Posted by Melissa on October 20, 2010
This fall’s CUR Quarterly has a provocative opinion piece by Mitchell Malachowski titled, “Unintended Consequences: Is CUR Undermining Teaching at Predominately Undergraduate Institutions.” (Unfortunately, I think one must be a CUR member to access the essay.) Malachowski, a former president of CUR, an active researcher, and a strong advocate of undergraduate research, writes:
Two questions arise as we move to a model of faculty life that is more and more driven by faculty research. First, what happens to “traditional” teaching as we move substantial amounts of resources to research activities and lower faculty teaching loads? And second, is our move toward increased scholarship actually diminishing the quality and prestige of teaching at [primarily undergraduate institutions] even as we espouse that our institutions remain student-centered learning environments?
Malachowski is concerned by institutional drift among undergraduate institutions toward the research university model, noting that promotion and tenure criteria, faculty pay, and other faculty incentives at undergraduate institutions increasingly emphasize and reward traditional scholarship as measured by research productivity. As this happens, he is concerned that teaching becomes devalued in practice, even if rhetorically it is still the primary focus of these institutions. One of Malachowski’s recommendations is that faculty research at undergraduate institutions should not be evaluated strictly by number of publications but rather by how the research engages students, impacts student learning, and informs teaching.
Malachowski’s piece reflects an idea that I first encountered while reading Faculty Priorities Reconsidered, edited by KerryAnn O’Meara and R. Eugene Rice. David Brailow, in his chapter discussing redefining scholarship at Franklin College, notes that a group of senior faculty at Franklin suggested the college “should view scholarly activity through the lens of the concept of student benefit.” This group of faculty felt there were two types of scholarship: “selfish scholarship” and “student-centered scholarship.” I strongly disagree that research that doesn’t involve students is selfish, but this categorization, however inappropriate, highlights that there are varying approaches and emphases to scholarly activity at undergraduate institutions.
Malachowski writes, “We all know that working with undergraduates is time consuming and in some cases it slows down our research output, but work with undergraduates should be supported, celebrated, and compensated at a high level. For most of us, the process involved in research with students is as important as the product.” If colleges adopt a narrow definition of scholarly productivity measured only by publications, they may unintentionally provide incentives for faculty not to include undergraduates. As a junior faculty member, the tension between trying to get results in a timely manner and investing time in student researchers has been palpable for me. I enjoy and prioritize working with students in my research projects (and the students I work with are wonderful contributors). However, as I talk with junior faculty at other primarily undergraduate institutions, there is a broad spectrum of how much institutions value student involvement in faculty scholarship and how much the faculty reward structure is oriented towards publications. I appreciate undergraduate institutions that take a big-tent approach and recognize that there are many results from faculty research beyond peer-reviewed publications, one of the most valuable being the undergraduate students who have gained research experience and take that experience with them to their future careers.
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Posted by Melissa on October 9, 2010
GMP at Academic Jungle asks the question, “Is it better to be a theorist/computational scientist or an experimentalist?” This question assumes that one has the skill set and the personality to be able to succeed and enjoy either realm. For many individuals, their interests or talents are only appropriate for one path or the other. Personally, I never could have been happy as a theoretical physicist. Nevertheless, I readily acknowledge that physics only moves forward because of the contributions of both theorists and experimentalists, and both groups make equally significant contributions to the discipline.
GMP is a theory/computation person, but she concludes that it is better to be an experimentalist:
When I say experiment is better, I don’t say it’s because they have it easy. It’s hard, but you get the recognition. It is ultimately about how well your hard work correlates with the accolades from the scientific community. I think experimentalists win this one, no contest.
As someone who is not at a research university and has never been concerned about the prestige of my research interests, this isn’t a consideration that impacts my thinking about being a theorist versus being an experimentalist. GMP also discusses the cost disparities between theoretical and experimental work, something that is occasionally on my mind. The one thing that she doesn’t mention is the difference in lifestyle flexibility for experimentalists and theorists. As an experimentalist, you must be physically present in the lab to do your work, and your presence is often required at odd hours of the day or night. Additionally, once your lab is built, you are anchored to a particular location. It’s not easy to pick up and move, nor can you work remotely for a year or two. For me, these lifestyle factors have been a source of frustration, particularly in trying to address the work-life balance equation and the two body problem, but even so, I know I never would have chosen to be a theorist.
What do you like/dislike about being a theorist or being an experimentalist? Were you suited to only one realm or could your path have led in either direction?
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Posted by Melissa on October 1, 2010
The September issue of Physics Today has an article about Kamerlingh Onnes’ discovery of superconductivity. While I’ve always had a soft spot for history, what caught my attention about this article was the introductory header: “A century ago Heike Kamerlingh Onnes set a new standard for physics research laboratories. But careless notebook entries have confused the story of his greatest discovery.” In particular, I was drawn in by those three little words: careless notebook entries.
Keeping a clear record of one’s work is an important practice for anyone doing research in industry or academia, and it’s a habit that is developed through practice. While the value of good records should be instilled in students beginning in curricular labs and be reinforced in undergraduate research experiences, with all the learning objectives for our curricular labs — physics concepts, data analysis, error analysis, experimental techniques, and oral and written communication skills — it’s easy for the lab notebook to get overlooked.
If experimental work is a journey, the record of the journey is just as important as the destination (the results). However, curricular labs are often completed in a single lab period or two so students don’t realize the peril that comes with poor record keeping. There is no incentive to write notes about the objective, the experimental set-up, what worked or what didn’t (and the accompanying emotions), how the analysis was performed, etc, because next week students move on to a new lab that doesn’t necessarily build on the work of the previous week. If students find recording notes to be a hassle, as a faculty member, I find grading lab notebooks on a weekly basis can be quite tedious. At the same time, collecting notebooks only once or twice a term doesn’t encourage careful real-time record keeping; I’ve heard of students who try to fill their sparse lab notebooks after the fact, as the due date for turning in lab notebooks approaches.
The question becomes how to encourage students to practice good record-keeping habits even in curricular labs. There was a question on the Advanced Labs list-serve last spring about lab notebook grading rubrics that developed into a more general discussion of the role of lab notebooks. Linda Winkler’s anecdote about allowing students to use lab notebooks on a final exam (without telling students in advance that this would be the case) interested me as a way to reward those students who have been careful record keepers. I’ve also heard someone else (I don’t recall who) describe an advanced lab activity where, at the end of the term, students were given an oral exam on any one of the labs from the course. The only item that a student could bring to the oral exam was his or her lab notebook. Both of these approaches have the advantage of reinforcing lab notebooks as valuable tools to aid in memory and reconstruction of the research process, without the instructor grading individual lab notebook entries.
I’d love to hear what methods others have found effective to encourage meaningful record keeping during curricular labs. Do you require a lab notebook? Do you grade it? Is saving files on a computer sufficient record keeping or do you think a hard copy is necessary? Do you find students who are taught to keep a lab notebook (electronic or paper) in curricular labs also do a good job of keeping lab notebooks when they participate in undergraduate research experiences? Do you remember when you learned the value of keeping good records in lab?
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