Please. Education is not a horserace.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t use the classroom to proselytize atheism. I have a job to do, and that is to help the students learn biology, and that’s all I care about — that they graduate after a few years and understand the concepts and can apply them, and if can do that while believing in Jesus or Allah, that’s just fine.

There’s another thing I don’t do, and that is penalize them for their health or situation. You’ve got clinical depression or your grandmother died or you had a nasty break-up with your romantic friend? I’ll make what accommodations I can, because I want you to get through all of that and learn biology. That’s all I can judge you on, is your mastery of the material, but I will welcome any changes that can help you out.

But all too often I run into non-academics (and sometimes even academics) who don’t understand this basic idea, that we’re supposed to help our students learn. So someone like Margaret Wente can write drivel like “Why treat university students like fragile flowers?”

The first answer is that we don’t. We have standards that have to be met in order to pass a course, and they’re not “be free of mental health concerns” or “have a stable family life” or “be rich enough that you don’t have to work part-time”. If you have an illness that makes mastering the course material difficult for you, that doesn’t mean you get a free pass; it means you should talk to me and I’ll do what I can to give you the opportunity to learn it in spite of your handicap. My job is to make all the flowers blossom, not to make half of them wither if they need a little extra watering.

However, there are things that Wente objects to.

Today, any proper university has registered therapy dogs to cheer you up. If exams have you down, drop in for a lick and a cuddle and you’ll feel better in no time. And if you’re too depressed because of Grandma, no problem. The disability office will provide you with a private room and extra time to write your final. Your professor never even needs to know.

Today, colleges and universities are highly concerned with the mental well-being of their students. Student distress, we’re told, is at an all-time high. It’s the pressure. The competition. Social media. Career anxiety. Long commutes. Money worries. Cyberbullying.

Therapy dogs are bad? Why? I want a therapy puppy to visit when grading gets me down! I suspect students learn better when they’re less stressed. All I care about, remember, is student learning.

I have students who take their exams at our office of student learning. We have students with agoraphobia, with test anxiety, who are easily distracted, who have language issues and need extra time. Why shouldn’t they get an environment that reduces those concerns and allows them to demonstrate their knowledge better? Why does Margaret Wente think learning has to be a stress test?

Meanwhile, the definition of “disability” – originally used for physical issues – has expanded beyond recognition. Now, it includes not only learning disabilities, but all manner of mental, social and cognitive disorders – anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, PTSD and the like. These may also require special accommodation. As a consequence, universities now routinely give students extra time to write exams and finish assignments. But not all professors are happy about this. But it’s not up to them any more – it’s up to the ever-expanding disability bureaucracy.

Wait. So we should accommodate ex-military students, for instance, who’ve had an arm blown off, because that’s a visible injury, but students with bodies intact but suffering from PTSD don’t count? Why? If my university provides the resources to reduce anxiety for anxiety-prone students, why shouldn’t we take advantage of it? It’s not as if anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, or PTSD make you stupid and incapable of learning cell biology or genetics; it means there are extra hurdles for you to overcome, and hey, if we can clear away the barriers to learning, I’m all for it.

But they get extra benefits, like more time to work on an exam, and that’s not fair! It’s also not fair to be afflicted depression or migraines or PTSD. We’re not demanding that every student be equally traumatized to create a level playing field, you know. The mistake is to think of education as a game where there are winners and losers rather than an experience in which we try to make sure every single student comes out at the end with more knowledge. It’s not a competition.

Wente finds someone who shares her barbaric attitudes.

Bruce Pardy, a law professor at Queen’s University, thinks the accommodation industry has gone too far. Giving someone with mental-health problems extra time to write an exam doesn’t level the playing field, he says. It simply tilts the playing field against everybody else. As he wrote recently: “The purpose of exams and assignments is not merely to test knowledge, comprehension, and analytical ability but to do so under conditions that require poise, organization, forward planning, and grace under pressure.” He says it’s like letting someone with a limp start at the 20-metre mark in a 100-metre race. The results are meaningless.

Stop with the “playing field” bullshit already! It’s not a race. It’s not a contest. I’m not trying to determine who “wins” in my cell biology class. I do test “knowledge, comprehension, and analytical ability”, because I want the students to be prepared for the next course in the sequence, or for graduate/professional school, or the workplace.

If you want to demand grace under pressure, though, I can cover that. I’ve got students who are working two jobs to pay for college. I’ve got students from broken homes. I’ve got students who were poorly served by their high schools who are working twice as hard to catch up. If we must analogize it to a race, these are students who start 20-meters behind the other students, and Pardy is complaining that we are trying to help them get to the starting line before the starting gun. We’re still going to insist that they make it to the finish line to get credit, and we even evaluate them on their performance. To decide a priori that the person with the limp can do nothing to get around the meaninglessness of their efforts is heartless and wrong.

I have no idea who Wente is, but I’m going to guess she’s conservative, and the Canadian version of a Republican. The callous disregard for others’ situation, the lack of empathy, and the inability to imagine the utility of helping all to succeed, rather than just the “winners”, is a giveaway.

Another fine academic sexual harassment mess

There doesn’t seem to be any question that Andrew Escobedo, a professor of English at Ohio University, sexually assaulted several of his students, and then threatened them if they exposed him. The case looks like a done deal.

…the school’s civil rights office issued a graphic 78-page report that not only substantiated their claims but also those of two other women alleging sexual harassment by Escobedo dating back to 2003. Escobedo denied the accusations, but his bosses, from the dean and provost to the president, agreed he should be fired.

It also looks to me like Escobedo has basically confessed.

After the investigation finished, Escobedo wrote a letter to colleagues — outing the names of witnesses and alleged victims — in which he said they had multiple opportunities to move away from him, yet they didn’t. Adams and Hempstead told investigators they feared that if they more forcefully rejected Escobedo, he could retaliate when giving them their final grades.

That letter…yikes. While vehemently protesting that he didn’t do it, and the witnesses couldn’t have seen him do it, and that it was the students’ fault for not running away from his grabby hands, and he was really drunk anyway, he also proposes that appropriate punishments would be a year of unpaid leave (in the business, we call those “sabbaticals”) and a permanent ban on working with grad students. He’s bargaining about the degree of guilt! Ick.

But he’s not out yet. He has been suspended from teaching duties, but he’s still getting paid.

The administration may want Escobedo gone, and the school’s own report may have painted Escobedo as a predator who “has engaged in a pattern of exploiting females who are subordinate” to him, but because of tenure, university policies entitle him to an administrative process that has kept him on staff for months. The Athens News reports that Escobedo’s salary last year was $87,000. At any time, Escobedo could resign without facing formal punishment, something the graduate students want to prevent.

Now Adams and Hempstead are questioning whether tenure, a system they both believe in as it safeguards intellectual freedom, has actually hamstrung how universities like theirs deal with sexual harassment cases.

Wait a minute — this looks like a case where the system is working. Escobedo was reported in March of 2016, and he was removed from his teaching responsibilities fairly quickly. That 78 page report was completed in December of that year, so a thorough turnaround in 9 months is simply amazing to anyone who knows how slowly academic bureaucracies grind. The breakdown of the schedule of the investigation shows that while it was lengthy, it was also prolonged by protocol.

Ohio University said it strives to finish investigations within 60 days, but it can be tough booking witnesses for interviews. That’s why the probe of Escobedo’s behavior took nearly nine months. The president then took almost three months to weigh in on how to punish Escobedo. Escobedo then had 30 days to request a hearing before the faculty senate to challenge the firing recommendation, and another 60 days to prepare his defense. Escobedo’s hearing is scheduled for Sept. 1 — nearly 18 months after Adams and Hempstead formally complained about him.

That is not unreasonable. You don’t want tenure decisions to be lightly rescinded, since that would defeat the whole point of tenure.

Now, in light of all the evidence against him, if Escobedo is not fired after his hearing, then there are grounds to complain. Keep in mind that his colleagues are also eager for a certain resolution of this problem because they are currently paying for a faculty line that is doing nothing, so his teaching load has been distributed among others, which is not an acceptable solution. Everyone in a department has to work to keep students progressing smoothly.

The one flaw in the system, though, is that “At any time, Escobedo could resign without facing formal punishment”, and move on to apply for new positions elsewhere, without a big black flag on his record. The internet does provide an informal check (imagine future hiring committees googling “Andrew Escobedo Ohio University”) which probably means his academic career is dead, but still…being able to just put “Resigned” on his CV and invent a bullshit excuse that won’t be checked gives him an out. It also means that when prospective employers check on his work history, Ohio University can pretend the sordid mess did not occur and say something bland.

Having tenure does not mean that you no longer have to worry about the repercussions of your actions.

Oh. Escobedo has already resigned. OK, English hiring committees, keep an eye open for CVs with his name on them. You don’t want to hire him.

My plan for today

I’m all done with classes! But I still have a full schedule. Here’s my day:

  1. Walk down to the gym, put in a half hour or so.

  2. Walk to the coffee shop, plunk my butt down and drink a cup.

  3. Grade.

  4. Grade.

  5. Grade.

  6. Grade.

  7. Grade.

  8. Grade.

  9. Grade.

  10. Grade.

  11. Grade.

  12. Grade.

  13. Grade.

  14. Grade.

  15. Grade.

  16. Grade.

  17. Grade.

  18. Grade.

  19. Go home and pass out.

It is a good plan. It is the best plan.

The ideology of an “ideal” science

One of the worst fates to befall an idea is that it becomes an ideal. We argue against this when the ideal is a deity; ever notice how defenders of religion like to fall back on the argument that they’re helping people, that they inspire high sentiments, that they’ve supported arts and music, etc.? I agree with all that. My problem is when they bring in their invisible, unquestionable god as an authority (who must be addressed through the medium of his priests, of course), and suddenly we’re dealing with an idol who is, by definition, perfect, and all argument is shut down by fiat. Yeah, maybe the church is a bit exploitive, but JESUS LOVES YOU, so sit down, shut up, here’s the donation plate, and you’re going to Hell if you don’t love him back.

And by “love him back”, I mean support child-raping priests, preach the prosperity gospel, and burn that witch over there.

We are constantly asked to pretend that sordid realities don’t exist, in the name of the Lord. The servants of the church may be subject to human frailties, but keep your eyes on the perfection of the ideal, on paradise and the imagined flawless reification of the gods. It’s an old game, but it works. Humans are often quite ready to overlook overwhelmingly horrid situations if it’s done in the name of a beautiful concept — we’re used to suppressing our decency out of loyalty to a beautiful higher cause. Concentration camp guards enisted to serve the dream of Volk and Vaterland; brutal abuse of people who weren’t part of the dream were a small price to pay. Crusaders murdered and raped their way across the Holy Land in the cause of liberating Jesus’ home for Christendom. Americans vote to deregulate coal and oil extraction so they can work in dirty, dangerous jobs because Capitalism has taught them that jobs are important, and that tax breaks to plutocrats are a small price to pay to keep the dehumanizing machinery running.

And some people will allow people to suffer a lifetime of untreated syphilis in the name of the sacred Scientific Method. Some have their idealized vision of a future rational world where the variables are all flattened out, the control group cheerfully meets their fate, and the experimentals regard the electrode, the poison, the deprivation, the hallucinations, the sterilizations, the radiation burns, as a small price to pay for Progress.

Yeah, Science gets deified, too.

None of that is true. Not one word.

Science is universal…if you are wealthy enough to get the education you need to understand it.

Science is international…except for those cases where competition is whipped up to drive investment (space race, anyone?), or we are driven to keep technology out of the hands of countries we don’t like.

Science is inclusive…except that it isn’t. It’s expensive and difficult and access is restricted.

Science is nonpartisan and apolitical…hah. Lamar Smith. Scott Pruitt. Donald Trump. How out of touch can you be?

Science is a-gender, a-race, & a-ideological…the only people I’ve ever heard claim that are the kinds of people who complain about “identity politics” with a straight face. Identitatarianism is an alt-right, racist affliction.

Shermer is now trying to defend his fantasy by claiming that I was tweeting about an ideal we should strive for. That’s nice. If we haven’t met that ideal, shouldn’t we be addressing our shortcomings? And what definition of “strive” are you using that says we ought to be silent about disparities and failings and not march to oppose them?

An ideal is not a reality, and swiftly swapping in a nonexistent ideal when confronted with real problems does not make the problems go away.

And then there’s this appalling piece of theater:

Yesterday I hosted the theoretical physicist and popular science writer Lawrence Krauss for our Science Salon series and we were asked our thoughts on the March for Science by an audience member who had been following the Twitter-Storm over my tweet. Given that Krauss has worked in academia his entire career, including being involved in the hiring process of physicists, I asked him why people seem to think that science still excludes women and minorities (and others) when, in fact, it is peopled by professors who are almost entirely liberals who fully embrace the principles of inclusion (and the laws regarding affirmative action). Are we to believe that all these liberal academics, when behind closed doors, privately believe that women and minorities can’t cut it in science and so they continue to mostly hire only white men?

Krauss was unequivocal in his response. Absolutely not. There has never been a better time to be a woman in science, he explained, elaborating that at his university, Arizona State University, not only does the student body perfectly reflect the demographics of the state of Arizona, the President of ASU has mandated that if two candidates are equally qualified for a professorship, one a man and the other a woman, the woman should be selected for the job. Full stop.

Holy crap! Two white men have declared that the problems of sexism and racism have disappeared from the academy! High five!

What? No high five? I’m sure these guys will give that demonstration a standing ovation.


It’s made exceptionally ironic because these two men have…unfortunate…histories. Shermer, as is well known, has an unsavory reputation at conferences, and even tried to sue me for exposing his behavior. Krauss seems to think there’s nothing wrong with Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy convicted sex offender; Krauss has even bizarrely used science to defend him.

“If anything, the unfortunate period he suffered has caused him to really think about what he wants to do with his money and his time, and support knowledge,” says Krauss. “Jeffrey has surrounded himself with beautiful women and young women but they’re not as young as the ones that were claimed. As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.” Though colleagues have criticized him over his relationship with Epstein, Krauss insists, “I don’t feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it.”

Oh god. Yes, that’s exactly the kind of person I want defending the ideals of science. It’s all right! He’s buying young women, but they’re not that young!

I have to explain that while academics are largely liberal, they are also people, and mostly white people at that, and often mostly men. People, it turns out, are flawed. We can have ideals (that word again!), but we rarely live up them, and we have to struggle to compensate by imposing policies to consciously compel us to meet those ideals. Since Krauss has been on hiring committees, he knows that there are constraints placed on his impulses — we get training from human resources on our policies — every time! I’ve been on many hiring committees, and every time we get the same rules recited at us in the same lectures. Why all the repetition? Why all the rules? Because even liberal professors can be implicitly sexist and racist, and it takes hard work to correct your biases.

These policies do work to correct historical injustices — most universities are working hard at social justice to create a fair balance of women and minorities. As Krauss points out, correctly, Arizona has seen excellent steady progress in improving representation in their student body, which is impressive for a state that elected Jan Brewer and Joe Arpaio.

But the triumphal attitude is inappropriate. It may be true that there “has never been a better time to be a woman in science”, but that does not mean the problems have gone away — it only means that in recent history the treatment of women in science has been abysmal. I suggest that Dr Krauss read Paige Brown Jarreau, or perhaps this summary of top issues for women faculty in science and engineering. He’s sufficiently liberal that he’d probably agree with all of those concerns, while simultaneously suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t be so loud about bringing them up.

I would also point out that while it’s very nice to point out the great strides that the University of Arizona is making, I also took a look at the University of Arizona Physics faculty page. It’s very impressive. 31 faculty listed.

Two of them are women. I know I’m only a biologist so maybe my math skills aren’t up to snuff, but I think that’s about 6.5%. I rather doubt that that accurately reflects the demographics of Arizona.

That is not to criticize the faculty! They may be entirely enlightened and eager to improve faculty representation, but are simply the recipients of a long history of privilege and unfair investment in education. It’s OK. I would not be at all surprised if a majority were active in bringing attention to the inequities present in science, and think we ought to be bringing these problems to the attention of the public, and funding agencies, and political entities.

Some, obviously, don’t.

By the way, I laughed aloud at that declaration from the university president that “if two candidates are equally qualified for a professorship, one a man and the other a woman, the woman should be selected for the job.” It sounds good. It’s completely cosmetic, though. There has never in the history of science been two candidates competing for a science position who are equally qualified. Never. There are so many skills involved in these occupations that people can’t possibly be equal in all things, and some of the reasons one might offer a tenure position to someone are subjective. Taking a look at the literature on implicit bias would be a good idea.

“Most people intend to be fair,” Handelsman insisted. “If you ask them, ‘When you do this evaluation, are you planning to be fair?’ they will 100 percent say yes. But most of us carry these unconscious, implicit prejudices and biases that warp our evaluation of people or the work that they do.” The biases Handelsman is referring to are most readily measured in hiring studies, where hiring managers are asked to evaluate potential candidates for a job or a promotion. With astonishing reliability, the evaluators will assign higher scores to the exact same application if the name on the application is male versus female. These studies are “absolutely canonical” in the social psychology literature, and their results have remained shockingly consistent over the past four decades despite all of the social progress that this country has made.

Most universities have initiatives to attempt to correct, or at least make us aware, of theses biases; mine certainly does, and here’s Northwestern’s list of resources for faculty hiring.

For anyone to tout an administrator’s declaration as if it definitively ends the problem is embarrassingly naïve. Or a conscious attempt to diminish a serious issue.

Academic corruption

I have literally been in this position: consoling a young black man who didn’t get into medical school despite getting straight As and demonstrating a deep commitment to working in community health, and an hour later meeting a young white woman who sailed into medical school despite having marginal MCAT scores and nothing but straight Cs, and who also never showed much concern about her career, just assuming she’d get in. The difference? He was a first generation college graduate. Both of her parents were doctors who had attended the medical school she got into. She was a “legacy”. Jebus, but I despise that casual acceptance of what is actually a corrupt practice.

Here’s another kind of corruption: Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is going to have a high position in his administration despite being a bit of a boob, just like Trump. But he is rich, just like Trump.

…a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their underachieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5m to Harvard University not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school, which at the time accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of 20.)

I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less-than-stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,’’ a former official at the Frisch school in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA [grade point average] did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought, for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.’’

Basically, this is a story of bribery and nepotism. But no one is going to do anything about it.

Furthermore, it can’t change because of a self-serving cycle. The Republicans have spent decades starving our universities so they’re desperate for funding, and then it’s the Republicans who benefit by providing back-door graft to the schools.

Don’t worry, it’ll change when we get university administrators with honor and integrity who will refuse special favors in return for the donations of billionaires and millionaires. (That’s a joke, son. Laugh. Laugh through the pain. It’s a talent that will serve you well for the next several years.)

Mano is commenting on the same thing. All academics know about this sleazy practice.

The sad little #seriousacademic

By now, probably everyone has read that strange moan of anxiety about social media titled “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer” — or at least, if you’re an academic who enjoys a good eye-roll over someone with a massive 2×4 rammed up his butt, you’ve read it. It’s the one where an anonymous young Ph.D. student whines about people on Twitter or taking selfies or using instagram or writing blogs…in an anonymous blog post. They make a lot of silly complaints about people using hashtags at conferences and how the powers-that-be keep telling them how important their social media presence is to their career (which is really weird: my experience has been that administrators dread the fact that professors are speaking publicly about their experiences at their institution, and would love to be able to bottle that genie back up). There has been a flood of rebuttals to the fundamental wrongness of the “serious academic”, and I’ll just mention The Tattooed Professor, Meny Snoweballes, and Dean Burnett as good examples.

I want to take a different tack. I feel for this person.

It’s a really tough time to be a starting academic — it’s always a tough time. We get so many demands. Publish. Publish lots. Write grants. Write many grants, because almost all of them will be rejected. Teach. Every course is a challenge, and some of us have to teach multiple courses per term. Serve on committees. Attend meetings. Review papers. Dance, monkey, dance, or you’ll never get an academic job (you probably won’t anyway), you’ll never get tenure, you’ll never get promoted.

And then all those voluble assholes on the internet are adding pressure to tweet or write blogs or get out of the lab and talk to the public? Oh, hell no. Let me just fill up my lab notebook with numbers and gel photos and data, and pay me to do that. I’m running as fast as I can to just keep up without throwing these damned social obligations on my back.

I sympathize. Really, I do. There are lots of things I don’t like about my job (die, committee meetings, die), but I’m obligated to do them, so I do them. No matter what your job, there are always inevitable requirements to occasionally shovel out the stables. Academia in particular is rife with an excess of expectations, and everyone knows it.

But the first thing I have to point out is that social media isn’t one of them. You won’t get tenure for your Twitter activity, and in fact there is an academic bias against outreach and social activity and public engagement. “Serious academic’s” bleat is less an act of rebellion than a performative act of solidarity with staid traditional academics. It’s a person looking in terror at the chaos and uncertainty ahead of them in academia, and picking what they think is the side of the establishment…and they aren’t even certain that that is the right side to pick, witness the fact that their essay is anonymous.

But the most important thing I have to say is that they’re doing it wrong. They’re focusing on the obstacles and forgetting about the purpose. Nobody goes into academia for a love of grant writing and committee meetings. We don’t even go into it over the thrilling prospect of tweeting to a conference hashtag.

We go into it for the joy of the discipline. Remember that?

Personally, I signed on to this life because of some great experiences in science. I was lucky and was employed in a lot of extracurricular science stuff through college, and it was that that was more influential than my classes, I’m sad to say. I was doing animal care and assisting in animal surgeries in the department of physiology and biophysics — lowering electrodes into a living brain was enthralling. I worked with Johnny Palka on fly pupae, watching nerves grow into the developing wing. I did mouse brain histology in the psychology department with Geoff Clarke. I was Golgi staining fetal tissue with Jenny Lund and counting dendritic spines. These were the events that convinced me that I wanted to do more.

I went off to graduate school with Chuck Kimmel and discovered zebrafish embryos. Do you people even know how beautiful an embryo is? Exploring how cells behave in the complex environment of the organism is what kept me going.

Very serious academics

Very serious academics

I did a post-doc with Mike Bastiani and saw that grasshopper embryos are just as beautiful.

Then my first job at Temple University, where I had teaching obligations for the first time, showed me that I really enjoyed teaching. So I’ve followed that star, too. It all works. At every step, pursue the joy, while never forgetting to also do the duties. Some people don’t enjoy the teaching, so they focus more on the research. Some people, believe it or not, have a talent for management, so they move into administration, or into running large labs.

And some people write books. Or make videos. Or compose music or poetry about esoteric subjects. Or write blogs. It’s all good. You don’t have to do it all. You just have to always keep your attention focused on what brings you to your bliss.

Don’t let other people tell you what you must do with your life, and avoid the temptation to lecture others on what is the one, true, proper way to be an academic. If you find deep satisfaction in grinding out data, do it. If you enjoy teaching, do it. If you enjoy communicating to the public about that weird stuff you’re doing, do it.

I feel sad for “Serious Academic”. So young, and so certain of the one true path for all. He reminds me of someone.

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Try being the “Joyful Academic” for a while. It can be hard, especially in the current climate, but if nothing else, being true to yourself is more rewarding than trying to be true to someone else’s ideal.

I’m done, almost!

Oh, man. I just finished my last lecture for this semester — this was a rough term, and I feel like I just barely dragged myself over the finish line. The big strain came from the fact that I revamped everything: I completely changed the content of my neurobiology course, with a new textbook, a new emphasis, and a different direction for the labs, and some stuff worked and some stuff failed catastrophically (the last few weeks of the lab in particular were a disaster). I offer this course again in two years, and I think I can fix the bad parts by then. I also patched up a lot of material in my Fundamentals of Genetics, Evolution, and Development course; not so much changes in lecture content, but stretching to reach out and get the students interacting more. That worked entirely — I got some significant improvements in average exam scores which I will take complete credit for, although it could just be that our incoming freshman class was full of geniuses this year. I also got much more disciplined in the writing course, and imposed a whole series of step-by-step deadlines on the big term paper. It required a bit more effort during the term, but the payoff is now — I’m not getting any papers dumped cold on my desk for grading, they’ve all been fussed over already.

It’s tiring, though. Show business is hard work; getting up and doing 4 or 5 lectures a week (and about half of them new) is exhausting. It would be much easier to just write this stuff. Why didn’t anyone tell me that a career in science involved so much singing and dancing?

My neuro students are all done with their bloggery now, and here’s the final list of neurobiology weblogs I forced them to start. Some might fade away after this, others may move on to new sites, some might keep going. However it works out, this can be my little public monument to Fall 2011. Stop by and congratulate them on surviving a whole semester with Old Man Myers.

Next: I’ve got final exams to give, a nice break to catch up on deadlines, and lots of preparation for next term to do. Spring will be worse, with an all-new, starting from scratch course in cancer biology to teach.

For now, I’m going into seclusion for a bit to wrap up some extracurricular writing that must get done right now. It’s not much of a celebration yet.

(Also on FtB)

Strangely, my salary has not been following the same trajectory

Minnesota tuition rates have also been skyrocketing. My salary has been creeping upward at single digit percentage rates — low single digits, and we also had a freeze for a few years — and also, we haven’t been hiring swarms of new faculty, but only replacing retiring faculty (which, by the way, immediately reduces salary expenses). Why is this happening?


The answer is easy: state governments have been jettisoning their responsibilities and not paying for the educational institutions earlier, wiser generations invested in. Thank you, Republicans, the party of irresponsible spendthrifts, for coasting on the infrastructure built up 50 years ago, and letting it decay now.

(Also on FtB)

What’s going on at CUNY?

I hate to see a great university system get thumped upside the head by chowder-brained legislators, but that’s what’s going on in New York. The chancellor of CUNY is pushing for a major revamp of the curriculum, system-wide. This ignores the unique culture at each institution and tries to turn them into cookie-cutter degree factories, and ends up targeting the lowest common denominator.

City University of New York’s Chancellor Matthew Goldstein is about to turn the prestigious system of senior and community colleges into a glorified high school. And few people seem to even want to try to stop him. This is bizarre, as Goldstein is a CUNY graduate himself and has been credited with major accomplishments since he took the lead at CUNY in 1999 (e.g., he raised admission standards, created the William E. Macaulay Honors College, and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism).

Goldstein has recently begun what is known as the “Pathways to Degree Completion” initiative, which is being quickly rammed down the throats of the faculty members at all CUNY Colleges, in blatant disregard of faculty governance, interfering with curricula and the structure of majors, and possibly resulting in the elimination or great reduction of entire departments, mostly in the humanities (beginning with foreign languages, arts, assorted studies programs, history, and philosophy). The science and math requirements also are being reduced to ridiculous minimum common denominator standards, all in the name of increasing the graduation rate and decreasing the time to graduation of CUNY students — apparently the only currencies understood by the inept (to say the least) State legislators up in Albany.

This is a familiar story. All administrators care about is a couple of simplified parameters for “success”: the average time to degree completion, which is supposed to be around four years, and the percentage of incoming students that graduate. It’s throughput, baby, how fast can we shovel ’em through and get ’em out the other side with a diploma.

There is a good solution to this problem. That is, you hire enough faculty to staff all your programs with good teachers, they teach the students well, they have time to advise and guide students efficiently to degree completion, and they’re there to catch any students who threaten to fall through the cracks, and give them personal assistance. In other words, you give the students the best possible education and help them over any hurdles so they emerge from your program knowing stuff and best of all, knowing how to learn more.

Any faculty reading this are laughing cynically right now, because that’s not the solution we generally get to follow.

The poor and realistic solution recognizes the fiscal reality that state legislatures want to cut, cut, cut higher ed’s budget, and so administrators are looking at cheap ways to get graduation rates up and years to graduate down, and there is an easy way: cut graduation requirements. Standardize the curriculum. The job of the college is no longer to deliver an education, but to issue diplomas, which are awarded for attendance in a defined series of classes. I’m sorry to see that CUNY wants to get into the business of mass-producing diplomas.

Hey, 99%, this is an issue for you, too. The higher education system in this country has been starved for decades — state contributions to university budgets have been steadily declining, and tuitions have been rapidly increasing to compensate, squeezing out many worthy prospective students. What’s driving it is the short-sightedness of legislatures that don’t realize what’s involved in teaching and learning, and want to low-ball education. You get what you pay for, and I don’t think we need university administrators who cater to economic catastrophe rather than advocating for good education.

(Also on FtB)

The Fox Effect

What a curious phenomenon: this is a video of the notorious Fox Effect, in which an actor pretended to be an expert and babbled fluff and nonsense at an audience of psychiatrists, and they sat and swallowed it and came away with an impression that the speaker was competent. I knew the content was going to be garbage, but I have to wonder if my prior knowledge colored my perception, because listening to it now, it all sounded immensely vacuous — I kept trying to catch a cogent or useful point, and he never delivered any.

I wonder if this could be pulled off in front of an audience that deals with more concrete data than psychiatrists — could an actor speak in the language of gels and in situs and sequences and fool an audience of molecular biologists? I don’t think so; it’s too specialized and specific. But I could be wrong, somebody ought to test it.

The video makes a point that this effect could be important in teaching — it strongly affects student evaluations. All you have to do is go to the “Rate My Professor” site and discover that one of the categories for evaluation there is whether the professor is “hot” — and, dammit, I think I’ve failed on that parameter for my entire life (I haven’t actually looked, though: I shudder at the prospect of seeing those weird reviews full of disgruntled students who didn’t pass one of my courses).

(Also on FtB)