Archive for the 'Academia' category

Do science students do their reading?

Many science professors hold it as an article of faith that students do far less of the reading in their classes than they do in humanities and social science classes. I heard this expectation expressed at the APS workshop for new faculty I went to several years ago, and in other presentations I've heard about physics and astronomy education. The technique Just In Time Teaching was invented partly as a way of allowing science classes to make better use of textbook reading. Is it not a waste to spend classroom time in information transmission, telling students in a linear fashion what they could just have easily read from the textbook? Physics education research has shown that active learning is much more effective in getting the students to really understand the concepts.

When I've heard talks about this, the view I've heard expressed is that it would be crazy to expect students to come to a literature class without having done the reading. They would be completely unable to participate in that day's discussion. On the other hand, the view is, the norm is that students don't do the reading for their physical science classes, except perhaps in a last-ditch attempt to figure out how to do homework problems ("find an example that matches!").

In my statistics class that met this last September (ending last Friday), all of the students had a project; they chose a question, obtained data, and analyzed it. One student, Julian Seeman-Sterling, surveyed students at Quest to find out how much of the reading they did. Below are a couple of his results:

Histogram about Reading

You can tell just looking at the histograms that there's no appreciable difference between the amount of reading that students claim to complete in the natural sciences as compared to other disciplines. And, indeed, Julian ran a statistical test on these, and there's no evidence of any difference. (Note that Julian calls "physical science" what is more commonly called "natural science"— that is, it includes things such as biology.)

I do have to say that I was surprised to hear that, but of course it all comes with caveats. These are the results of a survey of students at Quest. Quest is an unusual place; students only take one class at a time, and it's very intensive. They don't have stacks of reading for many different classes to do; they only have the one class. As such, they tend to be very engaged with the one class they are taking. Also, these are the results as reported on the survey. As Julian pointed out during his presentation in class, he couldn't know if they're really true without following a lot of students around throughout their day... and that wouldn't be entirely practical.

So, do students do less of their reading in physics and astronomy than they do in their humanities courses? I don't know. Julian's data suggests that that is not the case at least at Quest.

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Teaching on the block

As you will know if you've read the sidebar of this blog, I teach at Quest University Canada. I've started there this year, and started teaching my first class just under two weeks ago. The class is "The Practice of Statistics". Because Quest is so small, the faculty here teach a wider range of subjects than they would elsewhere. At Vanderbilt, I taught only astronomy (with undergraduate General Relativity having been defined as an "A" course so that students could count it towards an astronomy minor without our having to revise the catalog description of the minor). At Quest, the first class I'm teaching is a math class.

Quest runs on the "block system". This is a system for scheduling courses that was pioneered (I believe) at Colorado College; certainly CC is the best known college that's on the block system. Students take only one class at a time. However, they hyperfocus on the class. Class meets three hours a day, every Monday through Friday, for three and a half weeks. Then there's a two-day block break (next to a weekend, so it's sort of a four day weekend), and the next block begins. Full-time students take eight blocks over the course of two semesters, so it amounts to the same number of courses. (You aren't really able to overload, however.)

Professors teach six blocks during the year. This is also a similar load; at the higher-end private liberal arts colleges, the typical teaching load (I hate that term, but that's a rant for another time) is either three courses a semester, or two one semester and three the next. (Lots of details about lab courses complicate this.) (This is in contrast to a research University, where scientists might only teach one course a semester.) However, if you think about it, at a typical college those six courses are spread out over eight months. On the block system, those eight courses are condensed into less than six months. Everybody who has taught on this system has told me, and I can now confirm this from my limited experience, that the course you are teaching takes over your life, and you can do basically nothing else while you are teaching.

Each day, I teach from nine to noon. I usually decompress a bit, and then spend the afternoon trying to get some grading done, but in practice I spend a lot of the time talking to students. In the evening, I complete whatever grading there is to do, and then try to figure out what we're going to do in class the next day. Then I collapse, go to sleep, and start over the next morning.

Because students are there for three hours straight— we do take a break in the middle, but that's it— you can't approach the class the same way you would if you saw them for an hour three times a week. Straight lecturing just doesn't make sense; you can't just talk at people for three hours straight. Or, rather, you can, but you will probably dull their minds permanently. Of course, astronomy and physics research has shown that straight lecturing basically doesn't work anyway, so that's just as well! In statistics, I talk at them a little bit, but try not to talk at them uninterrupted for more than 10 minutes or so in a go. We spend a lot of time working through processing data (using GNU R), there are "labs" that the students do in small groups, and I'll sometimes give them problems and challenges to work out individually during class.

So far, I like it. Yes, I'm pretty damn busy, but I knew that that was going to happen going in to it. I like the fact that the students are hyperfocusing on my class. There's no other classes whose tests and homework compete with mine. They aren't going to neglect my class because another has a big project due. Their attention isn't divided. I don't know if this is the best way to do things for all students, but when it comes to how I, personally, have learned things throughout my life, it's very unnatural for me to try to learn several things at once and spread it out over several months. If I'm learning (say) a new computer language for a project I need, I will dig into it and focus primarily on that for a long time. It means less multitasking. Generally, when people talk about multitasking, they're talking about switching tasks several times a minute or an hour, but switching tasks a few times a day is also a form of multitasking, and it can also be distracting.

This year, after the statistics class, I'll be teaching a class that's part of the foundation courses entitled "Energy & Matter". After that is an astronomy course, and then two courses in a sequence of calculus-based physics. That will have been five blocks in a row, each with a different course, so I expect when it's over and February rolls around, I'm going to be completely used up. I plan to get nothing done in February; I am just going to recover. In March, I teach "Energy & Matter" again, and then the year is over for me. One of the advantages of having your teaching condensed into six months is that in the other months, you may actually be able to focus on other things and get a real amount of research or development done. I'll see how that goes this coming April! (And maybe in February, but I really do expect I'm going to need to decompress.)

I will have a lot more to say about what it's like to teach at Quest as time goes on.

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What to do about overproduction of PhDs?

Aug 19 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], Academia, Rant

There is an interesting and anguishing post on Inside Higher Ed by psychology professor Monica J. Harris entitled Stop Admitting Ph.D. Students. (Hat tip: Chad.) She describes a problem familiar to anybody who's paid attention to the PhD market in probably just about any academic field in the last couple of decades. Departments continue to admit and produce PhD students, and college administrations (and rankings by professional societies) judge departments partly on their ability to produce large numbers of PhD students. Yet, there are very long-term jobs out there for people with PhDs. Knowing that society and her department isn't going to change to address the problem, she's tried to do what she thinks is the only ethical thing she can: she's no longer accepting new graduate students into her lab, so that at least she personally won't be contributing to the oversupply problem.

The comments are also very interesting. The range from agreement and sympathy to outright claims that she is lazy and "not doing her job." I think the best comment was made by "scandal and a byword":

Many of us PhD students DO know what we're getting into. The problem is that (at least in my experience) we're strongly discouraged from making contingency plans. I get a fairly explicit mixed message from my teachers:
1) There aren't many good (tenure-track research) jobs out there.
2) If I don't get a tenure-track research job, I'm a failure, and my name will ever be a scandal and a byword and a source of discomfort to my teachers. If I have any plan B, I'd better not mention it!

My own field is physics, and the problem of physicists being trained for and expected to get tenure-track faculty positions, without enough of these positions being out there, has been a sore topic for two decades (at least). My last year or two of college (1989-1990), I remember reading a national report about how there was going to be a "shortage of scientists". This was based on a rather naive consideration that the boom of scientists who went into the field after Sputnik were all about to retire. In reality, the tech push after Sputnik created a system whereby a tenure-track or tenured physics professor at a research institution produces during his career something like 10-15 PhD students. In other words, while he will retire only once, he replaces himself 10 to 15 times. At first, this worked, because there was demand for that level of expansion. But not for long. Even considering that some will go to smaller, undergraduate-only colleges, this level of over-replacement is not sustainable.

By 1991 or 1992, far from the "shortage of scientists" talks, there were regular columns and letters to the editor in Physics Today talking about how physics graduate students could usually get post-doctoral positions, but it was very tough for those post-docs to move on to a faculty position. At one point, one of Caltech's colloquium periods (perhaps it was Astronomy journal club-- I don't remember exactly) was given over to a discussion of this topic. One of the things parroted there, as in many of these articles, was that we need to be training our PhD students also for jobs outside of academia. Professors said this... but I almost hear each professor present thinking, "but my students will be the ones to get those coveted faculty positions." (Or perhaps it was "but Caltech students will...".)

At least in physics, and at an institution like Caltech, there is a very strong cultural sense that "success" means "ending up in a tenure-track faculty institution at a research University". When, in grad school, I would despair with my friends about our chances, I would sometimes mention that I was as or more interested in teaching than primarily in research, they would say, oh, well, you can get a job at a small liberal arts college! Of course, those jobs are just as competitive as the research jobs. Yes, sometimes people "settle" for those jobs, but the truth is that there are a bunch of us who really value teaching as a primary professional, intellectual, and creative activity.

I also remember hearing students talking about PhDs who had gone on to teach high school, and how depressing that was that they'd have to settle for so little. At the time, I was seriously considering that as a long-term possibility, but I didn't say anything. And this comes back to the comment of "scandal and a byword" above: the culture of PhD granting institutions in many fields remains extremely destructive to the notion of PhDs being self-respecting individuals if they don't get one of the very few coveted faculty jobs.

Many of the comments on thread note that cutting off the opportunity for people to get PhDs cuts off the opportunity for the people who value the PhD work itself. This is a valid point. What I tell people is that if they're going to go to graduate school in physics or astronomy, they should do so because they want to go to graduate school. There is absolutely no guarantee that the PhD will allow them to spend the rest of their lives in physics research. With their skills, the PhD is a more stressful and lower-paying occupation (*) than other things they could be doing. If the coveted faculty job were likely, it might be worth the "sacrifice" of going through a PhD program, but because that faculty job is not likely, the PhD has to be worth it all by itself.

(*) (Aside: in physics, it's a lot better than it is in the humanities. You generally teach for a couple of years, and most of the time your advisor has grant money to pay you a research assistantship to complete your PhD research. In the humanities, you may have a fellowship for a few years, but it's more common to have to teach for many years, or to have to do research assistantships that are not your own thesis research. Yes, you're being paid a pittance in physics, but at least you're being paid.)

You also need to be aware that you're going to receive direct and indirect pressure to consider "success" as going on in research. Even the pep talks about how great a given graduating class is will come across as pressure: "I'm sure you'll go on to do great things to advance the field!" It's supposed to be a compliment, but it bolsters the culture that success is going on in research. You have to be aware of this, and have to be aware that you're still a good person, still a good PhD, and still contributing to society even if you don't manage to go on, or if, horrors, you choose not to go on in research.

The whole culture of the system is broken, and I don't see it changing any time soon. We've been collectively wringing our hands about it for at least a couple of decades, but the evaluation criteria for ranking departments remains "more PhDs" rather than "a responsible number of PhDs", and administrations at Universities continue to pressure departments to produce lots of PhDs to make their numbers look good. How we each respond to this ethically is difficult; I admire Monica Harris' response, and am dismayed by those who think she's finding an excuse to be lazy. Myself, I think the most important thing is to make sure that undergrads going on to PhD programs are not fed a line about a "shortage of scientists", and are fully aware of what they're getting themselves into.

20 responses so far

Fine. The post is deleted already.

Oct 15 2007 Published by under Academia

Commenters convinced me to think twice, and they're right.

Our system is screwed up. Never shed light on anything, because you're small and it could hurt you. If a festering wound exists somewhere, just try to get away. Don't try to point it out. Especially if it's not your problem any more.

Choose your battles, and let other places that are screwed up stay screwed up.

A lawyer on retainer. Jesus Christ. No, I'm not going to jail, but civil law practically limits the reality of free speech in this fucked up and litigious society.

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A Career and a Life, Episode 2 : Career Strikes Back

Jul 30 2007 Published by under Academia, Rant, Self

(This post is tagged for submission to the . I am sure there is a less obtrusive way to do this tagging... suggestions?)

A while back at this blog's former site, I wrote a post entitled A Career and a Life. Now that my career is on the precipice of undergoing a tremendous change, I thought it might be interesting to revisit that post.

First of all, everything I said before in there I still agree with.

But I want to go beyond that. As I described in that post, I willingly risked being seen as "not serious enough" by not allowing my faculty position to suck up all of my time, and continued spending time on things in my life, including hobbies that most would consider nothing but a waste of time.

However, as I increasingly realized in the last couple of years, I was allowing my career, to seriously and hugely impact the rest of my life in a very negative way. It is for this reason that in the title of this new post I put the career in the role of the Big Evil. I don't really think career is evil, of course, not like the Empire of Star Wars. But it was doing evil things.

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10 responses so far

On Universities, Wealth, and Research Funding

Jul 26 2007 Published by under Academia, Self, The Business of Astronomy

A couple of years ago, I went to a meeting for junior faculty at Vanderbilt about the tenure process. The ostensible goal of the meeting was to help us feel more comfortable by letting us better understand the process. The practical upshot for me, at least, was to ratchet up the tenure stress another notch or two, as well as add to the growing sense of despair I had about the whole thing.

Today, Chad points to an article in Inside Higher Ed about the size of university endowments. You know, those universities that have been increasing student tuitions at rates much faster than the rate of inflation. Just last week, Steinn pointed to another Inside Higher Ed article about how Harvard is in a bind trying to figure out how to spend the excess endowment funds that have built up.

As somebody (a well-regarded teaching somebody, mind you, and a somebody who has won prizes for research both internal and external) who is leaving academia because he was told that his tenure chances were less than 1% due to trouble getting government grant support from a capricious and extremely oversubscribed National Science Foundation, I certainly have thoughts about this. However, I can't share them directly, because using that kind of language on this blog might well get me in a load of trouble.

Let me just share this, however.

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9 responses so far

A farewell to academia

Loved the teaching. Loved the science. Couldn't take the politics. Couldn't take the tenure stress. That about sums it up.

I am sending off today a signed offer letter for employment with Linden Lab, the folks who create and run Second Life. I will be an engineer or ops/developer or something... wait, hang on. Here we go, "Productions Operations Engineer" is the title listed in the offer letter. I will write more about this in the near future, and probably a lot more in the ongoing future. Let me say, though, that I'm very excited to be going to work for Linden. A lot of the rest of this post is going to sound negative, because this post is all about academia. However, I don't want it to sound like Linden is "just my escape valve." It was the only job I applied for this summer-- so I wasn't entirely looking to flee, but saw some things very positive about this job in particular. If you had asked me what I wanted to be back in 9th or 10th grade, I probably would have said "computer programmer." So, in a sense, I'm finally getting back on track where I was in 1984 or thereabouts.

As for academia... it is not without a lot of regret that I decide to leave. I will be giving things up, and I'm fully aware of that. I will mourn leaving academia. My mother said to me a couple of weeks ago when I was out in the SF Bay Area interviewing at Linden that she thought I have a real gift for teaching. I said, perhaps (having read some really nasty student evaluations, it's difficult for me to fully admit that), but it's OK if we all have gifts and talents that we don't use in our primary vocation. She strongly agreed with this. I will really miss the teaching. I will miss playing around with the advanced physics and astronomy, and helping others to learn it and see what's so beautiful and powerful about it. I will miss surfing at the front of astronomy research.

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67 responses so far

A better model for funding astronomy?

Jul 02 2007 Published by under Academia, Rant, The Business of Astronomy

The current way we fund astronomy research in this country is
horribly flawed. There must be a better way. Let me suggest one that I
believe that we should consider.

Now, yes, you are all going to be cynical and say, "Rob thinks it's
flawed because he's had trouble getting funding, and the main flaw is
that he doesn't have any funding." While it is true that I have been
burned by the system, and am admittedly bitter about that, I think that
there are rational arguments for my case.

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16 responses so far

Why go to grad school in science? Nod to R. Ford Denison

Jun 19 2007 Published by under Academia, The Business of Astronomy

In this post at the blog "This Week in Evolution", R. Ford Denison hits the nail squarely on the head.

Why should you go to grad school? Because you want to do grad school.

If you are viewing grad school as something you have to grind through in order to get the faculty job you covet, don't go. Your chances of getting that faculty job are too low.

If you want the faculty job, you have to go to grad school. But you should believe that when you come out the other side, you will find grad school to have been a worthwhile experience even if you don't get the faculty job, and end up doing something (e.g. teaching high school, working in industry) that you might have been able to do without the PhD.

If you want to be a doctor, go to med school. Grind through it. You may not get a top job posting, but you can be pretty sure to be a doctor somewhere.

Even though grad school at least in Physics is still entirely designed to replace the faculty-- to make people into researchers in Physics-- the same very much does not apply. We produce way too many Physics PhDs for all of the faculty jobs and government research lab jobs that are out there. You have to want to go to grad school itself to rationally go to grad school.

Read the post I link to above. It's good.

9 responses so far

If you aren't a part of the witch hunt, you're a part of the problem

Anybody who's been reading my blog for a while knows that I'm aware of, very concerned about, and even active in the plight of women and minorities in science. See, for example:

I've stuck my neck out on this issue. I've even gotten whacked for sticking my neck out on this issue.

I have blind spots, but I'm not the typical clueless male who sticks his head in the sand and ignores the issue.

However, I am seriously considering becoming one. Why?

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70 responses so far

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