Friday, August 30, 2013

Preaching the Microbial Gospel!

Classes begin next Tuesday...gulp! Still, I am very much looking forward to working with a new crop of students, and promoting my (only half humorous) concept of "microbial supremacy."  At that link, you can even read how I came to be called a "microbial supremacist," if you like.  My response?

Artwork by the talented Kaitlin Reiss (
I have long had this attitude.  I loved microbiology as an undergraduate at UCLA (Syd Rittenberg, William Romig, and Gary Wilcox had a huge impact on my early education into Matters Microbial™), and enjoyed working with "undomesticated" microbes as a PhD student, postdoc, and in the biotech industry. 

But I believe my "Saul of Tarsus" moment regarding microbiology occurred when I took the famous Microbial Diversity course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts right after I returned to academia from biotech.  A wonderful history of this course, and its role in the careers of many microbiologists can be found here, authored by the great Ralph Wolfe.  

My instructors in 1996 (wow!) were the inimitable, wise, eloquent (and occasionally outrageous) Edward Leadbetter and Abigail Salyers.  To get a good sense of Abigail's disarming and subversive humor, listen to this.  And getting ahead of the game, even in (semi)-retirement, Ed was recently honored by the American Society for Microbiology with the D.C. White Research and Mentoring Award for this coming year.

To say that it was an inspirational experience with inspirational instructors would be a vast understatement. Ed and Abigail changed the way I looked at microbiology, period.  And forever. Plus they both stayed in touch with me after that course, mentoring and guiding me as an, ahem, slightly older student.

It was in collaboration with Abigail that my first "microbial motto" was born:

Courtesy of my wife, Dr. Jennifer J. Quinn, and her creative efforts.
I still love the expression "Prokaryotic Pride," though the work of Norman Pace and others has suggested that the "P-word" be expunged from microbiology.  Regardless of that debate, I think we could all agree that "First Evolved, Last Extinct" is accurate! I later came up with an alternative motto:  "Free the Organelles!" because of the simple fact that both mitochondria and chloroplasts were originally bacteria (alpha proteobacter relatives of modern Rickettsia and cyanobacteria, respectively), cruelly enslaved by primitive eukaryotes!

During my first stint at teaching and doing research at an undergraduate institution, a remarkable student named Rachel Hendrickson (now a dentist in Southern California) came up with an image to represent my perceived role in the microbiology classroom:

Many thanks to Rachel Hendrickson for making this design as a surprise for me, during a very rough time!
Again with the "P-word," but I truly am passionate on the subject. Even monomaniacal. 

Thus,  I am set to begin my proselytizing yet again on the topic of microbial supremacy in the classroom, starting next week. So much to tell them, and so little time...  This semester, I am teaching on a Tuesday-Thursday schedule, so there should be more time for student discussion and interaction. I cannot wait!  

In fact, I am fortunate enough to have been asked to give a talk (part of the Daedalus Society here on campus) on this topic to faculty, staff, alumni, and other interested people, in late September.  I have already received some good natured (I hope) ribbing on the invitation that was sent out a few days ago:

Artwork by the talented Kaitlin Reiss (
Now, I will do the best I can to promote microbial appreciation and literacy.  I doubt I can match the job of so many other engaging proponents of Matters Microbial™, such as the one and only Jon Eisen:

That said, whether or not I throw plush giant microbes out into the audience, I will have a good time.  And I will promote the One True Microbial Faith! I hope the audience likes it.

And my students, as well.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dispatches from the Teaching Front, Part 1: Student Self Evaluation.

During a recent Twitter exchange with the wonderful Ana Maria Barral (@Bio_prof and and Jennifer Garner (@BiologyJen), the subject of helping students "self-evaluate" their performance and habits came up.  For some years, I have carried out an exercise with students related to this...and I thought I might share it with any interested readers.

There is a pithy and truthful quotation from the great Carl Jung that is much with me:  "You are what you do, not what you say you will do." It's a blessing, a curse, and a warning, all at once.  Most people are not by their natures fans of self-examination.  That goes double for students, especially freshmen who are experiencing a very different "world" in college than they had in high school.

For my freshmen Biology students in particular, I hand out a survey that I have them fill out and return.  Some of the questions are straightforward:  names, prior classes taken, specific interests in the course material ahead, etc.  But others a different intention.

Specifically, I ask two questions in order:

What grade do you expect to earn in this course?

Notice the expression "earn"?  Because it is true:  I do not "give" grades; students "earn" them.  And it is vital to the concept of "ownership" that students internalize and appreciate this basic rule. 

And then:

How many hours per week, outside of lecture and laboratory sessions, will you devote to studying course material?

Obviously, most students don't think deeply, and respond to the first question with "an 'A'" and often add "...of course." Fair enough.

For the second question, I receive...interesting...answers.  Such as "10  hours a week."  Now, I am experienced enough in education to know better.  Such a statement has a different intention than a promise to spend time studying; I think the "meta-definition" is "I want to be identified by my professor as a serious student."

But it is important to me to have the statement about study time spent in my three ring binder.  And I am well aware that a student and yours truly might have very different definitions of "studying." For example, looking at PowerPoint slides while watching television is probably not an optimal strategy.  But that is my opinion, based on watching student performance.

Then comes the Dreaded First Exam™.  The class average for that exam is generally 78%.  But I find the course results are quite often bimodal, and there are a fair number of students who have not performed quite as well as they had hoped.  

I then begin to get requests for student conferences from students who have not performed to their personal standards.  Some of these students will have earned a 55% on that first exam, and are a little outraged---never having performed at that level in high school.

So I sit down with them.  I offer them candy (I find this helps).  I open the binder.  I listen closely and supportively to their concerns. And then I point to their page in my binder.

I look them in the eye.  "So, is this '10 hours a week' answer really true?  You truly do put ten hours a week---outside of lecture and lab---into studying for this class."

There is usually a pause.

"Friend," I go on.  "It's just you and me. I'm on your side. Tell me the truth."

They look down and usually admit to three hours a week.  Which means less, I know.

"Great!" I exclaim, with a big smile on my face.

They look confused.

"No, really," I continue.  "If you were putting ten hours a week into this course, and getting a 55%, I would be worried.  But that's not true.  I know exactly how to fix this!  You just need to study more, come to office hours, and so on.  We will work together on this. Problem solved!"

I shake their hands, beaming.  And it's not fakery:  hard work and partnering with the professor really is the answer.  

I go on to remind them of the class average, and I will often show them a histogram.  So it's not personal, and they can see that there are folks in the class who are meeting their personal goals.    

It's all about ownership.  If they put in the time, come to office hours, are engaged and so forth, things usually work out just fine. There are always exceptions, of course.  But I have found few of them using this approach.

And it is much kinder than the professor-cathartic though student-critical primer by the very tough Dr. Dutch of the University of Wisconsin!

In any event, this is the key:  getting students to see their role in the partnership between student and professor.  To get them onboard working together with professors/educators like you and me.  Why, they may even find they enjoy learning biology!

In any event, I strongly urge educators to try my "survey approach" to help students look at and evaluate their own role in our partnership.  Happy teaching!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Social Media, Syllabi, and Blowing Off Steam...

It has been a while since I blogged, and I do apologize for that.  It amazes me that some people enjoy reading my blog, based on the number of page views (they all aren't my family, after all)!  I will have some news about blogging to announce shortly.  And thanks to those of you who do read these entries!

It was quite an eventful summer, with a visit to my slowly recuperating father in Southern California, a last minute genomics workshop in Washington, D.C., and a trip to Florida with my family (including waverunning and parasailing and beachcombing, oh my...).  I kind of want classes to begin so I can get some rest!

As I was beginning to put materials together for my classes this Fall, like most people, I looked for other things to do.  Classical displacement behavior.  Social Media can be hugely useful or a huge distraction, but it is there regardless, and exerts an inexorable and near-tidal pull on my mind.

Many educators on Twitter like to blow off steam by talking "faux-tough" and generally acting quite differently than they do in the classroom.  This may not be wise, career-wise, but folks do need to blow off steam.  So do students, I know.  This almost "locker room" gender neutral behavior is common, healthy, and blows off steam (I keep repeating that phrase because many of us are under a certain degree of stress). There have been a couple of great examples on Twitter of this sort of thing recently, such as  #overlyhonestprotocols or #melodramaticlabnotebook.  Both made me laugh and wince in equal measure.

But the other evening, a Twitter hashtag #overlyhonestsyllabi became quite popular.  Many educators generated 148 characters of snarkiness on this topic, myself included (mine was bemoaning students turning in term papers that were not stapled, by threatening to deduct 5 points).  It was funny and snarky and not terrifically politically correct, as you can see here.

The hashtag certainly touched an academic nerve among educators! On the other hand, it occurred to the inimitable Dr. Isis that such a Twitter-plosion was a bit mean spirited and antithetical to what we claim to believe in and do when we teach.  Read her blog post here, which was insightful and heartfelt.

I do think that educators needs a certain degree of catharsis, such as the "tough love" Dr. Dutch's "Top Ten No Sympathy Lines." I also think it is good for students to see some of this; many students are surprised that professors are not "flexible" and do not realize that most educators were in fact flexible early in their careers...and have been burned multiple times into their pose of inflexibility.  As always the problem is simple: we focus on the 10% of students who don't need our help, or/and the 10% who "go ghost" on us during the term.  Yet we often tend to forget the 80% who are working hard, and are pushing to stay afloat and do well.

There must be some elegant quotation for this issue, but I sure cannot think of one right now.

I blogged earlier about an "extra credit" assignment I gave my freshman biology students during the Spring semester.  For the most part, these students were in the 80%.  And I was delighted by their creativity and hard work.  What is especially nice is that the University of Puget Sound's alumni magazine, Arches, chose to create a three page write up about that class and those students. You can read it here if you like (they understand the concept of "layout," unlike yours truly).

So even though many educators disdain extra credit, I am glad I gave that assignment.  It helped the students---in particular that important 80%---and it warmed my heart.

To the folks behind #overlyhonestsyllabi, I appreciate the moderately snarky posts.  They made me laugh.  To Dr. Isis, I appreciate the reality check.  You made me think!

Time to get back to syllabi building for my beloved Microbiology lecture and laboratory!  We will be doing some cool things, and I hope to blog about them here and elsewhere.