Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Let 'em be, or shred 'em up?

I am on a committee that writes recommendation letters for students. The committee letter is so valuable to the system because it protects students from getting an single off-handed (but dooming) comment from a single prof. It also protects them from getting a letter from a prof that may be unfair or biased. It protects profs from writing a bad letter because of a insgle negative interaction with the student, and tempers the "favorite student" superlatives. Three profs writing a recc is a good number. It has all the advantages of having three reviewers on your paper but without the "third reviewer" veto power. We assign a primary writer then the secondary writers are to add their perspective and edit the work of the primary author. There are two ways to look at the editing role.

1. Make sure that doc is perfect in every way. This is in analogy to the way that co-authors of manuscripts will pick over comma and dash placement until everyone feels that the document is pristine. I call this the "shred 'em up" perspective. Advantages to this are that every letter that goes to a professional school is near perfect and that every document will reflect well on the institution. When you say she is an excellent student and we have a very rigorous program, then readers take you more seriously for the latter part of that statement. Big disadvantages are that this takes far more time than we really have to devote to it and it is politically fraught. I would love to shred some of my colleagues writing. They can make some pretty obtuse statements, among other things. I really don;t want to piss off my potential tenure committee and give the impression of being nit-picky. (BTW, the casual blog writing does not reflect my professional writing, just in case that thought passed into your head).

2. Trust your colleagues, and give them slack I call this the let 'em be philosophy. Quickest, kindest, least likely to piss of your tenure committee. I analogize this to how you may suggest revisions to your student's CV. You must not make it perfect for them, that's their job. You just may point out areas of unclarity. And if they send it out with mistakes, that's their problem.

Depending on how much time I have, I probably end up about half- way between these two philosophies. Today I just insisted that a colleague take out a sentence in which she said in effect, "this student is poor so she worked extra hard and took an accelerated schedule to save tuition." Huge GONG! from this corner. I tried to steer a colleague away from the "grind" language in which a work ethic is over emphasized to the point that it gives the impression that the student is not talented. But I also let go some adverbs that were repeated within two sentences of each other and some awkward phrasing.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Workin' It, Anti-feminist style.

I have something I'm ashamed of to admit to you. OK, ashamed is far too strong a word, but please, read on...the first part of the story is why I had to tackle this project alone and the second explains the __?___ I made to get help.

We are having new siding put on our house. To prep for new siding a lot of important but back-burner home improvement projects needed to be done. For example, we had to have replacement windows installed plus a bunch of other smaller things. This week, the "siding guys" told me that the "gutter guys" would be here and that if I wanted a diverter for my rain barrel installed by professionals, I needed to have the rain barrel in place. The rain barrel was purchased with good intentions a year ago, but due to project paralysis*, it has been sitting in the back yard uninstalled. What was holding up the rain barrel project was a rain barrel base**. Well, guess what? Today the gutter guys arrived. That meant I needed to get a rain barrel base ready in a hurry.

I did some quick back-of-the-napkin calculations and on the way back from day-care drop-offs went to the local hardware store and bought a bunch of masonry block. The staff loaded it for me in the back of my Golf hatchback (!).  When I got home, I realized that getting this block out of my car and uphill to my back yard was going to be very, very hard. I used to be pretty strong, but the two children I have borne have wrecked my abs, at least temporarily. This stuff was really too heavy for me, but I was going to do it, even if I had to lug each one very slowly around the back.

Enter the "gutter guys". On one of my return trips around the corner I encountered the foreman carrying two of the masonry blocks. Clearly this guy wanted to help the "damsel in distress". OK, let's stop here. I did not ask him to help. This is a small town with a big sense of community, and people help strangers out all the time. I did not mind that this guy wanted to help me carry masonry. How nice. I thanked him for his help after the car was empty, making it clear that I expected no more help from him.

He helped me place the stone in place (something that would have taken me alone a VERY long time). The back-of-the-napkin calculations I made were not the most efficient plans once I saw  them in place. He was very interested in helping me solve the problem of how to build the rain barrel base. Now, I didn't know what task I was diverting him from, but I was willing to listen to his professional advice. Then it became clear that he wanted to help me rearrange the block. We rearranged the blocks and rearranged the blocks until a good solution was achieved. The he carried the extra block we didn't use back to the car to be returned to the hardware store. I can see that having the rain barrel actually in place would help him decide if he needed to install any more parts in my rain barrel diverter. But I also got the feeling that he was going above and beyond the call of neighbor helping neighbor.

At a certain place in the conversation he asked, "So where's your husband?" I found the question a bit creepy but answered in an incompletely truthful manner that made it seem that he was on his way home that moment from out-of-town (the truth, just tomorrow morning). He treated me in conversation as if I were a housewife and that I was doing the project to make a pretty little garden (well, yes, I am), and since I was the little gardening lady without a helpful husband in town, that I needed some help (partly true). I answered truthfully to his questions but never volunteered more. He asked what my husband did, and I replied that he is a scientist but did not mention that I am, too. I also did not mention that I am a professor on summer vacation (i.e. someone who gets to do pretty-little-garden projects whenever she darn well pleases, and isn't "working for a living" right now). 

The help he offered was invaluable. If I would have volunteered more personal information to this stranger I would have felt less safe, but I would have also communicated to him that I was not as "damsel-in-distress-y" as he might have imagined. But then again, it might not have made any difference. I did need the help right then when he was there. He saved me probably hours of work and a few mistakes.Alternatively, we could have made a rough estimate with the material we had, he could have put the gutter in place, and Hub and I could have finished the job this weekend.

So readers, what think ye? Did I accept the kind help of a stranger offered freely and guard my personal information judiciously, or did I selectively not disclose my status in order not to risk help that may have been offered under false pretenses, in effect "batting my eyelashes"? Or, meh, you worry too much , PUIProf!


* project paralysis; the imagination that a project is too big to tackle or too far beyond our skills, and avioding it subconsciously as opposed to informing ourselves, gathering resources, starting, and completing to the best of our abilities

** rain barrel base paralysis; this needs to be about two feet high, hold 500 pounds, and not tip over if climbed on by naughty children. Web info suggests post holes and concrete (eek!) or three layers of ground base, landscaping stone and concrete (gasp!) and probably a strap anchored into the stonework around the house (*faint*).

Friday, July 8, 2011

More Science Camp Reporting

Science camp concludes at our institution today. My last group was good in general, with a caveat. It had a group of guys who sat in the front who were pre-community college students. They were pretty rough in appearance and language, and I have to be honest that I didn't expect that much from them. They goofed around during our experiments and were messing with equipment which wasn't to be used at that time. After a bit I realized that they weren't just "goofing off", they were going on curiosity- based rabbit trails. They were investigating creatively the concepts I had introduced to them. I told them (without blowing sunshine, 'cause I DON'T do that) that I really enjoyed working with them because of their curiosity.

It also "fell to me" (to paraphrase a foreign expression) today that I had gotten used to teaching a relatively homogenous group of students, and that for that reason I appreciated being exposed to the other students in this program. To become a better teacher, I need to learn to meet students where they are, and to have more "ares" than I do, on both ends of the range.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Toxic Lab Group; Intervene

It Summer Science Camp again, so I have had mixed groups of about 12 pre-freshman from all the institutions in the area to do a lab. I wrote about this last summer and must say that I found the institutional differences again.

But in this case I was wondering what your thoughts were as to how much a prof/ teacher is to intervene when lab groups aren't working well together.

My example from yesterday is as follows:
Group D entered and arranged themselves in the chairs and lab benches. After an intro they were asked to divide themselves into small groups or 2 or 3. In a front corner were two individuals who did not get included in any other groups. The young man, "Stu" was by appearance unattractive, socially awkward, and had some pretty "icky" habits, such as grabbing his crotch from front and back regularly. I overheard his potential partner, "Sue", an otherwise unremarkable young woman say to me and him that she would rather work alone. As we did not have enough equipment for any student to work alone, I suggested that, no, they really needed to work together, please (Intervention 1).

The lab involved something that is shared between the students' mouths and so each student was given a mouthpiece of their own. Stu set his mouthpiece down on the bench by Sue's place, and it was covered with saliva (OK, a LOT) and left a samll pool of saliva on her bench. Sue looked at me and him and declared in a loud voice, "There is SLOBBER on.my.bench" and then everything halted until I came to intervene with a simple paper towel wipe and alcohol spray. I assured Stu and Sue that this was no big deal, and just keep plugging along, everything is fine. (Intervention 2) As the minutes went by, Sue's body language became more and more hostile, and everything on their bench would stop as she requested more and more assistance from me to intervene with equipment and instructions instead of trying to work it out together. At one point she said "Is it normal for him to suck this bad?!?" referring to the low readings he was getting. I looked at her in the eye and said, "That's just mean."

After about 30 minutes, she stopped acknowledging his presence, tuning her back to him completely even though the equipment was in from of him, trying to do as much of the lab as she could alone. When she was snippy with me asking for help with instructions of the next step, I said, "I'll be right back".

 At this point I found the director of her program and reported that I had someone who was just miserable in the lab and was making everyone else miserable around her. The director said to send her to her office, and so I did (Intervention 3). I actually sent her away out of lab. I've never had to do that before.

I'm a little shook up by the whole incident, and ask you,

Should I have made those two work together in the first place (Int. 1)? I didn't know their history, they ma have had issues before they walked into the lab. On the other hand, the other groups were settled and it would have been a big deal (shaming for him?) to rearrange other groups to accommodate her request. On the other hand, I can see where she was coming from if she found him repulsive, BUT I assumed that "adults" could work together in a professional manner in a lab setting despite these things.

Should I have stopped everything I was doing to clean up after his mess because she was paralyzed by the body fluids on her bench (Int 2)? I do feel it is my job to look after the safety of the students and typically will glove up and take care of these things. But my perception was that part of her motivation was to get out of the pairing and/or to embarrass him. She may have been just very angry and lashed out in that manner.

Should I have removed her from the situation (Int 3)? I did not personally tell her to go take a walk. I might have done this if she were one of my regular students that I had a relationship with. Instead, I sent her to her Director. Was this cowardly? Did I just lose my temper and not try to find a more creative solution? Was I projecting my feelings of empathy with the "outsider"/ tried to protect him and therefore became too impatient with her too quickly? Was I not giving him a chance to defend himself? His reactions varied between being self-deprecating and agreeing with her to taking it seemingly in stride. Should I have just let them work it out?

Have you every kicked anyone out of your lab or class for attitude/ unprofessional behavior? What were your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Answer to PLS

In case you don't read The Spandrel Shop, go there. PLS asks about undergrad research. My answer to him:

Undergrads are the sole source of labor for my lab, and my teaching load is such that I simply don't have the capacity to do a lot of hand-holding. I need students that can be shown once or twice and that's it.  I have had a wide variety of students but they seem to fall into three categories:
1. Really excellent students. Typically juniors that have done well in their physics and molecular biology class and have the ideas behind our techniques down pat. They are well organized and can work independently, and do so, making the right decisions in vague situations.
2. Students I get too early. I had a student recently that I had to spend 30 minutes showing them how to pH a solution and how to use a pipettor properly. Moreover, they just want to know the sequence of how to do the technique and are concerned about getting the "right" answer. These are sophomores typically.
3. Overinvolved students. These students are in a bunch of clubs and activities. They may have the skills and knowledge necessary but lack the blocks of time needed to devote to the experiments. They shortcut or leave great cells behind to go to their band practice or whatnot.

We have a research requirement, so students typically approach me during enrollment period to work in my lab for credit. I'd love to pay them by the hour I often take more than I can pay proper attention to, so sometimes my research students are "given enough rope to hang themselves with".

Monday, July 4, 2011

Emotional Turf

Last night hub stormed in the bedroom at about 10pm, and threw piles of folded clothes from the bed to the floor. He had put the piles of clothes on the bed after folding them, mostly on his side, but also on mine. I had taken the piles from my side and slipped them over to his side so I could cuddle down into bed.

Apparently what upset him was that the clothes on his bed were evidence that I had started thinking of his side of the bed as storage as opposed to HIS PLACE in OUR bed. Well, uh, yes. There's truth to that, I guess. Seems like we don't have everything figured out for this commuter marriage yet.