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, but the psychological dynamics is probably pretty similar. Profiling and shortcuts in judgment; wrong generalizations that have the potential to become self-fulfilling prophecies, and that creep into our practices unless we relentlessly 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?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

End of semester

For last two weeks or so all senior faculty keep saying: "Almost over! Almost there! A few more days, and it will be all right! Yippee!"

But I cannot share this excitement; not at all. At least by now this whole teaching thing was working somehow; maybe not ideally, but it was functional; it worked! And now time is taking it away from me. Because the very day I grade my last exam this semester, I need to start developing two more courses for the spring, and writing protocols for about 25 new labs (I am not sure of the exact number, but it is something as ridiculous at that). Which obviously scares me enormously.

Mentally, I am aware of the fact that everything will be all right, because it always was in the past, and this challenge is no different. I will just approach it as any other project: break it into pieces, set the priorities, create a plan, and then implement it point by point. But emotionally the sheer amount of work to do, and stuff to learn, makes it rather unsettling.

It's like in mountain hiking: when you are some 1-2 miles from the mountain, it looks almost vertical, it looks like a wall. As you approach it, it "lays down", and becomes flatter, less imposing. That's because we are not that good in estimating 3D depth of objects when they are very large and very far away from us. But knowing that there is an optical illusion does not take the illusion away. Same with this whole teaching preparation thing. In exactly 2 months from now I need to give a lecture about the gut, and I know exactly nothing about the gut, except that it has villi, and can be, with some effort, reworked into traditional baroque lute strings. That's pretty much it.

But it will be fine of course. I've ordered two books about the gut, and they are thick and heavy enough to kill a bear, so it will be fine!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

War on Christmas

The "War on Christmas" is so nice as a brand that is should be totally reclaimed by the left.

You want a White Christmas? Wanna build a snowman? But it's raining instead, with mud and puddles everywhere? The lake you used to skate on as a kid now never freezes?

You know whom to blame.

It's the global warming denialist stealing your Christmas from you. It's the oil spender, steak eater, unnecessary-large-car-driver. They fight the war on Christmas, making sure that nobody can carol down the snowy streets anymore. It's all their work. It's their conspiracy.

Save the Christmas! Reduce CO2 emissions!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Before it's too late: my impressions from SfN

The first impression was very positive: wow, all these people are adults! So many adults in one room; people who know something, and can engage in meaningful informative discussions!

The second impression was more mixed: by forgotten gods, every time I say something stupid, they actually call me out on that! They don't just write it down, and they don't just dismiss it as something that could possibly be true, but is no really relevant for their (different) narrow field. No, they point out my mistakes!

That's why going to conferences is so important if you are in small college; if you are the only specialist in your field in the whole department. I'm only 4 months here, and it was already a bit of a cultural shock. You need to go to conferences for instant recalibration. Becoming a faculty is empowering: it's the first time in my entire life that I'm growing to realize that I actually know something, comparatively speaking (it's actually a pretty hard thing to believe in). But it can also make one a tiny bit delusional, every slightly, a little bit here and there. And that's when a cold-ish shower of a conference gets really helpful.

Yay conferences!