rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
I'm thinking about rewriting my teaching statement for these job applications. Alternatively, I might just write another document, a Teaching Manifesto, intended to reach a broader audience beyond hiring committees, because over the years of my own education and teaching I've reached a specific perspective on educational goals, and I'm starting to think the whole thing deserves to be its own essay.*

Part of the reason I bring this up is because I first heard about the subject of this post, the book Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, in my undergraduate Writing Fellows training seminar, and the Writing Fellows experience continues to inform how I approach teaching. I'm not quite yet at a point where I'm ready to write the shitty first draft (Lamott lingo) of my Teaching Manifesto, but when I do I suspect you'll be the first to hear about it.

Bird by Bird is twenty years old by now, but it's a timeless book for writers because Lamott does a phenomenal job of reaching out and capturing the thoughts and emotions one experiences as a writer. While her intended audience is primarily writers of fiction, writers of all stripes will find in her work someone who is sympathetic to the struggles of professional writing and able to offer up both consolation and kicks in the pants as necessary.

While reading the book, though, I kept thinking back to a comment [livejournal.com profile] scrottie made while I was reading Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Turkel. He had a hard time with the idea of reading Working because the concept of reading about work just sounded like a whole bunch of work! However, that wasn't my experience of Working - Turkel did such an amazing job of capturing the different workers' voices and their passions for what they were doing and purposes behind their work, that the book is a rich and fascinating compilation about the human experience.

Reading Bird by Bird was closer to work than leisure reading. I read most of the book while traveling, where I didn't have the mental space to settle in and write, so it also involved reading about work instead of just going out and getting work done. Today, after finishing it, I wound up bringing the book in to work so it can sit next to How to Write a Lot, which looms on a bookshelf right above my desk for maximal impact.

And on that note, perhaps I should get back to work.



*The other day on a different social media platform, I posted a rather simple commentary piece on how most students don't know what learning is, but in the same vein, there's some odd tension in the biological sciences over teaching methodologies, too. With teaching philosophies, it can actually be dangerous to be overly pedantic, and at the same time, many biologists teach poorly or use uninformed teaching methods. So - the Manifesto will start with my perspective on the purpose of an undergraduate education, and will then cover specific tools and approaches that should be used to facilitate student development, as informed by my experiences in grad school and as an undergraduate Writing Fellow.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
Here's a list of some high-caliber academic books I have been working on reading recently. Getting to read this stuff is one of the huge perks of this job. My standard strategy for academic books is to obtain a library copy to read first. If I find the book sufficiently useful, I purchase a copy (usually a used copy).

Physiological Ecology: How Animals Process Energy, Nutrients, and Toxins, by William H. Karasov and Carlos Martinez del Rio. This work is mostly vertebrate-focused, but contains numerous useful things for an invertebrate physiologist as well, and is necessary reading for the purpose of being able to conduct cross-talk about organismal physiological ecology. The thing is, in many cases, people have worked out an understanding of how animals work in vertebrate systems separately from the people who have worked out an understanding of how animals work in invertebrate systems. Both the similarities and differences are fascinating. One thing I found most telling is how K&M have subdivided their topics - digestive physiology is covered in great depth, but is discussed completely separately from "Production in Budgets of Mass and Energy." I wish I had read this book when it first came out in 2007. I would make it required reading for graduate students. I'm going to buy a copy as soon as I can.

Mechanisms of Life History Evolution: The Genetics and Physiology of Life History Traits and Trade-Offs, edited by Thomas Flatt and Andreas Heyland. A rich text for the purpose of gaining perspective on the approaches used to study life history evolution - that is, how to understand the diverse forms of life found all around us on this planet today. This is a meaty text, and some of the contributed chapters are stronger and more articulate than others, so I would recommend skipping around. That said - there's stuff on both vertebrates and invertebrates in here, and I decided it was worthwhile to buy my own copy.

Similarly, I'm finding Experimental Evolution: Concepts, Methods, and Applications, edited by Theodore Garland, Jr., and Michael Rose, to be so worthwhile that I've just ordered a copy of this book, too. I've been hesitant to label myself as an evolutionary biologist in part because I've felt like I've lacked the perspective and tools in my toolbox to do the work of evolutionary biologists. If I can manage to sit down and work my way through this entire book, I think I'll gain the confidence to be able to call myself an evolutionary biologist. I've covered subtopics associated with evolutionary biology (social evolution, population ecology), but this book looks like it will provide the scope of the field as a whole.

More specific books:
Ecological and Environmental Physiology of Insects, by Jon Harrison, Art Woods, and Stephen Roberts. One of my Ph.D. committee members is a coauthor on this book, so I might be a bit biased. I think this book provides a nice complement to Chapman's The Insects: Structure and Function, as a good introductory text to topics in insect physiological ecology. EEPI has been written to be accessible to newcomers in the field. It's not a huge subdiscipline, but it's a cool one to work in. I might be biased on that front, too.

Organization of Insect Societies: From Genome to Sociocomplexity, edited by Jennifer Fewell and Juergen Gadau. This is another situation where I might be biased because I know both editors quite well. Ahem. As with Mechanisms of Life History Evolution, I would recommend that interested readers pick and choose among the chapters - some are excellent and well-written, while in my view others don't do full justice to their subject. One feature I appreciate about this book and also EEPI is that both books explicitly talk about the future directions for their respective fields. Some graduate-level textbooks can make it sound as though we already know everything we need to know about a subject, which is far from what a graduate student should come to understand over the course of her graduate studies. Why not make that fact apparent, and give future students a leg up on figuring out how to construct a thesis or dissertation?

Ecological Stoichiometry: The Biology of Elements from Molecules to the Biosphere, by Robert Sterner and Jim Elser. Hmm, a protip has just occurred to me: if a grad student's dissertation committee members have written books, it would be wise for that graduate student to read those books. Which is to say, this is another one written by a committee member. I grappled with aspects of ES. On the one hand, it's well-written and covers a fascinating perspective for understanding how the biological world works. On the other hand, it doesn't quite cover some crucial things that an insect nutritional physiologist needs to know and think about, because insects don't eat carbon. For those crucial things, the insect nutritional physiologist needs to turn to The Nature of Nutrition: A Unifying Framework from Animal Adaptation to Human Obesity, by Stephen J. Simpson and David Raubenheimer. She also needs to read some contemporary papers on the subject, but these two books will provide a solid starting point.

For the Attine-ologist, I would suggest Herbivory of Leaf-Cutting Ants: A Case Study on Atta colombica in the Tropical Rainforest, by Wirth, Herz, Ryal, Beyschlag, and Holldobler. It's important to read this book before reading The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct, by Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson, or The Superorganism : The beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies (also by Holldobler and Wilson). These two books have their place as inspirational and accessible texts, but they are too superficial for graduate studies. Reading Wirth et al. will make this sufficiently clear.

I think I will stop there for now. This list covers most of the books sitting on my work bookshelf these days, other than the stats textbooks.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
Well. I think I'm officially exhausted. I had to wake up at 4:30 this morning to finish grading papers, and finished just in the nick of time to walk over to lab and in the door just at the appointed starting time. Hopefully my students will read and appreciate my feedback, for a change. Given their next assignment, I suspect they will. Every once and a while I get hints suggesting that they appreciate my instruction. Shocking.

Anyway, today's lab was two things at once: a refresher course in hypothetico-deductive reasoning, and a chance to run around on A Mountain and measure plant distributions. For part of the refresher course, I used one of my favorite applications of scientific reasoning, that goes as follows:

Once, while in Seattle, I visited Cupcake Royale, and experienced Cupcake Nirvana (aka the best and most delicious cupcake I've ever had). This observation (first step of scientific reasoning!) led me to ask a critically important causal question (second step of scientific reasoning!): WHY was that cupcake so delicious?

I had my classes come up with hypotheses (third step of scientific reasoning!) about why a cupcake might be extremely delicious. My first lab suggested that perhaps it had something to do with the presence of sprinkles, the amount of chocolate, or the love that went into making the cupcake batter. My second lab suggested that it might have something to do with how hungry I was, sprinkles, or the amount of crack in the cupcakes.

The next concept I wanted to discuss beyond hypothesis-development was experimental design (fourth step!), and specifically how to construct a 2x2 factorial design. What this means, in slightly plainer terms, is an experiment designed to test two of the outlined hypotheses at the same time. So in my first lab, we talked about how one would test the hypotheses "amount of lovin'" and "amount of sprinkles" (basically, create combinations (treatment groups )of: lots of lovin' and sprinkles, no lovin' and sprinkles, lovin' and no sprinkles, and no lovin' and no sprinkles). In my second lab, we discussed how one would test the hypotheses "amount of crack" and "amount of sprinkles," in an analogous fashion. From there, the remaining steps of the scientific method involve generating predictions, actually doing an experiment and collecting some results, and then comparing the results to the predictions to determine whether or not a hypothesis or hypotheses are supported. Alas, we did not put crack or lovin' into cupcakes. Oh well.

My favorite part of having these silly conversations is that they really allow my students to focus on the concepts instead of any fancy new biological vocabulary. The big point was to discuss experimental design and hypothetico-deductive reasoning, and by this point in the semester I think my students are finally getting it and understanding how it works. And that's a good thing, to paraphrase Martha Stewart.

So. On to the running all over A Mountain part. Our actual scientific enterprise consisted of measuring plant distributions all across the mountain. I had the usual assortment of students--some absolutely love the chance to go outside and look at real, living things, while others are uncomfortable with the idea of scrambling all over on loose rock, mostly due to inexperience (ahh, these labs are so CRUCIAL to do!). Meanwhile, my biggest job is to run up and down and back and forth to make sure that everyone is doing all right--not breaking any bones, and correctly identifying plants. Generally, it's an exhausting job, but it was made even more so by the fact that a student in another concurrent lab section suffered from severe dehydration and had to be escorted by her TA down to Student Health Services. So I was left to herd twice as many students as usual, effectively doubling my amount of running around. The good news was that nobody suffered any lasting harm. But by now, I'm tired from running around on top of being tired from not getting enough sleep (my own damn fault for not staying on top of my grading, really).

Whew. I also just typed all of this extremely quickly.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
I know of at least one party who is interested to hear how my most recent teaching episode went.

First, I kind of feel like the day was one of those days where my head was popped off, spun around in three circles, and then reattached. Lots of people time. I am not a people person. Except that maybe I am. 'nuff said on that subject for now.

Anyway. I should provide some background. I'm one of numerous lab TAs for an introductory course in Biology, which creates the simultaneous dilemmas of attempting to keep things fair between sections and trying to keep things fresh, exciting, and educational. If we're handed stuff to teach and we teach it straight out of the book, well, the students miss out on understanding that this whole education business is a messy affair, and different educators have different agendas. They also miss out on a lot of the things that make me really enthusiastic. On the other hand, they somehow develop a "standardized" knowledge. Is that what a university education is all about? Personally, I certainly hope not.

So for the evening's lab, I decided to offer up the time as a Red Pill/Blue Pill kind of event: complete the standard activities, including a homework worksheet, and call it good. Or, evaluate and critique the standard activities, and come up with your own alternative. The second one creates sharper divisions between successes and failure--there are many potential ways to do either. The first one provides a safety net should students choose to accept it.

I found the evening much more personally engaging, as students struggled to decide which option to choose, and then worked through their chosen option. Roughly half of the class gamely worked through the standard activities, while the other half asked questions across the entire board and some started to come up with some interesting ideas (with some prodding here or there).

Secretly, what I really hope to do is to infect their brains with Biology so that even after they leave the lab they're left wondering what they're getting out of it, and wondering about this whole business of understanding evolution. I don't think it's any better or worse than that status quo, but it was fun for me at least. In the very least, this group of students asks good questions.

And I should also note that after conversations with mine fellow TAs, I think the approach developed by you, Ms. D, is one of the best I've heard of yet. Maybe we can convince the powers that be to redesign things along your lines.

Sugar Rush

Sep. 1st, 2007 12:22 pm
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Yesterday was quite a full, busy one. My teaching time was spent walking students through The Steps of the Scientific Method: describing what they are, working through an example, and then asking the students to apply the steps by studying factors that affect reflex times. The students in both labs seemed game for the activity, which was quite nice. I was kind of dissatisfied with how this lab had worked out in the previous semester, as one of the points of the exercise is to teach students about independent and dependent variables, and yet most groups of students end up testing for differences between quasi-independent variables, things that cannot actually be manipulated or changed like gender or handedness. The long-term trouble with letting students examine quasi-independent variables is that they get confused about the definitions of independent and dependent variables and I'm trying to teach them to think carefully and not get muddled up.

This time, I decided to clarify the distinction between quasi-independent variables and actual independent variables and asked the students to test actual independent variables, so they looked at things like how light levels, sugar consumption, signal type, and temperature affect reaction times. That made the lab much more fun, especially during the sugar consumption portion--I bought all of the students Skittles.

I've been feeling kind of hesitant to talk about my students this semester, out of a sense of respect for their privacy and paranoia that these internet-savvy folk will find their way to my blog and personal life. And I have a feeling that many a person would feel violated to discover that they are the subject of someone else's discussion when they are not able to contribute and tell their own story. Is this a reasonable perspective? I don't know.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Last night I spontaneously started itching, which seemed a bit strange. Tonight I have discovered the culprit: mosquitoes in my house. We have a very small sort of mosquito here, often called the ankle-biter because they like to hover low to the ground and bite one's feet (and ankles). They are so small and light and quick that they often bite before you realize they're even there. They are so unlike the large hummingbird-mosquitoes of the Northwest, whose buzzing in one's ears is almost as bad as the actual bite. I don't know how they are getting in my house, but I do wish they would stop soon.

I worked on my syllabus this afternoon. It's the sort of thing that makes me want to give inspirational speeches full of advice on surviving college, on doing well and being successful, or at least perhaps happy now and then. I want to tell the students things like, find a mentor. Your grades are not an indicator of your self-worth. Remember that it's a privilege to go to college. I want to tell them, mass education is a compromise and I won't be able to captivate all of you all of the time. But if you get something, anything, that's a start.

I won't be "going over the syllabus" on Friday, I've decided. I don't like making the students read and listen at the same time because I don't think they absorb information as well when it's coming at them in two forms at once. I am going to ask the students to read through it themselves and then sign a contract agreeing to its terms. They will need to read a lot of things so we might as well start there.

But I always worry that if I start the semester saying everything all at once, in a big rush, it won't get through. I'll just be talking to the open air as eyes glaze over and fingers vaguely search for text-message buttons. How to reach them? Stories, for certain. Thinking carefully before speaking. Talking about difficult things.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Yesterday my friends and I talked about our futures, and it was simultaneously comforting and discomfiting to hear their thoughts on what follows after graduate school. I realized that when I started grad school, it was with a real leap of faith that during school I would discern what I wanted to do after graduating. Well, here I am, needing to think ahead to graduating, and I still don't know. My fellow female academics have a broad range of aspirations after grad school, but I worry that we are too turned off by the Research I lifestyle and will contribute to the persistent gender gap in the sciences. Is it possible, I wonder, to be a Research I professor and NOT be a workaholic or have the full support of a stay-at-home spouse? (research suggests that the most successful male faculty are those with stay-at-home spouses) Is it possible to do good, useful science in a non-competitive fashion? (this question is triggered by D's comment that she isn't interested in doing experiments just because they'll make a splash)

My thoughts kept going back to something [livejournal.com profile] figment80 described learning when she did her research for her master's degree: most workplaces are structured (physically and psychologically) around the needs of the male body. F80 studied breastfeeding in the workplace, which often requires a lot of negotiation and rethinking on the part of businesses. Mull over that idea for a while. Also mull over the fact that according to a report I heard on NPR yesterday the US is one of the few developed countries without decent maternity leave. And while you're at it, think about workplace goals and competitiveness and aspirations and how women have been shown to operate in such environments.

I am inspired by many of the women academics who are a generation ahead of me. I am not always convinced that I'm cut out to follow in their footsteps, but then again a part of me wonders if I have an obligation to do so out of a stubborn desire to see women and minorities succeed in academia. (and this doesn't even begin to get into the question of what is meant by equality in the first place) I suppose that if I continue to recognize and promote my values through my work, I will be happy with what I do.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
It's always sweet when my students express their appreciation for how I teach. Some days I feel like there are so many different things I would like for them to learn, but there's only so much I can say and do to get them to learn.

The especially difficult cases are the ones where students just don't really understand (for themselves) why they are in the classroom or how they should be trying to think about the material or what they should take away from the experience. For all the students who seem to benefit greatly from their experiences in my class, there are usually just as many who seem happy just to be done with the whole ordeal, without necessarily bothering to learn anything.

I have to seriously hope that the stuff I'm trying to teach them has infected their minds and that they'll find themselves thinking about it at other moments in their lives, like when they pick up the newspaper and read about scientific findings or read about governmental policy related to science.

The end of the semester always makes me a little bit wistful, because I know I'll probably never see those students again or know what sort of long-term impact I've had. But I often think back to professors or TAs that I had as an undergrad that were influential, which makes me hope that my students will do the same thing.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
My computer is on the fritz. Thankfully, it appears to be a relatively minor problem (fan that's part of the cooling system is defective in some way). Also thankfully, I decided to go with a 3-year "protection plan," so the machine's still under warranty for the defective part. However, it's going to be mid-day on Monday before I'll have my computer back, so I'll be AFK until then. It might actually be a nice break.

I had so much work to do on my compy this weekend, but instead, I guess I'll have to focus on the 649,400,305 other items on my to-do list.

My second group of students gave their presentations today. Somehow they had a rougher time than my other lab, perhaps because it's the end of the week and so it's hard to stay focused. A lot of them tried to use science to PROVE things, which I find impressive and depressing because one cannot actually prove anything using the scientific method. But one way or another, they have gotten through the presentations and can now go back to the usual, less intense methods of demonstrating what they have learned.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
This morning, I got up and got ready to go on the People's Ride, my weekly bike ride with my biking gang. On my way to our meet-up point, I stopped by R and E's house to see if they were ready to go. I routinely do this when I see that their living-room light is on. I propped my bike up against the front door, and then went inside while they finished getting ready. After I'd been there for about two minutes, in a fit of paranoia, I opened the door to check on my bike, and a guy was standing there, and his intentions were unclear. At first glance, he didn't really look like the sort of person who makes a habit out of getting up early to stroll around the neighborhood. He pretty quickly asked if he could borrow a bike pump, and then I saw the bike lying on the sidewalk behind him, which was in very sorry shape--it was one of those $90 Wal-Mart bikes that was too small, with rust everywhere and absolutely no air in either tire. I suspect he was looking for an upgrade, but have no evidence whatsoever to support my suspicion.

Needless to say, I'm glad I was paranoid. I'm also glad I have clipless pedals on the Jolly Roger, because that may have slowed down the would-be thief. I definitely won't make the mistake of leaving my bike unattended even for such short periods of time in the future. It makes me sad that I have to be so careful, but that bike is my only form of transportation aside from my own two feet, and it has a lot of sentimental value attached to it as well.

It took quite a while for the adrenaline to wear off, because right after that happened, my friends and I actually went on our bike ride, and then got coffee and then I headed off to the lab that I teach. Today my students had to give five-minute presentations on primary research articles, so for me most of lab consisted of sitting to one side, clipboard in hand, listening carefully and nodding. I don't know if students always realize that when we ask them to do things like give a presentation, we are happiest when they do well. Public speaking is particularly hard for a lot of people, and I always want to empathize with the students who struggle or freeze or who aren't adequately prepared. But I can't save everyone. All I can do is hope that the struggling ones gain at least some benefit from their experience and from seeing the presentations of other students. Sooner or later every person will be called on to express himself or herself, whether through speech or writing or performance or other media. It's interesting to watch how people progress through the expression process.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Tonight I am slurping soup. It's not the sort of soup that would make one leap out of ones chair, exclaiming, "Oh glorious soup!" but it is hearty and filling and has leeks in it.

I had planned to go to the gym this morning, but I was so tired last night that I went to bed early and slept in late.

Today I heard a talk by a professor who studies voltage-gated intracellular calcium channels. I don't expect you to understand what that is. For me, it was a chance to reminisce about the neurobiology I used to do when I was an undergraduate. Back in the day. I still find the stuff interesting, but I'm just not motivated to study it myself.

We got a package with some new sharp forceps in it, which made me realize how dull my forceps were and made it so much easier to glue miniscule ants to tiny paper triangles (that is how one pins ants). And you thought your job was tedious at times.

As I walked home from campus, I saw J sitting in a bench and we had a lively discussion about teaching. I commented that graduate students who graduated from ASU always seem to have a harsher opinion of the undergraduates they teach than those of us who graduated elsewhere. J said it's probably because the former undergrads have a better idea of how lazy their peers are. I don't pretend to know why this is so; I just find it to be an interesting phenomenon.

Tonight I will read up on a certain variety of statistical analysis. Then bed, then rowing and trying to figure out what's going on with this San Diego boat situation.

Tra la.

Whew.

Jan. 18th, 2007 01:40 pm
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Teaching today was really, really fun. I mean, really fun. I think I'm going to enjoy this lab much more than Bio 201. It helps that the students that take introductory biology for majors are a more diverse bunch (not all pre-nursing or speech and hearing). I also like the fact that I get to teach them things that I find useful and interesting, like how to use microscopes and some Microsoft Excel tricks.

Aside: every time I think I know a thing or two about Excel, I find out that I'm still just on the tip of the iceberg: when we were in Australia, R showed us how to write Excel macros, which can automate a lot of mindless tasks. If I had known how to write Excel macros when I was an undergraduate, I could have done sooooo much more with the data that I had collected. If only.

Anyway. This morning's lab took way too long (I think I covered the syllabus in a little bit too much detail), but I enjoyed it. A couple of the students seemed to enjoy it as well. Overall, it's nice to be teaching a class where the students and I all have a really good attitude about the material.

Perhaps the most amusing part was that most of the class found the ants that I brought in to be disgusting. I suppose I would have agreed when I was an undergraduate. At least some of them got to look at them under the dissecting scopes.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
There were a couple of other exciting highlights yesterday. First, I cleaned the stove! It was absolutely disgusting because it had been a while since I last cleaned it. Now it's almost sparkling clean. There's some stuff on it that doesn't want to come off, but it looks so much better. It always seems to me like it's so much easier to keep things clean than to let huge stacks of stuff pile up and then have to clean them all at once. So yay.

And in other news, I got my teaching evaluations back from the spring. They were fantastic. Yay. I really enjoy teaching, and apparently it showed. I can't wait to start teaching again in the fall.

Well, it's now time to get back to work.

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