Calling Dick Wolf!

Hey, I’d watch it: an an academic police procedural. It also sounds like my life right now. Although I did clear away half the piles of clutter on my desks last week, I once again foolishly scheduled exams in both of my courses for the very same week, so I’m frantically scribbling up exams and planning to field lots of student questions for the next few days, and then this weekend I’ll have another big stack of stuff to grade.

Only about five more weeks to the end of this term…

Francis Beckwith and the cold, cruel realities of tenure

Way back in the dim and distant past, like two years ago, there was a bit of a disturbance in the blogosphere, a minor contretemps after a certain Harvard law student, Lawrence VanDyke, published a “book note” in the Harvard Law Review. It was rank creationist nonsense, a work of pathetic scholarship, and it got publicly shredded by Brian Leiter, and I also got in the act. The book reviewed was an apologia for Intelligent Design by Francis Beckwith. In a later amusing twist, NRO published a defense of VanDyke and Beckwith by an anonymous “Texas free-lance writer”, who it was later discovered was Beckwith’s grad student, Hunter Baker. It’s all tortuous ancient history now, of course, and no one but those few of us involved in the dustup remember it.

What brings it all back is the news that Francis Beckwith has been denied tenure at Baylor. Hunter Baker hasn’t learned his lesson, and has written an overwrought defense, again in a pathetically semi-anonymous way, as “Graduate Student X”.

I have two things to say about it all.

One is to offer my personal sympathy to Francis Beckwith. Tenure is a brutal, evil machine that puts everyone through a hellish torture, and often spits out the deserving and rewards the undeserving. Do not ever judge someone by whether they have got tenure or not—it’s too arbitrary for that, and often represents a kind of insubstantial and subjective matching or mismatching between a person and an institution. So on a personal level, I wish Beckwith well and hope he and his family move on to a satisfying position elsewhere.

The second is that although it is nearly impossible to speculate on what’s going on in tenure committees—he could have been denied tenure on the whim of some old fart with a grudge—it’s hard to imagine that the politics of Intelligent Design did not play some small part in it. Beckwith tied his fortunes to those of the Discovery Institute and the ID movement, and at the very least we can say that that was not enough to salvage his tenure at Baylor. In fact, given that he has a respectable publication record and seems to be a personable fellow, it’s hard to avoid the speculation that they might have wanted to steer Baylor away from the disaster of Intelligent Design. A solid record of publishing large quantities of something that is being shown to be utter crap is not helpful to one’s tenure chances.

Is that a legitimate reason to deny someone tenure? Sure.

Hug a high school teacher today!

My morning was spent at the local high school today, talking to the biology classes about the evidence for evolution. This wasn’t in response to any specific worries—in fact, talking to the instructor, it’s clear that they’re doing a decent job of covering the basic concepts here already—but that my daughter is in the class, and she thought it would be fun to have her Dad join in the conversation. I will say that it was very obliging of the Chronicle of Higher Ed to publish this today:

In a packed IMAX theater in St. Louis last month, a middle-school teacher took the stage and lectured some of the leaders in the American scientific establishment. In a friendly but commanding style honed by three decades in the classroom, Linda K. Froschauer told scientists that it was time for them to get involved in elementary and secondary education.

“Go home. Identify science teachers in your own neighborhood. Offer to help them,” she said. “Go to the board of education and speak up.”

Excellent advice! It gives an overworked teacher a brief break, lets you see what’s going on in the classrooms, makes the students a little more familiar with college faculty, and maybe it makes a few of them think and gives them a tiny bit more background. It was generally a very positive experience, although it does make me appreciate the work our secondary ed teachers have to do.

I gave a very informal lecture in which I confronted the whole ‘controversy’ about humans evolving from apes. I brought along a few transparencies and a human skull, and gave them an overview of three lines of evidence: transitional fossils, similarities in genes and chromosome structure, and “plagiarized errors”. I kept it fairly simple, using little of the technical vocabulary and defining what little I had to use, but tried to introduce some important concepts, like the taxonomic hierarchy and diagnostic characters and repetitive DNA and pseudogenes. I was also impressed that the students asked good questions, so I think they were grasping what I was talking about.

Boy, but high school teachers have a very different burden than I do. Having to give the same talk 3 times in a row is challenging—I was getting bored with me! The students also range in ability and interest far more than I’m used to…there were many who were attentive and curious (more than I’d expected, which is a very good sign), and there were some who were bored and rather disruptive (but not as many as I’d feared.) I tried not to completely neglect the troublemakers and engaged them a few times with questions, but I had it fairly easy since the regular teacher was there to hover over them and keep them in line. There’s a bit of drill sergeant rigor required in high school teachers that I don’t need at the university as much, I think.

I’d do it again, gladly…as long as I’ve got a few weeks to recover between days at the high school. The grade schools are where we have the most need to get more science into play anyway, so it feels like a productive birthday for me when I can talk to a few 10th graders. And any high school teachers out there—you’re doing an important job, and those of us up in the ivory tower of the university really do care about what’s going on in our schools. Don’t be shy about asking your local college science departments if we’d be willing to contribute in your classroom, I think there is a fair number of us who’d be happy to share our perspective.

A grim start to Spring Break

Spring break starts…NOW. I’m done with classes for the day, and just have to make a trip out to St. Cloud to pick up my son for the weekend and my obligations are temporarily over, sort of.

Way back at the beginning of the term when spring break seemed far, far away, I scheduled an exam for my physiology course (75 students) and my introductory biology course (35 students) for this week; I also had my intro students turn in a writing assignment this week, and because they had done poorly on one rather important exercise, had also assigned an extra paper, also due now. There is a rather terrifyingly full box of papers sitting on my desk, growling softly to remind me of its existence now and then. I know that if I neglect it it will glare more ferociously and grow claws and fangs and get increasingly vicious; if I wait until the last weekend of the break to deal with it, it will try to kill me. So I’m going to take it out early. I swear, I will annihilate the contents of that evil box this weekend, splattering every page with red.

That box is evil. I hate it. I will gut it soon, one page at a time.

My only problem with email is the quantity

Maybe it’s Minnesota, or maybe it’s me, but this situation with professors complaining about student email doesn’t really affect me. It’s been my experience here that UMM students are usually friendly and trouble-free with email (haven’t you heard? We’re all nice up here!), and I even welcome the complaints—I’d rather hear from the students than not hear from them, especially if they’re worried about something. I also like my email terse and to the point, so I’m not at all discomfited by a message that would be rudely abrupt if said to my face.

One thing would absolutely drive me nuts, though, and it’s this horrible piece of advice.

Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College in California, said she told students that they must say thank you after receiving a professor’s response to an e-mail message.

“One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back,” Professor Worley said.

Ugh. Email is a communication medium, and the less we clutter it up with rank and power and hierarchical crap the better; there’s enough real power disparity between me and my students that I don’t need it acknowledged, and I’d prefer it were minimized. As for bouncing back with a superfluous “thank you”…no, thank you. That’s just noise in the channel, one more scrap of clutter in my mailbox.

(via The Washington Monthly)

I think Tim Burke and I agree on this one, and I note in the comments that Worley was misquoted—what she was suggesting is actually much more reasonable.

Summers is out for school

I can’t say that I’m surprised by anything in this except for the length of time it has taken: Summers has stepped down from the presidency of Harvard. I suspect he still doesn’t know what hit him, but I think stupidly belittling the intrinsic capabilities of a significant number of successful, hardworking, and intelligent faculty for an irrelevant difference has led to some just desserts.

I get no respect

Here’s the difference between me and Michael Bérubé: he gets labeled a dangerous radical and profiled in David Horowitz’s new book, while all I get is a
mild squeak in our weekly campus newspaper and our local conservative rag.

While perusing the UMM main page, I happened upon the website which belongs to UMM’s own Professor of Biology Dr. Meyers. Upon closer inspection I found content relating to my religious beliefs that offended me beyond belief. Not only was this speech sacrilegious and offensive, but it was readily available to anyone who happens across the UMM main page. The portion of content which I found most offensive was written under the label “humor,” and his blog is in fact up for an online award. Yet despite my outrage I must defend Dr. Meyers. He has the right to state his opinions and it is not my place to try to stop him. I may suggest the administration take the link off the campus website, but that has more to do with the fact that the website speaks for the University as a whole.

He is a bit of a junior Horowitz—I kind of like how he’s bending over backwards to insist I have a right to free speech while calling for the university to censor me—but you know, he put this up almost two weeks ago and the only reason I noticed at all is that my wife ran across it. It’s just sad. I mean, if what I wrote was really sacrilegious and outrageous and offensive beyond belief, couldn’t they get a condemnatory petition going, or a protest march, or even get one of Horowitz’s junior sub-alterns to come out and give a talk in which he complains about not being allowed to give a talk, while my kidneys threaten Western Civilization?

Man, I’d even be satisfied if they just spelled my name right.