Write anyway*

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This month, I started a writing/productivity challenge for myself. I wanted to start tackling many of the projects that have floundered in my year of unemployment and intensive job searching. One of my goals was to start posting here every week again. Then the USA election happened.

As a Canadian living in Sweden, it was surprising how much this election affected me. Continue reading

Teaching in a time of professor watchlists

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Teaching basic science is difficult when some folks deny the validity of science. Facts are facts, but there are powerful interests working to convince us that facts aren’t factual. Meanwhile, our incoming government is collaborating with a group that operates a watch list to track the activities of liberal professors. Earlier this year, a leading advisor to the new administration proposed reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee. I imagine that some faculty would be high up on the list of targets.

So, what should we change about what happens in our classrooms? Continue reading

It’s nice to have administrators you can trust

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Last week, our campus had its back-to-school events. Our administrators talked about their big plans.

There was one Thing that the President talked about for a few minutes.

The Provost talked about the same Thing for a half hour.

My Dean talked about It for about twenty minutes.

When I had lunch next to my Associate Dean, the conversation was about this Thing for about fifteen minutes.

Then when my department met, the Thing was discussed for about another half hour.

So what is this Thing?  Continue reading

The interplay of science and activism

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This is a guest post by Lirael.

I’m a grad student in the sciences. I’m also an activist. I spend most of my time doing one of those two things. So Amy’s recent post got me thinking about science and activism and how they mix. What do you do when needed public attention to some issue in your field turns out to be lacking in scientific literacy (or understanding of the business of science)? How, in general, do science and politics interact? What are the implications of those interactions?

When we talk about making things political, what we typically mean is reducing them to soundbites or partisan battles. But if you think of politics in a broader sense, most things are political, or at least have political implications, including science. Study on the speed and potential effects of climate change is political. Which diseases get prioritized in research funding is political. How diseases are defined is political (look up the controversy around women, the CDC, and AIDS in the early 1990s). Robotics, with its wide variety of applications, including politically charged ones like defense, manufacturing, and agriculture, is political. Politics is about people’s lives, and science affects people’s lives – isn’t that one of the reasons that many of us got into it?

Funding isn’t apolitical either. Within some fields of math and computer science, there’s significant controversy about NSA funding. One reason that I stopped working for defense contractors was my discomfort with how the funding source affected how we were thinking about the potential applications of our own work – for instance, thinking of, and presenting, work on fast pattern classification in terms of its usefulness in missile guidance rather than its usefulness in classifying ventricular arrhythmias or diagnosing retinal disorders. Or thinking of and presenting work on indoor robot navigation in terms of military applications rather than civilian emergency assistance, room cleaning, etc. And concerns about funding and conflicts of interest, especially in a biotech context, leading to bad/biased science aren’t limited to people who are clueless about how science funding works.

The Avaaz campaign pitch has a lot of cluelessness, as we’ve noted. They don’t seem to get how science is done – they think they’re going to change the field by funding a single study? They don’t consider how their funding might be just as likely to introduce bias into the science that they fund as any other funding. They don’t explain how they’re going to find a lab to fund. They don’t appear to know the state of bee research very well, or if they do, they’ve sacrificed that in the name of a more easily accessible funding pitch. So what do scientists do with this? What do activists do with this? What’s a better model than this campaign? What can we do to help ensure that people who are committed to action on the problems that affect their lives understand the science behind it?

I’ve been active in my state’s climate justice movement over the last year, and one of the things that struck me was how many scientists there were at the protests. I’ve participated in a lot of social movements, and let me tell you, that is not something that you usually see. There was a time when I was in a group doing jail support (where you wait outside a jail for arrestees to be released so that you can give them food and water and first aid and emotional support), and a tenured physicist, who was also part of the jail support group, gave an impromptu lecture on introductory thermodynamics to a group of interested fellow protesters to pass the time. I’ve gotten rides to events with people who tell me about their research in geology or atmospheric science. One of the major local organizers is on leave from a math PhD program. I’ve been on a six-day march where one evening, after we got to our camp site, we sat around and had a Q&A with a photovoltaics guy about the current state of solar energy. These people add a lot to the movement. They participate in a variety of ways, and they also educate. The climate justice movement has been bringing scientists to teach-ins, to improve other participants’ scientific literacy, for years.

Another interesting model is the Union of Concerned Scientists , which started as a project of MIT students and faculty in 1969. They produce layperson-friendly issue briefings (including on science funding as well as on relevant science and engineering issues themselves), produce original research and analysis, run scientifically-literate petition campaigns, and much more. Many of their issue briefings contain “What You Can Do” pages for laypeople, and they have an activist toolkit on their site.

Layperson activists can play important roles in the politics of science. In the first example that pops into my head, the often-confrontational AIDS action group, ACT UP, which was not exactly known for its nuance, won lower prices per patient for AIDS treatments, accelerations in FDA review of treatments, and improved NIH guidelines for clinical trials. Were there ACT UP participants who reduced complex issues of funding, safety, and research pace, to simplistic talking points? Yes. Did they sometimes say things that were unfair to well-meaning scientists? Probably. But they got results – working together with scientist-activist mentors like organic chemist Dr. Iris Long.

If you think that a movement is trying to support a worthy cause but is missing important points (or making wrong ones) with their sloganeering, help them come up with better slogans (yes, you need slogans, not just journal articles, in any form of activism) and better talking points.

The first days of a new tenure-track faculty job

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This is the season when some lucky ones preparing for new jobs in the fall. A few people have asked me what to expect, so I imagine even more are wondering. I’m writing from my own experience (starting 2.5 new faculty jobs), and yours have been different, so please do comment. What can you expect from the start, and what might you want to keep in mind? Here are some observations and some suggestions.

  • It’s more quiet and lonely than you might expect. There is a lot to do, but many tasks are solitary. September is a crazy time for everyone who is recombobulating from summertime adventures. Everybody will be glad to introduce themselves to you, but it won’t take very long before you’re sitting at the desk in your office, alone.

  • It’s busy. If you’re teaching more than you have in the past, be prepared to be overwhelmed. This is normal. It takes a while to figure out how to teach efficiently. At the outset, you can’t afford to not be an effective teacher, so learning how to be efficient is a work in progress, as you learn the acceptable standards in your new environment.

  • Define your boundaries for students at the outset, because your rep will spread quickly. If you want to get to know your students really well outside class, then be sure to leave your office door wide open and chat frequently with students. On the other hand, it’s easy to establish a reputation as a caring, fair and hard-working professor who doesn’t spend much time with students outside of class and office hours, if you set this at the outset. Time spent well with students can be the purpose of the job and the highest pleasure, but some other time spent with students could be a fruitless time sink. Find that line. The range of acceptable positions for that line varies hugely among institutions. So, listen and watch carefully.

  • From day one, decide how you will manage your classroom. The proliferation of communication devices has changed how students spend time in the classroom. Once the digital monster escapes from the box, you can’t put it back in without causing some degree of petulance. However, you can establish a clear pattern of expectations on the first day of class, which will be the structure that you need to help others deal with their addictions. This requires being proactive and isn’t something that you can effectively deal with mid-semester.

  • There is a huge amount of freedom. You have your ID, your email set up, your class schedule, supplies on the way to the lab. And then, you have absolutely nobody telling you what to do. This is, I argue, the most critical moment in your career – how do you spend the limited amount of time that you have? Are you focusing on writing grants, getting projects started, training new students, developing some curriculum, getting new experimental setups running, figuring out which grocery story to shop in, and how to make new friends in a new city? You can’t do all of these things at once, even if they all have to happen at some point. Your priorities will be based on your own circumstances, but don’t fall into a routine or a rut without planning. If you fall into a hole in which 100% of your work time is focused on the classroom, you might never be able to dig your way out. Manage your time at the outset. Of course you’re teaching more your first semesters as you are figuring things out. But it should not be all of the time, even at the start.

  • The most important person in the world can be your departmental admin person. Missing some office furniture? Direct deposit messed up? No book ordered for your course? Copier eating paper? Lab techs are often just as critical, too. Fortunately, I’m blessed with the most spectacular crew ever in my own department. I usually see these people because I need something, and I’m ever so thankful for the help I receive. Be sure to start off on a good foot because at crunch time, having these people in your corner is definitely priceless.

  • It takes years to understand university politics. This stuff affects you, but discussing the prospect for change might not be helpful. Most issues have long histories connected to big personalities, and until you know the stories and the individual players, don’t get involved.

  • If you’re a parent, and particularly if you’re a mom, then you’ve got to make sure that your spouse does his fair share of parenting. Even if you’re not a parent, but if you’re coupled, then you want to make sure that you aren’t doing more than your fair share of the duties at home. Oftentimes, domestic arrangements re-equilibrate with moving. If your career is as important as your spouse’s career, then less pleasant stuff done at home is an equal responsibility, too.

  • Identify senior faculty that you like and can trust, and not necessarily just in your own department. The working conditions and expectations of new faculty are different than those that have been on campus for a while. However, experience sometimes results in wisdom. When you need to learn context, it’s worthwhile to talk with someone who has already been there. Let’s say a couple students in your class are causing problems for you, or you don’t know how to ask the chair about leaving for a week to attend a conference. Or you need to find fresh undergrads to train in your lab, or you want to tap into campus funding for students but don’t know criteria the university-level committee uses when ranking applications. These are topics for your senior faculty mentors.

  • Maintain the time to keep yourself healthy. Make sure you still make the effort to prepare and eat real food, and be physically active however you have in the past. The time you put into exercising doesn’t cut your productivity, but increases it. When you feel good, you’ll work more efficiently and your mind will be more focused.

  • It’s okay to ask for help. You might be anxious about driving people crazy with a variety of minor inquiries, but you’re a newbie and it’s normal to try to figure things out. You were hired because the department already was confident that you’d do a good job, so it’s okay to ask questions that will help you out. Actually, as you make the rounds asking minor questions of people who could be of help, this can be a way to figure out who might evolve to become a trusted mentor.

This was not intended to be a comprehensive list, so additional input would be great, especially from those who have started a new job more recently than I have.

I also like all of the advice of Karen Kelsky about starting out your first year. I wrote this before I saw her piece, and the similarities are more than conincidental.

The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 4: Consequences of our social interactions

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This is the penultimate piece in a series on faculty-admin relations. Here are parts one, two, and three. You don’t need to get caught up to appreciate the set of tips inferred from prior observations:

  • Faculty are the ones who really run the show at universities. This is true as long as there is tenure, and especially as long as there is collective bargaining. Universities exist to let us do our research and teaching jobs, and any service on campus is designed to facilitate that core function. Any administrator that runs afoul of the faculty as a group will not be able to implement their vision with any kind of fidelity.
  • Administrators cannot be effective at serving students unless the faculty are on board.
  • In a university of adjuncts without tenure, the show is run by regional accreditors, because they can get administrators fired. This is why places run almost entirely by adjunct labor, such as “University” of Phoenix, have curricula that follow the prescriptions of regional accrediting agencies, without anything above or beyond what is required.
  • Faculty and administrators need one another. The more they can get along to meet shared goals, the better things are. When individuals pursue their own goals, that don’t contribute to the shared goal, conflict results. When there is cooperation toward shared goals, then all sides will be more able to fulfill their individual interests.
  • Good administrators and faculty share one common interest – serving students – but they also have many conflicting interests, and these are highly variable and shaped by the environment.
  • Professors typically want vastly different things from one another, so organization around a common interest is uncommon. This may result in administrators having their own interests met more often than the faculty.
  • Administrators can spend money on any initiatives they wish, but unless faculty choose to carry out the work in earnest, it will fail.
  • Conflict with your direct administrators over things that they are unable to change harms everybody. Individuals who can successfully minimize the costs of conflict are in a position to experience the greatest gain at the individual level, and these actions also serve to increase the group-level benefits of cooperation.
  • Administrators who don’t cooperate with their faculty will be ineffective, and faculty who don’t find common ground with administration don’t get what they need.
  • Universities have often evolved to take advantage of the faculty even though they collectively the machine that runs the show. Adjuncts have little power to individually control what happens in the university, and are highly subject to manipulation by administration and other faculty. If they wish to be a part of the system then they have little choice but to carry out the will of the administration.

Service obligations attack!

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Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

I’ve rarely overtly turned down service opportunities, but I’ve been able to finesse my way out a number of times.

That good run just came to a screeching halt.

Now, you may call me Senator McGlynn. I think they give us rings that our subjects may kiss.

There are different ways of taking shared governance seriously. On my campus, that is manifested with meetings every other week, for about two hours.

I’ve sat in on a couple of these meetings in the past. They have been about 42% self-aggrandizing blather by a small number of people, and 50% chiming in to affirm the importance of the blathering, accentuated with 3% of stuff that actually matters. I’ll have to go there often enough to catch that 3%. (The remaining five percent is the discussion of Sternly Worded Letters in the form of Senate Resolutions.)

Why did I agree to this momentous time suck? My department has lost so many people, and had no hires in so long, that we’re almost down to negative tenure-line faculty members. The other people in my department also have plenty of unsavory service duties and if I turned this down, then it’d be unfair to my colleagues, and I wouldn’t be pulling my share. If I said no, I’d be kind-of a jerk, if not a kind of jerk. Not a kind jerk, surely.

There is also an upside to taking this on. In the last few months, the stars have aligned and my Dean, Provost and President are all openly supportive of research and the mentorship of student researchers. I mean, they are so supportive that they’re actually putting money in that direction. There are probably some recalcitrant faculty that won’t want resources (especially reassigned time) going to research, and they might mount a last stand in the Senate. It would be handy to be there when it happens, even if the guy who runs the Senate is the biggest advocate (and example) for faculty research on campus.

I’ve been spoiled for years now, by not having to go to these kinds of meetings like I used to have to go to on a monthly basis at my old job. This time, I’ll have the wisdom to not ever attempt to reason with the unreasonable. The bottom line is that I’m very pleased that there are faculty who are heartily fighting the good fight to have control over our own university and our own curriculum. They are the ones protecting our students from administrative forces that want to push our students out of our classrooms and into online courses, and they are the ones that are fighting to keep the the campus from devolving into a career tech institute. What happens in Senate is important. I just wish I didn’t have this little part-time job in the sausage factory. But I’ve been eating the sausage for years, so it’s time I did my share.

If this is all I have to complain about this week, then life ain’t so bad.

Getting and running a big site grant in a small institution: how collaborations fail

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Here’s the message of the post in a single sentence:

You need open communication and collaboration to land and run a successful site grant, and petty concerns about sharing resources could mean that nobody gets anything.

Now here’s the rationale:

“Site grants” power research centers and student training programs. Research institutions are expected to have these big grants to make things run. These “site grants” support multiple faculty and students working together on a big project of some sort.

On a small teaching campus, having a site grant of any size has a proportionately large impact. For example, if a research university operates an NSF REU site (Research Experiences for Undergraduates), it would add a little substance and spice to business as normal. On a small teaching campus, though, an REU site could transform campus culture. It could fund a student or two in many labs and provide all kinds of ancillary support for participating faculty. It would be a big frickin’ deal.

My campus, at the moment, can’t run an REU site. We don’t have enough research active faculty to submit a credible proposal in any potential REU theme. This isn’t supposition, it’s an established fact, notwithstanding the unrealistically optimistic grant specialist that keeps suggesting it to us. (My first year on campus, I did put together a preliminary proposal for a similar program that no longer exists, the UMEB. The only reason we weren’t shot out of the water was because the grant didn’t stay afloat after it was assembled in drydock. Since that time, we’ve lost faculty who haven’t been replaced.)

Even though we can’t run an REU site, our campus actually runs a large number of other site grants. The majority of them are in education (including STEM education). There are also science site grants, including a couple NIH projects to support biomedical researchers in training, and grad school-bound students are supported by McNair and NSF-LSAMP programs. (I run a couple NSF-International Research Experiences for Students programs.) How do we we run these training programs if we don’t have the faculty? We farm the students out. For example, nearly all of the biomedical students are doing research in labs off campus in other institutions. We fund ’em and ship ’em off. This model does seem to work, to some extent, though the money from these grants then is not used to build our own laboratories or help our own scientists become successful. That is a drawback.

We could have a lot more big projects on campus, if it weren’t for one particular obstacle. That obstacle isn’t the limited number of faculty with biographical sketches that belong on a site grant. It’s the absolute absence of a collaborative attitude. It’s killed project after project, preventing them from getting to the submission stage.

I’ve seen so many grants get assembled without adequate involvement of the people who should be involved. And they’ve all either fallen apart, or are manifested in a suboptimal fashion. It’s maddening. I understand how it happens, and that’s exactly why it’s so maddening.

The people who control the money of these site grants have power that comes with allocating the budget. They can bring faculty on to the grant by giving them extra stipends, summer salary and reassigned time. They can fund your students, or choose to not fund your students. They can get access to space on campus that others can’t use. Also, the people with these grants have the ear of the administration, and since money begets money, this means that power begets even more influence.

Just like when people become rich they’re more likely to hate paying taxes, some faculty members in charge of grants start becoming stingy. Even worse, faculty members who are even thinking of being involved in grants get paranoid. They don’t want to talk about their plans for developing a grant. Any conversation even mentioning the grant should be “invitation only” (that is an actual quote, by the way). The thinking is, just like when you win the lottery and everybody becomes your best friend, then if you land a big grant then everyone’s going to nibble at you for a piece. That’s messed-up thinking.

Most people here writing grants do it behind closed doors, hush-hush, and if they decide to cut you in, it’s on a need-to-know basis.

I’ve seen this happen with four different projects in the last month. I was recently at a meeting to work on developing a proposal, and there was a side conversation referring to things to which I was not privy. When I asked, I was merely told, “it’s political.” Am I a collaborator or am I a little child?

Here’s another absurdity with which I was involved. A couple administrators and a few faculty members were discussing how to put together a particular proposal. The fact that we were all there to discuss the project was clearly a positive. It was clear that the person in charge had a clear vision for what the project was supposed to do, and her job was to bring us in line though she was open to hearing good ideas. After a while, a variety of specifics were discussed, a grantwriter was ready to go, and we were moving ahead. The next step: one of the administrators was to contact another person and inform him that he was going to be the PI.

Huh?!? That has to be an awkward conversation: “Hi there, Bob, so we met this afternoon to plan a big grant, we have a grantwriter doing it all, and we have the people to do the work on the project. It’s all set. And you’re PI. I know you don’t know anything about this, but that’s not a problem. Could you sign the paperwork?” This is what passes for collaboration ’round these parts.

Why are people doing these projects in the first place? Is it to get the job done the best way possible? If so, then shouldn’t the key personnel in the project be part of the conversation?

Here’s another illustrative anecdote: Last year, I was walking across campus and one of my administrators was showing around an off-campus colleague who was visiting for the day. I was walking alongside another faculty member. When she introduced the two of us, she didn’t say:

“This is Terry McGlynn, rainforest ant ecologist, and this is Horatio Wigglesworth, who works on apoptosis in naked mole rats.”

Instead, she said,

“Hi, this is Terry McGlynn, funded by NSF. This is Horatio Wigglesworth, funded by NIH.”

There was nary a mention of what we actually did. She communicated in a few words, what mattered to her: that we had grants. What we did with those grants was secondary. To her, the grant itself was what mattered, not the work that was empowered by the grant. This kind of thinking is not only petty, but it’s also wasteful because this mindset results in a focus on getting grants, rather than focusing on identifying funding for the projects that have the greatest need. The latter approach is the one that results in grants that are not only funded, but also successful.

Why do I choose to run the projects that I do? I have two big reasons. I love doing the research connected to them. And I’m committed to giving students the biggest and best opportunities I can create for them. That is clearly not a motivation for faculty cooking up these big projects and are being secretive. The reason they don’t want to talk about it isn’t because they fear the project will fail, but they fear that too many people will be part of its success. (Note that, even if you are successful in research and grantsmanship, that won’t help your baseline salary at all, as I’ve already addressed in a prior post.)

Here are some of the horrible reasons for getting grants that I see far too often:

  • Pay oneself extra stipends and summer salary (typically for not doing more work)
  • Be liberated from teaching
  • Enable one to spend less time on campus
  • Increase one’s power or prestige

These reasons are ones that can explain why there isn’t collaboration. If you’re running a project to keep things for yourself and your fiefdom, then to bring others in would just weaken your power while helping the students.

So, what’s the problem with ambition and wanting to be powerful and have influence? I’ll tell you the problem: it prevents reasonable people from actually doing their job to teach and help students grow. It prevents the projects from getting off the ground. If you’re in a lifeboat, you just can’t paddle in the direction you want to go. You need to communicate with the other people in the boat.

Territoriality around grants prevents conversations that bring in the best ideas, and also sometimes prevents the involvement of the most effective people who should be in on these projects.

Here’s another relevant anecdote from the grant silliness of the past month: A faculty member in education, who is operating one site grant at the moment, is now preparing for another one, involving science curricula and teacher preparation. On our campus, there’s one science faculty member that advises pre-service teachers on their science coursework, and is working with existing science education projects. It’s a no-brainer that this faculty member should be involved in developing this new science education grant. (It happens to be me.) Instead, of talking to me, the education faculty writing this grant hits up two of my department mates, who have absolutely no involvement in pre-service teacher advisement and curricula. She walks into their offices, and says, “I’ve written this grant, it’s all done. I’ll give you this amount of money if you give me a letter of support.”

Why did she want their letters of support, instead of talking to me, the guy who actually would be in a position to provide actual, genuine support instead of a mere letter? Because she didn’t want any of their help. She just wanted the letterhead. She wanted to buy them off to get the grant and have her own way without actually having them contribute to the project. Why didn’t she want any of us involved? Because our involvement would take time and money. It would involve synergies with other existing projects, but those aren’t under her control. It would actually improve the project, but that’s not what was important. Controlling the budget on her end, for her to spend it as she wishes, is what mattered.

I don’t know if she’ll get the grant or not. But what I do know is that the grant would be better if she talked to at least some of us before she wrote it. Why didn’t she want to talk to us while drafting it? Because we’d want a bigger piece than she was wiling to offer. Good for her, bad for the students.

Here’s a simple guiding principle: If you’re developing a project, you need to talk with all of the potential participants involved to not only gauge interest, but also to develop the best possible proposal.

If you do consult widely, then how do you keep it from growing out of control and having too many people demand a piece? That’s easy. It’s called leadership. That kind of leadership, though, just like that of Ernest Shackleton, means that you can’t elevate yourself on a pedestal, and you have to put the needs of those who you lead on the same par as your own needs, if not above your own needs. The PI with the most sway on our campus does exactly that, and it’s his collaborative attitude that puts students first is exactly the thing that’s made him so successful. It’s why I respect his work so much and why I always work with him when I have the opportunity. It’s what makes him so trustworthy and reliable, and also what makes his projects incredibly effective, or as they say, impactful.

Meanwhile, everyone else that can’t have a big enough piece of that particular pie is trying to build their own little walled fiefdom.

Perhaps because I study animals that live in social groups, I know that cooperation with others, even those with whom you have some conflict, leads to greater productivity for everybody. My fellow faculty members, for the most part, aren’t receptive to this lesson in animal behavior and game theory.

I hope that, on your campus, there’s a better spirit of collaboration.

Upon reading this post, the night before it came out, my spouse asked me, “Do you think that by writing about people not being team players, that you’re not being a team player?” That’s a really good point. I suppose that if the individuals in my anecdotes whom I do not name recognize themselves, then I won’t be on their team in any point in the near future. However, even if they never see this post, I still wouldn’t have been on their team regardless.

I wanted to write a post about how collaboration and cooperation can lead to better site grant proposals. Then, I realized that based on my recent experiences, that focusing on the negative makes my point quite well, because at a distance these stories are so absurd. They demonstrate how being secretive and exclusive about writing grants is absurd. For the record, the site grant of which I’m now a Co-PI was written in a highly collaborative manner, with all partners (including some who didn’t make the cut) in on the discussions from the very beginning. Building this project that way has helped us respond to unforeseen changes and challenges really well, and if we didn’t do the outreach at the beginning, it would have been not nearly as successful.