The Future of Higher Education: Blog Post 5

What does the future of higher education look like? What needs to change in order to make a positive difference? In my opinion, more acceptance of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and usage of alternative methods of teaching are key. As modern society continues to rely more and more on advanced technology, there is no way that technology will not continue to become more and more an integral part of teaching and higher education.  I think that the standard lecture format that most professors utilize today needs to change, as does the connotation a degree from an online university is somehow “less” than that of a university with the standard campus format.

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When I was in high school, the majority of my teachers still used an overhead projector to project hand-written notes for us to write down. In college, I had a few (older) professors who did that as well. I am not sure if any undergraduates now have professors who use that method. Does anyone know? Since I started graduate school more years ago than I would like to admit, I have not had one professor not use powerpoint. Powerpoint has become the major way to present materials now. And, overall, I think that powerpoints can be effective teaching tools. This, of course, completely depends however on the quality of the powerpoint. Some powerpoints are awful – boring black text on white background with paragraphs written on a slide. Nobody learns from that. Professors need to change how they present their material! Making good powerpoints is time consuming, but as teachers, we have to put in the time that the students deserve!

Adding visuals, audios, etc to powerpoints make them much more effective teaching tools. I am curious to see if powerpoints start being antiquated. I believe that they may stick around for awhile – even as more and more online classes are offered. I think that in the future, attending a physical university will become less and less common. When you can take classes at your own pace and from your home, why go live somewhere else? Personally, I do not do well with online courses. I need the in-person interaction to succeed. But many like these types of classes. And, hopefully, with more people choosing the online-route, the connotations around online university will be diminished.

I also think that the lecture format that the majority of professors cling to needs to change and will be used less often in the future. It seems that many studies have demonstrated that standing in front of a group of people talking AT them for an hour or more is not effective. Our attention spans are not that long, and they are only decreasing as the obsession with phones, tablets, etc grows. Group activities need to be utilized more. Breaking up a standard lecture format by allowing group activities and work, video clips on the topic etc helps people stay focused longer as these reduce the monotony of listening for an hour. Engaging more senses than sight and sound is crucial!

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Tax Reform and Higher Education

As most people involved in academia know, there is a bill going through the House of Representatives (Tax Cuts and Jobs Act H.R. 1) that drastically affect taxes for graduate students. Under this bill, tuition waivers would be considered taxable income. For in-state students this will mean an increase in taxes paid by at least several hundred dollars. For out-of-state and international students, this will mean an increase of taxes by at least several thousand dollars. The figure below shows a very straight-forward and easy-to-follow example of how this tax bill could really hurt students.

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Calculations done by Columbia student, Amanda Rose. This image is going around social media networks.

For this particular student, her useable income goes from over $20000/year to under $6000/year. The thing that I cannot understand is who does this benefit? It certainly does not benefit all of the graduate students trying to further their education. Why punish us for learning, for continuing our education so that we can (hopefully) get better jobs when we are finished with school. If this bill passes, my guess is that enrollment in the US higher education system will decline (particularly for international and out-of-state graduate students). Nobody can live on a useable income of less than $6000/year. Not even in areas where the cost of living is low. It is not possible.

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In order to “do my part” (so to speak), I called and emailed my local representative expressing my concerns regarding this bill. The letter that I received back was rather disappointing. The letter only discussed how we haven’t had a tax reform in several decades and how this bill will decrease taxes for the “majority.” There was no mention of how this tax bill will affect graduate students, even though that was the issue I called and emailed about. This response was rather discouraging. My only hope is that our representatives will think more about how this part of the bill negatively affects graduate students.

What are others’ thoughts? How will this bill, if passed as is, affect you all?

Science and Ethics – Further Opinions Beyond Blog 2

Ethics. Honesty. Trust. All of these are words that are imperative to the completion of research. Sadly, however, many do not follow these traits for a variety of reasons. Why do people steer away from ethical conduct? What is the motivation behind ethical breaches?

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Violation of ethical standards can take many, including but not limited to: fabricating, falsifying, and plagiarizing data, not giving credit for the intellectual property of others, and by not following guidelines that protect both human and animal study subjects. Unfortunately, there are motives for all of these violations. There is a lot of pressure on researchers to publish their work, become well-known within their respective niches, and secure funding for current and future projects.

Competition with another lab may entice someone to steal ideas while reviewing an article for publication. Wanting to publish many articles within a short period of time may encourage the same figure to be used repeatedly. The pressure to get tenure may push people to fabricate data in order to create the “best” story possible in order to get into the “best” journal possible.

Morals alone do not prevent ethical breaches, neither does guilt. Since morals and guilt may not be enough to prevent the violation of ethical standards in research, scientists should fear the risk of discovery. Once caught fabricating, falsifying, or plagiarizing, it is highly unlikely that a scientist’s name will be looked upon in a positive way. Others will not want to work with or hire scientists suspected or convicted of misconduct. All previous, current, and future research will be scrutinized.

Bottom line, don’t make-up results. Don’t plagiarize others’ work.

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Tech and Innovation in Higher Ed: Blog Post 4

Social media is broadly used today across academia and numerous other occupations. Originally used primarily as a way to keep in touch with friends who live far away, social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and blogs are now also used as ways to promote research, discuss concepts with other professionals, and bring science to the public.

The article that I found for this blog is called “Social Media is Scholarship,” and it was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on October 17, 2017.

http://www.chronicle.com/article/Social-Media-Is-Scholarship/241467=

This article discusses how many people who do not use social media say that they do not use it as it’s a distraction from “real work” and takes up too much time. And the author agrees (in part) that it can take a good chunk of time to be an active member of social media. I am sure that most people have been sucked down the black hole of some form of social media. As an undergraduate student, I often deactivated my Facebook account around finals time, as I knew I would spend too much time looking at Facebook than studying. Facebook still distracts me sometimes, so I have to close it from my browser so I don’t check it too often throughout the day.

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However, the author also argues that if done correctly, blogging, tweeting, messaging etc can make you more efficient at your job. For example, he discusses how social media has drastically helped spread his research to others quickly, promote his lab/work, get feedback from other scientists early in the project (which can reduce the number of mistakes, etc), and promote a sense of community. And I believe that he is right. As the saying goes – “we have the world at our fingertips.” Social media has made communicating our research (and communicating our personal matters) so much easier. Imagine having to write letters and wait weeks to hear back a collaborator before proceeding with your research.

Social media also helps connect people with others interested in the same topics who they never would have met otherwise. This is imperative, as new ideas circulate, helping make our science better. I strongly feel that when used correctly, social media is a huge asset to higher education. Professors, researchers, etc would not utilize them for work purposes if they were not useful (or at least not in the numbers that do). More and more teachers are using social media within class assignments (like for this class). Blogging, for example, helps us continue conversations that we start in class continue outside of the classroom. It also enables us to get to know one another on a higher level than if we only interacted once a week in class.

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Overall, while I certainly can see (and have experienced) how social media can be a huge distraction, it can also be a huge asset. It is really just up to the person behind the account, blog, etc whether social media serves as a distraction or as a promotional tool.

Open Access: Blog Post 3

In the field of wildlife biology (science/ecology/conservation), I typically do not hear much discussion about open access journals, and I do not know anyone who has published in one. Perhaps my field is behind the times. Perhaps there are not enough wildlife-related open access journals in existence. Perhaps researchers are just skeptical of trying something new. That being said, there are open access journals in this field.

For example, Wildlife Biology is an open-access journal that publishes research related to wildlife management and conservation. It was founded in 1994 by the Nordic Council for Wildlife Research. Publication occurs bi-monthly. From what I have read, it is a little unclear if this journal originated as an open access journal. My gut tells me that it probably was not always open-access, based on how it was founded 23 years ago (before open access was prevalent, if even in existence) and that the website states that articles published before 2005 are only available in print. This journal is published at the Oikos Editorial Office within the Department of Biology at Lund University (southern Sweden), and the editors and board for this journal are from numerous countries: Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, France, Finland, and Norway.

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The purpose of this journal is to publish “high standard [research] from all areas of wildlife science with the primary task of creating the scientific basis for the enhancement of wildlife management practices. While Wildlife Biology primarily publishes ecological papers, contributions to the human dimensions of wildlife management are also [sic] welcome. Our concept of ‘wildlife’ mainly includes mammal and bird species, but studies on other species or phenomena relevant to wildlife management are also of great interest. We adopt a broad concept of wildlife management, including all structures and actions with the purpose of conservation, sustainable use, and/or control of wildlife and its habitats, in order to safeguard sustainable relationships between wildlife and other human interests” (http://www.wildlifebiology.org/about-journal/journal-information).

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Their statement about open access is very brief: “Wildlife Biology is an Open Access journal. The content is freely accessible for everyone” (http://www.wildlifebiology.org/about-journal/journal-information), and they make no noticeable statement about how the journal views itself within the open access movement. It is interesting to me the extent of the brevity in their open access statement. It would seem to me that a relatively little-known (or talked about) would want to have a more detailed statement about why it is open access and why that is so important to the field. Perhaps in time, they will add more to their site about the importance of open access.

Ethics: Blog Post 2

After perusing the ORI website, I came upon a case study on Dr. Eric J. Smart from the University of Kentucky, who was charged with numerous counts of scientific misconduct. In part, I chose this particular case because his name is Dr. Smart and how ironic it is that someone whose name is “Smart” would do something so (in my opinion) dumb.

Dr. Smart was found to have “engaged in research misconduct by falsifying and/or fabricating data that were included in ten published papers, one submitted manuscript, seven grant applications, and three progress reports over a period of ten years. Respondent reported experimental data for knockout mice that did not exist in five grant applications and three progress reports and also falsified and/or fabricated images in 45 figures” (https://ori.hhs.gov/content/case-summary-smart-eric-j).

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After an investigation, it was recommended that Dr. Smart’s publications either be retracted or corrected. Dr. Smart also agreed to exclude himself from advising and contracting with the USA government for seven years. Unfortunately for Dr. Smart (who does not have my sympathy), even once the seven years expire, he likely will be hard-pressed to find people willing to work with him again. Word spreads. And nobody wants to get caught with a cheater.

Not being in the field of microbiology, I was a bit unfamiliar with the journals listed with fabricated and/or falsified images. All of them were seemingly decent journals (which may be arbitrary, as I based this on impact factors alone – and I won’t go there today). It is really scary to think about how many things (data/images/figures etc) likely are fabricated that are never discovered. Are the journals with the best reputations (i.e., Science and Nature) immune to this? Probably not.

Bottom line, maybe scientists need some kind of “Hippocratic Oath”-type saying that promises that we uphold integrity and shall not cheat the system, falsify or fabricate data and results? I guess we sort of have that informally through mandated RCR courses, but clearly, those are not enough. Sadly, even if we had a more formal oath, people would continue to perform scientific misconduct.

Freedom of speech is no excuse

While perusing the “Inside Higher Ed” this morning, I came across an interesting article:

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/10/16/college-presidents-and-provosts-gather-consider-issues-free-speech

As a brief synopsis, this article discusses how over 60 university presidents and provosts met last week at the University of Chicago to discuss freedom of speech and speaker disruptions across college campuses. Columbia University, University of Michigan, College of William and Mary, Texas Southern University, University of Oregon, and our own Virginia Tech have experienced speaker interruptions within the past few weeks. At Virginia Tech, the President gave a speech during which one person questioned why he hired white supremacists and another yelled that we need to get Nazis off our campus. These people were escorted away by the police.

The purpose of this meeting was to determine how institutions of higher education should respond to speaker disruptions etc. Overall, it appears that the participants of this event agree that freedom of speech is important to uphold on college campuses.  Others argue that it is imperative that students be better educated about what freedom of speech actually means and that this generation is one of “snowflakes,” students who are unable to process and effectively communicate about issues that are uncomfortable. Much disagreement about the sentiment of “snowflakes” exists. The article also discusses the massive costs involved in hosting speakers with controversial viewpoints. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent to “keep the peace” at these events.

To me, it seems that while universities are places that should embrace different opinions and perspectives, being cruel, unkind, and promoting violence and hate go beyond freedom of speech. Just because you are “allowed” to say something does not mean that you should.

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I believe the line between when something controversial falls under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech vs. when is it unlawful (or deemed it should be) lies in the purpose behind the words. If the purpose is to help people better understand a particular vantage point and is used to spread knowledge, not hate, it is freedom of speech. When the purpose is to instigate a fight, instill hate and fear among the masses, and to hurt various groups of people with words, that crosses the line.

How should “freedom of speech” be enforced? And how does the constitution define it exactly, in today’s world (i.e., not the world of when the Constitution was written)? I have no idea. But I do know that our current administration appears to welcome fight, fire, hate, and fear, rather than to welcome knowledge, communication, acceptance, and understanding. The direction this country is heading is deeply troubling to me. When calling others nasty names because it is “freedom of speech” becomes this commonplace, we should all be scared. Most children are taught to speak politely and not say mean things … why do we forget this sentiment as adults?

Higher education hierarchy … and parking

I am sure that I speak for a number of people when I say that parking at Virginia Tech can be a nightmare. With over 30000 students here, it is no surprise that the prized parking space closest to your office is challenging to get. And, it’s not just undergraduate and graduate students who complain. I have heard numerous faculty and staff complain that they cannot find parking either. So … what is the solution?

Fortunately, Blacksburg is a very walking and bike-friendly place (at least compared to other places I have lived, like Richmond and Norfolk). A lot of my friends and co-workers bike to campus each day. Another large percentage take the bus. But … I have heard through the grapevine that even the bus is overcrowded, particularly at peak times (i.e., 8-9am; 4-6pm). It also can be a long ride. A friend told me that he has to take the 9am bus to even hope to get to the office by 10am (and he lives within a few miles of campus).

Parking services has some nice carpooling options as well. However, despite all of the people who utilize bikes, their own feet, public transportation, and carpooling, I still have to “shark” around almost every day to find a parking spot. And by “sharking” I mean, driving slowly up and down each parking lot aisle, waiting to see a person walking with keys in hand. Then … you gun it to figure out where this person is going. Half the time some other person sharking wins the spot. It’s ridiculous. If I don’t get here by 8:30 (which I often don’t on days when I have night classes), this is my reality. Or, I park very far away from where I work (which isn’t really an issue, except when the weather is bad or I have a lot to carry).

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This may seem a little off topic, but I do have a point. Higher education has a hierarchy – which we have discussed in class. In the most basic of terms:

Faculty/Staff

Graduate Students

Undergraduate Students

Parking, sort of, follows this hierarchy. Faculty and staff parking permits allow F/S to part in the “best” spots – spots closest to buildings where people work. And, that makes sense. F/S should have better parking spots than students. Resident (R) parking passes are on the bottom of the food chain – that’s fine – most of the people who R parking passes are 18 year old freshman. They are young and can get where they need to go faster than an “old” graduate student like me can. They also live on campus, so likely don’t use their cars everyday.

But … this is where the hierarchy of parking stops. We also have teaching assistant (TA) and graduate/commuter (G/C) spots. TA spots are typically pretty prime too. In some lots, the TA spots I would argue are “better” than the F/S spots. Teaching assistants are obviously really important and deserve to find parking – however, what about the rest of us? The GRAs, fellows, etc? Is our work not important too? Not so much, based on parking rules.

“Standard” graduate students (i.e., not TAs) get lumped in with the 22000+ undergraduate commuters. Why? Graduate students are working for the university – we do research, we try to make the university look good, we mentor undergraduates …. Why can’t we get our own parking spots? Why do we have to compete with the commuters every day? I don’t understand.

And … unfortunately … I don’t think our advisors would appreciate it if this is the attitude we took about parking (see below). I know nothing about this situation likely will change (or at least not while I am here). But, I do think graduate students should be allowed to purchase separate passes from undergraduate commuters and have specified spots. The spots don’t even have to be “better” than the commuter spots – just separate from commuter spots so we can actually find parking and get back to doing our graduate student work faster.

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Learning to give less than 100% … sometimes

“If you don’t always give 100%, don’t expect to be any better than average.”

“Give 110%.”

“Always give 100%, except when giving blood.”

All of these commonly said phrases have the same theme: we must always give 100% of ourselves to everything that we do. We are taught it in school. We are taught it at home. We are taught in when playing sports. But … why are we teaching something that sets everyone up for failure 100% of the time? And why do many graduate students think that they must be “superhuman” to please everyone by giving 100% to everything?

In high school, I gave 100% on every assignment, every test, every extra credit. And my lowest final grade my senior year of high school was a 96. What I didn’t do was give myself time to relax, to be a teenager. If I had a 99% in the class, I still did the extra credit because I was below 100%. I didn’t know how to spend less time on certain assignments that didn’t need to be perfect and thus stressed myself out constantly. Instead of saying “Erin, you have a 96% in this class. You don’t need to get 100% on the project due next week,” I would say “Erin, you have to give 100% on this project.  It is an insult to yourself and to your teachers to not give 100%.” I was the epitome of an over-achiever.

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While I do believe that we should do “our best,” I think that there is an important distinction between giving “100%” and giving “your best.” Giving 100% means, give everything that you are physically, mentally, emotionally etc capable of giving. Doing “your best” means, you do the best that you are physically, mentally, emotionally etc under the given circumstances. I did not understand this distinction until I had some rough experiences during my Masters degree, where I could not give 100% in everything being asked of me. It was not possible. And for a while, it made me feel very poorly of myself. I thought I was failing. I thought I wasn’t good enough to be in graduate school. I felt that the things I used to be really good at, I was now not good at.

Fortunately, I crawled out of that space and came to understand the distinction between giving 100% and doing my best. Now, I for the most part, do the best I can given everything going on in my life. I have things besides schools going on, and it is not possible for me to give 100% to all of them all of the time – I cannot give 100% to my partner, give 100% to my classes, give 100% to my research, give 100% to my well-being etc. But, I can do my best at each of these things. That means that sometimes I give 95% to my partner, 67% to my classes, 80% to my research etc. Different aspects of my life get different percentages of my time and energy at different times. Or does the percentage have to add up to 100%? I don’t know.

Fortunately, other quotes are becoming more frequent. “Whatever your 100% is, give it.” This, for example, I think embodies my distinction between giving 100% and doing your best. But, I still would prefer to nix the 100% part.

This all being said, this amount of text here is the best I can do for this entry right now. It is not my 100%. And that’s okay. J

Physical and Mental Health in Higher Education

I am going to talk about something that most graduate students and faculty members shy away from: health in graduate school. Staying both physically AND mentally healthy is imperative to our success both in graduate school and in life. And I stress the “and” above because it is not an “either/or” situation. In my opinion and in my experience, I am neither as happy nor as productive as I could be if I am not BOTH physically and mentally healthy.

But, it can be challenging to put in the effort to remain healthy. It is so easy to stop exercising because there is not enough time in the day. It is so easy to not cook dinner and eat fast food every day because who has time for cooking? It is so easy to not sleep enough, not socialize enough, not relax enough – all of which drastically affect our mental well-being. In other ways, don’t be this person (see below).

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When I was working on my Masters degree (not here), I struggled with staying physically and mentally healthy. A lot of that pertained to that I was unhappy in my program and had things going on in my life that were challenging. We all experience difficult situations in life, and that is okay. It is okay to struggle a little. But, it’s imperative that we pick ourselves up off the floor and start taking care of ourselves. I had to learn how to balance my work and the rest of my life. People will push you as far as they can to get the most out of you and to help you reach your potential. But, we have to know our own limits and know that having limits is okay.

The hardest part of staying healthy, for me at least, is that it means I sometimes have to say “no” or “I need more time” to my supervisors. I don’t like not doing exactly what they want, and I definitely don’t like asking for anything from them. But I have learned that unless you stand up for yourself and put your health first, nobody else will. Fortunately, I can now say that I have a much better grasp on what I need to do to please both my supervisors and myself. And I am so much happier now than I was.

So, if anyone out there feels overwhelmed, stressed, burnt-out, know that “I hear ya” and know that you are not alone. I encourage everyone, regardless of how you feel about graduate school, to stay as physically and mentally healthy as possible. There are great resources both on campus and off to help us with this. Use these services. Go for a walk. Cook something you enjoy. I promise you, you will feel better. Bottom line, take care of yourself – your health and happiness should not suffer because of your work. We have one life to live (cliché, I know). So, make the most out of it – professionally and personally.