Sunday, November 27, 2011

Publication/ Dissemination

I just finished a full draft of my book-- it's basically a "how-to" guide for new academic faculty on their broad yet poorly defined jobs. A lot of the posts in my blog here have been inspired by working on particular associated chapters (e.g., "Teaching", "Managing Others"). It's been a really fun project putting this all together, and I've had stimulating conversations & exchanges with many people about some of the issues raised. As I am about to send the draft off to the publisher (Sinauer) for review, I have to think-- how many people will buy this? Should I have just put it all as a pdf on the web?

The underlying question is broader and relates to how we disseminate knowledge and ideas in science today. I would have been OK with just putting the entire treatise on my website, but my assumption is that very few people would have ever downloaded and read it. My thought was that sending it to a book publisher gives it a "seal of approval" of sorts, demonstrating that someone else thought this collection of ideas was worthwhile. Indeed, Andy Sinauer will certainly send it to reviewers, just as he did with the initial book proposal, and I'm sure I'll be asked to revise based on their feedback. The downside to getting this seal of approval is simple-- rather than being able to get these ideas for free, anyone interested would then have to pay money, hence reimbursing Andy for costs and hopefully providing a small profit. Both e-copies and hard copies will be available, and although both will certainly be cheap (assuming the book passes peer review), neither will be free. Hence, my assumption is that more people will read the contribution when they have to pay for it than if they downloaded it for free on my website. Yes, I'm ignoring the obvious fact that Sinauer will likely do more marketing of the contribution than I would have if it were merely posted on my website.

The analogy to scientific publication is obvious-- I can post results of scientific experiments on my website, but no one would pay them any mind relative to whether I published them in an outlet requiring both peer-review and expense (by me if open access, by subscribers/ universities otherwise). Thus, we put great emphasis on peer review, to the extent that we don't feel contributions without it have much value. The irony is that we all complain incessantly about the rigor of peer review-- how poor products slip into top journals while excellent contributions are delayed or rejected because of unreasonably high expectations by reviewers.

But are the times changing? Blogs, tweets, etc., abound, and PLoS One changed the face of science publishing by removing the emphasis from reviewers' assessment of value to only their assessment of execution and description. What if scientific results and their associated discussions were posted in bulletin-board formats? Is the world ready for such as a means of dissemination and acceptance, or would such results be presumed to be overstated and/ or flawed? There's already so much assumption of honesty in science (e.g., we don't demand that results be replicated by other teams before publication)-- is this really such a big leap? Indeed, arXiv already publishes unrefereed works for math and physics. Many journals also already allow commenting on studies-- maybe this will eventually morph into a Yelp-like review system of contributions:

-From Jones: 5-stars to the Smith lab for output #42431-- Really loved the rigor of their demonstration of speciation by reinforcement in Drosophila ananassae. The angle with looking at relative abundance of the two species was an excellent addition and sealed the result.

-From Clark: 3-stars to the Smith lab for output #42431-- Loved the study's execution, but they failed to cite two other papers that used the same approaches.

As always, comments very welcome. And please do wish me luck with the book-- I'm hoping the reviewers don't trash it because they disagree with specifics I suggested but instead see it as it (and this blog) is intended: "a starting point for discussion."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Extreme faculty

There are a lot of stereotypes of university faculty (many of which are even contradictory). But I'm wondering if I could solicit help from y'all about some of the more amusing extreme faculty "morphs". Most of these are not limited to academia-- you may encounter these in completely different settings. This list is something I'd like to incorporate into a comic that'll be part of the book I'm working on, but I'm happy to acknowledge you for good ideas. (Also looking for a good artist, if you are or know one.) Here are a few morphs I came up with, many from long-past experiences. I should emphasize that the descriptions are hyperbole, and NOT necessarily even remotely based on anyone I know at Duke. Further, I carry elements of many of these traits myself. If you add or comment, please try to be nice/ tactful, even if teasing.

HALL-TALKER: Prof you never see actually doing work, but seems to be always standing in the hall (or worse, in your office) talking. Seems to even roam the halls trying to find the next person with whom to talk.

ABSENTEE: Prof who is either traveling or works from home so much that most of their colleagues forget that they even work there. Their students may have forgotten them, too. Everyone looks startled when they walk into their laboratory or into a faculty meeting-- "Who is that?" someone asks.

CONSPIRACY THEORIST: Prof who always questions your motivation when you ask even the simplest questions, and always suspects that the administration is out to mess with them (often also believing in pots of gold that the administration is hiding via leprechaun enchantment). "Why are you asking about my day? Did the dean put you up to that?"

ATTENTION GRABBER: Prof who always seems to be the one rambling to the media about every topic, irrespective of whether it's remotely within their specific area of expertise. Rather than 15-minutes of fame, they seem to have months of it. They're very often quoted in press releases, and may keep a blog that is periodically seen by the public (ahem...).

COMMITTEE MEETING LOVER: Prof who always suggests creating a subcommittee to discuss topics in more depth-- also talks ad nauseum in every meeting without adding insights. Often circles a single point for 20 minutes that could be made in 3 sentences, and still never hits the point directly.

INEFFICIENT COMPLAINER: Prof who will spend hours writing exaggerated complaint letters and e-mails about problems that would take minutes for them to avoid or fix themselves. "Dear Mr/Ms University President: Yet again, when I came to the parking lot, I saw a discarded piece of paper, not properly recycled. I think this is another demonstration of your incompetence as our leader (see page 6, appendix C)..."

RECLUSE: Prof who looks awkwardly at you when you pass them in the hall, arrives late and/ or misses/ skips most meetings, and is always eager to get back to their office/ laboratory to their seemingly very private obsession with their study topic.

SPACE CADET: Energetic, sometimes rambly, prof who has the long-term memory of... can't think of a good example, and I think that happened last week, too, and ... wait, what was I talking about again?

DEER-IN-HEADLIGHTS: "What??? Did you say something??? Aaaaaaack-- I missed it! Again!" (OK, this may be just about all faculty, especially new ones.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Defending" a PhD

I had the pleasure today of attending a stellar PhD defense by a student who did a rotation in my lab back in spring, 2006. That rotation involved several months of really intense work, and resulted in authorship on 3 really good papers. I loved watching that student present the outstanding product of his dissertation research over the past several years, even though he chose a different lab than mine in which to do that dissertation research.

But it got me thinking- why and how do we "defend" PhDs? Could we make the process better? Where did the word "defend" even come from-- who is "attacking"? Presumably, a main point of the defense is to convince an audience and a committee that the work was worthwhile-- both tackling important questions and coming up with compelling answers. Defenses typically have the "seminar" followed by the "closed session" with a dissertation committee, and it is the latter that actually decides if the student passes.

In cases like today's defense, the "closed session" that followed the public talk was not especially helpful. As in many good defenses, the committee felt obliged to ask questions and sound critical of tiny nuances even though they all thought the product was excellent. The student, meanwhile, is exhausted after the public defense and has to suffer through this "hoop". Perhaps a few pearls of wisdom or insights come up from the committee, but many such pearls will be forgotten amidst the ensuing celebration.

Worse yet, what happens when a defense is less-than-stellar? What happens if, at the closed session, major gaps are identified in the work or in the student's understanding? I think the answer is "usually nothing." In principle, such gaps should have been found in the "last committee meeting before the defense", but it's VERY common for many facets of dissertation projects to be incomplete at that stage, or holes to not be totally apparent because the committee doesn't have a fully elaborated document. Similarly, we expect advisors to prevent such awkward situations, but this doesn't always happen. This is bad for the student (who has an incomplete product and may be less competitive in applications), it's bad for the advisor (who either accepts a less-than-ideal product or assigns someone else to complete it), it's bad for the university (who's 'seal-of-approval' is stamped on an incomplete product), etc.

Here again, like so many things in graduate education, we have procedural inertia that fails us.

What are the alternatives? Let's start by going over the problems. One problem we face is that we don't want to humiliate students by having them give a public "ending" talk and then not allow them to leave afterwards. Another is that there's little or no "check" on changes to the dissertation (or associated research) after a defense. Finally, we create a situation where the student has to simultaneously prepare for a major public seminar as well as an evaluatory defense from their committee.

What if we instead had the closed session first, long before the public seminar has been announced publicly? The student presents the committee with a full draft dissertation and presents the work orally in much-abbreviated form (instead of the typical "closed session"). If there are holes in the experiments or analysis, the student will have some time to correct them (see below). Based on the closed session, the student is given a "pass" or "provisional pass" or "fail." Assuming a "pass" or "provisional pass", at a date no less than 2-4 weeks after the closed session, the student presents the public talk. Just before the public talk, the student also gives the committee the revised dissertation, noting what was done in response to their concerns (which may also be covered in the public talk). The committee attends this public talk already knowing that the work is solid and at least provisionally approved, and they just ensure that their concerns are addressed either in the talk or in the revised document. At that point, the committee signs off on the dissertation.

This splits the defense into two temporally separated pieces, swapping the traditional order, and it avoids the awkwardness of public shame if a student actually doesn't produce a satisfactory product in their first attempt. It gives the committee the chance to approve the final product (which bears their signatures of approval). And it gives the student more time to work on the public talk vs. the written dissertation separately.

There are problems with this approach, too, but I'd love to hear people's thoughts and/ or other ideas.

Friday, April 1, 2011

How Should I Teach a "Big" Class?

This semester was a teaching milestone for me- first time using PowerPoint for a whole class, first time having >110 students (enrollment was 293!), first time teaching basic genetics, first time trying to involve active learning, and more. I team-taught the new Bio102L introduction to genetics & evolution course with another professor, with my lectures focusing primarily on genetics and molecular evolution but a few lectures in other topics (evidence for evolution, speciation, etc.).

With only two lectures left, and feedback from mid-semester evaluations, I have a lot of thoughts on the experience, and I'd love feedback from all of you on your experiences either as a student or as a teacher. I'll split my nine comments into three areas: what I thought went well, what surprised me (in some cases requiring changes), and things where the jury's out.

WHAT SEEMED TO WORK OVERALL (in my opinion- the students can speak to it better!):

1) Low-stress assignments, especially daily pre-lecture quizzes they can retake based on their assigned reading. Many students have told me they appreciate having these, as they help them understand better what it is from the assigned reading I want them to walk away understanding. Even if they don't actually read the material, they're at least exposed to a few specific ideas (and questions/ answers) before class begins. A minority commented they felt it was an unnecessary "hoop", but far more commented favorably than negatively.

2) Technology. The students and I seem to both appreciate having a) videotaped lectures available online, b) PowerPoints available online, and c) assessments (quizzes & problem sets) easy to take at their own schedule on Blackboard (and automatically graded for us). Use of technology has also alleviated some of the burden from me, in that if a student asks me a question that was covered in class, I can give a shorter answer and also refer them to, "See slides 5-8 of my February 2 PowerPoints." Finally, I've really enjoyed using my iPad for lectures- see my other blog post about that.

3) In-class feedback system (via PollEverywhere). When you ask a class "How many people think A is the answer?" and get 20 hands up, and then ask about "B" and get 1 hand, does that mean that 95% of the class understands? What about the 200 people who never raised their hands? PollEverywhere has been great for me both to have the students engage in the material besides just listening to me drone on and to get an idea of REALLY what fraction of students understand (especially when I added an option that says "I don't know" to every poll). Because these polls are done anonymously, response rates are closer to ~60-70% of attendees rather than the usual ~10%. The polls take little time, and students discussing possible answers with their neighbors helps them hear a different way of explaining the material.

4) Spending time talking with students one-on-one. This was a huge personal benefit for me- I arrived to class 30 minutes early every day, chatting with whoever was there, and tried to walk through all the lab sections each week to interact a bit more one-on-one. I got a ton of very valuable feedback on what was clear vs. unclear, what things the students liked vs. didn't like, etc. Additionally, part of what I like about teaching is getting to know these interesting students- a few actually sought me out, but by walking around and chatting directly, I got to know more of them, and I really enjoyed that. I also did various activities with many that were very enjoyable, like flunches and other outings. They're a really fun group of people!


5) The premed stereotype was dramatically exaggerated. ~80% of the class are premeds. I heard "horror stories" from professors who taught other introductory, required classes for premeds about students attacking each question on a test trying to get more points, constant accusations of unfairness, general rudeness, etc. Frankly, I didn't see that at all. There were times when students pointed out alternate interpretations of questions, but it was always done politely, and frankly, many of the times they were correct. When I disagreed, I got a very polite, "I see your point- thanks anyway." Other students expressed concerns to me about their grades, but again, very respectfully and with an eye to what they can do to improve performance in future tests rather than special favors. On my test, the grades ranged from 50-100, so it wasn't that everyone got an A either. My point here is not that these horror stories didn't happen in the other classes, but that there's been too much overgeneralization to "premeds" as a whole.

6) If I think I "COULD" split something into multiple slides to explain better/ more thoroughly, DO IT! There are many concepts I thought would be straightforward, yet at the last second, I extended their coverage into more slides just to be sure. Almost invariably, even with expanded coverage, I still should have used more slides and more explanation. I think my lecture introducing recombination between Drosophila mutations went over poorly, and I had to devote much time in reviews and in one-on-one question/ answers to make up for my poor presentation initially. Since then, anytime I hesitate for even a second on whether to expand a discussion, I err on the side of expanding. It's also important to do it in slides and not just verbally, as the students study from their downloaded slides (and may have missed something I just said verbally).

7) Have multiple people read over all problem sets/ tests. This wasn't a huge issue for my material, but there were questions that I worded confusingly (or for which there were multiple interpretations) where I had to go back and give credit for alternative answers. When this happens, it's stressful for the students and more work for me, so it's really important to have diverse people (including non-native English speakers) read over the problem and test questions. I didn't do enough of that initially.


8) Open-book & open-notebook quizzes/ problem sets/ tests. We adopted this approach to remove the focus from "Do I have to know X fact?" to real understanding, interpretation, and implementation by the students. I liked this, and some students liked this. I received two kinds of concerns, though. One was stress-level: some students really worried that having "open book" tests meant the tests would be extraordinarily difficult. The other was that they worried they may not retain the material as well when needed in the distant future (e.g., for the MCAT).

9) Class timing/ bonus slides. It was extremely difficult for me to prepare material, especially involving some active learning, and know it would take exactly 1 hour 15 minutes. Part-way through the semester, I adopted a new strategy of "bonus slides." Basically, I'd aim for a 55 minute lecture. If we finished it early, I had some slides of more practice problems or discussion questions. If we finished those too, I had some more slides about "bonus material" that's related to what we covered but for which the students were not responsible- basically showing off-shoots that are of "general interest." It seemed to me that these last ones were often enjoyed by the students the most- perhaps because they didn't feel pressured to write things down and really just listened for entertainment. But I didn't get any formal feedback on that overall strategy.

I welcome your thoughts and feedback from personal experiences!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lab management thoughts

It's graduate recruitment season, and we see lots of bright-eyed, optimistic prospective students coming through to visit. They've mostly had experience with research and are excited about science. But one obvious question often stumps them- what do you want to "get" out of graduate school? Many say things about mentorship and learning a lot of science and how to do it. The vast majority really don't know, though, beyond that they love science and want more. When asked what specific skills they'd like to acquire, they focus entirely on research or teaching and never mention "management."

I've posted in this blog before about how many standard graduate programs fail to adequately prepare students for many aspects of their job, beyond doing great science and sometimes grant- or paper-writing (which are obviously crucial). One of the biggest missing pieces that would be helpful irrespective of their final career is training in management. Some PhD students or postdocs will have supervised an undergraduate or two, and may have helped train new staff members. But formal training in management is basically nil in most programs.

Nonetheless, new (and old!) faculty struggle with management all the time. I've told new faculty that, for me personally, that's the area that causes me to lose more sleep than any other area directly associated with the job- more than teaching, getting grants, publishing papers, getting an experiment to work, etc. Some aspects one learns quickly, like being active in communicating both good progress and concerns early. Many (hopefully!) learn the big lesson of never to talk about other lab people's performance, especially concerns thereof. One of my biggest lessons was to schedule formal one-on-one time with everyone in lab, and if the meeting is short, then so-be-it, but at least a clear opportunity for communication is present and frequent.

Still, the transition from being "one of the lab" to being "the boss" is abrupt, and requires conscious behavioral modification. Jokes or teasing that were acceptable as a student or postdoc can be taken FAR more personally or worse. Similarly, you shouldn't just blindly Facebook-friend everyone who joins the lab- the relationship is too unequal for that (it's debatable whether you should accept a friend-request initiated by them, but I have been doing that). Generally, your opinion is taken with far more weight- some will not tell you if/ when they disagree. Further, frankly, there will be times when the lab folks just won't want you around because they don't want to have to be "on guard"- and they may not make that clear to you, so you should be careful not to overly insert yourself into their downtime.

I still struggle with this, even now 13 years into being a faculty member. The tone also changes with time, I think, particularly as your aging creates more distance between you and the increasingly relatively younger members of your lab. One aspect I find hard is dealing with disparity: some people in lab want to interact with you a lot, while others less-so. The apparent solution would be to adjust to individual's desires (to the extent you can with your available time), but this can create time inequities that are perceived as "favoritism", even if not initiated by the faculty member. Clearly, one has to make a conscious effort to be fair to all lab members in terms of professional and guidance-related opportunities, but informal interactions can be beneficial to the student and faculty member and may not happen equally to all students. In years past, I've had some lab members feel like I interacted preferentially with one person, when it was, at least partially, that one person who actively sought me out.

Other situational issues also arise. What do you tell lab people when someone is fired (or gently asked to leave)? Do you literally say nothing, even when they ask? How much do you let lab people know about your current funding, given that it's obviously zero-sum? How about celebrating successes- if one person has many of them, do you reduce celebration of those successes so as not to make the less-successful-recently folks feel bad? There are standard responses, like "It's a success for all of us when any do well," but we have to acknowledge we're also human and sometimes fall into negative emotions.

I'm curious from others of you- what challenges have you encountered (either directly or through observation)? Any advice to share? I should confess that I'm writing a full formal piece on this subject now, and if you convey a great thought, I may write you directly to ask permission to mention it!