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Brand new professor  August 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching, Uncategorized.
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I finished my first week as a new professor. It was exhausting. I spent most of the week drinking from the firehose of information about my new institution. A colleague says every institution does the same thing to new faculty and he doesn’t understand why, but I think I do: it certainly creates empathy for the students. Going to college is at every bit as stressful as being a new faculty. 

The hardest part for me is just being around unfamiliar people all day. While my colleagues are almost entirely warm and welcoming, my introversion was severely stressed and I really needed down time in evening with no people. As much as I don’t like the commuting arrangement, I greatly appreciated the much-needed down time it afforded me.  I also was short on time for running (also good stress relief), so I tried to tell myself that the multiple flights of stairs I was taking daily to reach my office were an adequate substitute.

I finally met some students yesterday. Many of our students are athletes, and I saw an unexpected and very interesting side benefit to this: 2/3 of my advisees were minorities.  I am very excited by the possibility that there may be enough students that they won’t feel out of place. Unfortunately, there are no women, though I think we should start a SWE chapter anyway.

My final experience this week as a professor was with one of my advisees. We shook hands and, after he sat down, saw the hand sanitizer on my desk and asked to use some. I said feel free, but then became worried that I should be using some, too.

Returning to the land of the employed June 28, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching.
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I’m so excited! I finally have something to post about!  And it’s not just cat and dog pictures!  Or discussions about comic book characters!

I will be starting a new job in the fall as an engineering professor at a small liberal arts college.

I’ll be honest: no one is more surprised about this than me.  Until recently, I hadn’t ever thought about liberal arts colleges as a possible career choice.  Over the past couple of years, however, I’ve gotten the sense that I don’t fit well into a lot of research universities.  Despite a lot of places saying they wan’t people who do interdisciplinary research, it’s become pretty plain that they still want you to have all your degrees in one field.  Grant reviewers don’t like grants that are too far outside their expertise, either, which makes it hard to get funding.

All of that pushed me to start thinking about liberal arts colleges, particularly since I have a strong interest in education and pedagogy.  That ended up being a good decision.

The program is brand new, so I’ll be setting up some classes and labs from scratch.  While that’s daunting, it’s also exciting, especially because of the educational aspect.  Designing classes around a student-centered, hands-on approach is going to be easier (I hope) than trying to remake everything.  I hope my students will be okay being guinea pigs.  I’m certainly okay with getting to play with lab equipment.  The classes will initially be pretty small, but I don’t think they’ll ever get huge.  (I’ve been informed the largest classes at the school are around 50-60 students, and those aren’t common.)

The down side is that the school isn’t in town, so I’m in the process of finding a buying a new place to live.  It IS close enough that I’ll be able to come home frequently, but a little too far for a daily commute.  I am therefore also in the process of trying to teach the younger offspring how to cook…well, something other than mac and cheese or toast.

Anyway, the pace of life has definitely picked up, but that’s a good thing.

Octopi make better teachers June 9, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I was doing a presentation yesterday that involves drawing a diagram on the board.  It also involves holding equipment up at the board, so, since I’m not an octopus, it’s something that I need a couple people to help me with.  (Note to self: grow tentacles.)

I’ve done this particular activity before, but the space I had to work with was larger.  Yesterday, there was a permanent projector screen in the front of the room and a smaller whiteboard on the side rather than a very long white board with a pull-down screen like I was more used to dealing with.

In order to do the activity, I had to crowd in next to the white board along with two other people.  The small space was difficult to work in and some of the equipment wasn’t working as well as it should’ve because of how close everything was.  As we were constructing the diagram, we got to the point of the big reveal and one of the people helping me said, “No way!”

I laughed because her reaction was so awesome.  Then I realized that no one else could see what was going on because we were all blocking the board.

Doh!

Everyone was able to see it when we were finished, but I didn’t see the same reaction that the person helping me with the diagram gave, and that was a bit of a bummer.  I am hoping the attendees were still surprised by what they saw, but it felt a bit like that moment when you tell a joke and nobody gets it.

I guess this is one case where technology got in the way of teaching.  Or maybe it was my lack of tentacles.

Diversity statement woes April 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, feminism, science, teaching, work.
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One of the newer things I’ve seen in academic job postings is a request for a diversity statement.  If you haven’t seen them, it’s a statement addressing how you would address issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. I came across a request for one recently, and I have to admit that they make me cringe for a couple reasons.  On the surface, they make a lot of sense: obviously if you have a diverse student body, you want to make sure that you’re hiring someone who is aware of that and has communicated all they ways they are prepared to deal with it.

So why do they make me cringe?

First, I see a potential for abuse.  Academics tend to, on the whole, be a rather liberal lot, and one could easily see this as a screening mechanism to ensure that someone with a wildly different perspective doesn’t make it through the door.  While I personally find it frustrating that people have issues with marginalized groups (and FSM knows how much of this I’ve dealt with first hand), I still think this means that people with differing viewpoints will be weeded out.  I don’t see an easy answer to this, though.  As I said above, you don’t want to hire someone who refuses to work with these groups or who creates an asymmetric educational experience for them lest, as an institution, you end up on the receiving end of a discrimination lawsuit.  I’m just going to throw that out as a concern and leave it there.

My other concern, though, is more grounded in my background.  These requests are severely biased towards those in the humanities and soft sciences where many of them can use part of their course topics and research as evidence. If you’re in the hard sciences, that’s obviously not an option.  If you have access to resources to address this at all, it may be dependent on institutional support which may or may not be present. In the sciences, training for education/teaching at all is severely limited to begin with and what we do get has to be sought out through other departments in the university, if it’s even available.  Depending on the size of the institution, there may not be a women’s center or diversity office to provide information and training.

As I’ve been contemplating writing such a statement, it leaves me in an odd spot.  I could personally use some of my blogging about women in the sciences.  However, depending on who is reviewing the statement, I may also get dinged because this may be viewed critically rather than as an asset.  The same goes for membership in female-oriented professional societies such as IEEE Women in Engineering, Society of Women Engineers, or Association of Women Geoscientists.  Realistically, some people who review these statements will have a negative view of such participation and advocacy even while the statements are a required part of the application package.  Let’s be honest: not everyone sees the need to increase or address diversity in their departments, and being too much of an advocate could have negative repercussions during the selection process.

My personal feeling is that, in STEM, a lot of these issues are going to be limited to classroom accessibility and student mentoring.  I would prefer that universities could ask STEM faculty how inclusivity of these groups would be addressed as part of the teaching statement and omit requests for a diversity statement.

 

Sanders’ “sexist” behavior March 7, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, Politics, societal commentary, teaching.
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I almost made a tweetstorm about this topic, but when you have to confine your thoughts to 140-character morsels, it kind of ruins the flow of ideas.

Apparently Bernie Sanders is sexist for asking Clinton to stop interrupting him during last night’s debate.  You won’t believe how hard I laughed at that notion.

Let’s start by looking at the other debates that have been going on.  Part of the reason that the GOP debates have been such a horrible mess is because the candidates constantly interrupt and talk over each other and then someone gets mad and starts shouting.  As many people have noted, these debates haven’t exactly been the high point of civility, and the behavior of interrupting and talking over other candidates is exactly some of the problem.  I am taking the tack, therefore, that interrupting is rude.

Let me restate that.  Interrupting is RUDE.

This is something that, as a woman, has made me absolutely insane.  I have had a couple male colleagues in the past who would not let me finish my sentences.  I don’t think they’re doing it because they’re sexist (although one of them certainly is).  It’s something they often do to men, as well.  I think that interrupting is just a jerk thing to do because you’re telling the other person that you don’t care what they have to say and that whatever is going on in your head is more important than whatever idea the other person is trying to get across.

When dealing with one colleague, I’ve seriously had to bite my tongue.  I had fantasies of offering to bring in the younger son to demonstrate to him how to have a respectful conversation.  Failing that, though, I’ve also fantasized about telling him simply, “Wait your turn! I’m talking!”  I spent a lot of time wondering how to say it so that it wasn’t perceived that I was being rude…despite the fact he was being rude to begin with.

I see a lot of this dynamic when teaching, as well.  I had one individual student who would sit and talk with his friends in the back of the class, often to the point of being loud enough that nearby students couldn’t hear.  As the teacher, though, there was a bit a power dynamic I could use, so the student and his buddies were told to move to the front row of desks in the classroom where they would sit for the rest of the semester.  I told the students that I liked them which is why I moved them to the front of the class instead of just kicking them out altogether.  Was that rude?  Perhaps, but so is disrupting the class and, as the teacher, I need to maintain at least a minimal level of authority and dominance in the classroom.

If you look at interrupting in the big picture, there’s a dynamic in the workplace where men are more likely to interrupt than women are.  This is because men’s communication style tends toward using conversation to express dominance and women tend to use other styles more geared towards making connections.

On stage, Clinton was adopting, very appropriately for politics, a male style of communication where she was attempting to use discussion as a way to maintain dominance.  It’s a way to mow down Sanders’ ideas and make her own dominant.  In politics, like in many professional areas, women have to learn to adopt this communication style in order for their male colleagues to take them seriously.  Sanders did the thing that so many women have a hard time with but need to learn to do.  He essentially said, “Stop talking. Stop interrupting.  I was speaking. Wait your turn.”  It wasn’t sexist: it was a way to prevent himself from being mowed over.

The problem is that, like Sanders, women who assert that they won’t have their ideas mowed over are often seen as rude and pushy.  The consequences for drawing  your conversational line in the sand can be pretty severe, especially if you’re a woman.  If the roles were reversed, Sanders would have been seen as sexist for interrupting and not letting Clinton speak.  Clinton would have been doing the right thing to tell him to stop interrupting.  If it had been two men, it would’ve been shrugged off.

My take away from this is that the conversation dynamic between Clinton and Sanders shows Clinton and Sanders see each other as equals.  Clinton attempted to dominate the conversation (the way many men do) and Sanders wasn’t going to play the subordinate.  If you really want to make something sexist out of this, maybe more women need to learn to follow both of their examples, and more men need to not freak out when it happens.

Wordless Wednesday: Space CRAFTS! July 14, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in photography, science, teaching.
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Partial perfectionism February 19, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, teaching, younger son.
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The younger son had forgotten a text book which he needed to do an assignment, so I told him that he should get done what he could and try to finish it up in the morning.

But mom…she doesn’t accept work unless it’s completely done.

She may not, I told him, but your future teachers probably will, so it’s a good habit.  At least she’ll see you made some effort on it.

There were several classes I’ve had throughout college where I didn’t complete the entire assignment.  Frankly, sometimes I just couldn’t.  Or maybe I was short on time.  However, handing in 8 out of 9 problems, even if it didn’t earn me a perfect grade, certainly earned me enough to get a very high grade in almost all of my classes.

I really don’t like this policy of “it has to be completely done, and I won’t accept anything late.”  I totally get not accepting anything late, but I think the “completely done” thing is bunk.  I would rather a student put it in a thoughtful, partial attempt than not do anything at all.  The feedback I would provide as a teacher may be helpful to the student, too.

The notion of “all or nothing” feeds into perfectionism, particularly the kind that leads to paralysis and lack of motivation.  “It’s not worth it to do anything if she won’t accept incomplete work,” is the kind of mindset I grew up with.  Now that I teach, I know that every effort you make on your homework or on learning something will not be wasted effort.  Few people ever get any topic 100%, but putting in time and effort will get you closer.

I would always tell my students to put the best effort you can into your homework and then go to the teacher for help on the rest.  Teachers would rather see an effort or an attempt to solve something rather than a student who shows up empty-handed and saying, “I don’t understand.”  It’s very hard to understand how to help the student unless you can see where they’re struggling.

This is a good life skill to have, too.  Is it better to wait to clean the kitchen fully or should you at least take 10 minutes to do what you can?  Personally, I try to do what I can because I seldom have blocks of time to allow me to do things with the full depth and effort I would like.  You can make progress doing it a bit at a time.  It’ll never be as fast as you want, but it’s better to keep doing it than forget it because you can’t do it ‘right’.  Once it’s done, it doesn’t always matter how quickly you did it.

It also dissuades people from trying new things.  “Oh gee…I can’t cook crepes perfectly the first time out, so there’s really no point in trying.”  Honestly, a mangled crepe is almost always better than no crepe at all.  More importantly, you’ll learn from the experience.

I am therefore doing my best to teach my son that some effort is far better than no effort.  There are few things in life that we can do as well and fully as we like, so I want to disavow him of the notion of “all or nothing” right away.

Stop telling boys to go into STEM December 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, science, teaching.
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Stereotyping is always a bad thing, and most people don’t realize that men suffer just as badly from stereotypes as women.

Let’s look at science: there has been a ton of work going into how to attract girls and women into scientific endeavors, particularly those that are very math-intensive.  Much of the discussion centers on countering two issues: the first is the societal expectations that women go into ‘caring’ professions like teaching and nursing and the second is the stereotype that men are better at math.  There is nothing wrong with these efforts, but there’s a flip side to this stereotype that has a negative impact on men: there are a lot of men who go into STEM fields (probably engineering moreso than science) that probably don’t belong there.

Lest you think I’m just being negative toward men, this is actually something a man told me.  I had an English professor who was one of the best college teachers I’d had, I think in part because he was very knowledgeable in science.  In fact, he’d received a degree in engineering from Stanford but then shuffled around for several years before finally getting a master’s degree in English.  During one conversation, I asked him why he got a degree in engineering when he really loved literature.

There’s a strong expectation that if you’re a smart boy who’s good at math, you’re going to go into engineering.  That’s what everyone expected, so that’s what I did.

During the course of my teaching career, I’ve seen a lot of this.  I like to have students write me an introductory essay so that I can learn more about them and what they were hoping to learn from the class.  Many of them reiterated almost exactly what my professor said: “I went into engineering because I was told it was a good career for someone with good math skills.”

I’m not saying it’s not a good career for someone with math skills of either gender.  However, making a career choice should not be an either/or proposition based on problem-solving ability (lots of careers use that), and people are multi-faceted.  People can be good at math as well as art, literature, music, biology, communication, caring for others, etc.  Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that’s what your calling is nor necessarily where you should focus your energy.

While the majority of my best students were men, strictly as a result of the skewed sex ratio in my classes, the women were almost always in the top 20% of the class.  None of them were there simply because they were good at math: they almost always really wanted to be an engineer.  However, the least engaged students were always men: a lot of them were there because they hadn’t found their passion and felt they had to do something.  Engineering was it.

The flip side of the ‘men are good at math’ stereotype is that many of them go into it even when they would be much better off doing something else.  They’re discouraged from pursuing more ‘feminine’ careers and made to feel like failures if they don’t enjoy it.

So do the boys a favor: if they’re not sure where they want to go, don’t make engineering the default answer even if they are good at math.

 

Yo mama is SO stupid she can’t explain plate tectonics! December 4, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, science, societal commentary, teaching.
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When selling something or conveying information, particularly when it is technical, one wants to make it easy and understandable.  Unfortunately, one of the most common approaches I’ve seen is to say one needs to make it easy enough for an older woman to understand, particularly a mother or grandmother.  One example of this issue was the IEEE article posted about the making of the Arduino that was erroneously titled, “With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program.”  They corrected it and apologized.

Last week, I came across another one about having a “grandmother talk.”  Once people got upset about the sexist trope, the author changed it.  However, it was more out of frustration because people weren’t paying attention to his main point about communication.  (Note: if you piss off half of your audience with your title, chances are your communication may weak in certain areas.)

I don’t understand why they don’t just come out and title these things as such:

Yo mama is so stupid she can’t program an Arduino

Yo nana is so stupid she can’t science

I don’t think anyone would intentionally pick on grandma, but they apparently do so without realizing it.

The problem with using this terminology is that it assumes older women have no interest or ability when it comes to technical or complex information.  Frankly, I’m pretty sure that, with the right instructions, both my mother and grandmother could handle a lot of technical topics.  Being older females, however, people often assume that they are too ignorant to really learn things in depth.  But despite myriad counter examples, the stereotype still exists.  Some women really have little interest and ability in science, but there are also many, many women who are exceptionally talented scientists and engineers.

I have not yet seen, however, what seems to me a much better analogy: the kid talk.  What if your kids ask you questions and you have to simplify it to be developmentally appropriate or to meet the constraints of a limited attention span?

DugtheDog

When I try to make things understandable to kids, I take the approach that there may be developmental challenges that they’re not ready to meet, such as a particular level of abstract reasoning.  Perhaps they don’t yet have enough math to follow the technical details of a topic.  There is also the reality that even the most mature five-year-old is not going to listen to me go on and on for hours about a particular topic, except perhaps Legos.  The point of meeting them where they’re at is not because they are ignorant but because they’re inexperienced and uninformed.  While I suppose a few would get offended at such a characterization, it also acknowledges that they’re capable of learning more once they’re a bit more mature or if they have a particular interest.  It gives you some wiggle room, and you don’t have to stereotype anyone or be condescending.

I decided to put this into practice and once asked my older son to sit in on my classes.  He would’ve been a year or two younger than most of the kids in the class, but being tall, he blended in very well.  (It also helped that we don’t have the same last name.)  I felt the information would be useful for him, but I also wanted to get his take on what parts were confusing or needed work.  Beyond actually having a kid give you live feedback (because, let’s face it, they aren’t always available), it’s useful to even contemplate explaining concepts to kids.

There are a lot of marketing slogans to the effect of “so easy, a kid could do it,” but science and engineering communicators don’t generally seem to think this way.  Part of the problem is that they don’t view children as a potential audience, even though I think they’re a rather important subset of most groups.  I’m not saying you have to communicate on the level of a four-year-old, but an educated and curious 14-year-old will get you a long way.  I wonder if science would be more interesting if we saw these kids as our intended audience in most communication ventures.  At the very least, I’m sure there’d be more jokes.

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Math is a #firstworldproblem June 1, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, math, teaching.
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I was recently having a conversation with a friend about teaching when she launched into a complaint about students not understanding logarithms. The conversation became somewhat off putting because this friend fell into the trap of equating mathematical knowledge with intelligence. A lot of people do it: English majors will imply one is an idiot if one doesn’t appreciate the succinct stoicism supplied by Hemingway, for example. (And I use this example because I’ve been on the receiving end of such criticism: I can’t stand Hemingway, and it was torture having to relive it when the older son was reading and explaining Old Man and the Sea for one of his classes.) Hemingway hating aside, many of us tend to use certain sets of knowledge as a reflection of intelligence, and that’s rather simplistic (and not all that intelligent of us).

The reason this particular discussion irritated me is because there is a level of classism that seems to go hand-in-hand with assumptions about mathematical literacy. While being mathematically literate is a good thing, the reality is that I’ve met very mathematically illiterate folks who were able to navigate through life with no problems. Not knowing logarithms didn’t hinder them professionally or personally. Not knowing logarithms was no indicator of their intelligence. Not knowing logarithms didn’t stop them from appreciating, or at least tolerating, Hemingway.

In my experience, math illiteracy often has a basis in background. Kids whose parents are highly educated and/or wealthy often have a greater chance of both being exposed to advanced math concepts as well as being able to use such concepts more proficiently. In my classes, I’ve noticed a huge problem: kids from larger, urban schools and who aren’t minorities seem to be more likely to stick with engineering than either minority students or those from rural backgrounds. Kids who have engineers in their family are more likely to stick with it, as well. While this isn’t a surprise, and there’s been a lot of explanation as to why this is so, I suspect exposure to and comfort with math concepts is a big factor. Not only are they already feeling at a disadvantage because they are having to start farther behind their peers in the curriculum progression, they are often advised to change majors because their lack of math implies they aren’t cut out for the rigors of a technical profession. I’ve heard about this happening to my students as well as it happening to me. (I was once told that I should never have been accepted to college because I didn’t know Euler’s formula giving the trigonometric form for imaginary numbers.)

Living through those types of experiences has made me go out of my way to ensure that my kids have an excellent background in math before entering college. At the same time, because I’ve made a point to provide that level of education, I’ve become aware of many kids who don’t have those opportunities. There are a lot of bright kids who are forced to stick with grade level instruction despite the fact it’s obvious they’d benefit from acceleration. And then there are the kids for whom rigorous instruction and acceleration aren’t possible because it’s beyond their parents’ means and ability.

Back to my friend, it was hard to convince her that these kids weren’t stupid, and she seemed unwilling to accept that there wasn’t something wrong with the world that kids who don’t understand logarithms can actually go to college. I apparently couldn’t convince her that they’d be okay and maybe they just needed a bit more guidance to assimilate into the world of mathematical literacy. Perhaps we should’ve discussed literature instead.

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