Tuesday, February 27, 2007

F. A. Cotton RIP and Textbook Selections

In the academic world there are three seasons. The teaching season is followed by the testing season which is then followed by the textbook season in an eternal hamster wheel of learning. Yeah I know, what about research? Research is not a season but a constant state of mind. Right now, it is textbook season and full colour encyclopedic texts with an average mass of 2.5 kilos are falling on my desk with the steady thump - thump - thump of the artillery rounds from Charlie that haunt my dreamless sleep. The organic texts are the worst. I can understand that general chemistry textbooks have to be generic clones of each other with an almost Bataan Death March one-chapter-a-week broad spectrum coverage of our ever widening discipline. But Organic Chemistry? Is it really necessary to show your typical 18 year old University student 1500 pages of organic chemistry, hike up our elasticized waistbands and proclaim (as if we are some latter day Hemingway) that since we were taught (somewhat indifferently) by I. B. A. Famouschemist that they as well would be best served by eating the whole banquet of organic chemistry as we did? Holy moly, no wonder they bolt for the nearest exit like a bad Mexican meal.

With that in mind I heard with deep regret that F. A. Cotton had passed away this past week. He was prolific, a generous and kind scientist that was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because we were too busy awarding it to biologists. Some 27 years ago F. A. Cotton became Gandalf to my Frodo when the awe inspiring copy of his "Advanced Inorganic Chemistry" landed on my desk as the text for my second year Inorganic Chemistry Course. I was stunned. Not only that, Cotton was not the only required text. We also had to have a copy of Huheey "Inorganic Chemistry". It was felt that Cotton and Wilkinson was "too systematic" and Huheey was too "topical" so that a balanced diet of the two texts was required. To make us feel better it was noted that we would not be required to purchase any more texts for Inorganic Chemistry until we graduated after we had self sacrificially gotten through Moria, crossed the river, climbed the mountain, slain the monster and destroyed the ring (all metaphorically of course). I have to admit that having been through that system, my internal compasses all point me in that direction as well. I would love to choose completist and exhaustive texts for my students that would work for many courses. I remember, however, that I am teaching the average student, not the geniuses and the deadheads (they have their own fates independent of what I do). I select my texts for the student that needs the eat the elephant one bite at a time. It is my policy as well to carefully select my texts and follow them so that the student gets the maximum use out of their investment. Well I remember the horror of a course when the professor was forced to select a new textbook (because the one he carried with him on the Santa Maria had gone out of print). He made us all buy the new text but it was only half way through the course that we realised that he was lecturing and testing us as if we had his old textbook. Promises made in the crucible of that type of experience are what shape us as professors.

Sleep well, F. A. Cotton friend and guide of my youth. Your legacy and legend will continue, especially since we as a discipline have discovered the importance of branding. We will bring in ghost writers to revise your texts just as we have the other great, dead chemistry textbook authors. You may writhe in your grave with what they will write in your name but your name will go on.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Testing Cumulative Knowledge

"Education is what survives
when what has been learned
has been forgotten

B. F. Skinner, Behaviourist

In the liberal arts it is assumed that the intent of both the student and the institution is the development of an educated worldview. A worldview that will be useful to the student in developing an attitude towards new knowledge and contextualizing life experiences. There is also an expectation that the education will be "useful" right out of the box. That expresses the hope that a graduate will have developed a mastery both of content (direct knowledge) and process (how to learn and teach).

In chemistry, knowledge is cumulative. Just as in a language, progress can only occur when the student has remembered the previous lesson(s). In fact, the language of science is mathematics (or more correctly the mystical symbols that we use to capture our thoughts about mathematical truths). In math, knowledge and content and progress are intimately linked in an upward spiral. As we fall way from the maths into the physical sciences and then the natural sciences or more observational sciences we begin to see the disciplines becoming so chopped up that it is possible to develop courses that are completely self-contained and there are no expectations of knowledge prior to the course and indeed no consequences to forgetting, after the course.

Into this tension between the global goals of the liberal arts education, usefulness and continuity of knowledge comes the physical sciences professor. When I started out, I taught at three different universities in four years and at each university they had me attend their "Teaching Essentials for New University Professors" full day symposium thingy. I went for the brownie points, free lunch and the chance to escape diaper duty for a full Saturday. Anyhoo, in all of the presentations it was made clear to us that a fair test only tested topics that had been clearly covered in the course and were completely covered in the supporting readings for the course.

In my courses, where there is a clear link to the content of a previous course (for example second year organic chemistry and first year general chemistry) it is my habit to have a mid-term test in the second week of classes. This mid-term will only test material from the previous course that is directly related to topics that will be taught in this course). In my opinion it gets all the students walking in the same direction, cleans up any differences between in-house and transfer students and it forces them to realize that there are some principles so fundamental that they form connections between prior knowledge and the current course.

For this I am constantly harassed by the students and my fellow faculty. In response, I voice the ideals that I used to begin this post. We have enough of a liberal arts tradition in our university that the ability to invoke the ideals means that I have thought this through and people will leave me alone. The only concession that I have made over the years is that I will have three mid-tern tests and will allow the student to have the lowest test mark dropped. Personally I think I caved on the ideal but there is a direct link between how a student does on the first mid-term and the final exam.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Teaching Female Students

The physical science blogosphere has been humming recently about the role of female students and faculty in the physical sciences.

It is an ongoing (and somewhat defining) issue with the blogs at FSP [Link] and Propter Doc [Link] but a recent confessional at a popular chemistry blog (The Chem Blog [Link]) initiated a wider discussion.

My history with female students and professors goes all the way back to when I started University in 1979. I was fortunate to fall into a group of students that was more than 50% female and while the larger fraction of my professors were male ex patriot Brits there was a significant and constant presence of female instructors and faculty in my academic life. It is true that in the Chemistry building I was there when the space crunch was so bad that they renovated a women's washroom for the office of a new male faculty member. In all my years as a male student in contact with female students it was my overall impression (from both observation and discussion with my fellow students) that the issue from their perspective had both positive and negative aspects. Chemistry, as I knew it, was enough of a meritocracy that intelligent, motivated women were encouraged by the same system that encouraged me.

When it came time for me to get a faculty position the difference became stark and clear. I came into the system when the hiring cycle was at a low and in all of Canada there were only eight positions advertised for my sub-discipline. In the competition that I won there were 56 applicants. It was clearly explained to me that up to the time that the Board of Governors signed my contract my job offer could be withdrawn if any equivalent female applicant from any country applied for the position that I won. The hiring pendulum was swinging strongly with a bias against my gender.

In that faculty position I found that the student evaluations were rather elaborate and involved a self description by the student. It was in this way that I found that I in fact had a significant communication problem with below average female students. I attended special professional development weekend seminars and presentations and eventually came to understand that the communication problem was due to my difficulty with stupidity. It turned out that the weak male students were used to being bluntly told in the public school system that they were going to fail if they did not change. The weak female students were not used to this message. Indeed, in conversations with some of them it came out that I was the first person in their entire life that seemed willing to fail them for not meeting a standard. Their interpretation of this situation was almost universally that I was going to fail them because I did not like them (not that they had not mastered 51% of the material covered). I was never able to bridge that communication divide.

My research group at that same time consisted mostly of undergraduate and graduate students with the post-doc du jour (I was never able to afford 2 at the same time). I always had a significant female % of my research group. What was very, very, very aggravating was that the female honours students I supervised all said they wanted careers in science and I cultivated them and published their work only for them all, yes all, to fly off the medical school at the first opportunity. Now all-in-all these women were vibrant, bright young women (I remember one that travelled with my research group to a conference and the night before she was to present her poster she "discovered" something called Electric Jello and she spent the morning wearing sunglasses and leaning on her poster ... she still got second prize for the best undergraduate poster ... remember that Chemistry is a meritocracy) and they are probably good medical doctors. My problem was that the most important thing I needed from my undergraduate students was not publishable research but for them to go from my group to the research group of one of my senior colleagues and thus build up my credit in the academic community. I will not say that I wasted my money but the benefits to my research were minimal.

I walked away from that faculty position (ironically the same year that I was granted tenure and promoted) to help start a new Science program at a small liberal arts and science University. The demographics here are probably typical for our type of institution (about 60+% female). It was my experience here that lead me to make the following comment on The Chem Blog when the women in science issue was broached.

"This issue needs to be addressed for more than just academic reasons of fairness of opportunity. Look at the demographics of your undergraduate programs our university undergraduate populations have become predominantly female (in some cases up to 60%).

It is not overstating the case that the modern University has got to be able to understand the 17 year old female student (to retain her until graduation). The modern university needs to create a learning environment that is welcoming to the young female scientist.

What your post in fact is addressing (somewhat obliquely) is a belief that academic environments and learning environments promote male OR female participation. I think that to an extent you are mistaken. There is enough of a meritocracy in what we do (that in my experience is gender blind) to allow anyone to succeed. It seems however that success is coupled to personality traits (ambition, stubbornness and self confidence) which some people (male or female) for one reason or another simply do not have. Every chemistry department that I have been in has the “Failed Genius Professor” that is so clearly more intelligent than anyone else in the department but for one reason or another the potential was never realized. We either have to change our definition of what it means to be a successful university academic or we change the system.
" [Link]

About Me

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.