01 September 2015

UTRGV, day two

Let’s check in with how things are going at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley now that all the big ceremonial “We will make history” moments are over from day one. Down to business, right?

We have a student who was forced to have a class outside.

Two classes booked in the same room. This might explain why some classes were moved between day one and two.

And we have cancelled courses and changes of professor.

Academic free play unlocked

Lots of big adventure video games have a couple of different modes. There’s a story mode, where you have clearly defined objectives, whether they be called “goals,” “quests,” “missions,” or something else. Each one advances the narrative. You can have side missions or random encounters along the way. There may be a lot of different ways to accomplish a task. But essentially you are working towards some sort of conclusion.

(As an aside, if you have never worked through the story of a big adventure video game all the way through to the end... I recommend trying it at least once. The feel of accomplishment is very satisfying.)

But, to help games have replay value, lots of games also have a free play mode.

In free play, you get to play in the sandbox. You get the virtual environment, the random encounters, and you can roam around and do whatever you want. There are treasures to find, badges to collect, achievements to earn.

That’s usually the point I stop playing. Free play tends not to interest me very much. As the actors say: “What’s my motivation?”

Most of an academic career is like story mode.

  • Mission: Obtain Ph.D.
    • Objective: Find supervisor.
    • Objective: Pass qualifying exam.
    • Objective: Write dissertation.


  • Mission: Obtain tenure.
    • Current objective: Secure external funding.
    • Objective: Publish papers.

Today is my first day as a full professor. And I feel like I’ve just entered the free play mode of academia. Full professor is... the top of the heap. There isn’t any promotion for regular faculty after that point. (That is, unless you go into administration. But that’s a different story.)

This is not to say that I feel like I am about to stop. Far from it. Sometimes, there is a perception that faculty get lazy after getting tenure (hence this sea squirt joke), but I was pleased to realize that when I got tenure, I put my foot on the gas, not the brakes. I published a lot more as a tenured associate professor than an untenured assistant professor.

Being out of quests to pursue means that I’ve got to do some pretty significant psychological recalibration. It can be easy to wander around in the sandbox in free play, looking for something to do, but not accomplishing much.

Like the first day of my first promotion (to associate professor), I’m wearing a kilt today on my first day of being a full professor. Because a man in a kilt fears nothing, and that is still my reminder to be fearless. Since I am at the point where I need to set my own mission objectives, I want them to be good ones. Time to raise the difficulty setting off “easy.”

Additional, 2 September 2015: I wrote too soon. I didn’t get the memo below memo until after I posted this:

Tuesday Crustie: Craven-esque

Filmmaker Wes Craven, best known for his horror movies, passed away this week. This image seems like it could have come from one of his works:

It’s a close up of appendages from an amphipod. Leucothoidae, according to the label.

Photo by Macroscopic Solutions on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

Comments for second half of August 2015

Prof-Like Substance asks for hiring committees to treat their applicants, like, you know, people who deserve to know the status of their application. Madness!

Stephen Heard at Scientist Sees Squirrel doesn’t see many big problems arising from kiloauthored papers.

31 August 2015

Well, that went about as well as could be expected

A brief visual summary of the first day of UTRGV:

While administration and politicians said all the expected things about this being a new day, a great opportunity for region, a historic moment, and on and on, the reality was that I didn’t even make it to 90 minutes before getting a phone call from a (rightfully) upset student.

A search for “UTRGV” on Twitter revealed students complaining about parking (eh, like the weather, it’s what everyone likes to whinge about), long lines (sort of to be expected, but worse than usual), not getting phone calls answered (uh oh). Registration is a mess for a lot of students.

This was the scene a week ago...

And this was the scene at about the same time this morning.

And the day ended with this:

MONDAY, AUG. 31, 2015 – Due to severe weather, all of tonight’s classes that started from 5 p.m. on have been cancelled on the UTRGV Brownsville Campus only.

I hope everyone stays safe.

Even so, despite all the problems, there is one thing that I think will go right:

When it’s me and students in the class. Those are my day one, class one group of Neurobiology students. And I’m looking forward to working with them, and all the other folks in my classes.

It’s exciting. Even if it’s the kind of excitement that you normally get by being in the middle of a forest fire with a small bucket of water.

External links

McRaven: UTRGV will change the fabric of the Rio Grande Valley
UT Chancellor McRaven attends flag-raising, proclamation celebrations for UTRGV’s first day
UTRGV begins history-making journey
System opens UT-Rio Grande Valley campus

UTRGV, day one

New students and faculty:

30 August 2015

Going on my second space mission (in name, at least)

Putting this here, so I don’t forget about this like I did last time, when my name went on the Stardust mission.

You have a few more days to sign up and put your name on the Insight mission!

Related posts

Something I totally forgot about...

External links

Insight mission

T minus one day to UTRGV

Tomorrow is the start of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. And I’m nervous.

Last night I learned that The Texas Higher Education Coordinating board didn’t approve a bunch of courses that was planned to be offered as part of the required core curriculum. And this has meant that one and a half thousand students are getting screwed.

There is a list of the non-approved classes. There’s is no explanation or justification as far as I’ve been able to see. What is completely weird is that a class titled “PHIL 1300 Critical Thinking” was not approved for the core, which has as one of it’s requirements that students learn...

Critical thinking.

A class named critical thinking does not meet the requirements for critical thinking? Okay, colour me completely baffled.

Rex Peebles, the board’s assistant commissioner for academic quality and workforce, is quoted as saying:

“It’s really not uncommon at all that submit courses get denied. In a lot of ways there’s nothing kind of unusual that is going on here with UTRGV.”

Except, of course, that it’s happening just days before the opening of a new university, when practically nothing is ready and everything is straining under the load and breaking fast. It is not just business as usual.

I’m not sure it’s a good sign that I’m learning about this through my social media. This seems like the sort of thing that faculty might want to know.

Similarly, I learned that UTRGV is getting a research vessel; the Ridley. I’m excited about this, and I think there could be some good research opportunities for our department and for me. I am still annoyed that I learned about it through social media and not from anyone in my institution.

And today’s editorial today in The Monitor reprinted the untrue statement that UTRGV is the first new university this century. Sigh.

Hat tip to Janet Stemwedel.

External links

About 1,500 UTRGV students displaced from core courses

Texas High Ed Board vs. Logic
Courses not approved for the UTRGV core
Floating classroom passes from Aggies to Vaqueros

28 August 2015

Bronc bouquet

This is it, folks. This is the last full business day of The University of Texas-Pan American. On Monday, we will be The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

RIP, Bucky.

Picture from here.

26 August 2015

This is not the image you want, UTRGV

Seen on the UTRGV home page this morning:

Plastering the home page with an image of a space shuttle is a bad idea, considering that all the space shuttles have been retired and stopped flying over four years ago.

So we’re advertising the launch of a new, twenty-first century university with a picture of obsolete 1970s technology. Great.

Why not an image of the Falcon 9, particularly as UTGRV likes to tout all the anticipated benefits of having a SpaceX launch site in the lower Rio Grande Valley at every opportunity it gets?

I’m using this as an excuse to link to Karen James’s awesome personal account of the last shuttle launch.

Low points

Professionally, I have had a good summer. I’ve had two papers and three book chapters land, and got a little attention on the national media stage. And next week, I’m being promoted to full professor.

I was watching this talk by Bradley Voytek, who reminded me that it’s important for us not just to talk about successes, but our failures, too. I shouldn’t pretend that it’s all been easy.

The idea of talking about failure is something I’m familiar with. I’ve done it a little bit on the blog from time to time. And a large part of many stories behind the papers is, “Why did this take so long?” But I think it’s worth revisiting this to give perspective to what’s be coming down the pipe recently.

I’m not sure what I’d consider my lowest point, professionally. There are a few candidates.

My first few years of grad school were not good ones. I had a psychology degree, had switched into a biology department, and I didn’t have a lot of background knowledge that others grad students would have. Some things were easy: I was well prepared to think about experimental design and statistics (better than some biologists, I’d wager), and a philosophy of science class was a breeze. But leveling work in undergraduate physiology? Cellular physiology? I was way out of my depth there. I got a conditional pass on my qualifying oral examination.

As a teaching assistant, I was moved out of one section of an introductory biology lab to one later in the week because of student complaints about how I was handling the class. This meant I had to replace another instructor, who had been quite popular with the students. And they never let me forget that.

In one post-doc, I didn’t connect at all well with one of the other people in the lab. It was never mean or angry from my point of view, just distant. At one point, my supervisor said to us, “You guys should be talking to each other, not to me. You have very similar projects.” I was never able to do that, and we continued to run along parallel lines, rarely intersecting. That was a missed opportunity.

I had a rough road to tenure, too. The department recommended giving me one more year. After that extended year, I came within a hair’s width of not making tenure. A last minute REU grant changed one committee vote from one recommending against me to a one vote majority recommending tenure.

Even after tenure, there have been projects that got rejected, rejected, and rejected some more before getting published. The low point was one review that said, “I don't believe it,” without specifying any flaw in methodology, analysis, or reasoning that would leave the reviewer not to believe it.

These things happen. And I know they will happen again. That’s how it goes. I may not have ever had a “rock bottom” moment professionally, but there are always low points.

And I think it’s important to pull those out when, to an outsider, you might look like you’re having some measure of professional success. Because it’s easy for those moments of success to look unattainable to others, particularly incoming students. And it’s also important for me myself to not forget the screw-ups, so that I might improve.

Related posts

You do not know the end of your story
Now part of the problem
Abandonment issues

External links

Building a shadow CV
My shadow CV

25 August 2015

Living the Matthew effect with kiloauthors

The word “kiloauthors” is getting some traction. Wow.

I make a cameo in this article in Times Higher Education (which is affiliated with the Times newspaper in London, not New York) about journal articles authored by large numbers of people.

It’s been interesting to see the Matthew effect at work. Getting attention in one high profile venue lead to another, and another, and another. While I knew intellectually that these journalistic outlets are copying from influencing each other, it’s something else to see it in action with your own stuff.

And it’s been a little weird to see how this post in May has rippled out past the usual confines of this blog’s limited readership, and how it compares to other stuff I’ve put out in the same time. Since March, I’ve had four data-driven papers (including one I thought might get some media attention), three book chapters, helped edit a book, and what gets the most attention? A quick blog post.

Related posts

When does authorship stop meaning anything useful?

External links

Is mass authorship destroying the credibility of papers?

Tuesday Crustie: Justice, and freedom

It wasn’t that long ago I posted this on Twitter:

And it’s already out of date! Yesterday, a new paper came out with another new crayfish that had appeared in the pet trade before it was formally recognized in a new paper.

I know I’ve posted quite a few crayfish species in this feature, but it’s impossible to resist such a beauty! Like most of the other species being described from the pet trade, this one is from the island of New Guinea in the Pacific.

The common name is the “orange tip crayfish,” but this didn’t factor into the scientific name.

Naming a species after a well-known person is hardly new, and it often raises eyebrows when the name is for someone who is reasonably well known. “Celebrity species names” sometimes gets some criticism due to its perception that it’s a bit of a publication relations attention getter, and not done with due deference and respect and blah blah blah.

It’s Cherax snowden, so named after Edward Snowden. This name may raise a few more eyebrows than usual, as Snowden is not universally loved, shall we say. The paper says this about the choice of the choice of name:

The new species is named after the American freedom fighter Edward Joseph Snowden. He is honored due to of his extraordinary achievements in defense of justice, and freedom.

I updated my little infographic:


Lukhaup C, Panteleit J, Schrimpf A. 2015. Cherax snowden, a new species of crayfish (Crustacea, Decapoda, Parastacidae) from the Kepala Burung (Vogelkop) Peninsula in Irian Jaya (West Papua), Indonesia. ZooKeys 518: 1-14. http://dx.doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.518.6127

External links

There’s a new crayfish species and it’s named after Edward Snowden 
New Species of Crayfish Named After Edward Snowden 
Researchers name new crayfish species after Edward Snowden

24 August 2015

Laptop bans in classes: better learning environment or tool of oppression?

I got into a discussion over the weekend about taking laptops out of classrooms. There is a reasonable amount of evidence that laptops are not enablers of note-taking, and they generally harm student performance in traditional lecture settings. Counterpoints appeared in my timeline this morning. First:

I can’t handwrite w/o significant disabling pain. Having the only comp in class made my disability obvious.


If you’re teaching and think banning laptops will make students more successful, you’re just flat wrong. And ableist. Bad form.

When I asked if there was any published research showing that laptop use did not affect student learning, the answer was, “No.” The reply thread went straight to, “They’re adults, and it’s their problem if they can’t focus.”

There are a lot of issues at play here. First, you have the instructor’s responsibility to provide the best learning environment possible. If an instructor knows that laptop use has a negative effect on learning, she or he would negligent if I did not discourage their use. It would be like a high level professional coach not requiring an athlete to train or eat right.

That university students are adults does not remove that professional responsibility. “You’re on your own” and “Sink or swim” are rarely good teaching practices, regardless of a student’s age. The issue is about attention and memory formation, which has not very much to do with age. Similarly, distracted driving laws don’t allow people to talk on phones in cars after a certain age because, “They’re adults.”

There are reasons to make exceptions to rules, and a student who has difficulty using a pen absolutely should be one of them. That’s a perfectly reasonable accommodation to make. That an accommodation makes a physical limitation obvious to others may not be ideal, but may be unavoidable. That’s how compromises work.

This is where dialogue needs to happen. Telepathy still doesn’t work, and students need to let instructors know what their particular situation is. My particular institution has an office devoted to helping students and instructors reach a reasonable solution.

That some students may need exceptions to a rule is not necessarily a reason to abandon the rule at the outset. It depends on how many exceptions you might expect, and how critical the rule is to creating a good learning environment.

As with so many things, the reality is more complicated than, “Ban laptops: Y / N?”

Related posts

Ban tech, or why I am such a hypocrite
Use your laptop, lose a letter grade
Earning it versus enforcing it

Photo from Brett Jordan on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

A plea for pluralism in science

When I was heavily involved in L5R, there were recurring arguments between players about the “better” way to play the game. Probably the most common was between players who would use whatever cards they thought would win, and players who were also concerned with the story, who often imposed limitations on what cards they would play: using only cards from a certain faction, using no “evil” cards, and so on.

Wizards of the Coast did research on what people enjoyed about role-playing games to feed into their relaunch of Dungeons & Dragons, and came to a similar conclusion: there are a lot of reasons people play a game.

It took me a while, but in L5R, I came to the conclusion that there is no right way to play the game. What gives one player enjoyment may not give another player enjoyment.

And that’s okay. You shouldn’t denigrate people who play a game differently than you do.

Arguments in science sometimes remind me of those gamer discussions. Some accusasions of, “You’re doing it wrong!” are more reflective of the critic’s priorities than a wide view of the multiple ways there are to do science.

We need to be very careful about criticising particular forms of scholarship as “better” than one another.

External links

Breakdown of RPG players (Image source)
Whose problem is the reproducibility crisis anyway?