Category Archives: Life in academia

April 14, 2014, 2:57 pm

The hidden costs of unsolicited textbooks — a view from the mailroom

Back in January I posted an article calling for an end to unsolicited review copies of textbooks being sent to professors. Interestingly, on Reddit a student at my university who works for the mail services department did an AMA, and I had the chance to ask: What kind of impact does it make on the university, from an infrastructure or mail services point of view, to have all these unsolicited books being sent in? Keep in mind that we’re a public university of 24,000 students and lots and lots of faculty. Here are some highlights from his response, which I thought was pretty interesting though not totally surprising:

Ugh, I HATE those! Nobody wants them, nobody asks for them, and they take up valuable space in our truck and our holding area.

As far as the cost it passes onto us, it’s definitely hard to quantify, but I can tell you all the different ways we waste time on those…

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January 29, 2014, 5:17 pm

An end to unsolicited review copies of textbooks, please

2014-01-29 16.29.42The picture you see here is my afternoon mail today. It consists of two copies of a new Calculus text (hardcover), two copies of another Calculus text (hardcover), and one copy of an intermediate algebra text (softcover).

I did not request a single one of these. I certainly did not request duplicates of two of them. The last time I taught intermediate algebra was the mid-1990′s. I am not on a committee that selects textbooks. I have no use for these books other than to prop open a door. So why did I get them? I have no idea.

When I think about the waste and expense of these unsolicited review copies of textbooks, it makes me downright angry. I went to UPS.com and used a back-of-the-envelope estimate of weight and shipping distance, and got that the total package of these books would have cost about $20 to ship to me from its point of origin. That’s not a large sum, but how many…

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January 22, 2014, 7:52 am

How about a little humor in higher education?

logoAre you like me, and think that higher education could benefit from a sense of humor? That we’re hearing lots of dystopian stories about how bad things are but little about what people – individual people – are doing to effect positive change in their situations? If so, you might find this upcoming workshop called There’s Something Funny About Higher Education appealing. Blurb:

This spring, the satirists behind the humor blog The Cronk of Higher Education at CronkNews.com will launch a workshop series “There’s Something Funny about Higher Education” to ignite a spirit of creativity, optimism and humor in the ivory tower.

“We started CronkNews in 2009 with a mission to generate dialogue and healthy laughs about the world of colleges,” said editor-in-chief Leah Wescott. “Poking fun at problems is fun, but making meaningful changes requires a certain skill set.…

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January 19, 2014, 11:00 am

Fixing the wifi situation at academic conferences

WIFIMy innocuous remark about scarce wifi at the Joint Mathematics Meetings yesterday struck a chord with a bunch of people on Twitter. Apparently and unsurprisingly this sort of thing happens at every conference, not just math conferences. So rather than just whine about it, I’d like to propose a solution.

Let’s start with some facts.

1. Wireless internet is not a luxury at an academic conference. Presenters need to be able to access files stored in online repositories like Dropbox. Sometimes internet access is crucial to the presentation itself (like for me on Saturday when I needed to show an example I put on a course website). Most people simply want to be able to access email on their laptops, get work done remotely during downtime, or Skype home to their families at night. This is not something just for screwing around on reddit.

2. Wireless internet enables conferences to…

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January 11, 2014, 11:47 am

Flashback: Unsolicited advice about interviews at the Joint Meetings

I first published the post below about two years ago, just before the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Boston. I had forgotten that I wrote it until this week, when someone — I’m assuming a job candidate headed to the Joint Meetings this year — emailed me about it. The Joint Meetings are about to begin again this coming week in Baltimore, so I thought it would be fun and possibly useful to bump it to the present.

After two years, I really don’t have much to add to what I said in the original post. The only things I might change to the original are that I’d probably use Evernote (one notebook per opening, and a tag of #job or something) instead of VoodooPad to keep track of job openings; and that I think interviewees should ask pointed questions to the institutions about their (the institutions’) vision for higher ed in the next 25 years. The landscape of higher ed is too much in flux …

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August 1, 2013, 7:21 am

4+1 interview with Dana Ernst

img06Welcome to the third installment of the 4+1 Interview series. Today’s interview features Dana Ernst. Dana is a professor in the mathematics department at Northern Arizona University, a champion of Inquiry-Based Learning in mathematics, and an active writer about math and math education. I’ve known Dana for a couple of years, and he never fails to impress me with his clear-headed, positive-minded, student-centered approach to his work. His mountain biking exploits also inspire me to get up and exercise sometimes.

Enjoy the interview and make sure to catch Dana’s writing at his personal blog, the new Math Ed Matters blog (see below for more), on Twitter, and on Google+. If you missed the first two installments, you can click here for Derek Bruff’s interview and here for my interview with Diette Ward.

1. You’re well-known as a vigorous proponent of Inquiry-Based Learning. Tell us…

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March 20, 2013, 8:00 am

Inside the inverted proofs class: Dealing with grading

6251461402_2a11c771db_mSo, what about grading in that inverted transition-to-proofs course? Other than the midterm and final exams, which were graded pretty much as you might expect, we had four recurring assignments that required grading: Guided Practice, Quizzes, Classwork, and the Proof Portfolio. Let’s discuss the workflow and how it was all managed.

Let’s start with the easy stuff: Quizzes and Guided Practice. Quizzes were done using clickers, so the grading was trivial. Guided Practice was graded on the basis of completeness and effort only, on a scale of 0–2. So it was almost instantaneous to grade. Students would submit their work using a Google form that dumped their responses into a spreadsheet. I would just sort the spreadsheet in alphabetical order, look through for any glaring omissions or places where effort was lacking, and then put the grades right into Blackboard. A grade of “0”…

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February 19, 2013, 7:45 am

When MOOCs melt down

Coursera right now is reminding me of this scene from LOST, shortly after the initial plane crash:

Having a bad month, indeed. First it was this MOOC on “Fundamentals of Online Learning” that, ironically, had to be shut down for reasons involving the failure of online learning technology. Now it’s this course on “Microeconomics for Managers” in which the instructor, Richard McKenzie, walked away from the course. According to the CHE report:

Gary Matkin, the dean for distance education at [UC-Irvine, McKenzie’s home institution], said the problem had stemmed from Mr. McKenzie’s reluctance to loosen his grip on students who he thought were not learning well in the course.

“In Professor McKenzie’s view, for instance, uninformed or superfluous responses to the questions posed in the discussion forums hobbled the serious students in their learning,” said Mr….

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August 10, 2012, 9:00 am

When exiting graciously isn’t the right thing?

About one hour after I wrote my last post about the importance of leaving an academic position gracefully, I came across this item about the resignation of Annette Clark, the (now former) dean of the law school at Saint Louis University. She didn’t so much resign as she blew up the administrative offices of the university and walked slowly away from their burning ruins. Check out this excerpt from her resignation letter to the university top brass:

…[Y]ou have failed to make good on your assurances to me when I accepted the deanship that you would fully support the law school and our efforts to enhance its program of legal education, national reputation and rankings. From the beginning of my deanship, you have evinced hostility toward the law school and its faculty and have treated me dismissively and with disrespect, issuing orders and edicts that allowed me virtually no…

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August 9, 2012, 9:00 am

Finding your next job: Happy endings

This is the final post on Finding Your Next Job. I hope it’s been of some use. As a reminder, you can one-stop-shop the entire series at this link. Helpful for if you need to bookmark it or pass it to a colleague.

This post assumes that you’ve gone through the process of the job search and accepted an offer. Congratulations! You’ve just stepped into the unknown. But before you get too far out there, you have to take care of business at home, which means acting with integrity one last time and leaving your current employer with grace. How this happens depends on the climate of the job you are leaving. If the job’s been good to you overall, beign gracious is easy; leaving will be hard. If the job has been a bad scene, then vice-versa.

But first, why should we try to be gracious when we leave a job, though, especially if your dean has been a jerk and you can’t wait a second …

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