What if we make a class better for student learning but unsustainable for faculty?

I wrote a few years ago about our overhaul of Intro Bio at Michigan. We substantially reduced the amount of content we cover in the course (though I suspect current students would be surprised to realize that – it still feels like more than enough). We also added in more in class activities (clicker questions as well as other things such as in class short answer problems and exercises aimed at increasing students’ comfort levels with figures). And, most notably for this post, we added in frequent quizzing. Students are expected to take a quiz before every class, with more basic questions related to the readings for that day, as well as higher order questions related to previous classes. Writing the questions for the quizzes the first semester was overwhelming, but my hope was that, in future semesters, it would be much less work. While it’s been less work, it’s still quite a stressful part of the course for me. After teaching the course multiple times after the semester where we overhauled things, I still feel like I am crawling across the finish line at the end of the semester – and that’s with teaching only half the semester! When I teach Intro Bio the next time, I will teach the whole semester, and I am pretty concerned about what state I will be in by the end of the semester if I teach the course the same way we have in recent years. The current course does not feel sustainable.

In talking with others who use similar approaches, I know I’m not alone in this feeling. Teaching this way takes up a huge amount of time, and we still have our other responsibilities (mentoring students, keeping our research programs going, department service, editorial responsibilities, etc.) Lately, I’ve been in multiple conversations with others where we wondered: what do we do if we’ve made a course demonstrably better for student learning but, at the same time, not sustainable for the faculty teaching it?

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There is Shit Going On but it’s not my story to tell

As I mentioned in my post last week, just before I headed to the airport, Terry McGlynn posted a list of topics that he wishes people would blog about. Given that I was already planning on doing some #airportblogging, this was really tempting! A couple of his ideas especially stood out to me. The first was about how graduate students can get experience that will prepare them for non-academic positions; I wrote about that last week. The second was this:

-Thoughts about parenting and doing science and academia. (I have written about being a parent and a spouse on the rare occasion, but at a very young age, my son asked for privacy about these matters, and I’ve respected this.) I realize I should be talking about being a parent-in-science more often, because this is a huge part of our lives, and keeping this sequestered just amplifies gender inequities.

I’ve written regularly about the juggling act of parenting and doing science and academia, so it wasn’t the first part that really caught my attention. It was the parenthetical bit. Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how quite a few people I know are juggling so many big things but, for the most part, only close friends or colleagues know about what they’re dealing with. A partial list of the issues includes personal health conditions; aging parents (or death of a parent); partners who have a chronic illness or major injury; non-trivial things with children; infertility; financial struggles; harassment and/or bullying; and major work upheaval.

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How my student has explored career interests outside academia

Last week, Terry McGlynn wrote a post with a list of things he wishes other people would write posts about. I read this minutes before heading to the airport, and this was like catnip given my #airportblogging habit. So, I sat in the airport thinking about this topic Terry suggested:

How PhD students and postdocs are getting professional development to do things other than become a tenure-track faculty member

This is something I’ve been discussing a lot on seminar trips, with prospective grad students, and with colleagues, but I hadn’t thought about writing a post on it before. So, with thanks to Terry for the prompt, here’s the story of how one of my students has explored career interests outside academia.

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When writing, tell us your biological results!

Quick quiz! Let’s imagine you are reading the results section of a manuscript. Which of these is the most useful/interesting/compelling/informative?:

  1. Figure 2 shows the relationship between infection and lifespan.
  2. Our experiment on the relationship between infection and lifespan found unambiguous results (Figure 2).
  3. Including infection treatment as a predictor improved model fit for lifespan (stats, Figure 2).
  4. Infected hosts lived, on average, half as long as uninfected hosts (20 days vs. 40 days; stats, Figure 2).

I think we’d mostly agree that option 4 is the most informative and interesting by a long shot. It focuses on the biological results, which, as ecologists, are usually our primary interest – presumably you did the experiment because you wanted to know whether and how infection impacted reproduction, not because you just really like making figures or doing stats!

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Poll: What’s your preferred number of times to teach a particular course?

I recently had a conversation with someone who said he thinks the second year of a course is the best year and that, after three years, he wants to move on. But I’ve also had conversations with others who would be happy to teach the same course for eternity. And I know still others who initially wanted to teach the same course over and over and over, but who now prefer to switch more often.

Part of why I’ve been having these conversations is I’ve been thinking lately about how long I want to teach Introductory Biology, even though I’m not sure how much of an option I have in terms of how long I will teach it for – I don’t think I’d be forced to if I said I absolutely didn’t want to do it, but there is definitely pressure to stay in it. But, for reasons I’ll explain more below, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many times is the “right” number of times to teach a course and whether that number changes over the course of one’s career.

So, let’s start out with a poll. And, to be clear: I recognize that there are often things that take us away from what we’d prefer, and that, for some, some of these questions might feel like imagining what you’d do with an extra million dollars. (Yes, I sometimes wonder about that, too.)

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How to support undergraduate students experiencing mental health concerns

(Trigger warning: mental health, self-harm, and suicide discussed below)

I recently attended a really great workshop on interacting with students who are experiencing mental health issues. The workshop was run by Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), which is a fantastic resource. One thing that makes it especially good is that it has the CRLT Players – a theatre program that “uses a diverse array of performance arts to spark dialogue”. Often, they act out a scenario and then pause, allowing the audience members time to reflect and discuss different aspects of the situation in small groups. It’s amazingly effective! They are really good at creating scenarios where there’s no clear “best” option, which leads to really rich discussions.

In this case, the focus of this workshop (run by Sara Armstrong) was student mental health, and the players acted out a scenario where a student approaches her professor to ask for an extension on an end-of-semester assignment. The student discloses that she’s been having a rough time and having a hard time getting her work done. I suspect I’ve spent more time than the average faculty member thinking about how to support students with mental health conditions, but I still learned a lot from the workshop. The workshop also included a great handout with principles to guide interactions with students with mental health concerns. I’ve been thinking a lot about what was covered since the workshop and there’s been a lot of interest in the past when I’ve posted about supporting students with mental health conditions, hence this post.

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Sexual harassment changed my career path, even though I wasn’t the target of the harassment

Back when I was a graduate student, I visited a lab where I was hoping to do a postdoc. I had thought about lots of different options and was by far the most enthusiastic about this one. I reached out to the PI and was thrilled when I was invited for an interview.

At the interview, I saw the PI harass a grad student and a postdoc (both of whom are women). Sometimes, harassment is subtle, and it’s only later that you fully realize something was wrong. This was not that kind of harassment. I mostly haven’t shared the story with others, but, when I have described what happened to a few people, their jaws dropped (literally). And it was definitely sexual harassment – this was not a case of a PI being a bully to everyone in his lab (though obviously that is unacceptable, too). He would not have done the same to men.

I left the interview feeling very confused. This was the place I wanted to be in terms of the science I wanted to do, but I really didn’t know that I wanted to be in that environment. But did it mean I wasn’t committed to science if I didn’t go somewhere that was a great fit science-wise because I was concerned about the climate? Fortunately, while I was working through this, I spoke to some people who made it clear that it is absolutely okay to consider the work environment. I was not less committed to science by not working there; rather, I was committed both to science and to my personal well-being.

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Do your figures tell your story?

When I review papers, I often read the introduction and methods, and then skip to the figures to see what I take away from them before reading the results. This can also be done the opposite way: read the results and imagine what they would look like in figure-form, then go look at the figures. I find this really useful when reviewing for making me get out of the passive reading of a manuscript and for encouraging me to think critically about the results. Sometimes, there’s a great match. Sometimes there isn’t and I realize I misunderstood something (which sometimes is just me messing up, but sometimes suggests something that is unclear in the paper). And sometimes I can’t figure out the reason for the discrepancy, which ends up being something I bring up in my review.

I was originally thinking about this as a tip for reviewing – as I said, it helps me think more deeply and critically about a paper. But, over time, I’ve realized it relates to a bigger issue: the accessibility of a paper. If you have a figure that clearly summarizes your results, your paper will be much more accessible to everyone from specialists in your area (the people who review your manuscript!) to non-specialists (including people who serve on search committees and award committees) and perhaps even to the general public.

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Imposter syndrome and cognitive distortions: some thoughts and poorly drawn cartoons

I’ve been thinking a lot about imposter syndrome lately – both because of feeling impostery myself, and because of seeing others who are feeling impostery. I find it helpful to realize how common it is for people to feel like imposters – sometimes I think that pretty much everyone is using the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy. But it’s also disheartening when I realize that people who I think are fantastic scientists, teachers, and/or communicators also feel like frauds.

There are three particular flavors of imposter syndrome that I’ve particularly been thinking about. I wanted to write a post on them but surprisingly (to me, at least) I could only picture them in cartoon form. I suspect part of the reason for that is the influence of this really great cartoon on filtering out the positive and focusing on the negative. So, here are three poorly drawn cartoons on the topic. I feel a little silly sharing them (yes, of course I’m feeling impostery about a post on imposter syndrome!), but here goes:

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Newly-hired tenure-track N. American asst. professors of ecology are 59% women (updated periodically)

(Last update: Jan. 5, 2018. No substantial changes since the original post, only very very minor quantitative changes. Latest update adds a link and brief discussion of new data on the gender balance of ecology PhD recipients and postdocs. Those data provide useful context for the data I compiled.)

Like last year, this year I once again quantified the gender balance of newly-hired tenure-track asst. professors in ecology and allied fields at N. American colleges and universities. I also conducted a poll asking readers what they expected me to find. Click the link to the poll for details on how I compiled the data, and why I went with a gender binary even though that’s not ideal.

I’ll present the results first, then the poll results, then some discussion.

Warning: long post ahead. That’s because I’ve tried to discuss the results thoroughly and carefully, and to anticipate and address questions that readers are likely to have. You really should read on, but if you just want the headline results:

  • 59% of tenure-track asst. professors of ecology hired in N. America in 2016-17 are women. Combined with last year’s data, it’s 57% women over the last two years. If anything, that’s probably a slight underestimate, for reasons explained below. This is good news!
  • Ecologists as a group remain unaware of this; many think recent faculty hiring in ecology is <50% women.

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