Friday links: sexual assault, NSF preproposals, is lecturing ethical, and more

Jeremy is traveling this week, so I’m in charge of the Friday link fest!

From Jeremy:
KELP 🙂 (ht

From Meg:
Hope Jahren had a very powerful op-ed in the NYTimes about science’s sexual assault problem. It’s a must read. I agree with this tweet from Anne Jefferson (which was in response to Hope’s piece):

Terry McGlynn is clearly participating in and amplifying the conversation. He had a great post in response to Hope’s op-ed in which he thinks about what we can do, especially those of us who are PIs. We need to have this discussion.

Joan Strassmann had a post on why NSF preproposals are a failed idea. Her proposed solution? One full proposal cycle per year. On the same topic, there is this new BioScience paper by Leslie Rissler and John Adamec, which reports that 49% of respondents to a survey done by NSF were satisfied or very satisfied with the switch to pre-proposals; 20% of respondents were neutral. 80% of respondents were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the switch to one submission per year. 69% of respondents thought the changes would harm faculty without tenure.

I love this animation from the NYTimes on seeing the invisible. It focuses on Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and all the cool little critters that were first seen by him. It even includes dancing Daphnia! (ht: @LKluber)

Karen Lips had a post on how scientists can participate in the policy process (beyond simply saying “more data are needed). Karen’s post reminded me that I had been meaning to link to this post from Josh Tewksbury on his transition from a traditional academic career to his current position as the director of the WWF’s Luc Hoffmann Institute, which includes advice for new PhDs and others who want to work at NGOs.

The Bearded Lady Project aims to highlight the work of female paleontologists and the challenges they face. They say:

The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science’s mission is twofold. First, to celebrate the inspirational and adventurous women who choose to dedicate their lives in the search of clues to the history of life on earth. And second, to educate the public on the inequities and prejudices that exist in the field of science, with special emphasis on the geosciences.

The vision for this project is to complete a short live-action documentary as well as to develop and display a touring portrait series. We hope our film and portrait series will inspire young women to pursue a career in geoscience. In an effort to do all that we can, both film and portrait series will dedicate their proceeds to a scholarship fund to support future female scientists.

Male scientists want to be involved dads but few are (ht: @phylogenomics via @ctitusbrown)

Melissa Wilson-Sayres live-tweeted a seminar by Scott Freeman that asked whether lecturing is ethical. The storification of her tweets is here, and includes this tweet

Finally, sciwo had a post at Tenure, She Wrote on being a mid-career academic. I am also trying to adjust my mindset to being “mid-career” now – it’s a little weird! But I think I will try take sciwo’s advice to “embrace my status as a mid-career woman and to own the idea that younger colleagues, especially women, will see me as a mentor.”

11 thoughts on “Friday links: sexual assault, NSF preproposals, is lecturing ethical, and more

  1. It also took me a while to adjust to the idea that I’m not a junior academic anymore.

    Had a look at the storify, I’m still mulling the idea that lecturing is unethical, but don’t want to comment until I’ve got my thoughts in order. Assuming I can get them in order. I recall an old post where I tried, not very successfully, to ask what scientific (or here, pedagogical) practices are ethical issues ( That post wasn’t very clear.

  2. Ok, a few thoughts and questions on the claim that lecturing is unethical. I’m puzzled/troubled by both the specific claim, and the more general principles it seems to suggest. But let me emphasize right up front that the storify doesn’t really give much to go on. I wouldn’t expect it to–it’s a storify, so it’s going to lack a lot of detail and context. Much of my reaction is because I’ve been trying and failing in my own mind to fill in that detail and context in a convincing way. Which might well just reflect the limits of my own experience and imagination. So what follows may well reflect misunderstandings on my part, in which case I’d be happy to be set straight.

    I agree that lecturing generally isn’t best practice pedagogy. Nothing I say below says or implies otherwise.

    But is lecturing unethical just because it isn’t best practice? When I think of unethical professional practices, I think of things like falsifying data. Is it unethical to do anything that’s not best practice? For instance, I’m slowly moving my teaching away from lecturing and towards active learning. But it’s slow because I have other obligations; I can’t invest large chunks of time in new prep without neglecting other duties. Does that mean I’m committing an ethical violation? That I’m a bad person? That I should be subjected to penalties? Or let’s say someone lectures because they’re unaware of the evidence that other approaches are better. Again, is that an ethical violation? You could say no, arguing that good people do bad things all the time because of circumstances beyond their control, lack of information, etc. For instance, Mike Taylor takes this line with respect to publishing in paywalled journals, which he regards as an immoral act conducted by good people ( But if that’s your view, why use language that inevitably will be understood (and resented) as a personal attack on those who still lecture? Why not instead just work to create the circumstances that will encourage people to adopt active learning? Because “love the sinner, hate the sin” often looks rather uncomfortably like “hate the sinner”, especially to the “sinners”. (e.g., this:

    Or is lecturing unethical because active learning disproportionately benefits students from disadvantaged groups? If so, what’s the general principle here? That instructors should consider not just whether a given pedagogical technique is of benefit to all students on average, but also its “distributional” effects? So that if, hypothetically, there were a pedagogical technique that was an improvement over lecturing for all students, but was especially beneficial to students from *advantaged* groups, we should hesitate to adopt it? I mean this as an honest question. As an instructor, I’ve always thought that, ideally, I’d teach in a way that’s best for my students on average. It had never occurred to me that I ought to also weigh the distributional effects of my pedagogical approach.

    Perhaps I’m totally misunderstanding the point here? What do others think?

    • I think distributional effects in instruction are hugely important to consider, especially when the shape of the distribution isn’t normal. A lot of the classes in my department have an unambiguous bimodal distribution, which presents some huge teaching challenges (which in edu-speak requires differentiated instruction). I don’t want to leave behind my students who are doing well and not have high expectations of them, but I also need to be able to reach those in the other pool, who are passing if they are lucky. Do I focus on raising the mean by just targeting the lower end of the distribution, or do I focus on raising everybody equally, or do I just try to minimize the number in the bottom end by employing practices designed to shift them up into the top end, or do I try to get the high end even higher and leave the lower end behind? I don’t like any one of these options, really. I want to reach everybody all the time as well as possible. (There are education experts that are happy to advise how to do that, of course.)

      As for calling teaching a certain way to be unethical because it’s been shown to discriminate against traditional discriminated-against populations? I’m taking the fifth. Note that in the PNAS paper cited by the live-tweeted talk, the key variable isn’t so much mean score, but failure rate. That’s a distributional measure.

      Being alive and being human involves making suboptimal choices on a daily basis. We’ve all done dozens of things today, involving diet, transportation, shopping, and such, that some people would regard to be unethical. Ethics aren’t relative like morals, and aren’t a good guideline when we make decisions that involve tradeoffs, which definitely is the case with teaching. So perhaps a slightly less horrible question by anti-lecture-advocated could be, “Is choosing to lecture immoral?” Which I also choose to not ask nor answer.

      • Thanks for the very well-articulated thoughts Terry.

        One thing your comment made me realize is that my “distributional” remarks were ambiguous. Like you, as an instructor I certainly do care about the distribution of performance of the students in my class. If, hypothetically, most are doing well but a substantial minority are failing, that would be a big worry (albeit a hypothetical one for me personally, since failure rates in my classes have always been very low, even when I’ve done nothing but lecture). It’s also a worry (well, a potential worry) if most students are doing ok but very few are doing really well. If I ever did have a bimodal distribution of student performance, as you have, I’d worry about that.

        But what I meant by “distributional” was slightly different–maybe “redistribution” would’ve been a better term. I had taken the suggestion from the storify to be that instructors should try to *equalize* the performance of their students relative to one another, at least up to a point (only up to a point because it would obviously be silly to take this to an extreme). If indeed that was the suggestion (and I’m not at all sure it was, it’s quite possible that’s a total misunderstanding on my part), I don’t quite get it. The problem with lecturing as I understand it is that some students (particularly students from certain disadvantaged groups) don’t get much out of it. That’s a problem because, as an instructor, I think you want each of your students to come out of the course with a much better understanding of the material than they came into the course with. Which is different than worrying that some students don’t get much out of lecturing *relative to how much other students get out of it*. For instance, if (hypothetically) it were the case that active learning disproportionately benefited students from advantaged groups, I still think you’d want to adopt it because it’s the technique that produces the largest gains for each student. Does that make sense?

      • Totally makes sense. I don’t think we have the results to know whether or not some approaches are more likely to change the mean without changing the shape of the distribution, while others are affecting the shape of the distribution (reducing failure rate) with a relatively smaller effect on the mean. This is where a real ethical dilemma would emerge. Actually, I bet those data do exist, and I’d be really interested. But I don’t even know how much theory has been written up about this in the science education literature. It’d be awesome if someone with those data was just in another building and I could stroll over to have a conversation…

  3. Framing an important, complex issue as a simple, black/white (or un/ethical) issue is not usually the best way to encourage the required debate and reflection – it detracts focus from the real issues by (intentionally or otherwise) putting people in defensive positions (us vs. them; zombies vs. the rest of the undead).

    Luckily, Jeremy & Terry (and I suspect most of your readers) realise the complexities involved in characterising the natural variability of populations! I didn’t realise that I already use active learning methods until recently, but can only afford to use it for part of the courses I teach on (practical issues mean that I can only triple run individual lab sessions before someone else needs the lab). Before this, I would have instinctively assumed that I was “only” lecturing and being a naughty educator.

    But so much of biology teaching is based on “hands-on” lab practicals and field trips (which I consider to be active learning experiences), that maybe it’s not the subject area that’s being criticized here? Or do some biologists really choose to simply lecture a course when circumstances (budgets, support staff, class sizes) would otherwise allow active learning opportunities?

    • Re: labs and field trips, I’d consider them active learning experiences too, at least in a broad sense of “active” learning. I think the issue under discussion here is what goes on in the classroom portion of the course. In N. America, most science classes have a lab component, and a classroom component, and the latter often comprises lectures as opposed to active learning activities like having students work together to solve problems.

    • So, being specific, what’s your experience of/thoughts on replacing lecture time with problem solving activities in an undergrad biology stats course? My concern is definitely that in a large class (I’ll have 180 this year), it’s easy for a large proportion of students to hide (they’re the unhappy tail). It’s not a popular subject with many biologists, I’ve developing some tricks to keep them engaged during lectures (clickers are useful and popular), but will flipping the class, or other active learning activities really help curtail my distribution at the right point?

      • I teach a large (~130 students, about 110 of whom consistently attend) undergrad biostats class. I teach it rather badly, if student evaluations from last term are anything to go by (and I wouldn’t dismiss them entirely). But for what it’s worth: I use clickers (avg. of 1 question/lecture), to encourage lecture attendance, test if they’ve understood what I’ve just taught them, and nip any common mistakes in the bud. I also devote several lectures scattered throughout the term to in-class problem solving in pairs (the problems are mock exam questions). These tweaks to my approach haven’t made a major difference to student performance, which isn’t surprising–they’re tweaks. I haven’t yet gone full-on down the active learning/flipped classroom road.

        Obviously, I could go much more active and flip the classroom entirely. Whether that will make a big difference to student performance, and if so, why, are the $64,000 questions. My impression from talking to colleagues who know more about the literature than I do is that active learning helps on average, but there’s a lot of variance around the average (as with any pedagogical approach). So it’s not magic–you shouldn’t expect a huge immediate jump in student performance the first time or two you try it, at least not if you currently don’t have any issue with lots of students doing very badly (thus leaving considerable room for improvement). For instance, a very good instructor at Calgary who flipped her classroom (for a fungi course) reported much greater student satisfaction the first time she did it–but not any detectable difference in exam performance. And insofar as there is a performance gain, arguably it comes because a flipped classroom forces students to spend more time in total studying the material. With a traditional lecture, they don’t have to do the background reading or other out-of-class prep work. With a flipped classroom, they do. Also, as with most pedagogical reforms, many studies of flipped classrooms, active learning, etc. involve instructors who are really dedicated and motivated to do it. If *you* aren’t dedicated and motivated, obviously you can’t expect the same results. And if you go down the route of a full-on flipped classroom, you may well need to cover less material in greater depth. That’s probably a worthwhile trade-off to make in many cases–but it makes comparing student performance across different pedagogical approaches into a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. None of which is to say that active learning isn’t the way to go, even for instructors who don’t have extensive pedagogical training and maybe aren’t prepared to devote massive amounts of prep time to it (over at Small Pond Science Terry just did a really helpful post on the lazy instructor’s guide to active learning or something like that). I think it probably is the way to go in most cases. But you should talk to somebody who knows more about it than me. Like Meg–I believe she’s currently flipping the classroom for a massive intro bio class this term!

  4. Via Twitter, Melissa Wilson Sayres notes that she’d prefer to see less discussion of “ethics” and more discussion of disparities in failure rates and what to do about them. I’ll punt on that one purely because I don’t have any relevant experience to draw on. Failure rates in my own classes have always been very low, which is surely for various reasons. But I’m sure other readers must be better-placed than me to comment on this.

  5. Pingback: Friday links: the cult of “too busy”, why research fails, a love letter to National Geographic, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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