Friday, April 27, 2012

Making fun of professors

It is so easy to make fun of professors, we even have our own comic strip. If you believe the stereotype, we have so many laughable traits that there is a never ending list of possible punch lines. The sad part, some (most?) of them can hit really close to home.

Recently McSweeney's published a more elaborate punch line on philosophy to answer:
"UNIVERSE'S FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION"
 This is a golden oldie, and apparently it made the internet rounds already, but I became aware of it through Geekdad (what's in a name, right?): What is the difference between a geek and a nerd?


And now I don't know who I am any more:

  • My geek traits
    • A mac
    • Can be pretentious and longwinded (see this blog)
    • A fan of gadgets
    • I fell for and married a non-geek
  • My nerd traits
    • Extreme interest or fascination with academics (see this blog)
    • Introverted (do not look at this blog)
    • Socially inept
    • Diverse and sometimes impractical skills due to broad interest in science
    • Interest might include Battlestart Galactica, computer programming
    • Reclusive professor

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Flipping education

It seems that the new verb this day in education is
"Flipping"
Kevin MacIce wrote a full piece around it in Wired, and then TED-Ed was announced today, with as one of the main selling points the open (?) teaching platform they are creating around YouTube, by providing an on-line lecture around any video on YouTube, or "flipping" the video.



As an educator I am not really good at capturing and keeping the attention of my students during a "lecture", I really dislike that word and the activity. I am just not a good performer, or the edutainment part of teaching. I do think I am somewhat competent in solving problems that students have with the materials, in answering questions.

So I have always said that I will "flip" my educational approach. And these two articles will probably form the impetus and starting point for when I start again after my upcoming sabbatical. Avoiding the "just add an extra hour to every lecture hour" danger will be relatively easy. The main problem I am struggling with at this point is that I use questions in class during lectures to introduce new material. This illustrates, I hope to the students, that their intuitive notions of ecological mechanisms are often correct, and that the the literature on these subjects consists of a 1) a more in-depth exploration and explanation of these intuitions, 2) examples of these mechanisms, and 3) where these mechanisms (and intuitions) break down. I think this is really empowering to realize that learners can work there way through the basics of the material by themselves.

But how can I incorporate this in the flipped version of my current teaching practice?

  • I cannot use those questions in the video, since the student will not engage with the question, and just keep watching.
  • If I end class time with these types of questions, the students will have the engagement, but they will probably watch the video several days later, and maybe not notice the connection between their own intuition and the material.
I have a year to figure this out, and hopefully in the mean time somebody will launch an alternative to "flipping", because somehow it really grates every time I use it, similarly to "lecturing". 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Metacommunity terminology

The title of my "Teaching Philosophy" statement (that I completely rewrite every year), is "Research-Teaching-Learning Link". In it, I try to point out the obvious and maybe not so obvious connections between these different aspects of my professional life. One of the items that is hardest to prove, though, is how teaching can inform my day-to-day research focus.

And now I can finally provide evidence for this: our comment in Trends in Ecology and Evolution "The terminology of metacommunity ecology". Nothing earth shattering in it, but what we hope would be a suggestion to remove some confusion about the words used in metacommunity explanations. Believe it or not, but this is the culmination of 6 years of teaching community ecology, and 3 years of lab discussions. The impetus was how to explain the different metacommunity frameworks from Leibold et al. 2004. I was always unsatisfied with the lack of structure in Figure 1, and my inability in successfully explaining it to students. So now we have this comment, that explicitly identifies the 2 structuring forces in metacommunity theory, species sorting and dispersal, and how combining them in different magnitudes results in the commonly identified frameworks.

And the Acknowledgements have this in them:
"We thank Kyle Gillespie for comments on these early thoughts, as well as the classes of BIOL 3120– Community Ecology at the University of Guelph for showing us how to explain metacommunity ecology to a broad audience."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

End of semester

I am about to submit the grades for the two courses this semester, and this often leads to self reflection. I am not going to do that now, but I will do something better: link to the self reflection of a teacher that is well-written, funny, insightful, sometimes reflects my own experiences, sometimes not at all. So I highly recommend William Bowers' "All we read is freaks" for all educators.

I could extract so many passages out of this long piece, but this is the one I emailed to myself:
I begin: “Let’s hear some gut reactions to last night’s reading from you guys, to give the illusion of open discussion before I enforce my agenda.” I admit to offering minor doses of edutainment. These kids are TV-saturated and sometimes sit there waiting for the world to break into a spectacle, and so I meet them halfway, which prevents class from becoming an academic purgatory or a filibustering standoff. I also exploit whatever residual hipness my relative youth  allows. The secret, of course, is that I feel a need to perform and to be liked; embarrassingly, in a conversation with a tenured prof, I once referred to the class as “the audience.”
How can you come up with this: "the illusion of open discussion before I enforce my agenda". I laughed so hard, but then I started thinking about it, and I am probably guilty of this as well. And how often has my class turned either in academic purgatory or a filibustering standoff? And how I wished I was a better performer? All in 3 sentences, imagine what the rest of the essay is like? Go and read it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

R-hipster confession

I sometimes think of myself as a science nerd, but then I read Benjamin Mako Hill's computing set-up, and suddenly it's like reading the uber science nerd manifesto. Amazingly consistent and hard-core, every single step of his work flow. And where our work flows overlap is probably in R:
 "R is slow and using it with big datasets gives one plenty of time to reflect on this fact. But R is also expressive, elegant, and concise for numerical and statistical work so I happily suffer through it. I make my graphs in ggplot2 which is so trendy that I feel that mentioning this is a sort of R-hipster confession."
I wonder how quickly we can make this R-hipster confession a true internet meme? Help me out here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A call to all aquatic nerds...

... how many species can you identify in this video?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Talking to...

As you probably noticed, we do lots of interdisciplinary research in this lab. A group of undergraduate students approached this question for a 4th year class, and made a website that approaches interdisciplinary research from, you guessed it, several different perspectives. One of the activities they did was interviewing a wide range of people with this question in mind. Two of those persons where Ingrid and myself. And I will leave it up to you to find those, embarrassing ?, video interviews.