robust at small liberal arts colleges (SLACs). But, nope, that’s not the case.

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Why do some places have high teaching loads and others have low teaching loads? [poll]

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Of course, institutions with more money have lower teaching loads. I have a specific hypothesis: Endowment size predicts teaching loads, like this:

But is this true? If it’s true, how true is it? How much variance is there? Does enrollment matter, such that it’s endowment-per-student? I’d like an answer to these questions, in the realm of non-PhD-granting institutions. If you have a minute, and you’re faculty at one of these places, could you humor me by filling out this quiz? If you have another minute, maybe pass it to colleagues at other institutions? The reward will be a post with the findings. It’s embedded below, but if you want a direct link, here you go.

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Reporting plagiarism and cheating to the university

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Some folks are surprised to learn that cheating is extremely common. I mean, it’s the norm.

On the other hand, even though our allegedly expect or require us to report all incidents of academic misconduct, faculty generally aren’t doing this. What’s up with that?

Instead of writing about it here, I wrote about it for the Chronicle of Higher Education. If that link gives you a paywall, then this one with Chronicle Vitae should work for you.

Preventing students from having copies of the exam

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I know a lot of people who prevent copies of their exams from leaving their classrooms. I think this is a bad idea.

I understand the motivation. I’ve taught several courses on a repeated basis, every semester or every year, for many years. Writing good exam questions is difficult, and it’s nice to be able to re-use questions.

But even though I understand the motivation, I also see a few major problems.

1. It doesn’t work. Even if you try to lock down your classroom as much as possible, copies of your exams are going to be getting out there. Trust me on this. It takes just a moment or two to take photos of an exam. Even in the days before everybody had a miniature camera or two in their pockets, exams got circulated. And the more adversarial you get about locking down copies of your exam, the more you emphasize their value to students, and the more these exams will circulate (which is the Tarkin Effect).

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Recommended Reads #161

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Teaching more by grading less, or differently

Here is a sublime profile of biologist Art Shapiro. And apparently, everybody I know who has worked with him says it’s spot on.

A librarian discovers many rare books have had images of beetles cut out of them. It sounds like a disaster, but turns out to be a very cool story.

If you haven’t figured this out, these photos have no correspondence to the content of the posts (usually), they’re just bookshelves, often mine.
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Down with bar graphs

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Some folks really hate pie charts, but I think for some purposes, they can communicate precisely the information we want them to. But, on the other hand, who’s our real enemy? Bar graphs.

Introducing Exhibit A (which is Figure 1 from Weissgerber et al.):

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Bar graphs tell us the mean, and some kind of measure of variance (standard deviation? standard error? confidence interval?). And that’s it. Continue reading

They’re not even trying at NIH

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I just saw this, and I think everybody needs to see this. Here it is:

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Academic advising and academia

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I’ve recently talked about the hidden labor of academic advising, and also the need to provide an education in academia and academic culture. I think it’s important to discuss how these two things intersect. If we are trying to bring more first-gen and minoritized folks into this academic sphere, then one of the first steps is making sure that folks know* what it means to be a professor, what it means to do research, and what it means to go to grad school. Because I think the typical undergrad really has no idea about this stuff when they go to college, and the sooner they are aware of this, the sooner they have the possibility of choosing this route (or choose against it, of course).

Let me illustrate this with an example. From a conversation that I have had so many times, with so many students.

I do a lot of advising for students who are pursuing teaching careers. And in the past, I’ve served on a lot of interview panels for students seeking to join the Noyce Scholars programs that we run at CSU Dominguez Hills.  Here’s a thing I’ve heard, something like:

“I want to be a professor. I want to teach at in a university. I suppose I could teach high school for a while, and then after a while I can get my advanced degree and find a university position.”

I hear this all the time. I mean, it’s possible I’ve heard this a hundred times. Definitely more than 50. At least in the population of students I work with, it’s apparently a very common career plan. It sounds entirely sensible and reasonable in a lot of ways. I don’t think it’s based on many assumptions, but it’s not informed by the hidden curriculum.

It sounds entirely sensible and reasonable. There’s just information that these students don’t have. In a single conversation, it’s not really healthful to dive into all of the ways that this isn’t a common career path that would be feasible for most folks**.

Because so many people of our undergrads have this idea of a career plan, then I can infer pieces of the hidden curriculum that our students aren’t aware of:

-What the job of a professor at a 4-year institution is beyond teaching

-What it’s like doing research, and what research is

-That earning a PhD in a STEM field while teaching a in full time K-12 position is somewhere between extremely difficult to impossible, and that leaving that solidly-paying job for a graduate stipend could be perhaps just as difficult

-How grad school admissions works

-The odds of getting a position as a professor after finishing graduate school

There’s no reason that anybody in college would be expected to know this stuff unless they’ve been in a social role where they would just absorb this stuff from their environment. But for most of my students, I suspect we as their professors are the people who they know best who have PhDs. So that means it’s on us to provide this cultural knowledge so that people know the options they have in front of them.

So I’m sitting in my office with a student who has just finished on semester of lower division biology. And is interested in becoming a professor. And who has no prior exposure to research. They haven’t expressed an interest in research, because they haven’t really been aware that this is even one of the options open to them. They’re into organismal biology (including plants! and bugs! and chemistry! Three things that go so well together!), and so we talk about finding opportunities to do some research. About applying to REUs. About finding a chance to work in someone’s lab. About how students can get paid to do research. And that if you are interested in doing a PhD, this is the perfect time to get the research experienced needed to land into grad school.

I could have limited my advising for this student to the pathway towards teaching biology at the high school level. Which is not any less than being a professor, it’s just different. But I would really like this student to be able to make that choice. And a real choice is a fully informed choice. And you can’t make that fully informed choice based on  a conversation, it takes some tangible experience to know the many differences are between K-12 teaching and the professoriate, and what each of these professional routes looks like.

When people talk about increasing diversity in STEM, what that really means is changing the fundamental composition of the pool of people who are applying to grad school, who are applying for postdocs, and who are applying for faculty positions. To change the composition of that pool, we have to bring people into higher ed who don’t even have grad school on their radar. I’ve met so many students in their last semester of college who are only learning that research is cool, and what grad school is. Those conversations have to happen early earlier than that. And opportunities need to be presented earlier. Which means that when these students are applying to your labs and your REU programs, it’s your job to provide that training. This is a lot of work. That’s okay, because, as someone one said, nothing truly worth doing comes easily. I’m not sure how true that is (after all, going out for eggplant parmesan tonight sounds very worth doing, and it’s not that difficult), but maybe it applies this this situation.


 

 

*To be clear, it’s just as important for folks in academia such as myself to evolve so that it shouldn’t be necessary for people to adopt a different identity and conform to the homophilous mold of academia. It’s our job to make this “pipeline” more accessible and remove these barriers tied to social capital. But still, folks gotta know what the career pathway looks like.

**I know of a few people who were K-12 teachers before getting their PhD in a STEM field and them became a professor in a STEM department. (Though think this is common in Education, right?) But in STEM this definitely not a standard approach and the capacity to do so often involves leveraging a substantial amount of financial and familial privilege. This seems to be a little more common for community college positions, maybe?

Gender inequity at every step of publishing

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I sat down to my laptop this morning and was looking forward to getting to work. But then I looked at the news.

And I saw this:

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) came out with a report last week about biases against women in the publication process. The highlights — or rather, the lowlights — are in the story in Nature about this report. It’s a one-minute read, please read it. Continue reading

Retooling at mid-career

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At mid-career, a lot of the research techniques and approaches that people in use today today didn’t exist when we were in grad school.

When I started my own lab around the turn of the century, we didn’t have R but there was S, microsatellites were a cutting edge technology replacing allozymes, the browser we used was Netscape Navigator, GPS units couldn’t get a read through a dense forest canopy, phones were only used for calling people, the number of genomes we had sequenced was around zero, and Transcriptomics might have been a ska band.

This post tells you about a couple routes for funding to retool.

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Academic advising by tenure-track faculty

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Based on some recent conversations, I’m realizing that an underappreciated piece of professoring is academic advising. I don’t think I’ve written about it on here yet (?), but a substantial piece of work by faculty in our department is advising our majors. Just like the unseen labor of writing recommendation letters, doing quality academic advising is very important but how much and how well we do this (or not) generally gets overlooked.

If you’re at a small liberal arts college or a smaller regional state university, then you probably are doing a lot of advising. Continue reading

Look in your own backyard

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Metaphorically, that is.

What can you do to increase the representation of minoritized people in your department and in your lab?

Well, the big answer to the question is that anything worthwhile takes work. This is not just worthwhile, it’s important. So, it will require effort on your part. And it means challenging yourself to learn new things, and instead of just adopting new practices, but are open to a new mindset, which means aligning your actions with your values. That’s hard work.

But do you want an easy win? Do you want a practical piece of advice, about something you can do that will work? Continue reading

Recommended reads #159

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Hitman 2’s new game lets you quit being an assassin and become an ornithologist: “Here’s how it works: After using your trusty piano wire to kill an ornithologist and swap into his cargo shorts and binoculars, all you have to do is press X to toss aside your silenced pistol, point out the nest of a plum-throated cotinga to your research assistant, and embark on a full-fledged research career in the King’s College Avian Biology Department.”

Color me surprised. A new study claims that in laboratory-oriented fields, mentoring from postdocs is impactful for PhD students, but not for mentoring from the PI. And that PI tend to ignore established best practices for mentoring, and just go from the hip based on their own prior personal experiences. (As a disclaimer, I haven’t actually read this article, by the way, just saying what the abstract and folks have been saying. Since it’s in a fancy journal, be primed to expect big claims that may or may not be appropriately generalized from the actual findings.)

Working from affirmation, not for affirmation. Continue reading

Be careful with human examples when teaching animal behavior

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You may or may not have heard of this weekend’s debacle from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (They promoted a paper using images of women appearing to have an orgasm. Though the paper was an ovulation experiment in rabbits. Do they have any women involved in the social media process over there? Yikes.)  I hold the new EIC in high regard, and I imagine she’ll get to the bottom of this. But it reminds me of a thing I’ve been meaning to address here for a while.

I suspect a lot of us are teaching animal behavior and behavioral ecology very badly, whenever it comes to our own species. Continue reading

Reviewing manuscripts as an early career scientist

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I find this weird, but apparently, some journals in some academic fields don’t allow grad students or postdocs to serve as peer reviewers. I do get the idea that professional experience and expertise should be required to conduct a peer review. They’re called “peer” reviews for a reason.

Then, the question is: are early career scientists our peers? Continue reading

Do R1s or PUIs have higher research expectations?

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Well, of course, major research institutions (R1s) expect more research to come out of their labs than primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs). But, after you take into account the circumstances of each kind of position, who experiences a higher relative demand for research productivity? At which kind of institution is it harder to meet the scholarship criteria for tenure?

Well, let’s compare various factors related to research productivity at these kinds of institutions*.

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Recommended reads #158

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A very nice paper on efficient teaching, showing how small tweaks can result in big educational gains.

“Dr. Kathryn Milligan-Myhre works in the field of host-microbe interactions. In this mSphere of Influence article, she reflects on the people and scientific ideas that influenced her journey from a small town in Alaska to a faculty position at the University of Alaska Anchorage.”

If you are, like me, someone who studies things that are not humans and you’re interested in studying humans, you absolutely need to talk to people who do that for a living.” Continue reading

On unearned authorship by advisors of graduate students

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Authorship is weird.  As an instrument to attribute of credit, it’s far too coarse whenever the number of authors is greater than one.

Authorship is a slippery concept, because you can’t really define what constitutes a substantial contribution, in a way that can apply generally. Continue reading