Archive for: March, 2011

Random YouTubery: on what teachers make.

Mar 30 2011 Published by under Academia, Teaching and learning

This was shared with me today by one of my teachers:

Taylor Mali on what teachers make

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On the targeting of undergraduates by animal rights extremists (and the dangers of victim-blaming).

This morning, the Speaking of Research blog brings news of an undergraduate science major targeted for daring to give voice to her commitments:

Earlier this week, the animal rights extremist group at NegotiationisOver.com posted an email they received from Alena – an undergraduate student at Florida Atlantic University – in response to their attempts to solicit local activists to attend an animal rights event:

Actually, I’m an undergrad researcher aiming to work at Scripps [Research Institute]! I currently test on animals and think that it is perfectly fine. In fact, it is the one of the only ways that we, scientists, can test drugs in order to treat human diseases. I’m sure someone in your family or even a friend you know has suffered from a disease or pathology that was treated (or cured) by medicines THAT ONLY CAME INTO EXISTENCE BECAUSE OF ANIMAL TESTING.

First off, we applaud Alena for standing up for what she believes in and for expressing support for the humane use of animals in research aimed at addressing the health and welfare of humans and animals alike. Not surprisingly, however, NIO launched an offensive of degrading and hateful emotional abuse that caused Alena to plead for them to:

…please stop saying such horrible, untrue things about me. It’s hurtful.

In response, they no doubt ratcheted up the threats, causing Alena to:

…denounc[e] animal testing and my involvement in it…. I will be looking for other career choices.

Not unlike perpetrators of child and spouse abuse who use fear of further attacks to ensure silence in their victims, NIO hopes that flooding the email boxes of young people with obscenities and rabid missives will ensure that the voices of scientists of tomorrow are suppressed. Even for NIO, this is a new low, and Speaking of Research sharply condemns those who chose to act like shameless bullies when harassing, threatening and intimidating any student, researcher or faculty member.

I'm guessing at least some readers, reading this, are thinking to themselves (or hollering at the computer screen), "Well, what did she expect? You can't engage rationally with animal rights extremists! Sending that email to the extremist website was a rookie mistake, and now she'll know better."

Undergraduates may well be "rookies" in certain respects, but damned if I'm going to encourage my undergraduate students to give up hopes of rational engagement with the other people with whom they have to share a world. Giving up on rational engagement is how you end up with the current state of politics and "governance" in the United States. We can do better.

Anyway, I hope that a moment's reflection will persuade you that blaming the victim of the harassment here is just as inappropriate as blaming victims of bullying or rape. "If she had just done X, Y, or Z differently, this wouldn't have happened to her!" Coming at it this way may convince you that you are safe from such harassment because of how you are doing X, Y, and Z. You aren't. The extremists can decide to target you regardless of what you do or don't do.

Really.

The undergraduate targeted here by extremists was involved in research with fruit flies. And extremists have targeted scientists who no longer perform animal research (and their children). Indeed, they have targeted people who don't do scientific research at all (like me) who have dared to express the view that animal research might be the most ethical of our options.

The extremists are not choosing targets because of what they do or how they do it. Rather, just existing in the public square with a view different from theirs seems to be enough.

Indeed, the extremist website Negotiation is Over offers its readers step by step advice on how to target undergraduate students in the life sciences:

How to Shut Down Vivisectors-In-Training in Three Easy Steps

  1. By and large, students pursuing careers in research science truly want to help people, not victimize animals. Their indoctrination into the world of laboratory torture is slow, methodical, and deliberate. While they are being groomed, we are obligated to intercede and educate these young scientists with truth. As Alena admitted, “I was naive…I really just did not know about all this stuff.” And she is not unique.
  2. Students also need to understand that making the wrong choice will result in a lifetime of grief. Aspiring scientists envision curing cancer at the Mayo Clinic. We need to impart a new vision: car bombs, 24/7 security cameras, embarrassing home demonstrations, threats, injuries, and fear. And, of course, these students need to realize that any personal risk they are willing to assume will also be visited upon their parents, children, and nearest & dearest loved ones. The time to reconsider is now.
  3. Like all young adults, college students are acutely concerned with how they are perceived by their peers. They need to maintain a certain persona if they wish to continue to enjoy the acceptance of their community. This makes them infinitely more susceptible to negative and inflammatory publicity than their veteran-mutilator counterparts. When education fails, smear campaigns can be highly effective. Abusers have forfeited all rights to privacy and peace of mind and, if an abuser-to-be should fail to make the correct choice now, NIO is here to broadcast all of their personal information. Remember, young people document every facet of their personal lives online. In about 30 minutes, we were able to compile an impressive and comprehensive profile for Elena.

We need to begin to actively identify those enrolled in scientific disciplines and isolate the students preparing for or involved in biological research. We need to get into the universities and speak to classes. This poses a minor, but not insurmountable, obstacle for many activists that have been trespassed, banned, or TROed. We need to team up with other aggressive campaigners who excel at engaging and educating. We need to implement a “good cop, bad cop” approach to keep our targets off balance and maximize our effectiveness.

Let's take this point by point.

1. By and large, students pursuing careers in research science truly want to help people, not victimize animals. Their indoctrination into the world of laboratory torture is slow, methodical, and deliberate. While they are being groomed, we are obligated to intercede and educate these young scientists with truth. As Alena admitted, “I was naive…I really just did not know about all this stuff.” And she is not unique.

We start with a recognition that the undergraduates being targeted want to help people. But in the very next sentence, we get a picture of the established researchers deliberately indoctrinating these young do-gooders to transform them into gleeful animal torturers. (There's no explanation here of how the grown-up researchers -- themselves presumably once dewy-eyed undergraduates who wanted to save humanity -- became evil.)

For the good of these young people, the extremists must intervene and "educate these young scientists with truth".

It would be one thing if this were just a matter of dueling fact-sheets. Of course, one of the things we hope we're teaching our undergraduates is how to be critical consumers of information. Among other things, we want them to recognize that the facts are not determined by who shouts the loudest.* So whatever claims the extremists -- or their professors -- make about animal research are only as good as the evidence that backs them up, and finding that evidence may require the student to do some legwork.

I'm OK with that. Moreover, I trust my students to reflect on the best information they can find, to reflect on their own values, and to make the best choices they can.

The extremists, though, want to influence those choices with more than just "the facts" as they see them:

2. Students also need to understand that making the wrong choice will result in a lifetime of grief. Aspiring scientists envision curing cancer at the Mayo Clinic. We need to impart a new vision: car bombs, 24/7 security cameras, embarrassing home demonstrations, threats, injuries, and fear. And, of course, these students need to realize that any personal risk they are willing to assume will also be visited upon their parents, children, and nearest & dearest loved ones. The time to reconsider is now.

Please note that these threats are not tied to any particular kind of animal research -- to research that causes especially high pain and distress, or to research with nonhuman primates, or to research that violates the prevailing regulations. Rather, the bombs, home demonstrations, and targeting of family members are being threatened for any involvement in animal research at all.

The extremists do not have a nuanced view. Merely existing with a view of animal research that differs from theirs is provocation enough for them.

And, they are happy to make their case with threats and intimidation -- which suggests that maybe they can't make that case on the basis of the fact.

3. Like all young adults, college students are acutely concerned with how they are perceived by their peers. They need to maintain a certain persona if they wish to continue to enjoy the acceptance of their community. This makes them infinitely more susceptible to negative and inflammatory publicity than their veteran-mutilator counterparts. When education fails, smear campaigns can be highly effective. Abusers have forfeited all rights to privacy and peace of mind and, if an abuser-to-be should fail to make the correct choice now, NIO is here to broadcast all of their personal information. Remember, young people document every facet of their personal lives online. In about 30 minutes, we were able to compile an impressive and comprehensive profile for Elena.

Who needs facts when you have cyber-bullying?

Indeed, the extremists are pretty clear in advocating "smear campaigns" that they are happy to lie to get their way, and that "abusers-to-be" (that is, anyone who doesn't already agree with the extremist position, or who hasn't decided to totally disengage) have no right to privacy or peace of mind.

Again, I suspect a reader or two in my age group may be thinking, "Well, if those whippersnappers didn't post so much information about themselves on the Facebooks and the MySpaces and the Tumblrs, they wouldn't get into this trouble, dagnabit!" But note again the willingness of the extremists to engage in smear campaigns. They don't need to find embarrassing pictures, videos, or posts, because they can make stuff up about you.

And, regardless of how much online time undergraduates spend in what I (or you) would judge "overshare" mode, I am not willing to tell them that the best way to deal with extremists is to go into actual or virtual hiding. I am not prepared to cede the public square, the marketplace of ideas, or the classroom discussion to the extremists.

Disagreement is not a crime, nor a sin.

Threatening and harassing people because they disagree with you, on the other hand, is a pretty lousy way to be part of the human community. Calling this behavior out when we see it is part of what we grown-ups ought to be doing, not just to set an example for the grown-ups-in-training, but also to do our part in creating the world those grown-ups-in-training deserve.

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* The one obvious exception here: the fact of which side is shouting the loudest is determined by which side is shouting the loudest.

 

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Friday Sprog Blogging: the perils of a kid who's listening.

Mar 25 2011 Published by under Passing thoughts, Personal

The younger Free-Ride offspring and Dr. Free-Ride's better half have been studying aikido for some years now, at the same dojo, although not in the same class. This means that the younger Free-Ride offspring's class is getting off the mat as Dr. Free-Ride's better half's class is getting onto it, which frequently leads to playful sparring and verbal provocations between the dogi-clad Free-Rides, shenanigans in which their Sensei occasionally takes part.

Recently, Dr. Free-Ride's better half had a birthday. Indeed, it was on an aikido night. However, while the younger Free-Ride offspring went to the dojo that night, Dr. Free-Ride's better half pleaded "too much work" and stayed home. Jokingly, I wondered if this might be an attempt to dodge the traditional "birthday beat-down" and, that night at the dojo, I suggested that the younger Free-Ride offspring ask Sensei to reschedule this beat-down.

"I'm not going to do that!" said the younger Free-Ride offspring.

This week, as the kids were clearing the mat and the adults were filing in, Sensei grappled Dr. Free-Ride's better half, grunted "Birthday boy, eh?" and gave him a perfunctory thumping. Dr. Free-Ride's better half then turned and gave the younger Free-Ride offspring the hairy eyeball.

"It's not fair," said the younger Free-Ride offspring in exasperation. "I didn't tell Sensei to give [Dr. Free-Ride's better half] a birthday beatdown -- I even said not to! But Sensei did anyway!"

"Oh well," I said.

"And even though [Dr. Free-Ride's better half] knows that it was your idea, Sensei thinks it was my idea!"

I allowed as how my good reputation with Sensei meant that he tended not to suspect me of masterminding such plots (and I should point out that all I did was mention to my offspring the possibility of asking Sensei to reschedule the birthday beatdown -- my offspring and Sensei did the rest on their own). "I guess the fact that people don't suspect that of me is what makes me such an effective super-villain," I said.

"But you are not a super-villain," my offspring said to me. "You are a good person. That means you have to tell the truth, like to Sensei, right now."

Sigh. This is why I'll never get anywhere as a super-villain.

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Friday Sprog Blogging: ecological concepts in pictures.

Mar 18 2011 Published by under Critters, Environment, Kids and science

It's been another busy week, but I managed to intercept (on their path from backpack to recycling bin) a couple pages of what looks to be school work in which the elder Free-Ride offspring has illustrated various concepts from ecology in drawings.

The elder offspring represents ecological concepts in pictures

The elder offspring represents more ecological concepts in pictures

A closer look at the concepts (with a wee bit of commentary) below.
Continue Reading »

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Midweek self-criticism: what about that logic and critical reasoning course?

Mar 10 2011 Published by under Academia, Personal, Teaching and learning

Back in mid-December, a reader emailed:

If I remember right, you were at one point talking about teaching a course on logic, scientific method[s], etc. If so, and if it happened this semester, is it possible to get a copy of the syllabus? It sounded interesting, and I once taught such a course and might in the future.

On the other hand, maybe I remember wrong, and you're wondering WTF I'm talking about. In that case, uh... um... Happy Holidays!! that's the ticket.

My correspondent did, in fact, remember correctly that I was discussing the planning of this course, although that discussion here pretty much stopped when my semester commenced kicking my butt.

In any event, given that I taught the course fall semester, it was planned at least enough that I was able to deliver it to the enrolled students. How did that go?

I would not describe it as an unqualified success.

One issue was that it was really hard to fully integrate the two distinct threads of the course (distinct threads which, as I noted, flowed from the laundry list of learning objectives for the course's general education area). On the one hand, we were concerned with critical reasoning, grappling with actual "arguments in the wild", recognizing strengths and weaknesses of such arguments (including many flavors of informal fallacies), and having the students develop their own skills in framing arguments of their own, often in response to the arguments put forward by others. On the other hand, we were tackling the formal properties of arguments -- which meant mucking around with symbolic logic, truth-tables, truth-trees, methods of proof, and the like.

I'm sure there exist approaches to weave these two threads together, if not seamlessly, then with more success than I had.

However, a pretty serious stumbling block for me was the fact that maybe half of the students had a fairly easy time with the symbolic logic, while the other half struggled with it. And, it's hard to find the time to illuminate the connections when you're working on getting the basic idea across (and when it's taking at least three times longer than you had hoped it would take).

If I had to do it again (and I might!), I'd be tempted to split up the semester into two distinct blocks, the first focused entirely on the formal properties of arguments, and the second on "arguments in the wild". Getting what seems to be the harder material out of the way might open up some space to then see how it connects to the natural language argumentation with which the students are more at home.

It might also result in a lot of the students who are most freaked out by the symbolic logic dropping the course within the first couple weeks, but I had a bunch of people hoping spaces would open up so they could add the course. Front-loading the difficult material might actually be a kindness to the students who recognize their inability or unwillingness to deal with it, so they could drop the course before drop day.

I was pleasantly surprised at the students' ability to engage with arguments in English (as opposed to Ps and Qs). Both in class discussions and in their essays, they did quite well at identifying the premises that were being put forward to support a conclusion, at zeroing in on implicit premises, at finding places where the link between premises and conclusions was not as strong as the person making the argument would have you believe, and at mounting persuasive counterarguments of their own. In other words, they demonstrated their ability to bring critical thinking to their reading of the op-ed page. This is a very good thing indeed.

On the other hand, some of the students hadn't figured out how to ask good questions (or in some cases, any questions) about material they were having trouble understanding (again, mostly the symbolic logic stuff). This became painful in the class meetings and review sessions devoted to helping them get clear on the concepts and skills on which they were unclear. If you can't even tell me which problems from the homework you want to see worked on the board, or whether, once you see they worked on the board, they make more sense to you, then I need telepathic powers to figure out how to help you learn this stuff.

Sadly, I do not have telepathic powers.

As it shook out, I don't think I'd use my own syllabus again. Still, I will probably come up with a couple drafts of syllabi for the next iteration of the course. One will try to address the issues I discovered with the particular student population I had. The other, to satisfy my hunger for Platonic ideal forms (one of which must exist for a logic and critical reasoning course), will propose the mix of topics and activities I'd want to teach with no regard for externally imposed learning objectives or for the existence of students who might actually be resistant to spending more than the minimum time and effort on learning the material (and maybe even caring about it).

I reckon that drafting those syllabi would be a nice diversion from the mountains of grading. When it happens, I'll post them here.

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Random bullets of "I guess we're back in the thick of things!"

My semester has, in the last 10 days or so, shifted from "close enough to equilibrium to seem manageable" to "who parked their ton of bricks right on my soul?!" I suppose I should have seen this coming, right?

  • That weekend sprog blog never materialized. The proximate causes were a whole mess of grading, and the younger Free-Ride offspring working on yet another school project (for Band, which is technically an extracurricular activity, but I was too busy grading to pursue it).
  • Plus, it turns out that Dr. Free-Ride's better half seems to have already recycled the aforementioned booklet on how to keep your kids safe (from cyberbullying, sexting, and the like) online. Perhaps this is evidence to indict us as bad parents. However, I think the record will reflect that we've been attentive to the dangers of creepy internet stalkers since at least late January of 2006.
  • Best thing at a science fair: the kid who can explain in detail how (and why) all of his strategies for measuring the variables of interest ran into unforeseen difficulties, and how (given more time, if not better instrumentation) he might MacGuyver his way around them. Especially when the kid is not defeated but enthusiastic about the challenges science presents, not to mention the fun of tackling those challenges.
  • Sadly, that good thing didn't keep the worst thing in my inbox from knocking the wind out of my sails. It sounds like "the management" of the public university system of which my fair campus is a part is planning to go Wisconsin on the faculty union's collective posterior as we negotiate our contract. After all, this is a terribly cushy job, and I and my fellow faculty members personally orchestrated the financial collapse.

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Friday Sprog Blogging: one of *those* Fridays.

Mar 04 2011 Published by under Kids and science

This week's sprog blog will be delayed on account of the younger Free-Ride offspring had so much school work to do last night, and then again early this morning, that you'd think the kid was trying to get a grant proposal submitted. (A salient difference is that probably most grant proposals submitted to NSF or NIH don't require the use of a hot glue gun.)

Anyhow, given that the most recent discussions with the younger Free-Ride offspring have focused on time management (see above) and have involved more gnashing of teeth than witty repartee, this is your chance to weigh in on what conversation I should have, with either or both of the Free-Ride offspring, and then report here on the blog before the weekend is out.

Some possible contenders:

  • The younger Free-Ride offspring's ideas for science fair projects. There's been some discussion about figuring out a clever experiment to measure the limits of successful multitasking (at least in the population at Casa Free-Ride). Limits of memory (and especially, what kinds of things are most readily forgotten -- project due dates, I'm looking at you) might also be a possibility. Otherwise the younger Free-Ride offspring wants to grow mold.
  • The elder Free-Ride offspring will be starting junior high next school year (yikes!). This means that Dr. Free-Ride's better half went to the parent orientation at the junior high and was given a booklet on how to keep your kids safe (from cyberbullying, sexting, and the like) online. Within our draconian house limits on screentime, the elder Free-Ride offspring manages to be online a lot. I imagine this 11-year-old netizen may have some interesting views on the perspectives presented in the booklet.
  • We could also talk about why the sprogs never help me grade papers.

Sorry for the delay. We'll get you some sproggy goodness before the next work week starts.

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Midweek self-criticism: disdain for other flavors of geekery.

Mar 02 2011 Published by under Passing thoughts, Personal

Given that at least some denizens of the internet assume that I (like all my comrades in academia, especially at a public university system in California) must be a card-carrying Communist, public self-criticism may become a semi-regular blog feature here. (Verily, given how judgmental all that grading makes me, I ought to use some of it on myself.)

Anyway, the other night I was mulling over whether I wanted to watch the documentary film Helvetica, a film that explores the typographical font of the same name. I've spoken to people who have seen it and have really enjoyed it, and yet, I found myself resistant.

On the surface, at least, I put down my resistance to my impression that Helvetica is maybe a documentary best appreciated by font-geeks. While I appreciate a well-balanced font as much as the next producer or consumer of written language, I am not a font-geek.

At least, I'm not a font-geek at present. Maybe my hesitance to watch Helvetica was really a matter of fear -- fear that the film might turn me into a font-geek. Not that there's anything objectively wrong with being a font-geek, but I have lots of other kinds of geekery on my plate at the moment, and I worry that adding one more might be a geek too far. Also, I'm not sure I want to find myself staying up late switching the fonts on all my old web pages, handouts, and manuscripts (which is maybe something that a serious font-geek might do).

But, if I'm worrying that the activation energy to turn me into a font-geek is sufficiently low that an 80 minute movie could push me over it, maybe there's an uglier side to my resistance.

I must acknowledge the possibility that what I really fear is that watching Helvetica will turn me into one of them (i.e., a font-geek), and that my real problem, should this outcome occur, is not that it will be time consuming to indulge in this additional geekery, nor that it will displace some existing geekery in which I currently partake. Rather, maybe I'd have a problem with letting go of my disdain for this other sort of geek that I am not, with their strange ways and odd interests. The emotional distance is similar to what I imagine a non-Trekkie would feel toward Trekkies when watching the documentary Trekkies.*

Am I a person who needs to hold on to disdain for others, even to the point of disdaining myself if I should find myself like those others in my appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of typographical fonts? I hope not.

Having recognized my error in resisting Helvetica and my own potential membership in the fellowship of font-geeks, I affirm my willingness to watch the film, as well as my commitment to hold no other geeks in disdain for the focus of their geekery.

_________________
* I haven't actually watched Trekkies, either. I don't dress up in Federation uniforms or go to cons, and I never got too immersed in the shows in the Star Trek franchise that came after the original series, but I acknowledge that I'm at least a low-level Trekkie.

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Question for the hivemind: workplace policies and MYOB.

The students in my "Ethics in Science" course have, as usual, reminded me why I love teaching. (Impressively, they manage to do this while generating ever larger quantities of the stuff I don't love about teaching, written work that needs to be graded.) But, recently, they've given me some indications that my take on the world and theirs may differ in interesting ways.

For example, last week they discussed a case study in which a graduate student is trying to figure out what to do about his difficulties with his research in a lab where the most successful student is also romantically involved with the boss.

In the discussion, there was about the range of opinions you'd expect about the acceptability of this kind of relationship and its likely effects on the collegiality of the training environment.

But there was a certain flavor of response that really confused me. It boiled down to something like this: The boss and the fellow grad student are responsible adults who can date anyone they want. Get over it, get back to your research, and for goodness sake don't go blabbing about their relationship because if the department chair finds out about it, they could both get in big trouble, maybe even losing their jobs.

Am I wrong that there seems to be a contradiction here?

If the professor and his graduate student can get in official trouble, at the hands of the department chair, for their romantic involvement, doesn't that suggest that the relationship is, in the official work context, not OK?

Or, looking at it from the other direction, if such a romance is something that they and any of their lab members who happen to have discovered it need to keep on the down-low, doesn't this suggest that there is some problematic issue with the relationship? Otherwise, why is the secrecy necessary?

I'm thinking the crux of this response -- they can date if they want to, but no one with authority over them must know about it -- may be a presumption that workplace policies are unreasonably intrusive, especially when it comes to people's personal lives. Still, it strikes me that at least some workplace policies might exist for good reasons -- and that in some instances the personal lives of coworkers (and bosses) could have real impacts on the work environment.

Is "mind your own business" a reasonable policy here, official work policies be damned?

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