Monday, August 1, 2016

A Good Academic Life: A Manifesto

I believe that teaching and research are synergistic activities. Excellence in one does not come at the cost of another, it improves it. Any institution short changing one is suffering a loss of intellectual capital.

I believe that we do not have the right tools to quantitatively measure the impact of an academic. This does not mean that we shouldn’t try, but it does mean that we should take our tools less seriously.

I believe that excellence in the classroom cannot be scripted.

I believe that academic freedom means the ability to follow the path of knowledge for its own sake. We do not yet know which bits of fundamental knowledge will yield applied advances. I believe in useless knowledge.

I believe that the goals of being a good academic and being a good scientist should be in alignment. Academic freedom is the ability to do this in the face of broken incentive structures.

I believe that if you are writing a paper merely for increasing the length of your CV, you are doing it wrong.

I believe that science only works when it is open. I believe in making my papers openly available on the web, in sharing data, and treating publication as communication first, accolade second

I believe in open access. Science that is locked up behind a paywall isn’t science. 

I believe that learning is doing. Education is not “infotainment” and it’s better to demonstrate learning through projects than tests.

I believe that pride comes from hard work. Very few people can point to an “easy A” class as a life changing one. Similarly, the papers that ultimately have the most impact are those that stretch you the most.

I believe there is a difference between hard work and burnout. Burnout is antithetical to creativity.

I agree that teaching is a radical act of hope

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A new professional chapter

I am thrilled to announce that starting in the fall, I will be working as an assistant professor for the Minerva Schools! I want to resurrect this blog with a post about my decision, and what it means for my career as well as for higher education more broadly.

What is Minerva? Good question. While they don’t yet have the name recognition of some of our older institutions, they aim to be "the first elite American university to be launched in a century". Starting from the question of “what does it mean to be an educated person in our time?” they designed a new type of university, stripped of unnecessary sports teams or facilities. In fact the only physical buildings are rented dormitory buildings in San Francisco and other world cities. Classes are held online, but unlike the MOOC model of video lectures, the pedagogical philosophy is geared towards fully active learning. The teaching platform allows instructors to rapidly give polls and quizzes, and to create small groups with a touch of a button. The students live together and move to a different international city each year.

Why I’m excited about this:
If you’ve read this blog before, you will know that I have been uncomfortable with a number of aspects of a Typical Academic Career. I worry about the consequences of grade inflation, and of how to maintain academic rigor without getting crushed in teaching evaluations. I think about what I call “the ever-accelerating hamster wheel” problem: our research impact is often measured in terms of number of publications, and we are putting out more work than can be read, forcing us to aggressively market our own research just to be heard through the noise. In my field, about 1/3 of papers are never cited! And we hire far more graduate students and postdocs to do this ever increasing amount of work while the number of academic positions for them is dwindling through the adjunctification of the professorship. Funding levels are so low that economists have questions whether spending time on grant proposals is even worth it.

So, is it better to change an institution from within or to blaze a different path? This is the question I have been wrestling with over the course of this job season. Academia (though not academics, generally) is conservative, and its wheels turn slowly. It’s deeply hierarchical, and can lull people with the sweet siren song of the status quo. That said, it’s what I’ve been working single-mindedly towards for the last 15 years. The argument for being at a traditional university can be best summed up by one of my mentors, who argues that while R1 life is not perfect, it's the best of the available alternatives. But what if it can be made better?

In the end, the question I kept asking myself is "what do I want out of an academic career? What makes for a good academic life?" For a long time, I've been uncomfortable with institutions that do not value excellence in teaching. Any one professor's research program, no matter how high profile, is still a small slice in the big pie of human knowledge, while the impact that one can have in the life of a student through teaching and mentorship can last a lifetime. But what about research? Am I shutting myself out from this world? I don't think so. I am testing the bold hypothesis that I can do great research outside of the normal paradigm.

Paradoxically, I think that my research might have more impact when freed from the pressures of "bean counting". The academics whose work I read most are not the ones publishing the most papers, but the ones publishing papers with the most depth of thought. I hope to maintain and develop a number of collaborations, tapping into the best minds and free from the need to be in any one location. And I am working to have a home base where I can mentor the research projects of my Minerva students, sparking the same passion for research in them as I had as an undergraduate.

Stay tuned for the future, I think it's going to be bright.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Soundbites: Presidential edition

I highly recommend this article on "animates" in the French Enlightenment. One can think of them as an early type of robot. After a couple of centuries of thinking about this stuff, you would think we would have progressed more in our thinking!

"I think the educational system has become a major factor stopping people from thinking about the future."


"You can’t just write checks to the thirty smartest scientists in the United States. Instead there are bureaucratic processes, and I think the politicization of science—where a lot of scientists have to write grant applications, be subject to peer review, and have to get all these people to buy in—all this has been toxic, because the skills that make a great scientist and the skills that make a great politician are radically different. " Peter Thiel

A great article on the future of cognitive enhancement in The Atlantic.

Speaking of enhancements, Slate wonders how life will change when, through drugs or engineering, our memories are perfect.

How to translate academic-ese.

Increased undergraduate debt increases the probability of attending graduate school.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Research Works Act - seriously?

I am not a fan of the academic publishing industry, and have written before on the need for more openness in the publishing process. My position is very simple: it is not ethical for taxpayers to be forced to buy access to scientific articles whose research was funded by the taxpayer.

I am very dismayed at the introduction of the Research Works Act, a piece of legislation designed to end the NIH Open Access policy and other future openness initiatives.

Sigh... even in academic publishing, we're socializing the risks and privatizing the gains. Here, I agree completely with Michael Eisen's statement in the New York Times:
 "But the latest effort to overturn the N.I.H.’s public access policy should dispel any remaining illusions that commercial publishers are serving the interests of the scientific community and public."

As this bill was written by representatives taking money from the publishing industry, perhaps we should include lawmakers in that group as well.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Soundbites: Surfin' Santa edition

Cool tool: Cross Validation is the Stack Overflow for statistics questions.

The utility of using neuroscience to understand art (e.g. "neuroaesthetics") is considered.

Cool: the Wounded Warrior Bill mandates cognitive testing of soliders before and after deployment. This can help screen for brain injuries and (in theory) get wounded soliders needed treatment. Not cool: this is not actually happening.

Ireland is considering a proposal to add lithium to the drinking water as a method for reducing crime. Lithium is a standard treatment for bipolar disorder. The proposal cites studies in Texas and Japan showing reduced crime in locations where lithium is present in drinking water (though it's not clear whether it was added on purpose, like fluoride).

Mind Hacks follows a new amendment to the US Controlled Substances act, adding a number of chemically synthesized cannabinoids.

"...the raison d’ĂȘtre of a college is to nourish a world of intellectual culture; that is, a world of ideas, dedicated to what we can know scientifically, understand humanistically, or express artistically. "

A beautiful critique of statistical cut-corners in the Freakonomics empire.

The Neurocritic discusses an interesting case: a child with a malformation in the prefrontal cortex and extreme behavioral problems. Can we assign a causal relation?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Who takes the responsibility for quality higher education?

This gives me chills: a professor denied tenure for using the Socratic method of teaching. Of course, there are two sides to every story and this article is rather one sided - I have been in classes where so-called Socratic methods are thinly veiled excuses for hurling insults at students - but if we are to take the article at face value, this is another story in a disturbing educational trend.

The Socratic method is challenging for students and requires preparation and engagement with the material. It requires being able to effectively communicate under pressure. However, I feel that learning involves a certain amount of discomfort. Learning means pushing past the boundaries of what we already know, and what we can already do. Most undergraduate courses I took were of lecture-style, teaching students to expect to be a passive audience in class. It's a much easier route and the student can hide lack of preparation, misunderstanding or having a bad day. However, these students cannot hide forever, and this under-preparation often comes back to haunt them at exam time.

As a TA in graduate school, I saw many freshmen having harsh wake-up calls when the first midterms came back. The typical story was "But I came to all the classes, and I read the book chapters twice! How could I have gotten a C on the exam???" The unfortunate answer is that the student mistakes being able to parrot back a section of textbook or lecture for understanding the material. When an exam forces the student to use this information in an analytic or synthetic way, the facade of learning crumbles. 

I don't know any instructor who wants to give a student a poor grade, but the integrity of the educational system depends on accurate assessment of mastery. If an instructor is fired, demoted or denied tenure due to the rigors of his/her course, this could spell the end of education. Sadly, this story is reminiscent of this case: a professor denied tenure for not passing enough students. I highly recommend reading this page because, if we are to take the author at his words, he took every reasonable action to enable his students to succeed.

Who is responsible for student success in higher education? Professors, of course need to be responsible for presenting learning opportunities to students in a clear manner, and to be available for advice and guidance at office hours. However, university students are adults and need to take responsibility for the ultimate learning outcomes. I am concerned by a culture of entitlement that has conditioned students to expect top marks for simply showing up. The expectations of the "self-esteem generation" and the incentives of professors to earn high student evaluations both play a role, I suspect.

I wonder sometimes whether the cost of attendance at American colleges and universities partially drives this phenomenon. Paying for education turns students and their families into customers, and "customers are always right". Perhaps subsidizing higher education would create a culture that divorces education from "service", leading to more honest evaluations and better learning.