Cheaters usually don’t prosper

Check out this heartwarming tale of a Republican staffer who tried to retroactively get his GPA adjusted by hackers—he got caught, his pathetic attempts to cheat publicly aired, and now he has been fired.

The really sad thing is that GPAs aren’t that big a deal. They make a difference if you are trying to get into a post-bac academic program, but seriously…we all know you can be a dithering incompetent at school and get into business and government.

Oh, and the university this bozo wanted to hack? Texas Christian. Icing on the cake.

Grad school was great! I recommend it to everyone!

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The latest Ask a Science Blogger question is one I’ve already answered, so I thought I’d just repost this unpleasant little vignette to answer this question:

What’s a time in your career when you were criticized extremely harshly by someone you respect? Did it help you or set your career back?

But first, I have to mention that every scientist must have a nemesis or two, as has been recently documented in the pages of Narbonic.

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Thinking about graduate school? Here’s a little story, all true, about my very most unpleasant experiences as a graduate student—and they all revolve around one person. It is a fact that you will find honest-to-god flaming assholes in positions of considerable power in academia.

[Read more…]

End of term textbook assessment

One of those things we professors have to struggle with every year is textbook decisions. Your standard science textbook is a strange thing: it’s a heavily distilled reference work that often boils all of the flavor out of a discipline in order to maximize the presentation of the essentials. What that typically means is that you get a book that is eminently useful, but isn’t the kind of thing you’d pick up to read for fun, and then we hand it to our undergraduate students, who may be in our class for only the vaguest of reasons, and tell them they must read it. Finally, of course, at the end of the semester most of the students take that expensive reference work down to the bookstore buy-back and get rid of it (not me, though! I’ve still got my undergraduate developmental biology text on my bookshelf).

The other thing that goes on is that as textbooks age, they get denser and denser. Gilbert’s Developmental Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) is probably the best book in the field, and I certainly love my copy, but it’s also been accreting great stuff for years with many new editions. That’s good for me, but I worry that it may be too much for undergraduate students, most of whom want a general introduction and aren’t necessarily planning to go on to do anything specific in development. That’s why I went with Wolpert’s Principles of Development(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll)—it’s good, but it’s also a little lighter and a little less intimidating than Gilbert’s.

The other thing I try to do is to toss in some supplemental reading: lighter fare with a narrower theme and, with any luck, a narrative and a more personal insight. That’s sometimes harder to find, but the advantage is that these are books you can imagine someone picking up at a bookstore and reading for enjoyment, so maybe even my students who go on to become doctors or dentists or lab techs or insurance salesmen might continue to browse the science shelf at the Barnes and Noble and keep up with the topic.

This year, I assigned Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) and Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) as the supplemental reading (in past years, I’ve used Brown’s In the Beginning Was the Worm(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), but two is about the limit of what we can handle with discussing a few chapters a week; it might come back in the future). I’ve always felt a little bit of trepidation about using At the Water’s Edge, just because my course is on development, and I could imagine some student complaining that there’s an awful lot of paleontology and physiology in there—but personally, I think a broader integrative view is important, too.

Anyway, I asked my students their general opinion of the books this week, and I also asked them to post a brief comparison to the web. You can read them all here:

I was greatly relieved to learn that my students like the more popular science supplements. Carl will be relieve to learn that his book was the unanimous favorite of everyone in the class. Carroll’s book is good and more tightly focused on the subject matter of the course, but I think great writing wins every time.

Now next Fall I’ll be teaching a general neuroscience course. I’m thinking the two extra books I’ll be using are Soul Made Flesh(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) (Zimmer again! I’ll stick with a winner) and Weiner’s Time, Love, Memory(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll).

School’s out!

Time to go get a beer at Drinking Liberally, ’cause the Fall semester of 2006 is all over but for the final exams and the grading and the tears. The last of the written work was turned in today, and now it’s just grading until my eyeballs evulse.

Here is a prime bit of end of term suckage, too: it is mid-December in Minnesota, and it is raining. Raining! If I wanted to live in a place with cool wet winters, I’d move back to Seattle.

Last gasp of my development course

Today, I gave my final lecture in developmental biology this term. We have one more class session which will be a final discussion, but I’m done yapping at them. Since I can’t possibly teach them everything, I offered some suggestions on what to read next, if they’re really interested in developmental biology. They’ve gotten the fundamentals of the dominant way of looking at development now, that good ol’ molecular genetics centered modern field of evo-devo, but I specifically wanted to suggest a few titles to shake them up a little bit and start thinking differently.

  • For the student who is interested in the field, but doesn’t feel that development is necessarily their discipline, I recommended Richard Lewontin’s The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s short, it’s easy, and it’s a good counterweight to the usual gene-happy approach we see in developmental biology.

  • Since we are a liberal arts university, and we value a philosophical approach in addition to the usual bluntly pragmatic tactics we follow in the sciences, I also recommended one work of philosophy: The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by Susan Oyama. That one is not an easy read, except maybe to the more academically minded. I mentioned that Developmental Systems Theory does not have the powerful research program that is making evo-devo so successful, but it’s still a usefully different way of thinking about the world.

  • If any of my students wanted to go on to grad school in developmental biology, and hoped to make it a profession, I had to tell them that they are required to read D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s old, it’s a little bit weird, but it’s still a major touchstone in the discipline.

  • Lastly, I told them that there was one more book they had to read if they wanted to consider a career in development: Developmental Plasticity and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by Mary Jane West-Eberhard. If I were a young graduate student in the field right now, I think I could just open that book to a random page and find an interesting and challenging research problem right there. I might have to flip through a few dozen pages before I found one that wasn’t impossibly hard, but hey, it’s one of those books that fills you in on the array of issues that people are worrying over at the edge of the science.

I don’t think any of these would be a good foundation for an undergraduate course (either Thompson or West-Eberhard or Oyama would probably have a lethal effect on the brain of any unprepared student trying to plow through them), but they’d be great mind-stretchers for any student planning to move on.

So all my lecturing is done for the term, and all that’s left are monstrous piles of grading that will grow ominously in the next week and a half even as I struggle to keep up, and then I can try to polish it all off by Cephalopodmas.

When Michael met David

The direct confrontation between Bérubé and Horowitz has been recorded for posterity at the CHE—I think Bérubé handled it perfectly, not taking the reactionary clown seriously, and getting a free lunch out of it.

Next, though, he’s going to be on the Dennis Prager radio show. I’m beginning to think he’s trawling very deep for the pallid, slimy worms that dwell in the abyssal darkness…but hey, whatever satisfies your appetite, I say.

Now we just need the Chronicle of Higher Ed to sponsor my free lunch with Deepak Chopra…or perhaps I could someday aspire to locking horns with Prager.

What’s up, NSTA?

This is a troubling development, and perhaps some members of the National Science Teachers Association in the readership here know something about it. They seem to be in the pocket of the oil industry.

In tomorrow’s Washington Post, global warming activist Laurie David writes about her effort to donate 50,000 free DVD copies of An Inconvenient Truth (which she co-produced) to the National Science Teachers Association. The Association refused to accept the DVDs:

In their e-mail rejection, they expressed concern that other “special interests” might ask to distribute materials, too; they said they didn’t want to offer “political” endorsement of the film; and they saw “little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members” in accepting the free DVDs. …

[T]here was one more curious argument in the e-mail: Accepting the DVDs, they wrote, would place “unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters.”

As it turns out, those supporters already include “special interests,” including Exxon-Mobil, Shell Oil, and the American Petroleum Institute, which have given millions in funding to the NSTA.

This is not merely an attempt to avoid entanglement in a “controversial” (not that global warming is actually controversial among scientists), since the article mentions that the NSTA has distributed PR for the oil companies. I like the NSTA and I read their newsletter…but this sounds like they’ve been bought and paid for by Exxon-Mobil, and it casts an unfortunate shadow on their reputation. Can we please have a science advocacy group we can trust?


I like the way Sara Robinson’s mind works.

Memo to the Christian Coalition: The NSTA is for sale. For a mere million bucks a year, I’ll bet you could get them on board with Intelligent Design, too.

Memo to parents: It might be time to find out if your kids’ science teachers are members of this group, and have a word with them about it. If you — or the teachers — want to complain directly to the NSTA, the complaint form is here. They need to hear from everyone who still thinks that scientific truth shouldn’t be auctioned off to the highest donor.

A defense of PowerPoint

OK, if you’re familiar with the usual PowerPoint bashing, you might be entertained by this explanation of why PowerPoint is not Satan’s pull toy. I can distill it down a bit:

  • Have something interesting to say
  • Design a talk, don’t just string slides together
  • Keep the slides simple, clean, and consistent

Basic common sense, I think—PP is just a tool that is very easily abused. There are also many more specific detailed suggestions at that link, though, so don’t just go by my suggestions.