Farewell, dear blog.

I’m pleased to announce that I have been appointed as the Dean of Students at McGill! This appointment will start on 1 August, and will certainly involve a lot of changes to work, life and everything in between.

As many of you know, I have long been involved with University administration, and I have written before about why I enjoy administration, and why it is valuable. Being a Dean of Students is especially interesting to me, and here’s why:

The Dean of Students is an appointment that can help facilitate positive change at my University. I have developed a deep passion and interest in student affairs, and I have developed broader interests in administration and service. The motto of my campus is “Mastery for service“, and although cliché, I want to work to further my skills and abilities as an administrator, and I want to use these skills to best serve this University and most importantly, its students. I want to continue to work collaboratively with all members of our community, build respectful and trusting relationships among all, and help our students achieve success in and out of the classroom.

I want to help students have a truly exceptional experience at University.

Form me to you: goodbye to Arthropod Ecology, as this blog enters a long diapause.

Form me to you: goodbye to Arthropod Ecology – it’s been great!

I will certainly continue to keep my research program moving along: my institution supports this, and administrative leaders at McGill are encouraged to continue to be well-rounded academics, as much as is possible. However, there are always trade-offs, and becoming the Dean of Students will indeed affect my ability to blog with any regularity. I am, therefore, announcing that the blog will enter a very long diapause. I’ll certainly leave my old posts up, and I hope people continue to enjoy and share them, but I just won’t have the time to keep blogging on a regular basis.

Arthropod Ecology has had a great ride! The blog started back in 2011, and has been going strong for five years: I’ve written almost 300 posts over the years; I had a go at a few regular features (the most recent being “Spiderday“), and some posts continue to generate hundreds of hits per day (especially “Spiders do not bite“, “Tips for succeeding at University“, and “How to ask for a letter of recommendation“); I’ve been thrilled at the reception my blog has received: 500,000 visitors have come to Arthropod Ecology which is so far beyond any of my expectations! A lot more people visit the blog that would ever read my research papers. I hope writing about spiders, science, teaching, and higher education as proved useful to some. Personally, it has all contributed to my own growth as a scientist and a professor, and I have no regrets.

To my faithful readers: THANK YOU for being such great friends, for being critical, and being supportive. I’m sorry to be bowing out, and I do hope others continue to blog. Working to be good science communicators as well as good scientists, is so very important.

Onward to new adventures!

What does it mean to “do science”?

This is a guest post by PhD student Shaun Turney. I fully endorse it. It’s awesome.

As a scientist, when I’m brushing my teeth, I’m doing science.

This thought occurred to me yesterday as I was trying to reason myself out of a bout of imposter syndrome.

I was thinking: I don’t work hard enough to be a good scientist. I haven’t even done any science all day. I helped a francophone colleague with grammar, I read some stories on Eureka Alert, and I wrote up a field work budget. And that’s just some of the more useful sounding stuff: I also spent a fair amount of time playing basketball with a boy I mentor, cooking dinner, staring into space, telling my partner about my imposter syndrome issue, and reading a science fiction book. I looked through zero microscopes, wrote zero papers, and made zero hypotheses.

I convinced my brain to stop bullying me by distracting it with a question: What does it mean to “do science”?

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It's part of doing science.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It’s part of doing science.

It would help to know first what exactly “science” is, but philosophers are nowhere near resolving that debate. Science is often defined as a set of processes or tools, the most notable of which being the scientific method. Science is also the body of knowledge produced by that set of processes. These definitions seem pretty solid until you prod them a little: which tools and processes count as scientific? Which knowledge counts as being part of Science? What is “knowledge”, for that matter!

So “Doing science” could be roughly and problematically defined as carrying out scientific processes, like the scientific method, to add to science’s body of knowledge.

But tell me: Is wiping down the counters after your experiment part of running an experiment? Does arguing over beers about whose study organism can jump the highest count as a scientific debate? Can writing a blog post about your research count as writing a paper?

I think times are a-changing enough that many scientists, especially early-career scientists, would feel comfortable with including some instances of lab “house-keeping”, socializing (ie, networking), and social media-ing as part of doing science. Here’s a more radical proposition: taking care of yourself is also part of doing science.

Here’s a strange-but-true thought: If you’re a scientist, your body is a piece of scientific equipment. Your mind is an even more important piece of scientific equipment. If maintaining scientific equipment is a part of doing science, then equally so is maintaining your mind and body. This fuzzy line between doing science and not-doing science is especially evident in field work. In the field, ensuring that your traps don’t get holes and the soles of your feet don’t get holes are equally important parts of the scientific process.

We wear gloves when working with hazardous chemicals, and we consider this part of our scientific protocol. I brush my teeth before engaging in scientific debate so I don’t repel anyone with my breath, and this is part of my scientific protocol. We read papers and sketch down ideas to encourage our minds to come up with interesting hypotheses, and we consider this part of the scientific process. I play with children and read science fiction to encourage my mind to come up with interesting hypotheses, and this is part of my scientific process.

Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom: Pros and Cons

Earlier this term I wrote about my excitement with teaching in an active learning classroom: as a quick refresher, my course had just over 80 students, and is an introductory ecology class. The course has a strong focus on quantitative approaches to population and community ecology, from equations to modelling. I gave up doing traditional PowerPoint slides for this class a long time ago, but until this term, I was still teaching in a theatre-style lecture hall. With continuing to push the “active learning” agenda, it was great to have an opportunity to teach in a classroom specifically designed for active learning!

The Active Learning classroom

The Active Learning classroom

So, here are some perspectives and thoughts about teaching in an active learning classroom now that term is over.

Pros:

1. I found the tables (with rolling chairs!) were especially great when I did in-class quizzes, especially with group-based problems using “IF-AT” cards. Given the configuration of the tables, I sometimes did the quizzes with two groups at each table (so, 14 groups total, with 4-6 students per groups), or sometimes with three per table (21 groups total). Because the tables had three “wings” and chairs that rolled, it was quick and effective to make groups for these quizzes.

Students working in group quizzes using IF-AT cards (sample shown).

Students working in group quizzes using IF-AT cards (sample shown).

2. The configuration of the room made it feel like a ‘small’ class even though there were over 80 students in the room. From what I understand, a lot of care and attention was taken to the acoustics in the room, and I was truly amazed that even with active group work, the noise level was not overwhelming, and groups could work effectively.

3. Almost every class this past term included some kind of peer-to-peer discussion. Because students were facing each other, this was easily done in an active learning classroom: quick problem solving challenges, or getting students to come up with real-work examples related to course content, all was done easily on the spot. In a large lecture theatre it’s clunky and difficult to form discussion groups. A key strength of the active leaning classroom is certainly the configuration of tables: the learning space is optimal for active discussions.

4. I used some, but not all, of the technology in the room. The Tablet was fantastic (but see below…) and allowed me to write and draw, and those notes would be projected on one of the screens. At the end of lecture, the slides were immediately posted as PDFs on the course website. The room actually had dual projectors, and I used the second screen with a document camera so I could project graphs or text from the course textbook: students therefore had the course content from the textbook and from my lecture notes on the screens, during lecture. Although the room was also equipped with screens for each of the tables, I didn’t use these much, but the potential for each group to project their work has great potential.

5. Another advantage of the room was that the walls next to all the student tables were whiteboards. This allowed groups of students to work on problems using markers on the whiteboard, and draw out answers to problems, or do things like create ideas about food-webs. Again, the configuration of the room made this very quick and easy, since the students were just a few feet away from their whiteboard.

Students using the whiteboard to make food-webs.

Students using the whiteboard to make food-webs.

Cons:

1. Sometimes you just need to lecture, and an active learning classroom isn’t set up very well for more traditional lectures. Active teaching and learning can be exhausting for the teacher and the students, and sometimes the content really lends itself well to a more traditional lecture. The active learning classroom and its configuration means that a third to a half of the students aren’t facing the podium (which is in the middle of the classroom), and it can feel quite awkward lecturing in that kind of room. I also bring in guest lecturers throughout the term, and it can be daunting for a guest lecturer to be inserted into an active learning classroom (although I briefed them on the layout, it is still difficult to fully grasp the classroom until you actually teach in it).

2. When I sat at one of the desks (as a student would) during the guest lectures, I also discovered another problem with the room: you don’t know where to look. There are dual screens in four different corners of the classroom, and the teacher is standing in the middle of the room, not in front of any of the screens. I can be a bit weird and unsettling. Students have told me about this quirk of an active learning classroom, and after being a student in the room, I get their point.

3. Although I listed the whiteboards as a “pro”, above, they also get labelled a “con” because of their configuration. Since there were only seven tables and one main whiteboard for each table, it got crowded around the whiteboard when students at each table worked together on the whiteboard. Group work with 12 students is really tricky.

4. When technology works, it’s wonderful. When you rely on this technology, and it fails, it can spell disaster. Towards the end of the term the Tablet pen stopped working and this happened in the middle of a class (of course!). This meant I had to quickly change strategies, and I used a sheet of paper under the document camera, and wrote the class notes in that fashion. It was less than ideal, and was frustrating for me and for the students. And, it meant I couldn’t get the notes transferred to the course website. The IT folks did get this fixed, but there were a few classes where I had to adapt on the fly.

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The dual screens.

In sum, the experience of teaching in an active learning classroom was very positive: students seem engaged, and the room was well suited to group activities. As with all teaching, everything takes practice, and I know it will be much smoother next time I teach in that room. The space is really impressive, and I certainly did not use the classroom to its full potential.

If you want to dabble in active learning in your own class (or other approaches, such as flipped classrooms), I do highly recommend trying to teach in a classroom space that is conducive to your style of teaching . That being said, it’s a very bad idea to teach a traditional podium-style lecture-based class in an active learning space: it just doesn’t work, and under that scenario, stick to a theatre-style classroom.

I also want to give a big shout-out to Teaching and Learning Services at McGill – brilliant minds in that unit worked on the design of the room I taught in this past term, and after spending a term in that space, I am in truly in awe. Well done to the TLS team! And thanks to McGill for supporting Active Learning classrooms across its campuses.

Tips for managing a research lab

Running a research lab* isn’t easy. I learned this the hard way last fall when I performed rather poorly on my lab safety inspection. At the time it seemed to be a low priority: cleaning up the lab always seemed less important compared to, for example, having a lab meeting. We have since done a major lab clean-up, and we are back on track (phew!), but the experience has made me think about the skills needed to run a lab. Hopefully this is of interest to some of you, especially early career researchers (ECRs), but I would also like experienced researchers to wade with comments and tips. This post will be more about the “nuts and bolts” of running a lab, but perhaps a future post can be about broader philosophies around being the head of a research lab.

CleanLab

Part of my lab – AFTER cleaning.

Human resources

There are people in a lab. This means, as the head of a lab, you need to pay attention to human resources. This might be practical kind of stuff, like signing expense reports, or making sure students are getting paid when they are supposed to. But there are also many more complex things to think about, such as helping resolve arguments, or helping students through difficulties. You need to learn to listen, you need to navigate social dynamics, and be a good communicator. Make your expectations clear, and be sure that everyone is well aware of their roles and responsibilities. Work on ways to have a productive AND fun lab. Be sensitive to everyone’s different needs, and be open to change – operate on a principle of kindness. You will likely find yourself navigating some tricky situations so be sure to get help when you need it: there may be training available, or perhaps ask your Chair or a colleague about advice on being a good manager of human resources.

Organization

Running a lab is very much about being organized. There has to be a “plan” for all the different supplies, and space for everyone to store their samples, find the ethanol, or grab new Petri dishes. From the start it’s important to think about space needs in the long-term – anticipate how the lab might change in the future, and make sure there is room to grow. People need to feel that they have a “home” in the lab, whether it’s a desk or piece of a lab bench, and this requires careful assessment of space. I personally struggle with sample storage, and seem to squeeze old samples into various drawers, with a promise of getting rid of them (or putting them in long-term storage) after students have published their work. That promise is mostly broken, as it it easier to just store stuff and forget about it. ECRs: avoid this mistake! Stuff accumulates far too quickly. Be sure to label things too, including where to put supplies.

OrganizedLab

Safety and training

Don’t drink from the beakers; broken glass is dangerous. Stay on top of the safety rules at your institution: it’s easy to miss those emails, but as I learned, they are important. Top-down guidance about safety will show the lab members that safety is a priority not an afterthought. Know where to store chemicals, know about the eye wash stations, and make sure the first aid kit is stocked and ready. Know what needs to get stored where, and be ready when there is a call for hazardous waste disposal. Learn about MSDS, and be on top of the chemicals that may be present in your lab. As the head of a lab, you are indeed responsible for making sure your lab members have the appropriate training in the context of lab safety: whether it be WHIMIS, research ethics, or wilderness first aid, get your students signed up, and pay for the training. Don’t shirk this essential responsibility.

LabSafetyTweet.JPG

Permits

As the head of a lab, your name will likely be on all the research permits, and depending on your field of study, this can be a very big deal, and complicated. From collecting permits to animal care to biohazards, you need to guide your students through the permit process, from application to final reports. You have to be aware of deadlines, and know the ins and outs of the different requirements, especially when your work might cross jurisdictions. This can take an inordinate amount of time, but it requires the time commitment: lacking a permit can stall an entire research program. It’s essential to be proactive and prepared for permits. I certainly get my students to write the bulk of their own research permits, but a manager of a lab needs to facilitate this process.

Budgets and supplies

Running a lab means making sure there is a budget (i.e., you need a research grant!) to buy light bulbs for the microscope, flagging tape for field work, or medium for the agar plates. You need the money, and you need to know the process. The latter is not trivial: at my University some supplies are best bought using an internal purchasing system. Other places need just a credit card, or perhaps a purchase order. There are so many systems to learn, and each one probably needs a different password. It’s confusing and frustrating, and you have to stay on top of it. I keep a special file with all the details written out, and a hard-copy folder with old invoices – this way I can make sure to but the right sizes of things. Consistency is supplies is rather important!

Troubleshooting

Here are some things that have occurred in my lab over the years: weird smells from the sink. Lack of heat. Leaks from the ceiling. Power failures. Spider escapes**. Failing fridge. Failing freezer.

And the list goes on… Running a lab can be a lot about troubleshooting – you need to figure out who to call for what problem, and find a speedy resolution – otherwise you let down your grad students. Make a list of key people to get to know, from facilities to the local safety officer. Even better, post the list up in the lab, next to the telephone.

 

Ok, so there are certainly more things to know about running a lab, but hopefully the list provided is a start. Here’s the catch: almost everything I learned about running a lab was learned on the job. Despite attending some required workshops at the start of my career, I did not learn any real skills about running a lab. I was not trained to run a lab. Scientists must be taught to manage a lab.

That is a problem because a failure to run a lab properly has significant consequence for a lot of people! My students depend on the supplies that I have to buy, and they need to know what to do if there’s a chemical spill. Thankfully I had some good mentors when I was a grad student, and I managed to figure a lot of things out. However, I do think Universities need to do a better job helping hone the skills needed to run a lab; in many research fields, a successful academic career really depends on having a smooth-running lab, anything that can be done to help prepare ECRs for this would pay off.

In sum, I’m certainly a work in progress. Although I have some skills in research, I know that running a lab can be a real challenge for me, whether it’s forgetting to order supplies or checking the eyewash station weekly. I have learned to delegate a bit, and my grad students help me immensely at maintaining a safe and clean lab environment. I sure hope some of you can learn a bit from my own trials and tribulations… And please educate yourself, plan ahead, and know what it takes to run a lab well before you get the keys.

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Here are some other resources I’ve come across, related to managing a lab: from Genome Web, ASBMB, a post by Matt Welsh, and a Reddit thread on the topic

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**Sometimes we work with live spiders, on various projects. There have been times when they haven’t been where we left them. Oops.

Goodbye chalkboard! The opportunities and challenges of teaching in an active learning classroom

This year I have the pleasure of teaching my Population and Community Ecology class in one of McGill’s Active Learning Classrooms – this one is touted as been quite exceptional, and I’m keen to put it to the test. Over the past 4-5 years, I have been teaching my quantitative ecology course almost entirely with chalk. In fact, I have actively argued about the value of teaching with chalk, and about a move away from technology can be beneficial to student learning, to my own teaching, and overall a very positive experience for all. Now I’ll be faced with this kind of environment when teaching my class:

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.14.36 AM

A view of two of the group tables in the Macdonald Campus active learning classroom; each “pod” seats 12 students (in three wings), and each is colour coded, and linked and adjacent to a screen and whiteboard

So why change?

One problem with the Chalkboard it that it doesn’t easily allow for ‘capturing’ the content from the board. Students need to write their own notes (which is good, in my opinion), but at times there may be specific equations, graphs, or other content from the board that they wished they could have captured, but failed to do so. The Active Learning classroom allows an easy way to overcome this – as the tablet/screen that is in the room has a smart pen, and acts like a chalkboard (or, rather, kind of like a smartboard, except that the instructor uses the screen at the podium in the middle of the room). I can therefore project this board, and teach as if I was using chalk, and everything I write is projected on one of the screens. The big benefit here is that I can save everything I write as a PDF (or other file type), and upload the notes to the online course management system. This approach still encourages students to come to class and take notes, but doesn’t put them in a position to rush with notetaking, and live in fear of missing something that I write on the board. Here’s an example from the first lecture (it’s a bit clunky, and I’m not used to writing on the screen yet, but hopefully will get more seamless as the term progresses):
Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.17.12 AM

Another great benefit of the classroom is that it allows a second screen to be projected simultaneously as the first screen – I am thinking of primarily using this second screen to project graphs or equations directly from the textbook, through the use of a very high quality document camera. This saves me from having to hand-draw graphs (I do this very, very poorly – drawing straight lines is NOT easy!), and will allow the students to see the very direct ways that the content relates to the course’s textbook. This photo below shows how this looks: in that example the textbook cover is projected on the left screen and some ice-breaking questions are presented on the right-hand screen.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.11.28 AM

I have been trying to transition my course into more of an active learning course, and set an active learning challenge last year. Overall I felt this was very beneficial, but the traditional lecture theatre (where I have taught in the past) is not conducive to active group work and student collaboration. I’m excited that the active learning classroom is ideally set up for this: the 84 students in the class sit at seven separate tables, each with 12 students, and the tables are designed into three wings of four students each. This is optimal for group work, and provides many opportunities for different sizes of groups. Next to each table is a whiteboard and screen, and each table can project (independently) onto their screen. Students then have many options to collaborate and work on problems. I’m excited about this, and look forward to having groups of students work on problems together, collaboratively. The interesting thing about this space is that it doesn’t seem that big, yet is a classroom that holds 84 students! It’s also designed so that the noise level isn’t overwhelming when students are working in groups.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.12.48 AM

Students writing out ideas/answers to some questions, with their groups (from two different groups – notice the different colours?)

During the first lecture last week, I asked students how many of them had previously taken classes in the Active Learning classroom, and of those that did, many stated they did not enjoy the classroom. A little more discussion revealed that the students who disliked the classroom said their instructor used the room as a traditional lecture hall, and taught with powerpoint slides, from a podium. This clearly doesn’t work – the podium is in the middle, there are multiple screens (students say they are confused about where to look), and there are pillars that run right through the classroom (unavoidable since these are support pillars – and the classroom is in a basement); the ‘feel’ of the room, when used for traditional podium lectures, is all wrong. To use an Active Learning classroom means moving away from a podium-style lecture.

I certainly have a challenge ahead: in order to fully use the classroom’s potential, and make it engaging for the students, I have to ensure the technology and space is used properly. I’m only at the very start of term, so I will certainly report back on the experiences as the course unfolds. That being said, the combination of the technology and design is really promising for an active learning environment for my ecology class. It may just lead to the abandonment of chalk for a smart pen…

Course outlines and student assessment methods now available for EVERYONE

I send around my course outlines, assessment details, and grading rubrics to a lot of people. Sharing these kinds of documents helps me get feedback from my peers/colleagues about ways to improve my courses or assessment methods, in turn improving the course. And my peers/colleagues may learn some ideas from me, and try new things in their own courses. I think it’s also rather useful for students to be able to access details about the courses I teach. This can help students decide whether or not to take my courses, or helps them best understand the style of assessments that I use in my classes.

Instead of emailing these documents around to people, I’ve decided to share them publicly on Google Drive*. I’ve made my course outlines from the last offerings of my two main undergraduate courses, St Lawrence Ecosystems, and Population and Community Ecology.

St Lawrence Ecosystems is a field biology course, with a deep focus on “natural history and its observation”, done via research projects (with significant science communication components), and with assessments such as natural history field journals.

Population and Community Ecology is a quantitative ecology course, with a strong focus on modeling, and I use many active learning techniques in the course. For the past few years I’ve also done a very enjoyable pod-cast assignment in the class.

Please feel free to read, discuss, and give me feedback about the course outlines and the assignment details (with rubrics). I’d love to hear the ways these may be helpful to you, and I’m always keen to hear how other people are teaching their classes too!

*I’ve now also created a resource page for this  blog, with access to this Google Drive

How are you doing? Perhaps not “fine”?

When asked “how are you”, many people give a default answer of “fine”. Although that may be true a lot of the time, I worry that not everyone is “fine” all of the time. In my experience, this is especially true at this time of year: the late autumn can be tough on a lot of people, as the semester is no longer new and exciting, and the dark days of November* are ahead.

I’m involved with a lot of initiatives on campus around ‘wellness’ of our community, from mental and physical health, through to trying to best understand our campus resources, and think about ways we can be proactive around well-being. Part of my goal is to increase awareness of services and resources available to everyone, and to ‘check in’ with people as we enter a difficult time of year.

I decided to write a letter to our community, but a member of our communications team suggested a video message may also help to increase awareness. So, here’s the video. It’s low-tech and done without a script, but perhaps the message is relevant to your own community. Please share if that’s the case.

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*I personally find November rather tough. A few years ago my amazing and insightful wife suggested I take a photo every day in November, to explore the beauty that the month has to offer. That helped me a lot, and I’m immensely grateful for her suggestion to see beyond the dreariness to embrace colour and texture. Honestly, I think that project helped me with my own mental health, and I no longer dread November to the same degree.

 

Questions from grad students: on stress, being a generalist, and publishing

I was recently invited down to the Arkansas to be a “student-selected” speaker for their entomology Department. Their graduate students decide on someone to invite down to Fayetteville, and the honouree gets to visit that lovely part of the world, meet with grad students and professors in the Department, and give a seminar. It was a fabulous trip, and it was incredibly special to be recognized by graduate students. Thank you!

Quite a lot of my discussions with students ended up focusing on career development, pressures of the tenure-track run, and professional development. The students asked great questions, so great that I thought I would post them here, with some responses. (Surely other people will have better advice than what I have written, and please comment if you are so inclined!)

So many professors I know are always so stressed. How do you avoid burn-out, and why would anyone want to be a prof since it takes a real toll!

Indeed, there are days when the work is stressful, and pressures of the tenure run can be really tough. Grant writing, learning to run a lab, teaching and supervising all happen at the same time. Even after 14 years as a Prof, the stress can remain and still rears its ugly head. The job doesn’t get easier or stress-free over time.

I know this seems somewhat counter-intuitive at first, but for me, the best way to reduce work-related stress is to not work too much. You do not need to work 80 hrs a week to succeed in Academia, and finding balance between work and life is critically important. Even if you *love* everything about your research, take time away from it. Real time. Proper weekends. Find hobbies or activities that take your mind and body to somewhere else, whether it’s playing the ukulele or learning to bake. Making time for exercise is important too. A healthy body really does help with work productivity and lets you get a little distance.

The work will always be there. No matter how hard you try to get ahead on a project, the next task or project will be waiting for you. Nagging you and calling you name… Don’t give in!

This relates very much to the overwhelming urge to be a perfectionist, and do *everything* at an unattainable level. This must be jettisoned. Now. When you start to work a little less, you will actually start an important process of prioritizing and leaning the skill of time management. With less time at work, you will get more efficient with the time you do spend at work!

Why would anyone want to be a stressed-out Prof? Well… It remains a rather amazing job, and if that’s your career goal, go for it! But it doesn’t have to be a career goal, and we need to all do a better job at recognizing and valuing PhD career paths outside of higher education (check this out about “life after Academia“). Regardless, however, leaning how to manage stress and time are a part of the work, whether at a university, research institute, in government, or elsewhere. If you are doing grad work, it’s unlikely you will work in a “stress free” environment in your future.

We have to be so specialized during grad school, yet also need to figure out how to be generalists. How do we make that transition?

This is a great question, and very true! We become experts at the end of a MSc or PhD, and then are suddenly thrust into teaching an intro Biology class, or having to write a collaborative grant on a topic at arm’s length from our own expertise. For those interested in a career in Academia, the job requires people to be specialists and generalists, and that’s not always easy.

However, the transition is easier if you start taking small steps towards being a generalist early on. Often a qualifying (or comprehensive) exam during a PhD gets us thinking in more general terms, as that’s a time we are thinking a lot about how our research fits into a broader conceptual framework, or perhaps we are asked questions outside of our area, as a means for the committee to assess limits of knowledge. After these exams, it’s easy to slip back into our projects with a sigh of relief, and we delve back into become experts. It becomes a nice and cozy comfort zone. However, it’s important to start and keep some habits and continue on the path of being a generalist. Here are some ideas:

  • Spend a bit of time, every day, reading interesting stories at the periphery of your subject areas, whether that means checking out science blogs, listening to podcasts or following interesting people on social media. I do this every morning with a cup of coffee: I have a number of blogs I follow regularly, and I always check out tweets from scientists with an eye for interesting stories (e.g., Malcolm Campbell is a great person to follow). Most of these stories are not related directly to my area of research, but they help me keep up on what is happening in ecology, evolutionary biology, entomology and Arachnology, Heck, these stories sometimes help me rethink my own research, or give me ideas for new avenues of research. It’s a great use of time.
  • Try to attend any seminars offered by guest speakers, whether in your own department, or elsewhere. Often these guests are excellent speakers, and are doing interesting things worth hearing about. It is sometimes tricky to justify getting away from the lab bench, but exposure to different areas of study will help you become more of a generalist.
  • If your department offers a journal club, take part as much as you can, as this will expose you to new literature in other areas of study. The papers you will discuss may end up being great case studies when you first teach that intro ecology class. This will also help you learn methods, techniques and language from other disciplines, which will also help you later in your career, especially when you write collaborative and interdisciplinary grants.

How do we play the “impact factor” game with publications, knowing how flawed that index is! It’s sometimes so hard to know where to try to publish! Help!

Groan. This is a tough one! Despite the known issues with impact factors, some people/search committees still put value on perceived value of journals, and want to see a CV that has publications in “top tier” journals. The push for publishing open access (OA) is sometimes at odds with this, since not all OA journals are indexed in the same way as other journals, and some of the great OA journals coming on stream are not well known to some of the people that may be reviewing your CV.

So, the best advice I can have is to try to diversify your publications as much as you can, showing that you *can* publish in higher “impact” journals, but that you are also well aware of other publications venues, and most of all, that your work is of high quality. You can make a direct case on your CV or cover letter to help explain your logic, and there are excellent reasons why you might choose one journal over another despite a perceived difference in that journal’s impact.

What remains important in publishing as an early-career researcher is that it’s clear to any committee what *your* research is, and how you have made important contributions to your discipline, even if all your papers aren’t in top-tier journals. Any search committee  wants to know you can be a leader in your discipline.

Sometimes it seems “frowned upon” to say you want to work at a more teaching-focused college instead of a big R1 school. Why does this bias exist? 

I think this actually comes from a good place in that supervisors want the very best for their students, and the “best” is often thought of as a select group of R1 (research-intensive) schools. This ends up being pervasive in the culture of higher education, and there becomes an assumption that everyone wants to work in R1 schools but many end up “settling” for a lesser-known University. So, this means that all the profs not at R1 schools done really want to be there, and everyone is looking longingly towards greener pastures. This is, of course, entirely flawed logic because rankings are fundamentally flawed. But, speaking as both a parent and a supervisor, we don’t often think logically about those we care about and are mentoring. However, I firmly believe that it’s generally bad advice to bias any student’s thinking around their career path. An open mind is much, much better.

That being said, it is important to look critically at yourself and figure out what gives you the most joy and happiness. If you love being in the classroom, embrace it! If you can’t stand teaching but are at ease behind a lab bench or writing grants, embrace it! Then, once you have done this self-examination, stick to your guns and have an honest and frank discussion about this with those doing the frowning. Your supervisors and mentors really need to know what you want, in the best-case scenario, because they are a strong ally for you when you are looking for a job, whether it’s giving an informal reference over the phone, or writing a letter of reference.

Now, we all know that academic jobs are not that easy to get, and despite what you may *want* as a perfect job, this should not stop you from applying to any positions that you might be qualified: keep a open mind because you may find yourself in a R1 school, and you might love it (I know this from personal experience: I always saw myself at a smaller college/University yet managed to land a job at one of the big research Universities in Canada, even though I didn’t think I had a chance of landing the job! And, I’m very happy with the job).

Once you do land a job, and you are happy about it, spread the word. Discuss how great it is to be at your University, whether a liberal arts college, Land grant University, or Ivy League. They are all great.

The pillars of the ivory tower remain deeply planted, and despite increased interest in public engagement and outreach, Universities remain slow-moving, old, conservative institutions. Will this ever change? 

Ok, so this is a pretty big question. So big that it will wait for another post since this one is getting a little too long… I will save that for another time.

In sum, interacting with grad students at Arkansas was truly a delight. They were confident, bright, engaged and inquisitive. Spending time with a group of graduate students gives me great hope and optimism, and their insightful questions are an indication of this.

Rethinking the University Classroom: Ban the podium-style lecture, not the laptop

There has been a lot of recent coverage/chatter about bans on laptops in the lecture halls of Universities and colleges (e.g., see here, here and here). I am particularly interested when instructors implement outright bans on laptops in their classes, citing reasons related to distraction, both by students on their computers, but also distraction for students sitting nearby classmates with their screens aglow. There have also been some recent studies about how students retain and learn content more effectively when taking hand-written notes instead of typing notes. Are laptop bans the solution?

What bothers me about this debate is that most coverage actually skirts around the true issue, which to me is about a fundamental problem of podium-style teaching. A traditional lecture hall environment is not always a great place for teaching and learning. It is in those environments where the issues of note-taking and distraction arise, and where laptop bans occur. I certainly don’t hear complaints about laptops in seminar/discussion courses, or in those occurring in active learning classrooms.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

I was student for a day once. This as a view from my seat in the lecture hall. Students were using laptops to take lecture notes.

Here is my opinion: in most teaching environments*, laptop bans are unnecessary and should be avoided. Some students need to take notes with a laptop, perhaps because of a disability (eg, arthritis), and accommodation is needed. Sometimes it is useful for students to follow along a PowerPoint presentation, or fact-check or Google some of the content during the lecture (heck that could even provide opportunity for some class discussion!). If students are distracted, this likely indicates a bigger problem, and the instructor should look into ways to make the classroom more active and engaging. It is perhaps easier to look to issues with distracted students and laptops than it is to rethink the way material is being taught. We are living in a digital age with our students being true digital natives, and I worry that sometimes a ban on laptops is a reflection on biases by the instructor and, frankly, doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

Let’s make our lecture halls inclusive environments, and perhaps ban policies about banning laptops!

Ok, fine, but… but … but… what if other students are bothered by their peers with laptops? What if students just don’t want to be in that “required” course, and are grumpy… and become easily distracted? I think some of this can be solved. I suggest that all instructors have a frank and open conversation about technology in the classroom. A discussion about your concerns, and the concerns by students, can go a long way. It also may be useful and necessary to develop some guidelines around technology in the classroom – and perhaps adjust the seating plan to avoid issues with students being distracted. Check out if your University has a formal policy about this, and see how your thinking aligns with this policy (as an example, here is McGill’s policy). Another option to help with the “boredom” factor (a potential reason for distraction) is to allow “tech time” mid-way through a lecture. Stop halfway through**, give everyone a break for a few minutes (to stretch, nap, text or post to Facebook).

Or even better, rethink the fundamental ways you are teaching.

I posit that boredom and distraction in a classroom, and the broader concern about laptops, learning, and note taking, are because instructors are stuck in the “lecture hall rut”. The debate points again to a need to embrace active learning, and work to increase engagement within the classroom. Most profs only learned one way to teach: at the podium. It’s what we were exposed to during our undergraduate degrees: the podium is the standard. But it’s not the gold standard and a serious rethink is long overdue.

How to break the tradition? How about taking the active learning challenge? There are small, simple things instructors can do, even in large lecture halls (yes, there are infrastructure constraints – not enough of our learning spaces are built for active learning). There are amazing resources out there to better understand active learning, and why it’s important.

Learn from other instructors who are doing different things in the classroom – hang out with the innovators, and use their strategies in your classroom. Watch videos, take workshops from your teaching and learning units, and work with your chairs and Deans to rethink the classroom context.

Work to integrate technology (and laptops!) into the classroom – on-line quizzes can be done in class, with technology – perhaps with mobile devices, laptops or student response systems (aka, clickers). Try integrating social media to the classroom, via a course hashtag or course blog. Use the tools that students are using: this will work to increase engagement in the classroom. We are truly living in an exiting time for the integration of technology into teaching – it’s time to harness the possibilities and harness the power of technology, instead of ban it.

I won’t lie: rethinking why and how you teach the way you do will take time and energy. But the short term pain will lead to long term gains. Students will appreciate the efforts, the classroom dynamics will change, and I believe the amount of boredom and distraction will decrease. Active leaning is not just a catch phrase, it’s a meaningful and important way to improve the classroom experience, for the students but also for the instructor.

There is little need to ban laptops in classrooms that are active, engaging and break from the traditional podium-style lectures.

—–

*There are some kinds of classes in which laptop use can be questioned, such as a hands-on laboratory, field course, studio-class or with some seminar/discussion classes. However I believe these are a minority. (If there are other examples you know about, please leave a comment!)

** this strategy was shared by Prof. Matthew Cobb, at Manchester – he says it works very well!

How to succeed at University: twelve tips for undergraduate students

Note: this is an updated/edited post, it was originally published several years ago.

The start of term is an exciting time for those of us who work at a University. There are many new students arriving on campus, full of enthusiasm, hope, and questions.  As an Associate Dean, I meet many of these students, and I am often asked for advice during orientation week. Later in the term, I sometimes see students who are struggling, and looking for strategies to help with balancing their academic work with other priorities, or looking for ways to make their time at University a little easier. So, here are my twelve tips for success at University:

1. Work hard. At the end of the day, hard work pays off. You made it into University, which suggests you have the fundamental skill set required for higher education. However, don’t forget to keep your eye on the ball and buckle down and get the work done! It’s easy to get swayed by social life,  students clubs and activities, athletics, and by trips home to see family. These things are all important, and your well-being often depends on these extracurricular activities but academic success largely rests with a developing and maintaining a strong work ethic. Make lists, prioritize, and focus on getting the “job” of being a student done well.

2.  Listen to your academic advisor:  Most academic programs have an ‘academic advisor’ associated with them (e.g., see here for McGill’s website about advising).  These individuals are there to help you get through your program. Advisors typically help  with course selection, and help plan an academic program from start to finish.  When arriving on campus, you should book a meeting with your advisor, and more importantly, listen to their advice!  Advisors know the ins and outs of your program, and paying attention to them will help you in the long run.  You don’t want to end up messing up your academic program because you decided to avoid taking required courses early on in your program! Advisors can also help you get on the correct path should you wish to pursue research or internships later in your program, or a term away such as a field semester or an exchange program.

3.  Have an agenda, and use it:  This seems like pretty obvious advice, but you would be surprised how many students (and Professors!) don’t have a good system for managing time.  University is a lot about managing your time: getting to classes, dealing with e-mails, assignments, planning for exams, and squeezing in a social life, or a part-time job.  It’s a struggle to manage all these tasks, and therefore it is essential to develop a clear and straightforward system of ‘calendar + tasks‘.  Under calendar, include your class schedule, important dates and meetings, and most importantly, LOOK at the calendar regularly!  I personally prefer using an on-line calendar that syncs with my mobile devices – but some people prefer the old-fashion (yet dependable) hard-copy calendar.  For tasks, include short-term tasks (with deadlines – cross-referenced with your calendar) and long-term tasks, so that you are reminded of on a regular basis.  I use a small notebook for my task list, and it is always with me – for me, the act of physically writing down a task list helps me remember what I need to work on.   A good system for your agenda and tasks will make your life a lot easier.  Using an agenda and task list properly will also help you refine your time management skills, and these skills are truly essential to future success almost anywhere.

4.  Show up on time and don’t miss deadlines:  Again, this seems pretty obvious, but it’s also pretty easy to mess up.  Treat University like a professional job – you need to be mature, you must be on time, and never miss deadlines.  Try to have everything done early (with good time management skills, this is very possible!).   Being late to lectures, or having to ask for extensions on papers or projects (without extenuating circumstances), does you no favours, and  Professors, generally speaking, are not impressed by these behaviours.   At some point, you may need to ask your Professors for a letter of reference, and it is much better to be remembered as the students who hands in papers early, then a student who can’t manage deadlines.

5.  Go to class:   Lectures, labs and seminars are there for a reason:  they provide you with value-added content, and a context for the course materials.  It’s true that some of the content may be available on-line, or with a text-book, but in most cases, lectures or labs will help to draw connections between different content, and/or provide a valuable context to the material that might be available elsewhere. Labs or seminars provide important opportunity for hands-on and interactive learning, and this cannot be replaced easily.  Instructors take a lot of pride in lecturing or leading a lab demonstration, and most of them work hard to make the time worthwhile,  interesting, and thought-provoking.  You will soak up an amazing amount of material by just being there, and paying attention.

6. Keep up! This point is closely related to the previous few ideas – but is important to keep in mind as a separate item.  Assignments at University tend to sneak up on you – deadlines seem so far away, until you realize that there are three written reports due within a two week period, with Thanksgiving in the middle! Similarly, lecture content builds upon itself, and assuming you will just naturally be able to keep up may not be the best idea. Try to build some habits in your life so that you review the content soon after each lecture or laboratory, and/or spend a bit of time each morning prepping for your day and keeping an eye on the week ahead.  Do your best to stay on top of the material: in my experience, if students start to fall behind a little bit, this quickly spirals as the weeks pass by, and the stress level increases as you try cram for an assignment or final exam.

7.  Get help when you are struggling:  At some point in your University career you will likely need help, whether it is with difficulties with finances, a personal relationship, failing a course, or struggles with mental or physical health.  The University system is a compassionate and collegial environment and it’s a place with a lot of wonderful resources to help you when you are struggling (e.g., see this example for McGill).  Don’t hesitate to seek help when you need it, or if you know you already have some struggles with anxiety or depression, be sure to be aware of what resources are available to you ahead of time. If you are feeling sick, visit health services. If you are struggling with your program, touch base with your academic advisor. If you are feeling overwhelmed or isolated, touch base with counseling services. Know that you are not alone in your struggles (although it may feel that way), and the community will support you. As part of this community, you also have a responsibility to keep an eye on your classmates and friends, and if they need help, you can be in a position to direct them to the right resources.

8.  Ask questions:  In most of my classes, I tell students that there are no stupid questions (except for “Will this be on the exam?”).  This is very, very true.  If you are confused about a concept, or failed to get the point of a slide, or discussion, you must ask for clarification. Although it can be intimidating to ask a question in a large lecture hall, it’s important to try.  If you are confused, it’s highly likely that other student’s are also confused.  You are helping yourself, and your peers, when you put your hand up. In many cases, there is a on-line course management system for each class, and often there are discussion boards available: this provides another opportunity to ask questions of your instructor or TA, or you can ask questions that your peers may be able to help with.

9.  Get to know your instructors:    Whenever possible, get to know the instructors of your courses, be they Professors, Lecturers, or Teaching Assistants.  Most instructors have office hours, and these hours are there for good reason – they provide time to meet your instructor, ask questions, and have a personal connection with them.  Don’t be intimidated by instructors: we are people, too, and most of us recognize that life as an  undergraduate student can be stressful and difficult.  We can provide you help with course content, but also help direct you to other resources.  Getting to know your instructors also helps when you might be seeking a summer job in the future, or when you need a letter of recommendation.

10. Avoid ‘grade panic’:  I am living proof that it is possible to do poorly at undergraduate courses yet still have a successful career!  When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, I just about failed my first year physics course and I was terrified that this would make it impossible to succeed in any kind of career.  Of course this was not the case – a University education is much more than a single course, or a single quiz or examination – an academic program has many components and even if some of the components fall off the rails, this does not mean everything is lost.   Aim for excellence in your academics, but also remember that EVERYONE has bad days, performs poorly on an exam, or just can’t seem to figure out a particular subject.  This is normal, and you must keep everything in perspective!  Your University career is not defined by a single moment of failure – keep the bigger picture in mind, and don’t sweat the small failures.  In a University environment, success at everything is nearly impossible to achieve.   Keep a level head,  keep calm, aim for excellence, but don’t panic when things go wrong.

11.  Stay healthy: Your mother was right – eat your vegetable and get some sleep.  Invariably, influenza and/or a bout of gastro will whip through residence halls sometime around when mid-term exams are starting.  Your best line of defense is a healthy immune system, and part of that includes nutrition, sleep, and exercise.  I think it’s more important to be less prepared but well rested than over-prepared and exhausted – and if you attended lectures, your rested mind will be in a good position to access the course content. Related to this is a little reminder to “slow down” every now and then (I need to remind myself of this, daily). Take some deep breaths, perhaps meditate or do yoga, or just find a bit of quiet time now and then to pause and reflect.

12.  Have fun!   Life as an undergraduate student is truly incredibly. It is a time of personal growth and reflection, and it is an enriching experience on intellectual, emotional, and social levels.   Remember that you are immersed in an amazing experience. University provides a wealth of opportunities (student groups, sports, lectures, laboratories, and more), and you will make close friends, meet future colleagues, business partners or partners in life.  Don’t forget to take it all in – in the future, you will remember a lot of details from your University days and you want these memories to be more than sweating over deadlines and grade panic. Stay well.