Archive for: April, 2008

The love/hate relationship with academia.

Maria has an awesome post about her thoughts upon wrapping up her Master's thesis. It captures the kind of shifts one can have in figuring out what to do, who to be, and how schooling fits into all of that -- and how what's at stake is as much emotional as it is intellectual. She writes:

I have found that clinging too stubbornly to long-term goals is actually bad for me. Not because the goals themselves are bad, but I tend to become emotionally overinvested in them, and then I freak! out! at the slightest threat to my success. Learning to keep things in perspective has meant, for me, appreciating that lots of things can happen between now and the completion of my Five-Year Plan.

Longtime readers know that my career trajectory underwent some pretty significant changes, so I can really relate to this. I'm going to add just a few loosely connected* thoughts of my own here:

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Simon Blackburn on 'the myth of the scientist'.

Via Crooked Timber, I see that philosopher Simon Blackburn would like to dispel some myths. (He does this in the inaugural article of a Times Higher Education series "in which academics range beyond their area of expertise".) Of the ten myths Blackburn identifies for busting, the one that caught my attention was "the myth of the scientist":

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Do jokes reveal something about who you're talking to?

On April Fool's Day, our local Socrates Café had an interesting discussion around the question of what makes something funny. One observation that came up repeatedly was that most jokes seem aimed at particular audiences -- at people who share particular assumptions, experiences, and contexts with the person telling the joke. The expectation is that those "in the know" will recognize what's funny, and that those who don't see the humor are failing to find the funny because they're not in possession of the crucial knowledge or insight held by those in the in-group. Moreover, the person telling the joke seems effectively to assert his or her membership in that in-group. People in the discussion probed the question of whether there was anything that could be counted on to be universally funny; our tentative answer was, "Probably not."
With this hunch about joking in hand, I wanted to take a closer look at a particular joke and what it might convey.

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Evidence that the kids might be getting too much public radio.

Apr 26 2008 Published by under Passing thoughts, Personal

As we're listening to Weekend Edition, the younger Free-Ride offspring asks, "Why don't they ever have weekend subtraction?"
(I think it was the elder Free-Ride offspring, years ago, who asked why Morning Edition had puppet words. It took us a few long moments to figure out the "puppet words" was actually Bob Edwards.)

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Friday Sprog Blogging: weekend experimentation.

Apr 25 2008 Published by under Kids and science

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Elder offspring: [Dr. Free-Ride's better half] said we're going to do some experiments this weekend.
Dr. Free-Ride: Oh really? Do you know what the experiments will be, or are you going to make them up as you go?
Younger offspring: One of them will be making milk curdle.
Elder offspring: With vinegar or lemon juice, I think.
Dr. Free-Ride: Ah, that's a classic.
Younger offspring: We're going to curdle the milk before lunch. That will make cottage cheese, which we can eat for lunch.
Dr. Free-Ride: Clever! What else will you be doing?
Younger offspring: I can't remember.
Elder offspring: Maybe we'll make [younger offspring] a zombie.
Dr. Free-Ride: You know my rule: No zombies in the house!
Younger offspring: Awww ...

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A question for those who teach.

Do you ever get to the point where if you haven't checked your syllabus within the last few hours, you have no confidence that you actually know what day it is?
Or is it just me?

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Sustainability starts with sustainable habits.

Apr 22 2008 Published by under Personal, Social issues

Another Earth Day rolls around, and I still have major qualms about the typical American approach to it (which seems to boil down to "Consumer choices will save the world!"). Possibly, viewing ourselves and each other primarily as consumers explains how we have had such a dramatic effect on the environment in the first place.
Still, while we try to muster the political will and get ourselves together to respond collectively to the challenges to the Earth we all share, it's undeniable that our individual choices do have impacts. Here in the U.S., some of those impacts can be pretty big. So, I'm marking this Earth Day by taking stock of some of the habits I've tried to cultivate to lighten my impact.

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Considering the science world's 'massive communication problem'.

In the aftermath of a pretty enthusiastic pile-on to a claim that Expelled! had a successful first week of release, Chris Mooney calls for "serious introspection about the massive communication crisis we're facing in the science world".
You know I'm always up for introspection.

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Getting students to ask good questions.

Apr 20 2008 Published by under Academia, Philosophy, Teaching and learning

Neil Sinhababu (aka the Ethical Werewolf) lays out one approach to making an impression in a job interview teaching demo:

Before giving my job talk, N[ational] U[niversity of] S[ingapore] had me give an hour-long presentation to the graduate students and advanced undergraduates to prepare them for the talk and also evaluate my teaching abilities. Since my talk was on the Humean theory of motivation, I taught them about the puzzle involving cognitivism, internalism, and the Humean theory -- if you accept all three, you end up having to say that humans can't make moral judgments, so you'd better deny at least one of the three. I'd planned the talk to include about 20 minutes of student questions, but a third of the way through, the students hadn't asked me anything.
So I looked at them and tried a trick that I had spontaneously come up with in the previous session of the lecture I've been teaching at Texas. I said, "If someone asks a question, and it's a good question, I'm going to dance." Amid lots of giggling, a brave young man raised his hand and asked a question -- I've forgotten what it was now, but it was good, and the students laughed again when they saw me dancing. After that, good questions flowed freely. When students see that their teacher is willing to do comical and mildly embarrassing things to reward student participation, they get the idea that class really is a place where they're suppose to participate.
I wondered at the time what the NUS faculty evaluating me thought of that stunt. They didn't express emotion in any obvious way, and it seemed kind of high-risk, high-reward -- would I look like a dynamic, exciting teacher, or a maniac?

Neil totally got the job -- so you might want to congratulate him. Then you can ask for advice on your own dance moves.

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Words of advice for new tenure track faculty.

Apr 19 2008 Published by under Academia, Personal

ScienceWoman has a great post on balancing responsibilities in a new tenure track job, with an eye to publishing papers and setting up a robust and productive research program. It's a must-read, especially for those who are lucky enough to be starting tenure track gigs in the fall. Since I'm getting toward the end of my probationary period before the tenure decision (ask me on May 23, I'll know by then), I thought I'd offer my words of advice for hitting the ground running in a tenure track job:

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