Monday, August 29, 2011

Interdepartmental conflict blowup surprise

I advise a lot of pre-health science majors. Today was advising, and I was sitting with a pre-med freshman who wanted to double major in music. We've had people do this successfully but there are a lot of conflicts in the schedule. This year, our foundational first year class for our majors and their foundational first year class for music majors were scheduled at the same time. By foundational I mean a pre-req for nearly everything else. As in, if you don't take it this semester, you won't take your MCATs in time to matriculate into med school after you graduate.

I tried to convince Stu that they can do the double major if they decide to do a "gap year", take a year in between graduation and med school. Stu looked at me like a deer in headlights. Then I thought, I'll just go over to Music's advising table with Stu and try to work this out.


Apparently I found a music faculty who must have a huge beef with our department, completely unbeknownst to me. I asked basics about which of the music courses could be put off and what her options were as far as delaying which courses, etc. Next thing I know, the music faculty lets it rip.

"Stu can't put that course off, its absolutely required for all other music courses!" And then 3 minutes about you couldn't possibly learn to read without learning the alphabet first. I joked and said "Too bad Studette isn't here, she did this successfully", still in a friendly tone, as I was not yet upset. "Studette did it because she never showed up to class. She had to learn everything on her own. You wouldn't just unlock a laboratory and tell Studette to go in there and do it by herself!" And more about specifics of what she will learn in what class an how that class depends on the class I'm trying to get Stu to delay. All in the tone of "How dare you propose that she doesn't do this properly."

OK, now I'm upset, not only because she is ranting, but because she is doing so in front of this poor freshman, and moreover referring to Stu in the third person as if they aren't even there.

I got quietly more and more upset because there was no discussing with this faculty member, and mostly because this was entirely inappropriate. I warmly looked the student in the eye and said, I'll be right back, and got the hell out of there for a few minutes, letting Stu talk to her alone (yup, I'm a conflict avoider). I went back to my advising table to take on a different student giving myself a two minute break. I thought, I'll settle down for a bit, and go back and check on Stu.

Stu 2 sits down in front of me and says "Hi. I want to double major in pre-med and music."
*THUNK* I drop my forehead directly on the table.

Conflict redux

I am determined from now on out to simply ask the Music/ Pre-Med double major wannabes a question, "Do you want to be a doctor that is good at music? Or do you want to go for concert pianist and fall back to medicine if you don't get a break?" This will help them prioritize accordingly. I have a feeling that many will choose the former.
If the music department loses 3-4 majors a year because pre-med is discouraging them from majoring also in music, they might notice. Perhaps they would like to cooperate with us more then.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Put another strike in the "way too casual first interaction with your prof" column

Hello [mangled first name],

So like I am in your class and I ordered my textbook and I got it today and supposedly its an international edition and it has a pic of a [object] on it but its the Xth edition and its by [Same Authors].  Will this book work?

--Stu Student

Let me add; I find these annoying, on occasion amusing, but completely inconsequential. After I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, especially the section about Chris Langen, I try to treat all of my students as if they are budding geniuses, savvy or not.

Syllabi Specifics.

When I first started teaching, when making syllabi, a left a lot of things vague. I was under the impression that it was unnecessary to list everything we were going to do at every moment. In my mind, this would allow some flexibility for the class to pursue its own interests. I also was confident in my ability to "wing it" and make unplanned details work. I realize now that it was more of my weakness as a thorough planner.

The syllabus should contain some flexibility, of course, but what its purpose really is (to me, now) is to make sure that I have a solid enough of a plan that any "winging it" or departures will take place at a much higher level that transcends the basic foundations of the course. It also forces me, against my nature, to plan details MONTHS ahead. I draw comfort now in having it all in place. 

One area that a syllabus should not be overly detailed (IMHO) is in the risk management and consequences section. I had a colleague that would basically use her syllabus to forbid- in writing- all of the things she found annoying the last time she taught the course. Yes, you need to have sections about academic integrity, but surely you can refer the reader to another place where the policy is written in detail. Please don't elaborate how students should NOT write in their lab notebooks.

Addendum; On the first day of class I explain to the students that this is not a packet of information that they can find elsewhere, but that it is a contract between me and them. If I say I'm grading you on this, I cannot add assignments. Also if we have an exam on this day, that day is when we have it. I am obliged to you to do this, and this, and this... and you have the following ways that you will be assessed with no surprises.

Almost lost the "lottery"

I knew it was risky taking on a exchange student, but decided to "buy a lottery ticket" by inviting one to stay with us. As posted here, she's enjoyable, mature, loves the kids, adaptable, and independent. She has been very helpful and has relieved my burden a lot. I think we may have won the "lottery".
However, we came very close to losing. Our student hangs around a lot with another girl from the same program who speaks her language. This other girl is high maintenance, demanding, already homesick (day 5), and disappointed with her living situation. Thanks Lord, is all I can say.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Faculty Search

We are starting a graduate program. For this, we will need to distribute the graduate load among the current faculty and hire a new full-time person. We are a department of 8-9 and are therefore all generalists, by necessity. I found it quite humorous today when discussing how we are going to advertise this position.
"We need somebody biomedical."
"Probably an infectious disease person, yeah."
"A real live microbiologist, as opposed to someone who uses microbiology as a tool  for other questions." "Especially someone who studies disease transmission particularly in humans, not just a cell biologist."
"Yes, but we also need someone who is doing quantitative work, since the MCAT will change soon to be more about quantitative methods."
"And we need someone who can teach our anatomy and physiology courses."
"Yes definitely. And Developmental Biology"
"You folks mean we need a human developmental microbioinformatoanatomist?"
"Sure. And they need to be Christian, too."
"Hey, the job market is really poor right now. We might find one!"

Friday, August 19, 2011

Lookin' good so far

We had faculty staff conference recently, SO much to blog about, but too big a' task for now. Can quickly report that our exchange student has arrived and
1. She speaks very little English
2. She speaks another language we have in common well, so no problem
3. She loves the kids and they love her
4. She pitches right in and and has ALREADY been very helpful. I haven't done any dishes since she has arrived.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Useful for Newbies- Textbooks

It's that time of year again, syllabus making time. It also involves me making calls to my textbook reps to get any final desk copies and ancillary materials. So if you are new to teaching I would make this suggestion:

When you choose a textbook, get to know your rep. They often will make themselves known to you, and will show you all of your options as far as custom books, e-books, online materials, online courses etc.

Textbook reps are to professors as drug reps are to physicians. You'll be showered with attention from them especially if you alone choose the books for your course. You will get free samples (trial copies) and ancillary materials in an effort for you to choose to "adopt" the text and require the students to pay up to $300 for a hardback copy. I had a colleague say once, "I haven't paid for a text since I became a professor".

The ancillary materials are my favorite. I just love getting a folder of CDs that has all the PowerPoint lectures for every chapter together with quizzes, game shows, clicker questions, and test banks. I actually rarely modify the PowerPoints for my introductory courses according to my unresearched hunch that seeing the same figure on the screen and the book helps the students retain the info. Other colleagues spend hours modifying or making new the PowerPoints (or God forbid, not using them ;-) ). Advanced courses are different. Would love to hear your opinion on that.

Of course, at the end of the year, the textbook buyers come around and you could sell your trial copy to them for up to $100. You could even ask your rep for another one the next year. I don't feel right about that and I don't. (I also hope there isn't a parallel here with the drug reps!)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Talk with the boss about the future

I did not blog about a very significant talk I had with the department chair this spring. I revealed to him that I had terrible semester (a total shock to him), and that I just can't keep going as status quo. It felt like a very long blog post, so I put it off, but there you have it in a nutshell.

In that talk I told him that I will fulfill all of my current obligations, but that next year ('12-13), I HAVE to go half time to survive. Today he stopped in to check on me since he was planning for a faculty search next semester (for other reasons). We laughed about the timing; ask me in the Spring, I want to be half-time. Ask me toward the end of summer, I can handle three-quarter or full- time. But after the laughing, I told him that I probably COULD do three-quarter time, and that it was important since I wanted to go on sabbatical soon.

So, a slight load reduction, but no drastic changes for next year.

Brief freakout wrt exchange student.

In yesterday's post I reveal that we are getting an exchange student (despite your advice), and this is a problem because we are already doing more work than I had imagined would be required. I received an e-mail informing me that the students will be ready for pick-up between 8-8 on a day next week from a location 4 HOURS AWAY. In my calculation of effort vs reward, the transportation of the students from their orientation to our homes would be the responsibility of the program, not the host families. It was unclear in all of the communications. I can't drive 8 hours on a weekday when Hub is gone to get this student. FREAKOUT!

I'm pretty pleased with what happened next. I just opened the address list. The program had the families and employers linked with the name of the exchange student. I recognized 3 families/employers in the area. So I sent them a mail asking if anyone could bring our exchange student back when they picked up theirs. Whew. Back to calm.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Satisfaction in the Lab

Two students working this summer. Both junior/ seniors. Both otherwise unemployed. Spent the first 6 weeks in the lab troubleshooting and figured out what was wrong- ALL the lab animals. Now suddenly that our problem is solved, in the course of two weeks the data have come screaming in! YAHOO!!!! All spring wasted, but summer brings satisfaction. Now I have an entirely new set of 5-6 graphs in preparation. So happy and proud... Kudos, Stud-os.

Scientific Graphing Software- help?

I had Origin 6.0 all through grad school, dragged it to my post-doc lab on my laptop, and now my laptop is over, done. To buy Origin 8.5 for a single user license is $500. Ouch!! on my lab budget. I am looking at Graph Pad Prism ($450), and Kaleidagraph ($140, but can only be installed on ONE computer). I need it for graphing and fitting dose-response curves. Bringing traces in from pClamp seamlessly is a huge bonus, and why I started with Origin.

Do you know of any cheaper or open-source alternatives?  What do you use? Do you have opinions and suggestions?

I didn't listen to you. Now I pay.

A while back I was considering hosting an exchange student. See here. The responses from readers, for which I am grateful, were strongly "No". However, my friends' responses were overwhelmingly "Yes". We decided to say "Yes" to hosting the student, still holding out the hope that this person will make evenings in our home easier and the environment richer for my children (and us).

I spent at least 2 hours yesterday filling out the application to be a host family and finding references to vouch for us. This is despite the fact that our hosting is already a "done deal". The organization needs this application for their records. So there was a good chunk of unnecessary work right there. You can't say you didn't warn me...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


What happened to my template!?!? Ok, fixed it.

Power to choose speakers

Been on vacation. Was nice.

The year's science speaker series has been just released. Every year we have a special speaker on a Saturday morning for Homecoming festivities, and my colleague who sets up the series tries to find the best speaker for this day.

Because of its prominence, the Donor Relations department has been weighing in on choosing the Homecoming speaker lately. In a heavy-handed way sometimes, I hear. The speaker used to be an alum or alumna of whom we were particularly proud, now this person is a potential donor. Sometimes the two overlap, of course, but sometimes they do not. We had a Donor-Relations-pushed speaker a few years back that gave a really terrible talk. I think the department now eyes suspiciously the speakers that DR suggests, but we are pretty much powerless in the decision-making process.