Efficient teaching: frequent assessments

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If your teaching is at least modestly informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning (and, I dare suggest, it should be), then you are probably aware that frequent assessments are a good thing. Students learn better when they have more opportunities to find out if they’re learning what is being taught.

But — as Meg Duffy pointed out last week — some teaching practices are effective but may not be sustainable because they might just require so much work from professors. This resonated with a lot of people. A lot of us apparently feel a genuine tradeoff between our capacity to teach effectively and the amount of time that we are expected to invest into teaching each of our courses. Continue reading

How many rejections should scientists aim for?

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Earlier this year an article on aiming for 100 rejections a year in literature was being passed around. The main idea is that by aiming for rejections, rather than accepted things we’re more likely to take risks and apply broadly.

Since reading that article, I’ve been pondering how many rejections I should aim for. What is a good number for a scientist? Continue reading

Accessibility isn’t the key to mentorship

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When I start a new batch of students in my lab, my spiel includes:

Two problems can prevent success. The first is poor communication, and the second is poor data management.

At the moment, I think this is true. As poor data management is a by-product of poor communication, it really just boils down to communication.

Earlier on in my career, I was too quick to attribute communication failures to my lack of approachability, or poor decision-making by my students. I don’t see it this way anymore. Continue reading

Advice for department chairs

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I recently finished up a three-year stint as chair of my department. (At my institution, the role of department chair rotates among the senior members of the department — basically, anyone with tenure — based on seniority. Three years ago, it was my turn to take the mantle, as the next most senior person in line.) It was an interesting experience and I certainly learned a TON from it, but I am also relieved that it’s now someone else’s turn.

Since relinquishing my post, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the experience of being chair. Continue reading

What are office hours for?

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What do you think office hours are for?

Office hours are drop-in* hours for students to see their professors. How should you spend this time?

If you don’t have students in your office, then you should probably be writing. Because we always should probably be writing, right? Or analyzing. Or doing a weekly browse of tables of contents. Or something else productive. If you’re me, you should be cleaning your office.

But let’s say students appear** for office hours, how are they supposed to be used? Here are some reasons students visit: Continue reading

It gets busier.

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clockI couple years ago, there was a careers-in-science discussion on an OTS field course. (I was visiting faculty — I am rarely asked, but definitely love to join up when I am available.) I honestly don’t remember if I was on the ‘panel’ or in the audience. I do remember when the topic came up about how busy you are as a grad student and beyond. Continue reading

Review unto others as you would have them review unto you?

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I am going to go ahead and assume we all want quality reviews of our journal submissions, however you define ‘quality’. Reviewers that take time to seriously evaluate your work, provide constructive feedback and ultimately improve the paper should always be appreciated. But as reviewers ourselves, we know that sometimes we don’t always give each paper our full attention. In general, I try to give good and helpful (to the author and editor) reviews. I try not to take on reviews when I know I don’t have the time to do a good job. Perhaps I am naïve but the impression I get from my colleagues and reviews of my papers is that in general most people are also trying to give good reviews. Continue reading

When K-12 teachers assign students to contact experts

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

The conference hangover

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

The statistics of busy, or the management of approachability

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

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

Graduate training, missed opportunities and the good ol’ days

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A couple of recent conversations have got me thinking about the culture of academia and grad school training.

The first conversation relates more to the general culture of academia. The complaint was that these days people are very selfish; they don’t want to participate in departmental events or even come into their office unless there is a very personal benefit they can see. The research groups are little islands and everything is about me, me, me. Young professors and graduate students aren’t thinking about how that can and should contribute to the academic community but rather always focused on what they need to do for themselves and/or their group. Now we can debate about whether or not this is really the state of academia or even if it is true for the particular department that was being complained about but it is an interesting thing to think about. In these days of extreme competition, for grants, positions, paper publications, and on and on, are we becoming too focused on ourselves? Is it really all about me? Continue reading

This device can improve your quality of life

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It’s easier to get work done if we use time efficiently and work to stay healthy. If I had to give a recommendation for something that can help out with those two things, near the top of the list would be: use a pressure cooker.

Don’t have time to cook a real dinner? With a pressure cooker, you do. If I sound like an infomercial, it’s only because I really am that enthusiastic about spreading the Good Word of pressure cooking.

photo of me and my pressure cooker

Me and my buddy, the pressure cooker

Continue reading

Field courses: a blessing and a curse

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Since I began my position at Uppsala, my summers begin frantically. Although my teaching load is relatively light, the majority of it comes in the spring just when I am getting ready for my own and my PhD’s fieldwork.

I teach in a course on Ecological Methods. Students learn mainly about sampling and survey techniques for a broad range of organisms but the focus is on birds, insects and plants (for which I’m responsible). The course starts in March and runs until the first week of June (therein lies some of my problems but more on that later). Continue reading

Submitting abstracts for conferences without having the data

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I’ve developed a mechanism to make sure that I stay productive: when I submit abstracts for meetings, I promise data that I haven’t finished collecting. Of course when I give a talk, I can say almost whatever I want. Nobody’s going to cut me off if my talk doesn’t match the program.

I just realized that I always have been in the habit of submitting abstracts for projects that are so fresh, I haven’t even gotten all the numbers, much less run analyses. In grad school, that was the only option, because at one point I didn’t have anything else to say. Now, even when I have other newish finds that I’ve yet to present, I submit abstracts for projects that still lack a rudimentary answer. I do this at least once a year, writing a check for results that aren’t yet in the bank. Continue reading

The first days of a new tenure-track faculty job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientists know how to communicate with the public

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I bet that most of us are steady consumers of science designed for the public. Books, magazines, newspaper, museum exhibits, radio, the occasional movie. The people who bring science to the masses are “science communicators.” (The phrase “science communication” is a newish one, and arguably better than “science writing,” as a variety of media involve more than just writing.)

Nearly everything I’ve seen in science communication shares a common denominator: scientists. Science communication doesn’t amount to much without researchers. Science is a human endeavor, and it’s rarely possible to tell a compelling story without directly involving the people who did the science. As restaurant servers bring food to the table and cooks typically stay in the kitchen, science communicators bring the work of scientists to the public while scientists typically focus on publishing scientific papers.

I interact with practitioners of this craft on the uncommon occasions when my research gets notice beyond the scientific community. (My university doesn’t send out press releases when my cooler papers come out, so the communicators need to find me.)

When I listen to what science communicators have said to us scientists, there are two items that are a heavy and steady drumbeat:

  1. It the duty of scientists to some of our time doing science communication, and it’s also in our interests.

  2. Most scientists don’t yet know how to communicate with the public.

I’m not so sure about #1. I have decided the second one is off mark, or at least so overgeneralized that it’s either wrong or useless.

It may or may not be our duty to share science with the public. (Yes, I know the arguments, reviewed here, for example.) Regardless, the last interest group that I’d look to for impartial advice on this matter would be science communicators. This would be like learning about the need for propane grilling from a propane grilling salesperson. It would be like learning about K-12 energy education from a workshop funded by a petroleum company (sadly, this is happening this week in my city). Of course science communicators think that science communication is important!

For most scientists, the division of labor between cooks and servers is just fine. (Of course there is nothing about being a technical scientist that disqualifies someone from being an effective public communicator.) There are many important things in this world, and some of us choose other things. (This next month, for what it’s worth, I’m talking to three community organizations, volunteering for an all-day science non-fair, and writing a blog post about my lab’s latest paper.) My funding agency places science communication as one potential component of broader effects, and I’m definitely listening to them. Scientists, if we want to engage the broader public, that’s great! But it would be disingenuous to tell you that it’s your duty. We all owe many things to society, and I’m cool with it if you choose, or don’t choose, to put science communication on your plate. I’m not going to be that person who is telling you what your duties are with respect to your own career. It’s up to us to forge our own trajectories and priorities.

So we all agree that scientists that don’t spend time on science communication either are, or are not, selfish bastards.

But, is it really true that most of us scientists aren’t capable of sharing our science effectively? I call BS on this canard.

If there happens to be a stray professional science communicator reading this, I imagine that I just induced a few chuckles and a shake of the head. Let me write some more to clarify.

Most of us are wholly capable of sharing our science with the public in an understandable and even interesting fashion. However, that doesn’t mean that, when interacting with the media, that we are always willing to play along. We might not want to provide the sound bite you’re looking for. We might be resisting a brief interpretation because we don’t have enough confidence that the science would end up correct in the final product. Nearly every time some scientific finding is presented to the public, it happens along with some form of a generalization. If you’re familiar with the genre of peer reviewing, you’ll know that scientists typically disdain generalizations.

How is it that we can resist the digestion of our work for public consumption? When someone claims that one of us “doesn’t know how to communicate with the public,” I propose that this overgeneralized diagnosis can almost always be broken down into two distinct categories which might apply.

  1. We don’t want to discuss our science in broad terms for the public because we feel that we are unqualified for the task. While the popular image of the arrogant know-it-all scientist plays well, most of us are driven by the fact that we don’t understand enough about our fields of expertise. We are resistant to analogies or general statements of findings in lay terminology because it involves a generalization from our very specific findings that may be unwarranted. And, if it is warranted, then it falls outside our expertise to comment on such a broad topic. While our experiments were designed to advance knowledge on some general topic, we feel that it is not up to us to make the decision that our findings are informative on that general topic in a way to be digested outside the scientific community.
  2. We actually aren’t doing an experiment that has any general relevance to the public at large. We actually are working on minutia that will not have any broad relationship to the scientific endeavor at large. We are having trouble making a generalization about its scientific importance because it lacks a broad scientific importance.

The prescription for diagnosis #1 is for us to become more arrogant and think that we are qualified to speak with the media about broader issues in science. For us to think that, as scientists sensu lato, we are able to speak broadly about scientific issues. Just as we teach about all kinds of scientific topics in the university classroom, we can interact with the media in the same way. And this is the kind of stuff that scientists who communicate with the public do all the time. They often talk about things outside the realm of their research training and expertise and get away with it. If we’re going to be doing science communication as practicing scientists, then we need to own the fact that we can talk about a whole bunch of scientific topics even though we’re not top experts in a subfield. For example, Richard Feynman once wrote a book chapter about ants. (I thought it was horrible way to illustrate his main point about doing amateur science, actually.)

The prescription for diagnosis #2 is to be a better scientist. If you’re conducting an experiment that, at its roots, lacks a purpose that can be explained to a general audience, then what is the science really work? I can explain that I work on really obscure stuff (the community ecology of litter-dwelling ants, how odors affect nest movements of ants, and how is it that some colonies of ants control the production of different kinds of ants, and how much sunlight and leaf litter ants like, for starters). But I’m working on this obscure stuff to build to a generalized understanding of biodiversity, the role of predators in the evolution of defensive behavior, how ecology and evolution result in optimized allocation patterns, and responses to climate change. I am sometimes reluctant to claim that my results can be generalized to entire fields (I need to get more arrogant in that respect), but I recognize the fact that my work is designed to ask these broad questions. If you don’t have these broad questions in mind while running the experiment, I recommend a sabbatical and a visit to the drawing board. I don’t know how often this phenomenon happens, but I have met some scientists who, when asked for the broadest possible application of their work, can only talk about the effect on a subfield of a subfield that would only influence a few people. If a project, at its greatest success, can only influence a few other scientists in the whole world, then, well, you get the idea.

Yes, scientists are good communicators. And we know how to talk to the public. We just might not think we’re the right people for the job, or that our science isn’t built for the task.

Academic House Cleaning

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Around our house, the weekend usually means catching up. There is catching up on sleep, downtime and relaxing, exercise and getting outside, and, of course, chores. I’ve heard about those super-organised people who do their house cleaning on a weeknight so they can leave the weekend free for other, more fun things. It seems like a great plan but it isn’t one that we’ve managed to institute. And although we do a lot of maintenance through the week, we definitely need to take some time out to give the place a once over on the weekend.

Coming off of the past weekend got me thinking about my academic chores, and whether I should start having a ‘chore day’ there too. I’m partly inspired by my decision to clean up my reference files and pdfs. I’m starting a few review/meta-analyses projects with collaborators and it seems like a good time to get my house in order. When I started doing research, my advisor shared Endnote with me. Also a research assistant, I remember doing some cleaning up my advisors references. I think I was ensuring that the filing cabinet (a literal physical cabinet) had all the references that were in Endnote and vice versa. Modeling after that system, I started my own collection of printed pdfs. Somewhere in the course of my PhD, I stopped printing out files and instead read them on my computer. By that time, I never (rarely) needed to make the trip to the library to photocopy anything. When I moved to Sweden, I finally let go and recycled the alphabetized pdfs I’d carried from Vancouver to Guelph to Ithaca.

Right now my system for pdfs and citations needs an overhaul. I have many pdfs saved to a single folder and it is easy to find one, if it is indeed there. But some things existed as printouts (now recycled) and I haven’t downloaded them. Or I did, but didn’t save it to the master folder. Without going into too many boring details about my citations (or maybe I already crossed that line?), I’ve decided that now is the time to clean up the whole system.

For now, I’m linking pdfs to citations in Endnote and discussing with my collaborators what we should use to facilitate database use across Mac and PC. I might be behind the curve on this one but my aim is to have one place that I can go to search citations, link to the pdf and use for writing manuscripts. Right now it is a chore I’m doing in the evenings or when my brain has slowed down and more creative/thinking things are not efficient. The activity is strongly reminiscent of helping my advisor as an undergraduate assistant. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson from that! But unfortunately the Endnote version I started with didn’t have an option to link pdfs and there has never been a good time update by adding links….so here I am. I’d like to get to a state where I can just maintain my library  (as I’d been attempting), but I might need a spring-cleaning every now and again.

Cleaning up my pdfs and citation software is just one example of an academic chore. I know labs that have lab clean-up events and there are a lot of other little tasks that need doing as an academic. I’ve mostly been cleaning up as I go but I’m starting to consider whether I should have a ‘chore day’. Of course, this wouldn’t be a whole day or anything but maybe a good thing to do Friday afternoon after the departmental fika (Swedish for coffee break). At home, I know that even though we clean up through the week, without setting aside time to do laundry, pick up those things that got left out and whatnot, our house would quickly descend into a place we wouldn’t want to live. Sometimes my desktop (literal and computer) gets so piled up with things that it is impossible to find anything. I don’t have my own lab space these days so it is important to ensure that things in the common area get cleaned up right after use. But I wonder about getting in the habit of doing some chores every week for the other aspects of my job; cleaning up my desktops, emptying out my download folder, organising my inbox, etc. Maybe if I set aside time each week, I wouldn’t get into a state where a real overhaul is necessary. Although I am pretty good at keeping most things organised, it would even better if more things were.

Fig. 1 My messy desk and full download folder.

Fig. 1 My messy desk and full download folder.

Do you have a weekly routine for academic chores? Overall I suspect that it may make me more efficient at my job but there is the balance of not getting too caught up with chores and doing those little tasks instead of the big ones, like writing a paper or grant. I don’t want academic chores to just be a form of procrastination for getting ‘real’ work done!

Flexibility is wonderful, and horrible.

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Academics have a wonderfully flexible job.

If my kid is sick, or has a performance at school in the afternoon, I can change my schedule. I can work from home if I’m not teaching. I can focus on a crisis, or a grant, or revisions and drop everything else if necessary. I can get new tires for my car on a weekday morning instead of the weekend.

This flexibility shouldn’t worry those who think that we somehow have it easy. It turns out that we university scientists work far, far more than the 40 hours that is contractually required of us.

The downside to our flexibility in scheduling is that we grow to depend on that flexibility. And we have the capability to schedule ourselves into traps.

Because we are accustomed to flexibility, we have the latitude to schedule things that other, more reasonable, people might not schedule. We have the capability to create untenable and inflexible schedules.

Take, for example, my schedule at the moment. I’m now somewhere remarkably far away from home for two weeks. Before this trip, I was away from home for a week and a half. So, I’m gone for almost the entire month of January.

I’m traveling for two good reasons. I’m now setting up some students with exceptional research opportunities And I also found it too tempting to turn down an opportunity to join a field course, which was fun but also an important obligation in my view.

I also have two, more important, reasons to be home. My spouse and my kid.

This is a very long time away from home, especially considering that I spend weeks away in the summer on fieldwork. At the moment, I am a delinquent parent and a delinquent spouse. While I’m away, I’m missing important events (both good ones and bad ones). I’ve put an undue and undeserved burden on my spouse, who I clearly owe big time when I get back home. I don’t want to be the oafish not-adequately-involved dad who prioritizes science and career over family. This trip, I’ve pushed that margin too far.

We agreed to all of these scheduled things in advance, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. It looks different on the calendar than when you’re actually away.

What’s the fix to the inflexibility of our own flexible schedules? How do we make sure that we don’t overcommit ourselves, just because we can? The answer is simply to say “no” once in a while. But of course it’s not that easy. If it were, I wouldn’t be in this mess, having a remarkably fun time, but far away from my family with whom I want to, and should, be with.

Keeping seven people out of your head

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I recently declined to seek an opportunity to become a 50% time administrator. Why did I turn it down? I want to keep seven people out my brain. My dean is wonderful, and the interim provost is a nice guy, and the chairs of other departments are very congenial. But I don’t want them in my head. Let me explain.

dear_mr_wattersonSeveral weeks ago, my family and I went to see Dear Mr. Watterson in the theater. This movie is a Kickstarter-funded fan-film homage to perhaps the greatest comic strip of the latter half of the past century, Calvin and Hobbes. (If you haven’t yet read some Calvin and Hobbes, get thee over to a used bookstore pronto, where you should be able to pick up a tattered collection on the cheap. Trust me, it’ll bring you joy.)

The creator of Calvin and Hobbes famously refused to license the production of paraphernalia. Every sticker of Calvin peeing on something is bootlegged. You can’t buy a stuffed Hobbes, and Calvin isn’t shilling insurance like Snoopy. Hobbes isn’t selling candy bars like Bart Simpson does. Because of this decision, Bill Watterson walked away from tens of millions of dollars, and perhaps a lot more.

Depending on the audience, Watterson’s decision provoked admiration, consternation or puzzlement. The fascinating parts of Dear Mr. Watterson are interviews with syndicated comic artists who are big fans of Calvin and Hobbes.

The most enlightening interviewee was Stephan Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, one of my favorite strips in current syndication. Pastis was discussing his own experiences with syndication, and his experience authorizing the production of Pearls Before Swine merchandise. He remarked on what Bill Watterson got by saying no to merchandising.

Pastis explained that merchandising brings profit, but also takes your attention. When new products get developed, a bunch of them are going to stink, or otherwise misrepresent the strip. Even if they don’t suck, they need your input. The syndicate will have questions, the graphic artists will have sketches, and the manufacturers will have samples and suggestions.

As Pastis explains, once you agree to sell merchandise, then you’ve just invited seven new people into your life.

Even if you’re not on the phone or meeting with them that often, these seven people are on your brain. You think about what these people want and how to respond to them. They generate a whole set of questions and issues for you to consider and take care of. You become a business person, managing a money-making operation.

Pastis explained what Watterson got from not merchandising: control. He got the freedom of his time – and his brain – to create Calvin and Hobbes. This comic strip is a sublime creation and its gorgeousness and excellence was enabled by Bill Watterson’s unfettered ability to focus on art. Perhaps Watterson wanted to keep his art untainted by the machinations of salesmen, but in addition he also kept his own mind free of the clutter of a supply chain.

If I ended up taking on a half-time administrative job at my university, there’s no way the job would end up being a half-time gig. Even if I somehow only spent twenty hours per week working at it (and fat chance at that), far more hours would be sucked away by the seven administrative sausage-makers taking up space in my head. I’d be worrying about preventing one person from trying to gain access to another person’s budget. I’d try to sort out who I could cajole to join a committee. My calendar would have deadlines for reports popping up. Even when not in meetings with people who wear suits, I wouldn’t be able to eliminate the conversations with suits from my consciousness.

I want to think about manuscript revisions, my next lesson, the next grant and keeping tabs on the projects students are doing over the year. This last semester had more admin work than I’m used to, and regardless of the time I spent on it, the administrative stuff handicapped everything else. I could be a part-time administrator by the clock, but not by the brain.

I’m sure people with lots of admin experience know how offload admin duties from the brain when not on the clock. But I’m inclined to agree with Stephan Pastis, that if you can keep those seven people out of your head, you’re a lot more able to focus your mind on things that are of true interest to you. I’m not ready to put ecology, ants and rainforests – and my research students – on the back burner. Maybe someday, though at this moment hard to imagine such a day.

Are you taking a real holiday? A poll.

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On any given day, we don’t have to work as much as we usually do. A lot needs to be done, but a lot of this is set to a schedule that we prescribe for ourselves. For example, in a few weeks I have a grant deadline. But I don’t have to work on it today. I didn’t need to work on it yesterday, and I don’t need to work on it tomorrow. Because I’m taking vacation.

I am checking email a few times per day in case some huge problem emerges. And I’m sending a couple last-minute rec letters out.  And I’m not neglecting editorial duties for those who managed to get their manuscripts and revisions out before they went on their own holidays. But otherwise, I’m on vacation.

I’m writing this post, well, because this site isn’t my job.

How are you at not working over the break? Are we collectively responsible at taking a refresher at once in a while, or are we all workaholics?

The three most important members of your department

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Everybody matters. But on a day-to-day basis at work, there are three people who have a lot of power. They can make things very pleasant, or the converse.

Here’s a slightly premature Thanksgiving. Unless you’re Canadian, which would make this a late Thanksgiving.

First, our departmental administrative assistant is five steps above spectacular. When I say that I don’t know how she does all that she does, it is not hyperbole. I truly can’t imagine how she handles all that she does, and she does it so well. She schedules, she allocates, she does politics, she is a central information center, she shares, she supervises, she tolerates, and she handles. She won the university-wide staff award this year. If we put in a bid for her every year, there’s a very good argument to be made that she should win every year.

Second, our techs who set up labs are not only models of effectiveness, but they are masters at making do with few resources. Not only do they fix problems when they come up, but they are even better at anticipating and avert them before they happen. They’re excellent teachers on top of all of this, too, and our students benefit so much from working with them. Our senior tech in the department won the university-wide staff award, the year they invented the award, two years ago.

Third, my chair. He protects us from unnecessary bureaucracy as much as possible, and he arranges our teaching schedules, taking us into account as human beings, and to maximize our efficiency in teaching. He has to deal with all the crap that we don’t want to, and he doesn’t like it any more than we do ,but he does it as a service to his faculty to help the department serve its students well. He works hard to make opportunities for our students and he sees how being in charge of stuff, done right, really can make a difference. My chair is spectacular. Somebody needs to give this man an award.

I have an exceptionally collegial department, and it’s a privilege and a pleasure to work with everybody. I’m grateful, and a little humbled, because the folks I listed above do their job to facilitate what faculty do in classrooms, labs, and our research programs. This work is inadequately appreciated, and when it’s done well, it’s not even obvious. Labs are set up with things I didn’t even knew I needed. Paperwork glitches get resolved without me being aware they happened. Phone calls get made on my behalf without me even putting in a request. These kinds of things are priceless, and I’m ever so thankful.

Efficient teaching: Rubrics for written assignments

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I’ve often emphasized the importance of transparency and fairness in teaching. The evaluation of written assignments is an inherently subjective activity, at least from the perspective of students. The grading of written assignments is most prone to the appearance of unfairness. When students think they’re being treated unfairly, they are not inclined to focus on learning.

Moreover, in the grading of written assignments we are most likely to be inadequately transparent and unfair. By using rubrics to grade writing, we can mitigate, or perhaps even eliminate, this problem.

Some folks don’t like using rubrics because they think that written assignments should be evaluated holistically or by gestalt. As experts in our field, we can tell apart a B paper from a C paper based on reading without the use of a rubric, and we can explain to students in our evaluation how this distinction is made without resorting to over-simplified categories. We can reward deep insight without being captive to a point-making system.

Even if the concepts in the preceding paragraph were factually correct, the choice to formulate is such an argument indicates a lack of focus on student learning. Rubrics should be used to grade written assignments not only because they lend themselves to the appearance of fairness in the eyes of students, they actually result in more fairness.

Grading written assignments without a rubric is unfair. Why is that? It’s very simple: when an assignment is graded without a rubric, students do not know the basis upon which their writing is to be evaluated. Fairness requires that students know in advance the basis upon which their grade is being assigned.

There are many different components to good writing, and presumably someone who grades holistically takes all of these into account in an integrated fashion and then assigns a grade. However, if the purpose of the assignment is to learn about writing, then the student needs to which components are important constituents of good writing. And then the student needs to receive credit for including these components, and not receive credit if not including these components.

If a professor wishes to reward students for making “deep insights,” then these deep insights can be placed as a category on the rubric. And, when handing out the rubric when assigning work to students, the professor can then explain in writing on the rubric what constitutes deep insights that are worthy of receiving points in the rubric.

Rubrics don’t rob professors of flexibility in grading written assignments; they only prevent professors from ambushing students with criticisms that the students would not have been able to anticipate. They also prevent professors from unfairly rewarding students who are able to perform feats that satisfy the professor’s personal tastes even though these feats are not a required part of the assignment.

Is bad grammar something that deserves points off? Put it on the rubric.

Should it be impossible to get an A without a clearly articulated thesis and well supported arguments? Build that into the rubric.

Does citation format matter to you? Put it on the rubric? Don’t care about citation format? Then don’t put it on the rubric.

When you’re grading, you should know what you are looking for. So, just put all of those things on the rubric, and assign the appropriate amount of points to them as necessary. Of course any evaluation of “clear thesis” and “well supported argument” is to some degree subjective. However, when students know that the clarity of their theses and the quality of their arguments are a big part of their grade, then they will be aware that they need to emphasize that up front, and focus on writing well. This point might be obvious to faculty, but it’s not necessarily obvious to all of the students. To be fair, every student needs to know these kinds of things up front and in an unbiased fashion.

There are several other reasons to use rubrics:

Rubrics help reduce the unconscious effects of cultural biases. Students who write like we do are more likely to come from similar cultural backgrounds as ourselves, and students who write well, but differently than we do, are likely to come from a different cultural background. If grading is holistic, then it is likely that professors will favor writing that reflects their own practices. Without the use of a rubric, professors are more likely to assign higher grades to students from cultural backgrounds similar to their own.

Rubrics save your time before grading. Students often are demanding about their professors’ time when they are anxious about whether they are doing the right thing. The more specific information students receive about what is expected of them, the more comfortable they are with fairness and transparency in grading, the less often instructors are bothered with annoying queries about the course, and the more often they’ll contact instructors about substantial matters pertaining to the course material.

Rubrics save your time while grading. If you grade holistically without using a rubric, and it takes you appreciably less time than it takes with a rubric, I humbly suggest that you’re not performing an adequate evaluation.  The worse case scenario, with respect to time management while grading, is that a complete evaluation happens without a rubric, and then it takes only a few moments for the professor to then assign numbers on a rubric after being done with a holistic evaluation.

Rubrics save your time after grading. If students are unpleased with a grade on a written assignment, and all they have to go on is a holistic assessment and written comments – regardless of verbosity – they are far more likely to bother you to ask for clarification or more points. If they see exactly where on the rubric they lost points, they are far more likely to use their own time to figure out what they need to do to improve their performance rather than hassle you about it.

Most importantly, rubrics result in better writing practices from your students. It is a rare student who relishes receiving a draft of an assignment with massive annotations and verbose remarks about what can be done better. Those remarks are, of course, very useful, and students should get detailed remarks from us. When fixing the assignment, students will be focused on getting a higher grade than they received on their draft. The way to do promote success by students is to provide them specific categories on which they lost points. This kind of diagnosis, along with any written comments that professors wish to share, is more likely to result in a more constructive response and is less likely to terrify students who are unclear how to meet the expectations of a professor who gave a bad grade without providing a specific breakdown about how that bad grade was assigned. If a student wonders, “what can I do to produce excellent writing?” all they’ll need to do is look at where they lost points on the rubric. That’s a powerful diagnostic tool. If you think the use of a rubric in your course cannot be a great diagnostic tool, then you haven’t yet designed an adequate rubric.

Of course, it’s okay to disagree with me about writing rubrics. If you do, I’d be really curious about what your students think. The last time I graded a written assignment (a take-home exam), I asked my students if they wanted to receive a copy of a grading rubric before I handed out the exam. They all wanted it, and they all used it. By choosing carefully what I put on the rubric, I was sure that their efforts were allocated in the best way possible.

Teaching Tuesday: Writing in Ecology

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In my continuing series on teaching ecology, I am going to focus on using writing in ecology classes. The following is a lot of my opinion, some of the results related to writing from a survey of ecology teachers and a few links to writing resources that I find helpful. If you are interested in exploring past posts stemming from the survey I did of ecology teachers you can read them here (intro, difficulties, solutions, and practice).

Writing is a particular interest of mine, stemming from before I taught a ‘writing in the majors’ section of ecology as a graduate student. Students applied for this section and they attended two sections a week with me with their grades based on my section rather than exams. I was given an amazing amount of freedom to run the section and both times it was incredibly fun. I didn’t need to give lectures (they attended those with the rest) but I had my first opportunity to organise a syllabus and be in charge as a teacher. It was a wonderful experience as a graduate student. In conjunction to teaching a writing-intensive section, teaching assistants for these writing-intensive classes also took a short course on how to teach writing. I learned an incredible amount by taking the course and teaching myself. My advice to any PhDs out there is if you have the opportunity to do something like this: do it! The skills I learned teaching these sections have been invaluable to me as a teacher.

I think that learning to write and specifically scientific writing is an important skill. Of course, writing is crucial if you want to go on in science, but scientific writing is also something that students can benefit from regardless of what they ultimately do. So I’m showing my colours and biases here. I think writing is essential and if we haven’t made an effort to teach students to be better writers, than I think we have failed as university teachers. Of course, it is possible to divide the responsibility of teaching writing skills across classes in a program and there are places where it is easier to do (fewer students, for example). However, I always find it disappointing when I see upper level undergraduates that have been able to get by without being able to write well. I know that some think that their subject should take precedent over skills like writing (they should have learned that elsewhere!). Given how important the ability to write is for science careers and so many others, I think we need to have some focus on writing in every course. After all, what is the use of knowing an answer if you can’t communicate it?

Maybe we ecologists are just a communicative bunch, but 62% of the responses said that writing is essential for teaching ecology.

writingimportance

So how many use writing assignments in their courses? Well, a quarter rarely or never assigns writing research papers or proposals. So there seems to be a bit of a contradiction here. It could also be that teachers are using different forms of writing assignments in their courses or make exams that emphasize writing as well as content. Being a skill, writing takes practice, so if we want students to learn to write we need to give them the opportunity to do so. I think with effective time management and teaching, writing can be incorporated to any class. For example, I’ve had students write exam questions and figure captions as very short writing assignments. Of course one of the best ways to learn how to write, as well as how ‘real writing’ works, is to have multiple drafts. I was lucky enough to be exposed to forced multiple drafts as an undergrad. Without the forced part, I wasn’t really learning how to improve my writing but that is only something I realised after the fact. For an upper-level plant ecology class I took, Elizabeth Elle had a clever way to use her time efficiently by doing not quite multiple drafts of the same work. We had a report early on in the class that was heavily commented on and then a larger paper towards the end. Even though these papers weren’t the same topics, capitalizing on the fact that students tend to make many of the same general mistakes again and again, we had to show that we had improved any issues in the final paper. Later working with Elizabeth and my masters advisor, Chris Caruso, really helped me hone my writing. I am still appreciative of their patience. It was only working through many drafts of my writing that got me to think directly about the writing, rather than just the content I needed to include. For me, writing is an on-going learning process. However, multiple drafts are time-consuming for students and teachers and only 15% of ecology teachers always use them. The trend is generally that fewer who have writing assignments also get students to do multiple drafts but the difference isn’t by much. To me this suggests that many who emphasize writing in class are also utilising feedback on drafts to help students learn the skill. I think that with effective time management and

writingassignments

So if writing is important, than how should we teach it? I’ve gathered a few sources that are mostly directed towards professional scientific writing but I think they contain lots of good tips than can be adapted to use in classes as well.

Here’s a detailed post on clear writing including a macro that detects your most verbose of sentences. Honestly, I’m a little afraid to use it, I tend towards long and involved sentences where I include lots of information that I end up needing to break up into smaller pieces in the revision process but I would probably benefit from getting those run-on sentences highlighted in red straight away. Here’s some more tips on how to write a scientific paper and on the beginning, middle and end of scientific papers. There is also this simple intro to writing for scientific journals and as mentioned by Brian McGill in his post about clear writing the Duke scientific writing site is also useful.

Writing in ecology assignments can also include summarizing existing research, so this plain language summaries post might give you some useful tips for students. It is written for scientists who want to communicate their findings more broadly but it seems that this is a good way to also assess if students really understand the literature they are reading.

Further guidance for writing detailed research proposals can be found as an example in TIEE (teaching issues and experiments in ecology). Here the students build upon data they collect and then create proposals but it also provides lots of good tips on helping students to come up with ideas and write proposals.

Finally, a list of common writing errors.

Up next week: ? I have a few more posts in mind from the survey results, including getting into the demographics and potential biases of the answers. I also haven’t included all the questions thus far and there are a few interesting things to discuss from the comments section. I want to reflect a bit more on what I’ve already written about and what might be left that is interesting to say. If you have anything in particular you want me to address, just leave it in the comments and I’ll see if I can include it.

A snapshot of the publication cycle

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I was recently asked:

Q: How do you decide what project you work on?

A: I work on the thing that is most exciting at the moment. Or the one I feel most bad about.

In the early stages, the motivator is excitement, and in the end, the motivator is guilt. (If I worked in a research institution, I guess an additional motivator would be fear.)

Don’t get me wrong: I do science because it’s tremendous fun. But the last part – finessing a manuscript through the final stages – isn’t as fun as the many other pieces. How do I keep track of the production line from conception to publication, and how do I make sure that things keep rolling?

At the top center of my computer desktop lives a document entitled “manuscript progress.” I consult this file when I need to figure out what to work on, which could involve doing something myself or perhaps pestering someone else to get something done.

In this document are three categories:

  1. Manuscript completed
  2. Paper in progress
  3. In development projects

Instead of writing about the publication cycle in the abstract, I thought it might be more illustrative to explain what is in each category at this moment. (It might be perplexing, annoying or overbearing, too. I guess I’m taking that chance.) My list is just that – a list. Here, I amplify to describe how the project was placed on the treadmill and how it’s moving along, or not moving along. I won’t bore those of you with the details of ecology, myrmecology or tropical biology, and I’m not naming names. But you can get the gist.

Any “Student” is my own student – and a “Collaborator” is anybody outside my own institution with whom I’m working, including grad students in other labs. A legend to the characters is at the end.

Manuscript completed

Paper A: Just deleted from this list right now! Accepted a week ago, the page proofs just arrived today! The idea for this project started as the result of a cool and unexpected natural history observation by Student A in 2011. Collaborator A joined in with Student B to do the work on this project later that summer. I and Collab A worked on the manuscript by email, and I once took a couple days to visit Collab A at her university in late 2011 to work together on some manuscripts. After that, it was in Collab A’s hands as first author and she did a rockin’ job (DOI:10.1007/s00114-013-1109-3).

Paper B: I was brought in to work with Collab B and Collab C on a part of this smallish-scale project using my expertise on ants. I conducted this work with Student C in my lab last year and the paper is now in review in a specialized regional journal (I think).

Paper C: This manuscript is finished but not-yet-submitted work by a student of Collab D, which I joined in by doing the ant piece of the project. This manuscript requires some editing, and I owe the other authors my remarks on it. I realize that I promised remarks about three months ago, and it would take only an hour or two, so I should definitely do my part! However, based on my conversations, I’m pretty sure that I’m not holding anything up, and I’m sure they’d let me know if I was. I sure hope so, at least.

Paper D: The main paper out of Student A’s MS thesis in my lab. This paper was built with from Collab E and Collab F and Student D. Student A wrote the paper, I did some fine-tuning, and it’s been on a couple rounds of rejections already. I need to turn it around again, when I have the opportunity. There isn’t anything in the reviews that actually require a change, so I just need to get this done.

Paper E: Collab A mentored Student H in a field project in 2011 at my field site, on a project that was mostly my idea but refined by Collab A and Student H. The project worked out really well, and I worked on this manuscript the same time as Paper A. I can’t remember if it’s been rejected once or not yet submitted, but either way it’s going out soon. I imagine it’ll come to press sometime in the next year.

Manuscripts in Progress

Paper F: Student D conducted the fieldwork in the summer of 2012 on this project, which grew out of a project by student A. The data are complete, and the specific approach to writing the paper has been cooked up with Student D and myself, and now I need to do the full analysis/figures for the manuscript before turning it off to StudentD to finish. She is going away for another extended field season in a couple months, and so I don’t know if I’ll get to it by then. If I do, then we should submit the paper in months. If I don’t, it’ll be by the end of 2014, which is when Student D is applying to grad schools.

Paper G: Student B conducted fieldwork in the summer of 2012 on a project connected to a field experiment set up by Collab C. I spent the spring of 2013 in the lab finishing up the work, and I gave a talk on it this last summer. It’s a really cool set of data though I haven’t had the chance to work it up completely. I contacted Collab G to see if he had someone in his lab that wanted to join me in working on it. Instead, he volunteered himself and we suckered our pal Collab H to join us in on it. The analyses and writing should be straightforward, but we actually need to do it and we’re all committed to other things at the moment. So, now I just need to make the dropbox folder to share the files with those guys and we can take the next step. I imagine it’ll be done somewhere between months to years from now, depending on how much any one of us pushes.

Paper H: So far, this one has been just me. It was built on a set of data that my lab has accumulated over few projects and several years. It’s a unique set of data to ask a long-standing question that others haven’t had the data to approach. The results are cool, and I’m mostly done with them, and the manuscript just needs a couple more analyses to finish up the paper. I, however, have continued to be remiss in my training in newly emerged statistical software. So this manuscript is either waiting for myself to learn the software, or for a collaborator or student eager to take this on and finish up the manuscript. It could be somewhere between weeks to several years from now.

Paper I: I saw a very cool talk by someone a meeting in 2007, which was ripe to be continued into a more complete project, even though it was just a side project. After some conversations, this project evolved into a collaboration, with Student E to do fieldwork in summer 2008 and January 2009. We agreed that Collab I would be first author, Student E would be second author and I’d be last author. The project is now ABM (all but manuscript), and after communicating many times with Collab I over the years, I’m still waiting for the manuscript. A few times I indicated that I would be interested in writing up our half on our own for a lower-tier journal. It’s pretty much fallen off my radar and I don’t see when I’ll have time to write it up. Whenever I see my collaborator he admits to it as a source of guilt and I offer absolution. It remains an interesting and timely would-be paper and hopefully he’ll find the time to get to it. However, being good is better than being right, and I don’t want to hound Collab I because he’s got a lot to do and neither one of us really needs the paper. It is very cool, though, in my opinion, and it’d be nice for this 5-year old project to be shared with the world before it rots on our hard drives. He’s a rocking scholar with a string of great papers, but still, he’s in a position to benefit from being first author way more myself, so I’ll let this one sit on his tray for a while longer. This is a cool enough little story, though, that I’m not going to forget about it and the main findings will not be scooped, nor grow stale, with time.

Paper J: This is a review and meta-analysis that I have been wanting to write for a few years now, which I was going to put into a previous review, but it really will end up standing on its own. I am working with a Student F to aggregate information from a disparate literature. If the student is successful, which I think is likely, then we’ll probably be writing this paper together over the next year, even as she is away doing long-term field research in a distant land.

Paper K: At a conference in 2009, I saw a grad student present a poster with a really cool result and an interesting dataset that came from the same field station as myself. This project was built on an intensively collected set of samples from the field, and those same samples, if processed for a new kind of lab analysis, would be able to test a new question. I sent Student G across the country to the lab of this grad student (Collab J) to process these samples for analysis. We ran the results, and they were cool. To make these results more relevant, the manuscript requires a comprehensive tally of related studies. We decided that this is the task of Student G. She has gotten the bulk of it done over the course of the past year, and should be finishing in the next month or two, and then we can finish writing our share of this manuscript. Collab J has followed through on her end, but, as it’s a side project for both of us, neither of us are in a rush and the ball’s in my court at the moment. I anticipate that we’ll get done with this in a year or two, because I’ll have to analyze the results from Student G and put them into the manuscript, which will be first authored by Collab J.

Paper L: This is a project by Student I, as a follow-up to the project of Student H in paper E, conducted in the summer of 2013. The data are all collected, and a preliminary analysis has been done, and I’m waiting for Student I to turn these data into both a thesis and a manuscript.

Paper M: This is a project by Student L, building on prior projects that I conducted on my own. Fieldwork was conducted in the summer of 2012, and it is in the same place as Paper K, waiting for the student to convert it into a thesis and a manuscript.

Paper N: This was conducted in the field in summer 2013 as a collaboration between Student D and Student N. The field component was successful and now requires me to do about a month’s worth of labwork to finish up the project, as the nature of the work makes it somewhere between impractical and unfeasible to train the students to do themselves. I was hoping to do it this fall, to use these data not just for a paper but also preliminary data for a grant proposal in January, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do it until the spring 2014, which would mean the paper would get submitted in Fall 2014 at the earliest, or maybe 2015. This one will be on the frontburner because Students D and N should end up in awesome labs for grad school and having this paper in press should enhance their applications.

Paper O: This project was conducted in the field in summer 2013, and the labwork is now in the hands of Student O, who is doing it independently, as he is based out of an institution far away from my own and he has the skill set to do this. I need to continue communicating with this student to make sure that it doesn’t fall off the radar or doesn’t get done right.

Paper P: This project is waiting to get published from an older collaborative project, a large multi-PI biocomplexity endeavor at my fieldstation. I had a postdoc for one year on this project, and she published one paper from the project but as she moved on, left behind a number of cool results that I need to write up myself. I’ve been putting this off because it would rely on me also spending some serious lab time doing a lot of specimen identifications to get this integrative project done right. I’ve been putting it off for a few years, and I don’t see that changing, unless I am on a roll from the work for Paper N and just keep moving on in the lab.

Paper Q: A review and meta-analysis that came out of a conversation with Collabs K and L. I have been co-teaching field courses with Collab K a few times, and we share a lot of viewpoints about this topic that go against the incorrect prevailing wisdom, so we thought we’d do something about it. This emerged in the context of a discussion with L. I am now working with Student P to help systematically collect data for this project, which I imagine will come together over the next year or two, depending on how hard the pushing comes from myself or K or L. Again it’s a side project for all of us, so we’ll see. The worst case scenario is that we’ll all see one another again next summer and presumably pick things up from there. Having my student generating data is might keep the engine running.

Paper R: This is something I haven’t thought about in a year or so. Student A, in the course of her project, was able to collect samples and data in a structured fashion that could be used with the tools developed by Collab M and a student working with her. This project is in their hands, as well as first and lead authorship, so we’ve done our share and are just waiting to hear back. There have been some practical problem on their side, that we can’t control, and they’re working to get around it.

Paper S: While I was working with Collab N on an earlier paper in the field in 2008, a very cool natural history observation was made that could result in an even cooler scientific finding. I’ve brought in Collab O to do this part of the work, but because of some practical problems (the same as in Paper R, by pure coincidence) this is taking longer than we thought and is best fixed by bringing in the involvement of a new potential collaborator who has control over a unique required resource. I’ve been lagging on the communication required for this part of the project. After I do the proper consultation, if it works out, we can get rolling and, if it works, I’d drop everything to write it up because it would be the most awesome thing ever. But, there’s plenty to be done between now and then.

Paper T: This is a project by Student M, who is conducted a local research project on a system entirely unrelated to my own, enrolled in a degree program outside my department though I am serving as her advisor. The field and labwork was conducted in the first half of 2013 – and the potential long-shot result come up positive and really interesting! This one is, also, waiting for the student to convert the work into a thesis and manuscript. You might want to note, by the way, that I tell every Master’s student coming into my lab that I won’t sign off on their thesis until they also produce a manuscript in submittable condition.

Projects in development

These are still in the works, and are so primordial there’s little to say. A bunch of this stuff will happen in summer 2014, but a lot of it won’t, even though all of it is exciting.

Summary

I have a lot of irons in the fire, though that’s not going to keep me from collecting new data and working on new ideas. This backlog is growing to an unsustainable size, and I imagine a genuine sabbatical might help me lighten the load. I’m eligible for a sabbatical but I can’t see taking it without putting a few projects on hold that would really deny opportunities to a bunch of students. Could I have promoted one of these manuscripts from one list to the other instead of writing this post? I don’t think so, but I could have at least made a small dent.

Legend to Students and Collaborators

Student A: Former M.S. student, now entering her 2nd year training to become a D.P.T.; actively and reliably working on the manuscript to make sure it gets published

Student B: Former undergrad, now in his first year in mighty great lab and program for his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Student C: Former undergrad, now in a M.S. program studying disease ecology from a public health standpoint, I think.

Student D: Undergrad still active in my lab

Student E: Former undergrad, now working in biology somewhere

Student F: Former undergrad, working in my lab, applying to grad school for animal behavior

Student G: Former undergrad, oriented towards grad school, wavering between something microbial genetics and microbial ecology/evolution (The only distinction is what kind of department to end up in for grad school.)

Student H: Former undergrad, now in a great M.S. program in marine science

Student I: Current M.S. student

Student L: Current M.S. student

Student M: Current M.S. student

Student N: Current undergrad, applying to Ph.D. programs to study community ecology

Student O: Just starting undergrad at a university on the other side of the country

Student P: Current M.S. student

Collab A: Started collaborating as grad student, now a postdoc in the lab of a friend/colleague

Collab B: Grad student in the lab of Collab C

Collab C: Faculty at R1 university

Collab D: Faculty at a small liberal arts college

Collab E: Faculty at a small liberal arts college

Collab F: International collaborator

Collab G: Faculty at an R1 university

Collab H: Started collaborating as postdoc, now faculty at an R1 university

Collab I: Was Ph.D. student, now faculty at a research institution

Collab J: Ph.D. student at R1 university

Collab K: Postdoc at R1 university, same institution as Collab L

Collab L: Ph.D. student who had the same doctoral PI as Collab A

Collab M: Postdoc at research institution

Collab N: Former Ph.D. student of Collab H.; postdoc at research institution

Collab O: Faculty at a teaching-centered institution similar to my own

By the way, if you’re still interested in this topic, there was also a high-quality post on the same topic on Tenure, She Wrote, using a fruit-related metaphor with some really nice fruit-related photos.

Teaching Tuesday: How do ecologists teach and are there barriers to change?

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Continuing on in my presentation of results from a survey of higher education in ecology, I am going to spend this post summarizing how teachers are teaching ecology to (mainly) undergraduates and whether they think there are barriers to changing the way they teach. If you are just coming upon this Teaching Tuesday now and want to know more, you can find a brief introduction, what ecologists find difficult to teach and effective teaching tools in past posts. (update: links should be fixed)

To follow up everyone’s favorite teaching tools, I want to dissect a little more what ecology teachers are actually doing in their courses. The majority of respondents were basing their answers on what they are doing in undergraduate courses (43%, introductory and 43% upper level).

First, I wanted to tease apart the time spent lecturing by teachers and the amount of course time students spent listening to lectures. There is a lot of evidence out there that simply listening to lectures is not an effective way to learn, but I wanted to assess how common it actually is for students to only listen to lectures. Because ecology courses can often have separate sections for labs/field work and these might be taught by different people (teaching assistants, for example), I thought it was useful to contrast the teachers’ role from the students’ perspective. Following are the answers to: What percentage of your in-class teaching time is spent lecturing? and For your students, what percentage of your course is spent listening to lectures?

lecturing listening

Indeed, students seem to generally spend less time in lectures than the teachers are lecturing, suggesting that students might be getting some of the non-lecturing time with other instructors/teaching assistants. But just to be sure, I also came at this question from another angle and asked how frequently teachers used extensive lecturing. Many do frequently use extensive lecturing and the majority think that lecturing is important or essential for teaching ecology.

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There is a lot of lecturing going on in ecology classes, likely because the teachers think it is important but there is also obviously more to the story. So what is happening when teachers aren’t lecturing?

We saw last week, few ecologists are using clickers in their courses but think-pair-share (basically getting students to talk to each other about an issue before a larger class discussion) was mentioned as an effective teaching tool. There are a number of people using the technique, but about half are basically not. However, I think that there might be a bit of skewing here because some might actually use similar techniques without realising there is a name for it. Although it is impossible to know specifically what kind of class discussions these include, the majority of ecology teaching does include class discussions.

TPS discussions

Further on the theme of students talking to one another, group work is common, and a similar pattern was seen in the answers for cooperative learning. Therefore, ecologists are getting their students talking and learning from one another.

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Letting students decide course content is not common but interestingly, it is not unheard of in ecology classes. Almost half of the people said students select topics at least some of the time and about a third occasionally use just-in-time teaching.

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I expect in line with many of our experiences, ecology instruction involves quite a bit of lecturing but this is spiced up with other activities. But say that you wanted to change the way a course was run or try a new technique, what are the biggest barriers for ecology teachers? Well, I’m sure that this won’t be a shock but it comes down to two basic things: time and money.

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But what about large class sizes and students who are resistant to change? Well, people do seem to find some issues there, but not nearly as strong as time and resources:

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What about the classic stereotype that ‘professors’ (in quotes because the survey includes  different positions involved with teaching) don’t care about teaching and just want to do research?

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With the strong caveat that people who take time out of their day to answer a survey about teaching may have some strong opinions about teaching and be personally motivated to change/try new things, personal motivation is not a strong barrier to change. (Or, you could take the negative view and say that people won’t admit that it is.) Probably related to the time issue, distraction from research is seen as a stronger barrier to change than personal motivation. Time invested in one activity must come from somewhere, thus a somewhat classic tug-of-war between teaching and research can occur. However, if people had more access to the logistics of trying a new technique and knew better how to make that efficient, than perhaps changing teaching styles/techniques wouldn’t be such a time sink. As a commenter on last week’s post said, maybe we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel for every course but instead can learn from one another.

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But here is the real kicker: if teaching effort is not appreciated or rewarded, than it becomes harder to put those activities to the top of your list. effort

Of course, there is a bit of circularity here. If teaching is appreciated by your department/university, than they will likely also invest in ways to create time and resources, including training, for their teachers. But for those with limited time, resources and appreciation, it is not surprising that people continue to teach as they have in the past. I definitely got a taste of this with a course I was asked to teach. Everything happened fairly last minute with changes to the course leadership and teachers (including me). Given that I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, I generally followed the previous lectures and activities given in the course. Now I am looking for ways to improve my section of the class but of course, it would take up much less of my time if I just retaught the way I (and those before me) have done before.

Despite some of these challenges to change, if this survey is any indication, ecology teachers are doing some innovative things with their classes.

Up next week (if I can manage to get some time to write surrounding the pollination conference I’m attending): Writing in ecology.

Efficient teaching: class needs to end on time

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clockClass needs to end when it is supposed to end.

If you did not plan adequately, it is not acceptable to unilaterally decide that class can be stretched beyond the scheduled time.

Your students might have another class to get to, or a study appointment, or a job. And, they probably want class to end and whatever you want to squeeze in during the last few minutes isn’t likely to have the desired educational outcome anyway. (Unless all you wish to do is blithely “cover material.”) Also, someone else might need to occupy the room, and if it’s a professor who is using digital stuff during the lesson, they need to get hooked up to make that happen and that could take a few minutes.

Here are some guidelines that I suggest, on handling the timing of class sessions:

    • Make sure that a clock is visible to you while you are teaching.
    • Tell your students at the beginning of the semester that you vow to always end class on time.
    • Ask your students to inform you when the end of the class period arrives. If this happens while you’re still in the middle of a lesson, stop at that moment and say “see you next time” immediately. No content is important enough to keep your students captive beyond the time allotted to a class session. (This still happens to me a few times per semester, and I’m thankful that students are comfortable enough to call me out on it.)
    • Start your class on time, even if people haven’t arrived or settled in. This promotes professionalism about the use of time in your classroom.
    • Assign your homework and reading, collect assignments and do other bookkeeping at the start of class, so that it doesn’t make the end stretch longer than planned.
    • Plan for your lessons to end a few minutes early. If they go to the end of the period, you’re okay. If you have a few minutes left as planned, you can do a quick “muddiest point” for students to complete on their way out. You might find muddiest points to be an important part of the course and it is useful to regularly leave time for them.
    • Write exams that can fit within your class period. Write them so that slower students can finish them within the prescribed time. (It varies by discipline, but a chemist colleague once said that if it took more than five minutes to take his own exam, then the exam is too long.)

If you can’t start a class on time because the room is being occupied by another class that has gone over schedule, quietly sneak up to the front and tell the instructor that your students will be entering the room in a minute. This will give them the time to make sure their students can leave the class unimpeded before you claim the room scheduled for your time slot. If you suspect that this instructor is a novice teacher, you might want to give them a few more minutes because they’re still learning how to run a class.

It’s easy to get peeved when students start rustling their bags and packing up before class is over. It annoys me, too. This bag-rustling is not its own problem but merely a symptom of poor engagement and time anxiety. The engagement problem is a whole ‘nother enchilada: you can’t be expected to keep everyone rapt at every moment. But you can take care of the time anxiety by being reliable and predictable. Students pack up when they feel like they are done and want to leave. If they know that they are staying until a precise time, and that they will always be free to leave at that precise time, then you’ll hear fewer zippers and rustles. You might even keep them more engaged.

Do you have any thoughts about managing the duration of a lesson, or have particular challenges with managing when to end class? How do you design exams to evaluate what you need to but make sure that nobody feels rushed? Any other tips you wish to share?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What faculty really need: Time

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What faculty need doesn’t always translate into what administrators think faculty need.

Administrators overseeing faculty, who do their jobs well, find ways to help faculty do their job better. With respect to research, I imagine that administrators want to increase the quantity and quality of student research, increase the number and quality of publications, and increase the funds coming into campus. At many places, of course, the latter reigns supreme.

What should faculty get to make these things happen? What we need, more than anything else, is time.

Sure, organize a grantsmanship workshop for us. Okay, pay for me to go to a conference. It is useful to have an allowance for supplies. I get to hire a student work with me? That’s very nice. I get a little stipend if I submit a grant? That’s okay, I guess.

All of those things are for naught unless I have the time to make things happen.

The basal necessity for all faculty to get research done is having the time to do it. Without that foundation, don’t even bother doing anything else.

Though some consultants make their living telling people how to write grants, a workshop won’t make you write a great grant. That skill is acquired by writing grants, serving on panels, and collaborating with people who are great grant getters. Those things take a lot more time and focus than a workshop. A workshop is a start, maybe, but unless it’s backed up with time, it won’t result in a great grant.

Working with students takes plenty of time. Writing grants, collecting data, and writing manuscripts takes plenty of time. If you were to ask most of us what we need, we’d probably put time at the top of the list. That’s probably true for everybody in academia, regardless of field or how much money we have. Either we have lots of money and need the time to do the work we planned, or we need the time to write the manuscripts and grants that are necessary to bring in money. Either way, time is always at a shortage.

I understand why administrators might be reluctant to give reassigned time to faculty to do research and mentor students. It seems against the mission of the institution to pull the out the batters from the top of the lineup so that they can leave the classroom to work with fewer students. Also, there’s a pull to be egalitarian in the distribution of resources even though some faculty will waste the time given, and others will be productive. So, time can’t be given out willy nilly. But if you really want faculty to deliver, find the ones who will do solid research and give them the opportunity to do so. (Tip: the ones who will deliver in the future are the ones who have already shown the ability to deliver.) Some people will never deliver, no matter what they get. Some already deliver, and will deliver better with more time.

Time is money. And faculty time, compared to other things, isn’t cheap (though it’s cheaper than it should be considering how poorly paid adjuncts are). If you have quality faculty doing excellent research and teaching, then giving them the opportunity to allocate some of that teaching time to research/mentorship is what will deliver.

Making the most of a daily commute (guest post)

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Amy Parachnowitsch is an ex-pat Canadian scientist, who studies the evolutionary ecology of plant-animal interactions and floral traits. She is halfway through a 4-year assistant professor position at Uppsala University, Sweden.

Maybe it is the recent discussion about field sites both far and wide (both highlighted here) that has got me thinking about distances and research/work. Or maybe it just because I’ve been sitting on a bus trying to make the most of my newly acquired commute. Whatever the reason, I have been thinking about how travel, whether daily or to your field sites, can affect how you arrange your work.

A little context: this summer I moved from the town where I work to one an hour away. There were a lot of personal reasons that went into the decision but one of the main factors was my work flexibility compared to my husband’s. Unlike him, I can use the commute to work and have shorter days in the office. A good theory but now I’m actually testing it during the one hour (each way) I spend on a bus. Right now my days are about two hours shorter in the office than they were when we lived a ~15min bike ride away.

So far, I am seeing some pluses to the arrangement. When I’m in my office, my time tends to get fragmented during the day by various interruptions. An hour on the bus is long enough to pull something out and get somewhere with it. One of the big benefits is that I am not completely connected; I do have a smart phone but I keep my computer off-line. So far this has functioned to give me some solid writing chunks during the day. There is lots of advice out there about writing daily and it has always seemed like a good idea to me. But this commute is the first time I’ve been consistent with a daily writing routine—we’ll see if it results in more submitted manuscripts as I hope. Another long-term advantage is that it will also be much easier on the family when I go away for conferences or research (we have a 4-year old). Even short trips were difficult for my husband to manage both child-care (e.g. dropping and picking up from daycare) and a long commute. Although I did a number of work-related trips from Uppsala, there have been opportunities that I haven’t taken because it was too much to ask of my very supportive husband. All in all, it will probably take a while for us to fully realize the advantages of the move but I am hoping that it will make me more effective and freer to participate in the things that interest me.

The disadvantages are of course the commute itself. I’d rather bike or walk to work than ride the bus. It will also mean that staying late or popping by my office or lab is more difficult. On the small scale—a long daily commute can have some of the advantages/disadvantages of long distance fieldwork: when I’ve left for the day, I can’t go back. The change won’t be so dramatic for me because I was already limited in doing ‘off-hour’ work by my child (and commuting husband). And unlike data collecting, I can always bring a lot of my work home with me. But I’m not sure how my shortened campus time will function once the semester is in full swing. I’ll get a better feeling as the fall progresses if there are any hidden costs to regularly leaving early. Commuting also changes the timing of the kind of work I can do during the day because now there are many things that I won’t be able to do in the commuting hours such as meetings, lab work, extensive literature searches, adding web content to lectures, etc. I think it will take more time to know if this is a plus or minus for me.

Unlike your field sites (or lack thereof), choosing where you live seems more a personal choice and might be limited by many factors (e.g. city university vs. college town). But as I have experienced from moves in the past, where you live can also effect how you work. Gone are the days when I could do that one last thing before rushing off to pick my daughter up from daycare. I don’t know if this will make me more disciplined with my time in the afternoon or more likely to give up a task earlier so I don’t have to stop in the middle of it.

Overall, I think I will be very motivated to keep my commute productive because the alternative is really long workdays. With a young child, I think it is especially important that we have some time together each day. If I spend 8 or so hours in my office, I’ll rarely see her.

I’ve known lots of different styles of professors: those that are always in their office, those that leave early to pick up kids, or come in late because they work better at night. One of my colleagues even commutes on a weekly basis from Norway. Ultimately, academia is a job where your accomplishments often matter more than the time you do it and we’re generally given a lot of freedom to arrange how we work.

I’m curious about other people’s decisions. How do you schedule your day and what do you find to be most effective way to do your work? Does where you live effect how you work? Do you use your commute to work/think about work or is it a time-out in the day? Above all, any advice from long-distance commuters would be greatly appreciated!