Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category


Intolerance all around

June 11, 2017

On Facebook, I recently made a plea to keep political dialogue respectful. It did not go well.


The guy on whose timeline this exchange occurred then unfriended me. I’m saddened to think that the unfriending was triggered by my rather mild defense of nonviolent speech.

And while this is just one cherry-picked example, higher-profile examples of liberal intolerance are being reported too. Fareed Zakaria noted protests of commencement speeches by Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos. Frank Bruni described students’ hostility toward apparently-not-liberal-enough faculty at Evergreen and Yale. And then there was the Kathy Griffin debacle, of course.

I’m no fan of either Pence or DeVos, but do we really need to voice our dissatisfaction by disrupting every public appearance they ever make? Call their offices; write letters; ask them tough questions when they appear at policy forums (rather than ceremonial events). There is a time and a place for everything.

Well, almost everything. Speech that promotes violence, whether technically protected by the Bill of Rights or not (it varies, depending on the context), is virtually never in good taste and is virtually never necessary, no matter who is speaking about whom.

Liberal friends reading this may retort, “But conservatives’ intolerance is worse!” Yes — but “they’re doing it too!” is a lousy defense of childhood behavior, and an even poorer defense of childish behavior by adults.


Going back to school — online — at age 43

June 6, 2017

Interest in my previous posts about the challenges of finding a stable college teaching job (post 1, post 2, post 3) has prompted me to write one more – about my experience returning to school to get certified to teach high school biology – in case this information is useful too. Below is an interview that I conducted with myself.

Wait a sec – I’m interviewing myself?

Yeah. Just go with it, OK?

Uh, OK. So I – er, you – already have a Ph.D. in biology. Why did you go back for a master’s degree?

As someone who is confined to the Seattle area for family reasons, and who had been on the job market for a few years, I was worried that I might never get a stable, full-time college teaching job. And while some people like the flexibility of teaching part-time, I decided that this wasn’t for me. Since high schoolers aren’t all that different from undergraduates, teaching high school biology became my backup plan.

One can teach at a private high school without a formal certification, but I decided to get certified for two reasons. First, I wanted to be eligible for both public-school and private-school jobs. Second, as someone with very little previous K-12 teaching experience, I needed something to convince prospective employers that high school was not a consolation prize for me, but a venue I embraced and was ready for. (As an illustration of the need for this, I was a finalist for a position at a private school in the spring of 2016, but I lost out to someone with high school experience.)

You enrolled at Western Governors University (WGU), an online school. Why?

I found their billboards really compelling! I’m mostly kidding. Like other online schools, WGU stresses its convenience, which had obvious appeal. I wanted to be able to start at any time and go at my own pace, rather than waiting for the start of the next annual cycle of application, admission, and enrollment. Moreover, I had previously applied for a job at WGU, and from the job interviews, I got the sense that the people there were dedicated, competent, and experienced.

WGU billboard
[image taken from]

What specific program did you enter?

I am a graduate student in the WGU Teachers College, pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Science Education.

Has the online program met your needs and expectations?

Yeah, mostly. In particular, the start-when-you-want and go-at-your-own-speed aspects have been very nice. Immediately after finishing my 2016 summer teaching at UW-Bothell, I started two online courses that WGU said I needed as prerequisites (geology and physics, neither of which I took as an undergrad). I finished those during the fall while continuing to teach part-time at UW-Bothell, then started the WGU program on December 1st as I transitioned into a self-imposed paternity leave from my college teaching. I sped through the regular courses over the winter and did my Pre-Clinical Experience (PCE, also known as Classroom Observation) at Glacier Peak High School (Snohomish, WA) in March. I will do my Demonstration Teaching (i.e., student teaching) this coming fall.

Did you take those prerequisites through WGU as well?

No, WGU didn’t offer these courses; it recommended various other options from which I chose. I took GEOL 103 (Life of the Past) through the Department of Independent Study at Brigham Young, and PHY250 (General Physics I) through

Have you liked being an online student?

As I said earlier, the much-touted convenience was wonderful, as expected. I was even able to take tests at odd hours, like 8pm on a Saturday night. An additional perk – one that I had not anticipated – was that work was graded quickly and thoroughly. The multiple-choice tests were graded by computer, of course, but my essays were always returned within about two days and were always graded (by humans) according to a detailed rubric (provided in advance). I was impressed with the promptness and consistency.

Since I’m used to traditional courses where students interact with each other and the instructor very closely, it was weird (not always in a bad way) to complete the courses essentially by myself. WGU’s course mentors are happy to help you, but if you don’t need their help, they fade into the background. And while WGU tries to promote online interactions among its students, and some students take advantage of this, I didn’t.

Were the online courses rigorous?

They were OK. The online exam proctoring seemed thorough, and essays were checked for plagiarism with TurnItIn, so people do have to earn their degree – they can’t just cheat their way through. At the same time, the tests were all multiple-choice and often focused more on educational jargon than true in-depth understanding. Just as online schools will always struggle to create a community out of students who don’t occupy the same physical space, they will always struggle to foster the intellectual give-and-take that, in my view, is the hallmark of truly profound educational experiences.

I’m good at memorizing facts and taking multiple-choice tests, plus I have a richer science background than most students, so I was able to move through the curriculum quickly. But I did not do a lot of really deep thinking about educational issues. (For example, at no point was I required to examine primary research data underlying textbooks’ recommendations on how to teach effectively.) This was partly my own fault; the mentors were standing by, happy to discuss things with me, so I could have learned a lot more from them than I did.

At the same time, the curriculum is basically set up as: here is an educational challenge, and here is how we meet that challenge. For example, if a student has attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), the “solution” (I’m oversimplifying) is to set up an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that ensures that the student has an extra-quiet environment for test-taking, et cetera. Which is all fine and good, but doesn’t necessarily lend itself to rich, probing discussions. (“So, what do you think would happen if this student DIDN’T have an IEP?”) I wish that more of the curriculum were framed a bit more theatrically, e.g., as a set of educational goals that are somewhat in competition with each other (depth versus breadth being a classic example), which might then spark discussions of how to prioritize these goals and which goals have more research support behind them and so forth.

My Student Mentor, whom I trust, says I’ll likely get my fill of challenging discussions during my upcoming Demonstration Teaching.

Do you think there’s a stigma attached to being a student of an online university?

In terms of public perceptions of legitimacy, I think online universities are currently about where online dating was 15 years ago.

The school where I had my Pre-Clinical Experience does not normally take students from online programs; I think an exception was made for me because a teacher and the principal went to bat for me. But doing my Demonstration Teaching there was out of the question, apparently.

As I thought ahead to finding a high school job, I was assuming-slash-hoping that my credentials as a professional biologist would help me land a good position, irrespective of people’s perceptions of WGU or online schools in general.

You just received and accepted a tenure-track job offer at a community college. Congratulations!

Thanks, self! I couldn’t have done it without you.

Given this development, do you now regret going through the high school teaching preparation program?

No, I don’t. First, as I’ve written before, executing this alternative plan allowed me to avoid an air of desperation as I continued applying for college jobs. Second, I am learning and am being reminded of teaching strategies that will come in handy in the future, regardless of the seniority of my students. (Maybe that should be another post?) Third, going through K-12 teacher training will help me in K-12 outreach efforts if I stay involved in those. Fourth, this training is also relevant to my ongoing educational research (e.g., on the educational value of content-rich music).

Don’t write a whole separate post about what you’re learning about teaching, just give us a few quick highlights.

All right. My student teaching in the fall will be a rare opportunity to receive regular, detailed feedback from a veteran teacher, which will be quite valuable in and of itself. But back in the book-learnin’ part of the curriculum, for example, there was a section about graphic organizers that I found really helpful. In brief, when writing out notes with students, we shouldn’t necessarily write them as a series of bullet points, but could instead arrange them into a Venn diagram, T-chart, KWL chart, or concept map so as to show the bullets’ relationships with each other. Also, there was a fair bit of talk about the “5E” model of instruction, i.e., Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate (or Extend), and Evaluate. This reminded me that I often skimp on the Engage phase. I can and should do a better job of kicking off new units with compelling questions or interesting observations that get students excited to learn more.

graphic organizers
[image from P.R. Burden & D.M. Byrd (2013), Methods for effective teaching: meeting the needs of all students]

During my PCE I was able to observe some highly successful teachers, one of whom gives her students some really neat ways of graphically organizing information. Her students are always making little lift-the-flap booklets and things from which they can study. Once you get past the superficial resemblance to 2nd-grade art projects, this approach is very useful and fun! In addition, this teacher always has multiple projects going in parallel so that if a student finishes one assignment, he/she always has something else to do. I tend to arrange assignments in series rather than in parallel, but her approach is better, and I hope to emulate it.

My PCE also gave me the chance to observe classroom management issues, which are relevant to college too. If a student comes to my class and spends the whole period on his phone, I used to think, “Well, that’s his choice.” But now I see more clearly that such behavior can be contagious, and that more policing may be needed to prevent entire sections of the room from becoming disengaged.

Any final comments on the online student experience?

If you do a class project on empirically testing the best way to make cocoa, you should think twice about actually tasting the experimental samples, because that might violate a school policy forbidding unauthorized experimentation on vertebrate animals.



cocoa tasting FAIL


Job saga update: a happy ending

May 24, 2017

Having previously spread my sad job-search tale across the Internet, it seems appropriate to update that tale with a happy ending.


Special announcement: an online conference devoted entirely to educational songs!

May 1, 2017

Here is something I’ve been working on behind the scenes for a while:

VOICES: Virtual Ongoing Interdisciplinary Conferences on Educating with Song

I’ve made a few quick comments about this at my other (equally neglected) blog … but I mostly want you to go to the VOICES website and explore that. And ask me questions, if you have them!



If Trump were my student…

February 7, 2017

I feel ridiculous for continuing to write about Donald Trump on this blog. It’s not meant to be a political blog, and I’m not an especially political person. What I am, professionally, is an educator.  So let’s talk about what (if anything) is appropriate for educators to say publicly about Donald Trump.

My general stance — which not everyone will agree with — is that we should address Trump essentially as if he were one of our students. We should vigorously oppose any violations of our core principles, but, in doing so, we should exhibit the calmness and fairness that our students sometimes lack.

I’m thinking, for example, about the difference between saying (1) “Little Donnie’s actions on the playground last Tuesday constitute bullying because…” and saying (2) “Little Donnie is a bully!”  Version 1 — the “safe” version — simply identifies a specific instance of bullying and calls it out as unacceptable.  Version 2 is justifiable, I claim, only if one has overwhelming evidence that bullying is a fundamental, recurring theme of Little Donnie’s behavior and if one is prepared to present that evidence in a comprehensive, impartial manner.  Otherwise, Version 2 seems a lot like name-calling, which itself is a form of bullying.

Some people will find this distinction uninteresting, or will find my perspective too deferential. “Trump doesn’t respect other people, so why should I respect him?” they may ask.

My response would be that, as educators, we should not be aping our students’ questionable behaviors; rather, we should be striving to represent the highest ideals of our profession.  We must oppose sexism, racism, and all forms of hatred, but we must also be careful not to prematurely label people as worthless or irredeemable.

I am saying all of this partly to encourage others to practice greater civility in political discussions, but partly to remind myself not to give in to my own darker instincts.

Consider, for example, the following tweet:

Any negative polls are fake news, just like CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election.

My initial reaction to this was, uh, extremely unprofessional.  But what IS the behavior that I want to model for my students, their parents, and my colleagues?  Let me try again.

In academia, Mr. Trump, we insist that our students support their claims with carefully sourced, curated evidence. In contrast, in this tweet, you are rejecting the principle of evidence-based discourse.  You are not simply dismissing a particular poll as flawed (which it could be); you are saying that ANY poll that could ever exist that disagrees with you is wrong, period. You are saying, trust me and me alone; no rival source need be considered.

Mr. Trump, this is unacceptable hubris. Such unsubstantiated bluster would never earn my students a passing grade; likewise, it will never earn you any credit with me.   It’s time to start doing your homework.



2016, agGREGated: Trump, job apps, pregnancy

January 9, 2017

If you tried to deduce what last year was like for me based on my irregular scattershot posts during the year, you probably wouldn’t do very well. So, for a less cryptic view of my 2016, read on. In brief, there were three main themes.


No surprise here, right? Donald Trump was such an unbelievable character that even I, with my modest interest in politics, felt compelled to read and (eventually) write about him throughout the year, for better or worse.

Among the many, many Trump stories that I saw, my favorite was a post-election piece by Seth Stevenson of Slate.

There was something else. An uncomfortable suspicion taking hold in me. I became convinced we [journalists] weren’t at these [Trump] rallies to observe. We were there to be observed….

Perhaps I’d been naive, but it only now dawned on me, in the final week of the campaign, to my great horror, that the real reason they put us [journalists] in the pen was so they could turn us into props. We were a vital element in Trump’s performance. He never once failed to invite his crowds to heckle us. He was placing us on display like captured animals.

And it worked. The press pack, collectively, looked nothing like the crowds at Trump events—particularly in more rural towns. We’d file into these places with our sleek luggage and our expensive tech gear and our better haircuts. We were far more diverse than the people in the stands. When the crowds lustily booed us, we’d sit there impassive and stone-faced, and this only further served to convince the rallygoers that we were snobby, superior pricks. The pen was an amazingly efficient means of othering us.

Behold, Trump said to his fans, I’ve rounded up a passel of those elites you detest. And I’ve caged them for you! Allow me to belittle them for your delight. Here, now you take a turn—go ahead, have at it! Do it again, don’t be shy! Under President Trump, the other elites will be in cages, too. We’ll lock them up, just like the chant goes. Just like you wanted. You’ll be their captors.

As one of the journalism-valuing, anti-bullying “elites” against whom Trump raged, I struggled mightily to comprehend his candidacy, much less respond to it. But my open letter to my students was a useful contribution to the conversation, I think.


2016 was also a really hard year in terms of job-searching. My tale of one of my near-misses was published on a friend’s academic blog last month.

I felt unstoppable. Fourteen years after finishing my Ph.D., I would finally be settling into a stable position that I really wanted and totally deserved.

And then I got a call from my department chair. “I’m afraid I have bad news,” he began. I hadn’t gotten the job -– either job. I was a well-liked, already-successful internal candidate, and I couldn’t even place in the top two.

Up to now, I’ve been hesitant to air such laments publicly. (I wrote the above post only after a less personal version [eventually revised and posted here] was declined by my friend.) I guess I’ve been worried about being perceived by prospective employers as a whiner or a loser. But it’s time to stop worrying. If you pre-judge me as unworthy simply because I think there’s value in acknowledging and discussing one’s failures, well, that’s your prerogative — and your loss.


On to happier stuff! My wife has blogged about this (here, here, and here); the bottom line is that we’re expecting a baby boy on or around February 5th.

For me, the best part was after the MRI … when the radiology technician showed me some of the images and even a video…. I was astounded to see my favorite little alien moving around in there — it looked like he was having quite the dance party! It put a huge smile on my face the rest of the day to have a mental image of what was going on down below every time my stomach turns and tickles.

2017 should be really, really interesting.

* * * * * *


slide from job talk



Recent videos

December 5, 2016

As long as I’m using this blog to support family causes such as my parents’ anti-fluoridation work, I should also throw in a plug for my sister’s company’s new video, which nicely showcases their customizable dresses and headbands for girls 3-7 and their dolls. Great fun for those who enjoy spontaneous, open-ended accessorizing!

Other recent videos of possible interest: my song Cranial Nerve Functions, performed by Do Peterson; my song Kidney Wonderland, performed by me at the UW Nephrology holiday party.


I’m not an ecologist, but sometimes I play one on the Internet

December 2, 2016

This fall, I’ve been teaching introductory ecology & evolution labs for BBio 180 at UW-Bothell. It had been quite a while since I had worked directly with eco-evo material, so it was interesting to look at it with fresh eyes, sort of as my students were doing.

As the quarter progressed, I got the urge to contribute something to the excellent Dynamic Ecology blog run by bona fide ecologists, including my friend Jeremy Fox. So I pitched Jeremy a post on teaching with imperfect analogies, featuring eco-evo examples, which he liked and published.

With eco-evo analogies on my brain, I then started applying them to the realm of academic job searches, which led me to write another piece, which is posted below.

Ecology analogies for the academic job market

Dear Tenured People:

The academic job market continues to suck. Most of your students will be unable to land stable faculty jobs. Please discuss this fact, repeatedly, with your students and trainees. Explicitly acknowledging the extreme difficulty of getting a prized professorship is a vaccine against complacency and self-delusion, both in them and in you, the mentors who send them forth into the world. Since these discussions can be boring and/or dreary, you might consider enlivening them with the analogies below.


Aging Adjunct

* * * * * * *

Analogy #1: Net reproductive rate R0

I began a recent UW-BERG seminar on job searches with an odd “hook”: a worksheet on net reproductive rate, R0, defined as the average number of female offspring produced by each female parent. (Females are the focus here because males are usually not limiting to reproduction.)

From the definition of R0, it follows that, in the absence of other changes (e.g., in lifespan), the population declines if R0 is less than 1, holds steady if R0 equals 1, and grows if R0 is greater than 1.

We can then move, as the worksheet does, to the concept of the academic reproductive rate as defined by Larson et al. (2014) and Gaffarzadegan et al. (2015). The academic R0 can be considered to be the average number of PhD students graduated by a tenure-track faculty member.

Gaffarzadegan et al. have a nice graph showing that, since 1980, the number of biology PhDs has increased dramatically while the number of tenure-track faculty positions has barely changed, causing the biologist R0 to rise from 2.4 (1980-90) to 6.3 (2010-2015).

With this additional information, discussions of academic job prospects can proceed in any of several directions. At my seminar, for example, I asked attendees to use the R0 model to make predictions about the quantity and experience of applicants for teaching-centric faculty positions. We then compared the predictions to actual job search data.

For me, those data are a mixed bag. The number of applicants per position was lower than I would have guessed. However, it is sobering that even the ad-hoc temporary openings attracted many experienced candidates.

Anyway, I find the R0 analogy useful in several ways.

(A) The R0 analogy underscores that mentors’ trainees are, in some sense, their “children,” i.e., people for whom they bear some responsibility. And that professors, departments, universities, and countries should not take on more children than they can reasonably expect to support.

(B) The rise of the biologist R0 so far above 1 is a sign that our entire training system may be fundamentally unsustainable, as argued by the scientific “dream team” of Alberts et al. (2014).

(C) The focus on a single easy-to-grasp number, R0, helps us contemplate the problems underlying it, as well as possible solutions. For instance, I said “MAY be fundamentally unsustainable” above because a high R0 would be acceptable if most PhDs used their academic training as an intentional springboard to wonderful non-academic careers. However, since most biologists would prefer to stay in academia (Sauermann & Roach 2012), a high R0 is a symptom of a serious problem. Partial solutions, then, might include training fewer PhDs and/or convincing more of us to give more serious consideration to non-academic options before we put all of our eggs in one basket.

And speaking of nascent forms of life….

Analogy #2: The soil seed bank

While I liked the R0 analogy enough to feature it in my UW-BERG seminar, I almost used an alternative analogy suggested by my colleague Cynthia Chang.

The basic idea of the soil seed bank is that soil contains deposits of seeds from many different species, any of which could potentially germinate, but few of which actually do.

So what are the implications of considering newly minted PhDs as “seeds” with potential to “germinate” into full-fledged faculty members?

Well, to start with, most seeds will not ever germinate, an obvious point also illustrated by the R0 analogy. But the soil seed bank analogy can be extended to make several related points.

(A) Germination may occur after a prolonged lag, but most seeds do lose their viability over time. People may hang on as postdocs and as adjunct faculty for quite a while, but after so many years, the odds of making the transition to full-time permanent faculty are quite low. Still, the lack of a firm “expiration date” makes it hard to know when to give up.

(B) Different conditions favor different seeds. Each species of seed has its own optimal germination conditions in terms of moisture, temperature, sunlight, etc. Which seeds actually germinate at a given time depends on local conditions at that time. Similarly, within a diverse crop of youngish biology PhDs, those whose strengths match the current needs of specific departments will be most likely to lay down roots.

(C) Seeds’ success or failure depends strongly on luck. A corollary to (B) is that, as conditions change from year to year, the species that sprout will change as well. If a fire happens to sweep through a given region, fire-resistant seeds will subsequently be favored. If instead the region happens to be hit with, say, a flood, different seeds will instead win the germination sweepstakes. The job-search parallels should be clear: whether a given candidate ultimately blossoms depends not only on their personal robustness, but whether they happen to enter the job market at a time and place that happens to favor their particular strengths.

This last point is often hard for hard-luck applicants to swallow. Words to the effect of “It’s not about you, it’s just an issue of fit,” while well-intended and true, are not necessarily comforting. Having had the persistence to come this far, we figure that if we can just hang in there, we will eventually have our day in the sun.

Indeed, some of us will ultimately be great oaks or sequoias, impressive and enduring, the giants of our fields.

For now, though, we are but tiny vessels of unrealized potential and uncertain fate, weathering harsh environments, hoping against hope for a favorable wind and a soft landing.


An open letter to my students (revised)

November 9, 2016

Dear students:

As I write this, it appears that the United States has elected Donald Trump as its next president. Many of you undoubtedly have strong feelings about this outcome. But are those feelings relevant to our study of biology? Yes, they are. Therefore let me make the following two points.

First, this election did an amazingly good job of segregating us into rival camps of people who cannot even begin to imagine how the other side feels. It is easy to dismiss people for supporting a candidate who seems completely abhorrent. Yet all of us — Trump-haters and Clinton-haters alike — must continue to work together in lecture and in lab. It won’t be easy, but we must do our very best.

Second, I want to acknowledge that the rhetoric of this campaign may have felt threatening to some of you, especially those who have experienced discrimination or harassment in the past. You may be worried about your future under a president whose attitude toward traditionally marginalized groups has seemed at best insensitive and at worst downright hostile.

I fervently hope that any such worries will not derail your studies here at UW-Bothell. Please be assured that you are welcome here -– all of you. We, the faculty and staff who teach you and support you, want you to succeed -– all of you. Your lives matter to us. Your futures matter to us.

One of the great paradoxes of education is that people learn the most in circumstances when they are uprooted, made to feel uncomfortable, challenged with seemingly impossible tasks. Thus, we cannot protect you from all discomfort. A university is not simply a gigantic “safe space” for self-affirmation. But it IS a space where you have mentors, friends, and allies to help you get focused, get tough, and get things done. So: please, please, please continue to ask for help when you need it. We want to help, and we WILL help -– no matter who’s in the White House.

I’ll see you in class.

–Dr. Crowther

[Update: Danny Caballero, a physics professor at Michigan State University, has written a good letter in a somewhat similar spirit.]


Greg’s crackpot theories, #3: why introverts love teaching

October 14, 2016

Yesterday at an interview I found myself trying to articulate why I find teaching so fulfilling.  Here is an expansion of what I said there.

  1. I am an introvert who is not especially comfortable at parties and dislikes small talk (i.e., conversations where the main goal is simply to be friendly rather than to discuss anything in particular).
  2. Nevertheless, to be happy, I need to connect with people beyond my family. In fact, I crave such interactions.
  3. Therefore, teaching is fulfilling in part because it is a form of social interaction with rules that are helpful to introverts.  There is no awkward casting about for something to talk about for a couple of minutes; an agenda of substantive topics provides fodder for months of ongoing, “meaty” discussions.  Likewise, there is less of a need to figure out who wants to interact with whom; the circle is pre-defined to include everyone in the course.  Finally, as the designated expert in the room, I have the privilege of offering my perspective without needing to fight for attention.  And as the moderator of the conversation, I can help other introverts find their voice as well.

[Update, Oct. 21: distinguished bio-blogger and fellow introvert Stephen Heard offers related thoughts.]