The ambiguity of silence

A friend of mine who works in the oil business once told me about binational meetings that went astray because for one set of people silence meant agreement while for the other it meant disagreement. The agreeing faction got annoyed when the argument continued and the disagreeing faction got annoyed when their agreement was assuIMG_6397med. And this was among people all around the same table.

What do you do when the silence comes through an unanswered email, or a message not returned? I suppose there are three interpretations, that the person missed the message and so didn’t know there was something to answer, disagreement, but hesitancy to offend, or indecision. Most people hate to push, so just drop it when someone does not answer. This leaves the recipient the freedom to claim they were misinterpreted if the issue comes up later. Others are perhaps more anxious of a clear answer and so ask a second time, risking being annoying, but also increasing the chance of catching someone who didn’t mean to give no answer.

I think unanswered requests are getting more and more common, perhaps as requests and invitations get more common. I guess some people like the ambiguity that the cloud of no response gives them. But I am not a fan. I prefer an answer. I think they can take three forms: yes, no, and still unsure (and I’ll get back to you, or remind me in 2 weeks). I might prefer a yes, but would rather have a no than a void.  How about some examples?

I have organized meetings that might have 20 participants, each with a specific role. For each slot it is common to have in the original list a careful tabulation of first, second, even third and fourth choices. First I invite all the first choices. Any that say no I move on to the second choice. They are likely to be just as good as the first choice, but perhaps fitting some other criterion less well as one tries to balance many kinds of diversity for meetings to be vibrant and innovative. I want to get the meeting going quickly, so what do I do with the first to be invited that simply do not answer? It is frustrating. I have even recontacted several times and get no answer so I must then disinvite them to move on to other choices. Is there someone watching all this email writhing, or is the address dead? Is there a tormented conscious, or simply a quick hand with the delete key?

I’m more likely to assume there is a no behind lack of answer when there has been a continuing exchange on a topic that suddenly goes quiet. In these cases assuming lack of interest, or a no answer is probably a safe bet. But why not just say so? Are we all so afraid of hurting each other’s feelings that we can’t just come out and say no?

Would it not be better to just answer and keep things clear? I’ll try to answer you, and hope you can answer me!

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Will an exit interview tell the truth about the biology major?

It’s graduation! We are launching the 2016 model of biology majors out into the world, or to medical and graduate schools. Whatever we as faculty tried to achieve in teaching and mentoring our students, it is over.  Did we do a good job, individually and collectively? One way to find out is to talk to the students. This is what the exit interview is for. At Wash U biology multiple faculty members give this to a sample of students.

It always makes me uncomfortable when biologists delve unguided into such endeIMG_0549avors because we are not trained in this kind of science. We are not sociologists or psychologists, so we do not understand how to get at the truth of the experience. Circumventing bias is perhaps the most important thing about interviews. No doubt there are areas that we are more and less likely to get truthful answers. For example, a student sitting across a table from their intro biology teacher is very unlikely to say that intro was useless. A student sitting across from me is likely to tell me what a great class behavioral ecology was and so they did. If the people teaching the intro labs do more of the interviews, we might never learn that students think these 2 hour labs are extremely basic, for example. What to do?

We could have the data collected by on-line surveys that are professionally designed. If we wanted personal interviews, we could have staff collect the data that did not teach the students. We could have students interview each other from a list of questions. Social scientists could easily tell us exactly what we might do best given our goals and constraints.

I Googled around a bit to see what different places do for their exit interview. I was happy to find that the American Sociological Association has a National Survey of Seniors Majoring in Sociology. If there were to be a good questionnaire, this is likely to be it. It asks about why the student majored in sociology and what kinds of proficiencies were attained, like creating a hypothesis with independent and dependent variables. It asks about what skills attained the student would list on a resumé. It asks about specific concepts at a general level, then about participation in various activities related to the major. It went on to ask about how satisfied the student was with advising, teaching, getting into courses, seeing faculty, and the like. I could easily imagine it might be useful to add questions about specific courses in a university specific survey. The survey then goes on to ask about the students, gender, race, parent’s educational status aIMG_0548nd the like. It ends with asking if the student wants to see the results of the study. It seemed pretty good to me. It was very different from the pages of questions I was given to use.

After doing the survey with the questions from my department I got really curious about these things. I asked my friends in film, English, and African American Studies what they did. They had exit surveys consisting of a handful of questions. One that came up a couple of times involved asking what the student might tell a beginning student about the major.

This is a topic I hope I have time to delve into more and perhaps even recommend a list of questions or a site with good ones, but not now. I guess every one’s goals with these questions are different. I suppose they are essential ultimately for accreditation. If this is the case, though, then it should also be mandatory that they meet some level of standards. The list of questions I was given was 5 pages long. I might have a lot to say about these questions, but am not sure how useful that would be. I can tell you that apart from the questions I drew a large circle with a dot in the middle and one ray. I then asked each student to make sectors of the pie that reflected the importance of different activities in IMG_0558their learning of biology. I did not predefine either how many sectors there might be, or what should be included. Both students had half the circle dedicated to research, sometimes breaking it down into multiple categories. One gave the smallest section of the circle to the intro courses. The other did not put them in the circle at all. They both liked small discussion sections that focused on primary literature. I suppose I could summarize this tiny sample by saying they bore out what the big studies say about hands on, inquiry based learning. So why don’t we do more of it? Why do we continue to fire hose first years? Why do we have so many large fact-based classes? When will biologists stop ignoring social science?

Posted in Teaching, Undergraduates | Leave a comment

Take the nomination pledge!


Boahemaa Adu-Oppong received a university-wide service award from the Gephardt Institute!

Anyone who follows the awards given by just about any scientific society will notice the lack of women. I could start listing awards given seldom to women from all our various societies. But instead, I ask something simple. Pledge to nominate a deserving woman or under represented minority for something every year.  Just one, though of course more are great. It could be anything, from NSF’s Waterman to a local university prize, to something from a society you belong to. Just get in the habit of doing it every year. I am still basking in the glory of seeing Boahemaa Adu-Oppong get a much deserved service prize for mentoring, for tutoring, and for directing the Wash U program of grad student tutoring and teaching, YSP. It was easy for me to nominate her and to get co-nominators.

One more thing. Ask someone else to nominate someone deserving for a specific award. Help them get this done if necessary. This will increase the nominating pool. Also encourage people to self-nominate where that is a possiblity.IMG_0118

This is not the only problem and this will not solve the whole problem, but it is a step. So take the pledge. Nominate one deserving person every year for something. Get someone else to do the same.IMG_0114

Posted in Awards and prizes, Broader Impacts, Gender bias, prizes | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Do you have time for recess?

Usually I read a novel, or listen to a book on tape or music on a flight. I listened to a bit of German for fun today, flying again to Washington D. C.. The flight is a bit long so I tired of my book and remembered I had a manuscript from our group to read and comment on. It is a lovely study of mating and cannibalism in social amoebae, so I read it for about an hour, then stopped so it would only have my freshest attention. You see, I don’t work all the time. I want time for novels, time for family and friends, time for cooking and gardening, and time for birds. Sometimes getting everything done feels overwhelming, but the adult equivalent of recess should not be sacrificed.


Star stone skipper!

When we were looking for a school for my 5 year old to attend we had a lot of choice because Houston had a magnet program. Magnets could be for anything and the idea was to have voluntary mixing of students from different populations. How that worked out is another story, but one thing it meant was that parents could think about what was important to their child. Do you want art or science, a gifted program or a foreign language? How do you choose?

Perhaps the most coveted public school was in the fanciest neighborhood, River Oaks. We went to the open house and were led through the schedule minute by minute along with the other eager parents. I raised my hand to ask about recess. I saw a bathroom break of 5 minutes, but no recess. The smiling magnet coordinator kindly told us that there was no time in their 8 AM to 3 PM day for recess. In fact, the district as a whole had done away with recess, we were told.

Then I discovered that our neighborhood school, Longfellow Elementary, a magnet for creative and performing arts, had a sort of guerilla recess, with parent volunteers helping out. We looked no further for a school for Anna. After all, we knew our five-year-old had time for recess. And she still does, now a fancy professor at University of Chicago.

There is lots written about the power of restorative breaks, whether it be music, sleep, friends, or nature. In fact, I basically view this festive meeting I’m about to attend as a big break, but I also hope I learn something.

Posted in Creativity, Managing an academic career, Organization of a scientist, work/life balance | Leave a comment

Learning German from Jenny Erpenbeck

Jenny Erpenbeck writes a poetic, clear, and sad German. She reads herself on Audible with a crystalline German that reminds me of a young Mosel wine, or the ring of a toast  from my grandparents’s hundred year old wine glasses. My crash course in German will be based entirely on Aller Tage Abend, The End of Days.

I love being able to talk to people in their language, even if only a few words with a grammar that might be called unusual. I feel it creates a bond, indicates a level of respect and commitment to communication. Unfortunately, there is little call for speaking or writing in a language other than English at scientific meetings these days. But if you go to another country, there will be chances to try your rusty language.

If you are like me you had three years of German in high school and a semester in college. You might even share a German heritage and years of listening to your father talk to his parents on the phone in their natal language. Later, like me, you might have tried to talk to that same grandmother, called Omi in my case, in German. She laughed a lot, never corrected me and anyway that was 20 years ago or more.

So, now I turn to Jenny for help. I chose her because I wanted to read good contemporary fiction. So I browsed around and found a site that listed German books worth reading. I decided to read a woman, because, why not? If I thought about it I would probably also have chosen an Ossie. But really, my main criterion was that the book be available in both Kindle and Audible in German. Aller Tage Abend was. I might have preferred a book with  more dialogue, but now I’m into it, I’m happy with this choice.IMG_9997

Here is my technique. I listen to a chapter or two. Then I think about what went on. I try to focus on how many words I miss. My vocabulary in German is fairly terrible. I listen again. I catch more. I repeat listening to this 10 minute or so piece at least four times. With Aller Tage Abend, I get that a baby has died, but at first I think she died at birth. By the second or third reading I understand she was 8 months old when she died. Other things slowly become clear on repeated listening.

But ultimately I also turn to the written word. It is almost irrelevant; after all, my goal is to speak and understand. None of us learned our natal language from writing, so why should we learn new ones that way? It is harder than listening. My mind wanders. But after many times listening to Jenny, I can hear her lovely voice as I read in print. I touch words I don’t know and the Kindle offers up the English translations. Some I try to remember. Others I doubt I’ll ever need, like die Amme, for wet nurse. I get even more of the story. I know the woman fell, but I did not get that she landed on a pile of bedding until I looked at the print.

I am not a neurobiologist, so I do not understand well all the mechanisms behind the differences between hearing and reading. On a kid’s site from my university, it is explained that language is processed in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, but comes in either in the auditory or visual cortex and these are separate. I’m a big fan of putting the auditory spot to work for learning to speak a language.

Every ten minutes of Jenny’s lovely voice will take an hour or more to work through. Then when I’m done with this book, I’ll probably listen again to the whole thing, enjoying it for what it is. I know it will awaken, restore, and enhance German learned long ago. My colleagues at EMBL in Heidelberg certainly know more English than I will ever know German, but I might get a chance to chat with the likely Turkish taxi driver, or buy some currants from a vendor. Next up, French. My husband has already picked the book.

Posted in Communication, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Training for creating safe spaces for students on gender issues

An ungendered perspective on students

An ungendered perspective on students

Richard Dawkins talks about the moral zeitgeist of the times in The God Delusion. It is something that is generally accepted at a given time, but can change. When we look back, we can be horrified at past standards on many issues from the horrors of slavery to corporal punishment to unequal treatment of women. At some times the zeitgeist is more fluid than others. Right now attitudes and feelings are changing fast around sexual and gender identities.

As an educator, mentor, and friend to developing students, I want them to feel comfortable and free to be themselves, to explore ideas wherever they go. I do not want them to limit the ability of their minds to soar because of fear about attitudes towards their gender, dress, or any aspect of their identity. Nor should they fear stereotypes from race, mental or physical illness, social class or anything else. How do we achieve this?

If it were easy, we wouldn’t have so many problems. If even nice people unwittingly say things that hurt some people, we have a problem. How to solve it may come largely from fields like psychology.

Of course we should first have a clear idea of the basics. At its most fundamental, we should treat everyone with respect. A person’s gender identity should not impact how we treat them. We can use different pronouns if requested. We can advertise in our offices and labs that we are supportive of all our students. In some ways it is sad that we need to indicate a safe space with a rainbow. We don’t do the same for other forms of bias. But this is the current zeitgeist, so do it if you are supportive.

At Rice University when I was on the faculty, if you wanted to display a rainbow indicating a safe place, you were given one. At my current institution, to get this you have to go through a training program that is supposed to be updated every few years and your date of training can be policed because you have to put it on the card. I signed up. It was a very small group of faculty that came to the 1.5 hour session. I thought about what a good training session might look like.

To me, effective training would go straight to the subtleties. After all anyone voluntarily there wants to be helpful. I imagine such training would talk about implicit bias, maybe mention thinking fast and slow, and such things. If I were designing it, I would probably start by asking people to tell their neighbor why they came to this workshop and maybe ask them to tell each other a relevant story. Then I would launch straight into a series of videos where we would watch for five or so minutes and then discuss with our neighbors what we saw. There might be a list of questions on the board, like what did you see, was this biased behavior, were there communication problems, and the like. I would have maybe four such videos of different sorts and they would be ambiguous and hard to decide. After all, it is on the borders that decisions are hard. Discussions would all be with small groups with the facilitators floating around. Maybe someone else has a better idea of what to do. This is what I thought of.

Unfortunately it is not what we got this morning at Wash U. Instead we got a really long list of terms we might hear from queer to cis-gendered to pansexual and about 15 more. I had already heard all of them, but then my daughter did go to Wellesley. We got some interesting information, some information I think was erroneous, and little interaction. I can hardly believe they started the session by telling us they had a lot of material so they were going to “talk at us.” These are well-meaning people who care a lot about the issues, but surely they know there is no greater turn-off than to be told this. If you must lecture, make it telling a story.

So, give those cards with lists of resources on the back to whomever wants to display them. And while you are at it, treat the big issue of the scandalous lack of toilets for all on campus. We should not need a special map. Just take out the urinals and make all the men’s rooms for everyone.

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Five reasons to hire you for our open faculty position

Faculty brainstorming about diversifying

Faculty brainstorming about diversifying

Hiring is one of the most important things we do. A new hire is a colleague for years, possibly decades. The new professor will figure out things we don’t know, will even completely change the way we view a major area of biology. The new professor will join us in figuring out curriculum, effective teaching, and mentoring. Our new colleague will teach us to think differently. She or he will attract a team of great researchers at all levels. How do we pick the best person?

The most important thing to remember is probably that there is not a best person. There are probably at least ten people in any pool that are excellent and would do splendidly. Our applicant pools run from over a hundred to two hundred self-selected people, so this is not too surprising. Also, I have generally viewed nearly all the people we interview as potentially great picks. So how do we decide?

I should say that it is never solely up to me. This is a good thing. Who would want all that responsibility? But I have been deeply or peripherally involved in three searches in our department and have heard job talks in two others just this year, so I have some insights. Here are five things I think are most important.

First is collegiality. Are you a cooperative person who will help others thrive and not put them down? Can you communicate your ideas in ways that encourage rather than terrify others? I put this first because it is probably the only thing we really need the interview for. All the other things can generally be learned from reading your papers, looking at your CV, and reading the letters that recommend you to us, though only the committee will take the time to do this. Perhaps there are some universities that would hire brilliance even packaged in a mean, selfish human being. Not us. I’ll include in this category evidence that you will be good at teaching, mentoring, service, and possibly outreach. This is simply because you care to share and to help others. Almost no one that I have seen interview has failed this criterion, but it is possible, and has happened.

Second is what you have done. What ideas have you pursued and what have you figured out? This is our best guess as to what you will do in the future. We read your papers and see if they are interesting, address big questions and arrive at answers. We get a sense of how careful you are and how willing you are to make clear what you can and cannot answer. If you reach the interview stage, you have certainly succeeded with this one. Generally we have to make tough choices and lots of people we do not interview also succeed with this. Just be sure you go for big ideas and break your stuff into publishable units. Really thorny problems you might never feel are ready for publication can still be published at some point. Just make it really clear in the methods what you did and what the shortcomings might be.

Third is your promise for the future. Do you make clear where you are going? We want to see big ideas in your five or ten year plan. Some universities expect that you will fundamentally change some part of your field with your research in ten years. So don’t pick a tiny corner but go big. Part of this is intellectual plasticity. We want to see that you can bring in different collaborators for different projects. We want to see that you can lead as well as follow. We want to see that you can add new techniques fearlessly to your approach. Think about your big contributions. Here are a few that I think David Queller and I have contributed. Early adoption of microsatellites for measuring relatedness in social insects. Insights on costs and benefits in insect sociality: fortress defense and life insurance. Bringing social evolution theory to the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. Redefining the organism. There are others, but I digress.

If we can figure out where you stand on categories two and three largely from your written material, if we have interviewed you, it is likely we think you are great on these two categories. I would also argue that we have very little power to foresee the future and predict which of you will most shine in the coming years. This brings us to the last two categories and they are things that matter to us but you can’t do much about.

Fourth is diversity. We do not want to exclude faculty because they are not part of the traditional pool of faculty members. We particularly want our students to see themselves in our shoes, not because we want them all to become professors, but because we want them to see all choices as open to them. Remember that great photo of Barack Obama bending down so a small boy could run his hand over Barack’s hair? I would like to think that when that little guy felt hair just like his, the world opened a bit for him. He may have thought he too could be president some day. Or even if this is not so likely, he may have generally felt more positive about his options, more fearless about trying for something big. In my view, this means we should hire under-represented minorities and women whenever possible, and certainly if our department is below the average in the pool  in these categories. We should also remember that we have implicit biases that color our assessment of people even if we don’t want them to. Therefore I think we should identify and carefully evaluate every applicant in these categories a second time after the first  evaluation.

Fifth and last is fit in the department. We are not Noah’s Arc. We can’t have one or two of everything. Small foci encourage collaboration, give graduate students interested in a particular area choices, and may generally make a department more collegial. This is also why students should choose their graduate programs carefully, for all universities do not do all things. These categories are usually informal, often arising organically. I do not think fit should be too tight or narrow. Generally we advertise broadly, for a neurobiologist, or an ecologist, or a biochemist. We do not specify exact subfield or exact organism. We want the best, but fit does come into it. Some get excluded as being too close to someone we have. This one is tricky to generalize but matters.

That’s it! Just remember to apply broadly and don’t second guess your applications or the places until you get the offer.

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