On absurd tenure requirements at small institutions

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As this site continues to grow, the more I hear about issues that people face in teaching-focused institutions. There is one issue that I consistently hear about, but I have yet to mention: nonsensical tenure requirements for scholarship, especially in small liberal arts colleges. The most common one is: When an entire college or university uses the same publication expectations for all faculty. In. Every. Field. Continue reading

Should I stay or should I go now?

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Or maybe an alternative title could be “The Accidental Academic”.

This November I heard back from the two main Swedish funding agencies that I didn’t receive a grant this round. For me this means not only that I don’t have funds to run my lab, but also that I don’t have a position for myself. Because my temporary professor position is coming to an end, no grant also means no funding for my salary and I’m transitioning to being an unemployed academic.

So, should I stay or should I go now? The question has been rattling round in my head ever since I got the grant rejections. Continue reading

How often should tenure-track faculty be reviewed?

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How often should pre-tenure faculty files have to submit files for review? Too often can be annoying and stressful, too much work for all. If reviews are too infrequent, then pre-tenure faculty might have more anxiety and uncertainty, and final decisions may be inadequately informed.

How often does your university review pre-tenure faculty? How often do you think it should be? Continue reading

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

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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

What to do if you’re facing tenure denial

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A nontrivial fraction of tenure-track faculty are denied tenure, well over the standard 5% threshold for Type I errors that we use in the sciences. Even though academia has a love for self-scrutiny, we overlook the consequences of tenure denial. Tenure denial is not rare, but thoughtful information about tenure denial is rare. Continue reading

Which institutions request external review for tenure files?

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Today, I’m submitting my file for promotion. It’s crazy to think I submitted my most recent tenure file five years ago, it feels closer to yesterday. Unless I get surprised (and it wouldn’t be the first time), I’ll be a full Professor if I’m here next year. And yet, throughout this entire process, there has been zero external validation of tenure and promotion. I think this is really odd. Continue reading

History will not repeat itself (i.e. lessons learned as a first-year faculty member)

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By Sarah Bisbing

I survived my first year as a faculty member. In fact, I think I even did pretty well if I consider my student evals and the number of end-of-year hugs received. I’m going to pat myself on the back. Why? Because being a first-year faculty member (or really an any-year faculty member, as far as I can tell) makes you feel like you are in a constant state of fight or flight. I did know what I was getting myself into by starting down the path to tenure, but I also really didn’t have any idea what it would actually feel like. I was exhausted from living in a constant state of undone to-dos and never-ending lists, and I felt a bit like I was drowning. This reality hit me hard about half way through my first year, and I decided that I needed to come up with a better strategy for survival. I thought hard about my experiences to-date as a new professor and came up with my own rules of the game. And, you know what, I think I made some significant strides in managing my time and surviving the uphill battle toward tenure. Continue reading

How honest should I be about my career goals? My post-PhD story.

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My post-PHD journey is peppered throughout the posts I write here but I was inspired by a blog carnival over at the Contemplative Mammoth to put together a single post. After May 28th Jacquelyn Gillpromises to compile all the links, so if you’re interested in what people do after their PhDs, head on over there.

Long before I finished my PhD, my path in academia was never particularly clear. I came to research late in my undergraduate studies and at every stage I have thought: “Well this is interesting, challenging and fun, so lets see if I can find a masters/PhD/position”. I knew that at each of these filters there was a real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to find the next position. So I remained cautiously optimistic but always thought that at some point I would have to figure out what to do when I go up. Since I was aware of the possibility that I wouldn’t find a position along the academic trail, I’ve never been focused on a tenure-track position as the only career choice that will make me happy. But as I have progressed, I wonder how honest I should be about this fact.

You see I’m not convinced that I will end up as a professor. I know that it takes an incredible combination of skill and luck to land a position. Although I ended up doing a PhD in one of the top programs of my field, when I applied there were other top schools that didn’t invite me to interview. So even at that stage I was aware that there is variance in decisions and that I am not one of the applicants with a flawless CV (at that stage I had good research experience but less than top undergraduate grades and GRA scores). Last year I was one of the selected candidates to interview for two positions in Sweden. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get either but what was interesting was that I applied for the positions with two of my colleagues. The person who got one of the positions wasn’t even invited to interview at the other and the two of us that did interview for both flipped in ranking between the two jobs. I don’t take this as a sign that the system is random but rather that when comparing good candidates, how qualities are weighted will always vary between selection committees. But of course it does worry me that I might never quite make it to the top of the list.

So given what I think is a somewhat realistic frame of mind, I have always taken the ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. That means that in conversations throughout my career I have not been dead certain that being a professor is my one and only goal. But when I’m honest about my uncertainty, I find that it can be mistaken for a lack of desire or drive. Like hinting that you are aware that there are few permanent professor positions and the reality is that you might not get one means you aren’t interested in continuing in academia.

To be clear: I love my job. I am sometimes afraid to admit how much I enjoy it, like a kid not wanting to jinx my chances. Sure there are lots of things that stress me out about this path but when I take a moment to think about it, I love my job. I love being able to think about new questions and new problems all the time. I love teaching and getting students excited about the world around them. I love the challenges I face that force me to grow and learn all the time. I love to write and present findings at conferences. I love talking to people about their work and collaborating. As a career, I can’t think of any better and I truly hope that I can keep on doing what I’m doing.

But here’s the catch: I’m not willing to sacrifice everything to achieve a tenure track position. I have a family that I need to consider if we make a move for a position, but I also have a family that I want to spend time with. For me that means I work less than I could and that is certainly is reflected in my publication rate. So when I look at my CV, I see that I could do better but I also know that I don’t want to trade-off my happiness now for some uncertain happiness in the future when I have tenure.

So should I be honest about my uncertainty? I have become wary of talking too frankly because I don’t want the perception to be that I’m not dedicated. Thus far I have been fortunate that I have been able to keep going in academia and I haven’t seriously considered other options. I might have to do that when my current funding runs out but for now I continue on working towards an eventual permanent position.

So for me, my post-PhD story doesn’t have an ending. I still feel in flux and don’t know where I will end up, geographically or otherwise. But for now I’m enjoying the ride.

Avoiding bad teaching evaluations: Tricks of the trade

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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.]

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:

BeHappySnippet

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.

Coming out of the closet, tenure denial edition

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With a bit of CV forensics, you can infer a lot about the career of an academic.

One potential indicator of tenure denial is employment as an Assistant Professor for seven years, not immediately followed by an Associate Professorship. An astute person mulling over my CV would notice this.

I don’t hide this fact, but I don’t advertise it either. It’s no secret, by any means.

Volunteering this fact comes with some serious baggage. It’s not like I was denied at Harvard, where denial is the default expectation. In my last job, tenure denial was a rarity. You had to really botch it to get denied. While I had some high-performing colleagues, I also had one colleague who was tenured despite not publishing anything after getting hired. Others moved successfully through the system even though they were notably ineffective in the classroom. Even though the bar was low, I didn’t make it over.

The standard of line of thought must be that I really sucked at my job, or I must have been a major jerk. It’s difficult to argue against that reasoning.

Tenure denial is a failure. Tenure denial can be caused by poor professional performance, poor navigation of politics, or by personal faults. I would bet that, if any of you called up my former colleagues who were involved in the process, that their explanation might be evenly split among the three possible causes, and maybe a trifecta of all three.

The experience of tenure denial is extraordinarily difficult. It’s painful and lonely. There is a mixture of grief and loss, often heavily salted with injustice. Take the angst involved in the path towards a tenure-track position, and mix in six more years of effort. Then, top that with your spouse’s career and bake in your personal finances. It’s hard to describe, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

How, exactly, did this happen? I actually have already explained it elsewhere. Throughout my terminal year, I shared the story over a series of four installments in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I wrote a follow-up column a few years later, as I was waiting to hear the tenure decision at my current institution. Here are the links:

Part 1, October 2006: No warning signs

Part 2: November 2006: A way out of this mess

Part 3: February 2007: Reviving my career

Part 4: May 2007: A fresh start

Part 5, February 2010: Life after tenure denial

[update, Part 6: January 2014: Tenure denial, seven years later]

I also have another installment in the works, which I’ll probably publish later on this site. I have learned some new lessons, and new facts, since the 2010 installment. [update: here is that installment]

These articles were published pseudonymously. Obviously, at the time it would have been unwise to discuss my job search process in real time under my real name, especially in my delicate position. (The only fact that I altered in the columns was that I switched the gender of a couple individuals.) Because I didn’t use my own name, the reach of those articles might have been limited. If I want to make a bigger difference by having written these articles, then connecting my real name to them might create a better understanding because I don’t have to obscure any details about myself.

There are pluses and minuses about coming out. I’ll have detractors who claim that I deserved what I got. Others might think that I fabricated or exaggerated details. Others might think that I’m oblivious to my ample flaws. Still others might think that this fact explains more than it does. I’ll have to deal with those things, because the benefits of coming out are great. There are plenty of people who are looking for a new tenure-track job after tenure denial, but there’s little information to be found from those who have gone through the process. I think those going through this process might benefit from some of the details about the things that worked and didn’t work out for me. (They also might see some hope in my happy ending, which at the outset I never could have foreseen.)

I am, admittedly, more fond of my current job than my last one. I don’t think this difference is caused by my nasty experience, but could reflect that I am genuinely a better fit for my current job. The sources of great pleasure in my current job were scarce in my old job, and the things that I dislike about my current job were in far greater supply at my old job.

So, have at it. If you wish to leave comments about this story, I do recommend that you read the five columns to which I have linked.

On creating your own path through life

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This weekend, I took my kid to a Mythbusters live show. When I left, I was inspired.

The source of inspiration wasn’t the world’s most impressive paintball gun, modified from an anti-aircraft machine gun. Though that was pretty cool.

I was inspired by learning about the wandering path taken by Jamie Hyneman. He’s the quieter Mythbuster that always wears a beret and has walrus-y facial hair. A one-page bio of Hyneman was in the big glossy program connected to the show.

As long as it’s all true, it seems that Jamie Hyneman has led one hell of a life. I’ll try to capture his trajectory, based on what I learned from his bio as well as his Q&A session during the show. The timing of all these things is rather vague to me, but here are highlights:

  • He grew up in a small Midwestern town. When he was 14, at his request, his parents sent him to a hardcore wilderness survival training school in Wyoming.
  • When he graduated from high school he bought a pet shop, and then sold it after a few years.
  • He went to college and got a degree in Russian. At one point along the line, he worked as a librarian for the United Nations in Geneva.
  • He worked as crew on sailing vessels in the Caribbean. He eventually bought his own ship, and got all the certifications to be a captain, and sailed around for a living.
  • He was interested in the various creative challenges with movie effects, so he left for New York City, where he started working in entry-level jobs in movie production, working to gain new skills.
  • He moved to San Francisco to access more exciting movie production work, and when his company folded he bought up the shop and went into business for himself. One of the guys he hired along the line was Adam Savage. At some point he asked Adam to join him in a pilot for Mythbusters, and you can figure out the trajectory for the following ten years up to the present.

I hear far too often, “What can I do with a degree in X?” This question comes with a false assumption: what you do after college must directly follow from the undergraduate degree. When a premed asks me what’s a good major, I say: “What do you find interesting? Since you’re going to be a doctor for your whole life, then what do you want to do before you get trained as a doctor? Art? Philosophy? Economics? Cell Biology? Music?”

Jamie Hyneman became a Mythbuster, with a degree in Russian. One of my siblings became a financial manager with a degree in Art. Another became a middle school special education teacher with a degree in Theater. A friend of mine became an FBI agent with a degree in Biology.

We chart our own paths in life. Far too often, we let our past decisions dictate our future directions far more than necessary.

The way that academics discuss their jobs in the university, they make it sound like we are captive to our disciplines. Tenure has been called the golden handcuffs. That’s pretty much the silliest notion ever. You can study — and do — whatever you want with tenure.

Linus Pauling, a tenured protein chemist, won a goddamn Nobel Peace Prize because of his social activism. This didn’t happen because he was handcuffed to the laboratory. Then again, nobody ever used the term “golden handcuffs” in the day of Linus Pauling. Nobody told him he couldn’t be both a scientist and social activist.

Jamie Hyneman could have made a go at his Indiana pet shop until retirement, or he could have stayed on as a Russian librarian, or he could have been running a sailing business in the Caribbean for his career. Or he could have kept to movie effects and never made a TV pilot. Mythbusters isn’t the culmination of his life. It’s just one chapter, albeit a very public one. He’s chosen an exciting and rewarding route.

All of our lives are short, and from the looks of it, Jamie Hyneman is making the most of his.

My trajectory is as linear as Hyneman’s has been circuitous. I went to high school, then college. Then I farted around for a year before grad school. Then I did a postdoc, visiting faculty, assistant professor, associate professor. I’ve lived in different places but I have been a scientist since the age of 20, and I enjoy science so much, that I’ll just keep doing it.

I have a very rare gift – tenure – and I don’t want to waste it. I have the opportunity to attempt the extraordinary, and am able to keep my stable job and pension in my back pocket the whole time. I’d like to think that what I am doing, on a day-to-day basis, is a part of this attempt. This blog is part of the attempt, and the continued effort to provide opportunities to my students is part of that attempt. This attempt at the extraordinary means that I will continue to pursue high-risk experiments that might not work but could turn out to be exciting. I’d like to think that with less personal security, I’d be just as inclined to take chances. I don’t know how true that would be.

The most extraordinary endeavors can also appear, on the outside, to be the most mundane. Being a parent, and spouse, is a special responsibility and joy. Sometimes the most extraordinary thing is making waffles for my family on a weekend morning. That might seem like an odd take-home message from a night out with the Mythbusters. But if Jamie can give up his gig as a Russian librarian to become a movie special effects wiz, then I can be, and do, far more than the stereotyped professor, husband and father.

This purposefulness about living an intentional life did not emerge in isolation. Overwhelming anything related to Mythbusters, this weekend my family experienced a loss that was was simultaneously sudden and gradual. I’ve been freshly reminded of the brevity and preciousness of life.

Perhaps the best way to honor those that have given us life is to make utility of this life as much as possible. It can be entirely workable that inspiration for our own utility can come from unconventional sources.

Teaching Tuesday: Interviewing–the teaching test lecture

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This week I’ve been a bit distracted by instructions I’ve been given for a demonstration teaching lecture. It is for a permanent position in my department so the interview is stressful, important, and far from certain. There are three others interviewing for the spot, all colleagues and/or collaborators*, all friends, and all deserving of the position. It is also a little strange in that you can exactly know the CV of your fellow candidates and that all of us will show up for work after the interview, regardless of the result of the job search. The only difference is that one of us will have a permanent job and the others will not (still). I have talked a bit about the Swedish interview process previously and the upcoming one will function in a similar way. One major difference is that in addition to a short research lecture, we’ve been asked to give a 20 min teaching lecture. The topic is outside everyone’s expertise (Ecology of Plant-Pathogen Interactions), so in some senses an even playing field.

I have taught classes previously but not on this particular topic. But given that I’ve never done a demonstration lecture, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to tackle the task. Unfortunately, teaching talks don’t seem to be a common feature of the interview process, so unlike the research seminars and chalk talks, there isn’t so much out there (see Meg Duffy’s post on links for tenure-track job searches, for example).

However, I did find this helpful post about giving test lectures with a focus on those given to actual students in an on-going class (yikes!). It would be tough to drop in on a class that has already established a rhythm between the students and teacher, although I think it would be a good test of your teaching. It might not be fair to the students in the course, however, if they are continually interrupted by different interviewees. The teaching talks I’ve heard of are more commonly to faculty and maybe grad students. Anurag Agrawal compiles some advice on finding an academic job with this bit of wisdom on the teaching lecture (you can find more advice here; HT: Meg):

Teaching talks: Many places will have you give a teaching talk—they may give you a topic or let you choose one from a list. Some will want a sample lecture—others may actually want a verbal statement of your teaching philosophy. In general, ask those around you that actually teach those subjects for outlines or notes. It is usually fine to have notes for your teaching talk. They will probably ask you to not use slides, but overheads and handouts may be very useful. The faculty may interrupt you during your talk and pretend to be students asking questions. Try not to get flustered by them, but rather have fun with them.

Even before reading this, I began my canvasing of people for lectures on plant-pathogen interactions. So far I haven’t found it to be a common topic in ecology courses (if you lecture on the topic and are willing to share, yes please!). So after researching for this interview, I might also advocate for including the lecture in one of our ecology courses (I have funding for two more years regardless of the outcome of the interview).

I’ve only had one experience with this sort of interview requirement and that was indirect. When I was a masters student, my department was hiring a number of people to expand and we were also going to an Integrative Biology model from an organismal division (merging depts). So there were a lot of positions (~6) and likely a lot of opinions on how to best fill them from colleagues who hadn’t worked together before. In any event, I got to witness a bunch of job talks and meet with a lot of candidates. It was a useful lesson as a grad student but the one portion that was closed was the test lectures. I’m guessing these were to distinguish people’s ability from very different fields but I don’t know what the exact instructions were. We (the grad students) did hear rumours that some people’s talks were terrible, so it clearly doesn’t do to blow teaching talks off. But how to do it well?

Turning to advice on how to give lectures can give some clues. Improving lecturing has a bunch of hints and tips for generally improving your lectures. Another list of practical pointers for good lectures is focused mainly on the classroom but can also be helpful in thinking about how to demonstrate your teaching. I had to link this good talk advice for the hilarious nostalgia it created for the overhead strip tease (advice: don’t do it, and I think this also applies to powerpoint reveals).

From the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center (many useful pdfs here including one on giving effective talks), it is better to:

  1. Talk than read
  2. Stand than sit
  3. Move than stand still
  4. Vary your voice’s pitch than speak in a monotone
  5. Speak loudly facing your audience rather than mumble and speak into your notes or blackboard
  6. Use an outline and visual aids than present without them
  7. Provide your listeners with a roadmap than start without an overview

There is also this simple and eloquent advice from a twitter friend:

My plan is to demonstrate how I would give a lecture to a course, including emphasizing where I would stop lecturing and turn things over to the students. As I move away from straight lecturing, it feels a little strange to demonstrate my teaching through lecturing only. But I only have 5 minutes to describe the structure of the course, where this lecture would fit in and how I would evaluate learning, followed by the first 15 minutes of the lecture. Given all that is required to pack into 20 mins, this teaching talk is really a demonstration, rather than a lecture. I won’t prepare for it as I would do for a regular course lecture and given my unfamiliarity with the topic, it is also going to take a fair amount of research. This is a job interview, so I know it isn’t really a teaching lecture, it is a performance. One I’m hoping will convince the committee to let me get on with actual teaching for years to come.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done a teaching lecture as a part of their interview! Advice on how to nail this will be greatly appreciated by me but I’m sure others on the TT job search will also appreciate pointers.

*

relationships

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.

The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 2: We are social animals

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I’ve noticed that faculty members are prone to discuss administrators almost as frequently as discussing their own students.

You might think that this is odd, because most faculty rarely interact with their administrators. However, our ability to do our jobs and our quality of life is controlled more by administrators than by students.

Administrators can give you time and they can take it away. The same goes for space, money, service, and – for the first six years – our jobs.

Faculty members are often in surreptitious or overt conflict with their administration. Many of these conflicts can develop from the fact that some professors are irrationally upset with, and overly judgmental of, administrators. While there are often rational grounds for being mad at your administrators, these conflicts are often amplified because some faculty misunderstand the fundamental nature of the faculty-administration relationship.

I’ve used my familiarity with the social biology of animals to consider the relationship between faculty and administrators. I’m sure a sociologist would hate me for this because of the oversimplification and duplication of existing theory, but if you’re not a sociologist, then please read on.

In every social group, relationships are forged through both conflict and cooperation. Groups of distinct individuals persist because the benefits of the group outweigh the costs of being in the group. Cooperation emerges, in theory, because the greater benefits of cooperation outweigh the cost incurred through cooperation.

Faculty members can’t really do their main jobs (research and teaching) without the cooperation of the university. Administrators can’t really do their jobs (make the university run and fulfill the overt and tacit missions of the institution) without having the faculty carry out the grunt work of that job.

Let’s be clear: Faculty are the necessary grunts of the university. We are the ones that do the essential job of the campus (except for some schools, where the coaches and athletes are central). Without us, the university has no way to exist.

Next week: How our universities are like ant colonies.

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

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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.

The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations: Part 1: Know Your Bosses

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Being a professor is a relatively unique job. We have near-total authority over how we do our jobs, but there are a lot of interests working to shape what we do and how we do it. How we interact with the administration at our university can affect whether we can be successful in what we want to do.

Here’s a way to think about how we approach our jobs, as researchers and teachers within universities.

If you have a salary, you have a boss.

We should consider what structures our relationships with our bosses. Because professors enjoy academic freedom, and those with tenure are free to speak their minds on nearly everything, this relationship is different than most boss-employee relationships.

To do our jobs well, we need to understand the nature of our relationship with our bosses. We need to know how this relationship affects how we interact with our students, and the research community outside our campus.

When the faculty vision of the boss-professor relationship is incongruent with the vision of administrators, things can fall apart.

Here I consider the differing roles of professors and their bosses in the university, and how these distinct roles can work together to maximize the benefit for all parties: administrators, faculty, students, and the scholarly community. By understanding how the faculty-admin relationship is structured, we can all relate to one another in a fashion that fits not only our own interests, but also allow us to provide more and better opportunities for students.

Administrators can empower, or minimize, your ability to get stuff done. By understanding the areas of cooperation and the areas of conflict with administration, we can work to maximize the benefits for all parties. Administrators won’t make decisions in the interests of faculty unless it meets their own interests as well. So, you need to understand not only your own interests, but also the interests of your bosses.

Less valid complaints about not getting a tenure-track faculty position

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We produce way more PhD scientists than the existing demand for tenure-track faculty positions. That’s a straight up fact that we all recognize. The corollary to this fact is that people planning to get PhD must recognize that there must be a multiplicity of careers to keep in mind while in graduate school.  (There’s a great guest post at Dynamic Ecology on this topic.)

So, I’m sympathetic to the notion that there are many excellent people out there that, on account of both deterministic and random processes, don’t land faculty positions despite a sincere and dogged pursuit of that goal. I have some colleagues whose research record and teaching skills (as well as collegiality) have merited a great position, but haven’t landed one, or who took a mighty long time to do so.

Obviously, the system is messed up in a variety of ways. I’m not going to get into that, because, really, you can find that on every other blog out there. That niche is well covered.

Tenured professors are probably in the worst position to remark on the fact that it is hard it is to get a faculty position. So, to make my point here, I’m going out on a limb, albeit a sturdy one.

I take issue with one specific variety of complaint: “I never got a faculty position because of X.”

If X is anything other than the paucity of jobs, then these statements typically rely on unsubstantiated claims, false expectations and incomplete knowledge of oneself as well as job availability.

What are the kinds of X I’ve heard over the years? All kinds of crazy stuff. Some people who don’t get a job can find all kinds of rationalizations. There isn’t a secret job czar out there preventing any search committee from picking somebody, and there’s no collusion going on among different interview committees. Some people get lots of offers, some only get one, and many don’t get any. The outcome is initially determined by what’s inside the application, and finally by how the person interviews. There is a great deal of hap involved. Very good people might not get jobs.

On this theme, here is the outrageous X statement of the week:

Discover the secret of the 17-year-cicada, but it won’t get you tenure

When I first saw the link to this post in the Scientific American Guest Blog, I was excited to finally learn the elusive secret of the periodic cicada! Clicking through, my mind spun with possibilities: Were cicadas actually Somali pirates in a past life? Were cicadas once married to a reclusive billionaire who enslaved hamsters in a miniature dungeon decorated with novelty leather goods? Are cicadas actually descended from beluga whales in a fluke of evolution? Was there some mathematical modeling combined with cytogenetics, fossil reconstructions and ultra-fine-scale radiometric dating that fully resolved the question about whether their periodicity evolved only in prime numbers?

I wasn’t even close.

It turns out the “secret” is that male periodical cicadas have a ritualized courtship routine, involving annoying whirring in a very specific fashion, that’s required to be able to access females. I think it is about as elaborate as lampyrid beetles (fireflies), though without the light show.

As far as my 10-min bibliographic search got me, I believe that this find was first published in the journal Behaviour in 2001 (pdf). It’s good work. According to Google Scholar, it’s been cited 37 times since it’s been published, which is well above the average paper (not that the number of citations directly reflects how valuable or important something is, of course). This finding is important for outreach, considering the public interest in periodical cicada emergences.

I admit, however, that I was disappointed to find out the “secret” because I was expecting something more amazing. I imagine that figuring out precisely how cicadas use their loud sounds to attract females would require some tricky timing in the field, since sex is highly seasonal. It takes 17 years of development for an individual to get to the point when it’s ready to have sex, though there’s a decent emergence, somewhere, on most years.

The dilemma of the cicada researcher isn’t that different from most scientists who study highly seasonal phenomena. I also can relate to this problem. Up until I came up for tenure, all of my data collection in a year was done in a 3 week chunk of time, not because of seasonality, but because it involved working in a distant rainforest when I wasn’t teaching. So I know how hard it is to do research while having to travel and cram your work into a short period of time.

This piece wasn’t written by John Cooley or by David Marshall, the cicada researchers who figured out the “secret,” but instead by “musician, composer, author and philosopher-naturalist” David Rothenberg. Cooley was interviewed by Rothenberg. I don’t know either of them personally, and Rothenberg is good writer. If you’re not an entomologist familiar with animal behavior and field biology, you might allow Rothenberg into tricking you into thinking that the solid and interesting research by Cooley and Marshall comprised “such a momentous discovery.”

Here’s what Rothenberg writes:

It is shocking that even after publishing numerous papers on this unique aspect of animal behavior, there is no permanent place in academy for either of them.

and

“Frankly I’m shocked that you guys don’t both have prestigious positions, for the remarkable cicada discoveries you’ve made.”

Really?

I’d like one of those prestigious positions, too.

Tenure-track positions are not awards for prior discoveries. They are investments into the promise of future work. Unless you have a Nobel Prize or are a member of the National Academy, you aren’t hired for what you’ve done. Universities hiring tenure-track faculty only take into account prior publications and discoveries as an indicator of what they may expect in the future. Publications don’t win you a job, they are only one prerequisite. To get a job, you need to convince others that you are capable of generating a string of publications like the ones you’ve already been able to do in the past.

I don’t want to pick on Cooley and Marshall, but since Cooley was letting Rothenberg size up his academic prestige in the Scientific American blog, then I suppose it’s okay for me to do so in this more obscure venue. In the context of the academic job market, I want to put their achievements in the perspective of my own experience.

I finished my dissertation around the same time as Cooley and Marshall, and I’ve probably taught as much as they have since we finished our dissertations. Our publication records aren’t markedly different, though if you care about those things, my h-score is only slightly higher and I’ve had a more recent papers. In terms of research citation, recognition, productivity and so on, we’re roughly on the same par, I suspect. They probably garner more media attention when there’s a big cicada emergence, like the one that prompted Rothenberg’s post.

Another difference among us is that I’m a tenured Associate Professor and that they aren’t on the tenure track. So, why is that? Is it because they’ve chosen to work on an organism that’s difficult to work with in its seasonality and longevity? That’s what Rothenberg implied. They’ve chosen a difficult research angle, and though making discoveries, they are being punished for working on a less tractable system by not getting a job. At least, that is the tacit message of the article as I read it.

Meanwhile, I have a few colleagues in mind, with a research record way more robust than myself, Cooley or Marshall. And they’re not landing faculty positions, either.

The scientists who are landing faculty positions have CVs that are ripe with potential. You look at their past performance, and you think to yourself, “this person has a really great research career ahead of them.”

Why are there so many scientific researchers, with a consistently solid though non-rockstar record, such as Cooley, who can’t land tenure-track job?

First, and obviously, faculty jobs in the sciences are very hard to get, though not as bad as in the humanities.

Second – and this is my main point in this post – they’re not applying for the jobs.

How do I know that? Isn’t that presumptuous of me? Only slightly.

Let me put this idea another way: Going through the records in my department, I can go through and find the names of everyone who applied for the job in which I am currently working, to which I applied in 2006. Is Cooley’s name in that list? Is Marshall’s name in that list?

In 2006, I applied to 91 faculty or faculty-esque jobs (like a museum), for all of which I was qualified and for many of which I was a good fit. I got a handful of interviews, and two offers. (One more offer might have been forthcoming if I continued shopping for a job.)

Is Cooley applying for 91 jobs per year?

You might be saying to yourself, “91 jobs? How could there 91 jobs in a year?” If so, then my reply is, “There are that many jobs every year. They’re just not published in Science or Nature. They’re jobs that you might think are below you. I’m in one of those jobs that might be below you. I don’t think it was advertised in Science, though it was in the Chronicle of Higher Education.”

Keep in mind that both Cooley and Marshall are generalized cicada biologists, with academic experience and publications in entomology, behavior, ecology, and evolution. There are lots of academic tenure-track jobs for which their CV is suited. Few of these jobs, however, are at research universities.

When many scientists say they can’t get a faculty position, what they often mean is, “I can’t get a faculty position that enables me to do lots of research, doesn’t require much time teaching, in a place where I wouldn’t mind living.”

Wouldn’t we all.

We are hoping to advertise for two positions in our department in the fall, and we are probably going to be open to all kinds of fields and subfields. Is Cooley applying? If he isn’t, then he doesn’t have the right to say that he can’t land a tenure-track job, and he shouldn’t enable Rothenberg to complain on his behalf.

At our university, Cooley wouldn’t be a rock star, but he’d be one of the best researchers on campus. I don’t know how many double-digit h-index scientists we have, but he’d be in a small minority.

I’m open to being wrong. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised to go back to that file cabinet in our departmental office, maybe in the basement, and see a cover letter from Cooley. (I can’t do this since I’m writing this from the field.) The university where I work is a perfectly fine full-time job that allows one to conduct academic pursuits, and both the place is gorgeous and our union ensures that we have good benefits. If it’s good enough for me, then, frankly, it should be good enough for him, because we have the same level of academic prestige (unless he’s published with a pseudonym for most of his prior work).

All kinds of academics have been taking jobs in far away places because those were the only ones they got, and this has been true for many decades. (For all I know, in a department of biology study of integrative cicada biology might be viewed as important as a department of literature might view the translation and interpretation of an Old Low Norse epic poem.)

Yes, there is a huge problem in academia, which is arguably broken, that many people are being trained for jobs that aren’t available. However, many of these complaints are coming from sources such as Rothenberg, that don’t understand what constitutes massive progress in science, and don’t have an appreciation for the breadth of tenure-track jobs available to scientists.

I bet that our open call for a “biologist” at CSU Dominguez Hills will garner perhaps couple hundred applications, and probably fewer. At the same exact moment, there will be thousands of biologists out there claiming that jobs aren’t out there.

When I do that math, then I don’t feel quite as bad for the scientists with a PhD who say that they can’t find any permanent academic job.

The relationships among fame, impact and research quality

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I just read a particularly interesting post by Dr. Becca about life about halfway through the tenure track that got me thinking, particularly one section:

I feel like most of my job right now is to be famous… What I mean by this is that I’m pretty sure a lot of my future success is going to depend on whether people remember my name when they review my grant applications and manuscripts…

What determines your success? How famous you are.

Most famous scientists have a history of excellent research with high impact. And most researchers with a history of excellent research with high impact are famous. (Fame, that is, among scientists.) However, the r2 on this relationship is well below 1. What explains the variance?

What are the factors that makes you more famous, or less famous, than would be merited by your research quality?

Is the impact of your research — how much it influences the work others — closely tied to your fame or are there people who have a high impact but not well recognized – or people who are quite famous but don’t have much impact?

Fame path diagram

A working hypothesis for the relationships among aspects of a scientist’s research program

I posit the figure above only as a suggestion, a working hypothesis that I’m not wholly wedded to. It’s a good template for discussion.

The ceiling of the impact of your research is dictated by how famous you are. Your impact could be (very) crudely measured using impact factor, or by an h-score or some other measure of citations. How much of a difference you make. You might get cited a few times if nobody has heard of you, but essentially you need to be known for your work to make a splash. You can only make a difference if people know who you are, which is exactly the point that Dr. Becca made. Your job, if it is to make scientific progress, is to become famous. Because you can only make a difference if you’re famous.

If asked to name two huge advances in biology from mid-1800s, most of us would pick the same things. One came from a person working in obscurity and another by one who was, among scientists of the day, mighty famous and was in regular communication with other famous scientists. Darwin’s scientific impact was immediate. Mendel’s finding required the fame of Hugo de Vries to create a scientific impact more than thirty years later.

There are many things that contribute to fame. One of these is research quality, but also the institution you came from, your academic pedigree, attractiveness, personality, and also your ethnicity and gender can have an effect.

What’s another thing plays a key role in facilitating, or limiting, your fame? The institution where you work. If you’re not based out of a research institution, there is a hard cap on how famous that you’re allowed to become as a research scientist. However, if you’re at a teaching institution, the school doesn’t really want you to be a research scientist of any fame, anyway. Fame isn’t part of the evaluation process for tenure, and you could be entirely unknown off campus and this shouldn’t (necessarily) negatively reflect your tenure bid. This would be fatal at a research institution, where you’re expected to establish a visible profile in the research community.

Our jobs at teaching campuses do not expect us to be famous and do not require it. This might be a defining contrast between a teaching campus and a research campus. However, there are lots of us in teaching institutions that not only are doing consequential research, but also want this research to have as much impact as it possibly can. However, based on the name of the institution found on our nametag when we present at conferences, this becomes very difficult.

There’s a positive feedback loop connecting one’s pedigree, social network, publication history, favorable reviews of grants and proposals, funding, talent of collaborators and fame. They’re all connected to one another. And if you’re at a teaching campus, you’re at a strategic disadvantage because those positive feedback loops don’t work as tightly.

Leveraging your pedigree, papers, and collaborations is harder to do, because of unacknowledged biases against teaching campuses in the research community. You can’t be famous above a certain level, because those at research institutions assume that you aren’t working at one because you can’t get a job at one. If you’re doing research from a teaching institution, that means that you haven’t had enough success to work at a teaching institution. So the thinking goes. Even in the incredibly tight job market, that line of thinking still prevails. You’re skeptical? Pull up a few journals and look at the mastheads, to find the institutions of the editorial board members and the subject editors.

So, unlike Dr. Becca and those at research institutions, my job isn’t to become famous. Even if I was famous, nobody on campus would even be aware of it anyway. However, if I have ambitions for my research to make a difference, then I need to become famous. This fame is required to activate the positive feedbacks among friendly reviews, funding, invitations, collaborations, and so on.

What really is “excellence” in teaching ?

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I’d like to extend a topic that I brought up recently – about the difficulty in evaluating excellence in teaching.

I danced around the central conundrum, by highlighting all the ways that we do, and don’t, evaluate teaching on our campuses. What I didn’t bring up is: what is it, exactly, that we are sizing up when we decide how good someone’s teaching is?

What I argued at the time is that most people use the template of their own teaching (or perhaps one’s aspirations for one’s own teaching) as a model for evaluating others. This operational definition of how excellence is measured doesn’t actually specify what characteristics define excellence.

Let’s set aside the evaluation problem, and ask: What is excellent teaching?

Nearly all of our evaluations focus on the process of teaching: what happens in class on a day to day basis.

What really matters is what happens in the end: what is the product of teaching?

If we focus on process, then we measure things like specific items in the curriculum, demeanor, what the assignments and exams look like, and classroom performance in the theatrical sense.

If we focus on product, then we look at outcomes: exam performance, student satisfaction, long-term professional growth, and — from the administration’s perspective — alumni giving.

You imagine that a quality process leads to a quality product, however a veneer of quality might not lead to a long-term high quality product. What educational practices that get high ranks in the evaluation system actually contribute to positive outcomes in the long term? How much of what we do in teaching doesn’t result in long-term learning but looks like quality teaching in the short term? For starters, the first thing that comes to mind is the use of overly detailed powerpoints that are shared with the class online for cramming studying for exams. Students love it, it raises satisfaction, the professor looks well prepared and: will students know any of it the next day, or how about five years later?

Just as we can design an individual class with backward planning, we can think of the whole college experience this way to inform what students really need to get what we want them to get out of the college experience. What constitutes an “excellent” college education? Whatever it is, then excellence in faculty is when they deliver on that goal.

In my view, when you graduate from college, the school has done its job if the product is:

  • articulate in thought, words and writing
  • able to differentiate between opinion and reason and has personal values informed by both
  • broadly interested in the world and all it has to offer
  • conversant in literature, art, history, geography, science, mathematics, philosophy, civics and more
  • able to separate style from substance
  • struggling to understand the faiths, or the lack thereof, of those in their midst
  • able to readily explain to any novice the basic tenets of their specialty
  • can perform admirably on a summative exam in the subject of one’s specialty (e.g., subject GRE)
  • reading the goddamn newspaper or its equivalent on a regular basis
  • able to whiff out pseudoacademic thinking (like Malcom Gladwell), pseudoscience and shabby reasoning
  • not taking oneself too seriously
  • treats other people as they would like to be treated

Those are my aspirations for what college should do for everyone. I wrote this on the fly but I imagine it would resemble to some degree what you think a “liberal arts education” is supposed to look like.

Just as it’s not the job of a K-12 teacher to merely teach the state standards, it’s not my job to cover the expected learning outcomes of my course. I’m working on providing one piece of a holistic college experience. Am I successful at this? No. But it’s a goal. Since I’m at a state comprehensive institution and all the talk is “career-training-this” and “job-preparation-that” we are really botching these fundamentals. My heart soared when our newish provost said, in his first address to the faculty, that he didn’t want to see any more business regarding what a college degree does for students, he wanted to hear more about what a college education does for students. In our environment, that idea is hard to deliver in deed, but I’m excited to see the emphasis nonetheless.

How do we measure teaching excellence? Foremost, students need to emerge from the class knowing the course material. In particular, they need to know it deeply: well beyond their graduation dates. Truly excellent teachers inspire lifelong learning, excitement tied to discovery in the discipline, and an academic ethos that pervades all aspects of life. There is a multiplicity of routes to this destination.

This is often why teaching is considered to be an art, because what works for one person might not work for another. The trickier part, though, is knowing what works. This might not be measurable at the end of a semester.

Don’t waste tenure

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Tenure gives us academic freedom.

This doesn’t have to be an empty concept.

Before you get tenure, you need to live by the rules. After you get tenure, you have to follow the written rules but not live by them. You can choose to ignore as many unwritten rules as you think is wise. You have a lot of latitude.

I find it lamentable that, for most people, including myself, tenure changes very little.

It’s as if six years has been calculated as the amount of time that it takes for us to become a cog in the system.

Here’s another way to think about the time you spend in the system prior to tenure. Being a professor is like being a musician. Don’t they say that great musicians know all of the rules, and after developing technical expertise they know which rules to break, including how and when to do it, to to make extraordinary music? (I’m not talking about John Cage, but maybe the Beatles or the Pixies.)

Do you think the same is true for our academic careers, that we need to know which conventions have to be broken in order to excel?

In terms of research, I have always attempted projects with the notion that their success or failure wouldn’t alter my risk of unemployment. I have a variety of high-risk-but-potentially-really-cool projects happening, that I probably wouldn’t be inclined to take a chance on if I needed to focus on getting more papers and grants. (I’m able to take these research risks not because of tenure, though, but instead because my university isn’t in a position to expect much research productivity.)

Here’s one major change that I’ve made, that I wouldn’t have done pre-tenure: I rarely lecture. When I step into a classroom, I have a set of activities, discussion items and problems to be solved. I might occasionally bust into a 3-15 minute explanation of some topic if the circumstances require it. (As a caveat, I haven’t taught an introductory majors course in a number of years.) There are two reasons I wouldn’t have done this change pre-tenure. I wouldn’t risk a potential tank in my evaluation scores (which actually moved very little). And I wouldn’t have risked doing things so differently from my department mates who would be sizing up my tenure file. (My last department chair at my old job who observed me was actually put out when I stopped lecturing for a 2-minute think-pair-share activity, as I mentioned in the teaching/tenure post on Monday.) How do I find the time to do teach like this? I actually find that doing this takes less time than preparing a decent traditional lecture. I am actually concerned about being accused about not putting enough effort into my lessons, because the real work is being done by the students and not by myself. I just arrange the circumstances for them to learn. That is good teaching, in my view, but at most universities the lecture predominates and a departure from that practice might be viewed upon with suspicion, especially by scientists who aren’t trained in education. I haven’t had much formal education training, either, and by no means am I convinced that I’m doing it the best way. Which is why I call this change a risk that I can do with the benefit of tenure.

Here one risk that I’ve considered in my post-tenure era, but not had the guts to implement yet: In my Biostatistics class, I’d like to entirely do away with all quizzes and exams, and simply implement an oral performance-based final for 100% of the grade. By the end of the semester, the expected outcomes are so straightforward that a student should be able to demonstrate competency or mastery in the context of a short conversation and ten minutes with the software. (Last semester, gave my class the option to do this instead of doing a big take-home final, but everyone picked the time-intensive final.)

Here’s another risk I have yet to do: Instead of offering 0% participation points in a class (that’s a forthcoming post, at some point), switch to 100%. Grade students wholly on perceived effort. That’s the beauty of academic freedom. I can do this. I can’t be fired for it, I don’t think. Imagine if students were getting grades for trying, rather than for guessing right. Wouldn’t that be beautiful? Again, I’ve yet to try this.

This blog is a risk I took only because I have tenure. I’ve put effort into remaining civil and positive. However, a variety of things that I’ve written already could have been a huge liability before tenure, about my former dean, former president, how my campus is tragically underfunded, and how I interact with students. The only thing preventing me from telling it like it is, is my lack of confidence that I really understand how it is. That’s a nice perk of tenure. There are plenty of other pre-tenure bloggers, such as Dr. Becca among many others who I’ve linked to previously, but their identities are often hidden.

Once you are tenured, what risks would you want to take with your research and teaching? If you have tenure, what new risks have you taken or are you afraid to try?

What it takes to get tenure: ambiguity of the teaching criterion

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Getting tenure at a teaching university might be harder than getting tenure at a research institution.

If you don’t like that concept, then try this similar concept on: what you need to do to get tenure at a teaching-centered institution is far more ambiguous than what you need to do at a research university. One could argue that it’s easier to get tenure if you know specifically what you need to do. At most teaching schools, exactly what you need to do to get tenure is vague at best.

In one, you need to convince the faculty and administration of a teaching university that you are excellent at teaching. In the other, you need to convince the faculty and administration of a research university that you are excellent at research.

At research institutions, when you interview for a job, it is typically spelled out exactly what you need to do to get tenure: grants, publications, and train doctoral students. At most places, you’re given a neighborhood of a dollar amount, or a certain set of grant agencies and number of grants you need, and a number of publications in journals with a certain tier, as first and senior author. There may be some subtleties, but when you’re coming up for tenure, it’s clear based on the numbers whether you’re approaching that threshold, and you should be well aware if you are shy of the mark or have well exceeded it. If you’re marginal, then you know that you’re marginal.

The notion that teaching counts in hiring and tenure decisions at research universities is a sham, as recently pointed out by Alex Bond at The Lab and Field. If you’re at a research institution, being a horrible teacher won’t hurt your chances at tenure and being a fantabulous teacher won’t help your bid for tenure. (If you are unliked or extremely popular, however, and your case is marginal, then teaching performance could be inserted as a surrogate variable to help swing the review one way or another.)

At teaching institutions, the story is entirely different.

At your on-site job interview, I wish you luck trying to get a wholly quantitative description about what it takes to get tenure. Typically, you need to be “excellent” at teaching, and “excellent” at either research or service, and mighty good at the third. I think that’s the answer I got at every single one of the 10 or so teaching campuses where I’ve interviewed over the years.

You know how teaching doesn’t matter at research schools? Well, the converse isn’t entirely true. Research does matter at teaching schools, though there may be a lot of flexibility about what counts as research. At lower-ranked institutions, “research” might not necessarily involve publications or external funding, if you really like someone’s teaching. It could just involve keeping students busy in your lab outside of the curriculum and having some of them get into grad school.

Some teaching campuses put specific numbers on publications, which in my experience has ranged between 0-6, with no real specification of impact factor. The expected publication rate before tenure is negatively associated with teaching load, but this relationship has only a moderate correlation. Most places expect you to submit a grant but aren’t horribly put out if you aren’t funded. The research criterion is pretty clear-cut at teaching campuses, and there is also fudge room because it’s not the primary criterion.

Then, what constitutes excellent teaching? Most campuses go with a Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart kind of definition.

Knowing excellent teaching when you see it isn’t a good way to decide whether someone gets tenure, is it?

How do most people judge excellent teaching, when they are required to make such a judgment? A student of human nature would suggest that it is identified by how much it resembles the practices of the observer. I’ve never met a full professor who didn’t have a moderately high opinion of their own teaching. And we’ve all met plenty of full professors who couldn’t teach their way out of a bag. This does not bode well for effective tenure decisionmaking. (By the way, is the Bush neologism ‘decider’ now a replacement for ‘decision-maker’?)

In practice, there are many factors that are included in the quantitative and qualitative measures of teaching performance at a teaching campus.

The drawback to all of these quantitative and qualitative measures is that they all suck, or at least have poor resolution.

Let’s go over them one at a time. Keep in mind that no school uses all of these measures in concert.

Teaching evaluation forms There is a whole subfield in education research on this topic, and I’m not going to let this site devolve into a bitch session about teaching evaluations. Really horrible instructors get horrible eval scores, and amazingly perfect instructors get high scores. What happens for most of us, the professors in the middle — ranging between not-so-good and run-of-the-mill excellent — is really murky.

At my university the forms are called PTEs: Perceived Teaching Effectiveness evaluations. The key word here is “perceived.” Are students good at knowing whether their instructor is effective? Often, yes. However, there are a huge number of systematic biases that go along with these forms, suggesting that we need to avoid using the numbers in a comparative fashion. Upper division courses have higher scores than lower division courses, which have higher scores than non-majors courses. This might be independent of teaching effectiveness. There are age and gender biases that affect student perceptions of effectiveness, and associations between the grades received by the students and the perceived effectiveness of the instructor are not necessarily causative. How you dress in the first weeks of class can really matter, too. From discipline to discipline, mean evaluation scores are quite variable. If you want to measure improvement in the same course, with the same professor, with the same student demographic (including time of day the course is taught), then this might be a good measure, at a coarse resolution.

If your tenure case is being evaluated at the level of the college or the university, and your scores are being compared against colleagues in other disciplines, or who teach different kinds of courses, that isn’t fair. I don’t know of a campus that specifies a specific threshold score for evaluations (at least officially), and that is a good thing. However, unofficially some campuses or committees are expecting scores to be above a certain level. If that’s the case, then faculty need to learn the little tricks to make sure they don’t do things that cause students to lower their scores. (That’s a whole other set of posts.)

Written remarks by students The voluntary responses by students on evaluation forms are potentially telling. Students can offer specific and useful praise, and also tell damning stories that very clearly can explain instructor performance. Recurring similar comments by multiple students are particularly valuable. However, most student responses are idiosyncratic and it’s very difficult to distinguish between a student with a legitimate grievance and one who is bitter about their own performance.

Classroom observations Faculty members in the department may be requested or required to sit in on a certain number of hours or lessons before offering a recommendation. These observations are effective so long as the observer is capable of identifying effective instruction. This is heavily subjected to the biases of the observer, especially as scientists typically have no training in teaching methods. For example, when I was a junior faculty member, I made sure to implement the methods of active learning in science instruction that I learned as a graduate student in the College Teaching Certification program and as a Preparing Future Faculty fellow. So what happened when I was observed by my senior departmental colleagues sizing me up for tenure? I’ll always remember this, word for word: “You need to be less Socratic and lecture more. You should be using powerpoint and use more detailed information.” Never mind the fact that all of the current research on science education told me to do the opposite of what they said. After all, these professors were the ones evaluating my tenure file. So, when they were in my classroom, I had to lecture, even though I knew this was an ineffective approach.

How could classroom observations be effective? The people doing the observing could know what they hell they are doing and could be well trained in evaluating effective teaching. This happens in public schools. In the state of California, to be come a fully credentialed K-12 teacher you need to go through an evaluative induction process, the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA, pronounced “bitsa.”) To be a BTSA evaluator, you need to be trained to observe and score the performance of teachers, and this training process involves a calibration of standards and a long list of specific criteria. One BTSA evaluator observing one set of instruction comes up with a score very similar to any other BTSA evaluator; that’s the way the system is built.

What about teaching-centered universities, how do senior faculty do their observations? They show up, if they care to spare the time, and they then may fill out a cursory form if one exists, and then include whatever observations they choose to include or not in their letters. I can’t think of an evaluation that is more subjective nor disconnected from whatever objective measure that could exist. (I’m not saying that I’m any less guilty than anybody else, mind you. Of course, most faculty would be peeved at the notion that they need to be trained to recognize good teaching.) Regardless, in some teaching schools, classroom observations aren’t a required or even optional component of the tenure portfolio. Oftentimes, the only thing that tenure committees know specifically about what happens in the classroom is by hearsay from students.

I was impressed that once, my all-time favorite dean chose to sit in on my classroom for half an hour, and when he wrote the letter for my file he referenced specifics from what he saw in my classroom. He didn’t do this for lack of being busy, and I appreciate the time he spent in directly evaluating me.

Assessment data Perhaps we could look at student performance using assessment data, looking at student knowledge before and after individuals pass through your course. These kind of assessment data aren’t common, and anyway, most science faculty are in full rebellion against regional accreditation agencies that are requiring assessment in curriculum design, and using assessment data like this could actually annoy some faculty members who might think that you’ve gone over to the dark side of assessment. I suppose you could use these numbers but just not call it assessment and maybe get away with it.

Student letters I think few campuses do this, but it happens in my undergraduate institution. I was asked by my college to write letters of evaluation for faculty members in whose courses I was enrolled. The college requests letters from some students who are listed by the faculty member, and also randomly (or perhaps haphazardly) selects other students from rosters of recent courses. I imagine that these letters would be a lot more informative than whatever would be in student evaluations. They do this for both tenure and promotion to full professor.

Hearsay It is stunning how students are willing to discuss my colleagues in front of me, as long as I’m not involved in the conversation. Just the other day, I was in my lab sorting ants, and some of my research students were going on and on in great detail about an instructor in our department, who is a close colleague of mine. There was a mix of criticism and praise. They were talking like movie reviewers or restaurant critics. I wasn’t involved in the conversation, but I was sitting easily within ear’s reach where they were saying all kinds of things about my colleague that they would never say directly to this person. This kind of overheard conversation happens all the time, especially if you’re teaching lab sections. It’s unprofessional of the students to do this in front of other professors, but I guess they’re not professional. I arguably have more indirect information about my colleagues’ teaching from this route than any other. If I believe most of what I hear, by the way, then most people in my department are incredibly awesome. Regardless, this isn’t a valid source of information for evaluating teaching performance, though I imagine that in some environments this is probably the source of information with the greatest sway.

External evaluations Research universities require external letters from experts in the subfield of the tenure candidate to evaluate their tenure file. So, teaching universities must get outside experts to evaluate the teaching of candidates in their subfields of expertise, right? Ha! That’s a good one!

What it takes to be “excellent” at teaching is being able to convince the other faculty in department that you fit that label. Faculty use a variety of information sources, including not not limited to the information above. Ultimately, the assessment is a holistic gestalt-based system. Kind of like how honey bee colonies use guard bees size up the pheromonal composition of bees landing at the nest to decide if they belong, academic departments work the same way. If you don’t fit in, then the guard bee will pounce on you.

The biggest way to not fit in is to not teach well.

However, another way is to teach well, but teach differently.

It’s often said that tenure is about “fit.” Some people say that’s vague: how do you define fit? It’s nothing that needs any special definition. Either you fit in or you don’t. Either you have the same values and the same approaches with respect to education, or you don’t.

This is why it’s sometimes hard to get tenure in a contentious department (read: snakepit) in a teaching institution. Even if you’re careful to not take sides in any weird departmental politics, everyone involved in the tenure process will be called upon to assess your teaching. This is going to involve a meeting where your teaching is discussed. If the department has divisions about teaching philosophy or approaches, this will emerge in the criteria used for evaluations. If one side really likes what you do and explains why, then the other side might end up in disagreement. This is not good. You can ameliorate this by how you sell your teaching approach in your tenure file. You don’t want to make the mistake of arguing that you have worked hard to find the most effective approaches to teaching and that your assessments show that students learn effectively. What you want to do is communicate that your teaching fits in with your department, and that you have worked collaboratively with your colleagues so that you have learned how to teach well from them. You don’t want to say anything that is overtly contrasting existing practice, because, ultimately, the people in charge of deciding whether your teaching is excellent will compare your work with the template of their own work. Just like guard honeybees that use their own smell to decide whether to reject outsiders.

Even if you have a history of demonstrating teaching excellence at a teaching institution, a fresh pair of eyes with a different perspective, or a different agenda, could look at the same record and come up with a credible argument that the record fails to demonstrate excellence. Without anything changing, the environment can shift so that what is perceived as “excellent” in one year might not be acceptable the next year.

This is different than research institutions, I think. It’s harder to argue against grant dollars and a list of publications on a CV. You could argue that the journals aren’t of a high enough impact or that the grants are from the wrong agency, but the research bar at a research institution is far, far more tangible than the teaching bar at a teaching institution.

I would guess that if you are unambiguously above the bar that’s been set for you for research productivity and funding, and you haven’t entirely botched something else, you should be golden. Even if there are academic disagreements about your work, if you’ve got the grants and published in the right journals, then that is likely to be fine. This is particularly the case if you’re at a unionized institution, in which the tenure process is more transparent than at an institution with an opaque process with secret information, because the faculty lack the power to make sure that the process is fair.

Of course, at nearly all universities, tenure rates are quite high, except for a few Ivies that have a de facto policy of hiring Assistant Professor positions as glorified 7-year postdocs. When people don’t get tenure, it might be because performance is not up to snuff, but it can also happen because the department is toxic or incompetent. Other crazy stuff can happen, too. Regardless, the lack of specific quantitative criteria in the teaching criterion create an element of hap into the process that makes it less predictable, which makes it a source for anxiety if not a source of difficulty.

In short, the amount of work it takes to be an excellent teacher doesn’t necessarily correspond to the amount of work you have to do to get tenure at a teaching institution. To do that, you (most likely) have to be an excellent teacher and you also have to do the work to convince your colleagues that you are. In some places, this is harder to do than others. In some places, you don’t even have to be an excellent teacher, as long as you are able to create that perception. There’s the rub.

Glamour publications: the view from a teaching campus

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The academic publishing environment is being undermined by a bunch of extrinsic and intrinsic forces.

One such force is the genre of academic glamour magazines. They have massive impact factors that allow you to make a big splash when you land a spot inside one of them. Sometimes genuinely huge discoveries and advances end up in Science, Nature, Ecology Letters, or Cell. But most of what appears in these venues is a big sexy idea that doesn’t have any real lasting value. If science were nutrition, then this is junk food. It’s yummy, and it is dressed up with everything to make it exciting and yummy, but rarely is there substance.

For those running labs in research institutions, the perceived wisdom is that you should be publishing in a glamour magazine once in a while.

For those of us at teaching campuses, the perceived wisdom is that you should be publishing once in a while.

There are increased calls for principled stands against glamour mags. For those who stand too firm on principle and avoid any whiff of careerism when choosing a journal, Physioprof pointed out last year out that you’re probably in a position of privilege if you’re saying that. I like Drugmonkey’s attitude, to subvert the system by being entirely reasonable. Among these reasonable ideas: don’t cite glamour mags unnecessarily; don’t not publish a result because you can’t get it into one of them; as a reviewer, keep the standard crap out of them and support excellent work by your colleagues when you get it for review.

At teaching institutions, we approach this issue from an entirely different perspective. We rarely review for those venues, and typically don’t submit to them either. (I’ve submitted to Science/Nature a few times and reviewed a few times.) This suits institutional expectations. Landing a paper in a Science or Nature would be an immense coup. Few, if any, on campus would ever think of this as a gimmicky paper, though the rarity of it wouldn’t be fully appreciated. (The only person that I’ve ever worked with at a teaching campus who had one of these papers during my time actually has an overall below-par publishing record.)

These are glamour magazines because they are a flashy thing that impresses, because of the rarity itself. Gold and diamonds are valuable because there isn’t that much of them, or because they are difficult to access. Likewise, it’s hard to get into glamour mags, so that’s what makes them flashy. These papers themselves don’t communicate the value or prestige of a research program, they’re just the flashy pieces of ornamentation that are necessary.

What, then, is truly glamorous on a teaching campus? The answer is publications. Lots of ’em. The reason that this is glamorous is also because of its rarity. While many people publish on teaching campuses, status and glamour comes from doing it in high volume, because so few are able to do this. This is true even if the venues are not highly regarded, and even if the papers don’t end up being cited. If you want to show off your bling on a teaching campus, five papers in obscure regional or highly specialized journals actually seem more impressive than one paper in a top-notch journal. The people who are arbiters of your reputation on campus might not be able to assess publication quality, but they sure can assess publication frequency.

I make a point to publish in which I consider to be venues appropriate for my work. I avoid merely descriptive or confirmatory work without introducing substantial new ideas, so I try to avoid journals that mostly include this kind of work. I could change my focus and crank out many more papers than I do, in lower-impact journals, but that would harm my credibility in among my scientific peers even as it would increase my profile on campus. Some other scientists manage that tradeoff in different ways, of course. I’m not overly concerned as long as people work on their passion, and make sure that it gets shared with the world.

What is the distinction between publishing for glamour and publishing for genuine impact? It’s probably the same distinction between measured “impact factor” and and long-term citation rates.

On gender, parenting and academic careers

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It used to happen all the time. I’d be out in public, with my son, at the grocery store, zoo or bagel shop. A friendly person would ask,

Babysitting today?

And I want to punch someone. Or punch something else. Or cry.

Instead, I grit my teeth, and reply with masked fury, in a moderately loud and determined voice:

I am not babysitting. I am parenting. This is my own son. We do this all the time.

Then, I mutter under my breath:

Idiot.

I don’t get this remark anymore, now that my kid is approaching ten years of age. Instead, I can see that when I’m hanging out with my kid on a Saturday morning, folks could be jumping to a couple other conclusions. One might be that I have partial custody and am getting in “quality time,” or that I’m letting mom sleep in because she’s worked so hard parenting during the week. They might not jump to these conclusions. But one that is less likely is the truth, is that I’m parenting while my spouse is working.

I regularly get asked about my field research. I go to one place in the rainforest for weeks at a time, during which I am supervising students, working in the field and lab, and am generally really busy.

Do you take your wife down with you?

What is odd, is that people rarely ask if she joins me. They ask if I’m taking her. I do take students down. But if my wife were to go, I wouldn’t be “taking” her. She’d be making the time to come along. I think, “She’s not a possession for me to bring along as I please wherever I go. We both have things to do you know.” Instead, I reply:

No, she’s busy working. I don’t think she can blow so much time to go to watch me work or to volunteer as my field tech. Also, someone has to take our kid to school and feed him, so I’m rather grateful to her to cover for me while I’m gone. She has come down a few times, for some vacation before or after my work, though we’d rather vacation somewhere new when we have the chance. Actually, this summer my kid’s coming along for a couple weeks and I’m looking forward to that.

I’m more inclined to give people a free pass, because most people — even other scientists — can’t really imagine what it’s like down at the field station where I work, nor what I do from moment to moment. Nevertheless, it does seem absurd that someone would think my wife could just drop everything and join me as an accessory.

The bottom line is that If I was a woman, nobody would be asking me if I “take my husband” to the rainforest while I was working. Nobody would ask me if I was “babysitting” my own child if they saw me with him in a jogging stroller at the zoo.

These remarks don’t make me a victim of bias, other than the fact that I find them annoying. These remarks actually have the false presumption that I am the beneficiary of bias.

The unfortunate truth is that these mistaken assumptions have a real basis. Why do I really want to punch someone when they ask if I’m babysitting? Because most of the other guys at the grocery store with their kids probably are babysitting their own children.

Many families that I know well have one parent employed full-time, with the other part-time or not at all. In those cases, the division of parenting and household labor makes sense. In dual-career couples, though, it’s far too often that the guy ends up not holding up his end of the marital bargain.

I don’t know if my wife would tolerate it if I didn’t do my fair share of parenting. She presumably would be annoyed, but if I just abdicated my responsibility, then she would have no choice to pick up the slack. It would be the same the other way around, if she didn’t do her share of the parenting then I would have to.

This is the book I'm reading with my kid now, from a 1927 edition. The token role of fathers in their children's lives has always been important to their development

This is title page of the book that I’m reading with my kid now, from a 1927 printing. Even back then, the token role of fathers in their children’s lives was promoted, perhaps even more robustly than in today’s parenting culture that still emphasizes the role of mothers over fathers.

In our culture, in dual-career couples, many fathers feel perfectly free to let the mothers do more than their fair share. This rarely happens the other way around.

I don’t look at the arc of history and see the need for systemic progress. It would be great if our jobs made more accommodations for working families and the entire NSF work-life balance agenda is great. But this is not the root of the problem, and you can’t fix it by simply giving women more slack or more time or more money. Those fixes just make it less worse.

I see individual people making bad decisions. I see men who choose work over family voluntarily, and I also see some women who step in and parent without giving their spouses the opportunity to carry the load.  The problem starts once a dual-career family lets one spouse assume more responsibility than the other one.

In my family, we’re not equal, but I think we are equivalent. I have to admit that I rarely do our laundry. On the other hand, I spend an equivalent amount of time cooking. I would hope that if a behaviorist were scoring my house with an ethogram, that we’d come out relatively even with respect to domestic duties. The number of nights that I’m out for social affairs or volunteering match hers. (I do teach nights a couple times per week, though that often means that I get other mornings and evenings. It evens out.)

More importantly, we come out equivalent on parenting. I hold this as a point of pride, but it really should not be a point of pride. It should be the status quo, at least when both parents are working as much as the other.

The fact is that women are doing more parenting than their spouses, in most dual-career couples. This is not caused by biology or by the system. It’s caused by individual men screwing up.

I am tired of the trope that biological differences between genders makes women expend more time parenting than men. For most academic work (aside from dealing with reagents, and some fieldwork, and rare medical complications), women are capable of working for nearly the entire time they are pregnant. A few weeks after giving birth, women are as physiologically capable of working as men. The one factor that continues is milk production. However, pumping can often work well and formula isn’t exactly evil. (For what it’s worth, my wife went back to work full time after six weeks and we never spent a dime on formula.)

The only biological difference that causes women to parent more is that men might be more likely to be born as jerks that let their wives’ careers suffer because they are inadequate parents.

Just because women are the producers of milk, shouldn’t that mean that men can just as easily step up to the plate and contribute in other ways?

Especially in academia, men have plenty of latitude to do their fair share of parenting compared to other careers because it’s so flexible. Women partnered with someone working a typical non-academic inflexible job also can get lots of spousal support, from a partner that is available to cover mornings, evenings and weekends.

I essentially took six months off to parent full-time, aside from Tuesdays when Grandma stepped in for us. Did this hurt my career? Actually, it did. I was at a Catholic university at the time, and my male Dean expressed concern about my request for paid parental leave (as clearly specified in faculty handbook), because that was intended only for mothers and not fathers. He told me that he understood my dilemma because he had five children of his own and he never missed a day of work. That conversation was not good for my career.

My point is that there is no inherent biological reason that mothers, more than fathers, may have more negative repercussions at their work because of parenting, because both are equally capable of doing so. There may be sexist reasons that transcend scheduling and effort, like I experienced, but that’s not going to stop me from doing my job as a parent.

(As a side note, have you ever looked inside Parenting magazine? It should be renamed Mothering magazine. There is always a column about fathers, but it is always, without exception, about how women can convince their husbands to do something like change a diaper once in a blue moon or do bedtime reading.)

The only biological difference that makes women parent more is that some men are assholes. These men don’t fulfill their duties to their spouses or they demonstrably care less about raising their families on a day to day basis.

If you tell me that women have more problems at work because of they have more parenting obligations than their spouses, then I tell you: their spouses are doing it wrong. And the women are doing it wrong because they’re accepting less than 50% from their spouses.

As you can tell, I get mad when gender is conflated with work-life balance issues. This is probably a chip on my shoulder from being a dad and spouse that did his fair share, in an environment where this is a rarity.

If you want to fix the dual-career couple inequity issue with respect to parenting, the first step is to tell women to not marry men who don’t parent enough. Women should not be spending more time parenting than their partners if they’re both living in the same house and both working full time. How many times and ways do I have to write this? Apparently, it is a lot, because it doesn’t seem like anybody else is saying it.

Of course, in our country there is so little systemic support, from the government, our own workplaces and our extended families, that we have a greater stress placed on working parents overall. This is not a gender issue, it’s a parenting issue.

If a married woman says that she has a greater challenge at her job because of the time demands of parenting, then she needs to hear that the problem is not the system, it’s her spouse. The problem might be her spouse’s boss, but I’m not convinced that this is a rampant problem. Perhaps this should be the main problem, but right now it isn’t.

I avoid these conversations because I it never has ended well when I’ve told a guy that he needed to spend more time parenting. And I don’t have the temerity to tell a woman that she picked a crappy husband who isn’t willing to accept 50% of the parenting load. (Now, I can just tell people to read my blog post about it and be done with it.) I’m not sure how to implement change when the necessary change requires individual responsibility on the part of others. We can raise sensitive males that understand their roles as partners. Hopefully, I’m doing that by example.

For me, it’s not a problem, because hanging out with my kid is the best thing in the world. I can’t conceive how a man would think otherwise about his own kids. I was lucky that my academic career gave me the flexibility to shut down my research program for a spell, so that I could be at home with my baby. (This I could do because I was at a teaching institution. With a big lab, and pressure for grants and pubs, it wouldn’t have happened that way, and daycare would have started earlier or we would have relied on extended family, both of which also would be fine options.) If I didn’t have that flexibility, I wouldn’t demand it of my wife. We’d solve it together, and it wouldn’t involve sacrificing her career.

There are substantial issues involving sexism in the sciences and academia, independent of parenting. That’s a separate issue, and one that I’m not addressing here. Perhaps I’m addressing it by claiming overtly that it is a separate issue — that parenting should not be a gender issue, and it’s only an issue in dual-career families in which the man is a wretched bum.

Every time I see a story or hear a person remark, “it’s great and inspiring that this woman can be a scientist and a parent” I get mad. You know what? That statement can apply to me, too, aside from the fact that I’m a man. I do just as much parenting as my spouse. My “success” or the lack thereof, that is tied to my status as a parent and a researcher, should represented in equal measure as it is for female scientists. (This would be different, of course, for single parents or those who have demonstrably jerky husbands.)

If you think that notion isn’t broadly applicable to all men, that’s because you think that many male scientists with kids are deadbeats. I might agree with you on that. The father-scientists I’m working with now seem to be dedicated and supportive of both their kids and their spouses, but that’s not the norm. My non-academic father friends are also doing their 50%, or their share depending on the family employment situation, but then again, I feel like I can’t relate to most guys, in part because of a fundamental difference in values. I can accept that some guys would be nuts for basketball, or have a specific religious belief, or drive a fuel-inefficient vehicle. But not parent 50%? That’s a dealbreaker.

If a man says that his full-time job doesn’t allow him the time or flexibility to do what needs to be done as a parent, and that’s why his wife is doing more parenting, I call bullshit. A woman would never say that she is incapable of doing what is necessary to be a good parent. A man should never be able to get away with saying something like that.

That just means that you don’t have the courage to tell your work that you prioritize your family over the job, and it means that you’re letting your wife do that and take the damage to her career as a result. That’s cowardice.

If there’s going to be a change, then men have to stop being cowards and start parenting. Men can address this problem by accepting the same career risks of parenting that are being endured by their partners. Until that happens, any progress is a mirage.

The Evolution of Pseudojournals

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Does your institution accept pseudojournals? Mine does.

Today, I got an invitation to publish in the new journal, “Expert Opinion in Environmental Biology.” Then it provided a list of the “High Profile Editorial Board” members. I usually don’t discuss spam at breakfast (nor eat it), but this morning my family had fun inventing names of prestigious journals. I could go through my spambox and find a couple dozen more.

These journals exist because there are people out there whose jobs require some sort of external validation of their scholarship. Long ago, the Who’s Who series profited from people who needed to show their names in a bound volume. They’re still making a mint, I think. Now they are joined by a small army of “peer-reviewed” journals. Any website claiming to have a peer review process can magically add fresh meat to your publications list on your CV.

Who would be involved with such an outfit? After all, if my 9-year-old kid can see through the name of a silly pseudojournal, shouldn’t professors in the field? Wouldn’t they actually make you look worse? The answer is, apparently, no.

Universities require that faculty coming up for tenure and promotion are demonstrably scholars within their field. At teaching schools, in which most people do little research, how is scholarship evaluated? Within a department where new faculty coming up for tenure, the evaluators may have by been tenured long ago, unfamiliar with the current norms in the field.

Standards might be locked in time from when faculty were active scholars in grad school. For example, a former colleague of mine was convinced that a having paper in Ecological Entomology would be a much bigger accomplishment one in Ecology Letters. That’s because he hadn’t heard of Ecology Letters, even if it had recently become the ISI top-ranked journal in the field.

Some scholars realize that things change, which maybe is why pseudojournals may be so easily accepted. Some might see through the sham of the pseudojournal, but decide to not care about the deceit because scholarly prominence may not be a priority.

At my university, I attended a session about tenure file evaluations. There was a discussion about the perrenial problem: how can faculty evaluate people in different subfields, especially in diverse disciplines?

It was a disappointing conversation. The outcomes affirmed the following policies: Committees are not allowed to request external evaluation of an academic record or CV. They are allowed to subjectively evaluate journal quality, but are specifically forbidden from referencing specific metrics such as impact factor, h-scores or ISI indexing. They are not encouraged to search for information regarding the validity of a journal, and any specific facts or evidence that a journal is of poor quality, or has sham peer review, should not be included in an evaluation.It is okay to report that you have not heard of a journal, but you can’t report whether your investigation has shows it to be a good journal. So, the only other ecologist at my old job would say, “I’ve never heard of Ecology Letters before” but he wouldn’t be allowed to say that ISI ranks it is the top journal in my field. Ecology Letters would be on par with Expert Opinion in Environmental Biology.

These policies allow the continued persistence of pseudojournals. This lets the institution check off the scholarship box on the tenure file without caring about the reality or quality of the scholarship. That said, people have been denied tenure for inadequate scholarship. However, it appears that this can only happen to the scholars who have too much pride to publish in pseudojournals. Heck, they could join the editorial boards of several of them, if they so chose.

I suspect, or at least hope, that many teaching schools actually do ferret out pseudojournals. However, the proliferation of these venues – and the willingness of faculty to lend their names to editorial boards – suggests that they indeed have an audience. Otherwise, who would go to the trouble and how could you make a profit without a customer base? Who really does see these things and think they’re real? I am honestly confused.

As academic publishing is moving towards more transparency, open access and data sharing, it will be interesting to see how the perception or measurement of scholarly activity shifts. The acceptance rate at PLoS ONE, for example, is over 2/3. Anybody can publish in this journal, and even more importantly, anybody can read this journal. I imagine that this trend will continue, and I’m excited for the notion that citation, and all that comes with it, will be more of a meritocracy, not managed by for-profit publishers keeping findings away from the public.

Undergraduate first authorship?

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When undergraduates are conducting their own research projects in your lab, should first authorship be one of the main goals of mentorship?

This isn’t common, but it happens. (I’ve met several such undergrads at conferences.) If you work in a research institution, the event would be fun thing to lightly celebrate.

At teaching schools, this would be ultimate evidence of a top-notch operation. It probably would look better for your undergrad to be first author than to be sole author yourself, or better than having several undergrads as coauthors. It could potentially seal the deal on the scholarship expectations for tenure or promotion, especially in an institution that only expects one or a few papers before tenure. Off campus it wouldn’t look like much, but on campus it would be a big frickin’ deal.

Here is the rub: It takes much more of the mentor’s time for the student to be first author than if the mentor just wrote the paper on one’s own. It requires frequent individual meetings, revision of draft after draft, lots of advising about literature review, reading and placing the work in context. Even if the mentor does the final analyses and results and makes the figures (which wouldn’t preclude first authorship in my view), the rest of it is probably a long slog, even if the student is talented and motivated. Some manuscripts are long slogs even without undergrads doing the writing. It could be a joyful process, but simultaneously time-intensive.

I’ve never known an undergraduate to expect first authorship unless the mentor is the one who generates, and reiterates, the expectation. I regularly express this expectation among my students who clearly own their projects. I create a specific set of tiered expectations, first with lots of reading, then generating a set of specific questions for the manuscript and an introduction leading towards it.  Then, well, then… umm…. I’ve never gotten any further than that.

I admittedly set the initial bar high. It takes persistence for anybody to write their first manuscript, especially as an undergrad. I don’t want to have the process drag on for months and years only for a student to drop the ball. So, if the student is up to the first task with gusto, then we proceed. This limits an unnecessary investment.

I would love it if one of my students wrote their own paper and became first author. I’d be over the moon. (I think it might actually be happening this semester for the first time, though I’ve said this before.) Some students are too busy and consistently fail to meet deadlines, and various deadline extensions. Others change their priorities. Others have moved on to grad school and their PIs think they should leave the manuscript behind. Some students might decide that it’s ready, even though it’s not, then get frustrated and give up.

Most of my students don’t even get past the first filter. They stall at the first stack of reprints and come unprepared to discuss them. Clearly, if student authorship is my main goal, I could provide even more care and feeding to students, with more and smaller tiers of expectations. I could be doing the job better.

My first priority when supervising research is to make sure that the work gets finished and published. Because my lab relies on students to generate most of the data, we can’t afford to have students spinning their wheels on projects that result in half-completed projects or data that can’t be used. I’m the only one in the operation who is equipped to ship a manuscript out the door on schedule. I’m also equipped to mentor students through the process of doing it themselves, but this would take more resources and limit productivity.

I want my students to benefit the most they possibly can from being in my lab. In my view, that benefit isn’t the the opportunity to write their own paper. It’s being an actual co-author on an actual paper that comes to press. I could carefully mentor, cajole, coddle and push, and get students to write papers once in a long while. Or I could write a bunch more myself. Without much conscious thought into the process, I’ve fallen into the latter approach.

Perhaps it’s crass to say that I favor creating a productive lab over careful individual mentorship of students leading their own projects to publication. At some liberal arts schools, that’s heresy. However, what I really want to offer students is the opportunity of being in a successful lab, and the fact that I’m writing most of the manuscripts lets this happen. If I didn’t write up student projects, then productivity would take a bit hit. Nobody has suggested that this approach is exploitative of students, and given standard criteria that people apply to authorship, I’m relatively generous with students.

Ultimately, I think my approach offers a much greater benefit to students, and to a greater number of students as well. If my success is measured by the professional trajectories of my students, then I’ve been doing just fine.

Research labs, even in teaching institutions, need outside validation. Outside the microcosm of my campus, nobody gives a hoot about student outcomes. Even NSF cares much more about pubs than the quality of student training (but that’s another post of its own).

Have you had an undergrad write their own paper? Have you been tempted to slap their name as first author even if they haven’t? How do you measure your success as a mentor? Does tenure change the approach? How does departmental climate matter?