Archive for: April, 2012

Friday Sprog Blogging: paleozoic poetry

A little early this year, the elder Free-Ride offspring wrote these "sci-kus" for science class. They're like haikus, except with a few more syllables per line (7-9-7* rather than 5-7-5), because the names of geological periods require more syllables.

* * * * *

Cambrian oceans were full
Of sponges, trilobites, and snails
Invertebrate paradise

Ordovician fishes
Were the first, and coexisted with
Crinoids and cephalopods

Silurian plants survive
On land, and in the seas, fish with jaws
Have made themselves known to us

Devonian forests
Made up of ferns and conifers
Situated on land

Tree ferns, amphibians,
And insects in Carboniferous
Became the coal of today

At the end of Permian
Mass extinction of the sea's creatures
Farewell, sweet amphibians

*Two of these are actually 7-8-7. I'm guessing poetic license (or perhaps poetic learner's permit).

Wouldn't it be cool if they had the equivalent of driver's ed for poetry? What would they show instead of Red Asphalt to scare the kids off reckless poetry?

6 responses so far

Claims and their logical consequences (or not)

Within certain quarters of the administration of my fair university (and of the state university system of which it is a part), it is now taken as given that the classroom is a relic of a bygone era.

Lectures, it is declared, don't work. Besides, the Internet abounds with free streaming lectures (the ones from MIT, the TED Talks). What could we possibly have to add to that? So, it's time to phase out classes in classrooms and move our instruction online.

It's interesting to me that what is offered is a general declaration, rather than an identification of any particular lecture classes of ours that are not working. As it happens, the particular classes are what we offer, not some abstract generalization of "the lecture class".

Moreover, to the extent that lectures are a suboptimal delivery method for information and skills, this seems to be connected to a lack of opportunity to engage in what we in the biz call "active learning". This can be as simple as a pause for questions, or to have students work through a problem where they try to apply or extend something presented in the lecture. It might also involve a more elaborate small group exercise or a facilitated discussion.

Here's the thing: many (if not most) of us who teach "lecture" courses already incorporate a lot of active learning.

And, if the concern is that we should do more of it, or do it better, why would one conclude that the answer is to take this interaction out of the classroom and move it online? Why, especially, would one conclude that one should move it online while making class sizes much, much bigger?

Wouldn't it be more reasonable to conclude that the way to increase active learning is to make class sizes smaller?

Of course, that would cost more.

However, if the goal is really better pedagogy, not just cutting a few million dollars here or there, it might be worth remembering that facilitating active learning -- not to mention evaluating it to provide students with useful feedback and/or grades -- requires more instructor labor, not less, when it's done online.

Or, maybe the administration is only interested in improved pedagogy if the improvements (and whatever extra labor they require) can be had for free.

The whole thing kind of makes me wish the folks further up the org-chart than I am would just spell out exactly what they care about, and exactly what they don't care about. As it is, enough is left implicit that it's really hard to know whether there's any common ground for us to share.

2 responses so far

The things you can learn reading a comment thread.

So, Chemjobber (whose blog focuses on "[q]uantifying the chemistry job market" and "helping chemists find jobs somehow") wrote an interesting post on the supply/demand mismatch when it comes to chemistry Ph.D.s and how this might affect a person's rational deliberations about whether it's worth the gamble to pursue a chemistry Ph.D.

That post got me thinking (as good posts do), and I posted some of my thoughts about what we (in a sort of societal-level "we" that at least includes chemists and chemical educators, broadly construed, but that might also encompass higher education types and even society as a whole) might want to do about this supply/demand mismatch, and about how what we think we should do is probably connected to how we think about the point of education in the first place.

My post got Farked.

I went and read the comments. (I know, who does that?)

There, I learned:

1. Putting up a blog post that includes some typos (or maybe they were artifacts from the voice recognition software) means that your Ph.D. should probably be revoked. Immediately!

2. The existence of one commenter with a Ph.D. in chemistry who has an intellectually stimulating job that pays well means that there is no job crisis for Ph.D. chemists! (False alarm, kids! Come on back to the lab!)

3. The existence of one commenter who works placing interns for his university's STEM college and reports a 100% placement rate for students looking for internships means that there is no job crisis for Ph.D. chemists! (Even though maybe these are undergraduate students being placed? And maybe some of these internships pay less than what you'd view as a living wage, or perhaps nothing at all? Still, companies will welcome cheap transient labor from science majors, so the economy is totally fine!!)

4. Ph.D. programs in chemistry are probably way easier now than they were 100 years ago. (Whither intellectual rigor?) Maybe these lower standards are to blame for the glut of chemistry Ph.D.s.

5. On balance, it is a good thing when a sub-par chemist finds a job teaching philosophy!

Thankfully, we sub-par chemists can look to Fark comment threads for helpful examples when we teach logic and critical thinking.

And, because I count it as due diligence, I immediately emailed Chemjobber to alert him to the news that he's been mistaken about the chemistry job market. I expect by the end of the week he'll shift his blog over to providing photos of labware with hilarious captions.

Finally, given that the blurb that went with the link to my posts reads:

The market value of a Ph.D. in chemistry is now limited to asking 'Would you like fries with that?" On the positive side, chemistry students are bumping the hell out of English majors in the paper-hat careers

I could get all shirty about pointing out that my Ph.D. in a "useless" non-STEM field helped me secure a tenure-track job (and, ultimately, tenure) in a field where it's maybe even harder to get an academic job than in chemistry. (Look at me being a dumbass with my sunk costs and such!) And, there are no fry-o-lators or paper hats involved.

But that would just be mean of me.

6 responses so far

A hilarious book to get you through grading season: Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir).

Apr 18 2012 Published by under Academia, Book review

Yesterday, the Cave of Grading got something even better than hot-and-cold running margaritas. (OK, I recognize that hot running margaritas would be gross. Maybe hot running Irish coffee?) It got this:

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson (New York: Amy Einhorn Books, 2012)

I know what you're thinking: How is a hilarious memoir about life in Texas (and on the internet) at all helpful in the project of catching up on a catastrophic grading backlog?

And it's true, the book itself has not picked up a grading pen to help me get the job done. However, each of the conveniently-sized chapters in the book feels like a well-deserved reward after plowing through another 10 or 15 papers on the stack. Also, the guffaws Lawson's writing provokes seem to restore some of the life-force depleted by grading. I haven't subjected it to proper empirical investigation, but I hypothesize that these same guffaws result in better oxygenation of the blood, glossier hair, and a clearer complexion. Or at least they help me maintain enthusiasm for getting the job done, and restore me to a relatively cheerful baseline mood from which to evaluate student work with some modicum of compassion.

If you think your childhood was strange, or that you argue about weird stuff with your partner, or that the creatures in your yard or your house or your walls might be dangerous and/or haunted, Jenny Lawson pretty much has you beat, but you will still feel the comfort of recognition. You might also be moved to check to see when your last tetanus shot was.

Important stuff in this book:

  1. The observation that it may be harder to properly identify the type of bird in front of you than who that bird belongs to, and that this may have significant social consequences.
  2. Some liquids that have detectable odors and some that do not. Also, some liquids that are collectable, apparently, if that's how your father rolls.
  3. Maybe the worst-ever attempt to "just fit in" with the other kids in high school, especially as it results in kind of getting stuck.
  4. A tremendously awesome discount outlet purchase that is not towels, but that someone maybe wishes had been after all.
  5. A frank discussion of what it can be like to live with an anxiety disorder, and how it's much less hilarious to be living than its description might make it seem.
  6. Descriptions of parenting and grandparenting strategies favored by the author's forebears, some of which involve sacks of animals of varying degrees of animation, some of which involve unconventional use of sugar cubes.
  7. Sufficient data for me to cross a job in HR off my list of potential careers if the academia thing doesn't work out.
  8. Ample documentation of perfectly good words that spellcheck apparently did not want the author to use in writing her memoir, because spellcheck is kind of a jerk.
  9. Word problems. This book will exercise your brain! Not to mention guidance on the appropriate kickback for your English teacher (which, in my professional opinion, would also be appropriate for a philosophy professor).
  10. Flint-napping.

If it's been too long since you've read a book that causes you to emit involuntary sounds of hilarity around others, you owe it to yourself to read Let's Pretend This Never Happened.

(There's also an audiobook version, but based on my experience of reading the book-book version, I would strongly advise against listening to it while driving on account of the uproariousness might cause you to lose control of the vehicle, hurting others and yourself. If you must, please save it for stop-and-go traffic.)

3 responses so far

When patching the boat becomes unethical (a dispatch from a university in crisis).

Apr 12 2012 Published by under Academia, Institutional ethics, Personal

"We've spent years figuring out how to do more with less. It's time for us to figure out how to do less."

-- my department chair, circa 2008

I have recently arrived at the suspicion that operating in crisis conditions undermines one's ability to make objective judgments. My hunch is that the effect is especially strong when it comes to evaluating whether an on-the-ground response to an extreme reduction in resources will help or hurt the broader goals one (or one's institution) is trying to achieve.

And indeed, this hunch is something I am just articulating to myself (rather than leaving it as a miasma that envelops my head and my workplace) as my assistance has been requested in devising a radical curricular response to "the new normal" of hundreds of millions of dollars cut from the budget (with more to come!) that we have been told are never coming back. The radical curricular response, as I understand it right now, would have the virtue of saving a significant amount of money. However, it would do so by taking particular pedagogical goals that it is difficult to achieve well in a 15 week semester and cramming them into about 5 weeks of another semester-long course -- and by delivering the whole thing completely online to all of our incoming freshmen. This latter detail concerns me in terms of the workload it will entail for the faculty teaching the course and evaluating student work (since, in my experience, the time required teaching online has never been less than teaching the equivalent course in a classroom, and indeed has always been substantially more). And, it concerns me in terms of the challenges it will create as far as getting new college students to engage meaningfully with the course material, with their professors, and with each other. (My experience teaching upper division students online is that even keeping them engaged is a challenge.)

There is a piece of me that loves problem-solving enough that I have been thinking through topics and readings and assignments that might efficiently achieve the pedagogical goals in question. There are people I respect, people I like, who believe this goal is attainable and consistent with our educational mission.

But, there is another part of me, one whose voice is getting louder, that says this is an exercise in patching a boat that cannot, cannot stay afloat under these conditions. This part of me argues that we need to recognize this radical curricular response for what it really is: a signal that we have passed the point where we can actually deliver a quality college education with the resources we will be given.

If that's what it is, can it be ethical to proceed as if we can somehow deliver something close enough to a quality college education? Should we not, instead, call it as we see it and identify the resources we need to do the job we're supposed to do?

Obviously, asking for appropriate resources does not guarantee that we will get them. It may result in our doing the job right but for fewer students. Conceivably, it might also result in the administrators finding ways to clear out faculty who say the job cannot be done with less (by eliminating our departments, for example, or by ramping up class sizes and cutting salaries to the point that the job becomes intolerable) until the ones who remain are the ones willing to play ball.

I have tended to view adaptability as a good thing, but I have long been suspicious of the assumption that we should regard the environment to which we might adapt as an immovable object -- especially when that environment is made up of people making policy decisions. I think I'm ready to find out whether university system administrations can adapt when faculty take a stand for quality education.

13 responses so far

Announcing Dr. Free-Ride's Ethics Line, discreet ethical advice by phone.

Apr 01 2012 Published by under Announcements, Ethical research

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5 responses so far