Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Slow Professor (book review)

"The Slow Professor" by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber is a manifesto-like book about some important problems in modern academia. It was published a few weeks ago (I actually pre-ordered it), and if you have anything to do with academia, I do totally recommend that you read it. It's also rather short, which means that you can read it quickly (I hoped it would be a bit longer). Let me summarize what I liked and what I did not like about it in two lists below:

What I liked about "The Slow Professor":

  • It tackles one of the most important problems in modern academia: everybody are perpetually busy (applying for grants, publishing, working on committees), and nobody has time to think. People are ashamed to think (it does not feel like working); moreover, people are ashamed to read (in modern culture it does not feel like working either). And that's bad. The chapter about "what is bad" is the most relatable and passionate part of the book; the description is perfect, and to the point.
  • The book makes you think; it is definitely thought-provoking. It is also written a bit like a manifesto, so I felt energized after reading it. I wanted to change something! This feeling wears off in a few days, as it usually happens with manifestos, but it is definitely not a depressing book, which is really a feat for a book that in its core describes some important problems. Well done!
  • It is short, so you can read it quickly.
  • It actually offers some meaningful solutions, or at least points at some possible directions where these solutions may be.
  • It offers a nice slogan ("The slow professor" is a nice slogan!).

What I didn't like:

  • It is woefully short, and the solutions it offers are very limited. I guess it's the inevitable tradeoff, and I'd really rather read a short passionate book now, than a long thoughtful book in five years. It may be too late in five years! But it is really more of a manifesto than a guide; a pamphlet that names the issues and sets the goals. It is not a self-help book that would guide you through a series of exercises. You need to find the solution yourself. It invites you to be a part of a community though, which is really nice!
  • The book is relatively full of really bad neuroscience and psychology. It mentions serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and neural plasticity - all incorrectly, and in ways that are totally irrelevant for the topic and the message of the book. As a neuroscientist, I don't usually read pop-science pieces about the brain, because it hurts, so I was not quite aware that the pop-science surrounding the mystery of the brain got that bad over the years. When you buy this book, please just ignore everything it says about how neuroscience "proves" which teaching and research methods work, and which don't. Just skip it without reading, it's all a bunch of nonsense. Also it cites a bunch of retracted and non-replicated (but famous) studies in psychology, so take all psychological claims with a spoonful of salt.
  • Finally, I find it annoying that when professional academics try to write a popular book they still default to academese, or at least half-academese. If feels that every sentence in this book is half-way between the world of the living and the world of the dead; even though sentences are readable and clear, they still have a strong smell of dusty, deathly, cryptic, mummified academese. It feels that the authors fought this tendency to the end, but still could not quite shake of the suffocating embrace of academic writing.
A great book though; I really recommend it. After reading the first half I felt that I need to buy a copy for every person in my department. After finishing it I felt a bit less passionate, but still told everybody about it and encouraged them to buy it. It's a very worthy read!

And also, on a personal note, I am so happy that teaching colleges, and Bard in particular, and maybe even Biology program in particular, are in a relatively good shape, as far as the problems described in the "Slow Professor" go. We actually do talk to each other, and it feels like we have a bit of time to think. We have teaching and grading in place of grant writing, so there is still a monster of "busyness" to fight, but it seems that we are actually fighting this battle already; driven by a slightly different motivation (trying to become better teachers), but still fighting. And there is definitely lots of space for improvement!

If there were a pin with a snail (from the cover), I'd totally buy it. The "slow professorial movement" is something I'd love to belong to!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

On endorsing grad school to students

It's exam time, and seniors are about to leave the college. By now most of them have firm plans for next year: some have secured a job (usually as a research  assistant or technician in a lab), some will do a post-bac to finish their pre-med curriculum. We generally encourage students to take a gap year between college and applying to grad schools or med schools, as it seems to make lots of sense: they don't ruin their last semester in college by traveling to interviews, they get a chance to taste some "adult life" before plunging back to school. Try to work 9 to 5 before you commit to another giant educational project. Maybe you will like it, maybe you will not - either way it will give you a better point of reference.

What I find a bit hard about this whole fledgling stage is the grad school discussions, as they never feel comfortable. Students don't typically realize that the job situation is relatively abysmal, so it's probably my job to scare them. At the same time, it feels like many of them are strong enough, and actually have a good chance of succeeding in this game. Should I encourage them? Or should I scare them? What about students who seem to "default" to grad school, even though they are not that strong? Or what about those who suffer from impostor syndrome (or at least behaved really insecure for last 2 years, despite being brilliant)? How does gender and race play into it?

I have no idea how to even handle it. I guess that's another reason why I feel so strongly about recommending a gap year between college and grad school: it feels better, because it reduces responsibility. You know what, dear student of mine, don't make a decision now (while I'm kind of semi-responsible for it), but take a year off (forget about me), and then you'll be able to decide (and it won't be my fault anymore if you regret your decision later). Is it what I am doing? It feels like there's a hint of it actually.

But it doesn't seem a good solution, does it?

One good thing I can do is to maintain and foster connections with alums that followed different careers. For every weeping postdoc on the web there's at least one depressed and burned-out medical student, and a couple of office workers who claim to be "dead inside". If we, the faculty, show that life after college is multifaceted, in both good and bad, hopefully it will help our students to make good decisions.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Dedications

One thing that stoke me as strange and alien this spring are the dedication pages on the honors theses I read (in this college we call them "Senior Projects", but it's essentially the same genre). I don't really know whether it's a local thing, or a general american tradition, but each senior project I read so far comes with a really long, tearful, exalted dedication. Both parents are mentioned, sometimes siblings and other relatives, a couple of teachers (typically including all three board members - because you cannot really praise one without praising all three, right?), some friends, and always the significant answer (gosh, so risky!).

My memory is weak, and I don't really quite remember whether we had dedications in Russia. I think some people would put something like that in their works, but it was never more than one short row. And even then it was always kind of frowned upon. Especially before the grade was given. Or at least I remember it so.

But here it evolved into some kind of competition of praise. And these dedication pages really read like obituaries, or farewell addresses. So teary, so high-strung!

Sometimes it feels that the weaker the project - the longer the dedication page, but it is probably an illusion. I guess when the project is short, it just makes a long dedication page more noticeable. Still fun!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Does citation network topology change over time?

A book I am reading makes in passing, and without a reference, a broad sweeping claim that "Internet is killing good research habits". It claims that in the olde times people would go to the library and actually read, while these days they just google, find a paper with most citations, and use it in their work.

It sounds plausible, but it feels like the opposite statement would also sound very plausible. In the old days you would read 3 papers, get used to citations from these papers, and got stuck with them for the rest of your career, while these days you can google-scholar or pubmed for any combination of keywords and find papers from far removed disciplines, institutions, working groups and subfields that you would have never found on your own.

In terms of citation network topology, the first claim implies that in the past the distribution of node orders was more uniform than now, while the second line of thought suggests that actually it might have been more extremely non-uniform (skewed) than now.

I tried to find out the truth by googling about "Citation network evolution" and other stuff like that, but could not find anything. Apparently the distribution was very skewed even in the past, with few papers receiving a status of "classics", and getting thousands of citations. This phenomenon is alive these days as well. But whether it became better or worse - I don't actually know. It would be a nice thing to look into, although I figure the process of generating the "citation inequality" is so slow (it takes about 10 years or more for a paper to become classics) that we probably just don't have access to old citation networks, as they are probably not fully digitized yet.

Or maybe I'm using wrong keywords.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Tenure evaluations are awkward

Tenure as an institution is good (for several different reasons), and even the process of obtaining a tenure is good. But it is also weird, because you are judged by your friends and colleagues.

I mean, it's obviously the best thing that can happen. It's democratic, and you are welcomed (or rejected) by people with whom you would ultimately work (or not work). Every other alternative is objectively worse. Being judged by some random people who don't know you, for example, would be both cruel and inefficient. Collecting all hiring power in the hands of one (or two, or three) people would also be random, psychologically damaging, and bad for the institution in the long term. Being judged worthy by your friends is the best thing that could possibly happen to you, right?

But still it's also weird, because if you let yourself dwell on it for too long, it could totally poison several years worth of your life. If you allow yourself to fixate on this whole "tenure process" thing, you could start to strategize and calculate what to say and what to do instead of just talking to people and working with them; you would aim to please and "fit" instead of productively contributing to discussions, etc. It would just become weird.

So not only the tenure process is paradoxical (the optimal solution feels weird and almost "wrong" intuitively), but also the best way to go about it seems to be to pretend that it kind of does not exist. It's like in this most lovely article from 2013 about a 7-years-long postdoc: the first rule of getting a tenure is not to try to get a tenure. But live the full life instead (mostly scientific and pedagogical life in this case, but still).

I guess this last conclusion can be generalized to most things in life, from cooking to dating and child-raring, so it's not even that unique to career planning. Still funny though.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Scarcity mindset


Here's a link to a nice review of a new book called "If you're so smart, why aren't you happy?", by Raj Raghunathan, in the form of an interview with the author:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/04/why-so-many-smart-people-arent-happy/479832/

If the review is to be believed, the book, while a self-help book, is rooted in some science, and cites some studies. But what I found particularly interesting is this quotation: they are talking about the "Scarcity mindset", and how humans have a tendency to value their goods, and food, and (sic!) time; and how actually it may be counterproductive. Raj says:

I think that as intelligent beings we need to recognize that some of the vestiges of our evolutionary tendencies might be holding us back. If I'm at an advertising agency, for example, or in software design, those are the kinds of fields where it is now being shown in quite a lot of studies that you actually perform better if you don't put yourself under the scarcity mindset, if you don’t worry about the outcomes and enjoy the process of doing something, rather than the goal.
What I find curious about this statement is how it resonates with another book I'm reading right now, called "The Slow Professor" by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. I'm not ready to tell yet whether this other book is good or not, but it's definitely provocative. The subtitle is "Challenging the culture of speed in the academy", and so the book is exactly about how modern academia inflicts the ultimate scarcity mindset upon its members - the one of scarcity of time. And then fosters it through seemingly "helpful" advice on the ultimate time management.

But so far I'm reading the descriptions of how everything is bad and sad, which is an easy part to write =) The ultimate test for the quality of the book is in its "self-help manifesto", which is still to come. We'll see. I'll keep you, invisible 10 or so readers, posted.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Tay bot

The most interesting thing about the Tay bot (the chat-bot started by Microsoft, which was promptly seduced by trolls and trained to be a Nazi), or at least the aspect of this story that I find most interesting and troubling, is how people immediately started talking about it as about a person. If you google for "Miscrosoft Tay", you can find all kinds of titles, from "Microsoft kills its first sentient AI" to "Microsoft deletes a teen girl for racist tweets". And even when the title itself is more objective, it seems to me that the language tends to antropomorphize this programming experiment a lot.

Which is actually not that surprising. Humans are really good in ascribing agency to everything, from earthworms, to cars, to weather. No wonder an AI bot that was marketed as a model for a "teenage girl", and was given an avatar-like userpic, registered in the collective subconsciousness as a kind-of-sentient "somebody" rather than "something".

And I think it's both cool and troubling. Cool because it means that humans are, in a way, ready for AI: they are ready to interact with AI as with another being. Which is good, as it means that human-robot interfaces are really easy to build: humans like to be gullible; they jump at the opportunity. But it's also bad, as it means that the ethical nightmare may start much earlier than one could have expected. I may be overreacting, but from posts about Tay it seems that people may be opposed to "unplugging robots" years before any AI passes a Turing test.

And that's a fun thought. How do you even troubleshoot a sentient AI, from the ethical point of view? How do you troubleshoot an AI that learns and "develops" psychologically, similar to a human child? It does not have to be exactly like a human child, and the process may be much faster, but there almost bound to be some similarities. The only way to troubleshoot a program is to run it, look at its performance, kill it (stop it), change something, and then try again. Can this approach be applied to an AI? Or to a project like a "Blue Brain", where a human cortex will be modeled? Or to an "uploaded personality" (another recent fad)? At what point troubleshooting "virtual humans" will become unethical? Or, on a more practical note, at which point will the human community rebel against this troubleshooting?

And here is a really nice youtube video, also post-Tay, but with a twist. Still extremely relevant:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLRLYPiaAoA