Archive for the 'Personal' category

What I gleaned from the start of the semester faculty meetings.

Note that "gleaned" might suggest more in the way justified true belief than I actually acquired; at least some of these bullet points have all the tannins you'd expect from tea leaves. Also, there's maybe a little sarcasm, but I'm trying to get most of it out of my system before my first class meeting tomorrow. You have been warned.

Anyway, in no particular order:

  • Our university president and the governor of our state are super-excited about MOOCs. They're the wave of the higher ed future, y'all! And that excitement extends to entering a partnership wherein faculty at our university will develop MOOCs and the university will pocket a whopping 51% of the proceeds! The other 49% of the proceeds will go to a private company that will do ... something to add value to what our faculty build. No reason at all for California taxpayers to worry that this amounts to converting public funds to private profits!
  • Also, no need to worry that the University of California's bold initiatives MOOCward in UC Online have been much less successful than hoped. Because the California State University system will be able to figure it out!
  • Some faculty with an awareness of history pointed noted that, in the 1950s, precisely the same bold future of revolutionizing college education and broadening access to it was predicted, only with television as the delivery method. Remember how classroom instruction at colleges and universities had totally disappeared by the end of that decade? And this is why history departments must be phased out immediately!
  • So, our campus is phasing in its fourth "Learning Management System" (with which we develop and deliver content and interaction with students online) in 10 years. Faculty are scrambling to work out kludges to get the functionality with the new system that they had (but will be losing) with the old system. It combines all the hassle of a new prep with none of the intellectual thrill of a new prep. Bonus: Owing to the partnership with Udacity to develop and deliver MOOCs, there is absolutely no guarantee that the campus won't end up ditching this new LMS in favor of a (proprietary) LMS that Udacity prefers (and could yank out from under us in the event that the partnership founders). This is awesome incentive for those who have never used online tools in their pedagogy to start!
  • Faculty can reach a stage where they are so battered by directives from administrative levels beyond their department that they will hear their chair's proclamation "We will be doing [X] over my dead body" and ask "When must we implement [X]?" (I assure you, these are faculty who sincerely desire their chair's continued health and well-being.)
  • Administrators who think that they can appease disgruntled factions of the administrative units they oversee by making sure those factions are heavily represented on key committees and then listening to their concerns sometimes discover that listening to those concerns is not sufficient to appease the disgruntled factions.
  • Indeed, sometimes the disgruntled factions will make and distribute hundreds of fliers trying to rally the support of the less-disgruntled factions of their administrative units, including agitating for what could maybe shape up to be a coup against the administrators who listened to grievances but did not acquiesce to demands.
  • Such attempts to rally support from colleagues might be more successful if they showed awareness of the real challenges those less-disgruntled factions of the administrative units face, and especially of ways giving the disgruntled faction everything it wants might impact the resources and effective functioning of the less-disgruntled factions.
  • I have what feels like a memory that at least one of the first few start-of-semester faculty meetings early in my career here saw faculty generally gruntled. It's possible that this is baseless nostalgia, though.
  • You know what we hear that area employers are looking for in recent graduates? Good critical thinking skills. You know what core component of our General Education package the powers that be are seriously considering eliminating? Critical thinking! Of course, the proposal on the table is to fold the existing critical thinking requirement into another required course (the second semester freshman composition class), but some of us are fairly certain that student papers with solid mechanics but lacking critical thinking are going to end up being a horror show to grade.

I hope the rest of you in academia are experiencing a smooth start (or continuation, as the cas may be) to your term.

14 responses so far

2012 in review: 12 months of Adventures in Ethics and Science.

I thought I was too late for the 2012 edition of the year-in-review meme (for which DrugMonkey has been keeping the flame alive), but Pascale, and ProflikeSubstance, and Bashir, and Dr. Becca all done did it too, so who am I to resist it?

The rules: Go to your blog's archives. For each month of 2012, link the first post, and follow it with the first sentence of that post. (Including the title of the post is totally optional; my sense is sometimes it's more fun to stare at the first sentence for a while to try to come up with a hypothesis about what the post was about without a title there to give it away.)

If you have a blog and haven't done this one yet yourself, consider yourself tagged! (That will teach you to go reading meme-ish blog posts!)

January: Happy New Year! As I type this post, only 18 days remain until the official start of ScienceOnline 2012, which means soon it will be time to pack.

February: Or, maybe my mother did tell me about this particular reason to "clean up" images from deep space and I just wasn't paying attention?

March: Apropos of the discussion here, I offer some general thoughts on pursuing partner, career, family, or other aims one deems important:

April: Do you have an ethical dilemma?

May: I have long maintained that bodies are suboptimal vehicles with which to schlep minds around.

June: Two Fridays ago, I was poised to jump into what I hoped would be a very productive summer.

July: Overheard from the backseat of the Free-Ride hoopty as we were driving the Free-Ride offspring home from a visit to the Grandparents Who Lurk But Seldom Comment:

August: The Fall semester is now upon us, in much the same way you might imagine a ton of bricks or a locomotive would be upon us.

September: At my fair university, we are in the brief window of time between "drop day" (the date by which students need to drop a course if they don't want it to be listed on their transcript with a W, for "withdraw," next to it) and the "late add" deadline (after which, for all intents and purposes, you can't add a class).

October: On the Twitters, becca pointed me to this post which raises an interesting evaluative question:

November: We're coming into the home stretch of our annual DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students drive:

December: It has been eleven years since I was last on the market for an academic job, and about six years (if I'm remembering correctly) since I was last on a search committee working to fill a tenure-track position in my department.

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The mass shootings are reported, but not every near miss is.

Dec 17 2012 Published by under Current events, Personal

Let me give you a little context on my reaction to the murders in Newtown, Connecticut.

This kind of shooting puts me on edge. Not just because I watched a major one unfold on TV when I was pregnant with my first child. Not just because when the big school shooting before that happened, one of my fellow grad students told me, "That's where I'm from." Not just because someone I've known since I was a kid is married to a survivor of another. Not just because I freaked out waiting to get word about whether two of my friends from grad school were safe when the university that hired them became the site of another mass killing.

Although all of that, surely, would have been enough.

No, this kind of news puts me right on the edge because of a particular day I had a few years ago.

One of the students in our department left a note on the whiteboard in our conference room that was not quite right. In fact, one of the other students conveyed concern about this note, as it kind of sounded like an expression of intent to return to the department with a gun to "solve" a lot of "problems". The student who raised these concerns was very apologetic -- almost sheepish -- in doing so, but there were already concerns about this student. And there was very good reason to believe this student had access to a gun. So, our department chair called campus police to ask what we should do, and found out that the "shooter on campus" drill was scheduled for the very next day which meant they hadn't yet figured out what the standard response to this kind of threat was going to be. So, probably it would be best for everyone in the department to pack up for the day and go home.

At my department chair's urging, I packed up and went home. I walked to the on-site after school program where my kids were at our elementary school, signed them out and, on the walk home, asked them how their school day was. They proceeded to tell me what their teachers had done with their classes while the school was on lockdown.

While the school was on lockdown.

Because that very day, when a student in my department at my university was maybe considering coming back with a gun to shoot at us, my kids' elementary school was locked down because someone with a gun was on its campus. As it turned out, he wasn't there to shoot students, teachers, or staff -- he was merely cutting across campus with a gun on his way to a nearby apartment complex, where he went on to murder his spouse and a neighbor.

So when experts talk about how rare mass shootings, especially mass shootings at schools, are in the grand scheme of things, I feel the need to point out that they are not nearly rare enough. It is easy enough for people with guns to get in shooting distance of me and my kids that I got to experience two near misses in the same damn day.

This suggests to me an overabundance of access to weaponry combined with a remarkable lack of imagination about other ways to deal with frustrations of various sorts. That's a problem that we really need to fix, and soon.

(Also, read Stephanie's post on peculiar problems with U.S. gun culture that it's time to take on.)

One response so far

Another ponderable: Are public elementary schools becoming less secular?

Way back in the last millennium, when I was in a public elementary school in northern New Jersey (approximately 1974-1980), our school had holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances that were mostly secular. Snowmen and sleigh rides and reindeer featured heavily, and for every song or activity that made explicit mention of Christmas, there would be one that made explicit mention of Hanukkah (you know, for balance). It was pretty clear to us students, though, that serious effort was being made to keep holiday-themed stuff at our elementary school as secular as possible ... because that's what was appropriate in a public school (where kids had to be there whether or not they worshipped in a particular way, or at all).

More recently (approximately 2004-present), I have been the parent of students in a public elementary school in northern California where the holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances have been decidedly less secular. There has been an overabundance of straightforward Christmas carols (complete with verses with religious content), weak attempts to recognize the existence of Hanukkah by singing that one dreidel song, and no apparent effort to recognize the existence of (let alone incorporate in activities, performances, or celebrations) the seasonal celebrations of other religious traditions (e.g., Diwali). And, this convergence of "winter holidays" towards Christmas in the public elementary school has been happening despite a significant population of kids in the classroom who are not Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim.

All this leaves me wondering: Were serious efforts to keep religion from encroaching on our public school activities an East Coast Thing? Were they a late 20th Century thing? How is it that the adults running things in a significantly less diverse school district some 40 years ago were better at acknowledging that their student population might not all believe the same thing or partake of the same religious or cultural traditions than are the adults running things in our wildly diverse school district here in California?

Honestly, it's all pretty weird, and I'd like to understand the source of this receding commitment to secularism better.

14 responses so far

An open (cease and desist) letter to a sixth grade English teacher.

Dear Sixth Grade English Teacher,

I know you mean well. I even agree that giving my kid homework assignments that request antonyms for adjectives and adverbs seems pretty pedagogically sound.

However, demanding that students come up with antonyms for any given noun seems like a problem.

What, pray tell, do you expect students to identify as the antonym for "utensil"? Or for "cat"? Or for "mass"?

I would submit to you that these three nouns do not have clear opposites -- or even plausible opposites -- and that they are not unique in this regard.

But framing these vocabulary-builder assignments as if every word in the language must have an antonym, and putting the students on the hook to work out what they are, forces vulnerable children to engage in a category mistake as if it were not a mistake.

I will have you know that some of us, teaching adults, already spend altogether too much time trying to get them to step away from category mistakes. Creating more in the sixth grade vocabulary homework of future generations of college students is not helping.

Just stop it.


The younger Free-Ride offspring's mother

55 responses so far

A danger of asking kids to be responsible for their own schedules.

Sep 13 2012 Published by under Passing thoughts, Personal

Sometimes you look at the shared family calendar and find an entry like this one:

The calendar indicates that the 23rd is No-Pants Day
In case you can read it, the entry indicates that the twenty-third of that month (not this month) is "No-Pants Day".

I am nearly 100% certain that is not an actual recognized holiday. I am nearly 100% certain that we did not observe it by spending the day pantless.

However, if our family calendar was subpoenaed as evidence in a legal proceeding, I fear we might have some explaining to do.

7 responses so far

Sunday ponderable: Does who's following you on Twitter influence how you tweet?

I know that some of you have been very good at resisting the siren song of The Twitters. I have pretty much turned right into the rocks.

Not that I'm tweeting 24/7 or anything. My tweets are primarily:

(1) Links to my new blog posts, when I manage to get it together to write new blog posts.

(2) Retweets of good stuff others have tweeted, especially links to pieces that I want to reread more carefully later.

(3) Passing thoughts about my job, my kids, my commute, or whatever.

(4) Occasionally, live-notes from a conference session I'm attending.

(5) Playing along with hashtag games (e.g., the recent #ReplaceLoveWithSoup).

My tweets, generally speaking, involve much less time and thought than my blog posts, and they are frequently more silly and/or smart alecky.

But here's the thing:

I've been picking up Twitter followers, as one does. Some of them are actually pretty famous and well-respected people in fields upon which my work (not just my blogging-work, but my actual professorial research/teaching/service-work) touch. Some of them are pretty famous and well-respected people in my home discipline. Also, not that it necessarily matters (but I can't rule out the possibility that it might), some of these famous-folks are a generation or two older than me.

... and now there's something like the possibility of meeting some of these famous-folk in real life (say, at a professional meeting) and having their primary information about me at that moment come from my tweets. And it's hard to anticipate how famous scientists and philosophers feel about replacing love with soup.

Or to know whether it should matter to me.

Are any of you in a similar situation? Does it influence how you tweet? Have you decided that your Twitter followers deserve what they get from your tweet-stream?

5 responses so far

The continued relevance of my (first) Ph.D.

Sep 08 2012 Published by under Chemistry, Personal

From time to time, when people find out that it took me two Ph.D.s to work out what I wanted to be when I grew up, they'll make comments about what a pain it must have been wasting those four-plus years learning chemistry stuff that is well-nigh useless for a professional philosopher.

Let the record reflect that last weekend, I made use of a skill that I honed in my graduate chemistry training.

Sadly, that skill was bottle-washing -- not the most intellectually stimulating thing to do. But, when the bottles need washing, knowing how to wield a bottle-brush with authority is important.

And, now we have apple cider (or more properly, the yeast contained in that cider) munching on sucrose in the bottles, developing some carbonation. Plus, the carboy is now free and ready for this Fall's press, which is good, as the apple tree is groaning under the burden of all those apples.

8 responses so far

Question for the hivemind: What's the fairest way to distribute add codes?

Sep 06 2012 Published by under Academia, Personal, Reader participation

At my fair university, we are in the brief window of time between "drop day" (the date by which students need to drop a course if they don't want it to be listed on their transcript with a W, for "withdraw," next to it) and the "late add" deadline (after which, for all intents and purposes, you can't add a class). This means that I have only a few more days to savor being popular -- or at least, popular with the students still desperately trying to lock in their schedules for the semester and hoping to secure the units and/or general education credit my courses could provide.

Sadly, this popularity mostly manifests itself in messages in my inbox asking that I please give the sender an add code for my class ASAP. Worse, in the small fraction of cases where I have been able to to comply with these requests, I don't always hear back from the student to whom I've given an add code ... and he or she doesn't always use the add code to add my class.

I find that this presents me with a practical problem that is also an ethical problem. Students will frequently email, saying, "In the listing online, it shows that your class still has open seats." From the point of view of official enrollment, the online listing is correct, but in this portion of the term it is also the case that I have usually given out one add code for each theoretically empty seat. If all the add codes I've given out are used, there really aren't any open seats.

But a handful of the people to whom I've given out add codes end up not using them, and not letting me know that they're not going to use them.

I have colleagues who deal with the open-seats problem by giving out excess add codes (i.e., more than could all be used before the class is full). The computerized registration system is set up to close registration once the enrollment cap (which for us is usually the seating capacity of the room) is reached, so there's no chance of having more students than seats and violating fire codes. But, essentially this makes adding the course a matter of being fastest on the draw to use your add code -- which makes things hard for students who need first to get various holds on their registration lifted, a process that requires standing in lines and getting signatures on forms. Also, it may leave a student feeling like she has found a space in a class she needed only to be disappointed that she doesn't really have that space because the other add code recipients got there first.

My goal is to fill all the open seats in my courses with students who need them. I don't want to do this by setting up a bloody battle to use one's add code first. On the other hand, I don't want people who have gotten add codes from me to waste an open seat that someone else could use by not using their add codes.

Is there a good way to make this happen?

10 responses so far

Super Happy Fun Semester: It Begins!

The Fall semester is now upon us, in much the same way you might imagine a ton of bricks or a locomotive would be upon us.

And honestly, it's much worse for the students than it is for me.

We are still in the land of The State Budget That Just Can't Give Higher Education A Break. Millions of dollars are being cut from our campus budget and millions more will need to be cut if a ballot measure to raise sales taxes and income taxes on the highest earners goes down in November.

One response has been to cut lots of classes from the Fall schedule, since classes eat up money for faculty salaries, as well as classrooms (excepting the online classes). In particular, this response was made manifest in the elimination of nearly every class that did not have an enrollment of at least 15 students by some arbitrary date (a couple of weeks ago, I think) before the start of the semester.

This was not great news for the up to 14 students enrolled in these course offerings that were vaporized. Some of these may have been crucial courses for their majors, while others may have filled general education requirements that students need to satisfy to graduate. In any event, these students whose classes up and vanished have joined the already crowded throngs of students trying like mad to find spaces in the courses that still exist, where often it is the case that there are five or more students trying to get an add code for every available seat.

Those are not odds that would make me cheerful. Despite this, the students asking me for add codes have shown a remarkable amount of forbearance.

Meanwhile, as I've mentioned before, despite the elimination of many (perhaps hundreds of) classes, officially we are supposed to maintain the same level of full time enrolled students ... because student fees now amount to more than the chunk of money the state puts up for each student. Logically, this means class sizes need to get bigger, but the seating capacity of the classrooms seems not to have magically increased over the summer.

Of course, the administration has put out feelers to gauge the willingness of our department, and others, to increase class size for one of our courses to 700. (Our willingness: non-existent.)

Buckle up, folks. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

5 responses so far

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