A departmental retreat from another dimension

Standard

I once participated in a departmental retreat from the Twilight Zone. Or it might have taken place in an alternate-universe wormhole.

Details are fuzzy, but when I searched my google calendar, I found it still sitting there, way back from Spring 2006. There I remember a few things with uncommon clarity, on account of the weirdness. Continue reading

Ants With Superhero Powers and Real Ant-People

Standard

As an ant man, I’m psyched for the release of Ant-Man.

There are so many ants with real superpowers, that we know about because of amazing Real Ant People, genuine ant savants. Let me tell you about some ants with amazing superpowers.

Two classic superhero powers of ants are flight and invisibility. Continue reading

Public scientists, the twitterverse, thought police, feminism, and the fanatical mob

Standard

I’m on vacation. But while I was posting a few photos on social media (amazing National Parks and a wooden carving of bigfoot drinking a beer) I stumbled on some extended silliness among fellow scientists that I want to discuss. Luckily, I woke up early, my family is sleeping in, so here goes.

A very-routine event has somehow caused some a great worry: A famous person said something rather hideous. This hideous opinion was put in quotes and got circulated on twitter. A storm-of-righteous-indignation built on twitter, and spilled over onto facebook and other media outlets. Within a few days, this famous person got “in trouble,” insofar as a famous and powerful person can genuinely get in trouble for voicing a contemptuous opinion.

This is a very common story. It’s a little different because of the specifics: Continue reading

Universities that work hard to subvert student rights with FERPA waivers

Standard

Imagine this scene: A professor at work gets a phone call.

Phone Voice: Hi, I’m the parent of Bill Smith, a student in your intro class.

Professor: Um, hi..?

Phone Voice: Bill was upset about the score he got on a quiz last week, and he thought some of the questions were unfair.

Professor: I’m sorry but I’m prevented from discussing a student’s academic records under the protection of FERPA [the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act].

Phone Voice: But I am his parent and Bill told me it was okay to speak with you about it.

Professor: That might be true, but without evidence of a FERPA waiver signed by the student, I can’t have this conversation.

Phone Voice: Oh, we had that waiver form signed at orientation.

Professor: Whuaaa?

Phone Voice: During an orientation session together with our son, the university presented to him a waiver form to sign to waive access to FERPA. It’s on record. I can email a copy if you want.

Professor: I prefer the student talk to me about his own grades.

Phone Voice: I realize that, but I have the right to discuss his grades with you and I’d like to talk about question three on the quiz. Continue reading

The acceptances that weren’t acceptances

Standard

Chatting with people at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, the topic from a recent post came up: that journals have cut back on “accept with revisions” decisions.

There was a little disagreement in the comments. Now, on the basis of some conversations, I have to disagree with myself. Talking with three different grad students, this is what I learned:

Some journals are, apparently, still regularly doing “accept-with-revisions.” And they also then are in the habit of rejecting those papers after the revisions come in. Continue reading

This one simple trick to help fight the male scientist stereotype

Standard

This week, I did my one of my first ever phone-interviews with a reporter for a story about black widows in grapes. I was really nervous about being quoted (what if I say something that sounds stupid, or worse, is wrong?) but I agreed to do the interview anyway. Despite my fears, I made this decision for a couple of reasons. I am passionate about spiders and science communication and I think it’s really important to do what I can to correct misconceptions that are often presented in the media. I absolutely want to take every opportunity to provide accurate information about spiders (especially the ones I study) to the public. Furthermore, I think that I have an obligation to do this because taxpayers pay for my research and training, at least in part.

It wasn’t until I thought a bit about it after I gave the interview that I realized there is another really good reason for me to say yes to interview requests from the media. News stories about spiders come up pretty frequently. If a spider expert is quoted in these stories, I often see familiar names: Rick Vetter, Chris Buddle, Robb Bennett (arachnologists who are all doing a fantastic job educating people about spiders). I just did a quick google search for the word arachnologist under “News” and found several more names on the first page or so of hits. With two exceptions (both of which were stories about recent spider research with quotes from study authors) all of the spider experts quoted have one thing in common: they are white men.

Is it possible that this is simply a representative sample of available experts? Maybe… but let’s check. If you google “list of arachnologists” the first hit is a wiki page with a list of arachnologists who are original describers of spider species… not super useful for finding a living expert. The second relevant hit brings you to a page on Arachnological Society of America’s website, listing arachnologists willing to train graduate students. That seems like a more reasonable sample. There are 11 women and 37 men on the list. So assuming this is a representative sample of the population of senior arachnologists, about 23% of available experts are women. I’d be willing to bet that among more junior scientists who study spiders (like me), there are even more women – probably much closer to 50%. Take for example the members of the lab I’ll be joining this fall: 8 of 10 are women.

I’m personally interested in these numbers because I’ve had variations of the following conversation several times, and it’s getting pretty old. It goes something like this:

Man: “So what do you do?”

Me: “I’m a scientist! I study sexual communication in spiders.”

Man: “That’s an unusual career choice for a woman.”

In the past, I haven’t known how to respond to this because I didn’t have actual data on which to base a statement like “actually, XX% of arachnologists are women”. The data (at least for professors) turn out not to look that great, but I think it’s fair to say that female arachnologists are not particularly unusual. Anyway, the men in these conversations often go on to talk about how women in general or some women they know are afraid of spiders. I get that one of the reasons they think it’s strange for me to be a scientist who studies spiders is that women are more likely to be arachnophobic than men (it’s still an untrue stereotype that most or all women are afraid of spiders, but whatever). But it’s a fact that most people think of scientists in general as men. I recently read a piece about the male scientist stereotype and some thoughts on how to kill it on The Conversation. You should read it.

Women are just not seen as often as men talking about science in the media. Think about science TV shows – how many can you name that are hosted by women? A while back I attended a great talk by Dr. Jennifer Gardy for Ada Lovelace Day, and this was one of the things she talked about. Her main message was that things are (very slowly) getting better for women in science, but she made a bunch of suggestions about how to help continue to improve. One was related to increasing the diversity of scientists represented in popular media. Dr. Gardy regularly agrees to do media interviews, and she also occasionally hosts the CBC TV show The Nature of Things. Her advice to the women in the audience was to always say yes (when possible) to interviews. It’s a small thing, but I think it’s one important way to work toward improving diversity in science. If, for example, a girl sees a scientist who looks like her on TV, that could be the first time she realizes that becoming a scientist is something she could do. It just might help encourage her to aspire to become a scientist one day, and that would be awesome.

So great, if you’re a woman and/or a person of colour, saying yes to interviews is a good thing to do. What if you’re not? No problem! I’m definitely not saying that white dudes should avoid giving interviews. But what if you get asked to give an interview and you can’t? Do you suggest a colleague or student the journalist could ask? You almost certainly know some women who would be great choices. Suggest one of them! Even if you can do the interview but you know the journalist will probably be interviewing other experts too, why not suggest a woman they could talk to as well? Simple!

So that interview I gave about spiders this week? It was one of two that I gave, for different stories. Originally, Professor Chris Buddle was asked to give interviews by two journalists (he’s their go-to arachnologist, because he’s done interviews with them before and is always happy to talk about spiders), and he had to turn them down. He gave them both my name, and they contacted me. That easy! It’s not the first time he’s given my name to a reporter, but it’s the first time I said yes. I was busy visiting family last time, but I probably could have made it work – mostly I was afraid, but now I know it’s not so scary! I will be saying yes to interview requests whenever I can in the future. It’s a simple thing to do, and it’s important.

When K-12 teachers assign students to contact experts

Standard

I’m super-enthusiastic about K-12 science education, and working with K-12 teachers and students*. When a student wants to talk science with me, I’m over the moon. That doesn’t mean I’m as drunk as a cat on catnip whenever a K-12 student emails me a question. Continue reading

Dear students, a member of the class asked…

Standard

This is a post by Catherine Scott.

I am TAing a first year introductory Ecology/Evolution course this semester, and the laboratory exam is coming up on Tuesday. I’m spending a lot of time this weekend emailing the entire class list messages that start, “Dear students, a member of the class asked…” I go on to list the (anonymized) question, and my answer. I copied this technique from a great professor I had for an invertebrate zoology course. As an extremely shy undergraduate student who never once went to an office hour or emailed a professor or TA with a question, I really appreciated this approach. Continue reading

Efficient teaching: improving student writing ability

Standard

Last week’s post was about university writing requirements that fall ludicrously short of their goal, like how this ferret falls short of his goal:

Let’s assume two facts:

  1. We should expect good writing of our students.
  2. Good writing comes from lots of experience with writing.

Which results in the following inference:

It is incumbent on us to require lots of writing from students in our classes. Continue reading

Should ecologists teach writing?

Standard

I could start this post with a back-in-my-day story and bemoan the state of student writing today but I think you can probably fill in the blanks without me hashing out a familiar tale*. Sufficed to say for a ecological methods course I team teach, we’re finding that the quality of writing from the students is poor. The course includes a major project where the students design and execute a survey for insects, birds or plants and culminates in a written report in scientific paper style. Continue reading

The importance of storytelling

Standard

Much of my time lately has been consumed with two seemingly unrelated activities: reading job applications and reviewing conference papers.

Reading job applications requires me to evaluate a person’s credentials, teaching and research experience, letters of recommendation, and countless other intangibles—all on paper—to determine whether this person might “fit” what we are looking for in a colleague.

Reviewing conference papers requires me to evaluate the validity and importance of the research question, the soundness of the science, the relevance of the results, and the correctness of the interpretation of the results, to determine whether this paper “fits” the definition of “good science” as well as the scope of the conference.

There is one key commonality between them: in both cases, it’s very important that the author tells a good story. Continue reading

A conversation that can help protect your students

Standard

A student recently dropped by to tell me about an exciting opportunity. She was going to spend a few weeks doing research in a gorgeous location, camping with a field crew led by the professor who taught her Intro course last semester.

I asked her how much the job paid, and she said it was a volunteer gig, but the opportunity of this short trip would would be worth it on its own. And she would be getting academic credit.

I had more questions. Continue reading

The academic cold contact

Standard

A lot of science that gets done these days results from collaboration. Collaborations can come about it a multitude of ways. Of course there is the classic networking approach. You know someone they know, or you meet at a conference or a departmentally hosted seminar. But what do you do when you’d like to collaborate with a person/group that you haven’t met? As my research expands, I am finding myself making contact with people I don’t know more frequently. Hence the academic cold contact. Continue reading

Dead grandmothers no more: the equal accommodation classroom

Standard

Let me tell two anecdotes to put the Dead Grandmother Syndrome in perspective.

I remember when I was a student in Evolutionary Biology in my junior year of college. Right before the midterm, I got really sick with the flu. I felt like hell and doing normal things seemed like a physical impossibility. If I took the miderm, I would have gotten a horrible score, only because I was so darn sick. Continue reading

Students say the darndest things!

Standard

Oftentimes, professors make sport of sharing humorously incorrect exam answers. I’ve seen a bunch of these during this end-of-semester grading season.

When students don’t know the answer, they sometimes entertain us with witty, technically correct answers that don’t answer the intended question. (There’s a well-selling book about this. And at least one website, too). But that’s not what I’m talking about. Continue reading

Why I don’t use my campus email address

Standard

What good things does an institutional email address do for you? Here is a list:

  • It gives you legitimacy. If you’re working at Important University, then people know this from your email address.

And that’s the end of the list.

What not-so-good things come with your institutional email address*?

  • It is ephemeral. If you are a student or postdoc, then you know there will be a day, not that far away, that emails to you at this address will bounce back to the sender.
  • It is subject to the changing tides of university IT office policies, support, and archiving practices.
  • In theory, and perhaps in practice, it can be read others in your university, (whereas all of your email can be read by big corporations even if you use your university account).

Continue reading

Social media: what is it good for?

Standard

For better or worse, I am the only person in my department who engages regularly in social media. Blogging here, reading other blogs (and occasionally commenting), chatting on twitter…over the last year or so these have become regular activities for me. So for our informal seminar series, I decided to talk about using social media as a scientist. Continue reading

The conference hangover

Standard

This week I definitely had a ‘hangover’. Two weeks of meetings* left me a strange mixture of excited, enthusiastic, invigorated and completely drained. I have lots of new ideas and enjoyed both making new connections and reconnecting with others. But I can forget how drained I can feel after such intense social activity, even if I don’t travel far. Continue reading

The statistics of busy, or the management of approachability

Standard

In one Seinfeld episode, George puts on an annoyed busy-all-the-time act at work. Consequently, nobody bothered him with work.

Academia is a cult of busy. We all are very busy, and often complain about it when we shouldn’t. However, being busy is part of becoming more efficient. Continue reading

Vocabulary, teaching, and being understood

Standard

English is a crazy language, with an exceptional number of grammatical conventions, and required exceptions to the conventions. And that doesn’t even explain the senselessness of pronunciation.

There are many ways of saying the same thing, with different shades of meaning. By choosing words carefully, we can increase accuracy and precision of meaning.

This can present a dilemma while teaching, and interacting with students. Continue reading

Active learning is flexible and designed to reach the reticent

Standard

I’ve gotten positive feedback about a post in which I explain how it’s not that much work for me to do active learning in the classroom. However, a couple entirely reasonable misgiving seem to crop up, and I’d like to give my take on those causes for reluctance to start up with active learning approaches. Continue reading