Future of the University

Our prompt this week was to write about one thing that we believe should change in higher education. I struggled for quite awhile to pick a topic. There are a lot of great ideas in higher education, but also a lot of issues. Some of them, like skyrocketing tuition and the abysmal salary:work ratio for many adjunct and instructor positions, are relatively obvious and straightforward to describe. Others, like the hypercompetitive academic job market and pervasive pressure on graduate students and faculty alike to shift work-life balance towards more work and less life,  are more complex and difficult to put into words.

It is one of these more nebulous topics that I would like to write about in this post: the general “weed-out” culture in many fields of study. It’s the idea that only the best of the best can or should succeed in a program. It’s the courses that seem intentionally designed to thin out the competition, and force students who don’t make the cut to either retake the class, likely prolonging their time to graduation and adding another semester’s tuition to their student debt, or switch majors. It’s the fact that it’s acceptable for professors to assign grades based on students’ relative rankings as opposed to the merit of their work, i.e. the top half of the class gets a passing grade, and the bottom half does not.

These  weed-out courses can be found in many fields, but seem especially common in STEM fields.  Instead of encouraging students to think creatively, ask questions, and work together to achieve a common goal, these types of classes encourage students to focus on grades instead of actual learning, and compete with one another for top ranks. This weed-out approach sends a message to students who might be struggling with a particular topic that they are just not good enough, and should probably give up,  instead of encouraging them to work through their difficulties.

It can also discourage students from taking class outside of their major and exploring new subjects, as Kara Sherrer describes in this article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/college-weed-out_b_4717720

I’m not saying that all classes should be easy. Some topics are just plain difficult to understand. A key part of higher education is challenging ourselves to go beyond the basics, and this challenge is what eventually expands our thinking and understanding. I don’t think that professors should water down courses and shy away from tough topics. But I do think that they can change the way that they approach these topics and respond when not all students understand them. Instead of writing off these students as the x% who won’t get a passing grade, or just another engineering-turned-business major who couldn’t pass Physics 2, professors can acknowledge that the concepts are challenging, offer extra help to students who need it, and design their courses in a way that encourages understanding instead of frustration. When students come to them with questions, professors should offer patient guidance and encouragement, instead of responding with belittling comments and telling them to “just try harder.”

One of the most difficult classes I have ever taken was high school calculus. When it came time to choose which math course I would take, I was torn between two options. Having done well in Algebra 1 and 2, I had qualified for the International Baccalaureate (IB, our school’s equivalent of Advanced Placement) math track, and wasn’t sure whether I should take the lower level IB math course, which covered pre-calculus during junior year and moved into basic calculus senior year, or the higher level IB math course, which jumped straight into college level calculus junior year then moved on to linear and differential equations and multivariable calculus and a variety of other advanced topics senior year. I decided to take the higher level option, enticed by the promise of college credit. Within the first week, I was struggling. I had trouble grasping the material, and class seemed to move at lightning pace. The homework was time-intensive and frustrating, and the textbook was not much help. The teacher, Mr. Evans quickly noticed that I and a few other students were falling behind, and after the first test, several of us were on the verge of switching to the lower level IB math class or out of IB math altogether.  Mr. Evans reassured us that it’s a difficult subject, and encouraged us to not to give up yet. We went through the test answers as a class, and he patiently explained the answers and thought process in detail. He also started offering after-school help sessions for homework, studying, and any other math questions we might have, and made sure students felt welcome to ask for help. A few students did decide to switch out of the class, but everyone who stuck with it passed and returned for the senior year continuation of the 2-year class series.

For comparison, the second most difficult class I’ve ever taken was a 1-credit, identification-based lab. My undergraduate major, Wildlife Science, required several lab courses focused on memorizing the Latin names of a wide variety of species, and being able to identify them in the field or using preserved specimens. Each lab course was focused on a specific taxa, such as mammals, herps, plants, trees, etc., with an emphasis on local species. One of these labs is a notorious weed-out class in our department. It’s not uncommon for students to repeat the class in order to graduate. While the TAs were very friendly and helpful, the professor seemed to take pride in the fact that so many of us struggled to pass the class. Instead of selecting test specimens that highlighted the key traits that we had learned, he would often use abnormal specimens that were missing distinguishing features, to make quizzes more difficult. Students avoided asking him questions, because he had a way of answering them that made you feel belittled.

I remember him shaking his head as he graded my quiz questions and telling me “Don’t worry, maybe one day you’ll get one right.” A few weeks later, he took it upon himself to remind me how poorly I was doing (it actually wasn’t that bad, maybe a B- at the time), and suggested that perhaps I was not cut out for science. He suggested that maybe I should “switch to an easier major, like communications. ”  I mean no offense to communications folks, this is a direct quote from him.  He often suggested this to people he deemed unfit for science, which included a decent portion of the students. With a lot of extra studying and independent identification practice, I ended up passing the class, but my enthusiasm in the subject was severely dampened. Several of my classmates did not, and ended up having to repeat the class.

Both of these teachers were tasked with difficult subject matter, but took very different approaches to sharing it, resulting in very different class outcomes. As an aspiring educator, I hope to contribute to a shift towards the Mr. Evans approach to higher education, and away from the weed-out approach.




Academia and outreach

Over the last few weeks, the graduate student listserv for our department has shared calls for volunteers for a variety of upcoming outreach events. These opportunities include teaching first graders about local wildlife, creating engaging activities for elementary school students at a summer STEM camp, and helping organize a on-campus fishing tournament for local anglers. These recent emails, along with the Communicating Science workshop during our recent class meeting, have got me thinking about how public outreach fits into academia and research.

On one hand, outreach and academia appear to have opposing goals. Public outreach aims to share basic information about a topic with a varied audience, typically outside of your field and with a wide range of interest and experience levels. The main objectives are to get people excited about your work and connect with the community. Outreach events rarely result in scientific publications, but may generate local press coverage.

Within academia, we aim to gain in-depth understanding of specific topics. We share our findings with other experts in our fields through conferences and journal articles, which typically only reach a limited audience that is already interested in our work. Rather than broadcasting the basics, our collective objective is to further our understanding of complex processes and answer very detailed questions.

This dilemma is very similar to the culture clash between museums and universities that Jennifer Kingsley described in her 2016 article for the Journal of Museum Education (linked here).  This article, which I just read for a class that I’m taking on natural history collections and curations, actually inspired this blog post.

While some scientists believe that outreach is a crucial component of conducting and sharing meaningful work, others dismiss it as poor use of time that could be spent focusing on research, writing, etc. The use of social media for science outreach is particularly divisive, as evidenced by a recent Science article entitled “Why I don’t use Instagram for Science Outreach,” by Meghan Wright (https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2018/03/why-i-dont-use-instagram-science-outreach), and the resulting online response.

Given these opposing goals, why do we engage in outreach? For some scientists, outreach is closely tied to financial support their work, and is necessary to reach potential donors. For others, outreach is mandatory. Our department, for example, requires PhD students to give at least one non-technical presentation or write at least one non-technical article during their time at Virginia Tech. Some scientists, myself included, really enjoy outreach, and value the opportunities to connect with others over shared interests.

One major reason that we engage in outreach is that it’s necessary, if we want our work to reach beyond the “ivory tower.” Outreach is often emphasized as the most effective way to make your work “matter” outside of the academic realm. As the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech points out, “public engagement is the key to solving wicked problems” (https://communicatingscience.isce.vt.edu/About/why-we-do-it.html).

Effective public engagement takes time and practice. It can be difficult, but also very rewarding. As I type this, I’m getting excited to take my pet tortoise to visit a local kindergarten classroom in a few weeks. I’m a little nervous about planning a short talk about turtles that will be understandable and interesting to kindergartners. However, these concerns are outweighed by the desire to help foster a sense of natural appreciation in the next generation. Here’s a picture of Sheldon, getting pumped and excited to go to kindergarten:

What do you all think? Does outreach get enough credit and recognition within academia? Is it an exciting opportunity, a necessary evil, or just a small part of academia that’s being way over-analyzed? Comment and share your thoughts below!






Work-Life Balance in Graduate School

Graduate students on research and teaching assistantships occupy a strange space somewhere in between employees and students. For many of us, being a graduate student is our full-time profession, and we rely on our stipends to pay living expenses and any tuition or fees not covered by our assistantships. Our schedules tend to be more flexible than those of a normal job, but this flexibility comes with the knowledge that the time and effort it takes to complete a graduate degree often exceeds the typical Monday-Friday 9-5 schedule. There are some weeks where I have worked 40 hours in just 3 days, balancing field work, lab work, and grading obligations. There are others where I have worked noticeably fewer than 40 hours, especially if you don’t count time spent in classes and completing coursework towards total working hours.

This ambiguity in expectations, combined with the general culture of academia that rewards hyperproductivity, can lead to very lopsided work-life balance among graduate students. While searching for relevant articles, I found this one from Inside Higher Ed, by Danielle Marias:


While the article shared some good tips for balancing research and other activities, I found some of the comments to be discouraging. For example, one commenter wrote:

“Personally, I cringe when I hear my graduate students talk about “balance.” You have a relatively short period of time to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to become a scholar/researcher. Anything that pulls you away from these requirements jeopordizes your scholarly development. To be clear, I’m not saying there is no time for family or friends–there is. What I am saying is that there is no substitute for prolonged concentration, hard work, sacrifice.”

The same commenter clarified their stance later:

“My point is simple: Sacrifice your hobbies and extracurriculars while in graduate school and even during the years leading up to tenure. There will be time to play later.”

I worked in a lab for several years where this was the advisor’s mentality. I started out working ~60 hours a week in order to balance field work, lab work, grading, and my own course work. When that wasn’t enough, my labmates and advisor encouraged me to put in more hours and work harder, so I started pushing 70 and 80 hours weekly while taking a full course load. I regularly pulled all-nighters to finish coursework and meet grading deadlines. My grades dropped to the point where I had multiple professors express concern. My mental and physical health suffered. I even fell asleep at the wheel while driving between field sites. Luckily, it was so early in the morning that I was the only one on the road. No one was hurt, but I was terrified. Getting more sleep was not an option, so I started chugging coffee and caffeinated drinks during the long weekly drives. I shortened or skipped my regular workouts and stopped attending department seminars and social functions. It still wasn’t enough.

Near the end of my first quarter as a grad student, my advisor started a meeting by asking how I was doing. When I replied “Ok, how are you?”, he asked, “No, how are you really doing?” I held back tears as I explained that I felt like I was spread too thin in every direction, my coursework was suffering, and I felt physically and mentally exhausted. His response: “So, how is that manuscript coming along?”

I decided after that meeting to switch out of the PhD program, and ended up leaving with an M.S. degree after 2 more very difficult years. I still wonder whether I could have worked harder and done more, and whether his expectations were ever attainable to begin with.

For comparison, the advisor who I am currently finishing my PhD with is a strong advocate for work-life balance. She encourages us to take time off, and reminds us that it’s okay to be less than perfect. I am so much happier and productive now than I was during my M.S., even though I’m working far fewer hours each week. I’m active in departmental activities and outreach, and enjoy spending time engaging in several hobbies outside of my work. I still concentrate, work hard, and sacrifice, but it is overall a much more sustainable balance.