Wednesday, March 31, 2010

How day care will be the death of me

Day care is a necessary evil if you have a two income family. Unless you have relatives close by who are willing to entertain your child while the two parents are at work, chances are you have to rely on day care. It can be expensive and a huge hassle, but there are not a lot of options.

There are good things about day care, such as your child getting to play with their peers for much of the day. This can lead to learning a lot of things they would otherwise not be confronted with at home. Children at day care also have to get used to being with non-parents for much of the day, which one could argue helps them when their parents need to leave them with someone to get something done or to go out for a night. A lot of day cares also go to great lengths to take what is understood about how children learn and incorporate that into daily activities. All of these are good things.

But daycare has another effect on your life. Before we sent the Wee One to daycare she almost never got sick.


The Wee One, before day care.

We had the normal run of one or two colds a winter as a household, but nothing major. But day care changed all that. Day care is apparently where every cold and flu goes to party. It's like the runny nose equivalent of Burning Man and we have our very own vector from that source. It's like living with the monkey from "Outbreak".


The Wee One in day care. This is actually the look we get every afternoon when we arrive to take her home.

This winter the family has been a revolving door for colds. Every time one sweeps through and leaves us for dead, there is another one at the door. I'm pretty sure I have been healthy for a grand total of 8 days since November and my wife has been hit harder by each cold than I have. Day care is probably taking a year off of our lives, and we're not even getting to play with play dough! The thing I am most excited about this spring is the chance that the time between colds will lengthen as the days do.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Brought to you by the number 8

We recently went to a Sesame Street musical with the Wee One, through which she sat about 50% terrified and 50% amazed. Every few minutes she would tear her eyes away from the stage long enough to say "Too loud!" to either my wife or I. Despite this, she hasn't stopped talking about it and we foolishly bought the soundtrack, which is now the soundtrack of every drive. That, or "My record please." for the whole drive. Where she picked up that a CD is a "record", I have no idea. But I digress.

For the last couple of weeks it seems like I always have one of the songs in my head. Diabolically, many of the songs are set to the tune of older recognizable songs so they lodge in the brain crevasses that much more easily. On more than one occasion I have found myself humming an Elmo or Big Bird vocal.

On this background, recently many of the random things in my life have been mentally framed in the context of Sesame Street. Yesterday I was looking at the syllabus for my class and realized that even though I had somehow calculated last week that I had 14 lectures left (In my defense, I was only about 20% "there" mentally at the start of last week), I really only have 8! How did that manifest in my brain? With a combination of a white 8 on a changing patterned background and "8! 8 lectures, ah, ah, ah".

Is there professional help to extricate furry monsters of this sort from one's head?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Caring about teh students

Last week, when I was embroiled in a too much work, too little sleep haze, Dr. Girlfriend left the following comment on my post about the students in my class not knowing their lab partner's name.

Wow! That is crazy. It is stories like this that make me question the whole teaching thing.

These are supposed to be adults who are taking classes out of choice.

Surely they need some sort of name to use cell-phones and emails? How can they expect to pass if they are not communicating with lab partner outside of class?

A professor is supposed to be a resource, not a nanny. If a student cannot be proactive in their own learning they do not belong at university.

You care too much. And I am never going to make it as an assistant professor if I am expected to pass a certain percentage, regardless of inadequate performance.


Honestly, I wanted to bring this back up because it is something that I have struggled with as a new teacher - the balance between investment in the student/class and my time and sanity. This comes in several flavors, one of which was touched on by the above comment. In this specific case the question is how much student apathy do you compensate for with you're own time and work and in reality, I don't know the answer. To this point I have done what I needed to do in order to ensure that the lectures and labs I teach can involve everyone, regardless of whether they do something right. I know that's cryptic, but when there is a project that builds from one week to the next, I feel like it is my responsibility to ensure that if students screw something up in Week 1, I have a back-up in Week 2 that allows them to continue on with the exercise. To me, that's inherent with planning the exercise in the first place because the likelihood of all students completing an exercise completely correctly the first time they do it is next to nil, no matter how straight-forward. Do you "punish" those who can't follow instructions by forcing them to watch from the sidelines in Week 2? I don't think that helps them learn the concepts, which is why I am there in the first place.

I think the same goes for class. It sucks when you spend hours building a lecture when you have a hundred other things that need to get done and 20 slides in you have two kids blatantly texting three rows back. Part of me wonders why I am bothering working as hard as I do to try and make the class interesting to them when I could just stand up there and talk straight through the figures from the book. I'm not trying to be Robin Williams in the Dead Poet's Society, but I do care about engaging the students in the material. Maybe it's stupid of me to want that at this early stage since no one gets a cookie for teaching at the expense of research, but I also don't know how to turn off that part of my brain that forces me to take pride in whatever product I put out. I have had teachers who just didn't care, for whatever reason, and I can't be that guy. But finding the balance that gets you to "good enough" is tough and it's a moving target.

Although I don't believe that the students need to be coddled, one of the hardest things I have found in the teaching game is finding the right investment balance. Too much and I can't get other essential functions done and stay up-right and married, to little and I can't live with the job I am doing in my role as "The Guy Responsible For Helping The Students Learn This Shit". Some days I get it right and some days I am way off, but it is part of the job. It may not be what we are trained to do or what we want to do, but I can't knowingly* teach poorly any more than I can knowingly leave out data that calls my conclusions into question. I don't know where that leaves me, but I guess I will find out.


*I might suck as a teacher and not know it, which is a different problem.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Up for air

I took yesterday off. Completely off. It was the first day (day, not weekday) this month that I've taken off and it was a beautiful thing. Of course it hasn't helped my day-of-the-week-vertigo that has me constantly looking at my schedule to remember whether it's a Tuesday or Friday, but it was really nice to relax and not do work. It led to the expenditure of way too much money at Lowes, but what can one do?

It is Spring Break in the land of Employment University and I'm finally able to catch up on all of the shit that has been piling up while I have been focused on feeding the ravenous Lecture Beast and coordinating grant submissions. It comes at a good time, with my desk threatening to buckle under the weight of paper. There is much to do during the break from undergraduentia, but the reduced pace means that I can spend a bit of time on research. This is a good week to take a deep breath and think "Only 14 more lectures.Only 14 more lectures.Only 14 more lectures.Only 14 more lectures.Only 14 more lectures.Only 14 more lectures.Only 14 more lectures.Only 14 more lectures.Only 14 more lectures."

We have some exciting data, I have a student writing up a MSc thesis and prepping their data for publication and we're staring down what will likely be a busy conference season. It seems like a long way off, but it'll be here by the time I can look up again.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

You stay classy "conservatives"

Sometimes I wonder if the people who are adamantly against big changes like health care reform are just the same ignorant and scared morons who have been against social change for decades. It's nice when you get a resounding "yes!" to questions like these. I'm not saying that I am 100% in favor of what the health care reform bill has been turned into as it has worked its way through our broken political system, but it seems clear that the majority of people who are against it have no idea what they are opposing. With yesterday's behavior of the anti-health care demonstrators, one has to wonder how many of them even understand anything but fear of change.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The home stretch and collaboration win

For any number of reasons, this March has been the toughest month I've had in this job. It just seems as though everything of importance has been co-scheduled with some of the biggest time sucks known. It happens and I've just had to keep my head down, get shit done and let some things go for now. After early next week things will be much much better.

One thing that has been an incredible positive, however, has been an ongoing collaboration that was started back when I traveled to Europe late last year. A conversation started over coffee that has grown over time and has evolved into a multinational opportunity to combine the expertise of a few labs to delve into a question that none of the labs could have done on their own. It's been an exciting process and the grant proposal that has resulted from the collaboration is something to behold.

But, it's not just the combination of ideas that has me so excited. I've had my share of collaborations in the past and they are always a little risky because it's nearly impossible to figure out ahead of time whether or not you will work well with another person(s) when you're up against a deadline or when something goes wrong. People can do plenty of talking, but you have to know that they will send you some needed text when you are three days from a grant deadline or that they will do the analysis that they said they would so you can include new data.

With this collaboration (so far) everything has played out better than I could have hoped. The main foreign PI has done everything I asked and more, including sending data and text when I've needed it, coordinated and facilitated some work with other labs and consistently provided helpful feedback on things. It's been good. Now we'll see if we can secure the funds to formalize this relationship and keep the ball rolling.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hello, my name is....

Last week I had the students in my class do some work in the lab that formed the basis for the next two labs. When I looked at the results they got I realized that I was going to have to re-do much of the final step so that the actually would have something to work with this week.

However, I needed some details from each group in order to help me create the right conditions for the re-do. I emailed the whole class to send me the information I needed and their partner's name so I wasn't doubling up on information unnecessarily. Only 20% of them got back to me, which is not entirely surprising, but what was shocking is that only half of those who responded knew their lab partner's name.

Last week was the ninth lab of the semester. NINTH. That means I have several students who have worked with a classmate for hours on end of this semester and have never learned their name. And I only had 20% respond to me! WTF? Maybe I'm just getting old enough where I like to the names of the people I work with, I don't know. Now get offa my lawn.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The importance of buying local

When I first started assembling my lab, the sales people from several big companies swooped in with their offers. One of my first blog posts was about that. It was an odd experience. But in the end I did the majority of my purchasing through a local distributor because he had a wider selection than any one company and he took the time to work with me rather than just throw fliers at me. And not only is he the sales and delivery guy, but he's sleeping with the company owner - his wife. I can also call him personally at any time to ask him a question about a product or have him send me a quote. I'm a personal attention whore like that.

But never has the customer service been more useful than this semester. On at least two occasions I have had to talk to him and ask for a product for me teaching lab, because I'm woefully under-prepared for yet another lab. On a day's notice he has sent me products critical for the lab with no PO, no payment and nothing other than my word that I will fill out the paperwork and get them paid. Now obviously I'm not going to run off with my $80 worth of supplies and disappear, but try calling Sigma and getting anything from them without some sort of documenting paperwork. Maybe large accounts can do that kind of shit, but I'm not in that position. It's nice to have that kind of resource if you need it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Midterm Evaluation

I decided that I needed to get a feel for how my students think the class is going so I had them fill out a brief questionnaire and asked them to be as honest as possible. Here are the questions and general responses.

1. Please comment of the pace, presentation and amount of material covered in lectures.
For the most part the students thought things were good here. A few think I go a bit too fast, and that is probably true, but I need to find ways to slow down where I don't just stand there while they finish writing shit down from the slides (which do not contain a ton of text). The slides were generally well liked and the fact that I post them online has been appreciated.

2. Have you found that the lab has helped you to understand classroom concepts?
The lab was universally seen as a good extension of the class material and no one had anything bad to say about it. It helps that I have a kick ass TA.

3. What is one concept from the lecture you still find difficult to understand?
Students mostly complained about some of the nitty gritty details, but sorry folks, all of the fun stuff I tell you is to give you a break from the nitty gritty shit you have to learn. One student complained that some things were hard to understand in class until they went back and studied. What are your other profs doing where you find this unusual?

4. What about the lectures do you find most helpful or useful?
Again, they like the slides and diagrams and that they can access them after class.

5. What would you do to improve the class?
If there was anything here it had to do with being more explicit about WHAT THEY NEED TO KNOW FOR THE EXAM. I love this complaint because I tell them in class the format of the test and what I expect them to know. Somehow, if I don't hand them the questions ahead of time I am trying to trick them.

Overall, I don't see anything that makes me concerned, which is good. The main message is to slow down a bit and hover over some of the concepts they find challenging, which I don't think will be a problem. Also some wanted more interaction, which made me laugh because I often toss out questions into the void and it appears that they consider them rhetorical.

My favorite comment was that one student appreciated me trying to make them laugh at the early hour of 9:30. Dude, I've been up for four fucking hours already, which I don't find funny. But, alas, I do remember that schedule.

Anyway, overall I am pleased with the response.

Dirty Oil Man

Dear Oil company Sales Rep,

I don't blame you for being a little curt on the phone when I called to cancel our contract because we bought a new natural gas furnace. I'm sure losing an account in this economy and when you are hawking oil kinda sucks. The fact that you tried to rush us another delivery even though our oil tank was scheduled for removal was kinda a dick move, but whatever. It's nothing personal, we just want something more efficient and you couldn't offer it. There's also the issue of the tax rebates, but I digress.

While I can forgive you for being grumpy, I can also ask you to please go fuck a light socket for sending my family an envelope full of random pamphlets, all strongly suggesting that the switch to natural gas will soon lead to our deaths from either carbon monoxide or from our house blowing up. Your dirty scare mongering of the worst degree only further sold me on our switch and convinced me that your company sucks ass. I hope you have to sleep at night smelling those shitty fumes that we had in our house before we upgraded.

Sincerely,
PLS

p.s. The new furnace is awesome.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Happy Birthday Wee One


Artist's rendition of 2 years ago


2 years goes by quickly.

Friday, March 5, 2010

15 Female Scientists Who Changed the World

Since I am slammed today, you should go check out someone who is actually putting up interesting posts, like 15 Female Scientists Who Changed the World at The Medical Small Business Blog.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What I learned from the first test

I'm almost done grading the first test I gave to my class and I'm feeling pretty good about it. Looking through the results has certainly given me some good insight into the class and what they are getting from the lectures. Points I can take away:

Almost all of the students were distributed in a decent way across the grade spectrum, suggesting I got the difficulty pretty close to right.

I was surprised to see what concepts or bits of information were universally understood and remembered, verses those which were not.

I did, however, have a good feel for which questions were lobs and which were fastballs.

Despite several hints that certain topics would be on the exam, not all of the students bothered to study those topics.

Some students who appear to be barely paying attention did much better than I expected.

Some who seem to really be paying attention did much worse.

Overall, the students are remembering most of the main concepts I am trying to get across. This feels like a small victory for me and some reinforcement that I'm on the right track in teaching them.

Now, after a brief break on the lecture front, I need to start my lecture for tomorrow.
Dude. Fuck. Sigh.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Testing. Testing.

It's been a long time since I had to take a test for a class, but I'm kinda reliving that experience today watching my students hover over the sheets of paper I have prepared for them this morning. I don't think the test is hard, but we'll see how they do. This is the first test I've ever given so it's tough for me to judge ahead of time. I'll be really curious to find out what they retained versus what was lost on them. I tried to limit my questions to the main topics we covered in class but who knows if what I thought were the main subjects are the same as what they thought they were. I certainly spelled it out, or at least felt I did.

In a lot of ways this feels like a test for me as well. Did I get the concepts across? Did I ask questions that will let them display what they know (or at least will remember for the moment and probably forget shortly)? We're 20 minutes in and no looks of panic or frustration yet. No questions and plenty of writing. Hopefully this will go smoothly.