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Introducing Ben

September 9, 2018

Ben Zelnick-Crowther was born on September 5th!

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The family joke is that “Ben” is short for a family name originating with his grandmother’s car: BEN5491.

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In fact, however, and as you might guess, Ben is really short for Benjamin.

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Favorite columnists: Bruni, Lithwick, Loofbourow, Saletan, Stephens

September 3, 2018

Some of my favorite blogs have regular “linkfest” posts featuring notable pieces from around the web, often with brief commentary. I’ve wanted to do that myself for years, so here’s a post along these lines. More will follow if I can find the time and energy. For now, I’ll just admit that I get a lot of my news from Slate and the New York Times, so these sources will be overrepresented in listings like those below.

NEW YORK TIMES

SLATE

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Conversation-wise

August 5, 2018

Sorry, what did you say?

Oh … well … thank you.

I credit my parents — both of them.

You know how you get some things from your mother and some things from your father? Well, I get my conversational style from both. I think their respective influences are about equal. It’s kind of a “codominant alleles” situation.

For my mom — and also her brother Scott — the basic principle is that you show someone that you care about them by asking them lots of questions. It’s a matter of fundamental politeness, like saying “please” and “thank you.”

Of course, everyone knows that it’s nice to ask people about themselves. But my mom is unusually consistent about actually doing it. I think she may have a three-question minimum; any less would be impolite. And the questions can’t all be totally generic, either. “How’s it going?” is a fine conversation-starter, but it doesn’t count toward the minimum.

It’s funny — peculiar funny, not ha-ha funny — that my mom’s parents, for all of their other marvelous qualities, were NOT great conversationalists. Her dad told tangent-filled stories that were not well-tailored to their audiences. Lots of details about which roads you should take to get from town-I’ve-never-heard-of A to town-I’ve-never-heard-of B. And her mom was generally terse, especially when talking about herself. Somehow my mom and her brother internalized a very different code of conversation — a code of gentle but persistent questioning. So I try to ask a lot of questions too.

Are you wondering how my dad fits into all this? Well, my dad believes in the same approach, to some extent. He once took a Dale Carnegie course on “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which taught him that people like to talk about themselves, and that you should enable that by asking questions. But my dad is more relaxed than my mom about demonstrating his interest. He thinks the Dale Carnegie thing works best when you ask questions that you really care about. Don’t ask questions just for the sake of asking questions.

One other thing about my dad: he once was a newspaper reporter. It wasn’t necessarily the job he was best at or liked the most, but I like to imagine him sniffing out hidden truths, like Woodward and Bernstein, or David Fahrenthold. Rutland, Vermont did not have many presidential scandals to uncover, but my dad was there, just in case. I think once he got to investigate a suspicious fire.

Anyway, while I’ve only dabbled in journalism myself, I think I bring my dad’s reporter’s mindset to a lot of conversations. I try to get past the small talk to find the story that the person wants to tell AND that I will find interesting. My tendency to drill down like this may be off-putting; sometimes, if I’m getting overly journalistic, I’ll pantomime shoving a microphone into the other person’s face, just to make fun of myself. I think most people appreciate the questions, though.

While my tendency to “interview” people reminds me of my dad, I should note that my mom is a good reporter too. She’s often in an information-gathering state, anyway. I suppose it’s hard to say exactly where one parent’s influence ends and the other’s begins. Or, for that matter, where their collective influence ends and one’s own personality begins.

Hmmm — that was quite a lengthy monologue, wasn’t it? Not my best work, conversation-wise. But if you’ve ever wondered why I converse in the way that I do, well, now you know!

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Those who can improvise, do; those who cannot, teach

April 19, 2018

This blog occasionally alludes to my fondness for improv comedy.

It’s mostly wrong to think of a classroom lecture as a “show,” and I mostly avoid pre-planned jokes. Every so often, though, a classroom discussion will take a spontaneous turn toward the delightfully bizarre.

Earlier this week, I was trying to explain how post-synaptic neurons “decide” whether to conduct action potentials based on the aggregated input of multiple pre-synaptic neurons, some excitatory and some inhibitory. In the heat of the moment, I attempted an unplanned analogy.

“It’s like, you’re trying to decide whether to go out with this guy,” I began. “One friend is whispering in your ear that you should stay away from him — and another friend is whispering in your other ear that you should totally date him!”

“But,” a student pressed, “Why are these ‘friends’ saying different things?”

“Well…” I paused. The analogy was quite possibly outliving its usefulness, but I forged on. “It’s because these friends heard different things from THEIR friends! Somebody told your first friend, ‘Hey, I saw that guy SMOKING CRACK the other day! He’s bad news!’ And somebody else told your second friend, ‘That guy is the best. I just saw him SAVE A PUPPY!'”

It wasn’t necessarily a moment of great teaching, or great comedy, or great anything. But, at a minimum, it was fun to see what my subconscious came up with when pressed for traits that make men desirable or undesirable as romantic prospects.

In invoking puppies, I reminded myself of another memorable moment, four years earlier. A student was trying to imagine a research study that wouldn’t get funded due to ethical concerns and/or bad publicity. “No government agency would want to be known as the office that supported a study on…” She sputtered for a second while her mental search engine churned. “…A study on, say, kicking puppies.”

A study on kicking puppies? Had I heard that right? Yes, she said. She seemed embarrassed, but I cracked up. Kicking puppies is not funny, but the idea of a committee debating the merits and risks of puppy-kicking research? Brilliant!

I congratulated the student on her vivid example, and then reluctantly returned to the day’s agenda.

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Don’t assume that Paul Ryan is lying about his family

April 12, 2018

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) has decided not to run for reelection. Some liberals are reacting very smugly. For example, Slate’s Will Saletan (whom I generally consider to be a reasonable journalist) notes that Ryan claims to want to spend more time with his children, then dismisses this as obviously fictitious:

It’s great that Ryan wants to be with his kids. But they’re teenagers now. Having chosen to spend 16 years in Congress while they were small, he asks us to believe that he has suddenly decided they need him in a way that requires him to retire. And he denies that this year’s inauspicious polls, which have driven dozens of other Republicans to leave Congress, played any role in his decision.

Saletan is not necessarily wrong, but his speculation is unseemly in multiple ways.

First of all, he isn’t paraphrasing Ryan very well. What Ryan actually said was, “My kids aren’t getting any younger. And if I stay, they’re only going to know me as a weekend dad. And that’s just something I consciously can’t do.” Does this mean his kids NEED him? Maybe. Or maybe HE just WANTS to know THEM better, before they’re gone for good. We can’t really tell.

Second, it certainly is possible that one or more of his children really DO need him. Some teens sail through the teenage years essentially independently of their parents; others require more support than ever as they navigate the minefields of hormones, acne, bullying, etc. We should not assume that Ryan’s kids don’t need or want much parental oversight simply because they’re teenagers.

Third, note the unnecessary sarcasm of “suddenly decided they need him in a way that requires him to retire.” Ryan did NOT say, “The situation is so dire that I have no choice but to retire.” Maybe he just weighed his options and picked the one that was best for his family. But what if one of his kids truly IS in a crisis situation (e.g., suicidal thoughts) and this WAS a sudden decision?

Fourth, “having chosen to spend 16 years in Congress while they were small” is too snide and judgmental for my taste. Maybe Ryan skypes with his kids daily, or exchanges lots of emails with them. Who knows what innumerable decisions he and his wife have made about child-rearing over the years, and how well they have lived up to their goals? Let’s not assume he’s been a bad dad just because he chose to be a Congressman.

So, sure, “I want to spend more time with my family” might be a cover for other motives. But to simply assume this, without allowing for the possibility that Ryan actually cares about his children, is cynical and mean.

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Great moments in peer observation, #13

January 11, 2018

Today I was watching a colleague teach in a laboratory room whose equipment includes three ancient but still-functional Singer Caramate Slide Projectors.   We use these relics of the 1960s (?), topped with old-fashioned carousels, for viewing slides of biological tissues.

As the lab progressed, it occurred to me that my colleague has a really nice voice: deep, calm, confident, and dryly humorous, with a hint of sentimentality.  It reminded me of a voice I had once heard on TV.

“Has anyone ever told you,” I asked during a break in the action, “that you sound like Don Draper?”

“No,” he said. Then, without missing a beat: “But just wait ’til you hear me talk about the carousels!” And, after a pause: “‘A place … where we know we are loved.'”

It was PERFECT.

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Previewing my first lab at my new job: an internal monologue

January 5, 2018

OK, in this part the students will add a drop of sheep blood to different solutions to see whether/how those solutions affect the shape of the red blood cells.

…SO HOW COME I CAN’T SEE ANY RED BLOOD CELLS?  WHERE ARE THE CELLS?

Is this microscope bad?

No, I can’t see any cells under this other microscope, either.

Has my microscope technique deteriorated so badly that I can no longer find blood cells in blood?

Let’s try a pre-prepared slide.

OK, I can see THESE cells just fine.  So what the hell is the problem with my newly made slides?  Is the saline diluting the cells too much, or something?  Let me try a drop of pure blood.

Good grief. I CANNOT FIND ANY FRIGGIN’ BLOOD CELLS IN A DROP OF PURE BLOOD.  I’m sorry, Everett — your new physiology instructor cannot, at a microscopic level, tell the difference between blood and water. That’s just too much to ask, apparently.

Nothing else to do but put the blood back in the fridge and ask for help on Monday….

Wait a minute. Here’s another bottle of sheep blood.  Why does it look so different from the one I was using — so much brighter?  And it hasn’t been opened yet….

Maybe I should try this bottle.

Hey, THIS blood has actual cells in it!  Lots of them!

And they shrink when put in hypertonic saline!

Maybe I am sort of qualified to teach this lab after all.

And now, for my next act, I will weigh this dialysis sac all by myself.

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Mom and Sam

December 31, 2017

Saying goodbye at the Albany airport on December 26th.

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Humor as a teaching tool

December 24, 2017

Back at in Rutland, Vermont this week for Christmas vacation, I had the pleasure of visiting one of my old Rutland High School teachers, Mr. Peterson.

My wife, with her usual incisiveness, asked me whether there were any aspects of my teaching style that I could attribute to Mr. Peterson’s influence.

It’s a hard question, since my teaching style is derived from that of many other instructors as well as my own personality and abilities. But my best guess is that Mr. Peterson, more than any other teacher I’ve had before or since, showed me how humor could be used to enhance students’ engagement and learning.

A lot of teachers have a funny side to them, and sprinkle witty asides into their lectures. Mr. Peterson did this. But his humor was often an integral part of the learning experience, rather than a mere tangent. In one session of his “Nature of Man” class, he played the role of a future archaeologist who exhumed the remains of the 20th-century USA (which he pronounced “OOH-sah”) and reached all sorts of wildly inaccurate conclusions about its culture. As I recall, his analysis concluded triumphantly that the religion of the USA people must have centered around the toilets found in every home. In the context of that class, it was a hilarious moment, but the hilarity underscored the key take-away of the lesson, i.e., that cultural artifacts may be interpreted in ways that are logical and internally consistent, yet very, very wrong.

Mr. Peterson’s exams often included multiple-choice questions in which one answer choice was a joke. The joke answers can be seen as tiny gifts to students — easy-to-eliminate choices that also provided a chuckle. But I suspect that Mr. Peterson had in mind a larger message too — something along the lines of, “This test is not a perfect assessment of your ability to apply this material in the real world, so don’t take it TOO seriously.” And that message is an important one for GPA-focused students (like, say, me 27 years ago). Grades are important, but they shouldn’t be considered the be-all and end-all.

To this day, thanks in part to Mr. Peterson’s example, I aim to use humor in a way that contributes to (rather than distracts from) my students’ learning.

Here are a couple of favorite examples from the fall, when I was student teaching at St. John Catholic School.

In 6th grade, we emphasized the differences between viruses and bacteria, which inspired this cartoon (included on a quiz).
viruses versus bacteria

For the 8th graders, my cell biology test included this question about the pioneering genetic work of Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel:

9. A legitimate concern about Gregor Mendel’s work was that
a. As a monk, he explained most of his findings by saying, “That’s just the way God wants it.”
b. He only studied pea plants, which no one cares about.
c. He studied traits that were controlled by many genes and thus could not be explained well with the methods available at the time.
d. His assistants’ pollination methods were sloppy and resulted in pollen being sprayed everywhere, with fertilization occurring willy-nilly.
e. His experimental data matched theoretical ratios even more closely than they should have.

(Correct answer: E.) I’d like to think that Mr. Peterson — and some of my old science teachers, such as Mr. Welch and Dr. D — would have appreciated that one.

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The present of the future

December 19, 2017

This is quite possibly the coolest gift I’ve ever received.

What you’re seeing and hearing in that video is a Fisher-Price Music Box-Record Player from the 1970s … playing a custom 3D-printed toy record of a song I wrote about the birth of my younger son.

My wife used a free software program to create a music-box-style arrangement of the song and create a SCAD file. Then she used a different free program, OpenSCAD, to create an STL file that could be 3D-printed.

And how did she know how to do all this? She followed the directions in a hobbyist’s blog post, of course.

Amazing!