Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse

Very important stuff when it comes to measuring academia.

Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week

I’ve been on Twitter since April 2011 — nearly six years. A few weeks ago, for the first time, something I tweeted broke the thousand-retweets barrier. And I am really unhappy about it. For two reasons.

First, it’s not my own content — it’s a screen-shot of Table 1 from Edwards and Roy (2017):

c49rdmlweaaa4if

And second, it’s so darned depressing.

The problem is a well-known one, and indeed one we have discussed here before: as soon as you try to measure how well people are doing, they will switch to optimising for whatever you’re measuring, rather than putting their best efforts into actually doing good work.

In fact, this phenomenon is so very well known and understood that it’s been given at least three different names by different people:

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Academics Supporting Academics

If you hang out in the academic circles of Twitter or the blogosphere[1] you’ll find many frightening stories about the cutthroat and ruthless nature of the world’s self-appointed thinkers. Bullying in academia has its own Wiki page (don’t be too shocked, academia is also an industry that hosts regular edit-a-thons of Wikipedia), and is frequently the topic of thinkpieces in your favourite left-leaning media (again, don’t be too surprised, we’re also an industry that writes for a living).

Bullying in academia is a problem, and early career researchers are frequently left unsupported. But this is not the only story. I’ve heard tales from my own university that make my skin crawl, but I think it’s equally important to highlight when things work well. I have always been incredibly lucky to work in supportive teams, and I’d like to think I help to support my colleagues, so if you want to change the culture of your academic workplace, here are the things that work for me:

1. Ask for help

SRUC recently hosted Temple Grandin for a series of talks, and I was invited to talk about my research as part of an early career day. I’m not the kind of person who gets nervous about talking, but presenting your research, that you’ve just written a book on, to one of science’s biggest characters is not a normal kind of talk.

I asked for help.

My colleague, Jess Martin, pictured to my left in this Tweet, sat with me as we flicked through my slides. She gave me some brilliant advice on my slides, and then she gave me some tips for coping with nerves during presentations. I think it’s important to point out that these are skills I have, I win competitions (and book deals) on these skills, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need help sometimes. As academics we like to  believe we are experts, that we have irreplaceable skills. If we don’t believe this then everyone is our competition . . .

Here’s the thing, every woman in that photo could do my job better than me if they put their mind to it. We are a strong team, not when we scrabble for funding scraps, but when we sit down together to see where we can learn from one another.

 

2. Acknowledge your colleagues

She won’t thank me but I want to call Jess out specifically here. Jess is one of these people who will always have time to help you if you ask for it. Jess also uses peoples names.

In a meeting, when Jess wants to echo someone’s idea she says “Jill’s point was a good one…”. I’ve started trying to do the same. “I agree with Bob”, “I missed what Alice said, can you say it again?”

I often find myself in meetings where there is a spread of paygrades around the table. You and your fellow early career researchers will not be on the radar until you all start speaking about your achievements. Don’t push your own agenda at the expense of others. When Bob makes a good point, tell people it was Bob’s idea.

 

3. Think about wellbeing

I have another set of colleagues, Kirsty Hughes, Sharon Boyd and Jessie Paterson, who are very engaged with workplace wellbeing. They organise various sessions to get us thinking about things other than work. I’m going to be talking about video games for my team later this month. They’re not mandatory, but they’re there. Just before Christmas my boss was teasing me for me affection for glitter as we made some Christmas cards, and then we pondered our approach to one of my current projects.

Good bosses are very important here, and another place where I’ve always been incredibly fortunate. But even if you don’t have a supportive boss, think about how you and your colleagues interact. Working in Scotland my colleagues and I are big fans of the pub debrief, but there’s plenty to be said for walk-and-talks out in nature, for crafting sessions and opportunities to explore hobbies.

Hobbies teach skills you can bring into the workplace, my photography and videogaming are both things I can use in my role, but that’s not the real gain here. Work shouldn’t make you sick. It’s as simple as that.

 

4. Go home!

Don’t be part of the culture that normalises sleeping under your desk. Go home at a reasonable time. If you are sending an email to a colleague and you see their out of office is on, it’s very easy to delay an email so it gets sent when they’re back, and it takes very little extra effort on your part. Turn off email notifications on your phone, turn off your inbox’s ability to pop up every time a new email hits your inbox. If you have a short question why not visit your colleague’s office, instead of sending an email?

Don’t fall into the trap of saying “this is how it was for me, this is how it’ll be for my students”. I hope the future generation has a better life than ours.

 

5. Reflect on feedback

This is the one I find most challenging. I like to think of myself as amazing at all times, but I’m not. I do things wrong, I lack several skills, I have a long way to go. I found my Higher Education Academy application to be a revelation in this sense. I still struggle to take feedback on board, but I like to think I’m getting there.

Trying to hear feedback as about the work, and not about me, is not easy. On the whole academics are good at things and don’t like failing, but our work is always about failing. You’re never going to answer that question perfectly, you’re never going to be perfect. Let yourself be messy, let yourself fail, give yourself space to grow. How else will you know when you need to go to your colleagues for help, or when it’s time to stop bashing your head off the keyboard and go for a walk?

Self-reflection isn’t easy, but there needs to be a lot more of it in science.

FluffySciences in 2016

So it’s not quite Friday, but I think it’s time to post the last FluffyFriday of 2016 anyway!

2016 was a big year for me, professionally speaking.
First and foremost, 2016 was the year I wrote my book: Animal Personalities. It’s not 100% finished yet, but the first draft was completely laid out by the end of November. I now have five months with which to edit that into some semblance of sense, but I’ve definitely been enjoying getting my evenings back this December.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I jumped disciplines when I became a Veterinary Education Researcher. As intimidating as this might have been, the last six months have been amazing fun and very fulfilling. The challenges of education research are gripping and I have been loving the opportunity to dig into concepts and methodologies that are new to me in a way that I just didn’t have the time to do when I was splitting my time between MSc coordinating and research.

And most recently, although I’m no longer spending the majority of my time teaching I was encouraged by Edinburgh to apply for my Higher Education Award fellowship. I’ve surprised myself at just how proud I am of this achievement. It’s lovely being able to point to something that says your teaching is recognised, especially given how important its become to me. I also found the process incredibly rewarding, and fully intend to blog a little bit about it in the coming months (if the book doesn’t get in the way).

With all these little things bubbling away in the background it’s not surprising that this poor little blog has been somewhat neglected. 2016 was our poorest performing year with ‘only’ 1600 odd visitors in comparison to 2015’s 2000 visitors and 2014’s nearly 3000 visitors. People stumble onto the blog searching for ‘BCG Scar’ (you folks are looking for Badger Fortnight) and ‘danger of using punishment’ (you folks are looking for the discussion on Positive Punishment). One person also found us searching for ‘general science, dumb.com’. I hope you found what you were looking for, my friend. The most popular post this year was 2013’s Christmas post ‘Why Do We Care About Animal Welfare?’ with ‘I’m a Tetrachromat‘ coming in second. The most popular blog post from this year was ‘Purity, Application and Function: The Real Problem In Science‘ which I’m still quite proud of.

Finally – many people seem to be checking the Book Page for updates this year. I hope that by this time next year there’ll be something there for you to explore.

Have a lovely festive break if you’re having one, and FluffySciences wishes you all the best in 2017.

Purity, Application and Function: The Real Problem in Science

 

Science is in crisis.

We’ve been hearing this from a wide range of fields, from students to professors, and perhaps most alarmingly, from two of the world’s largest democracies rejecting evidence based policy to elect anti-science policy makers. The culprit is claimed to be peer review, or badly understood statistics, scientists being too wrapped up in public engagement, scientists not doing enough public engagement, the terrible way we treat our science teachers, our devaluing of degrees . . .

I don’t think it’s any of these. I think the real cause of the scientific crisis is specialism.

Before going any further I want to point you towards two comics in the venerated xkcd. Purity and Degree Off. As an interdisciplinary scientist who named her blog ‘Fluffy Sciences’ I open many of my lectures with these concepts. I used to open with Purity long before Degree Off was posted because it makes such an important point. The culture of science has a deeply ingrained problem with application. The more applied a scientist is, the more we look down on them. A mathematician is worth a dozen engineers because at the end of the day, the mathematician can be taught to do anything the engineer can. As the mathematicians say, everything comes down to numbers eventually.

I am not immune to this belief. I’ve spent a lot of my scientific career fighting my own applied nature. When I was specialising in behavioural ecology I maintained that I was interested in the broader – and more serious – sphere of ecology. When I started working in ethology I clung to that behavioural ecology badge like a shield. When I realised I was getting deep into interdisciplinary territory I started reaching for the word ‘ethology’. If I had an ology I’d be fine. Interestingly, in my interview for my current role I was asked what attracted me to educational research. My answer was that I liked working at the coal face, I liked being able to quickly see the impact of a change.

My answer was honest, and applied, and reader? I have never been happier professionally than I am in my current role.

Recently I feel as though I’m hearing the same thing, over and over. Whether it’s what I have been writing in my application to the Higher Education Academy, whether it’s listening to how the Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare MSc has changed over the years, or whether it’s listening to Dr Chatterjee’s SEFCE plenary on functional medicine, the problem that each person describes is the same: the specialists are only interested in teaching their subject, not the skills that the world desperately needs.

Chatterjee’s talk was interesting precisely because it set off many of my little professional bugbears. Chatterjee preaches Functional Medicine, a holistic approach to a medical problem that advocates multiple small harmless changes as a first line of treatment. In theory I love the sound of it, its very similar to the approaches I advocate for welfare assessment. But Chatterjee spoke of several case studies, he couldn’t evidence sustained behavioural change for his patients, and I was desperate to ask how such a change could be implemented in a health system which needs measurable metrics both for the assessment of new medics and the quality monitoring of existing medics. These are all serious questions for advocates of functional medicine.

During the talk I tweeted my thoughts, as I often do, and I tweeted that my quantitative heart and qualitative brain were at war when thinking about functional medicine. My heart, which truly loves the comfort of describing things mathematically, rejected functional medicine’s case-by-case approach. My logical brain, which sees the value of qualitative science, understood that the real goal was not making numbers perform on a chart, but changing the intangible and immeasurable experience of the patient.

We specialise early in life. Maths is separate from English in school. You can be better at one subject than the other. I think back to my early years at university. In first year I had three courses, biology, chemistry and archaeology. Learn the facts about biology, this fish does that, this dinosaur likely moved like this. Learn the facts about chemistry, hydrocarbons are stable, lab safety is important. Learn the facts about archaeology, these people lived then, this is the evidence they leave behind. Facts that can be regurgitated in multiple choice questions (a very efficient and useful method of assessing knowledge). Then in second year, 8 separate biology courses. In third year, four separate biology courses, in fourth year another four separate courses. All these courses that are set up independently, assessed independently, and brought together at the end with a dissertation project. 

This approach is a relic of university history where expert lecturers stood up to regurgitate everything they knew about their subject. We know that this is not the best way to teach (1, 2, 3) , and indeed even that it prevents students from making connections between subjects. Yet we persist in creating these divisions. Why?

In some respects it comes back to the need to measure success. It is always easier to measure something when you break it down into smaller chunks, and students need to be measured and to be told how well they’re doing. No student wants to study for four years and then have everything assessed at the end (well as a student that would have suited me perfectly but I don’t think I was normal). So there must be some break down of both the information and skills. The question to me is: what’s the most important thing you want every student to be able to do?

In the first year of your science degree what do you need to know? Do you need to be able to say that parrot fish are able to change sexes in single sex environments? Is it important for you to name every type of bridge structure? These may be reasonably interesting facts, but what is the application? In the last five years I have never been in a situation where that sort of knowledge wasn’t accessible via the small device in my pocket. We have out-brains now that deal with fact retention. Fact retention is the least important part of my role as a scientist.

Not only is fact retention not important for me, as an actual academic who works in research, but most of the students I teach are not going into the hallowed halls of academia. The zoologists are becoming bankers, the engineers becoming salespeople . . . regardless of what you think of it, the undergraduate science degree does not mean you will become a scientist. For those people, what’s the most important thing I could teach them? What’s the most useful thing for them to learn?

It is not the parrot fish.

 

Imagine a first year science degree where the first year looks like this:

Introduction to Science

By the end of this year you will be able to:

  • Identify an appropriate sample frame for a range of populations
  • Distinguish between interview and focus-group data
  • Discriminate between positive, negative and historical controls
  • Describe a manipulative study
  • Describe an observation study

Those learning outcomes are all assessable via variants of multiple choice questions, but also easy to evidence in class, providing excellent opportunities for both formative and summative feedback. This meets our need to measure and give feedback for our students. I would be delighted to even work with an MSc student who could do all of these, but they are still basic skills that any psychologist, chemist, physicist or biologist should really be able to do. Not only that but the banker and the salesperson, the people with the degrees who have no intention of ever doing research. These are skills that the world needs.

You could use examples from many different fields while teaching this subject. You could show how a focus-group responds to a new bread recipe, bring in some accessory knowledge from everything from agriculture to chemistry (Learning Outcome 2).  You could look at the testing of a bridge’s strength and compare that with observation of the bridge in use (Learning Outcomes 4 & 5). Even those students who do want to become scientists are interested in the how of the world, and all of these examples are interesting and worthwhile learning a little bit about.

Specialist knowledge is important, but specialists are by definition an expert in one thing. We need more people with more general knowledge. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help the world move forward. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help itself.

Being a physicist is not better than being a stamp collector. We shouldn’t be teaching students otherwise.

degree_off
“Degree Off”, XKCD – CC Attribution, Non Commercial

MOOCs as a mechanism for behavioural change

Have you always wanted to hear my opinions on MOOCs but been unable to bring yourself to search through the MOOCs tag of this blog (or read the papers, or look at Twitter, or . . . never mind).

Well it’s good news for you! The Human Behavioural Change for Animal Welfare conference did a great job recording all the talks, including yours truly. The full set of talks can be found here, but I would highlight Melanie Connor’s talk on the Duty of Care projefct and Anna Saillet’s talk on maintaining behavioural change.

You can watch yours truly here:

On Writing Books

After a week of annual leave my first draft of the book broke 60,000 words. I promised a minimum of 70,000 and it looks like I’m well on track to have my first draft finished by the end of this year. That gives me five months to edit, which has always been my least favourite part of the writing process.

It turns out that writing what is, essentially, a whole other PhD on top of your full time job in the space of eighteen months is really hard. Who knew?

I miss this little blog though, and I miss things that aren’t about animal personality, but the end is very nearly in sight!

Academia, Love Me Back

If you’re a lecturer and you think your student has plagiarised something the way to deal with it is:

1) Put the work through a plagiarism checking service, e.g. TurnItIn, which is capable of recognising sequences other than words
2) If TurnItIn flags the work up as plagiarised check – because TurnItIn is way too sensitive and usually it’s a grammatical error
3) Inform the student what plagiarism is, showing them in the work the examples and show how they can quote without falling afoul of plagiarism – students must be able to change their work for the better after receiving feedback.
4) ??? profit from the improved education of your students?

Sorry this had to happen to Tiffany 😦

TIFFANY MARTÍNEZ

My name is Tiffany Martínez. As a McNair Fellow and student scholar, I’ve presented at national conferences in San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami. I have crafted a critical reflection piece that was published in a peer-reviewed journal managed by the Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education and Council for Opportunity in Education. I have consistently juggled at least two jobs and maintained the status of a full-time student and Dean’s list recipient since my first year at Suffolk University. I have used this past summer to supervise a teen girls empower program and craft a thirty page intensive research project funded by the federal government. As a first generation college student, first generation U.S. citizen, and aspiring professor I have confronted a number of obstacles in order to earn every accomplishment and award I have accumulated. In the face of struggle, I have persevered and continuously produced…

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Ch-Ch-Changes

There are more changes afoot at FluffySciences! Because after six very happy years with SRUC it’s time for me to move on …

 

Yes today was, technically, my last working day at SRUC. On Monday I start a new role as a research fellow in veterinary education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

I’m really excited to be starting this new role. It’s a group I know well and whose work I’ve often admired, so it’s a delight to be working with them more closely. And it’s a subject I’ve been interested in for some time. But of course it’s sad to be leaving SRUC and my lovely colleagues. While we’ll still work together it’s a strange thing to be leaving a group who I’ve been working with for longer than I was in high school!

You hear a lot of horror stories as a PhD student about unsupportive and unhelpful groups. I feel like I owe it to everyone to talk about the other side of the coin. When you’re lucky enough to work with a supportive group they can help you achieve so much. They listened to me ramble about definitions of animal personality for years and their feedback was always honest and constructive. They gave me opportunities to work on MOOCs and learning objects and so many interesting little bits and pieces of research. And of course they took me to amazing conferences all around the world and bought me beer and cups of tea and cakes whenever we were all out together.

So it has been a pleasure and a privilege, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next chapter of my research career brings. FluffySciences will continue, probably with a little bit of a shift in focus, but it will remain a blog obsessed with proving that even the soft, fluffy sciences like educational science are thorough and evidence based. Keep an eye out for my application to the Higher Education Academy Fellowships, I’ll be working through Edinburgh’s programme to get there and I’ll mirror all the self-reflective work as examples on here. And of course the book will still be under development.

Goodbye, SRUC, I will always be grateful.

Sunday Obits

I am full of a chesty cold and have spent the weekend falling from sick bed to sick bed around the flat, with Athena following dutifully in my wake to cuddle and occasionally lick me back to full health. So I’ve been reading a lot of internet articles.

There’s a fascinating blog on Jezebel about how a writer felt after the death of his cat Kellog. A paper I wrote looking at how people remember dead pets online will soon be available in Anthrozoos. The nature of the internet means that that paper is already slightly outdated, with this kind of response now more often captured in social media rather than online pet obituaries as it was only a few years ago.

Add it to the list of things to investigate one day .  . .