Friday, December 28, 2007

Merry Christmas!

A bit belated, but not much time to blog when you are having fun!

We have been in The Great White North (literally and figuratively) since Christmas Eve, enjoying time with The Thomas and The Parents, among others.

We got a late start on the trip because Mrs. Pion had been seriously under the weather, but a real doctor and some rest took care of that. Fortunately, we had built in a lot of slack in our schedule so we really did not miss anything. Even more fortunately, the weather was even better for our drive north than it would have been on our original plan.

Even better than that, it was all white when we got here!

It is not Christmas in the Pion family without food. Suffice it to say that we arrived at 3 pm, Parents arrived by 4:30 pm (barely enough time for us to unpack the car), and the ham dinner was served by 6 pm. SisInLaw had knocked herself out as usual, with a choice of 4 pies (chocolate cream, pecan, banana cream, and lemon meringue) and banana pudding, all home made, along with Christmas cookies and ice cream. I settled for a half slice of pecan and a half slice of chocolate cream, with ice cream on the side.

Santa arrived while we slept. (The great bulk of the gifts exchanged within The Brother's family are piled around the tree by Santa. They don't accumulate them under the tree during the weeks - or days- before Christmas like we do.) Oddly, Mrs Pion and I were well rested during our trip, so we were first to get up and have breakfast, but resisted the temptation to unwrap and rewrap the gifts. The others were all worn out from getting ready for us to visit.

We were all well remembered. The gift that keeps on giving, a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, has kept me and their kids entertained for the last few days.

Christmas dinner, a huge turkey and trimmings, was as good or better than the night before. Although I could complain about the lack of sage in the stuffing, I really can't because Mom can't enjoy spicy food like some of us can. Besides, the stuffing was highlighted with the addition of cherries, which add their own special flavor.

Boxing Day was spent on the road, to visit Mrs. Pion's big brother in the even greater, whiter, north woods. Close to Hemingway country, if you know where I mean. We had a special delivery to make: part of our grapefruit harvest. These came from a tree that his wife had started from a grapefruit seed, and gave to us after we had moved south. It rather amazingly has survived enough winters to bear fruit. Great visit, and a beautiful drive through the north country. Once again we were favored by good weather and clear roads.

Finally, we worked in a day for a family dinner at my Parents new home, a townhouse that is part of a wonderful retirement community. I'll have to blog about being Homeless (for the first time in my life, I don't have a bedroom or even a bed in my parents home) some other time. For now, I'll close by being thankful for yet another pleasant evening with family, including a brother who should be immensely proud of how his kids are turning out.

Hope you all had a great holiday as well.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Efficient grading (physics and math)

This will have to be the short version, since I have to do some real work tonight.

My experience is with quantitative subjects like physics and math, but since it seems to have some value for stuff that requires reading (like lab reports), it can probably be adapted for other subject areas. Details below the fold.

The starting point is that you only grade one problem (or even sub-problem or portion of a report) at a time. That was a given when grading 750 final exams in one day, because each person does one problem while piles of papers get pushed around a big conference room table, but it is also how I grade exams solo.

Here I will assume you are grading the entire exam of 40 or 50 papers yourself, maybe 400 distinct problem solutions. There are some differences when you are only going to grade one problem on 750 exams, so I will summarize those at the end.

My exams all have a cover page for the total, version, etc, so the first step is to turn the page to the first problem to be graded and invert the stack so the first papers turned in are at the top. If not, just set it up for the first problem, which might not be problem 1 on the test. If there are multiple versions, set them up so you are grading the "same" problem on all versions. This is key.

I always start grading with an 'easy' problem. I never start with one that might have N-8 distinct wrong answers. Too depressing, and it defeats the key step.

Sort the exams by answer. That is, make one pass through the tests looking only at the bottom line, the answer and its units. Completely correct answers go in one pile, ones with minor numerical variations or missing units go in another, and ones with wrong answers go in a third. Keep exams with the same wrong answer together.

Reassemble into one big stack and work through them starting at the top, or in the middle if your rubric has a key intermediate result or formula identified for that problem. Just because the answer is right does not mean the solution is right! This goes quickly for 'simple' problems, but requires a bit of care for ones where there are ways for two wrongs to make it right. It does take some experience to know which problems are likely to have 'magic' algebra steps where negative signs mysteriously change as needed, for example.

[Side remark: It is crucial that the solution be checked along with the answer. Many of the algebra weaknesses I see could only have made it into physics and calculus because an algebra or trig teacher did not check that they took the square root of a negative number and just made it into the correct real answer. I don't want that kid designing a bridge I have to drive over!]

There are two advantages here. One, the exams that deserve the same partial credit are next to each other. I may make a note on my key to say how certain errors are dealt with just for future reference, but I rarely have to consult them or look back to see how some weird thing got graded. Two, the exams are usually in the optimal order when it comes time to grade the next problem.

Next problem, same process. However, now the odds are that you have correct answers already at the top. The fact that you see a lot of correct exams before getting to the dregs is great for grader morale, which improves my efficiency. You do have to be super careful not to overlook errors on good papers or be too tough on the bottom. When a "top" paper has an error, it goes to the very bottom and when a "bottom" paper has the right answer, it goes to the very top. Sometimes I cut the deck, as it were, just to be sure I am fair (particularly for a long exam like a final).

The key is that you do not look through the entire solution for every paper, just the ones where you need to figure out what they did. Even then, you often get the efficiency of knowing that four papers all made the same kind of error in step 3 or 4 of the solution. You only have to figure it out once. After that, your eyes go directly to the error, flag it, and move on.

Handling each exam twice is more than made up for by less time spent on each one. I am also less likely to overlook an error in units or significant figures if I check that detail in my first pass. That means I also save time by not having to go back and look at an exam that was already graded.

Changes for Really Big Classes:

We would pre-grade a few dozen exams, picking out specific students from our own sections if that was practical. That would set up the rubric and give us some idea of what we had to watch for, but we also kept a sheet of paper with wrong answers listed along with the partial credit it got (and the reason why) when new ones showed up. This makes up for not being able to sort the exams. The basic idea was still the same: work from bottom to middle to top (or bottom to top to middle) of the solution to check the answer, the algebraic process used, and the physics.

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Profgrrrl has a thread about how people compute their grades. I commented there, but thought I would elaborate here.

Like her, I use a spreadsheet ... but I use Quattro Pro to do the grade computation rather than M$ XL. I also use an old fashioned grade book, which stays in my briefcase. The grade book is only for transient records (I don't carry a computer around with me), answering student questions, flagging something that will need correction (whether late assignments or a grading error) and a bit of permanence should something crash.

There was a gap where I only did research, so I can't tie my transition from paper to a spreadsheet to any specific change in the available tools. My history doing grades is quite a long one:

  • Undergrad TA: All grades were calculated by hand, since calculators did not exist at the time and slide rules can't do addition. Exams and quiz scores were added up by hand, as were final averages. Some habits carry over from those times. I still keep a grade book in that style, and I still transfer the sub-total for each page to the front of the exam for final computing. That was when I was teaching math, and lots of math faculty still do it this way.
  • Grad Student: I had a calculator, so most serious arithmetic was done that way. Exam scores were usually added up in my head, because I could do it faster than a calculator. Never bothered to write a grading program in Fortran because they already had one (or was it in COBOL?) for the really big lecture classes that did not have any homework grade.
  • Side comment: That was where I was taught how to grade exams really efficiently. It was only recently that I learned this had a name: rubric. But it is more than that, it is an assembly-line-like process. I may blog about it if asked. Once you can grade one problem on 750 exams, accurately and efficiently, you can grade anything.
  • Research Faculty: I taught some classes while on a full-time appointment that allowed that in addition to doing research. That was where I developed a grading spreadsheet in Quattro Pro that I still use today. It had three sheets (summary, homework, exams) just like mine does today.
  • CC Faculty: Nothing much changed, so nothing much changed. Once you have a PC, there is not much else to do but put it on your phone. But the security issues if that phone got lost? Priceless.
My comment on Profgrrrrl's blog about not having to remember how to do formulas comes from this experience. I have not built a totally new spreadsheet since the first one, maybe 15 years ago. I've only had to make minor adjustments as my grading formula changes.

So my grading process has two stages. I first enter grades into the grade book, even if I am home where the computer version lives. They go in the grade book with the same pen I have in my hand, and are easily entered in random order. (I alphabetize exams before handing them back, but not labs or homework, so that is an important detail. I can see an entire class in my grade book, but can't see the entire list on a computer screen.) I then copy them into the computer, now alphabetically, and cross check if it is important, like an exam.

At the end of the year, I "print" the final spreadsheet info to pdf and keep it on two different computers (home and work) and in two separate hard-copy files (one with the final exams at work, the other is the actual gradebook).

I can't imagine not using a spreadsheet. Besides the advantage of getting the numeric grades as soon as the final exam numbers go into the computer, it is also easy to generate midterm and other grades for the students. I don't use Bb for this because I use a different course management system and our college does not automate grade transfer from Bb to our on-line grade entry system. I'd have to transfer too much info from one place to another to make that work.

A big part of the grade comes from HW managed through a non-proprietary course management system. I print its gradebook for each block of HW when I give an exam, and use that for two things. One, it is a hard record of those grades that get transferred into my grade book and computer, and two, it is a way to keep records on possible correlations between specific exam questions and HW performance on related problems. Are they learning? I've learned that it matters more whether they tried the problem seriously than if they got it right. Kids who get it right by using their book, notes, or (more likely) advice from friends might not do as well as kids who got it wrong but figured out what they were doing wrong after they saw the answer. In fact, I have evidence that this is exactly what happens.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Good, Bad, and Ugly

Well, the semester is over so it is time to look back. Unlike some of the bloggers I read regularly, the end of the semester did not bring out the cloying annoying students that some had to deal with.

The Good:

My students. Not because I had a high pass rate, because I didn't. Last fall was outstanding while this fall was just above average. Because the ones who passed did a really good job. This was a class that was going to be either A or F. And since the F students will not be in my 2nd semester class, it looks like spring with this group is going to be a lot of fun.

But mainly because I just did not have any of the annoying ones that Profgrrrrl and RH were blogging about. But it was not that simple.

More of the Good:

Facilitating instead of doing. I tend to just do it. The sage on the stage. But a few weeks ago I managed to pay attention to a side comment at an engineering lunch meeting and put it to good use. A former student is part of a team building something for a national engineering competition. The guy at my table mentioned that he had been in the same competition 10 or 15 years ago. After lunch was over I introduced one to the other and watch an electric moment. You don't actually have to do the teaching to be a teacher.

Starting an ed research collaboration with an old friend from grad school. I think this is going to be really interesting.

The semester started and ended on a high note. During the pre-semester faculty meeting, my Dean closed by reading an e-mail he had gotten over the summer. He said he did not usually do this (he doesn't), which is a good thing. I could barely handle that one instance. After the first sentence I knew who wrote it, and so did the chemistry prof sitting next to me. This was a returning student, mid 30s career woman, going back to school to become an engineer. There were six of us who changed her life. I did not mind that I was an afterthought at the end, because it was the other five who got her to my classroom prepared to succeed. And just yesterday I got a note forwarded to me by one of the math faculty, a note thanking him for his clarity in teaching vector calculus and mentioning my efforts (the previous spring) as well. Most of the time they just walk in the door in August and walk out in December and you never really know whether you had an impact.

Yeah, and there was the Iraq war vet I ran into in the supermarket just last week, who is showing that an average CC student who put an emphasis on learning can kick butt when put up against those kids who started at the university. He even has one company ready to hire him after just on summer as an intern. And there was another vet, an ex-Marine (as if there is such a thing) from the inner city slums of a northeastern city who stopped by in August to tell me he had graduated and was off to take a job in Washington DC. Every one of those stories helps dispel the myth that CC students are inferior and helps the next group do even better.

Oh, yeah, and profgrrrrl is well on her way to earning tenure.

The Bad:

Too many meetings. I knew serving on a major (actually, the most major) college committee would be a strain, but you never know for sure until it happens. To those who know, there is nothing more that needs to be said.

The kid who had more persistence than sense of reality. The odds of passing the course with a great final exam are not good if you averaged 65 on the hour exams. He did not even make 50% on the final. I suspect, from what I saw in the lab, that he confused understanding how to do a HW problem with getting it right after someone told him how to do it. That might help on an hour exam, but it won't work on the final and he proved it. But maybe he will be in the 'good' category after next semester. I have seen that happen, and maybe he needed to fail the final exam to really learn that his approach will not work.

The Really Ugly:

One of my lab TAs did not turn in his grades on time. No trouble with the students, but trouble with their teachers! That was a completely new experience for me. Sigh. I suspect graders block or terminal procrastination. I saw some hints of trouble but never suspected it would turn out this badly. The worst thing is that he is a really good teacher in the lab. I see a stressful spring.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Grading Playlist

Pretty good progress grading so far. Got all of my final lab reports and lab exams graded so they could be returned at the final exam for the lecture course, and wrapped up the final exam for one class (the small one). That took me through

  • Cream: Strange Brew
  • Beach Boys: Made in the USA
  • Heart (the debut album)
  • Jethro Tull Original Masters
  • Led Zeppelin
  • Beatles: With the Beatles
which carried me through on-line grade entry for those three classes.

On tap is my larger class, where I still have to "take" the exam and write out the grading key. That will probably look like
  • The Beatles: Love (to work the exam)
  • Led Zeppelin (reprised due to recent concert)
  • Jimi Hendrix: The Ultimate Experience
  • Les Negresses Vertes: Mlah
  • Temptations: 17 Greatest Hits
If that does not do it, I'll add an update.

PS - Gotta love the tune "Zobi La Mouche" from the debut album of Les Negresses Vertes, a French band whose use of folk instruments (including the accordion) produces a sound that reminds me of Cajun music. Great energy for grading. The only problem with it showed up when I asked a young french post-doc to translate the lyrics. She was too embarrassed to tell me more than what the title meant.

Addendum: I did have to add a few disks to finish that last exam. Since I knew that I needed to think hard about the N-8 distinct wrong answers to a problem some of them found particularly hard, then slam through the last few problems and add them up, I went with
  • Beatles: Rubber Soul
  • Miles Davis: Relaxin'
  • Yes: Fragile
  • Beethoven: 9th Symphony (Dresden Philharmonic with the Berlin and Leipzig Radio Choruses)
That did it.

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Holiday Music

Time to destroy those childhood mythologies: Check out this remix of Alvin and the Chipmunks that has been slowed down so you can hear the original vocals. From M-1.US.

On that thought, need some Mashups with your mashed potatoes?

Check out SantasticIII in 3-D.

If you like that, go back a few years to SantasticII: Clausome! (2006) and Santastic: Holiday Boots 4 Your Stockings (2005).

Motivated by an article by Dean Dad complaining about lousy christmas music. He's never heard "Dreidel All The Way".

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Saturday, December 1, 2007

FSM at a national meeting

There is an amusing report in a blog about a session devoted to the subversive value of a parody like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. If you have never heard of it, FSM was invented in much the way Intelligent Design was invented, but for the opposite reason.

The FSM is quite popular around our department, since some of the biology folks regularly encounter kids who have been taught bogus biology in Sunday School. We are now seeing it spread to geology and oceanography (somehow global warming is against the bible) as well as physics (radioactive decay and entropy).

One office has a "What Would FSM Do?" sign on the door, and another of my colleagues went so far as to make up a Christmas decoration featuring a stylized FSM made of LEDs. The latter is quite pretty.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007


We saw Enchanted this weekend, and highly recommend it to anyone, whether you have children or not. Indeed, I'd guess that half of it is wasted on children unless they have been raised on all of the Disney classic anime, but particularly Snow White (1938) with a strong bit of cross-polination from Cinderella (1950) and perhaps Sleeping Beauty (1959).

The movie was great fun. (Possible minor spoilers follow, but some might enhance your viewing experience.)

It's about time that Disney take a chance by poking fun at their competitors in addition to their own movies. I mean, was that a Troll or an Ogre that Prince Edward (!) captured? Could have been Shrek's cousin. And are they suggesting that the other Prince Edward is a bit dim? I'd love to hear a UK audience watch this movie!

As a fan of Disney animation, the opening scene was a delightful surprise. The long zoom through the woods was not quite at the level of Pinocchio (1940), but it was brilliantly done. (If you have never seen that movie, check it out.) I also found the ballroom scene interesting as a tribute to the dance scene from Beauty and the Beast, which was an early triumph of 3-D computer animation rendering the chandelier.

If you watch the entire frame, you might catch a glimpse of Totoro. I missed it, but my wife says a Totoro toy was in the lower right corner of the frame during a scene in the daughter's bedroom.

A real test of any movie is whether a scene is so good that it is not spoiled by having seen clips of it in the ads or in a trailer. That is definitely the case for the scene where animals (and insects!) clean the apartment. The actual scene has much more than they gave away in the trailers, and the ad version was pretty good. Best of all, even though it was obvious how it had to turn out, it was far from clear exactly how they would get there. As expected, they live happily ever after, but the details are entertaining as can be.

Susan Sarandon rocks as the evil queen. She looked like she belonged in NYC.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Disc for PG

This is not a compact disk, it is the real thing, posting inspired by Profgrrrrl's blog this evening about listening to an "old" CD by Billie Holiday.

I wonder if her digital CD will be playable when it is over 60 years old.

My Mom bought this 78, and others, with money she earned from her first job while in high school. This side, "Am I Blue", is a classic, her signature song. The "B" side is "Long Gone Blues" with Lips Page on Trumpet.

I find it interesting that this song is described as a Fox Trot, because it does not swing like the big band songs one would normally associate with that dance.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Finishing the Move

Monday will be a special day, as my parents move out of their home of 30+ years and downsize into a townhouse in a retirement community where many of their friends already live. (I think part of their anticipation of the move comes as they realize that they know more people within a few blocks of their new place than they know in their current neighborhood, as long-time residents have made room for young families. It is also a really nice place.) But that is for another blog entry.

Today (Saturday) was an even more special day. My brother finally moved the last boxes from his college days out of my parent's basement and into his own. It took two trips in the family minivan, I am told, although that included some items from the house that are going to him. But only some.

Just in case you can't guess how long they might have been down there, his oldest child graduated from college about 2 years ago. Yeah, those boxes have been down there about a quarter of a century. The word from my parents is that he has found all sorts of treasures he had forgotten he even owned.

All I can add is, just wait until Thanksgiving and Christmas. I know for a fact that he is going to get some really priceless gifts this year, since I got some great ones when my parents were here last month. I did not blog about any of it because I don't want to tip him off about what might end up under his tree, but one of them left me speechless.

Exactly where they are going to go in his house is the real puzzle, since the 2-car garage and basement are pretty well packed with ... well ... with a quarter century of accumulated stuff, mostly the prized possessions of his three kids along with all of the usual necessities of suburban life.

The interesting question for the future might be: How long will his kids keep their stuff in his basement after they get their own homes and families?

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Shakespeare never said this ...

I can't resist time-wasting junk like this (from Dr. Crazy via Profgrrrrl), particularly when it does not take much time to do it:

William Shakespeare

It is the physics,
The physics above us, govern our conditions.

Which work of Shakespeare was the original quote from?

Get your own quotes:

Heck, that was so easy that I will try another:

William Shakespeare

Come not between the Dr. Pion and his wrath.

Which work of Shakespeare was the original quote from?

Get your own quotes:

Heh, heh. That one is priceless!

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Veteran's Day

Or should I say Armistice Day, as it used to be known?

In any case, Monday may be the official holiday, nationally and in some states, but today is the real one ... remembering the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 when the guns fell silent at the 11th hour.

So give your favorite veteran a call today. You never know which Veteran's day will be his or her last one, and it is not just the WW II vets who are fading away. Plenty of Vietnam vets are getting on in years along with the vets who got the Tom Brokaw treatment. Which reminds me: I really should give my brother-in-law a call.

I'm glad I know the story of how he won a major combat medal while doing what would seem to be the safe job of a court reporter at a field court martial that got a bit hot. He, like most men who have seen combat, doesn't talk about it much. Similarly, a good friend did not find out his father's combat history in the Pacific until after he died. For good reason, I suppose. If you ever happen to see the film shot by combat photographers as the Marines landed on Tarawa, you'll get the general idea that the experiment might be hard to explain.

My grandfather, who served in France during WW I and told a priceless story of Armistice Day, also said little about his service as a combat engineer. I only know about the time he took a shrapnel hit in the helmet and when he got a "touch" of mustard gas that sent him to a rear-echelon job driving an ambulance. Although this gas was not one developed by Fritz Haber, I still find it outrageous that Haber won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918. Oddly enough, his contribution to using chemistry for mass killing during WW I is not even mentioned in the bio on the Nobel site.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Space Shuttle Reentry Track

The Space Shuttle will be landing at the Kennedy Space Center tomorrow (Wednesday) just after lunch. It will land at 1:02 PM EST if it comes in on orbit 238, and about 2:36 PM EST if it has to wait for orbit 239. The reentry track will take it across the continental US, offering some great viewing opportunities.

Information on the shuttle mission and maps of the reentry tracks can be found on the NASA shuttle web site.

The primary track will take it across the midwest (central Nebraska, NE Kansas, SW Missouri) at very high altitude, then across central Alabama, possibly right over Columbus GA, south-central Georgia, then heading south just west of Daytona Beach to KSC. It should be over Alabama and Georgia about 10 minutes before landing.

Based on past experience, you should hear the distinctive double sonic boom a few minutes before landing. It takes it a long time for sound to travel down from something like 200,000 feet (40 miles) plus whatever your sideways distance adds to the hypotenuse; meanwhile, the Shuttle is making pretty good time towards Florida at over Mach 10. If you are close to the track, the sonic boom is thunderous and unforgetable.

The later landing path takes it across Utah and Texas and then along the Gulf Coast, crossing Florida a bit south of Ocala.

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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Grading Jail

Prompted by Profgrrrrl's article about her grading jail. Mine is not nearly as fancy as hers ....

... maybe because I do this (grade lab reports) every week, not just for a few exams during the semester.

Note the distractions, which are necessary to maintain sanity when reading a dozen or so versions of the same thing, each with their own annoying errors.

Interesting that we both have a remote control in there. My "background music" is usually football or basketball. I really like to grade during Monday Night Football. You can work along and only have to look up when there is something worth watching in a replay.

One thing of note: These students are doing a really good job of preparing their reports. The nicely organized cover page with an executive summary of the results that you see is actually a typical one for this class, which is the second semester I have had them. I always have to remind myself to tell them that they are doing a good job of getting ready for the advanced labs (and massive reports) they will encounter in engineering college. They have come a long way. They don't even whine very much any more.

This also reminds me that I really need to get back to a pair of articles on teaching labs, and the role of reading and writing in physics and engineering. Later ...

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First Century

One hundred posts.

The statistics sure show the effect of a CC teaching load.

March (16)
April (20)
May (17)
June (18)
July (10)
August (7)
September (6)
October (5)
and this one in November.

There was a bit of early enthusiasm and a backlog of ideas at the start, but it is also the case that the only thing to do towards the end of the spring semester is grading related. All of the prep was done a long time before, and only a few exams remained to be written or fine tuned. I was even teaching during the first half of the summer, but that light load left lots of time for other things. The drop off in July was when I started prep for Fall semester.

Students don't realize that our work load is totally out of synch with theirs. They work the hardest toward the end of the semester, studying for exams, while we work the hardest early in the semester, or even before it. That is particularly true when coordinating courses (which is part of my additional duties, not counted in my contact numbers or teaching load). Everything has to be planned out in detail several weeks before the semester starts so syllabi can be printed and outlines given to the people teaching the courses I coordinate.

That is why faculty are so punch drunk about now, since we are finishing up the last exams for the year, grading, but also preparing for Spring semester. That has to be done before Christmas break, since the few days after New Years are not enough to prepare anything that has to be in either the student's or the instructor's hands by the first day of class.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Funk Shui

Need to do some catching up. This photo is from a couple of weeks ago, after we had finished cleaning up the dining room for a visit by the Parental Units, as my brother put it in a comment on another blog.

I suppose it is obvious that this was not the result of any interior design planning on our part!

The glasses are a relatively new acquisition, intended for beach (or wish-we-were-on-a-beach) use, as is the plant container. I was intrigued by the way they sort of fit into the usual rule of three for fung shui design.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Practical Nobel Prize

It is about time (said even though I am a theorist)!

This is the time during the semester that we get to magnetism and the physics of important practical phenomena such as the Hall Effect (which is used to measure magnetic field strength, characterize the properties of semi-conductors, and, in its quantum version, establish a standard voltage). I always point out to my class that the mundane physics of such things as magnetic disk drives, like the mundane chemistry and physics of batteries, is as crucial to modern technology as the silicon chip ... and much more important to the functioning of our economy (or military) than electro-weak unification and other cool subjects of high energy particle theory that got all the press back when this work was published.

It is great to see a practical discovery related to magnetic data storage rewarded with a Nobel Prize.

This year's Nobel Prize in Physics was given to Albert Fert and Peter Gr├╝nberg for discovery of the Giant MagnetoResistance effect. This effect is used to read the tiny changes in magnetic field that signal the difference between a zero and a one when data are stored on a magnetic disk storage device. It has made possible the rapid (to someone as old as I am, spectacular) decrease in size of computer disk drives. For once, the media are not exaggerating when they say that this recent (late 1980s) discovery from basic research made the iPod possible.

One simple example: We own a half terabyte disk drive that is smaller than a Harry Potter novel. That is 500 gigabytes, for those who don't yet know the nomenclature, essential to backup all the data generated by a digital camera. A bit over 20 years ago, just a few years before the GMR discover was made, I used a computer system that had a terabyte (1000 gigabytes) of storage mixed between disk and automatic tape drives. That terabyte of storage took up a space larger than our house.

I won't elaborate on the physics, which is way outside of my personal expertise in nuclear physics, because general information on the discovery, as well as links to pdf files suitable for the general reader as well as physicists, can be found in the press release from the Nobel committee.

A comment over at Uncertain Principles included a link to an IBM corp article on R and D that puts GMR to work.

When talking about this to my physics class, I remembered that a computer I used for my thesis research had a 1 megabyte (0.001 gigabyte) disk for key programs (operating system, compiler, device drivers) that was a beautifully polished platter about 2 feet in diameter. A factor of a million in data with a reduction in volume of maybe a factor of 10, not to mention an increase in reliability and a drop in cost by what is probably a factor of a million in current dollars.

I also pointed out in the lab how important it is to have reliable contemporaneous lab notebooks in ink to help document your independent discovery that might lead to a valuable patent if not a Nobel Prize.

Read Entire Article......

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Cranberry Relish

Profgrrrrl's sick-bed comment about waiting for cranberry season so she can make cranberry sauce prompted several comments, including one about cranberry relish. That would be the real thing, made with orange rind, not the oversweetened commercial stuff that comes in a can. Tart and yummy (as garnish or spread on toast or waffles) and with enough Vitamin C to cure what ails Profgrrrrl.

The recipe from dear departed Mother of Mrs. Pion follows below the fold.

Cranberry Relish

  • 3 pounds fresh cranberries
  • 6 to 8 large apples
  • 6 oranges
  • 1/3 C sugar for each cup cranberries
Core apples to remove all seeds, chop apples and oranges into pieces, grind all ingredients (including apple and orange peel) into relish with food grinder. Add sugar and mix well. Refrigerate.


This relish is uncooked, so wash everything you use. These days, I'd recommend a second rinse.

This is the original recipe. The reference to "large apples" is maybe 50 years out of date. Back then a large apple would be more like today's normal ones. In addition, she used the thin skinned juice oranges rather than thick skinned navel oranges and removed the seeds while chopping them into a size that will fit in the grinder. If you use oranges with a thick skin, you might want to discard some of the white part of the peel, which can be bitter. You definitely want the yellow peel!

Best used after it has been refrigerated for a few days to blend the flavors.

We use an old hand-cranked food grinder, alternating between berries, orange, and apple as we go. Don't overdo it if using a food processor. It should be fairly coarsely ground, just enough to shred all the skins.

This makes a lot of relish, enough for the entire holiday for a large family! A more plausible size for most of you would use one orange and one apple to a half-pound of berries, which is probably about 2 C (plus or minus). You can vary it to taste, of course, and no two batches (or recipes) are the same. For example, the "Joy of Cooking" uses 1 orange, 4 C berries, and 2 C sugar (a lot more sugar than our recipe, which is tart rather than sweet), while the Mennonite "More-with-less Cookbook" uses 1 orange (seeded), 1 apple (cored), 2 C berries, and 1/2 to 3/4 C sugar or honey, plus (optionally) 1/4 C nuts.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Time to say "hey"

The Great Mofo Delurk 2007

Time to delurk, maybe let me know you should be in my blogroll.

You could also post a topic request. Any physics topics of interest out there?

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why We Teach

If you don't read Inside Higher Ed, you missed a great article this week.

In a followup to his article about the murder of one of his students last spring,
Wick Sloane, an adjunct who teaches English at Bunker Hill CC in Boston writes about an experience in one of his classes this fall.

I have nothing to add to that article or the comments that appear there except the following: A semester does not go by without encountering a student whose life is or was changed by learning in one of my classes. One of those makes up for a dozen bad lab reports, or the slackers that drop a class after taking first exam without even bothering to find out what grade they earned.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

iPhone Homework

So I am working with a group of students the other day, and I notice a familiar web display on a student's PDA ... which I then realize is an iPhone.

Yep, she had been using its browser to enter the answers to the on-line homework system I use. She said she used the fact that she could do this to help convince her mom that the iPhone was a good investment!

The on-line homework system is not a proprietary one, so it was designed to be tolerant of lots of systems, including a PDA. I saw it demonstrated on a Palm about 3 years ago, so this did not surprise me too much. I just can't imagine doing much real work on such a tiny screen without one of those Fresnel lens contraptions seen in Brazil.

Which leads to the digression question: Is anyone else seriously disturbed that someone is using the theme from that dystopia film to sell a product?!?

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Engineering Calculus

I saw a comment over on Learning Curves about having to sub for an "engineering calculus" class, and decided it was worth posting a comment on the genre.

As a math BS and physics PhD with a father who is an engineer plus my own love of old textbooks, I have a unique perspective. I have actually seen a true "engineering calculus" text book, and suspect there is a place for something like it today.

My dad's calculus book looks bizarre to someone raised on Thomas (3rd edition) who has seen nothing but its clones and copycats over the years ... both back when I taught calculus recitations and today when I poach some parts of the subject by looking over the shoulders of my physics students when they are doing math homework before class.

The "engineering calculus" book dates to the post-war period, definitely before Thomas appeared (along with all the other post-Sputnik books?) in the 60s. It appears to have been designed for a quarter system and optimized to fit in with a calculus-based physics class that had its (very easy) first section as a pre-requisite. Also, from my current perspective, it might have accidentally managed to deal with the lack of abstract thinking skills so many kids bring to calculus.

It starts with the calculus as arithmetic, literally about doing a specific kind of calculation. It does not ignore the limit (like the infinitesimal approaches that were tried) but it does minimize it, thereby eliminating the several weeks of abstraction related to functional analysis in the typical text. Its goal for the first 10 weeks is to teach you to solve derivatives, integrals, and differential equations involving polynomials. (The only thing you really need for the first bits of physics, until you get to simple harmonic motion and need more.) I think they also did the log integral so they could do first-order linear diff.eqs which are also needed in physics.

The book then goes from concrete to abstract, revisiting the main topics to put in enough functional analysis to do derivations of derivatives of trig and inverse functions, chain rule, etc, and integrals of those functions. That is enough for simple harmonic motion by the time you get to it in physics (even if taken at the same time as this 2nd 10 weeks class). By the third 10 weeks, you are doing all the methods of integration and on to multi-variable calculus, just as in a conventional book, except the co-requisite requirements might ensure that the calc students knew some physics by this time, so the applications could be taken more seriously (assuming the math prof also knew that physics).

The rationale for this could be a simple as the fact that Newton had no need of functional analysis to do what he needed to do in the Principia. That approach to teaching calculus came much later, and mostly serves to puzzle the freshman taking calc I who wonders when they will ever get to calculus. (Answer: Sometimes it is after the first exam!)

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Big Day for Blasphemy

Browsing the BBC RSS feed today turned up all sorts of news relating to Blasphemy around the globe. And not all of it involved religion per se:

There was the story about the government withdrawing a statement about the significance of Lord Ram's Bridge between India and Sri Lanka in relation to a proposed coastal waterway.

News about a bounty being set for those who published a Cartoon of the Prophet made me glad I once got a chance to see an etching by Dali that is part of a series portraying scenes from Dante's Inferno ... as art rather than part of a religious controversy.

A German Cardinal described a new stained glass window in Cologne Cathedral as entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), a term with clear Nazi connotations in Germany. Oddly, this seems to be an example of act of civil blasphemy by a religious person, which must have caught him by surprise.

Gates says a 40% cut in US troop levels is possible by the end of 2008. When a Democrat calls for a reduction of troop levels by that amount in a year or so, he or she gets accused of a policy of "cut and run".

Greenspan attacks Pres. Bush on the US economy, while the Dollar hits new low against the Euro. We will have to wait for the Sunday talk shows or his Monday appearance on the Today show (and lots of others, I expect) pushing his book to see if the connection between these two stories is missed. After all, the blasphemy of a Darling of the Conservatives attacking a "conservative" President is not unrelated to the blasphemy of a "conservative" President backing massive deficit spending by a "conservative" Republican Congress. Will this lead to an insistence by the current Congress that Pres. Bush find some taxes to pay for the extra money he needs to pay for Iraq?

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Alternate Careers

Profgrrrrl pointed to the Career Cruising site and listed a username and password to enter it. Given her rather interesting results, I thought I would give it a try.

The first set of questions did not even put professor in the top 40, but did include quite a few things that I have done in the past (highlighted in bold face or italic depending on how seriously it was done), although not necessarily as an employee with that title. Some were done in the ancient past, when the term had a somewhat different meaning.

1. Multimedia Developer
2. Astronomer
3. Optometrist
4. Website Designer
5. Desktop Publisher
6. Criminologist
7. Cartoonist / Comic Illustrator
8. Computer Programmer
9. Oceanographer
10. Animator
11. Driving Instructor
12. Video Game Developer
13. Computer Engineer
14. Physicist
15. Meteorologist
16. Mathematician
17. Environmental Engineer
18. Actuary
19. Biomedical Engineer
20. Civil Litigator

Seeing astronomer in there is interesting. I've done some amateur observing and worked with a planetarium, but don't own a telescope. Ditto for meteorology, with an emphasis on storm watching and tracking. But my first degree is in mathematics (which I have also taught) and I could slam code with the best of them back when I felt like doing it.

My second pass, after including education level and answering another set of questions, did not include programming for some reason, but pushed Professor into the top 10. Maybe the program sensed that I no longer like slamming code.

1. Computer Trainer
2. Optometrist
3. Criminologist
4. Business Systems Analyst
5. Multimedia Developer
6. Astronomer
7. Professor
8. Announcer
9. Mathematician
10. Meteorologist
11. Physicist
12. Computer Support Person
13. Historian
14. Computer Engineer
15. Judge
16. Database Developer
17. Artist
18. Anthropologist
19. Writer
20. Environmental Engineer

But Optometrist? Someone seriously missed the boat on that one.

Read Entire Article......

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rush to Failure

One remarkable statement in the testimony of Gen. Petraeus missed getting media attention even though it would make the perfect title for a book about the entire Iraq policy of President Bush.

He said we should not be "rushing to failure" as we face the "imperative of transitioning responsibilities to Iraqi institutions and Iraqi forces as quickly as possible" (emphasis added).

Although common in news reports, it is pretty hard to find much commentary that even mentions this phrase. Michelle Malkin heard it and blogged the sound bite "rush to failure", but did not analyze it as a warning from the General to the Bush administration to alter its long running, and failed, "surge and run" policy in Iraq. I'm kind of surprised that Democrats did not pick up on the razor's edge between destroying the Army and failing in Iraq that Petraeus clearly was walking down as he reported to Congress.

He also runs the risk of telling participants in the Iraqi Civil War that they only need to lie low between now and next November to achieve their goals. Lighten up a little bit and watch our troops leave, then attack. In particular, I would not be surprised to see a huge rise in violence during the last few months of the Bush administration, after Bush has cut troops along the lines mentioned in this week's testimony. Petraeus told the "enemy" (I put this in quotes because Petraeus made it abundantly clear that he did not view our opponents in Iraq as a threat to the US) it would be all theirs if they play along, just as he told them that we cannot keep this up even if they don't play along.

I have not seen much mention of his seeing a quick drawdown of the surge as an imperative, even though his prepared testimony was quite clear on the point. Indeed, he saw it as a strategic necessity for "long-term US force viability". He clearly knows that the Army is seriously threatened by the policies being followed in Iraq; he has probably been told by the JCS that we cannot sustain a force in excess of 150,000 for more than a year without Bush leaving the Army in a state similar to it was after Nixon was done with it. That may be why he stated that "Force levels will continue beyond the pre-surge levels of brigade combat teams that we will reach by mid-July 2008" (underlining emphasis in the original). It also may be the case that even this will not be enough to prevent long-term damage to the US Army.

Now I just hope that he does not cut and run before the mission is complete. We have not had a General see this war through in the way that Eisenhower did in WW II, or Westmoreland for most of Vietnam. And we certainly have not seen one get called back out of retirement for a second tour of duty in Iraq in a "stop loss" order like the troops have experienced.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

August 28th

I've noticed that I am not the only academic blogger whose activity level has dropped over the past week. Must be something in the water, or could it be the start of the semester? For me, it has been making adjustments to a new text while also coordinating a second section of my main course ... which required that all sorts of things be done by last week that I could normally do during the semester.

But I did need to post one thing today:

A very Happy Birthday to The Thomas.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Nerd Alert

After reading Chad's blog confession this morning, I could not resist putting this up. It is just so funny ...

... but we need something with legitimately nerdy (astro) interest below the fold ...

... a YouTube video of the Perseid meteor shower from last weekend that I stumbled on while looking for Weird Al.

Full disclosure:
I once spent an August grad school evening on a hammock in the back yard watching a beautiful display.

This time lapse of the Northern Lights shown below reminded me of the time I joined a group of friends for a bike ride on a very dark country road with only the Aurora for illumination and a bar as our destination.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Students and Professors

An article that profgrrrrl wrote while on vacation started a small whirlwind of discussion, mostly (based on my cursory read) by graduate students who have no idea what faculty do. One student seemed to think that tenured faculty are paid to teach (because that seemed the case at her undergrad school) and seemed oblivious to how a vast research enterprise comes about. Hint: It is entirely the result of the effort of the person whose name is on all of the grants that pay for it. That student did not say if she thought that her major professor got tenured because of teaching, but that would not surprise me either.

I was several years into graduate school before the real situation (not to mention the many ramifications of a job market where several hundred people apply for a single job opening) became clear to me, so I definitely don't think anything less of the students who shard my ignorance. However, I don't want them to stay ignorant of the realities of academic life.

I am not surprised that most students do not know that a faculty member with an excellent record (lets say 60 published papers, a Harvard PhD, a Sloan Fellowship, and enough prominence that I saw him quoted in our newspaper this week) is sometimes denied tenure because that record is not quite up to someone's fantasy of what the perfect professor should be at a top-10 research university, quite irrespective of his/her teaching ability. Simply put, a professor at a research intensive university is there primarily to generate money for the university and increase its reputation, not to teach undergrads or even graduate students.

I started a multi-part series of articles on physics jobs to try to help clarify this situation. (I'll link to the middle one, since it defines the different kinds of careers.) If you enter graduate school with a certain kind of career in mind, it helps to have a sharper idea of what those careers might be. I learned a lot, but not enough, from my mentors and friends - and then only about a few types of institutions. Toward that end, I was really glad to see Dr. Crazy's article on Juggling, listing the many things that faculty do and how those roles are radically different than the grad student version once you become a professor. She is writing from the English Department (I think), yet it could have been about physics. Profgrrrrl's follow up article dealt with some of the same misconceptions from her position in Complexification Studies.

I strongly recommend those comments to anyone who looks at part four, the part about tenure. That article was heavily biased toward the R1 end, because of the physics blogs that motivated me to write it. However, as I went to some lengths to point out in part two, most of the faculty jobs are at "comprehensive" universities that reflect the kinds of teaching load and tenure criteria that Dr. Crazy talked about. Her remarks are a nice counterpoint to mine, showing how the emphasis shifts away from an international research reputation toward a more local one as the nature of the college changes.

One of the comments came from a graduate student in the life sciences who thinks "people who have committed their life to teaching (because if you're a professor, that's really what you've done)". Uh, no. If you are a professor at any of a hundred or so graduate research universities, and quite a few of the several hundred or so colleges and universities that have a significant research emphasis, you became a professor because you committed your life to creating or discovering new knowledge and publishing and publicizing it through seminars and conference presentations. This is a form of teaching, of course, but not what the student meant.

Now it happens that I am in a job where I am paid to teach, and I am committed to it. Enough that I do quite a few teaching-related things during the months when I am literally not paid to do any teaching-related work, although part of the reason is so I can remain sane once the year gets rolling. This year will be a bit more intense than usual, given that I will be dealing with a major service load (I am on a major college-wide governance body) plus the usual challenges of an entirely new textbook.

I am committed enough that I have a virtual office hour every night around 10 pm for e-mail related to on-line homework, despite having to teach an early morning class. That is in addition to the time I am required to be in my office, so it is uncompensated time in our system. (Our salaries are fixed by contract, so there is not even any merit pay if one goes beyond norm, or well below it.) I'll post more about the expectations at a teaching job, and what is needed to get and keep it, when I get to part five of the jobs series. (I'll just say for now that one pleasure of reading Dean Dad is hearing about people with a 5/5/5 load. Sheesh. They are committed to teaching!)

Side Remark:
The life sciences are probably the one area (other than perhaps the humanities) where the job market might possibly be worse than it was in physics in the 1970s. The one thing those professors should be teaching is the reality of that marketplace and what you need to do to succeed, or even just survive, in it. Since they probably won't tell you this, you need to talk to a 35 year old post doc or one of the many research "faculty" about employment options in the life sciences and how to prepare to get what you want.

It is getting too late for me to wrap this up now, but I will add my dos centavos when I get a chance ... between wrapping up four syllabi and updating all of the materials I am responsible for as the coordinator of several classes. High ho, its off to work we go.

Some relevant articles from Inside Higher Ed:

There is also a lot that can be learned from Ms. Mentor (link is in the sidebar).

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Physics Jobs - Part 4 (Tenure Standards)

The previous article defined the different categories of academic jobs. This one is about preparing to keep one of those jobs.

College is fundamentally different from high school (a detail that is poorly emphasized in freshman orientation), and graduate school is fundamentally different from college (a detail that also comes as a surprise to some students). A post doc, pretty much required for most top-tier faculty jobs, needs to be significantly different from grad school if you want one of those few jobs. Finally, as important as it is to get a good faculty job, getting it is definitely not the same as keeping it.

When you apply for a job as a college professor, the letters of recommendation come from a few faculty that you know really well and who (hopefully) want you to get that job. When you try to keep it, the most important criteria might be whether your competitors think you would be granted tenure at their school, which is probably better than the one you are at.

I'll bet you did not know that. That is why I am writing this article.

There have been a number of good articles recently about earning, and not earning, tenure at various types of institutions. I've put a list of those links at the bottom of this article and strongly recommend that you read them. I am certainly no expert on this subject; no one person can be. My goal here is sort of pedagogical, so I am going to break down the requirements for tenure a bit more narrowly than usual to make my point. In the process, I think I am trying to frame the discussion a bit differently than is the norm.

  1. Outside letters of recommendation from non-collaborators, all of whom must be tenured faculty at institutions considered equal or better than the one you are at. You only get to choose a fraction of these people. They will be asked to write about the past quality and future promise of your research from a national and international perspective.
  2. Ongoing external (grant) funding for your research.
  3. Peer-reviewed publications of high quality, measured not only by the number of papers you publish, but by the journals you publish in and the number of citations your articles attract. Some places only want to see your top ten greatest hits, not the full list.
  4. Graduating a PhD student or, at minimum, an MS thesis student. Supervising undergraduate research would fall in this category if you are at a BS-only school that emphasizes that experience.
  5. Excellence in teaching at the undergraduate and/or graduate level as determined by peer review (other faculty who visit your class) and student evaluations.
  6. Service to the department, college, university, and the national physics community (which includes service with professional organizations).

These are listed so the first ones are of greatest importance to a top (or wannabe top) R1 program. Only the last ones matter at a Community College, so that sort of job search gets its own article in Part 5. Note that documenting all of this is your job, and requires a certain amount of record keeping over the 5 or so years that you are working toward tenure. This is something you need to get used to doing early in your research career.

Now lets look at each of these in turn.

1. Letters.

The requirement for outside letters is usually buried in with publications and the quality of your research, but this requirement can be the biggest concern for faculty at top schools. Yes, many of the letters come from a list of people you provide, but even your list has to identify people who have never collaborated with you. It can't just list the 3 people who recommended you for the job. More importantly, it usually cannot list anyone who is not at a "peer" institution, meaning they must be in a department ranked as high or higher than your own. You need to prepare for this from the start if you want to keep a faculty job at a research university.

How do you prepare for this?

First, forewarned is forearmed. This is something you can start working on while in graduate school. In the business world, it is called networking. Good thesis advisors (and often entire research groups) will train you to give good talks from day 1, and then push you out front at meetings. If they don't, find someone who will help you with those skills. But if you have an advisor like the one in this cartoon from Piled Higher and Deeper, there is no reason to go all passive and slide through grad school. There is absolutely no reason why the girl in that cartoon should not put a copy of her papers in the other prof's mailbox with a cover letter saying that her advisor told her about his book and that she thought he might find the articles interesting. Then follow up and make a collaboration happen.

It is your senior colleagues and your friends from grad school and your post-doc school that get you invited to give seminars and colloquia so that more people know what you do. However, it will be your job to be sure that they realize what you do is really important by giving a good talk. Since this section was getting too long, I have moved comments about talks and some related info to the bottom of this article.

Second, get at least one good faculty mentor as soon as you get that job and be sure you understand the policies at that university. This is definitely an area where the details are different at each school, and they vary significantly depending on the ranking of the university or college you are at. Most departments will have some kind of mentoring process in place, because they have invested too much in you (six years of salary, startup funds, not to mention the opportunity cost of lost time if they have to start over) to just ignore you for 6 years and then fire you. However, incompetence at mentoring can be as fatal as actual malice. Denial of tenure is rare, but the risk is far from zero.

Start thinking about where those letters are going to come from before the last year when you put your tenure binder together. Talk to senior colleagues elsewhere and ask for their honest opinion of your research, and what you need to work on to get tenure. (If they are not close collaborators, you might even find someone to put on your list.) If you are at a highly ranked school, they will likely only seek letters from the top 10 or 20 programs in your area. Most 2nd quartile universities want to be in the top quartile and will look there for letters. I know of a few cases where a person had to fight to get a letter from a place that had a quality research program in a specific subfield but was not a top R1 university.

Getting good letters is also one of many places where your choice of grad school can make a difference. Ditto for your choice of post doc school. However, getting a degree with enough fame attached to its name that you can get a great job offer will not guarantee that your name will rate good letters, nor guarantee that you can write a convincing grant proposal. You still have work to do.

2. External research funding (grants).

Not having a grant or three to support your research will be fatal at any R1 (the "very high research activity" Carnegie category). It is no surprise at all when someone is denied tenure at a 2nd quartile program because they do not have adequate external research support. They expect you to pay your grad students, a post doc, buy equipment, cover all travel, and support the college infrastructure through "overhead". My comments on the first item ran way to long to say anything much about overhead, but the sooner you learn how grants are put together, the better. You need to start learning the facts of life in grad school, and you need to do it yourself as a post doc. You must learn to play this game to keep your job.

Among other things, you can never have a shortage of new ideas. You also have to do what you say you were going to do, which means you have to have done enough work on that new idea to know that it is not a crazy one. Enough work that you can sell it as something that can be done ... and that needs to be done. Some faculty save a few projects for a rainy day. If you are going to work on something that will take a few years to pound through, it can't be the only thing you are working on. You can't let a current project eat up so much time that you don't get started on the next one.

You also need to sell your ideas to the people who will evaluate your proposals. Since they are, generally speaking, the same competitors who will be asked to write letters, some of the strategies in the first item will also help you here. People tend to believe your promises if your previous ones came through with flying colors.

3. Publications.

This is what you are supposed to know how to do after a post doc, but there are some details. At top programs, where you publish is as important as how many papers you publish. Similarly, single author papers and work that is identifiably yours (clear enough that all letter writers know it) are important. Some places even have a formal point system assigned to journals (5 for PRL, 4 for PL, 2 for Phys Rev, 1 for the others). Know the rules, and listen to your mentor.

Preparing for this starts in grad school but continues through the post doc years as well. If your thesis advisor does all of the writing, what will you do when you are the thesis advisor? Short answer: find a different job. Learn as much as you can about why certain decisions are made. Learn how to write a good response to a referee's report on your paper. Learn it all.

4. Research students.

You need them, and you need them to succeed, which means you need to come up with ideas with the appropriate scope for an undergrad, 1st year, MS, or PhD project. Good publishable ideas that can be completed in the available time frame. You may have to take the lead in getting the paper written and published. At some point, you will become a writing instructor for your PhD student.

5. Classroom teaching.

This has more importance the further down the ladder you go. We all know cases of poor teachers who are brilliant researchers, but it is less common than you might think. (Good researchers have to have good communication skills, so they can usually teach if they put their mind to it.) However, I do know one person who was utterly unable to communicate with undergrads and barely able to communicate with grad students during the first part of his career. He got tenure on his research, but turned into a very good teacher about twenty years later. That would not happen at a 4-year school where teaching is the life blood of the institution.

Because this topic is so important at Community Colleges, I will say much more about it in part 5, the final installment of this series.

6. Service.

You need to do this, and do it competently. You can't sacrifice the more important items to this particular task, but you also can't alienate the faculty who have the first vote on your tenure by being a jerk or unreliable when some task is given to you. This is how you show that you think of yourself as part of the institution. It can also be where you tell them that everything they know is wrong and that things should be done the way they were done at Xyzzy U. (Do I have to tell you that that is a bad idea?) Undergrad institutions put more emphasis here, particularly when it comes to advising student groups and clubs.

Info related to promoting yourself:

The importance of effective presentations cannot be emphasized enough. Good talks result in a buzz, and more invites to give that talk. One bit of advice I was given was to watch how a particular person put his talk together rather than following the talk itself (which was a variant of an excellent one I had heard before). If you know that a particular person gives a good talk, pay attention to its organization and the level of the material. You might notice that an audience likes to hear a few things that they already know, and see those things used to link together an argument that is plausible even to experts. This is particularly true at a departmental colloquium.

Blogs about tenure decisions

There is more than this, of course, so read the discussions and follow the links in the articles and out of the discussion area to other blogs.

  • Chad Orzel on the tenure process from the viewpoint of a liberal arts school, Union College. Chad, an experimental physicist, recently earned tenure and promotion to Assoc. Prof.
  • Mark Trodden on the tenure process from the viewpoint of an R1 university, Syracuse. (Syracuse ranks number 56, in the middle of the 2nd quartile.) Mark is a full Professor of theoretical physics.
  • Rob Knop on why he was going to be denied tenure at an R1 university, Vanderbilt. (Vanderbilt is ranked number 57, also in the middle of the second quartile.) Rob was, until recently, an Asst. Prof of Astronomy. His PhD degree is from Caltech (ranked number 5).
  • Sean Carroll who was dumped by Chicago and took a research job at Caltech in fall 2006. (Chicago is ranked number 7 in physics, Caltech number 5.)

If, like Sean Carroll, you seek tenure at a top 10 physics program, your department is going to ask people at Princeton, MIT, Berkeley, Caltech, Cornell, Illinois, Texas, UCSB, and maybe Yale if you would get tenure at their university. [I left out the number 1 program, Harvard, because that is where he got his degree. Some places will not take letters from your alma mater, others do.] I personally can't see where he ran into trouble, but it could take just one negative letter and one or two faculty at your school who don't like your research program (for any reason) for you to be in trouble.

Updated April 2009:

There was a really good article about the transition from post-doc to professor from Professor in Training that deserves a link here as well as in my March 2009 article about an "advice for a new professor" article in IHE. I gather that PiT is wrapping up the first year of research AND teaching. Quite the perspective. If you go there, don't miss the link to another good article on this general subject (what a post doc doesn't know). There was a lot I did not know as a post doc, which was the main reason I decided to collect things I had learned personally and from friends in this "jobs" series. I've written a bit more today in the blog, and there are a few other related articles (also linked in the "jobs" category) that I posted in March of 2009.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Grand Canyon Memory

Profgrrrrl is off visiting Las Vegas with a Grand Canyon trip on the side. She posted this picture

of a sunset on her blog this evening, along with a few others. (Go there if you want the link to a larger version.)

That brings back a particularly special memory for me. Let's pluck it out of the Pensieve.

I was at Los Alamos on a multi-week consulting gig. My parents were in California to visit my grandmother. Mother's Day weekend approached, coinciding (as it sometimes does) with my birthday. I heard an ad on the car radio for cheap one-way fares to SFO, no pre-purchase needed.

Idea. Bought a there-and-back pair and made arrangements with my uncle to pick me up at SFO and bring me to the church for Mother's Day Sunday. All secret. Flight left ABQ at dawn. A few balloons were being launched outside town and I settled in for the flight.

Then the pilot called our attention to what was between us and California: the Grand Canyon at dawn from about 10,000 feet up. The entire length of it, lit by the golden light of the rising sun. No photo can do justice to the image of it that still lives in my mind. Immense. Beauty. Orange. Not unlike the photo above, except for the vista that comes from being above it. Changing continuously as the sun pushed the shadows out of the canyon.

That alone would be quite a memory, but it is closely tied to the one of the look of joy on my mother's face when she saw who had just wished her Happy Mother's Day as they walked up to our group by the church. (And then asked if she had his birthday present!) A Mother's Day does not go by that we don't both remember that day.

I don't remember anything about the return trip.

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Mixed Messages

A couple things seen in the last month or so.

False advertising?

Are those "wireless margaritas" free, or do they cost $1.99? Either way, it is a bargain for such a high-tech innovation.

High class town?

From one of those homemade small-town billboards:

Homes of Xyzzy
Buy * Sell * Free Delivery

Something tells me that the housing in this town is more mobile than the population.

He is risen!

Sign in front of a rural church:

Jesus is WAZ UP!

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Thursday, August 2, 2007

Physics Jobs - Part 3 (Types of Jobs)

My apologies for the delay, but I have struggled with how to organize this part of the series (preparing for a tenure track job) because there are two very different parts to it. I've decided to separate them.

The issue I've found to be problematic is that there are many different types of institutions with tenure-track jobs available to a person with a PhD in physics, and even some open to someone with an MS. They are so different, particularly as regards the standards for tenure (addressed in part 4), that we need to get these definitions straight.

These definitions are also crucial to understanding the data in the previous article, about demand for physicists in academia.

Types of Institutions

Community Colleges:
These are teaching faculty positions. Publications and research play no role in tenure decisions, only teaching. Research related to teaching is encouraged and useful, but it will not result in tenure being granted if you are a poor teacher. Apart from the usual service duties, the assignment is 100% teaching. As an example, I spend 10 hours per week in a classroom (two calc-based physics classes) and 6 hours per week teaching labs. Some of our labs are taught by adjuncts, who I supervise. I teach a gen-ed class in the summer. The trig-based class is taught by another faculty member. I'll discuss this category of jobs in Part 5. Types of classes taught vary widely depending on the nature of your main transfer school.

Four-year (BS only) Universities:
These are teaching and research positions, often with an emphasis on involving undergraduates in research. Teaching here includes upper division "majors" classes as well as introductory classes, but the majors classes are small. (At the smaller programs, they might be taught every other year just to get 5 students enrolled, but I have seen some outstanding PhD students come from such schools.) Most of the load is in service courses to the rest of the college. Quality teaching is essential for tenure at these schools, but research cannot be neglected. However, the standards for research are not what they are at top-quartile PhD institutions. Because this group includes mid-size state universities and small liberal-arts colleges, there is a lot of diversity. One thing to watch for are the larger, upwardly mobile institutions that want an "R1" faculty member while offering low-rent facilities and support. Conditions may be more predictable at the liberal arts schools.

Universities offering an MS degree:
This small group is a hybrid. Research and small grants are essential to provide appropriate training for students doing an MS thesis, but undergrad teaching cannot be neglected. Some of these schools are trying to move up into the bottom-feeder PhD category, and those will place much greater emphasis on research and grant funding in their tenure decision (much like the bottom half of the PhD departments). A good friend works at one of these, but I won't talk about them in part 4 of this series because they make up such a small group of jobs.

Universities offering a PhD degree:
There is a wider spectrum here than you might imagine, since fully half of physics PhD's are granted by the top 35 universities. Those, or the next group of 37, are the ones you probably know about. Only 25% of PhD holders got degrees from the 110 universities that make up the majority of "research" universities, so most persons getting a PhD are unaware of what those other programs are like or the pressures they operate under - yet these offer 40% of the jobs (about 2000 of 5000) at this level. It is common to hear people refer to the top half of these schools as "R1" institutions. This is the name given to a Carnegie classification that has been renamed "very high research activity". (Details are at the Carnegie Foundation web site, although you might want to read the Wikipeida summary as well.) Faculty at the top schools publish twice as many papers per year as faculty at the bottom schools, and their papers get cited three times as often as those from the lower group. Tenure decisions are made based on research productivity, grant funding, and the national and international reputation of that research. The table below gives you some idea of what is going on across this group of schools.

Summary Table

Data for the PhD-granting institutions is from the National Research Council study published by the National Academy of Sciences. See below for source links. Othere entries are deduced from the AIP data cited in my previous article. Only 146 of the 183 "PhD granting" institutions identified by the AIP are ranked by the NRC study, so I also include an entry for them with values deduced from the (rounded) AIP tables. I put a non-zero value in the PhD column because I know of at least one school not in the group of 146 that does grant 1 or 2 PhD's every year.

Dept class# Depts# FacultyCites/FacPhD/yr
PhD top354971.517.0
PhD 2nd373247.67.7
PhD 3rd372231.14.7
PhD 4th371423.92.2
unranked3618? ? 1?
MS only7210 ? 0
BS only5005 ? 0
2 year CC10701.2 ? 0

You can obtain a copy of Table L-7 in Excel format from this collection of tables in Appendix L. (Please note that this information is all copyright 1995 by the NAS and distributed by them for individual use. Explanations of the tables are in their $81 book.) If you are looking for tables in another format, for other research areas such as the humanities, or the tables that provide a summary across all research areas, start at the index of publicly available materials.

The data in the 1995 study reflect the situation in 1992-93. The previous study was published in 1982 (again based on surveys and data collected a few years earlier), so a new update is likely to appear in the next year or so.

Why the confusion?

I think this subject can confuse graduate students because it is rarely talked about by faculty. I only heard about it over beers with faculty while I was in graduate school, and became more aware of it when I was affiliated with an institution that was trying to move up in the ranks. It is also obscured by the fog of being in a school system that appears rather seamless to a student.

After 12+1 years of being taught by people with a BA degree (maybe a BS, MA, or MS in there somewhere), where the main difference from elementary to high school was the depth of expertise in certain areas, you probably figured that college teachers were pretty much the same thing but with even more knowledge and expertise. Odds are that you were in grad school before you began to realize that the job of a university professor is not teaching and that the real education of a graduate student does not take place in a classroom. That confusion about changing priorities is captured brilliantly in the Piled Higher and Deeper cartoons. Even then you may not realize that there are graduate programs and then there are Graduate Programs. I use the (outdated) term "R1" to describe that second group, the top tier of research universities.

Minimum requirements for a teaching job

I am at an institution accredited by SACS, but the standards are essentially the same in other regions of the country. (The regional structure is mostly just to deal with the numbers: there are 793 accredited colleges and universities in our region alone. That is a lot of work.) I'll use SACS because I am familiar with their organization and there is no point in linking to all of the others. The key document bit of information is their Principles of Accreditation.

The information on faculty credentials is in section 3.7 of the 2001 document, with the main information on page 25, which is page 29 of the pdf file. That same section is on page 13 of the 2007 document, page 16 of the pdf file, but the section on faculty credentials has been moved to a separate policy document. The current policy on credentials is linked from the bottom part of the page with all of SACS' policies.

Updated 2/05/2008:
There is a new Interim 2008 Edition where section 3.7 is found on page 16 of the document, page 20 of the pdf file, with the details about credentials still in a separate document (unchanged since December 2005) as noted above.

You must have an MS or PhD with 18 hours of graduate courses in the teaching discipline to teach any college course that can count towards a bachelor's degree. There are lower standards for "technical" courses that only count for an A.S. (workforce) degree, but those don't concern us here. For a physics job, the MS or PhD does not have to be in physics but the 18 graduate hours must be in physics. That is the minimum requirement for teaching at a CC or a BS-only college. An MS would be acceptable at other schools as long as that person did not teach graduate courses, but this is extremely rare.

You must have a PhD to teach graduate courses (meaning any course that can be counted for credit in an MS or PhD program). That is what makes a PhD the absolute minimum at most universities.

Links added Oct 2007

Chad Orzel wrote a very nice column on what they look for (or look to avoid) when hiring faculty at a small liberal arts college. I strongly recommend it as a detailed description of what they look for at a school in the BS category described above.

The topic of jobs in the "evergreen" disciplines (history and social science, humanities) and the reasons against going to grad school came up again in Dean Dad's blog, and that led me to some older articles of particular relevance in those fields. Since I sometimes send people in those areas to this blog entry, I thought I should add them here.

FYI, the "cycle of abuse" refers to faculty telling students that they really should enter or continue in grad school for selfish reasons: to have the warm bodies they need to keep their research funded and to publish more papers so they can get promoted or a bigger pay raise. Some will lie about job prospects just to keep students around, while others (like my major professor) will be quite up front about the lack of jobs from the first time they talk to you.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

New Adjunct

This post was motivated by an "Ask My Readers" entry, First Time Teaching at a CC, in Dean Dad's blog today. I started to compose a comment and decided there were enough topics to blog it here instead.

The question came from a person in Psychology, so my comments are more general than if I was talking to someone teaching physics. However, many things (such as grading standards) are fairly universal.

200 level versus 300 level

I'll assume we are talking about Psych 200 (general psychology taken as a required course for nursing and education, as a general education course by anybody, and as a first course by psych majors) and a Psych 301 course (intro to psychology for social science majors). The former would definitely be consistent with the situations raised in the letter to Dean Dad and addressed below. Understanding where both courses fit into the curriculum (who requires it, and why) is also crucial when it comes to grading decisions. That is why I put this first. You need to read the catalog and talk to faculty and students at your university about this issue.

It is entirely plausible to me, in my ignorance, that both classes could cover essentially the same material. This would be especially true if the majors did not explicitly require Psych 200 as a prerequisite for Psych 301. The difference between the classes would be in your expectations, not in the material "covered". The grading standards in the 300 level class would be higher (since a D is unacceptable and even a C might be considered a problem if you need a 2.5 to stay in the program). You would start signaling that they should retain material from test to test and from class to class. Your exam questions would feature more critical thinking and integration of ideas from different parts of the course, but those main ideas would not change very much. You would start to go deeper in the course that has Psych 301 as a prerequisite.

There is also a possibility that the number system is totally artificial and Psych 300 is identical to Psych 200. The university might be saying that this class is mostly taken by juniors (or simply charging upper division fees for it) or flagging it as a required course in the major, while the CC is saying that it is taken by sophomores because they don't have any juniors. Reading the catalog and asking questions will clarify the situation in a few minutes.

These observations have nothing whatever to do with teaching physics, which generally puts a really big step between introductory and majors classes. I must say, to be fair, that physics separates completely the highly mathematical introductory course for engineers and physics majors from the non-mathematical introductory science course for psychology majors. Psychology does not do that. However, even in physics there is some truth in saying that we teach the same material in first semester mechanics, junior mechanics, and graduate mechanics. What changes is the expectations for performance on the same groups of problems (perfection at the higher level), a hope for deeper conceptual understanding, and the introduction of new methods and problems that require greater sophistication to solve them. Students don't usually notice this from "inside" the system if it is done in a seamless fashion so you may need to learn about it as a teacher.


There was a discussion about teaching summer session in Dean Dad's blog at the end of May. If your current class is in a compressed 6-week session in the second half of the summer, your class could be particularly diverse. Kids fresh out of high school, who might be taking their first college composition class at the same time, will be in there with 3 time losers who just need this class to graduate and excellent students who put off an easy required course until the very end. Talking to people at this particular CC about this particular semester is very important, given that you don't have experience there (or anywhere) to use as a reference point.

CC versus Large Uni versus Selective

Almost anyone can be in your class at a CC, as others noted in the discussion of the original article. However, there is also quite a spectrum at Enormous State University, where I went to school, even though its graduate program is in the top quartile in a number of areas. They are very selective at the grad level but not so selective at the freshman level. Still, you are more likely to find poor performance due to drunken partying every night at your large state university than simply poor reading and writing skills. You will have much more diversity in basic skills in your classroom at either of these kinds of schools than at a highly selective institution. A high cut for minimum SAT scores results also reduces the standard deviation, making the teacher's job a lot easier.

Dean Dad's questioner observed "it is difficult to teach a class when I have some college graduates who have come back to get prereqs for nursing school and some students who barely finished high school." My answer is "yes", and "that is why we get paid the small bucks to teach at a CC." It is also why I don't envy those, like the questioner, who teach a gen ed course that might be taken by a first-term freshman, whether at a CC or a large university. Even a well-prepared HS grad is still thinking they are in a HS classroom.

Back link:
See my comments about orientation for new students, some of which can be used on the first day of a freshman class (since that is where Prof. Zucker first used them at Johns Hopkins).

Your consolation is the realization that your student who "barely finished high school" was above average in motivation and academics in high school. Remember, only about half of HS grads go on to any kind of college, and lots of kids don't make it out of high school. Imagine what it is like teaching 10th grade!

The way high school teachers got that kid to pass their class was by offering, maybe even requiring, extra credit work. That is why you will regularly be asked about what can be done for extra credit in those classes. Be sure you have an answer, and be sure it is offered consistently as part of a fair grading system. (I know one HS teacher who only offers extra credit as a way of passing his required "government" class, but not as a way of raising a C to a B or a B to an A. He will not fail any student who will put in the effort, but has more academic standards for an A.)

Gen Ed versus Core Course

Any general education course poses serious challenges. If, as is usually the case for Psych 200, students think it is an easy class for the first semester because they had a "psychology" class in high school, the challenges get bigger. In a "core" course, your students have passed a year of composition and can write an actual paragraph or three that present a coherent idea. I have the distinct pleasure of teaching students who have not failed an entire series of math classes, including trig and sometimes calculus, but there are still serious challenges.

The biggest challenge freshmen face is the need to learn outside the classroom. They just don't believe you when you say they need to read the book before class and review it after class, because they never had to do this in high school. It was all spoon fed. Even many college classes have a "review sheet" that is really a list of all 50 questions that will be on the test, so all they need to do is cram that subset of information and then go to work (if at a CC) or out drinking (at the university). The only effective way to attack this has to start on day 1, so it is too late to do much about it now. However, you can experiment now and develop some ideas for the next time you teach the class.

Your 300 level core class will likely offer a different challenge: the poor retention of knowledge we all seem to see today. That may be why your mentor teaches the same subject matter as in the 200 class. They didn't remember any of it. And I do mean any of it. I have close ties to faculty at a neighboring university, so I know it is not a problem unique to CC students. [Indeed, one of my minor triumphs has been to convince many of my students that they need to still know some physics next year, with the result that they kick ass after they transfer. The person next to them had no idea physics was required because it would be used in their engineering classes, so they cleared their mind and sold their book as soon as they passed physics.] In my opinion, the cram and forget approach in high school, particularly for "high stakes" graduation tests, is a big contributor to this.


My first thought when I read "I have a student who sits up front, asks good questions, stayed for the optional review session, and seems to put effort into learning the material. But he is still barely passing." was quite simple. A student who is barely passing is passing, so earns a C. The harder question is "How do I award failing grades for students who look like they are really trying?" but it also has a simple answer. You award them what they earned. What the questioner might really be asking is, How do I know if my standards for a C are correct? That is a different, and very hard question that I will not try to answer here. I featured it in my comment on Dean Dad's blog, for others to talk about.

The zeroth thing you need to know is whether your school has a de facto policy that everyone passes this course if they attend every day and work hard. I don't think I would ever teach at such an institution, but I know they exist. (I know they exist because I have seen the product of such schools transfer into mine, and because we just got what looks like a really excellent "senior" hire who was quite clear that he was leaving his current position - at a 4-year school - because its administration is now pressuring faculty to pass a larger fraction of their students regardless of performance.)

Note added:
Grading criteria and passing regardless of learning was a major issue in a recent story about denial of tenure for a low passing rate. (See my comments posted in May 2008.) The question of whether comparable evaluation methods were used so the poor passing rate resulted from poor teaching remain unclear, as they were not addressed in the materials made public.

The first thing you need to know is what grade constitutes passing. Our system considers a "D" to be a passing grade in that you get college credit for it even as it lowers your GPA. You can, of course, repeat a class where you earned a "D", but you don't have to repeat it. However, although a "D" will count toward graduation if you are in building construction, it might not count if you are in education or psychology. On the other hand, a business or nursing major might consider a "C" to be the worst possible grade in your class and finagle a way to fail. If you need a 3.0 average (or higher) for your major, a "C" could be fatal. It lowers your GPA but cannot be repeated.

The second thing you need to know is what the consequences are if a student "barely" passes your class with a "C". They might be minimal for Psych 200 if it is not core prerequisite course for that major, and might even be minimal if it is required. (With grade inflation being what it is in the social sciences, a "C" might not be enough to get into that major.) In physics, we always ask ourselves if we would want to drive across a bridge designed by that "C" student, just as anatomy instructors ask themselves if they want to wake up in an emergency room with that "C" student standing over them. You might ask yourself if you want that student teaching your kids or taking the 300 level psychology class you are teaching next semester.

One bit of advice is that there is only a minor penalty if you start out with a first test that is a bit too hard and make the next one easier. Students will work harder after that first test (although some will quit), and then feel rewarded on the next test. This is all for the good if you give them positive feedback about the results of studying. They might even keep up those study habits if the third test is in the middle for difficulty. You might even find that this is an ideal approach in a freshman class. The other way, an easy first test followed by a harder test, is a terrible approach that will always backfire.

Finally, you should discuss grading policy with some other faculty at that school. You do have the authority to include subjective criteria to decide that 69.7 is good enough for a C, just as you have the authority to decide that it is not. The important thing is that you give the same consideration to every student who is similarly situated. Ideally, you have this information in the grading section of your syllabus (and if not this time, next time), but no document can cover every possible situation. If you find that the student says useful things in class and can discuss the subject in your office but does badly on tests, you have a sound basis for giving a passing grade (but also counseling them that they need to improve their test taking skills).

Side comment:
You did notice that I said you have the authority to decide grades? Yep, you are now an authority figure. It is a new experience the first time you teach. You really are in charge of your classroom. You have the authority to tell students where to sit during an exam, if you think some arrangements look a bit too cozy. You probably have the authority to tell a student to leave the classroom for answering their cell phone, and the authority to use your cell phone to call the campus police if the student will not leave. You certainly have the authority to deduct points for texting during class. It is quite interesting to be a teacher and a student at the same time if you have a tendency to do things as a student that you don't want to see in your own classroom. Psychoanalyze that!


The questioner has one mentor, giving reasonable advice, but needs more. Get a second opinion about the 300 level class from a regular faculty member at your university as well as your thesis adviser. Similarly, chat up someone who teaches your 200 level course at the CC for specific questions on grading policy, but you can also talk to the person who hired you (or even the random odd faculty member wandering the hallways) about the characteristics of students at your school.

The faculty at a CC are committed to teaching, not research, so you will find them much more approachable on this subject than at a university. Just introduce yourself and go from there.

Comments on comments

As Dean Dad and others put it, watering down courses at a CC by offering lots of extra credit options and having a soft grading scale compared to the situation at a likely transfer institution is setting those kids up to fail.

I also like using a journal as a learning and evaluation technique. You might learn that your weak student has a mangled view of what is going on, so it is not just a problem of "testing poorly". Many weak students have poor reading skills, or simply don't read the book at all. Many have spectacularly bad note taking skills. Others just have trouble with the foils on multiple choice tests and can give a reasonable answer on a short answer or essay test or in a journal. You can only find out by trying.

As someone noted, some have true learning disabilities that should be addressed by specialists at your school and accommodated (often by extended testing times) accordingly. It is too late to do much about that now, but it is something to be aware of. Talk to your dean about the college policy on referrals, etc, if you suspect this might be a problem.

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