16 January 2017

Tenure is like vaccination

Tenure is like vaccination: they both work best when nobody opts out.

We’re in the middle of two new legislative attacks on tenure in the United States. Anti-tenure sentiment is hardly new, but it seems bound to pick up steam when I look at the current sociopolitical trends in the United States, which might be summarized as, “Don’t get comfortable.”

We academics will need to be vocal about why tenure is a good thing (here is my own defense of tenure), but I worry a lot that conditions have moved too far for us to mount an effective defense of tenure.

One of the key reactions I saw on social media to the announced bills was that abolishing tenure would cause a “brain drain” in those states, and the institutions in those states would have a hard time recruiting top notch faculty. My mind immediately jumped to this graph:

Any discussion of the academic job market that doesn’t take this graph into account is woefully deficient. Possibly even negligent.

One of the arguments for tenure is that the the increases job security compensates, to some degree, for the decreased salary. It’s generally accepted that academic pays poorly compared to industry and other non-academic positions. In theory, tenure is such an integral part of being an academic that people should not be willing to accept jobs that do not provide tenure.

The extraordinary surplus of doctoral students rather puts a wrench in that assumption. There are so many doctoral recipients that it is an employer’s market. Sure, you may lose those legendary (mythical?) “best” people, but there are plenty of people with Ph.D.s who are more than good enough: they’re still highly trained, highly skilled, and completely capable of running productive research programs.

And we know that there are many people with doctorates who are desperate enough to take positions that do not offer tenure: many of them are called “adjuncts.”

We are in a crappy situation all around. Tenure has a perception problem, because people see it as a “job for life” and a blanket protection for incompetence (it isn’t). The adjunctification of so many universities demonstrates that there are enough people willing to take jobs without tenure that both legislators and university administrators feel emboldened to reduce or eliminate tenured positions. I am deeply worried that the concept of tenure in the United States may not be able to survive these assaults.

What we are left with is the principle of the thing: tenure is supposed to allow us to do amazing long-term research, and speak truth to power. Fellow academics, if you have tenure, I urge you to use it, actively and frequently.


Related posts

What have you done lately that needed tenure?

External links

Killing tenure
Should public universities have tenure systems? (Quora)
The missing piece to changing the university culture

12 January 2017

Bound by ribbons: SICB 2017

I’ve been to the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting before, and I’ve been to conferences in New Orleans before. Based on that, you would think this meeting would be routine for me.

It was not. It was a very different meeting experience, for a couple of reasons. First, I was coming off a very intense teaching semester, and I was nowhere near as prepared as I should have been. I felt discombobulated a lot during this meeting,

Second, I was at the meeting not to present any of my own science, not to see any new science. I was participating in my role as chair of the Society’s Student and Post-doctoral Affairs Committee (SPDAC). This not only gave me ribbons to put on my badge, it completely changed my conference experience.

First, there were the meetings. I understood that I had my own committee’s meeting to chair. But I didn't quite realize that I was also expected to be at two executive committee meetings, and at the Broadening Participation committee meeting. And two of those were at 7:00 am! By the time I rolled into the second early morning meeting on the last day of the conference, I was grumpy and hated the conference and the world and no amount of variety in the hotel’s breakfast offerings would cheer me up.

Then, there was the SPDAC booth. The committee, unique among all the committees, had a booth in the vendors area to serve as a place where students come ask questions ad voice concerns. I was a little embarrassed by our bare booth, so midway through day one, I got some candy and chocolates to hand out as “booth bait.” I tried to stay at the booth as much as a I could, although this was mostly coffee during coffee breaks and the poster sessions. Staying at the booth did make it a little harder to get to get to sessions and posters.

All of this meant I didn’t see as many talks, or have as many port unities to explore nearby, as I normally would at a meeting.

I also found out rather late in the game that I was expected to give a talk at the first timer’s orientation session. I had a slide deck from their previous year’s talk as a starting point, but I wasn’t given any other parameters. I thought I might be faced with maybe high tens of people, max, in an average sized room.

Instead, I was facing hundreds of people in a combined ballroom. This was just after I had posted my a little essay on why you should always be afraid during a presentation, and it was easy. I would have done things much differently if I’d known how big the room was. I just tried to be breezy and quick and show a lot of advice from people on Twitter. Fortunately, several people told me afterwards that it was good, so I got to breath a big sigh of relief.

My other performance was as the moderator of the SPDAC roundtable on academic power struggles. It took the conversation a little while to get rolling, but once it did, it was very thoughtful and enjoyable. There were lots of good ideas about how students can approach conflict resolution.

I also added three new pokémon to my pokedex in Pokémon Go.

While I had a good time and managed not to have any epic fails during the meeting (other than stores that I wanted to visit closing by the time I got there), I felt the frustration of feeling that I wasn’t prepared and could have done so much better.

The good news is that I have a chance to prove that I can do better in about 51 weeks time, when I head to San Francisco for SICB 2018.

Conference low point: Biting into a Zapp’s Voodoo flavored potato chip. I am a potato chip purist: carbs, fats, and salt are all I crave in a chip, not flavours. But the SPDAC meeting had a box lunch with only Voodoo flavoured chips. I was hungry, thought I would try it, and Cat (one of the committee members) offered me a bite of hers so I didn’t have to commit to opening the whole bag.

I had to spit it out. My instant reaction was, “People eat these voluntarily?”

04 January 2017

The Zen of Presentations, Part 69: Always be afraid

One of the best treats over this past holiday season was the debut of Trollhunters on Netflix. This animated series, co-created by filmmaker and monster nerd Guillermo del Toro, is fantastic on all counts.

Early on, the lead, Jim, is given some atypical combat advice from his troll mentor, Blinky. In fact, it’s the first fighting rule for a trollhunter.*

Always be afraid. Fear heightens your senses. Fear keeps you alive. Arrogance gets you killed.
Blinky, “Waka Chaka!” (Season 1, Episode 5), Trollhunters

I’m not afraid to give a talk. And that’s currently one of my biggest problems as a presenter: I’ve done presentations too much.

When I first started giving talks at conferences as a grad student, when I got up to the lectern, I was wired. And it was not entirely positive energy arising the excitement of sharing what I had found. No, part of it was nerves because I was afraid.

Fortunately, I was able to take that energy and use it to make the delivery more enthusiastic and animated. A lot of people who have seen me talk have used that word, “energy,” in describing my style. It worked out because I was prepared, I knew what I wanted to say, and knew what my slides were. I was nervous, but not paralyzed by nervousness.

But even as I moved through grad school, and I racked up the presentations about my thesis research, I realized that I wasn’t feeling that rush of nervous energy just before I got ready to deliver my talk.

The problem was not so much arrogance as complacency. You reach a point in developing your writing and presentation skills where you know that you can give a talk without huge preparation, and it will be reasonable. You won’t stink up the room.

Writer Alan Moore put it this way in this interview:

With the America’s Best Comics that I’ve been doing... not even a half-arsed, it’s a quarter arsed idea at best(.) “Yeah, that’ll be good, let’s have some three-eyed cowboys. I’ve got no idea what they’re going to do in the story, but this issue’s all about three-eyed cowboys.” I mean, you might think of a story that’s got three-eyed cowboys in it and hope it comes to some sort of resolution, but it always does.

I’ve been working for 25 years now and I can probably bring near enough any story to a satisfactory resolution just because I’ve been doing this every day for 25 years – you get more confident in your ability to bring a story home.

I knew that energy was important to my presentations, and had been important in reaching the audience when I talked. So I deliberately tried to make myself nervous before talks. Nervousness is a kind of energy, and I had done enough talks that I knew I could harness it and get it under control to get my energy level up where it needed to be.

Always be afraid, even if you have given a talk a hundred times before.

* Unfortunately, Trollhunter rule #1 doesn’t get as much play in the series as rule #3, because rule #3 is funnier (you’ll see).

External links

“Eye protein”: Lessons from giant monster movies

03 January 2017

Tuesday Crustie: Pride

I’ve featured lots of interesting lobster colour variants here, but that “rainbow” lobster on the right is a new one on me.

The rest of the gallery shows lots of interesting variations, mainly a few recurring colour types (orange, blue. calico, split) and claw deformities.

External links

'Rainbow lobster' leads contest for craziest crustacean

30 December 2016

2016: Where did the work go?

There are reasons aplenty to hate this wretched year, but I’m just going to focus on the professional side for me. 2016 was a year I felt like I just couldn’t get stuff done.

On paper, it was not a horrible year. On paper, the book Freshwater Crayfish was released, which I co-edited and had a couple of chapters in. But in reality, the physical copy of that book was released in August 2015.

I also had one other book chapter, in Science Blogging: The Essential Guide, back in February. But the production on that book had dragged on for so long (I first blogged that it was coming out late in 2014) that it certainly didn’t feel like it was something new.

My frustrations were compounded because I had submitted a couple of papers early in the year; one early January, in fact. But for reasons that do not need exploring at this juncture, the editorial process for both of them dragged out longer than usual and they won’t see the light of day until 2017.

(At least, I hope they will appear in 2017. One journal that has accepted one of my articles still has items in its pre-print queue today, 30 December 2016, that are dated 30 December 2015. A whole year as a “forthcoming” article? That sucks.)

The number of blog posts was down here on NeuroDojo, but holding reasonably steady on Marmorkrebs and Better Posters. I have a lot of blog posts that I started but wasn’t able to finish.

I did teach a lot this year. I just got through the heaviest teaching load in a semester I’ve had in a very long time (and am so pleased nobody yelled at me, which I was convinced was about to happen any day). I did two graduate classes that were new to me for the first time ever. I taught a grad course in summer. And I taught the #SciFund poster class for the second time.

For me, professionally, 2016 feels like “the one that got away.”

23 December 2016

The open access “sting” by Science, three years on

In 2013, writer John Bohannon published a Science article where the main drawing card was an obviously bad paper that he got accepted or published in multiple junk journals. He was not the first, nor has he been the last, to set out to punk crappy journals with obviously bad papers. It’s practically a scientific genre in its own right now.

I grabbed four of the papers that made it through the production process (despite Bohannon’s efforts to keep them out of the literature) for teaching purposes. I was recently reminded of those papers, and went looking for them again.

Let’s start with Indandah et al., 7-chloronorlichexanthone inhibits the growth of murine SV40 transformed lymphoid sarcoma Cells in vitro, in Medicinal Chemistry:

The journal is still there, but there is no hint of the retraction. There’s just a gap in the page numbering.

Next, Magaya et al.,Arthogalin inhibits the growth of murine malignant prostate sarcoma cells in vitro, from Journal Of Pharmacy And Pharmacological Research.

The entire publisher website is gone. The same is true for Nonjah et al., Nephrosterinic acid inhibits the growth of murine malignant pleural sarcoma cells in vitro.

The entire Scientific Journal of Medical Science is gone, gone, gone.

With this track record, I was surprised to see one journal acting like a real journal: being transparent and taking responsibility. The Journal of Biochemical and Pharmacological Research still exists, first of all. You need to drill down to find their page for Onnoocom et al. contribution, Schizopeltic acid inhibits the growth of murine polyploid pulmonary blastoma cells in vitro. But when you do:

The journal acknowledges that the paper was there in its table of contents, but the links for the abstract and PDF both lead to a retraction notice:

JBPR has been a victim of bogus submissions; and this paper is one of those and is hereby retracted. The editor in chief takes full responsibility for accepting this bogus manuscript for publication in JBPR. We sincerely assure readers that something like this will not occur again.

The last line makes me raise my eyebrows a bit. No journal can assure readers that they won’t make this mistake again. It’s just not possible to have a 100% failsafe fraud detection system.

Yes, journals should be criticized when they publish deeply flawed papers. But how they respond to those errors matters, too. It is possible that some junk journals are actually new journals run by people with good intentions but little experience that have the potential to improve. I’m not saying a single retraction notice makes a journal reputable,

Related posts

Open access or vanity press, the Science “sting” edition
Using “journal sting” papers for teaching

22 December 2016

Truth and justice at universities, not “or”

A friend whose opinion I trust asked people what they thought of a talk by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt’s summary of the talk is here. His thesis is universities can search for truth or be agents for social justice, but not both. Weirdly, Haidt says that individuals can pursue both truth and justice, but an institution cannot, for reasons that are never explored.

Haidt says there are few conservatives in university positions, citing Higher Education Research Institute data. Haidt then presumes that being on one political side precludes understanding of others. He does this by demonstrating that much reasoning is “motivated,” which is an idea that has lots of empirical support. However, he makes hasty generalization in arguing that because people often engage in motivated reasoning, they always do this. He makes another hasty generalization by arguing that only other people can dissuade researcher from incorrect views, neglecting the possibility that evidence can do so.

And this is about the last portion of Haidt’s talk that is driven by data.

Haidt is concerned that the political homogeneity of universities will trickle down to students. Evidence does not support this. Professors may largely lean to the political left, but their students are not much affected by this. See here and here.

He goes on to make lots of similar assertions about how students and professors are scared. “Professors all over the country are changing their teaching,” he claims. But his assertions are just that: assertions. He presents no data to support these claims. Well, unless you count a screenshot of a Vox article. (One which did not go unchallenged, incidentally.)

Haidt goes on to expound his thesis to say that universities have created a culture of victimhood, and how universities teach that other people are literally “members of good and bad groups.” He does so again through selected anecdotes, not data.

Haidt clearly implies that teaching that people can be “members of good and bad groups” is somehow wrong. He presumes that all political views have prima facie validity. He ignores many cases of political ideas have been shown to be empirically, factually wrong, but that are still bandied about as “common sense” by politicians. I would also like to ask Haidt would be whether he thinks German Nazis of the 1940s were just misunderstood.

At one point, Haidt says, “I’m not denying there’s oppression,” but I can’t help but wonder why this is a throwaway sentence compared to the amount of time he spends attempting to build the case for “victim culture.” He argues that certain statements are inviolable, like, “America has endemic racism / sexism,” but doesn’t address whether or not that is true. Again, Haidt is apparently operating from the point of view that has as as starting point that “America is racist / sexist” and “America is not racist / sexist” are equally plausible.

He says certain patterns that might be correlated with racism or sexism are “invitations to get to work” to find out if they are true or not. I like that Haidt is advocates empiricism, but what is missing is at what point hypotheses should be abandoned. We have seen the “Doubt is our product” strategy used many times to bring faux respectibility to discredited ideas.

Haidt also takes the liberty of defining “social justice” as he has experienced it. I suggest it is at least plausible that other people might disagree with his definition.

Haidt claims he is not on the left or the right. My impression is that Haidt, in trying to understand the origins of political disagreement, has attempted to be fair in understanding the basis for political viewpoints. Unfortunately, I think that objectivity in seeking the basis for people’s views has made him unwilling to critique them unevenly, leaving him to proclaim, “Everyone does it.” But as David Frum wrote:

“They all lie” is a sentiment that most benefits the most egregious liars.

I agree with many of the individual cases Haidt presents. But this is not surprising when you build your case on the best supporting anecdotes.

Weirdly, at the very end, Haidt unravels his own thesis, saying you can only effect change if you commit to truth. But again, this is a throwaway line that runs counter to his headline (which is 90% of communication effort). Haidt’s headline argument would make academia irrelevant. We can only tell the truth as long as it doesn’t matter. If we try to effect change, we’re spin doctors.

External links

Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice
The moral roots of liberals and conservatives