What’s going to be on the exam?


Do you love it when students waste office hours with questions that don’t help them learn? Do you want to cultivate anxious emails from students sent at 3 in the morning? Do you want your students to wager their grades by guessing what you think is the most important material?

Then don’t tell your students what is going to be on the exam.

Continue reading

The deficit model of STEM recruitment


As we train the next generation of STEM professionals, we use a filter that selects against marginalized folks, on account of their ethnicity, income, gender, and other aspects of identity. This, I hope you realize, is an ethical and pragmatic problem, and constrains a national imperative to maintain competitiveness in STEM.

When we are working for equity, this usually involves working to remediate perceived deficiencies relative to the template of a well-prepared student — filling in gaps that naturally co-occur with the well-established inequalities that are not going away anytime soon. These efforts at mitigation are bound to come up short, as long as they’re based on our current Deficit Model of STEM Recruitment. Continue reading

Negotiate authorship before collecting data


Authorship disputes are not uncommon. Even when there are no actual disputes over who did what on a project, there may be lots of authorship resentments. That’s because a lot of folks — by no mere coincidence, junior scientists more often — end up not getting as much credit as they think they deserve when a paper comes out. Continue reading

Bias in graduate admissions


Yesterday, I received an epic comment on a recent post of mine about minority recruitment. I want to share it:

This fits my experience so so well. I am first gen American, started at community college, transferred to a good public university and struggled but ultimately graduated with a 3.2 GPA and did OK on GREs. Had zero “social capital” (and had no idea what that was). I was lucky to have a TA (PhD student) who took me under her wing and had me volunteer in her lab a few hours a week and an excellent professor in my last quarter who informed me about internships and helped me secure one specifically targeting minority students (and it was paid!). Anyhow, after gaining a lot of experience though field jobs , I applied and was rejected from many PhD programs and ended up going to a small CSU, racking up student loans and working full time while getting my Master’s. I then applied to one of the better ecology programs with excellent letters of reference and was flatly denied. Again, luckily I had a greater supervisor at a govt agency who was very supportive and together we published a couple of manuscripts. I re-applied to that same ecology programs and was offered a multi-year fellowship (no TAing, no RAing). The only difference in my application was the publications. Now that I am in the program, I look around at a sea of white faces and most of them I have come to find out are straight out of undergrad, no pubs, very little experience, just great grades and test scores and a lot of social capital and opportunity (paid internships, semester at a field station, paid field methods courses, etc) . What a load of crap.

Continue reading

Recruiting underrepresented minority students


The last couple weeks have posed a challenge, as several people have contacted me (mostly out of the blue), asking me for ideas about specific steps they can take to improve the recruitment of minority students. This isn’t my field, but, I realize I’ve put myself in this position, because it’s a critical issue and I discuss it frequently. I’m just one of many who work in minority-serving institutions.

I realize that most of the suggestions I’ve given to people (but not advice) are generalized. If several folks are writing to me, I imagine there are many more of y’all out there who might be thinking the same thing but not writing. Hence this post. Just with my suggestions. Continue reading

Conference travel awards that you can’t apply for until after the travel is done are bad


I’m about to make some statements that I think should be obvious. In fact, everything I say in this post about travel awards will probably be obvious, but I feel moved to write about it since these obviously bad travel awards exist.

Grad students are typically on very tight budgets.

Grad students are expected to attend and present their work at conferences (usually at least one per year).

Departments or schools often have funds available (as conference travel grants or similar) to students to help cover the costs of attending conferences, which is good.

Some of these grants require students to wait until after the conference is over and include all receipts for their expenses before they can apply, which is bad. Continue reading

How can track record matter in double-blind grant reviews?


We should have double blind grant reviews. I made this argument a couple weeks ago, which was met with general agreement. Except for one thing, which I now address.

trouble coverSome readers said that double-blind reviews can’t work, or are inadvisable, because of the need to evaluate the PI’s track record. I disagree with my whole heart. I think we can make it work. If our community is going to make progress on diversity and equity like we keep trying to do, then we have to make it work.

We can’t just put up our hands and say, “We need to keep it the same because the alternative won’t work” because the status quo is clearly biased in a way that continues to damage our community. Continue reading

NSF’s Water Man award


When I was a tween, a cutsey feel-good book was a bestseller: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If we learn to solve problems as kids, that should help us solve similar problems as adults.

Let’s do a kindergarten-level exercise in math and pattern recognition. Can you figure out what shape comes next?seriesa

If you said star, you’re right! Congrats!

Let’s do another one. What shape do you expect to find next?


If you said star again, then that means you’re two for two. Good job!

Let’s look for another pattern:


What do you think comes next? If you guessed 2016, then you’re right! Your pattern recognition skills are fantastic! Continue reading

“Open Science” is not one thing


“Open Science” is an aggregation of many things. As a concept, it’s a single movement. The policy changes necessary for more Open Science, however, are a conglomerate of unrelated parts.

I appreciate, and support, the prevailing philosophy of Open Science: “the movement to make scientific research, data and dissemination accessible to all levels of an inquiring society.” Transparency is often, though not always, good. Continue reading

Do you write your recommendation letters?


This is a question for both the people requesting letters of recommendation, and those who are signing the letters of recommendation.

About a month ago, a blog post-ish thing was published in Science, that was griping about a not-rare phenomenon. Sometimes when junior scientists ask for letters of recommendation, they’re asked to write a first draft of the letter. This is, allegedly, “minor fraud.” Continue reading

Blurred lines in academia–what is work?


While navigating the unemployment system in Sweden, I’ve discovered that I need to report every month what I’ve been doing to find a job. It includes applying for jobs of course but also training. I should also include working on my CV, networking and other activities that improve my employability. I’ve also been warned that one shouldn’t “work” during this time and all work has to be reported (you can work for up to 75 days and keep your unemployment status).

All of this has me reflecting on what work is in academia.

2016-01-28 11.58.54 am

It seems to me that few other professions have the same structure as academic research. Continue reading

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


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


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


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

Will work for food: How volunteer “opportunities” exploit early-career scientists


This is a guest post by Susan Letcher, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Purchase College in New York.

A recent job posting at Cocha Cashu caught my eye:

What: Co-Instructor for the Third Annual Course in Field Techniques and Tropical Ecology

Where: Cocha Cashu Biological Station, Manu National Park, Peru

When: September 1 (arrive a few days earlier)- November 30, 2015

Oh cool, I thought. A field course based at a premier research station. Sounds great. But as I read further, a sinking horror took over: Continue reading

How to promote inclusivity in graduate fellowships?


Students who did their undergraduate work at elite universities are dominating access to federally funded graduate fellowships in the sciences. I pointed out this obvious fact at the beginning of this month, which to my surprise caught quite a bit of attention. I also got a lot of email (which I discuss here — it’s more interesting than you might expect).

A common response was: Okay, that’s the problem, what about solutions? Hence, this post. First, here are some facts that are are germane to the solutions. Continue reading

Dear students, a member of the class asked…


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

Standards-based grading


As we start up the new semester, this is an apt time to evaluate, and update or change, our grading schemes.

I don’t like giving grades. I wouldn’t assign grades if I didn’t have to, because grades typically are not a good measure of actual learning.

Over the least year, I’ve heard more about a new approach to assigning grades, that has a lot of appeal: “standards based grading,” in which students get grades based on how well they meet a detailed set of very clearly defined expectations. This is apparently a thing in K-12 education and now some university instructors are following suit. Continue reading

Avoiding bad teaching evaluations: Tricks of the trade


Student evaluations are the main method used to evaluate our teaching. These evaluations are, at best, an imperfect measuring tool.

Lots of irrelevant stuff affects evaluation scores. If you’re attractive or well dressed, this helps your scores. If you are a younger woman, you have to reckon with a distinct set of challenges and biases. If the weather is better out, you might get better evaluations, too. So, don’t feel bad about doing things to help your scores, even if they aren’t connected to teaching quality.

My university aptly calls these forms by their acronym, “PTE”: Perceived Teaching Effectiveness. Note the word: “perceived.” Actual effectiveness is moot.

People are aware whether or not they learned. However, superficial things can really affect perception. What our students think about the classroom experience is important. But evaluation forms are not really measuring teaching effectiveness. These evaluations measure student satisfaction more than learning outcomes. Since we are being held accountable for classroom performance based on student satisfaction, it is in our interest to pay attention to the things that can improve satisfaction.

Here are some ways I’ve approached evaluations with an effort to avoid getting bad ones.

  • I try to teach effectively. The best foundation of perception is reality. I put some trust in my students’ ability to assess performance. If I’m doing a good job, my students should know it.
  • I work hard to demonstrate that I respect my students. It’s easy to give in to the conceit that my time is more valuable than the time of my students. When I see myself going down that dark pathway, I try to follow the golden rule, and treat the time of my students with as much concern as I would like my own time to be treated. For example, I make sure class always ends on time.
  • I emphasize fairness. On the first day of class, I let students know that life isn’t fair, but I try hard to make sure that my class done as fairly as possible. Students often volunteer gripes about their other classes, and unfairness is always the common thread in these discussions. Even if students perform poorly in a class, if they think that it was conducted fairly, then they are still usually satisfied.
  • I recall Hanlon’s Razor: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” None of my students are out to get me. Ideally, they’re out for themselves. Sometimes, I’m not clear enough about expectations. When a student needs something, I approach the interaction with the default assumption that it’s my fault. And if it’s not my fault, it’s not an intentional flaw, so I can’t give students a bad time about the shortcoming.
  • I don’t engage in debates about graded assignments. I tell my students that if there is a very simple mathematical error or something I missed, they can bring it to me immediately after class. Any other errors need to be addressed with a written request by the start of the next class meeting. I’ve only gotten a few of these, and in all cases, the students were correct.
  • When a student is persistent about points, I avoid the argument whenever possible. I don’t concede unearned credit, but I don’t dismiss the concern either. Nearly all requests for grade changes are so tiny, they have a negligible on the final grade. I show, numberwise, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I tell them that if they are right on the borderline at the end of the semester, I’ll make a note of it and we could talk about it at that time. This prevents the student from waging a futile argument, and keeps me out of the business of catering to minutia.
  • I run a tight ship. I can get annoyed by inappropriate behavior, but the students are usually even more annoyed. When someone is facebooking in the front row or monopolizes discussion, the rest of the class is usually super-pleased that I shut it down, as long I do it with respect. Classroom management is a fine art that we are rarely taught. (I’ve learned some education faculty and K-12 teachers.) I think establishing the classroom environment in the first few days is critical. I don’t enforce rules, but I develop accepted norms of behavior collaboratively on the first day of class. When things happen outside the norm, I address them promptly and, I hope, gently. When anybody (including myself) is found to be outside the norm, we adjust quickly because we agreed to the guidelines on the first day of class. I’ve botched this and have been seen as too severe on occasion, but I’d prefer to err on that side then having an overly permissive environment in which students don’t give one another the respect of their attention.
  • A classic strategy is to start out the term with extreme rigor, and lessen up as time goes on. I don’t do this, at least not intentionally, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea as long as you finish with high expectations. In any circumstance, I imagine it would be disaster to increase the perceived level of difficulty during the term.
  • I use midterm evaluations, using the university form partway through the semester, for my own use. This gives me early evidence about perceptions with the opportunity to change course, if necessary. I am open and transparent about changes I make.
  • I often use a supplemental evaluation form at the end of the term. There are two competing functions of the evaluation. The first is to give you feedback for course improvement, and the second is to assess performance. What the students might think is constructive feedback might be seen as a negative critique by those not in the classroom. It’s in our interest to separate those two functions onto separate pieces of paper. Before we went digital, I used to hold up the university form and say: “This form [holding up the scantron] is being used by the school as a referendum on my continued employment. I won’t be able to access these forms until after the next semester already starts, so they won’t help me out that much.” Then I held up another piece of paper [an evaluation I wrote with specific questions about the course] and said, “This one is constructive feedback about what you liked and didn’t like about the course. If you have criticisms of the course that you want me to see, but don’t think that my bosses need to see them, then this is the place to do it. Note that this form has specific questions about our readings, homework, tests and lessons. I’m just collecting these for myself, and I’d prefer if you don’t put your names on them.” I find that students are far more likely to evaluate my teaching in broad strokes in the university form when I use this approach, and there are fewer little nitpicky negative comments.
  • I try to avoid doing evaluations when students are more anxious about their grade, like on the cusp of an exam or when I return graded assignments. When I hand out the very helpful final exam review sheet, which causes relief, then I might do evaluations.
  • I don’t bring in special treats on the day I administer evaluations. At least with my style, my students would find it cloying, and they wouldn’t appreciate a cheap bribe attempt. Once in a long while, I may bring in donuts or something else like that, but never on evaluation day.
  • I’ve had some sections in with chronic attendance problems, in which some students would skip or show up late. On those occasions, I made a point to administer evaluations at the start of class on a day that had low attendance. I imagined that the students who weren’t bothering to attend class were less likely to give a stellar rating. Moreover, the absent students weren’t as well qualified to evaluate my performance as those sitting in class. (Of course, those attendance problems indicated that I had a bigger problem on my hands.)
  • Being likable and approachable. Among all the things that influence evaluations, I think this is the biggest one. There are many ways to be liked by your students, as a human being, but I think being liked is prerequisite to really good scores. Especially with our students who face a lot of structural disadvantages, approachability is important for the ability to do the job well. I’m not successful enough on this front. It hasn’t tanked me in evaluations, because by the end of the semester the students are comfortable with me, but that doesn’t emerge as quickly as I’d like. This is the area I need to work on the most. I am to do all the professorly things with students with the greatest needs, they need to be able to talk to me.

Of course, some of these tips don’t apply if the evaluations are being administered online. This is a growing trend, and my university made the switch a couple years ago. (Thoughts and experiences with paper vs. online evaluations are in the ever-growing queue for future posts.)

Are there different or additional approaches that you use for the non-teaching-performance related aspects of student evaluations?

[update: be sure to read this comment. I think everything in this post is relevant to professors of both genders, but there are additional issues involving student biases that female professors need to deal with that I haven’t addressed. Professors need to be approachable to do their jobs. If students can’t talk to us, then that puts a low ceiling on what we can help our students achieve. However, what it means to be professional and “approachable” for a younger female professor might look really different than for an older guy. As I don’t have experience being a younger female professor, I’m not as well qualified to address this as some others. Another good reason to cruise over to Tenure, She Wrote.]

Inequality in computer science curricula


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.

On being a tenure-track parasite of adjunct faculty [updated]


My job, as a tenured associate professor of biology, wouldn’t be possible without a sizable crew of adjunct instructors in my department.

Here is some context about the role of adjuncts in my particular department: At the moment, the ratio of undergraduate majors to tenure-line faculty is about 100:1. This isn’t unprecedented, but is on the higher end of laboratory science departments in public universities. Because we have so few tenure-line faculty, and so many lectures and labs to teach, we hire a slew of adjuncts every semester.

It’s not like the adjuncts are there to make life easier for tenure-line faculty. They’re here to keep the department from falling apart and to teach classes that otherwise we would be unable to teach. One thing that keeps us tenure-line faculty busy is advising. All of our majors required to be advised every semester in half-hour appointments, one-on-one with tenure-line faculty, in order to be able to register for the subsequent semester. In addition to our base teaching assignment of four lecture courses per semester and the standard research and service expectations, we’re worked mighty heavily.

Lest I complain, I am thankful on a daily basis that I am paid a living wage, if below market rate, and I am in a union that has mostly held on to benefits like our parents fathers used to expect from their employers. That’s more than our many adjuncts can say. If it were not for a stroke of tremendous fortune in a very difficult time, I would not be able to be in this position.

While I do have some additional responsibilities that are not expected of our adjuncts, this disparity between job expectations is tiny compared to the massive disparity between our relative pay, benefits and job security. While I would hope to think that the things I offer on top of my teaching (research opportunities and individualized mentorship for a small number of students, external grants to bring money and reputation to the institution, and a meaty role in institutional governance) bring value, I cannot reasonably rationalize that those services justify the massive gap between the my compensation and that of my adjunct colleagues.

I also am conscious that many tenure-line faculty in my university do little to nothing more than some of the adjuncts, skipping out on faculty governance, making themselves unavailable to students outside class, and not providing research opportunities. These faculty are more like adjuncts with a full professor’s paycheck and pension. What’s worse is that I could choose to devolve into such a role with no consequences for my pay, benefits or security of employment.

I have particularly benefited from the contributions of adjunct labor. In my current university, I actually have never taught the full base teaching load, as I’ve always had some fraction of my time reassigned to additional research, administration, outreach or professional development activities. (And, to be clear, I spend more time on the jobs to which I am reassigned than is expected of me while teaching.) The only way that I have been able to carve out time to keep my research lab ticking, write grants and run some programs is because others have stepped in to get the work done. These people are as qualified as I am to teach these courses, have plenty of teaching experience, and are getting paid less than I would if I were to teach those courses.

Hiring an adjunct instructor as a one-off to cover a course that needs to be covered isn’t necessarily exploitation. But if this temporary labor pool is not truly temporary, and if these are not one-off arrangements but instead a machine that requires the dedicated effort of many contingent workers on a long term basis, this is overtly exploitative of the contingent labor pool.

It is wrong that my department has several people who teach lots of courses for us, year after year, and aren’t able to receive an appointment as a professional ‘lecturer’ that acknowledges their professionalism and compensates them as one would expect from an employer after providing years of service. It’s not criminal, but in some countries, it might be.

When I graduated from a mighty-fine private liberal arts college twenty years ago, the catalog had the name of a tenure-track professor next to every course. I had taken two courses with adjuncts the whole time I was there (one of which was taught by a senior and established person in the field who did for it fun and for the students). Now, students on this campus take many courses with adjunct instructors, the campus catalog no longer has the professor’s names tied to courses, and there is a large and growing pool of adjuncts clamoring for equitable treatment. This isn’t a sign of the decline of this institution, but instead an indicator of the adjunctification of higher education.

Like the house elves in the Harry Potter series, an army of highly-qualified and hard-toiling adjuncts make the magic happen in a university, without recognition or reward. Faculty members on the tenure-line are not ignorant of this massive injustice that empowers their existence, but mostly feel powerless to rectify the systemic situation. Universities have created a caste system, and how is it that individual members of one caste can create an equitable labor arrangement? Short of a quixotic revolution, what is there to do?

We can agitate for change. We can decry the situation. We can write blog posts, articles and books about the exploitation of adjuncts as working-class academics. That’s part of moving towards change, I guess.

However, I feel that this isn’t enough considering that I am a member of the caste that benefits from the labor of the adjunct caste. I’m not saying that I don’t deserve the compensation that I receive, but it is abundantly clear that long-term adjuncts don’t deserve the lack of compensation that they receive. I just don’t see any particular course of action that I can do within the context of my own job. I can, and do, treat adjuncts as full colleagues, and I can join the others in our union to advocate for adjunct rights.

I do not have the power to make right any systemic wrongs, and neither does my Chair, nor my Dean. I suppose the power is within the Provost’s office to make these changes but the budget isn’t there. The entire university system has been calibrated to cut costs on the backs of adjuncts.

If tenure-line faculty members are failing to press hard for the reasonable and fair employment of the adjunct labor pool, then it’s probably not because they aren’t aware or because they don’t care. It’s the same reason that they don’t take specific action in their lives to reduce their own carbon emissions, and it’s the same reason they don’t buy all of their clothes that are certified sweatshop-free, and the same reason why they don’t buy books from independent booksellers. The problem is so big and so systemic, that it’s overwhelming.

Individuals have trouble remembering that individual actions, at the right place and the right time, make change happen. The university is not making things easier for tenure-line faculty either, who need to take up a greater share of the non-teaching work as tenure-line positions fizzle away. I want to rage for adjunct rights, and it makes me upset, and I want to do something. So I wrote a blog post, but I can’t imagine that this will change anything.

So, what else should tenure-line faculty do?

Update 27 Sep 2013: The non-rhetorical answer to the rhetorical question above was provided by Jenny in the comments, who shared this story about specific and concrete efforts at Portland State University written by Jennifer Ruth. That is, apparently, what we should do.

Please don’t hold out-of-class review sessions


Some professors are so dedicated to the success of their students that they are generous enough to hold review sessions before an exam, outside regular class hours.

This is a tremendously poor idea, for one big reason and one smaller reason.

The big reason is that it is inherently unfair to the students. Not every student is equally available to make it to an additional session outside class hours. Holding a session that not all students are available to attend confers an advantage to the students who are more available for the times designated for a review session. (This rationale is similar to the one fort why we shouldn’t offer extra credit.)

Students are aware that these review sessions are a moment of the big reveal about what is going to be on the exam, where professors give hints about what is important to study and what is less important. Even if this isn’t true, this is the widespread perception. I know that when I was a student, not attending one of these sessions was a huge disadvantage.

Therefore, students will go to all extremes to attend a outside-class review session. I know students who have skipped out on their work obligations to make such a session, and I also a student that once missed an important and difficult-to-schedule medical appointment for this kind of session.

A standard lecture course at my university has about 45 contact hours. If that’s not enough time to cover the curriculum and prepare students for exams, then the solution isn’t to add another hour of optional class. Instead, the curriculum, or how it’s taught, should be fixed so that everything that students need for exams can happen within the time scheduled for class.

Students who might feel that outside-class review sessions are unfair are likely to not complain. Such a complaint would arouse the ire of fellow students, would be particularly upset if the gift of a review session were revoked because of a spoilsport.

I ask: why is such a review session needed? It is because the students haven’t learned as much as they needed to prior to the exam? If that is the case, it is the result of deficiencies on the part of the instructor or of the students. If it’s the deficiency of the students, then those who didn’t invest as much as others don’t need an extra boost, just like they shouldn’t receive extra credit. If the failure of students to be adequately prepared for the exam is the fault of the instructor, then adding extra optional class time isn’t a professional way to fix pedagogical shortcomings.

The smaller reason to not hold out-of-class review sessions is that this practice increases the emphasis on high-stakes testing and further drives students to obsess about what is on the exam rather than learning the material comprehensively.

Let’s face it: students who attend these sessions and ask questions are, predominantly, focused on discovering what questions will be on the exam. They may very well be seeking knowledge and understanding about the course material, but their focus is to do well on the exam rather than to learn. Moreover, I believe that’s the focus of faculty who offer such sessions as well, to help students do well on the exam by providing even more preparation. That’s an admirable goal, but all students deserve equal and fairly distributed access to such opportunities.

So, what’s the harm with offering a review session that gets students to study more than they would otherwise? Here’s the harm: it gets them studying for an exam. If students are cramming for an exam, they’re not learning in the long term. Instead of spending time focusing our teaching on getting students to jump through the hoops of exams, we could design our classes for substantial and long-term engagement with the material. The more we freak students about exams and focus on them, the less they will engage in genuine, self-driven, inquiry.

Extra credit is unfair to students


The old joke goes like this:

Q: Why did the undergraduate cross the road?

A: Extra credit!

I’ve known scores of students who would work their butts off for five extra points when they wouldn’t work nearly as hard for a normal 100-point assignment. It’s disheartening to witness such irrational behavior. However, this isn’t why I don’t offer extra credit.

I don’t offer extra credit because it’s inherently unfair.

I treat my students professionally. I respect their time and I expect the same courtesy from my students. When professors decide on an extra credit assignment in the middle of the course, this looks to me like poor planning. Even if the possibility or certainty of extra credit is placed in the syllabus at the start of the semester, that doesn’t make it fair to everybody in the course.

Just because all students are given equal opportunities, doesn’t mean that they are being treated fairly.

When students sign up for our classes, they are expected to attend class at the scheduled times, and complete the studying and assignments outside of class, though not at any particular time because they have other courses, jobs, and private lives. The syllabus says what is in the class and why the class exists. If a professor adds additional stuff to the course, at some point through the semester, then this provides a disadvantage to the student who has more commitments outside of regular class hours.

Maybe there are some ways that extra credit is used that is fair to everyone. I can’t think of any. If there is a regular part of the course that is used for points above 100%, that’s not extra credit, that’s just spreadsheet voodoo. Extra credit, as I consider it, is when students are given a chance to earn extra points by doing some stuff that is outside the typical curriculum of a course, or is scheduled outside class hours, or is connected to performance on an assignment in the middle of the semester.

Let me address different reasons that people might use extra credit, and why I view these reasons as unjustified:

1. Extra credit is a carrot to get students to do favors for their institutions. The most common one that I’ve seen that students get extra credit for attending seminars by visiting speakers. This drummed-up audience prevents anybody from being embarrassed by paltry attendance. This practice is manipulative, and doesn’t show adequate respect for time of students. Moreover, because not everyone may have equal availability to earn such extra credit, this gives some students an opportunity to earn more points than other students. (Assigning written assignments to students who cannot attend an extracurricular event to earn extra credit is punitive.) If students need to attend seminars for their courses, then this needs to be built into the course and scheduled during class hours, or placed in the course description. It’s not right to reward the students who have enough spare time to attend events while others might be working or have other commitments.

2. Extra credit is an opportunity for students to earn additional points if their exam scores were particularly low. I have seen some professors give students extra work, including an opportunity to revise exams, in order to improve their scores on exams. If a professor doesn’t like the mean score on an exam, the proper course of action is to give everybody a boost. If most students in the class performed below expectations, then offering extra credit to everybody is relatively punitive to the students who did perform higher than their peers. Some students did better than other students on an exam for a reason. To respect all of your students, honor those reasons and look to the future when students tank an exam. (For edu-folks: exams are summative assessments. Keep it that way.) The only way students should have a chance to revise an assignment or exam for additional credit is if it was structured that way in the first place and the students were aware of this policy at the outset. Anything else is unfair to those who did their best at the start.

3. Extra credit is assigned to motivate students. If students aren’t working hard enough, and extra credit is the incentive, then I humbly suggest that there is a suite of pedagogical approaches that will increase student effort and engagement that don’t involve the inherent unfairness in extra credit. Extra credit encourages students to obsess over their scores rather than focus on the content of the course. If you have students jump through hoops to get a higher grade than they think they would otherwise be getting, then how does this help them learn?

4. Extra credit keeps students happier. I’m doubt this is true. Does extra credit help professors out by boosting their evaluations? I’m not aware of any evidence along these lines and my anecdotal observations suggest that some students are aware that extra credit is manipulative. Even if extra credit would pacify some otherwise unhappy students, priority should be placed on fairness.

5. Extra credit is assigned because the professor overestimated or underestimated the difficulty of the curriculum. If students are underperforming because the course was harder than the professor intended, then the scale should be shifted. If students are overperforming and extra credit is required to give students enough material for learning, then other curricular changes within the bounds of the course should be implemented.

6. Extra credit is assigned to engage students with the community. If student involvement in the community through some extracurricular activity (such as a beach cleanup, or volunteer tutoring at a local elementary school) is desired by the professor, then it should be built into the required curriculum. It’s acceptable to integrate service learning in all kinds of courses. If you don’t want to require it, but want to provide the option, then you could make this activity one of a variety of things that are worth equal required points, or you could offer the possibility without giving student an academic reward for extracurricular activities.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all in favor of an instructor calling an audible during the semester to change up all kinds of things. I often have a large amount of points to ‘homework and in class assignments.’ I often don’t know exactly what those are going to be when I start the semester. However, I’m not going to give extra points on top of those assignments. It’s simply unfair and doesn’t respect my students’ time.

When students come see me about extra credit during the semester, I explain that I don’t give extra credit because it’s unfair to students who have their time budgeted to other activities and to those who were able to perform well consistently throughout the semester. Nobody’s argued with any substance, other than, “Are you sure?” Yes, I am sure.

One strategic reason to be clear about not offering extra credit is that some students accustomed to the practice might not try hard to learn the course material in the first part of the course, hoping that extra credit might bail them out in the end. By not having extra credit, and making sure this is well known, then you might get a higher investment throughout the whole semester.

The professor-student relationship is structured by the power that the professor has over the student. By coming up with (seemingly) capricious ways to increase student scores throughout the semester, this looks like an abuse of that power to make things easier for the professor and (seemingly) harder on the students who don’t need the extra credit.

If you are providing a carrot to some students, then those who aren’t able to eat or fully digest the carrot will then see extra credit as a stick.  When I start my classes each semester, I tell my students: “The world isn’t fair. But in this classroom, I place a high value on endeavoring to be as fair as possible.” If I offered extra credit, then I’d be undermining that notion.

Many of my students work long hours outside of school, in addition to a full course load, and they also have families to care for. I’m not going to ask anything more of them other than what was in the course catalog and what I made very clear in the course syllabus. Even if I taught a bunch of students on a residential campus, who did not have major family obligations including a paying job, I still feel that extra credit would be an unprofessional manipulation that wouldn’t fairly treat those who did their best throughout the course.