Does your campus allow Federal Work Study awards for undergraduate research?

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I used to have Work-Study students doing research in my lab, when I was visiting faculty at Gettysburg College. Then I got a job somewhere else, and I couldn’t do that anymore.

The university where I now work does not assign Work-Study students to work with professors, just like my previous employer. There was a clear institutional policy that prohibited using Federal Work-Study awards to fill undergraduate research positions. Continue reading

A mountain of progress still needed for equity in science

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Most senior scientists aren’t from ethnic backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences, and don’t train many scientists from these backgrounds either. The day-to-day issues facing black and Latino students in the US might be on the minds of people in charge, but the people in charge don’t face the same day-to-day challenges.

I haven’t experienced those problems myself (as a tenured white dude), though I do I work in a minority-serving and Hispanic-serving institution. So, it’s my job to understand and to do what I can to provide the best opportunities for my students.

Nonetheless, mentoring students from underrepresented groups doesn’t validate one’s ideas about equity and diversity in science. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the recent comments of Michael Rich, the PhD advisor of Neil deGrasse Tyson (who is arguably the most famous living scientist, and definitely the most famous living black scientist):

I think my colleagues would agree that no overt barriers based on race, gender, etc. remain. (In fact, incoming graduate classes tend to be 50-50 in terms of gender and there are many special programs to help under represented minorities.)

Now, before we decry Dr. Rich for being horribly wrong, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he might have been on crack, or stoned, or taking psychotropic mediation when he wrote that. It’s also possible that he was jet lagged from space-time travel from an alternate universe and he hadn’t gotten his bearings settled back to our own dimension.

But if he wasn’t on drugs or returning from another reality, then he’s bearing a massive anchor of delusion and seclusion. I guess he hasn’t asked any black men, any women or Latinos about how they feel about overt barriers. I guess he hasn’t chatted much with his famous former PhD student.

Dr. Rich observes a 50:50 ratio of men to women in graduate classes, but he’s not bothering to look at the proportion of women in permanent academic positions. Or how many women are selected to win awards.

Dr. Rich sees special programs for minorities, but he is ignoring the conditions that necessitate these programs. Black Americans comprise more than 12% of our population. So, I’m guessing that the proportion of black students in his program is at least ten percent, right? Are 10% of senior scientists black?

Oh, there’s a helluva lot of work to do. We are nowhere near equity. This is so damn obvious that I feel stupid even writing it.

But I have to write it, because Michael Rich, and those who share his views, aren’t just failing to fix the problem. They are part of the problem we need to fix. Those of us who are pushing up from the grassroots for equity and access need those senior faculty to validate the need for change. Those of us who are training students at the K-12 and undergraduate levels need people in graduate programs to not only recognize, but take concrete steps, to support and recruit minority students starting their science careers.

A lot of senior scientists feel just like Dr. Rich. I’ve heard it far too often. We need to inoculate the current generation of scientists in training against these toxic views of Dr. Rich. It’s probably too late to change Dr. Rich’s mind, as there’s nothing we can say that his famous former graduate student hasn’t already said or embodied. But we can keep pushing to move this mountain shovel by shovel. And we can advocate for heavy equipment that can really move the mountain.

In my undergrad years, my college president was a unicorn. Or, something almost as unique as a unicorn: A black electrical engineer. From Kansas. The story of John Slaughter is mighty amazing. When he recounted his path, from childhood, to grad school, to professor, to university president, I was both inspired and amazed by his tenacity in an environment that was unrelentingly opposed towards his progress in the direction of his choice.

Dr. Slaughter has long been retired. In the emerging generation of STEM leaders, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is yet another unicorn.

If one of my black students ends up being a global ambassador for her discipline, will she be a unicorn?

According to Dr. Rich, those problems have already been fixed. Of course, he’s flat out wrong, though I wish he wasn’t.

Public higher education is not a reward for hard work

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Here in California, there was a measure to officially restore affirmative action to the public university admissions process.

(The movement navigated through our state senate, but then the popular narrative is that the Asian-American community tanked it before public had a chance to vote on it. More here.)

Whenever white folks (or non-Hispanic European, or whatever ‘white’ means nowadays) are opposed to affirmative action, they’re called out on privilege and are told to share fairly with everybody.  This is justifiable in my view. Now, in California, the politicians associated with the Asian community are allied with the white folks that are against affirmative action. Considering that there is no shortage of Asian-Americans getting into our public universities, concerns about privilege should be extended to this demographic category as well.

The status quo remains: we continue to have an underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in our public universities in California.

Some people get upset because affirmative action decreases their own opportunity. (I know how this feels. In my high school class, the only white person who got into UC Berkeley was the valedictorian. But everybody who was a member of one of the protected categories got in. (This was a small number, because I was at a mostly white private school. I wasn’t poor by any measure, but I was one of the poorest kids at this school.) I didn’t like it, because I didn’t think it was fair. And, well, life isn’t fair. That’s especially true for people who have don’t have avenues for opportunity despite hard work. Like the students who are systematically excluded from our public universities.

Taxpayers should fund K-12 public education because in a civil society, education should be a right and not a privilege. Moreover, we want an educated populace for the betterment of our entire community. And education for everybody in an equitable fashion is an engine of prosperity.

The same principle applies to our public universities.

As a taxpayer in California, I am not (partially) funding the undergraduate education of students because they worked hard. I don’t want to use my money to reward people who deserve it. I’m not giving out prizes for performance. I don’t want my state legislators to do that either.

I want to spend our public dollars in a way that improves the welfare of the state and its populace. I want a state that provides the best education to all of its people. I want my kid to go to school with students that all have a real chance to attend our state’s top universities. And frankly, without affirmative action, most of the children in our school district will have a hard time getting into UC Berkeley because of the systematic disadvantages that they’ve been facing since fetushood.

So, if you’re mad that someone with extraordinarily high grades can’t get into the publicly funded university of their choice, you can stuff it. I want everybody in the state of California to get admitted to our best universities (whichever ones those might be). If you don’t want to share our state universities with fellow Californians that have experienced a long history of disenfranchisement, then you aren’t deserving of a publicly-funded education.

This issue has nothing to do with immigration. It has nothing to do with “hard work.” It has to do with making sure that those the potential to succeed are given the capacity to do so, and that this happens as equitably as possible. That’s the point of affirmative action, because if you base admissions based on grades and test scores, you are perpetuating an inequity. If you don’t see the inequities among our public schools based on socioeconomic and ethnic dividing lines, you’re blind. Without affirmative action, we codify these inequities into the access to universities.

Even the opponents of affirmative action understand this point, unless they’re stupid or ignorant. But they might not like it because it hurts their own demographic group. Yeah, my kid (of Irish-Italian-German-British heritage) has a lower chance of getting into his favorite UC campus because of his background. And I’m okay with that. Because I want him to inherit a state in which people of all backgrounds have access to opportunity, even when they come from underfunded school districts whose students lack a way to get ahead. As people have explained for many decades, you can’t pull yourself by your bootstraps if you don’t have any boots. This is self-evident to all but those with boots.

Since we’ve been failing at providing equal access to quality public education at the K-12 level, the least we can do is to try to make things more fair when it comes to access to higher education.

It’s not about how hard your kid has worked. It’s about the priorities for our state. I don’t want a state that systematically disenfranchises major segment of its populace. I guess if you do want that systematic disenfranchisement, then feel free to fight affirmative action. But don’t try to fool yourself by arguing that it’s about fairness and equity. That’s a transparent sham. If you buy into the fairness and equity argument, then you need to spend some time volunteering in a high-need public school district to remove your blinders of privilege.

 

All faculty need academic freedom to protect their students

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Sometimes I hear questions like, “Why is academic freedom so important? Why should university professors should have total control over what they teach?”

Let me answer those questions with a cautionary tale.

Last semester, a shortage of academic freedom in one department at my university caused what can only be characterized as a tragic boondoggle. This is causing an entire cohort of students to graduate one year late.

Over fifty Biology majors were enrolled in the second semester of General Chemistry. An adjunct lecturer planned and taught this course. The tenure-track faculty in Chemistry implemented their own common internal exam to be administered to all General Chemistry students. The instructor was not privy to the contents of this exam while she was teaching this course. Consequently, over the entire semester, the lectures and homework assignments did not correspond to the material that the students were tested on at the end of the course.

The students, who had been performing well throughout the semester, were blindsided with an exam that looked nothing like they had been studying for the whole semester. This class historically has a pass rate exceeding 80%. Last semester, however, more than 80% of the students failed. The instructor of record for this course, who taught the whole semester, did not apparently have authority over the grading of the exams, nor final authority over the grades that she was directed to submit to the university. This sounds outrageous, but also sounds like the only sensible explanation for what transpired.

Most of these students clearly did not deserve to fail. They did not deserve an exam that did not reflect the content of the course itself. They deserved an instructor who has the authority to control the grades assigned in the course.

The chair of the department is not making any accommodation for the students who got screwed over in her department. The chair claims that the students simply weren’t prepared for the exam. I don’t dispute that fact, but in this circumstance the lack of student preparation is the fault of the Chemistry department, not the students. The students fulfilled the academic expectations of the instructor, but that had no connection to their grade. That is flat-out unethical.

The consequences of this F go well beyond this single course. None of the students can retake the course this semester, because those sections were filled by those who passed preceding course in the sequence.

The soonest these victims can retake the course is one year after they were originally enrolled, but now we have twice as many students trying to take this course and the Chemistry Department refused to offer any additional sections to its victims from last semester.

This course is a prerequisite to Organic Chemistry, which is a prerequisite for other courses. Nearly all of our majors in this section – more than fifty students – are now going to graduate at least one year later than they had planned.

What’s the worst part of all this? It happened two months ago, and as far as I can tell, the only people who aware and troubled are the ones who have no power to change anything.

If any of our students had families donating large sums of money to the school, this situation would have been resolved lickety-split. If anybody with authority in Chemistry actually cared about the students, this would have been fixed before the semester ended. If department had any confidence in their trained contingent faculty, then this unjust situation wouldn’t have emerged.

The students can file a grade grievance, but that won’t fix the problem. It takes at least a year for that process to go through the system. (I served once as a “preliminary investigator” for a grade grievance claim, and the incident happened three semesters earlier.)

You might ask, “Aren’t common exams an effective way to make sure that there is consistency in grading when section are taught by different instructors?” The answer to that question is yes. However, that consistency has a price. In this case, the price is reasonable academic progress for scores of students. Keep in mind that most of our students work long hours in addition to a full class load, and also have substantial family concerns at home. Being in school is a great challenge, and we just made made the climb to graduation even steeper.

The required use of common exams deprives instructors of the academic freedom to evaluate their own students.

If similar events had taken place in any of the three private institutions in which I’ve taught (as adjunct, visiting, and tenure-track), this disgrace would be unthinkable and scandalous. There would be mass protest. But at this disadvantaged university, it’s just one more injustice.

At this point, I’m not even sure if our administrators are aware of this incident. I have a huge amount of confidence in the Dean and the President, who I imagine would do everything they can to resolve this situation, insofar as it is possible. The fact that this problem wasn’t a howling and yelling crisis at their doorstep at the end of last semester is a sad testament to the fact that our students are just accustomed to being disempowered, and they just roll with being wronged. It’s our job, as faculty, to prevent these wrongs from at the outset. That starts with giving all instructors that academic freedom over their own workload.

If any instructor is good enough to be hired as to teach for the university, then they’re good enough to be trusted by the university to carry out their job independently. Any department that lacks the faith that its own instructors can teach appropriately has huge problems that can’t be fixed by imposing a top-down exam.

As a postscript, I should note that common exams are not always a disaster, though I think they are inadvisable. In grad school, I used to teach three sections in a class that had more than 40 sections. All of the TAs gave the same exam, and we had little control over this exam. We didn’t even get to see it until a few days before we taught, because it was a practicum set up at the last moment. I see the need for consistency among sections taught by graduate students with little to not teaching experience. I don’t see the need, however, for this particular solution.

How the heck was I supposed to know what to teach when I didn’t know the basis on which students were going to be evaluated? This was obviously a problem for students. (I also lacked the experience and professionalism to deal with this situation effectively.) This was mostly an annoyance, though, and the students did just fine in the end as best as I can recall. The lab was not overly detailed, and the exams weren’t overly idiosyncratic. As a novice instructor, I found the system to be unfair to both myself and the students. If instructors are teaching a course, they should be able to construct or choose their own evaluation. If for some reason that doesn’t happen, at the very least the faculty need to know exactly what is in exams before the start of the semester.

I grew up poor.

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There are two inspirations for my post. First, a conversation over at Tenure She Wrote is really worth reading. Sarcozona started it up with a great post on poverty in the ivory tower and Acclimatrix has added to the conversation with her own personal musings about coming from poverty and class struggles with family. Both are really wonderful/powerful posts and I highly recommend reading them. One thing that struck me was Sarcozona’s call for people to talk about their own experience with poverty. So here I am.

The second inspiration is that I’m currently traveling (a sign of how far I’ve come). I wanted to attend a conference in California, which is 9 hours time difference from where I live in Sweden. Being someone effected by jetlag, that sounded nearly impossible. So I stopped off in Nova Scotia to spend time with my family and give my daughter a chance to see them all too. Then I travelled on alone for the conference. Being home is always a time to reflect on where I come from, and makes these thoughts come even more naturally.

So my confession is that I also grew up poor. It isn’t something I hide but it also isn’t something I talk about often. My parents were teenagers when they had me and so it is difficult to actually talk about my childhood with any generalizations; my parents were growing up as I did. We moved around a lot, they changed jobs and roles, and we didn’t stay poor forever. I never knew the feeling of going to bed hungry and there was always lots of love and fun when I was a kid, so I didn’t feel poor. But we were. I didn’t have the latest, well, most things. A small example is that I had to make do with hand-me-down clothes from my cousin. I can still remember the mix of excitement and dread when those big boxes showed up. Excitement to see what there was but dread because I wouldn’t have much choice in what I would wear for the next year, even if it wasn’t to my liking. We also lived in houses without electricity or running water from when I was about age two to seven. Although there were lots of hippies getting back to the land in Nova Scotia when my parents were, living without modern conveniences and growing your own food was more of a necessity than a social experiment for them.

In many ways my younger years were really magical and for me and my brother, it was often a big adventure. We spent huge amounts of time wandering around in the woods and fields that surrounded the various houses we lived in. I’m sure my deep routed appreciation for the natural world can be directly attributed to the freedom (sometimes/many times forced: “Go play outside!”) I had to explore it. Our vacations were also outside/cheap. We either visited relatives or went camping. As kids, we loved the camping trips, even if it was hard to compare with vacations to Disney that the some of the other kids at school talked about.

Although my family’s financial situation was stable by the time I went to university, they didn’t have a fund to support me to go to school (I have the student loans to prove that). Although there was no pressure in any particular direction I think financial security drove most of my early university education decisions. I wanted to go into healthcare or something that would ensure I got a ‘good’ job afterwards. I started university for a semester and then quit because I couldn’t manage it even with a partial scholarship and a job. I went back to university after working for a couple of years—it allowed me to apply for a loan independently of my parents and therefore be able to afford it. My parents didn’t have the money to help me out with university but made too much for me to qualify for full loans (although to be fair it was me that decided on a university on the other side of the country and I could have stayed in Halifax instead). Even with loans, I worked a lot during my undergraduate years and it took me about six years to finish my degree. I remember seeing opportunities for things like field courses and exchange programs but there was no way I could afford them. I was lucky to get to work with some labs locally and those experiences steered me on the path to research. However, I was jealous of some of the things my richer peers were able to do.

These days, I’m the richest I’ve ever been and my parents are no longer poor either. I don’t want to glorify my childhood but it did instil an appreciation for nature, good healthy food, and getting by with what you have. But I’m happy for my and my parents’ financial freedom. It allows us to travel the distances between us more easily and I don’t worry about grocery bills like I did as an undergrad. I’m glad that my daughter is growing up in a different way than I did. Perhaps more importantly, I’m happy that as a parent, I don’t have to worry so much about money as they did. But having so little at times, meant that a grad school salary actually felt rich to me and I’m amazed that we were able to buy a row house this past year. In some ways the skills I learned from being poor as a kid and then as an undergraduate has made the relatively lower salary I have as a scientist quite manageable for me. But it does mean that I had a very different experience from many of my fellow grad students. I thought seriously about paying for conference travel at times, although for the first time ever my grad school salary was enough to grow a savings account. Having to buy my own car for fieldwork made an impact and money factored into my working locally instead of elsewhere like many I went to grad school with. I don’t mean to say that others were basing their research decisions on their personal funds but it made me nervous to plan a field season far away, not knowing whether I could fund it or not. So my upbringing and relationship to money did/does factor in to how I approach funding research. Mentally, I have a hard time draining accounts (personal or research) because it feels safer to have something tucked away for a ‘rainy day’. So sometimes my reluctance to spend when I have little is something I need to overcome with my research budgets.

Wandering around downtown Halifax has also emphasized some of the relative poverty I came from. It seems like there are lot more empty storefronts then the last time I was here. Nova Scotia is a ‘have not’ province and I’m sure that affects the kinds of opportunities available for students growing up. I certainly noticed a difference when I moved from the county schools I had been attending to the city schools I started in at age 12 (we moved to Halifax then). I had a lot of really amazing teachers who helped lay the foundations for my science career but I’m guessing their access to supplies, etc. was determined by limited budgets in a poorer province. Having grown up poor also means that I walked through a raging snowstorm in downtown Halifax with my four-year old daughter because for some reason I still think paying for a cab is excessive (by the time we came home, we couldn’t have got one anyway because of the road conditions). It was actually quite fun to walk through a shutdown city in the snow and I’m still amazed at what a little trooper my girl can be. But it is a reminder that no matter how different my life is, some things are hard to change.

Why I write with my own name

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This post was written in concert with four others on the same topic, which can be found at this link on Hope Jahren’s site.

When you click on “about,” you see my unveiled face and my real name. Some of my credibility – and the lack thereof – comes from who I am and what I have done. It’s self-evident that the identity of the messenger affects how the message is received.

It is my hope that my identity gives more credence to my words. If I talk the talk, then I’d like to show that I walk the walk. If I write about research productivity, then I need to show that I actually, you know, publish. If I write about mentorship, then a cranky person can track down my students. Of course, any writer should be judged by one’s words and not by one’s credentials. So, the credence that I might get from my identity would only be temporarily bought, from the population that is unfamiliar with the mores of the pseudonymous science “blogosphere.” That turns out to be most people.

Before I started blogging, I did a little bit of amateur sociological fieldwork. I learned that most people don’t read blogs on a regular basis. I learned that a visit to a blog can be like arriving at an intimate party where you don’t know anybody. In contrast, I want my blog to be approachable to everybody. I want to be the guy who walks over to the front door, says “Hi, I’m Terry. Come on in. Can I get you something to drink? Let me introduce you to these folks.” I want every single blog post to be able to stand on its own, and to not make any references to other people or other blogs that aren’t fully understandable to a novice.

And I want people to know who is addressing them. It’s more approachable to guests who just put their foot through the front door. I’ve written more here about my approach to running my site so that it is transparent, professional, and inclusive. I’m not claiming that my approach is better than others, but I try to be different in a way that, I hope, broadens the audience.

Compared to most other bloggers, it’s easy for me to be public: I represent the trifecta of privilege as a tenured white man. And I’m straight. I don’t have to worry about the job market anymore, and I won’t be attacked because of my gender or ethnicity, like some of my colleagues.

It’s my duty to use this relative comfort to agitate for change. It’s the best and most important part of my job.

I am the great grandchild of wops and micks who immigrated into a low-income ethnic enclave of New York City. I fight a similar battle as my great grandparents, not for myself but on behalf of my students. My lab is mostly composed of students from traditionally underrepresented groups, from low-income backgrounds, who are often the first in their families to attend college. Every day, I work to ameliorate the mountain of prejudice and disadvantage facing my students.

I can stick my neck out on occasion. I can press for student rights, call out bias, and encourage practices that make sure that the future generation of scientists looks like the American populace. My privilege doesn’t come without minor challenges. I need to be clear about my awareness of power differentials and where privilege lies. While I have been working very hard to declare myself as an ally and advocate, I’ve heard far too often that I’m not the right person to advocate for my students. But I won’t shut up, and it’s a challenge that I’m up to, because these things matter.

It’s rare that people accuse me of being out of touch because of my tenured-white-dudeness, but it happens. The last time I touched on the topic of my pseudonymity, I got burned. A formerly-pseudonymous colleague posted my name and picture, right next to a picture of herself with a black eye from a vicious assault, suggesting that attitudes like mine were partly to blame. One commenter remarked that I am a danger to children. My crime was ignorance of the fact that some people have good reasons to use pseudonyms. Like I didn’t know that or something. I was also guilty of not doing a literature search on the history of writing about pseudonymity in the “blogosphere.” You know you’re been shamed when the author has to write a caveat that you’re not actually being shamed.

I’m okay with the occasional potshot because risks are necessary to make change. The real risk is that I am a highly flawed model for the change I wish to see. I write about being an effective professor, but I was denied tenure. I push for more and better mentorship of minority students and women, but I’m a white guy. I write a regular set of posts on efficient teaching but I’m not winning any teaching awards. I write about time management and how to do research with a heavy teaching load, but lately I’ve been in the classroom much less than my departmentmates.

I’d like to help change the environment so that more people find it possible and worthwhile to write with their own names. For some, that environment already, tenuously, exists. This post by tressiemc about her choice to use her own identity is powerful and inspirational. I applaud her courage, and I believe we all stand to gain from it.

Based on the volume of what I’ve written, there is no shortage of people who consider me to be a rube, buffoon, blowhard, or a narcissist. That’s a chance I’ve taken. But these challenges and worries are infinitesimal compared to the truckloads of bunk that my students, and many of my junior colleagues, have to face every day. Because I am capable of using my own name while writing on their behalf, I am.

Tenure denial, seven years later

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Last month, l linked to a series of posts about my job search after tenure denial, and how I settled into my current job.  Here is the promised follow-up to put my tenure denial ordeal, now more than seven years ago, in some deeper context.

As I was getting denied tenure, nobody suggested that tenure denial was actually a blessing. Nevertheless, if anybody would have had the temerity to make such a suggestion, they’d have been right.

I don’t feel a need to get revenge on the people who orchestrated the tenure denial. But if the best revenge is living well, then I’m doing just fine in that department. I’m starting my fourth year as an Associate Professor of Biology in my hometown. Without asking, I was given the green light to go up for promotion to full Professor two years early. In the last few years, I received a university-wide research award and I was elected to a position of honor in my professional society. I feel that all aspects of my work are valued by those who matter, especially the students in my lab. I’ve managed to keep my lab adequately funded, which is no small matter nowadays. Less than a year ago, I started this blog. That’s been working out well.

The rest of my family is also faring well, professionally and personally. We are integrated into the life of our town. We have real friendships, and life is busy, fun and rewarding.

I’m high enough on life that I don’t often reflect on the events surrounding my tenure denial. There’s nothing to be gained by dedicating any synapses to the task. Three years ago, I wrote that hindsight didn’t help me understand why I was denied tenure. One might think that a few more years wouldn’t add additional hindsight. But a recent surprise event put things in perspective.

As part of work for some committees, I’ve been reading a ton of recommendation letters. One of these letters was written for someone who I know quite well, and the letter was written by my former colleague, “Bob.” (I don’t want to out the person for whom the letter was written, so I have to keep things vague.) This letter was both a revelation and a punch to the gut.

Bob was a mentor to me. He was an old hand who knew where the bodies were buried and was an experienced teacher. I knew Bob well, and I thought I understood him. When came upon Bob’s recommendation letter for this other person I know, I was stunned.

Bob primarily wrote in detail about a single and irreparable criticism, and then garnished the letter with faint praise. The two-page letter was written with care. Based on how well I know Bob, or how well I thought I knew him, I am mighty sure that it was not written with any intention of a negative recommendation. (I also happen to know the person about whom the letter was written better than Bob, and it’s also clear that the letter was off the mark.)

Being familiar with Bob’s style, if not his recommendation-writing acumen, I clearly see that he thought he was writing a strong positive letter, short of glowing, and that he was doing a good deed for the person for whom he wrote the letter. He didn’t realize in any way that he was throwing this person under the bus.

How could Bob’s judgment be so clouded? I am pretty sure he merely thought that he was providing an honest assessment to enhance the letter’s credibility. In hindsight, I see that Bob often supported others with ample constructive criticism. (For example, he once gave me a friendly piece of advice, without a dram of sarcasm, that I was making a “huge mistake” by choosing to have only one child.)

It didn’t take long for me to connect some dots.

I remembered something that my former Dean mentioned about his recommendation to the independent college committee (which oddly enough, also included the Dean as a member): the letters from my department were “not positive enough.” (I never had access to any of these letters.) Because my department, and Bob in particular, claimed to support me well, I found this puzzling.

At the time, I suspected that the Dean’s remarks reflected the lack of specific remarks and observations, as most of my colleagues skipped the required task of observing me in the classroom, despite my regular requests. Presumably nobody bothered to visit my classroom because they thought I was meeting their standards.

Then I recalled that one of the few colleagues who actually visited my classroom on a regular basis was Bob. Did his letter for me look like the one that I just read? Did he write that my teaching had some positive attributes, but I that my performance fell short of his standards for a variety of reasons?

Did Bob try to offer some carefully nuanced observations to lend credibility but, instead, inadvertently wrote a hit piece? That seems likely.

Considering the doozy of a letter that he wrote for this other person who I know well, it’s hard to imagine that he even knows how to write a supportive recommendation letter. Since he was my closest mentor and the only other person in my subfield, I’m chilled to think of what he wrote for my secret tenure file.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that my other official mentor wrote a brief, weak, letter, because he couldn’t even spare the time to review the narrative for my tenure file before I submitted it to the department. Thanks to the everlasting memory of gmail, check out what I just dug out of my mailbox:

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So, why was I denied tenure? It’s not Bob’s fault for writing a bad letter. The most parsimonious conclusion is that I just didn’t fit in.

I saw my job differently. At the time, I would have disagreed with that assessment. But now, I see how I didn’t fit. The fact that I didn’t even realize that Bob would be writing bad recommendation letters shows how badly my lens was maladjusted. If I fit in better, I would have been able to anticipate and prepare for that eventuality. I trusted the wrong people and was myopic in a number of ways, including how others saw me. I probably still am too myopic in that regard.

How was I different? I emphasized research more, but I also worked with students in a different manner. Since I’ve left, my trajectory has continued even further away from the emphasis of my old department. I’m teaching less as my research and administrative obligations grow, and my lab’s productivity is greater than could have been tolerated in my old department. My lab is full of extraordinary students that would have been sorely out of place in my old university.

I work in a public university with students whom my former colleagues would call “poor quality.” I am changing more individual lives than I ever could have before, by giving students with few options opportunities that they otherwise could not access.

It is fitting that my current position, at a university that gives second chances to underprepared students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is also a second chance for myself.

I might not have gotten tenure in my last job, but I had lots of opportunities to work with students. These interactions transcended employment; they were mutualistic and some have evolved into friendships. I look on my time there with great fondness, despite the damage that my former colleagues inflicted on me. I am gratified that I made the most in an environment where I didn’t belong.

I hope that it is obvious to those who know me and how I do my job, that my tenure denial does not make me look bad, but makes my former institution look bad. If I were to draw that conclusion at the time it happened, it would seem like, and would have been, sour grapes. Now that more time has passed, I’m inclined to believe the more generous interpretation that others have proffered.

I resisted that interpretation for a long time, because others would correctly point out that I would be the worst person to make such an assessment. I still have that bias, but I also have more information and the perspective of seven years. Is it possible that my post-hoc assessment paints a skewed picture of what happened? Of course; I can’t be objective about what happened. If I have any emotion about that time, it’s primarily relief: not just that I found another job, but that I found one where people make me feel like I belong.

I don’t stay in touch with anybody in my old department, as I snuck away as quietly as possible. Tenure denial is a rough experience, and I didn’t have it in me to maintain a connection with my department mates, even those who claimed to be supportive. We had little in common, other than a love for biology and a love for teaching, but both of those passions manifested quite differently.

I don’t have any special wisdom to offer other professors that have the misfortune of going through tenure denial. Tenure denial was the biggest favor I’ve ever received in my professional life, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else. If it were not for tremendously good luck, I probably would have been writing far grimmer report.

Update: After a couple conversations I realize I should clarify how evaluation letters worked where I was denied. In the system at that time, every professor in the department is required to write an evaluation letter that goes straight into the file. These are all secret evaluations and it’s expected that the candidate is not aware of what is in the letters. If I had the option of asking people to write letters, I don’t think I ever would have asked Bob to write a letter for me, because I had several colleagues who I knew would write me great ones. The surprise about Bob was had the capacity to write such a miserably horrible letter and not even realize it. He is even worse at nuance than I expected.

Disadvantaged students come from disadvantaged universities

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The future of research in the USA requires that we recruit the best possible scientists. As the country gets less and less white, we can’t afford to have fewer and fewer people seeing science as a valid career path. This should be self-evident.

When NSF and NIH throw money at the problem, the money mostly winds up in institutions that don’t have many underrepresented minority (URM) students. It’s no surprise, then, that we haven’t seen a substantial increase in the URM population of career scientists. At least, the increase is meager given the big emphasis over the years.

Most URM students who are brought into active research programs are the token few, who are already interested in research and are prepared to do it. Research institutions can advertise and recruit, and they’ll get research-focused students. So, a small number of prepared and focused URM students become a highly prized commodity among funded researchers. As the stakes get higher for URM students, then the small number of them who already want to do research become even more valuable.

To recruit new URM students into science, you have to recruit URM students into doing science. To increase the actual number of URM students who want to do science, you need to identify those who aren’t interested or ready to do science and make it happen for them. This happens some places, but it’s not the standard approach. Most programs take the easier route, to scrounge for the already-science-focused URM students instead of recruiting new students. It’s easier.

URM students disproportionately come from disadvantaged backgrounds. And disadvantaged students go to disadvantaged universities. Disadvantaged students aren’t to be found in the locations where world-class scientists are trained.  Let me emphasize this point again, because it’s huge:

Disadvantaged students enroll in disadvantaged universities. The URM students that we need to recruit are found in universities that are disconnected from big research training programs.

If you’re serious about recruiting new URM students into science, who otherwise wouldn’t be in science, then you need to build provide opportunities to students at disadvantaged universities. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Genuine recruitment requires serious relationships with students, in which they trust their professors. Students don’t need just an awesome science experience; they need to see science as a viable career path. Once my URM students want to become scientists, their biggest roadblocks are likely to be their own families. Rich experiences, personal relationships and friendships are what makes a difference.

I can tell my students that they have access to certain opportunities far more easily than non-URM students, because they’re a rare and valued commodity. I tell them they could spend a summer doing research in Svalbard, maybe go to Antarctica, or the rainforest, or live in Australia for several months doing climate change research. Or they can spend the summer working in a local NASA facility. And they’re not jumping on board or applying in droves. This is not the thing for which they went to college. What looks like amazing opportunities to me looks like a distraction, and a huge inconvenience, to many URM students. Moreover, many of them literally can’t afford to take a summer research experience with a full stipend, because they’d lose gainful employment in the process.

They’re underrepresented in the sciences for a reason. It’s not that they’re not capable of doing science, it’s that they’re not oriented towards doing it.

To make more URM scientists, you need to make more URM scientists. You’ve got to create them from non-scientists, from people who never saw themselves as scientists. These students aren’t at your research institution. They’re at the technical college. They’re at the regional state university. They’re at the community college. If you’re at a research institution, the exact students that you need to diversify the discipline are not to be found at your institution.

To truly reach out to and recruit new URM students from disadvantaged institutions, you need to directly deal with faculty members who work these students on a daily basis. Their disadvantaged institutions can’t be seen as a mere source of students, but need to be seen as partners in mentorship.

The faculty members at disadvantaged institutions don’t have the capacity for mentoring students like you find at research institutions. They spend more time in the classroom, they don’t have big labs, and they don’t have postdocs and grad students. Research institutions that want URM students from disadvantaged institutions need to be able to help create that capacity. They need to give resources to enable the faculty at URM-serving institutions provide the mentorship that is necessary to create scientists.

There are a variety of “bridges” programs that have been devised to connect up such disadvantaged institutions with research institutions with greater resources. This kind of program, in theory, is exactly what is needed to grow more URM scientists. However, in my limited experience I have found that these bridges have been constructed of poor quality and the foremen don’t pay attention to potholes on the disadvantaged sides of the bridges. When these partnerships are genuine, they work. The disadvantaged institution needs to get plenty of resources to make sure that the required mentorship can happen. This means time, supplies, and travel. And all three cost money. But the lead institution — the advantaged side of the bridge — is inclined to only fund the partner as much as absolutely necessary to keep the bridge from collapsing. And URMs students are not inclined to cross such a rickety bridge.

I hear far too often from people who are running research training programs, who have trouble getting their URM numbers high enough for themselves or their funding agencies. Either recruitment falls short, or retention, or long-term outcomes are inadequate.

For them, my prescription is simple: go to disadvantaged universities which are replete with capable science majors who may have an open disposition to research. Don’t just ask these universities to ship students to you, but build genuine relationships with the faculty and students at these universities to provide mentorship opportunities. This takes time, it takes effort, and it takes money. The good and important things, though, shouldn’t come easily.

Income inequality predicts science test scores, but not the way you might imagine

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More than half of all children attending public schools in the United States are living in poverty. As the unequal distribution of wealth has become new norm, science education has stagnated. Perhaps these two might be connected to one another, reflecting a global pattern among developed nations?

Think again:

GiniPisa

This relationship is the opposite of what I expected to find among developed nations.

This is fascinating, and troubling.

After looking at a few other variables, I’ve realized that I can’t even come close to understanding it, yet. Yes, higher Gini index values means greater income inequality: a greater gap between rich and poor.

Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality; http://www.businessinsider.com/pisa-rankings-2013-12

Why I don’t take high school students into my lab

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Once in a while, I am approached about taking on a high school student over the summer. I always say no, for the same reason that I turn away most premeds: they want research “experience.”

Bungee jumping is an experience. Discovering that you’re allergic to seafood is an experience. Going backpacking in Europe is an experience. I don’t provide research “experiences” for students; I train scientists. I’m a scientist and a university instructor, not an unpaid private tutor.

High school students want to look awesome so that they can get into a fancy university. That has nothing to do with why I am paid to work for the State of California, so I’ll take a pass. But I don’t let the high school students off with a simple “No, thank you.”

The primary purposes of my research lab are to get research done and to train scientists. My lab doesn’t have room for tourists having an “experience,” because there is only space for researchers. I turn away high school students because they take resources (time, space, roles) away from the students who really need it and deserve the opportunity. These students that want to join my lab are the kind that end up winning science fairs because of privileged access to university resources.

I have another reason for turning away the high school students that come to me in search of a research experience.

The high school students who have sought research experiences have two common denominators: The first is that they’re wealthy. They attend either an expensive prep school, or attend public school in a district with million-dollar homes and a well-endowed foundation supplementing the inadequate funding provided by the State of California. These high school students think it’s perfectly normal – perhaps even laudable – to seek out research experiences at the local university that trains undergraduates.

The second common denominator among the high school students who ask to volunteer in my lab is they never, ever, will even consider attending my university, CSU Dominguez Hills.

When high school students ask me for a slot in my lab, the first thing I do is ask them about their college plans. They name schools with pricetags that would clean out the bulk of my salary. I then give these students a heavy dose of righteous indignation. I slightly raise my voice. I get visibly perturbed. I want them to know that I’m offended. It’s not a show, but I don’t make much effort to hide my genuine umbrage:

Do you think it’s acceptable to come to my lab and ask me to spend taxpayer dollars giving you free research training?

If getting research experience in my lab is good enough for you as a high school student, then why isn’t it good enough for you in college?

Why do you think that you might deserve a space in my lab over students who are enrolled at Dominguez Hills? Presumably you’re hard-working and smart, but how does that entitle you to special opportunities over the hard-working and smart students who have chosen to come to Dominguez Hills?

If this campus not good enough for you in two years, how is it good enough for you now? That’s a serious question and I’d like an answer. Please answer. I’m not joking. Why don’t you want to come to this university?

I have no tolerance for people who think that prep school students can slum around my low-income university to get free research credentials, as a way to further their access to elite institutions that my students are unable to access. Moreover, these people wanting a spot in my lab expect that it’s somehow part of my job to provide this training for free to students who have already chosen to opt out of the state university system.

This particular form of entitlement is offensive to my values and to my students. Even asking for the opportunity to join my lab as a high school student, while simultaneously ruling out the possibility joining as an undergraduate, shows how little these students and their families value education as a public good. I refuse to be their tool.

While not in my lab, in labs all around the country, wealthy high school students are getting high quality research training at universities while the majority of the nation’s public school children are now living in poverty and qualify for subsidized school meals. If I were to use my lab at CSU Dominguez Hills to provide research opportunities to the 1%, I’d only worsen this tragic failure of our nation.

I’m not inherently opposed to taking on a high school student, but I’ll be damned if I take an opportunity away from an underprivileged student who truly needs it and transfer it to one who comes from a position of privilege.

I’m not going to be an instrument of the upper class by perpetuating the heritability of educational and economic disparities.

Of course, if some parents of a high school student pony up the $2 million for an endowed chair at my university, I’d be pleased to reopen a conversation on the topic.

Inequality in computer science curricula

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This is a guest post by Lirael.

I’m a PhD student in computer science at a university where most of the undergrads come from pretty affluent, educationally privileged backgrounds (as I did myself, back in my undergrad days).  I’m a teaching assistant and/or tutor for a couple of different programs that we have for students who are not from such backgrounds.  One is for students who are motivated but have been educationally disadvantaged in some way (whether this was poverty, major illness in high school, an unstable housing situation, war in their home country, or any other life circumstance that would have left them at a disadvantage in their schooling), who take catch-up classes as a cohort and get extensive advising in order to prepare them for a full undergrad program.  The other is for students who are first-generation college students or who come from families with incomes below 150% of the poverty line, and gives them free tutoring, extensive advising, career prep, and leadership development.  Some students are in both programs.  Neither program is exclusively for students of color or poor students, but in practice, most of my students are both.

Computer science has unusual status compared to most science, social science, and humanities programs, because so many people associate it so strongly with a quick and direct path to good jobs.  There is some truth to this association – when I graduated from college at 22 and started my first industry job, I had a salary that put me in the top 20% of all US wage earners, plus excellent benefts and good working conditions.  This gives computer science obvious appeal for my students (and for other marginalized groups — I have a friend, a trans woman, who teaches at a program to ecnomically empower other trans people by teaching them to code).  It also makes it very popular at, for example, many community colleges.

My concern, though, is what sort of computer science marginalized and underrepresented groups are learning in the name of economic advantage.

Some community colleges have excellent offerings, of the sort that will prepare their students well for upper-level classes.   In others, the curriculum seems to be dominated by courses that could be described as “How to use a currently-popular technological tool for immediate commercial applications.”  Sometimes they are “Intro to a currently-popular computer language.”  There’s generally a data structures class, but not much else on the more foundational side of CS.  Some four-year departments like this approach too.  The thing is that in the tech world most of these skills and languages are likely to be archaic in a few years – I don’t often see job listings asking for people who know Pascal or BASIC or who can hand-write websites in HTML or make an eye-catching GeoCities site, all of which were in the currently-popular category when I was in high school.  The CS programs, much more than, say, the biology or history programs, stress the idea that this is vocational training.  Again, I don’t want to imply that every community college or state non-flagship is doing this, but I have noticed that plenty do, especially community colleges.

At schools where the idea that learning specific current tools = employability doesn’t drive the curriculum quite so hard –- which includes affluent schools with affluent student bodies — students focus on subjects like AI, algorithms, operating systems, robotics, computational biology, distributed computing, software design.  They learn specific currently-popular skills in class projects or paid industry internships where they apply, say, AI to creating Android apps, or software design to creating a new video game.  They don’t seem to have a problem getting good tech jobs after they graduate.  Meanwhile, if a student from a vocationally-focused school wants to transfer to a prestigious one, will they be prepared for the classes at the new school?  Will their credits from the vocationally-focused classes transfer?

Are there tech jobs where hiring managers care mostly that applicants have a list of buzzword Skills O’ the Day, and will seriously consider candidates whose whole CS education is an associate’s degree?  Yep.  What kinds of tech jobs, in general, are those?  The crappy tech jobs.  The code monkey jobs.  The ones that pay less.  The ones with less prestige and less respect.  The ones that get outsourced to developing countries.

I think it’s incredibly important that people be able to get jobs after they graduate from college.  It’s often more important for students from poor or working-class backgrounds, who don’t have family money to fall back on if they don’t get a job right away, so I understand why schools with many such students would be very concerned about employability.  But I worry that focus on vocational training will ironically lead to less employability, and less upward mobility, for the people who need it the most.  I also worry that increased focus on college as preparation for the workforce, which has had consequences already for the humanities and social sciences, will push computer science in the direction of vocational training.

I am not saying that there should be no vocational focus at all in computer science (indeed, some affluent schools have been criticized for not having enough of one) only that there needs to be balance.  The course that I TA is an intro to computer science course focused on game design.  Students learn basic computing and engineering concepts along with skills like how to create their own webpage and how to use game-creation software.  I make a point of talking about how they can use what they’re learning in other fields, like biology or public health or economics, as well, since after all not all of them want to go into computer science.  My hope is that they’ll get something out of it no matter what field they go into, and that if they do want to continue in computer science, they’ll be well-prepared to do so.

“Student quality”

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When you are sizing up the teaching part of your job, what is the role of student quality?

I often hear other scientists talking about how they enjoy the teaching part of their job when they have high quality students. They are successful teachers when they have high quality students.

I also hear professors sympathizing with other professors who report that they have poor quality students in their classes.

These conversations make me want to barf.

What the hell is a “quality student?”

I won’t say anything about a person behind their back that I wouldn’t be willing to say to their faces, admitting that at times it could be an uncomfortable conversation. Would anybody be willing to say to their own students that they are of low quality? Clearly, students can do low-quality work and have a low-quality investment. (Actually, I just said this last week to my class after slogging through some lackluster exams.) Are these students, themselves, poor quality?  I feel like I shouldn’t have to say so, but maybe I do: of course they aren’t.

When people are talking about student “quality,” they could mean a variety of things. They might be thinking about how smart the students are (whatever that is), how hard working they are, or how motivated they are to learn.

All of those variables change given the context. Some students will not work hard at all in some classes, but work hard in others. Some students will be disinterested in some classes but be fascinated by others. I suppose the “high quality” students are the ones that will work hard and be fascinated regardless of the context.

In other words, high quality students are the ones that would learn even if they had a poor quality instructor.

If you have traditionally “high quality” students, it doesn’t matter if you teach well. Do you really want that kind of job?

Clearly, if our classrooms are filled exclusively with bright, hard-working and inquisitive students who are always willing to learn, then our jobs would be really easy. In fact, the students wouldn’t need us other than to assign readings, play videos of lectures and have labs set up for them. We wouldn’t be required as teachers because they would be all ready to learn whatever is put up in front of them. I guess that’s a high quality student – one who is the least amount of work. The one who always understands and always does perfect work.

If that’s the case, then I don’t want these high quality students who are easy to teach. I want to be the person that made a difference in the life of another person. I want the students who come into my classroom to be the ones that don’t think that biostatistics matters, or not really caring much about the mechanisms of climate change. When I am successful at the end of the semester, which means that my students are successful at the end of the semester, I want it to be because of the quality of my work. I don’t want to preach to the converted, and I don’t want to spend an hour in class on a lesson that the students could have learned for themselves. I want the students who couldn’t just sit down in a MOOC and take it all in.

It means that all of the time and preparation that I put into my lessons actually matters.

Perhaps, some might think, that with classic “high quality” students, highly effective teachers can take things to extraordinarily high levels so that their students excel far beyond what any lesser “quality” student could ever imagine. If you are thinking that way, then please stay away from the classroom. You need to enter the room thinking that every person has unlimited potential. If you start out assuming that some students aren’t capable of extraordinary achievement, then you’re never to going to expect or get it from them. You need to expect the outstanding if you’re ever going to get it. And you need to expect it of everyone. Once in a while, I get outstanding from students that who have already been written off by everyone else. Now that is a quality student. And I have that opportunity every time I enter the classroom.

By the way, why is it that some of the most famous experts on science teaching come from universities that only admit students who earned top notch grades in high school, and mostly from private schools and public schools in wealthy school districts? Do their experiences with white middle- and upper-class students really reflect how education works for everyone else?

Almost none of the students in my university would be able to land admission to a highly selective institution, in part because of their social class but also because of their performance and preparation.

How I do I feel about teaching students who could be labeled as “poor quality?” I love it. There’s nothing better. I have unlimited opportunity to make a difference, and every day I am challenged to inspire and create a need for understanding. If you want to teach well, then how do you know you’re even capable of doing so if all of your students are pros at learning?

If you are teacher by profession, and all you want to do is teach “high quality” students, then you’ll never master your craft.

Online learning is the ghetto of higher education

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People need to rethink the concept of the digital divide.

In our society, the digital divide doesn’t separate those who have access to computers and those who don’t.

It separates those who are required to use digital devices for learning and those who have the privledge of learning directly from genuine experts.

Soon enough, if my legislature has its way, the wealthy will get to go to real colleges and take classes with real professors. Everybody else is sitting at home on a computer.

Those who are pushing MOOCs and online learning as an alternative to higher education are trying to take my students away from me. The big push is coming from those who stand to gain financially, or from those trying to balance the budget books, so I won’t trust them much on the matter of best educational practices.

Perhaps I’m narcissistic in overvaluing my role in higher education. I think the most important part of my students’ experience is me. I’m involved in their lives in a way that can’t be done online.

The student population on my campus is mostly low-income, working part-time or full-time, first-generation college students, nearly all from groups underrepresented in the sciences. These are, by definition, disadvantaged students. This isn’t an insult, just a fact – the deck is stacked against them based on their background. They have a competitive disadvantage against those with more resources and against those with a pedigree that creates access to fancier opportunities.

This year, a few undergraduates who have worked with me are heading off to great graduate programs. What all of them have in common is that they started working with faculty at my university in the classroom and in the lab, in person. They’ve all told me and my colleagues that there’s no way they would have been able to do what they’ve done without us as a resource and as an influence. I take them at their word.

All the research shows that personal interventions into the lives of disadvantaged students is what leads to their success.

The students that need personal interactions with their professors are the ones that are the most economically disadvantaged.

This is the same group of students who will be the first pushed into online education instead of going to college for real. Why aren’t people more worried about this?

Some are – there is a bunch of concern at Computing Education, such as this post. Overall, though, as usual, the underrepresented students remain, well, underrepresented.

Pointing this fact out doesn’t come without some personal risk at annoying my higherups. My university is deep in the push for online education, and has a mess of wholly online degrees, such as a B.S. in “Applied Studies,” whatever that is.

My university is also known as a place of refuge for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. This is a painful irony that we are at the forefront of the push for online learning. Pushing students out of our labs and onto their laptops.

As a mentor to undergraduates, and an advocate for undergraduate research as a great way to learn, I wonder how this online education trend will affect the ability for students to truly move ahead. I wonder, but I will never want to find out, because I don’t want it to happen.

I just want these students physically in my lab, where I can chat with them personally and help them in ways that I can’t over a computer screen. Please don’t take them away from the university. Please give me the chance to speak with them, listen to them, and show them how to become scientists. Please don’t take away their best chance at success. Don’t make them settle for anything less than what wealthy students are getting at more heavily endowed campuses. Give them what they need to get from college – personal, actual connections with their professors.

You can let the students of privilege take their classes online, if you think online education is just as good. Those students don’t need the face time like the disadvantaged students do. If you don’t like that idea, it’s only because you acknowledge the fact that one truly is lesser than the other.