Monday, January 25, 2016

"Do no Harm" by Henry Marsh

Over last few years I read a dozen books about doctors and hospitals; mostly neurology and psychiatry, with some other specialties thrown in. And for some time these books fit rather neatly into two distinct categories: "inspirational" books (like "Hot Lights Cold Steel" by M. Collins), or challenging books full of woes of disillusionment (like "The House of God" by S. Shem). Books that paint medicine in light colors and make you want to become a doctor immediately, and those that describe its underside, and encourage you to run.

I would tell putative premed students that they need to read "The House of God" before they start studying for MCAT, before they commit to the track, as if they still want to be a doctor after reading this book, they can probably be a doctor (a phrase stolen from some review on Goodreads; I obviously have no idea whether it is true, but it sounds good). And then, while studying, they can read "Hot Lights Cold Steel" every time they feel low and need some encouragement, because reading this book makes you want to take MCAT.

For many medical semi-non-fiction books these two large categories work surprisingly well. All Oliver Sacks for example counts as inspirational. Books by Atul Gawande (especially his "Better") mostly feel like "deterring books" that could warn a naive student about some issues ahead. And so on.

But anyways, all this long preamble is only to state that the relatively recent book "Do no Harm" by Henry Marsh really does not fit these two categories. It starts totally like an inspirational book would, with wonderful matter-of-fact descriptions of neurosurgery, where an experienced doctor invites you to the operating theater and makes you an awed spectator of their craft. But then it quickly plummets in a quagmire of dark meditations on two topics that clearly cause the author lots of pain: bureaucracy and paperwork that steal his vocation from him, and imperfection of his skill and knowledge as he faces inoperable tumors, untreatable conditions and medical mistakes. As he faces pain, death, and human suffering.

As I read the book, I kept mentally reassigning it from the "inspirational" shelf onto the "deterring" one, and then back to "inspirational". Moving it back and forth. Now as I finished it, it seems that overall the book has more questions than answers, and unanswerable questions at that, so I guess it belongs to the "read it before taking MCAT" shelf after all. But at the same time it is not dark, it is not disillusioned. The inspirational thread is also strong in this one. It really should be on the "must-read" list of any neuro-inspired premed student.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Internet disappointments

Every time I post an anti-Soviet comment on Reddit (like in "Soviet Union was a rather bad thing overall") I get downvoted to negative numbers in the morning, and then into positives again in the evening. Get it? When Russian users are active (around US late morning, early afternoon), any critical statement about, say, Stalin, or geopolitical role of the USSR is downvoted, but then it is upvoted again twofold once US users come back from work (or maybe rather get tired at work).

Which is kind of sad, as every time it reminds me that modern Russian users, even those who read and write in English, and routinely browse English-language forums (a tiny subset of the population), are on average to some degree mildly Stalinist. Not too strongly, but a tiny little bit, you know. Which is quite understandable psychologically, but still kind of sad.

But Internet is generally full of disappointments. Here's another one: many people got really riled up about Ted Cruz saying that he's a Christian first, and American second. There were statements about how he should now be disqualified as a candidate, and so on. Mind it, I don't sympathize to the dude at all, but, the interesting fact is that it's a normal statement for a Christian. Moreover, it is a required normative statement for a Christian (backed by several rather imperative passages from both the Gospels and the Epistles). So saying that it disqualifies somebody from the office is like claiming that all Christians should be disqualified, which would be somewhat weird. It's like saying that humanists should be disqualified because they could claim to be "humanists first and american second". There's an inevitable hypocrisy about Cruz's claim of course, but it's a more subtle, second order hypocrisy, stemming from a de-facto special status of a majority religion (the contest in which this statement was made ironically defies its literal meaning), but this more nuanced contradiction seems to be lost on most sources.

Notably, Vladimir Putin is known for repeatedly saying that he is Russian first and Christian second (or something to this effect). For example, he is famous for claiming that St. Boris and Gleb (two spiritually respectable historical dudes from the 11th century who refused to preemptively kill their evil brother, thus letting him kill them) are not good Russian saints. Because, you see, in his opinion good Russian saints should be enemy-slayers (like St. Dimitry Donskoy, St. Alexander Nevsky and alike). They are patriotic, and are never into all this pacifist non-violence nonsense. In a way, proper saints (according to Putin) are Russian first, and Christian second. In this context I find it somewhat funny that /r/atheism is essentially advocating for Putinesque solutions on the issue of morality. But, oh well, that's really none of my business.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A grading rubric for SLAC-oriented job talks

As I was sitting through job talks for several job searches in a row, and as I was writing my responses to these job talks, I realized that I was gradually converging on a rubric.

You know, in the very beginning, during the first talk, you just notice something that you like here and there, or something that you don't like. But at some point you start comparing candidates to each other, even if you don't really want to. Alice did something cool, and Bob did as well, but Caitlin did not. A point off from Caitlin! She was good in this other thing however, which Bob totally skipped. Extra point to Caitlin for that. After about 10 candidates I ended up looking for some specific clues: first question to the crowd, first use of humor, and so on. I developed a grading rubric.

Of course it is very much my personal opinion on what is good and what is bad, and what counts, and what does not. Also I guess in real life there would be weights attached to each of these points, and these weights would be very different for different people. Yet let me share my version with you. Maybe you'll find it interesting.

A grading rubric for SLAC-oriented job talks:

Each statement is either true (one point), or not true (no points). In some cases it is possible to get half a point (if there was an attempt, but it was not quite successful).

  • The talk is not pitched too high (ideally it should speak to 2-3 year undergrads)
  • The talk is not pitched too low (contains actual details, data, conclusions)
  • Starts from the beginning (good introduction, all special terms are introduced before they are used in the talk, and introduced well)
  • The motivation for the research is clear
  • Demonstrates the breadth of research interests (models, approaches, questions) - important for a small college
  • Advertises past work with undergraduates
  • Hints at future projects with undergraduates and makes them sound fun, meaningful, and possible
  • Good visuals
  • Makes the talk uniquely specific for our institution (alludes to some of our realities, be it campus location, some of the faculty, our history, or anything else)
  • Uses humor successfully
  • Asks questions to the students (full point if they are meaningful and if they are answered)
  • Invites questions from the students (full point if students ask questions)
  • Connects to other areas of science
  • Connects to topics outside of science (society, arts, philosophy etc.)
  • Helps listeners to summarize one message before transitioning to the next one
  • Uses emotion to communicate science; marks statements as emotionally charged (explains what is good and what is bad, what data we are happy to see, what data is sad or confusing, etc.)
  • Good language
  • Shares a bit of their personal story (shows the human side)
  • Feels more excited towards the end than in the beginning (it is my personal theory that good teachers accelerate through the talk as they are carried away by love to their subject)
  • Answers after-talk questions nicely
You sum all points up, and thus identify the best candidate =)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Things you don't have to do

I am trying to identify things I don't have to do.
Or at least I don't have to do that much, that well, or for that long.

Over the years I came to a conclusion that in a way it is the key to success: to figure out what things are not quite necessary; the things that can be cut out. The opposite - the important things - are usually quite obvious. Depending on the field, you need to sell more items per year, or secure better prices, or find customers, save money, raise money, publish papers, get better teaching evaluations, serve on committees. The list of things that look good is usually pretty clear from the very beginning.

But the trick to success is in realizing which of the sub-tasks and actions behind these glorious goals are not quite necessary. Because you always have more goals than you can possibly run for, and more battles than you can possibly fight. Something needs to be cut out, and the trick is in identifying the right corners to cut.

In the most wonderful book "Teaching What you Don't Know" by Therese Huston (in case I haven't mentioned it before, it's the best book on teaching ever) she has a chapter about how to properly plan a new course. And, I think, the first advice in this chapter is "Take one assignment out". Just remove it. Because you most certainly overplanned and overcommitted, so pick one assignment and take it out right now. It may sound silly, but after teaching 4 courses for the first time ever I can attest that it is certainly true. It is just one example, but a good one.

Here's another one: in the workshops for new professors we had last year we were thoroughly encouraged not to ever edit student's papers. Never ever. Moreover, we were encouraged not to mark all errors and mistakes in more than one paragraph of the text. Because it takes lots of time, and also students don't appreciate it. You have diminishing returns here, and in fact you have diminishing returns in any kind of "constructive feedback". A person can reasonably take and internalize one point of critique, maybe two. But if you give more then two, they just get despaired, give up, stop reading, open reddit - the details may vary, but they zone out one way or another. So even in grading, supposedly, there is no point in writing exhaustive feedbacks. If I find a way to identify and explain one single point a student should be working on right now, it would be enough, and in fact could even work better than a thoroughly filled rubric. Diminishing returns.

I know these things in theory, but it is so insanely hard to implement them in practice. And I need to identify more unnecessary things to cut out. Especially those that are unnecessary and unpleasant at the same time. Unnecessary pleasant things are actually fine, as long as you don't over-commit to them: they bring you up, and at the same time they are not completely useless. So when I improve the design of departmental web-page instead of playing a computer game in the evening, it's probably fine, as long as it provides similar levels of satisfaction (which it often does). But unnecessary unpleasant things need to go.

I need to hunt for them and take them down one by one =)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Student projects and tenure

I am still musing about the life style of being early in the tenure track. It would be fun to compare my thoughts after tenure (the reality of it) to the guesses I'm making now, but among other things, I expect that once I feel more secure, my attitude to student projects would change.

For now, I cannot afford having my "independent" student projects fail. I need them to produce good publishable results, which means that I am stealing a bit from their experience (maybe): I micromanage their experiment designs, protocols, and data collection; dictate the logic of the study, and generally stay a bit too close to what they are doing to truly call it an independent project. They have to succeed, you see. They cannot afford to fail.

In a more secure situation, I guess I would have given them much more leeway and freedom in terms of both what and how to study. Or at least this is the attitude I see among my more senior colleagues: they don't micromanage nearly as much as I do. Which is probably better for the students; at least for strong ones. But we'll see.

Apparently, there are changes in the teaching style that come with tenure as well, from what I hear. Early-career untenured folks put much more effort into performing in front of the class: the demos, jokes, stories, stage effects. Tenured profs do what is best for the students, which sometimes (not always, but frequently) is less entertaining than spiels and tricks. Controlled group work for example is not nearly as much fun as a well-staged lecture-performance on a hot topic. Yet we know (from some real pedagogical studies) that it works better. And tenured folks seem to be doing more of it, even at the expense of half a grade in the teaching evaluation, because they can afford to care about the result of their teaching, not about the impression they make.

Strongly speaks in favor of tenure as an institute, I guess.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Professorship feels more as a small business than as a job

I have experience of working both in a really small family business, and in a huge corporation. And recently I realized that being a young professor is really close to running your own tiny company. Which is kind of funny, as I never thought about it that way before, when I was a postdoc.

In corporate business, as long as you work OK, nobody dies and nobody gets bankrupt. The gears turn a bit slower, maybe you don't get a promotion this year, but really the leeway between getting fired and becoming a star is rather wide, and staying within this range is relatively easy. Also you are always working in a large team, so as long are you are putting your due effort most of the time, everything goes forward pretty steadily. You are on a giant ship, and while your work contributes to its movement, it's pretty hard to wreck it by one or two bad decisions.

In small business the feeling is very different: you are always cognizant of the fact that if you don't do this something today, nobody will do it, and then in a month you won't have money to pay your contractors, and then in two months you will have nothing to eat. The work is not necessarily harder, and it is not even more stressful necessarily, as you are more free to do what you want, and nobody is harassing you from above, but you always feel the movement of your little boat, and every time it scrapes the gravel or hits a log, you feel it with your own bones.

Professorship is really close to this second type of feeling, at least pre-tenure. I am aware of about 4-5 things that I need to do this fall in order to survive this year. They are all totally doable, so it is not a problem, but it is kind of funny to realize that I am heading towards the spring semester, and I still don't have equipment for one of the courses. I can build this equipment in about a week, and I seem even have the funds for it, but somehow it makes you feel exposed, you know what I mean? Makes your life a little bit more dramatic; gives a bit of a combat feel to it (at least according to my limited experience with first-person shooters). You are describing the course for the coursebook, having only an idea in your head: a clear and good idea, but nothing more. It feels very immaterial.

I guess faculty in research universities have it much harder, as they need grants to support their grad students, and the same kind of uncertainty puts other people lives in stake, not only their own. And I guess it was worse in my postdochood, as postdocs have very little tactile feedback from their performance. Using the same marine allegory, being a postdoc is like being a technician somewhere in the depth of a mid-sized ship, without any access to the top deck, and no idea bout the direction of the ship, or the concentration of icebergs in this area. So it's much better now, really, than it used to be. Yet I'm really looking forward to the moment when I have all the equipment, a good set of lab protocols, all skeletons of courses written, and the minimal number of publications as required for tenure. Once this is done, I can start taking riskier projects, messing with my teaching, and generally having scientific fun. Until that, it's some jiu-jitsu in slow-mo. With elements of fire juggling.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Looking for talented people prevents you from finding talented people?

An interesting paper about under-representation of women and racial minorities in science:

Here's a nice coverage in the Economist:

Essentially, they asked people from different fields whether it is important to have an "innate talent" to succeed in those fields. Then then correlated these answers to under-representation of women and racial minorities in these fields, and found some very strong correlations.

It suggests an extremely interesting thing. The more you believe in "innate talent", in this mysterious hidden property that surely exists, but cannot be measured directly, the more biased you become. Because you cannot measure talent, right? So you have to go by proxy. But if you believe in the importance of talent strongly, you got stuck with wrong proxies, such as gender, citizenship or ethnicity. You do it unconsciously, but you are trying to infer hidden properties from patterns, and got caught in a Bayesian trap (see the plots below).

The trick of finding true talent therefore is in downplaying the importance of talent! One should try to avoid all guesswork and trust the empirical evidence, the phenomenology. Judge on the deeds, on the results, not on motivation, interest, "fit", or whatever. Sounds obvious, but the data shows how non-obvious it actually is in real life, or rather how poorly people follow these truisms in practice.

I actually find it very relevant for my teaching. Every now and then I see a student who does not fit my subconscious image of a "good student". They are just interested in "wrong things", or spend time in a "wrong way", or maybe talk, write, code, or draw in a way that shows that they lack any talent for the trade! Or do they? It takes a very deliberate and conscious effort to stop this Bayesian profiling and give everybody a solid chance. And boy how happy am I when I turn to be wrong! When somebody whom I suspected of cheating turns out an honest student, just an unusual one. Unusual for me, mind it, with my limited life experience. For me it's never about gender or race, thankfully, but rather about interests and style of thinking, but still the psychological dynamics is probably pretty similar. There is always a risk of subconscious profiling; of shortcuts in judgment; wrong generalizations that have the potential to become self-fulfilling prophecies. They are always at risk of creeping into our practices unless we relentlessly banish and weed them out, day after day, again and again.

To sum up, to find true talent, don't try to intuit it; give up on guesswork, and go for facts instead. Sounds simple, right?