Few takes from the other side of a search committee

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So many colors…which one to choose?

A while ago I had the service chore of being part of a couple of search committees. After many years of being on the applicant side of the equation and reading about the process from experts, I would like to share some of the insights I gained about the first round. This is about science positions at a primarily teaching institution with a majority of non-traditional students.

  1. Please follow instructions. If we are asking for X documents and they are not provided, that application is immediately discarded (with rare exceptions, see points 5&6).
  2. in teaching institutions, “proof of teaching effectiveness” means student evaluations and/or peer observations. Being chosen for a “best instructor” or similar award, or getting a grant for innovative teaching practices is obviously great.
  3. Yes, we read your teaching philosophy carefully . What most of us are looking for is thoughtfulness (are you REALLY thinking about your teaching) and how knowledgeable you are about innovative teaching practices.
  4. Having experience with online teaching is a bonus.
  5. Doing your homework about the institution you apply to is a huge bonus. One applicant was brought back from the discard pile (due to not providing student evaluations) because of a sentence in the cover letter that clearly indicated the person had read more than just the start page on our website. The Mission statement of the institution is a great place for clues.
  6. Yes, we read your cover letter. Very carefully, in fact. This is the place where we look for the “why” of your application, especially if you have an established position. If for some reason you were unable to provide something we asked for, this is the place to explain why.
  7. Be authentic but try not to sound naive. This is particularly important for younger applicants, for whom “being too green” is a real possibility, and you do not want to compound it by sounding silly.
  8. Sometimes you are absolutely wonderful, but not what we are looking for. Nothing personal: it may be that your expertise already exists in the department, or does not fit to our specific needs.
  9. Sometimes you are really wonderful, but too new and unexperienced. For those from a research background, consider teaching a course or two on your own at a community college or similar. Being a TA and supervising other grad students is nice, but may not be enough. Especially when competing with folks who have been teaching for quite a while.
  10. Related to #9, can you handle diversity? Are you aware that your students may be older than you? Or that you will have war veterans in class? In many teaching institutions, the norm is having a huge variety of students, both academically, culturally, demographically, etc. If you have not had that experience, at least we want to know that you are aware of it.
  11. Different aspects will appeal to different members of the committee. Nothing to do about it. That’s why it is a committee.
  12. Because of #11, the more we learn about you the better. At the beginning stage, the committee is looking for ways to narrow down the field for phone interviews. One piece of information may move your application to the next step. It may have to do with a side project that connects with a new budding initiative. Or some skill or expertise we really need. It is better to err on the side of too much information.
  13. Putting your name on the upper right corner of each page of your application or having it in big bold letters at the front of your package makes life easier.

As a final thought- after being on the other side, I felt much better for the many unsuccessful applications in my past. Really, the only times we got personal were with applicants who were not paying attention to instructions or clearly did not qualify. Not being chosen for a phone interview simply means that one was not considered to be the right fit for the particular institution. And probably that is a good thing for both parties.

Update: I just realized that I did not say anything about research. And indeed, research was not a critical aspect in this phase. We noticed when applicants wrote something really weak or something completely unrealistic in a teaching institution. However, if the teaching qualities are good, research expectations and possibilities can be still discussed over the phone.

Number crunching is exhausting but oh so good

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The power of numbers

As I am plowing ahead with the analysis of a course design change in a general biology course, things changed for the best when a colleague who loves numbers agreed to help me out with the statistics.

Statistics is a beast I know slightly, but not enough to be confident in my analysis. To have somebody with the knowledge work the numbers is priceless.

Over the past few days I learned two things:

  • Have a biostatistician buddy. They will make all the difference between despondence and hopefulness. Not to mention saving time. If I get a not significant result, there is always the little voice in the back of my head that thinks I might have just done the wrong analysis.
  • Get numbers and use them. The data table gathered (all IRB approved and anonymized) of the time period studied has 1738 students! Meaning, grades and demographics of 1738 human beings that took that course.
    • For one, it is staggering to see the reality behind the numbers. For example, the age range went from 19 to 69! This is a GE course. I feel immensely proud of the 69 old female who took this course. These are the famous “non-traditional” students we hear so much about.
    • Numbers have powers. Right now I am in the middle of writing an application to a competitive residency program. Do not know what to expect, but am applying because a) it would be great, and b) the application process itself is a learning experience.  In one of the essays where I have to describe my projects and plans I am using those numbers, including demographic data to show the potential.

The bottom line is, if you are faculty who is interested in education research and wants to apply for grants, collaborations, etc., you will be asked for numbers (enrollment,demographics). Have them collected ahead and use them to your favor. Right now, showing that your teaching serve non-traditional students, minorities, females, and veterans will be in your favor.

Update: I will be writing a separate post about the importance of IRB approvals for education research, but this is something I learned the hard way- you NEED IRB approval for any human subject research, and that includes student surveys and especially collection of demographic data.

Once I am done with the applications and posters…

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Barral allGEP AAAS poster draft

The state of my AAAS poster, January 24 6.27 AM.

I cannot wait to be done with the three essays, three posters, and one merit letter. They are all due during the first two weeks of February, and as a good procrastinator, I have left them all to the last minute (and because I had a bunch of other deadlines before). In fact, things are better than usual! I already started working on one essay, two posters, and the letter.

And, things are better also because the only one that requires creativity is the merit letter. And by creativity I mean, in the literature sense. A merit letter has to be in a beautifully written and convincing prose. Obviously, content is essential, but presentation matters. In a way, beauty reflects content, I believe Hegel said, and in this case it reflects craftsmanship, attention to detail, and also how important this particular item is for us. While I don’t consider myself a good writer, over my lifetimeI I have created some decent pieces of writing. The exosome review I published in a relatively obscure journal ten years ago is still being downloaded, and it is one I am very proud of. It took forever to get started, but once I came to the first sentence (it was sitting in silence looking at one of San Diego’s canyons), all went quickly. For the merit letter, I already have the thread that will string together my accomplishments, so the “only” thing that I need is to sit down and write it.

The other essays are not really literary essays- I just need to show that I have the background and experience to be successful for that particular training program. As I mentioned in one of my previous postings, my administration has been asking for monthly lists of activities, providing us with an effective and detailed log of scholarly and outreach achievements.

Posters are a different beast. Two of them are student posters, but I started them so the students can putz around with the results. For mine, the challenge is to adapt a number of very scientifically oriented verbiage to AAAS’s (I expect) more general audience. My poster is about the Genomics Education Partnership, of which I have blogged extensively. The structure and modus operandi of GEP allows sharing of presentations so we are not really starting from scratch, but I would like to lighten up the informative load to make the poster stand out and make it more attractive. Here is a problem, though…I do not want to look too “flashy.” So I am struggling with the background. I really like the one I have now, but I may need to step back and change it to a more conservative color. I tried putting Drosophila flies as a background, but that was too busy. Dear Readers, what do you think? I am open to suggestions. Of course, my coauthors will have the last say, but it would be nice to have feedback.

Now, I started saying “once I am done.” Yes. There is an exciting completely new research project I am involved with now, that has to do with microbes, plastic, and the ocean. I can’t wait to get started in earnest.

But I need to be done with three essays, three posters, and one merit letter first…

Do you need a doctorate to teach at a community college?

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“Dean Dad” Matt Reed had this blog post yesterday, and this morning there were a number of thoughtful comments on it. It is not that often that DD mentions specifically biology positions at Community Colleges, and the posting was right on. The blog post is in response to a graduate student who is considering not finishing his/her Ph.D. and apply for teaching positions at CCs. Matt advises to think twice before abandoning the Ph.D., as the field is competitive, and also to try out teaching at a CC to test the waters and find out if it is the right option.

The commenters were in agreement- finish the Ph.D! While I do not work at a CC, I taught for them before and know the system through friends and colleagues. It is not only that the field is competitive, with many more Ph.D. graduates abandoning or not considering the traditional academic career. Many CCs are now aiming at granting Bachelor’s degrees. But what I am seeing from my corner is that more and more research is being encouraged, supported, and funded in CCs. Big funding agencies such as HHMI and NSF are supporting grants and collaborative projects involving CCs. And to run research and being able to discuss with the “big boys,” a Ph.D. is a clear advantage.

Becoming “real” in an online course

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Screenshot 2015-01-14 07.18.17

Screenshot from one of my weekly videos for an online microbiology course, shot during Halloween. It was a hit!

Things have changed quite a bit in the online teaching world, and I am not referring to the teaching side only.

Students have changed too. They are expecting much more than before in terms of online content and interactions. And not only young students- even adult learners are much more tech savvy. If they are used to multiple media and devices, and abundant online interactions, they expect the same in online courses. And while quality of content is essential in any course, online included, student engagement and interest (which increases motivation) is greatly helped by increasing interactions.

A very important aspect of getting students engaged is instructor presence. Years ago, instructors were expected to post a weekly announcement and be active on the discussion boards. More recently, the norm is that instructors maintain steady communication with students, including reminders and email discussions. While not responding emails at night is a mental sanity policy for the overwhelmed instructor, truth is, online students are online for a reason, and most often it is at night when they have the time to study. Responding quickly to emails or communications in general usually provides high marks for the instructor. Which, in these days of instructor evaluations being scrutinized, is important.

But what I have noticed lately is that students are starting to ask for “real life” presence, and praising if the instructor shares pictures, posts videos, or holds synchronous video sessions. One of the online adjuncts I mentor, a prolific email writer and communicator, received a comment of “it would have been nice to see what she looks like.” The comment was in the context of her being perceived as distant, holding students at arms’ length. I just started a course my usual way, posting a picture of myself as part of the introduction, and uploading a short video welcoming them to the course. For the first time, most of the students uploaded pictures of themselves in the Introductions, and I received praise from a student specifically for being present and building community.

I have taken a few MOOCs at Coursera, and I understand where students are coming from. Most lectures have the professor talking into camera, either in a studio or recorded in the room. There are always video presentations in the beginning, and more and more, real-time Q&A sessions. Well-done online courses, with plenty of room for community building and an instructor who is perceived as “present” are becoming the desired norm, not the exception.

In any case, there are many articles and pages dedicated to the different tools and resources to use for livening up your online course. Here comes a short list of what I do, and how I do it.

  • A couple of years ago I invested in a professional picture of myself, which goes to my official intro or syllabus pages. Nothing new there, but I really support the professional picture part. It is worth the cost.
  • I also have a few personal pictures that are deemed appropriate to share in the course. Good choices include pictures reflecting pets or hobbies, as they invite connection with most students. They will also show the instructor’s “human” side.
  • Welcome videos are highly recommended. I use a very simple Logitech webcam, and have learned how to place a floor lamp by my side so I am not talking from a dark blur. How to record it is much depending on your computer and expertise. I make it easy on myself- on my Mac I use Photobooth to record the video, and then upload it to Youtube. One can record directly to Youtube, and there are many other programs, but Photobooth has been quick and easy.
  • While many students shrug at live chat sessions, others expect it. Many students do not take the time to clarify questions via email, but wait for the opportunity to ask in person. I have gone a long way from dreading the ClassLivePro (now Bb Elluminate/Collaborate- I lost track of the name) sessions to making them an opportunity to interact with students and hopefully engage them. There is an amazing range of options of what can be done in those sessions, and I am still learning. For now, it is mainly uploaded powerpoint slides with quiz questions in-between, and webtour of internet pages. But I have my webcam on. It has taken me a few years to become comfortable with seeing my face onscreen, but it is doable. If the course does not include Live chat opportunities, there are other options: Google hangouts, Skype chats, Zoom, and many others.
  • One last detail- being yourself is fine on video, within certain limits of course. One is time- 2 minutes and change is a great length, more than 5 is a no-no. I have to write down what I want to say otherwise I ramble on. Occasional humor is ok (see the Halloween picture), and also to be attuned to the time of the year, such as wishing happy holidays at the end of December. I record my videos fresh every time, so I can refer to specifics from the course, making it real time feedback.

Dear Reader, please share your experience with making yourself more real through online courses. As mentioned, this is my little list of what I do, but there are many different ways to make it happen. Thank you!

Accelerated learning, living a la Tim Ferriss, and the delight of tea.

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Picture taken at a quaint Victorian tea place my women colleagues go for holiday tea every December. Love the tea, but not the cup- I drink from large ceramic mugs!

Picture taken at a quaint Victorian tea place my women colleagues go for holiday tea every December. Love the tea, but not the cup- I drink from large ceramic mugs!

In a previous post I recounted how I came across Tim Ferriss’ 4-hour approaches, and how it influenced the design of my lectures. For the record, I have not read any of Tim’s books 100%, and I do not think that is his goal anyway. I got “The 4-hour chef” from the library and managed to try out 2 recipes (which worked fine), learned a way to chop onions without chopping my fingers, and again shook my head at his lambasting statements about being able to learn anything in a very short time.

On the other hand, as I mentioned before, the whole issue of accelerated learning is important for me. My university’s approach and niche is accelerated learning, with courses 4 and 8 weeks long. For somebody in the semester system, that sounds crazy. However, our students take only one class at a time, which means all their attention is focused on that class.

And then it comes, of course, the issue of “simpler is harder, less is more” mantra, which has been my leading light for the past years. In 2012 I attended at ASCB 2012 an education symposium, where an integrated science curriculum at Princeton was presented. I order to make it work, the course was streamlined- students spent a lot of time on mathematics and physics principles essential for quantitative analysis, and learned even some coding early on. What was taken out the curriculum? Descriptions of the classic molecular biology experiments of the 1950s. I remember nodding. Why do we teach those historical milestones? Because we were taught that way. Of course they were relevant and elegant, and they teach students about the scientific process, but would not be more relevant to let students figure out how science works while actually doing it?

Currently I am in a phase of thinking a lot about teaching and learning. In “educationese,” I am in a metacognitive phase (chuckle). Reasons are manyfold: such as embarking with a colleague on an ambitious flipped classroom project for a majors biology class, or the need to write a number of reflection essays for different proposals. And as tighten my mental reins and try to be more focused and more productive (while not losing completely the ability to spot attractive unexpected possibilities), I am also more open to suggestions of how to do it.

This posting was inspired by a recent posting by Tim about productivity tricks. I was pleased to see some approaches I already use, and even more about the change from coffee to tea! Yes, me. As long as I remember I have been an inveterate coffee drinker of multiple cups just to get started in the morning. Recently and following doctor’s orders I cut down to one cup in the morning, after which I switch to tea. To make the transition more palatable I decided to go for finer loose-leaf tea, and in the past weeks I have assembled a nice collection (still growing) . What is mind-boggling for me how easy the transition has been, and how much clearer my mind is. In fact, if by habit I pour myself a second cup of coffee it does not feel good at all.

Bottom line of this slightly rambling post? Inspiration can come from many sources, some quite unorthodox. Tools can be adapted from other contexts very effectively. And sometimes small changes (like switching to tea) may have large effects.

(New) thoughts & worries about online cheating

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Yes, I am thinking.

I am reading this article with trepidation mixed with relief: What One College Did to Crack Down on Shoddy Transfer Credits – Athletics – The Chronicle of Higher Education. This comes together with another article about the gory details of the widespread schemes to “help” athletes meet the NCAA requirements.

My thoughts?

  1. Good for you, Mt. San Antonio! They did their homework, they compared courses, and they took a stance. In my position as course lead for a GenEd biology course I have received occasional request for course transfers, and trust me it takes its time and effort.
  2. I am so glad that I am not responsible for math courses.
  3. Feeling good that I put my foot down and implemented randomized questions in online exams.
  4. Hm. Is this something I should worry about?

While these articles are more focused on schemes related to athletes, for me it is another warning sign. I have been aware for quite a while that one can buy complete assignments online. As others, I was also shocked by the Chronicle article about the shadow scholar (and here he is coming out). In that update (more than 2 years ago) many in the comment thread talked about the “industry trend.”

A little while ago I was referred to the website Fiverr as a place to get technical stuff done (for example, a website design etc). Poking around I found a number of references to “I will do your CS homework for you” and with a premonition, typed in “biology.”

Well check out for yourself: the results of the search.

Not good.

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