Friday, May 22, 2009

Journal Club

As part of our ongoing efforts to train our undergraduate senior thesis students (read: make the graduate student mentor's life a little bit easier), the lab is reviving journal club. Theoretically, for the past few years all grad students have had the opportunity to read papers somewhat related to our work and share them with the lab, but I think it's happened perhaps twice in four years.

Now, grads are expected to "model" the journal club presentations, so the undergrads can take over later in the summer, as part of their much-needed practice in reading and critiquing published research. Time to emerge from the mind-numbed cave that is extensive dissertation/manuscript preparation, and attempt to convey enthusiasm for other people's research while clearly and concisely summarizes an entire paper - in 5 minutes. And I've been volunteered to go first.

It doesn't help that the topics aren't optional; we're helping my advisor prepare for her sabbatical by reading papers authored by the professor with whom she'll be working next year. Perhaps if my advisor promised she'd fly us each out to California for an in-person meeting at some point during the next year, I could work up more enthusiasm...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Let the Job Search Begin...

I just applied for my first faculty position. Not one for Life After Graduate School; existing faculty would probably revolt if they had to sit on search committees for positions opening in 15 months. This position is adjunct faculty, teaching one course at nearby University of Major City, on the topic of my field exactly.

This is an excellent example of networking working for you. My advisor used to be on the faculty at that university, before I entered grad school, and the chair contacted her to see if she could recommend anyone. And as luck would have it, she had this ABD student busily laying the groundwork for a teaching-focused career. This morning I spoke to the chair on the phone, learning about the position and providing some brief explanations of my teaching credentials and ideas for the course. The call ended with the invitation to submit a formal application online, and plans to talk again sometime next week.

I have no expectations for how this will turn out. One the one hand, I have the insider recommendation and a respectable CV; on the other hand, ABD is the minimum requirement for graduate-level, and the completed PhD is always preferred. Even if it doesn't pan out, though, it's given me experience in other things that matter. I've continued to improve my phone interview skills, I've sweated over writing my first cover letter (which will be the template for all future applications), and I have that all-important sense of doing something. Getting the job would almost be just a bonus at this point.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dissertation in Progress

I am working on my dissertation. Not even two full days of working on it (two days of copy-and-pasting old papers into dissertation chapters) can take away that thrill of finally being close to being finished. My dissertation committee approved my proposal with what I will happily call "minor" changes - taken care of by spending five hours programming on Sunday, and running a few extra analyses in the past two days. For the rest of the summer, it's just a matter of collecting data and reading the background literature.

I'm going to hate that reading, sooner rather than later, just as I did for my comps. But as long as I stay focused on what it will get me - the first chapter of my dissertation - I should be able to survive it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

There Is No "A" in Effort

The one thing I dislike about teaching is dealing with the students who think their grades are lower than they deserve. And it's always a matter of "deserve". So far I've only had one student who came out with a full sense of entitlement, "I don't get D's", but I've had every reason to want to track down whomever coined the phrase "A for effort" and give them a stern talking-to.

I made the mistake of returning final papers on the last day of class, not at the final exam. I wanted to remove a bit of uncertainty from their lives, and let them determine just how much studying they would need to do to get the grade they wanted. Unfortunately, this also gave them time to complain to me about their grades. One student emailed me, explaining that "I do not believe the grade I got in lab reflects how much effort I put into the labs". Another student asked to meet with me because she had some questions about grading, spent 15 minutes listening to me explain her grade, and then asked "But what about all the effort I put into this?". It's all I can do not to bang my head on my desk.

I can see where students' expected relationship between efforts and grades comes from. I don't even entirely blame some cultural movement that's deluding students into believe that working hard is all that matters. Generally speaking, when you put more effort into something, you get a better product, so effort and grades are usually correlated. However. Better does not necessarily mean A-quality. It doesn't matter if a student put 10 hours into a paper; if that paper doesn't meet the standards I laid out for an A, then it doesn't get an A. If it doesn't meet the basic requirements I put into the assignment, it doesn't even get a C.

Dealing with students in these situations is challenging. It requires a great deal of self-control. I do not respond to emails by saying that the grade doesn't reflect your effort because you turned in your final paper late and got hit with that late penalty, that I've already made two exceptions for you and won't make a third, and that I don't care whether you can get an A in the class. I do respond to questions about effort with "I don't care how much effort you put into it", just because the question frustrates me. I carefully explain that grades are based on the assignment that is turned in, and start explaining, again, how that grade was determined.

This has to be the best argument against assigning papers. Even when you think the reading and the grading are fun, the subjective nature of grading invites students to convince you to change the grade.