Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category


A&P rant, part 2: solutions!

November 24, 2019

One reaction to my previous post might be, “OK, Dr. Crowther, you’ve explained what you’re against, but what are you FOR? Do you just want anatomy & physiology courses to be easier?”

Not exactly. I have three broad recommendations.

(1) Make the workload of each course consistent with its number of credits. This is, fundamentally, an issue of equitable access and fairness. If you teach a 5-credit course in such a way that students’ weekly workload is 40-plus hours, that effectively excludes people with complicated lives — for example, those who have to do a lot of childcare, who have to work lots of hours of paid employment, or who have a disability that slows them down. If you really want your students to do 10 credits’ worth of work, consider options like breaking your course into two 5-credit courses.

(2) Approach the material as elaborations of and variations on a small number of unifying core concepts. Students’ only real hope of retaining anything “permanently” is to revisit that thing repeatedly.  So … let’s help them repeatedly revisit the most important things — the “big ideas” or “core concepts.”  For physiology, at least, there is plenty of support for this — a recent book by Joel Michael et al. has defined the core concepts of physiology, and a small organization (the Physiology Majors Interest Group, or P-MIG) is exploring how our teaching can be re-centered around the core concepts.

(3) Focus on competencies (skills) as well as content (facts). It is telling that both Vision & Change (for teaching college biology) and the Next Generation Science Standards (for teaching K-12 science) not only outline what information should be covered, but also define what students should be able to do with that information. Thus, alongside five core concepts, Vision & Change lists six competencies: the ability to apply the process of science, the ability to use quantitative reasoning, the ability to use modeling and simulation, the ability to tap into the interdisciplinary nature of science, the ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines, and the ability to understand relationships between science and society. Similarly, the NGSS include eight science and engineering practices alongside their disciplinary core ideas. We must give students the opportunity to practice these skills, even if less content gets covered as a result.

[Update, Nov. 26: why yes, this series now has a third part!]


Above: four of the core concepts of anatomy & physiology, as illustrated in Human Anatomy & Physiology by Erin Amerman (2016).


My shadow A&P exam

November 23, 2019

A few years ago, the Shadow CV was a hot topic in academia.  The basic idea was that regular CVs, like resumes, often present an illusion of effortless brilliance or uninterrupted success.  To offer more realistic perspectives, professors started posting “shadow CVs” in which they detailed their most crushing setbacks: rejected grant proposals, never-cited papers, dismal student evaluations, expulsions from professional societies, etc.  Scores and scores of newly minted and future faculty were presumably comforted and reassured by these frank admissions of imperfection.

Today I want to make a somewhat similar admission.

I currently teach Anatomy & Physiology (A&P) to college sophomores, most of whom hope to become nurses someday.  The teaching of preclinical A&P throughout North America is heavily influenced by the Human Anatomy & Physiology Society (HAPS), which publishes a consensus list of learning outcomes (LOs) and a comprehensive exam aligned to these LOs.  The exam is not publicly available, but a list of 15 similar sample questions is.

I recently attempted those 15 questions. I only got 10 right!

Some colleagues might react to this by asking whether I’m qualified to teach this material at the college level. It’s a valid question, but the answer is: yes, I am.  And perhaps you are as well, dear reader, even if you haven’t memorized all of the details that populate modern A&P textbooks.

Let me illustrate with an example about muscles, the tissue I studied during my now-distant Ph.D. research.

The HAPS LOs include 35 devoted to the Muscular System. One of the 35 is as follows: “Describe the arrangement and composition of the following components of a sarcomere: A-band, I-band, H-zone, Z-disc (line), and M-line.”

For those who are not intimately familiar with sarcomere anatomy, here is a figure from a representative textbook (Martini et al., Human Anatomy, 2018).

Chew on that for a moment. This intricate multi-paneled figure represents something like one thirty-fifth of what undergraduate students should supposedly know about muscles, in a course where muscles constitute one out of twenty or so modules.

Could I be misinterpreting the LOs?  Are students really meant to memorize information to that level of detail?  Well, here is the sample exam question:

5. Which of the following occurs during concentric isotonic contraction of skeletal muscle?
A. A-bands shorten
B. I-bands shorten
C. Sarcomeres lengthen
D. Thick (myosin) myofilaments lengthen
E. Thin (actin) myofilaments shorten

For those playing along, the correct answer is B. So yes, keeping one’s A-bands and I-bands straight has been judged important, even though the names do not indicate practical information like protein names, but instead reflect varied responses (Anisotropism and Isotropism, respectively) to an arcane technique (polarized light microscopy) that none of us ever uses.

Being a muscle guy, I got this one right.  But if a student of mine can’t quite remember which band corresponds to myosin and which band corresponds to actin in the absence of myosin – and, likewise, struggles to recall which of the six extraocular muscles is innervated by cranial nerve IV (one twelfth of one of the 103 LOs for Module H: The Nervous System), and so on – well, I can certainly relate.  I got the cranial nerve question wrong too.

To be clear, HAPS is a great organization, full of smart and friendly people who work hard to support each other. Its LOs and exam have been painstakingly created and revised by unpaid volunteers who simply want to help their fellow instructors.  But when I look at the LOs and the sample questions, I see an implicit message that undergraduates should be assessed primarily on their ability to memorize literally thousands of facts.

I claim that this is not an ideal way of deciding who gets to advance to nursing school and who doesn’t.

And if such mind-boggling feats of memorization are neither necessary nor sufficient for our students, maybe it’s OK for us faculty to also be “deficient” in this way.

[Update, Nov. 24: I have now written a follow-up post.]


The mentor gratitude project

August 28, 2019

In a recent post, I expressed regret at having failed to directly and fully thank my primary Ph.D. adviser while he was alive.

This regret has been useful in motivating me to identify and (when possible) thank others who have been unusually helpful and influential in my professional development. I’ve previously discussed a couple of them on this blog: George Kosaly (a former research collaborator) and John Peterson (a high school social studies teacher). Here’s the rest of my (imperfect, incomplete) list:

  • Pete Farwell. My college running coach, who was great running-wise but also encouraged my creative endeavors (poems and songs) for team gatherings.
  • Dan Lynch. My undergraduate research mentor, who demystified the enterprise of laboratory research for me.
  • Mary Lidstrom and Wes Van Voorhis. My postdoctoral research supervisors. Very different styles, but both excellent scientists who also found ways to support my interest in teaching.
  • Doug Meyer. My junior high school vocal music teacher, who gave me an excellent grounding in ear training and music theory.
  • Do Peterson. A friend who, in addition to introducing me to my now-wife, has been a musical mentor to me ever since we recorded Take Me to the Liver in 1996.
  • My parents. My dad especially for informing my development as a writer, and my mom especially for being my first teacher role model.


June 5, 2019

So, on the one hand, life is great. My wife is great… The kids are great… I have a great job that allows me to pursue my passion of forever reinventing the wheel (where the wheel, in this case, is the undergraduate anatomy & physiology curriculum).

On the other hand, work has been all-consuming. I’ve been sleeping way too little and not exercising at all.

This morning, while running to catch the bus, I tripped and fell, scraping my left elbow and right knee, and ripping a giant hole in my pants.

Running used to be something that I did a lot of on a daily basis for fitness and for pleasure. Now, if I break into a run for 50 yards, I injure myself and destroy my clothing.

I’ve got to get back on track.


A moment of pure joy

April 24, 2019

In recent years I’ve become less and less sure of how I want to use this blog. In part, I’ve become a bit more humble about the value of my opinions. For example, I have lots of things to say about Trump, but I don’t have any relevant expertise (besides a Ph.D., which reflects training in BS detection…), and my previous political posts have changed approximately zero minds, so what’s the point?  In addition, I’ve become increasingly cautious about sharing stories that are not entirely my own. My 12-year-old son may deserve more anonymity than I have given him up to this point, for example.

So my main options going forward are what? Endless navel-gazing, or complete silence? I’m not sure. For now, I thought I would share a moment that continues to make me smile a full day after it happened.

I’ve been getting a bit of media attention lately regarding my use of music to teach biology. Yesterday it was KOMO-4’s turn to visit my classes and interview me. I wanted to give them a good show, so I wrote a new version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” about the cross-bridges between actin and myosin inside muscle cells:


It’s a vocally demanding song, and not one especially suited to my plain, nasal voice, so I was nervous about singing it. As I began, I noticed that my nervousness had moved up my vocal range by at least a whole step; the low notes now felt REALLY low, and were hard to deliver with any volume.

The silver lining, though, was that the high notes were now easier to reach. As I neared the end of the song, I wondered whether I should abandon my original play-it-safe ending and go for the high note — the G above middle C that Barry Manilow hits in his version. Now almost delirious with adrenaline, I decided to go for it. Here is what happened next (via low-quality audio; the critical note comes about 33 seconds in):


So, yes, I hit the note, and the students clapped, and I felt GREAT.

It was partly an ego thing, of course: I had done something that was sort of impressive, and I received recognition for that. But it felt like something more than a personal triumph. It felt like a moment of artistic beauty — created by me, yes, but also Paul Simon, who wrote a beautiful song, and Art Garfunkel, who sang it so well, and Barry Manilow, who provided the dramatic ending, and Ameritz Karaoke, who created a superb backing track, and KOMO-4, whose interest prompted me to do this song, and Andrea Brown, who wrote the Everett Herald article that got KOMO-4 interested, and Jenny Marin, who wrote the EvCC press release that got Andrea Brown interested, and my coauthors Sarah Ward, Becca Price, and Katie Davis, who helped me write the journal article that led to the press release … and my students, whose interest made the performance meaningful.

It was beautiful, and I got to be a part of it, and that was totally exhilarating!

When can I do something like that again?


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.


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.'”



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.


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.


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.


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.