The civil war continues

June 11, 2020

A few days before the murder of George Floyd sparked a new round of protests, our family happened to start watching the 1990 Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. We finished it last night.

I’m not going to write about the documentary as a whole, but I thought the segment below — from the last night of the documentary — was sadly relevant to the current upheaval.

Here is what historian Barbara Fields says starting at 3:40 (taken from a 1987 interview archived here: https://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_509-2r3nv99t98).

I think what we need to remember most of all is that the Civil War is not over until we today have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner … said once that history is not was, it’s is, and what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is, in the present as well as in the past…. The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes, in the lost future, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work. You can say, there’s no such thing as slavery anymore, we’re all citizens, but if we’re all citizens then we have a task to do to make sure that that too is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.


The whistling is all around you — if you listen

June 4, 2020

Here is a quick story to illustrate what awareness of racism looks like in a well-intentioned but insufficiently attentive white guy.

In 2014 or 2015, I read Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us And What We Can Do.” The title refers to a black graduate student (Brent Staples, now of the New York Times) who would whistle classical music to make his presence seem less threatening to white people on the streets of Chicago.

At the time, my reaction to this anecdote was:
* Yes, racism is real, important, and tragic.
* What an efficient, clever way of putting everyone at ease and avoiding conflict!

Note that my reaction did NOT include the following:
* What a shame that this innocent black guy had to take it upon himself to calm everyone else.
* Gee, I wonder whether such defense mechanisms are common among people of color?

Now fast-forward to the present. George Floyd has just become the latest unarmed, nonthreatening black man to be killed by out-of-control police officers. I come across the article It Does Not Matter if You are Good by R. Eric Thomas. And some more grim realities finally start to sink in:
* Whistling Vivaldi, in the metaphorical sense, is VERY common among people of color, and especially among black men.
* It’s deeply unfair that potential victims of racism should have to whistle as a means of protecting themselves.
* No matter how loud or how tuneful the whistling is, it doesn’t always save you.

This reminds me of another metaphor — one that reveals the seemingly cheerful opening of Steele’s title to maybe not be so cheerful after all.

“Whistling in the wind” is an old phrase referring to an action that is utterly ineffectual.

Enough whistling!



Blogging about mental health

April 30, 2020

Here is a small contribution from yours truly, posted this morning to the Dynamic Ecology blog run by my friend Jeremy Fox:
What if my hobby — what I do for “fun” — is being a workaholic?


From the team who brought you “SJZC”…

February 2, 2020

My middle son loves bears, and books, so my eldest son and I made him a book for his 3rd birthday.

















More year-end feel-goodness

December 27, 2019

Sam, our not-quite-3-year-old, has a curious habit when we are out walking or running. When we see a dog we don’t know, Sam will often say, “He’s a NICE dog,” with a clear emphasis on NICE. This opinion will be offered regardless of whether the dog is large or small, barking or silent, hyperkinetic or still.

It’s easy to laugh this off as childish naivete. All dogs can’t be nice, kid; it’s statistically impossible!

And yet … how nice to be so optimistic about a species as to see every single member as a potential friend.

I suppose I’ll allow it — though the owners who don’t use leashes are another matter altogether.

It seems that he relates well to dogs.


A good one on which to end the year?

December 24, 2019

Amidst her usual quips, Rev. Debra Jarvis (who officiated my second wedding) has some good advice (for herself and others) about coexisting with people we don’t like.

We walked in silence for a while until I said, “I’ve always believed that Jesus meant it when he said, ‘Love one another,’ but he never said we had to like one another. So now I have to figure out a way to love her in spite of not liking her.”

I already knew how to do this because I had done it many times with patients. If you can’t be compassionate, at least be curious because many times curiosity opens the door to compassion which can open the door to love.

So I sat next to her at dinner that night and forced myself to talk with her. It turned out that her husband of two years was supposed to walk the Camino with her but he pulled out. Then he said he would walk the last sixty miles with her but changed his mind about that too. Her voice got low and thick as she talked. For the first time I felt she was being real.

I felt no satisfaction in being right about her cheerful veneer. I felt compassion for her. When her eyes filled with tears, mine did too.

…Curiosity almost always opens the door to compassion which leads to love.

I love the simplicity and practicality of this advice. No need to launch directly from a standing start into heroic levels of empathy; just try a little curiosity and see where that takes you.


A&P rant, part 4: our exams express our values

November 28, 2019

It could be argued that I am making too big a deal of the comprehensive A&P exam offered by the Human Anatomy & Physiology Society (HAPS). After all, it is only one of many tests that our students could take, and no instructor is forced to use it.

These are totally valid points.  But, on the other hand, a test is a relatively pure and true readout of its creators’ values. What you leave out of the test, and what you put in, indicate a lot about your educational priorities.

My all-time favorite illustration of this is the Public Exam system devised by Ben Wiggins of the University of Washington. Ben wanted his exams to be better learning experiences for students — ones that clearly signaled his priorities, encouraged group discussion, minimized unnecessary stress, and offered challenging yet fair problems — so, over the course of several years, he devised a testing ritual that achieves all of these goals and more.

My own exams aren’t nearly as cool as Ben’s. They rarely rise beyond the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, for example. But I do my best to make them better than multiple-choice trivia-fests.  For example, I always include short-answer questions, despite the unpleasantness of grading such questions, because I want my students to be able to articulate their reasoning.  Interpretation of qualitative and quantitative figures is another theme. And all of my test questions are based on questions that we worked on in class or that were assigned as homework.  In the end, most of my students perceive my tests as fair reflections of the course themes, and as fair assessments of actual understanding rather than pure memorization.

So, back to the HAPS exam.  It is certainly a fair and valid assessment of what it purports to measure, thanks to the hard work of many contributors, and some instructors have found it very useful.  But based on my inspection of the 15 practice questions, I’d say that the way to do well on the exam is basically to memorize the facts outlined in the 73 pages of linked Learning Outcomes.

A test devoted almost entirely to factual details is relatively easy to create and relatively convenient to administer and score. Instructors can agree on what the questions should be, what the right answers are, etc.  But what are we sacrificing in exchange for this convenience and clarity?  Do we really mean to suggest — as this exam clearly does — that encyclopedic recall is the greatest virtue, and that everything else is secondary?



A&P rant, part 3: are these Learning Outcomes prescriptive?

November 26, 2019

The Human Anatomy & Physiology Society (HAPS), the subject of my previous two posts, has an email listserv to which I posted links to those first two posts. There have been a few responses so far — all informative and civil, and some arguing that (A) some (many?) HAPS members already believe in and have implemented the various things I’m recommending, and/or that (B) the HAPS Learning Outcomes are not necessarily intended to be prescriptive, i.e., they aren’t telling people how to teach. In that context, I posted the following follow-up message to the listserv this evening….

* * * * * *

Thanks, everybody, for the additional comments! I’m delighted that my blowhardiness has not stopped people from gently providing me/us with additional context.

One clarification I want to make is that I do understand that lots of you, as individuals and/or as departments, have, like Meg, taken it upon yourselves to do the integration, skill-building, etc. that I am advocating. You don’t need me to lecture you about this stuff, do you? Still, I am very concerned about the implicit messages that are conveyed by the combination of the LOs and the HAPS exam.

Ric gave us some valuable history about how and why the LOs came to be. He says that as far as he knows, they were not intended to be prescriptive, and I have no reason to doubt him! BUT… If HAPS offers a single type of A&P exam, and charges money to use it, and does not allow instructors to cannibalize its parts or otherwise alter it, and commissions independent analysts to write white papers on the validity of said exam, and touts the various metrics indicating that the exam has a high level of validity… In short, when HAPS puts a lot of resources into one particular assessment, and encourages people to use that assessment, and when that assessment is based directly on a specific set of LOs…. Well, that IS a sort of prescription, whether people can admit it or not. And, as my blog posts explain, I don’t love the prescription that is implied.

To be clear, no HAPS member has ever directly told me “you’re doing it wrong!” or otherwise indicated that there is only one right way of doing things. You all are too smart, too sophisticated, too nice to make that blunder. But the way that the LOs are linked to the highly touted HAPS exam is a clear (if implicit) endorsement of approaches that will lead to success on that exam. And, by extension, arguably an indication of less interest in the types of learning that cannot be measured by that exam.


* * * * * *

[Update, Nov. 28: this series continues (and concludes?) with Part 4.]


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.]