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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Misery Loves Company

Kevin Drum made a comment this week that touched on one of the great annoying paradoxes of American life. In the course of a discussion about the Davis-Bacon act, he writes:

I've long felt that public hostility to unions, and especially to public sector unions, is based not so much on their demands for higher pay as on their demands for byzantine and highly restrictive work rules. Most people aren't unwilling to pay teachers decently, for example, but they also think that teachers should be held accountable to a boss (just like they themselves are) and that it should be possible to fire bad teachers without five years of hearings and red tape.

The paradoxical thing here is that many of the very same people who argue stridently that teachers need to "be held accountable to a boss" are busily decorating their cubicles with Dilbert cartoons and spend their off hours blogging about what short-sighted morons their bosses are. If the "normal" business model is so great, why all the bitching? Or, put another way, if being accountable to a boss in a normal corporate environment is such soul-sucking hell, why should we inflict the same system on teachers?

It's the flip side of the phenomenon where large numbers of poll respondants believe that Congress is hopelessly corrupt, and then turn around and vote for the incumbent anyway, because their guy isn't like the others. In this case, I think the reasoning is that corporate structure in the abstract is a Good Thing, and it's just their specific boss/company that's all screwed up. Presumably, if we put bosses in all the schools, we'll only be putting in the good bosses, not the incompetent windbags running their office.

Either that, or they're hoping for a chance at schadenfreude...

Posted at 9:00 AM | link | follow-ups | 17 comments

Friday, September 23, 2005

A Day Late, a Lurker Short

Since all the cool kids are doing it, and it's a good lazy Friday post (like the last couple took effort...), I'll acknowledge Lurker Day.

If you read this blog, but don't usually post comments, please post a comment and say who you are. There's no obligation to buy, no salesmen will call, and you don't even need to leave your real name.

I think I know most of the people who read this, but I get the occasional link from blogs in languages I don't speak, so there must be some traffic from people unknown to me. I'm curious to know who you all are.

Posted at 8:45 AM | link | follow-ups | 26 comments

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Critical Phenomena on Exam Day

One person handing in the hour exam after twenty minutes is dismissed as an anomaly.

Two more turning their papers in at forty-five minutes get a little more attention.

A fourth paper handed in at fifty minutes reaches the tipping point-- six more come in right away. You can just about see the light go on that says "It's now OK to hand your paper in." Hell, I've been the indecisive person sitting there making no more progress, but thinking "It's too soon to just leave..." until enough other people go to make it all right.

There are usually a couple who hang on right to the bitter end, though not today (it's not that big a class). I didn't have to kick anyone out today, but I have had to just about physically drag papers away from people in the past.

I got really bored one year proctoring a large exam, and recorded the departure times of the students. I made a graph (yes, I'm that big a dork) of exam grade vs. time spent on the test, which was about what you would expect-- the first person to leave had one of the highest grades, as did the last one out the door, and the students in the middle were scattered all over.

When I set up some time bins (yes, I'm that big a dork), the average score started high, dipped, and came back up at the end. It looked vaguely gaussian, but that's the central limit theorem for you. The spread in the scores started small, got bigger, and came back down.

I'm still not sure what the exact threshold is at which it becomes all right for people who are just doodling in the margins to hand their papers in-- I don't think I could've said what it was back when I was one of the doodlers-- but I bet there's a psychology project in that somewhere...

Posted at 9:50 PM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Singularly Dissatisfied

I've been in a very Gibletsian mood the last few weeks-- dissatisfied with everything. I'm dissatisfied with the mass media, with football announcers in general (though not the New York Giants Radio Network, who rule), with the new edition of our introductory physics textbook, with our huge selection of defective lock-in amplifiers-- everything. Sadly, this doesn't actually make for good blogging, at least if you use the term to mean "something I could re-read a week from now without cringing."

One of the things I've been dissatisfied with most recently has been my bedtime reading, Charlie Stross's Accelerando, which has been widely praised as being the cutting edge of contemporary SF. It's nominally a story of humanity going through a Vingean Singularity, but really it's nerd porn, and when I say that, believe me I am not referring to the sex bits, which are just embarassing. I mean that it's chock full of nifty little gadgets and ideas and mini-lectures, all designed to make the geekiest of the geekiest say "Oooh!"

Chief among the Kewl ideas is the Singularity itself, an idea which Ken MacLeod (or, at least, a character in one of his books) rightly dubbed "The Rapture for nerds," a name given in scorn that has since been adopted in pride, which holds that the exponential speed-up in computing power will ultimately lead humanity to transcend our mundane existence, and become godlike electronic intelligences who will later serve as plot contrivances in some alien analogue of Star Trek.

I'm not a big fan of the Singularity as a literary device-- note that Vernor Vinge, who coined the term, explicitly avoids it in his best works-- and I think it's incredibly dopey as a serious prediction. But I'm spared from having to rant about this, as first Kevin Drum and then PZ Myers and Bill Tozier (twice) tear into Singularity buff Ray Kurzweil's forthcoming book of muddled futurist hype (disclaimer: I haven't read the book, but really, is there any other kind of futurism?).

Which is very convenient, because it lets me devote my time to being dissatisfied with the things that I'm paid to be dissatisfied about. Such as the exam I'm giving two and a half hours from now...

Posted at 7:52 AM | link | follow-ups | 14 comments

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Don't Judge a Book by its Cover Letter

There's some follow-up on my job-hunting advice at Pharyngula and The Little Professor. The latter reminds me that I forgot to include the usual disclaimer that my advice is comments are aimed at people in the sciences. The situation in the humanities is very different (and infinitely worse, at least from my point of view).

The former provides some interesting discussion, and also a link to a badly dated essay (written sometime in the early 1990's, when email was a novelty) on how to get a liberal arts job in biology. As with the Chronicle article that kicked all this off, I'm baffled by the emphasis on cover letters. Specifically, the author writes:

Of the four standard documents, I would rank the four documents in the following order of importance: 1) cover letter, 2) cover letter, 3) cover letter 4) cover letter. Although your CV, teaching statement, and research interests/plan are very important documents for a job that expects both teaching and research, the first round of cuts will be heavily influenced by your cover letter.

The logic behind the emphasis on cover letters isn't terrible-- the article continues:

There is no one in the department who does what you do (if they did, they wouldn't want to hire another one), so no one will understand fully your research or appreciate who has written your letters of recommendation. You are writing to an audience of administrators and a collection of biologists from every subdiscipline, so your cover letter should be general in nature in order to appeal to everyone while sufficiently distinct and not generic.

[...]It should be about 1.5 pages long, explain why you are interested in teaching as a primary focus, indicate clearly that you are familiar with this particular school, and make it clear that you want to work with their undergraduates. (Make sure you use that word, some applicants send the same cover letter to graduate programs and PUIs - a guaranteed way to be excluded from the search.) If you determined from your phone call that there is an interest in hiring a research-active faculty member, you want to describe your intention to conduct student-based research.

The problem here is that it doesn't go far enough. Having that stuff in your cover letter is great, as far as it goes, but if that's the only place you talk about your research in general terms, and explain your focus on students, you're screwed.

That same material better appear in your research statement. You're writing a statement to describe how you're going to do research with undergraduates, after all-- it better mention how you can make the project comprehensible to them, and how you expect to be able to make progress with undergraduate labor. A hyper-technical description of your research interests that a faculty member from outside your sub-field can't understand is a Bad Sign.

That same material better show up in your teaching statement as well. The whole reason we do research at liberal arts schools in the first place is because it helps the teaching function of the institution. The best way to learn science is by doing science, and that means labs and research. You need to talk about how you can integrate your research interests into your teaching, and how to use your research to help train students. If your statements show that you feel teaching and research are completely separate activities, that's also a Bad Sign.

If you can find a way to make that same material show up in your CV, do it. List student projects that you've supervised, list some invited talks at educational institutions, show some evidence of interest in both teaching and research. And it needs to be in the reference letters as well. I realize those aren't in your direct control (which is why they carry the most weight with me), but they should show some indication of a real desire to teach and work with undergraduates-- if your references just talk about what a deft touch you have in the lab, and make no mention of teaching ability (even if it's just "He's an excellent public speaker"), that starts to look like you're a research-focussed person who's "settling" for a teaching job.

A great cover letter certainly won't hurt you-- out of the hundred-odd I've read for the various positions we've filled since I've been here, I clearly remember one that was excellent and eye-catching. But a good application needs more than just a good cover letter-- the guy with the great cover letter didn't make the first cut for campus visits, because of issues elsewhere in his application. I'd rather hire someone with a bland cover letter and a great application packet than a great cover letter and deficient personal statements.

(A sufficiently bad cover letter will sink you, though. I also remember a couple that mis-stated the position they were applying for, and one that contained a sentence of the form "I would like to work at your school because I really need the money." I didn't read much beyond the cover letter in any of those.)

Posted at 8:44 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Actual Job Advice

Back before my hiatus, I was talking about job-hunting advice for people seeking liberal arts college jobs. I had meant to follow up that last post with some actual positive advice, but I was about an hour away from needing dried frog pills to get through my days, so I decided to put it off.

Returning to the subject, and doing a little poking around, you could do a lot worse than to look at the career advice posted by the American Institute of Physics, particulary this PDF file on Hunting for Jobs at Liberal Arts Colleges. The authors are on the faculty at Dickinson and Haverford, so they know what they're talking about.

I'll just fill in a few things around the edges of what they wrote, giving a few do's and don'ts of the liberal arts college world.

Don't Even Think About Applying for a Liberal Arts College Job If:

Go Ahead and Apply If:

If You've Decided to Apply:

Posted at 10:09 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

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