Thunderstorms and Fireworks

Daniel kaj PennyDaniel's birthday isn't until the week after next, but tomorrow he and Charlie are going to travel to spend a week with grandparents before joining us at the beach in North Carolina for our annual family reunion. He had asked for a digital camera this year, so yesterday Lucy and I went to the store to pick one out for him, so he could have it to take with him for his big adventure. He was very happy and so we took a walk down to the field so he could try it out.

I picked out a Fuji camera that was at the low end. I've been happy with my Canon camera -- when they work. But of the three I've gotten in the past three years, all of them have required service. That's simply unacceptable. It was a close choice between this camera and a similar Nikon -- the Nikon camera probably was slightly better, but I wanted a camera that used SD media and used a standard USB cable. It really infuriates me to have the camera manufacturers all using different cables and I'm happy to punish them for not standardizing on one.

I made a point of enjoying my last day of vacation before going back to work tomorrow. We went out to see the new Nancy Drew movie. It was OK, but was a kind of younger and lamer "Legally Blonde" -- not really worth a trip to the theater, in my opinion. But I spent a fair amount of the day reading.

I found an excellent book the describes the challenges of university governance. There are four or five constituencies that university government needs to satisfy: the public, the government, business, and the faculty both from an academic and from a union standpoint. Each has a different take on what higher education is supposed to be and has competing interests on how it should be organized. The book has chapters written by different authors that each have a slightly different take on current trends and how higher education should best be organized: there are a lot of differences, but some common themes. I haven't quite finished the book yet, but so far I'm left with one question. Several of the authors cite the need for the organization to be more agile in order to react more quickly to opportunities or changing circumstances and use this as an argument for a less democratic approach to executive decision-making. But I haven't seen any evidence that less democratic systems actually are more agile or that increased "agility" produces any tangible results in the long term.

Daniel's New Camera

Ka?ita metala boteloTaking a vacation is always good for bringing up one's enthusiasm. We said our goodbyes to the relatives yesterday and today has been a return to our usual Saturday schedule. Lucy and I took Penny to the farmer's market and then to the library. Afterwards, we went to the store to shop for a birthday present for Daniel and to post some birthday presents to Phil and Richard that were too large to carry back -- or uncomfortable to explain for air travel. One such gift was a flask and a hollowed-out book to conceal it in. It might have made for some difficult questions at the airport.

This afternoon, we've been invited to a garden party. I believe the attendees will primarily be Alisa's local political community. I suggested to Alisa that maybe sometime we could have a "weeds and sticks" party at our house.

It's a good thing my enthusiasm is up. It's going to be a busy week back at work before I leave for our annual trip to the beach. We got a new super high-res scanner that it will be fun to set up. But I need to focus most of my time on getting course resources ready for people.

Last day of vacation

Today, I attended the UMass Board of Trustees meeting and the following General Faculty meeting. There have been substantial positive developments, but it was also made clear how far we have to go. The most exciting moment was when Trustee Boyle broke the otherwise seamless edifice of the trustees to confirm the concerns that have been raised about the lack of open debate within the board. The most embarrassing moment was to see one of the trustees lack of grasp regarding the nature of higher education. I had heard rumors before, but it was interesting to see it on display.

The General Faculty meeting that followed was uneventful. The biggest issue was that a few people have been unhappy that the executive advisory committee that has been setting the agenda hasn't been willing to add motions that some people would like to see -- in particular with respect to particular personalities. I spoke briefly to remind people of the challenges in maintaining such a large coalition of faculty organizations and commended Max and Ernie for finding a common agenda that all the groups could support.

UMass Moving Forward

Daniel, Alisa, Charlie, Phil, kaj JackieYesterday, we visited the Peace Pagoda. I probably haven't been there for a couple of years. The trees are taller (it used to be possible to look out and see UMass), there are more benches by the pond, and the old foundations of the building that burned down have been converted to a rock garden, but the place is otherwise untouched by the span of years. The boys enjoyed looking for frogs and tadpoles -- there were several different kinds of tadpoles. Charlie spotted some newts in the pond as well. Jackie and I wore our malas and I brought my staff. The weather was beautiful.

In the morning, I attended a meeting to set the agenda for the continued general faculty meeting on Thursday. Last night, there was encouraging news that UMass will be considered by the Governor's task force on education. Tomorrow morning is the Board of Trustees meeting followed by our press conference and then the general faculty meeting. They had just announced their own commission, but we'll see whether they try to follow through with it tomorrow. We need to keep the pressure on. My contribution was a call for an ad hoc committee on university system governance that can begin doing the research we'll need to have in place to understand what a reorganization might result in and to monitor whatever commission -- or commissions -- are driving a reorganization.

Vacation Interlude

Phil and Richard (and Jackie and Katy) arrived yesterday afternoon. We spent the afternoon chatting and then visited the Taste of Amherst. It was raining, which seemed to push attendance at the Taste way down, but was convenient for us, not having to wait in line. We plan to go back to the Taste for lunch today.

We have a series of adventures loosely planned over the next several days. Phil and Jackie want to visit the Peace Pagoda. Phil is going to try to meet up with a writer he met at Clarion who lives in Northampton. We'll probably have to stop at the Fiber Arts center at some point. It should be a fun visit.

Phil and Richard visiting

I put in a full day's work today and now I'm on vacation. This morning, I met with a guy who's working with tiger beetles and scale insects. I always enjoy talking to Rodger. We took a brief field trip across the street so he could show me the scale insects he studies. In the picture, you're looking at a single pine needle from a White Pine. In the picture,you can see one adult scale insect and a couple of first instar nymphs. Rodger has been travelling all over the hemisphere collecting scale insects to do PCR on them and build a giant phylogenetic tree of scale insects. You might not understand why until you realize that pines are a commercially important species -- and that with global warming, the scale insects are increasing their range into higher elevations where they previously were excluded by cold weather.

Last night was the Marks Meadow picnic. I took the opportunity to talk with Daniel's teacher for next year to pitch the idea of doing Muppyville again. This time, Charlie wants to run Muppyville -- I (supposedly) will just provide the technology platform. I set up a jhcore with the lambdamoo server again and let Charlie try to give it a try. It's a pretty steep learning curve, but he's got all summer. Daniel's teacher was intrigued. I'm hoping we can persuade her to actually participate. It will be a lot more successfuly if she does.

Tomorrow, Phil and Pop arrive for a week. I'm planning to not go into the office for most of the week. On Thursday, there will be the trustee's meeting, so I'm planning to attend that -- and the following press conference where we'll provide a faculty response to what the trustees have done (or not done). But otherwise, I'm planning to spend the week with my family. A vacation. It's been a while...

I'm on vacation!

I've been interested to see that Dell is finally selling computers with Ubuntu. We've been looking at new laptops to replace Alisa's computer. (She's currently using my old tibook, which I got in 2001). We went to the stores of both and did a point-by-point comparison of a Despiron and a Macbook. The Despiron is about $250 cheaper -- unless you select the same processor as the Macbook -- then they cost almost exactly the same. And its revolting how Dell puts messages and links everywhere on the Ubuntu pages leading away that say things like "Not sure Open Source is for You? Dell recommends Windows Vista!" As if it was easy to find the Ubuntu pages in the first place -- there aren't any links to them on the front page of the Dell site.

You might think its strange that with a "free" operating system, the computers actually cost more. Rather than adding to the cost of the computer, however, using a commercial operating system reduces the up-front-cost to the consumer by allowing companies to bundle all kinds of trial software, spyware, and nagware on the machines. If you really want a cheap linux laptop, you need to buy the laptop with Windows, wipe it, and then install linux yourself.

Sunday Excitement

The UMass President claims that his goal was to have the University System engage in a dialog about how the University might be most effectively reorganized. It has come out, however, that he has had a bunch of ideas about how it might turn out. It's impossible to tell what would be the best way to organize things. Still, there are a variety of extant models and we need to look at them carefully to get some ideas about how we might reorganize UMass and what some of the consequences might be. Even in the absence of specifics, there are a couple of generalities worth considering.

First: organization, schmorganization... A great university is fundamentally about attracting and keeping great faculty. If you measure your success by having great research outcomes, like a Nobel prize or publications in important journals, then you need to attract and keep great faculty: they're the ones who do the research. They don't care much about the organization except to the extent it gets in their way. The Biology Department has had serious trouble keeping the star faculty we've been able to attract. If you want to keep great faculty, you need to make sure they don't feel stifled by the institution.

Second: its all about the resources, stupid. The UMass system got cut something like 30% during the period of "financial exigency". These resources have not been restored and the place reflects that in every way. If you want cutting-edge research, you have to pay for it. And when you're competing for great faculty, you're competing with places like Cornell and Brown. (The Biology Department lost faculty to those two places over the past couple of years). To keep great faculty, you need to provide the resources they need to be productive.

I've been disappointed to see the President's office creating a straw man by saying "its either reorganization or the status quo". Faculty are used to managing change and are rarely for the status quo. But if you want to bring the faculty along, you need to provide meaningful opportunities for genuine participation in the process. Unfortunately, by trying to push through a coup, the faculty are unlikely to merely participate in some process designed by the president's office. Hopefully, we'll see a truly independent process that provides a meaningful role for faculty and the other University consitituencies to consider what form of University governance will be most effective going forward.

Millis Public Library

Yesterday, several of us who teach the Writing in Biology course got together to talk about what works, what doesn't, and what we're planning to do next semester. I've been largely pleased with the structure I've used for the class, but there are a few things I'm planning to try next time.

One of the primary goals of my class is for students to decide to work on something that they think actually matters. The vast majority of students come into my classes seeing a class as an obstacle to get over and make most of their calculations about the class based on minimizing their effort. I begin the class at the center and try to progressively pull myself out of the center and leave a vacuum that the students need to fill themselves. Some students find this very uncomfortable, but I've gotten pretty good at managing this transition and I'm relatively pleased with the outcome of the class. Students tell me, in their comments and reflective essays, that trying to figure out something worth doing, was a new and important experience that will transform how they approach other classes.

I've gone back and forth in giving latitude in creating projects. I think, on the whole, projects are better when I constrain the topic to some extent. That doesn't necessarily mean that students learn more, however. It may be that the experience of doing a crappy project (when you could have done something good) might be just what students need to learn. That was very clear to me from one student's reflective essay this year, who referred to another student's thoughtful project as a model for what she should have done because she hadn't really put any thought into hers. Yes!

I try to let the curriculum emerge from the students' writing, but there are a variety of problems that I know are going to be there. Rather than waiting for them to emerge, I think I'm going to design some in-class activities to try to confront them head on.

Creative Writing Students often aim for flowery language and choose different adjectives to mean the same thing: dirty, filthy, unclean, unsanitary, etc. In English class, we're told not to keep using the same adjective, but in science you want to have consistency in the terms you select or define. It's OK to pick one and keep using it

Folk Measures Students have a tendency to use vague adjectives, especially when precise (or at least estimated) measures would be more appropriate. Don't tell me the pond was "large" or there were "pretty many" ducks on it. Write instead, "The pond was 5 hectares and at 4pm on June 1 there were 38 ducks."

Judgments and Anthropomorphisms Students often use language that implies moral judgments or opinions. One example I see regularly is "global warming is harming the earth". You could say, "global warming will have many effects on the earth's biota" or even "global warming will cause mass extinctions", but to speak about the earth having interests is not appropriate. I would also discourage some of the adjectives above (e.g. "filthy") for carrying moral overtones. Finally, avoid making judgments about your own work: don't say "the methods were bad" but instead maybe something like "the methods did not produce usable data".

Be comprehensive, complete, and specific You can't just pick a few results to discuss "for example". You need to tell all of the results -- and preferably do it in a systematic way.

I'm still not sure what form the classroom exercises will take -- maybe examples that groups of students will have to fix? Maybe something like 'clicker questions'? I don't know yet.

Writing Class Introspection

I've been really enjoying the summertime pace of the campus. I finally have blocks of time again! During the semester, I rarely have blocks of time larger than 20 minutes without interruption, which makes working on significant writing or code nearly impossible. It's nice to be able to dig into significant problems and work on them.

Over the past few days, I've put in 15-20 hours getting the "Pipeline" working. A new faculty member in Biology arrived wanting to set up a software system to manage genomic sequence data. It's a sometime odd and eclectic system that seems like it was programmed by someone rather like me: a relative novice programmer more interested in functionality than elegance. You can see how the style of the code evolved over time as the developers changed and learned more about programming. There are some seriously weird things about system: I found 3 different functions in different parts of the code called "run_phd2fasta" and how many daemons have you seen written in PHP? I'm optimistic that we've finally resolved all of the serious bugs and will have a working system Real Soon now.

Meetings go forward on the campus response to the reorganization. Yesterday, I was part of a group that met with the chancellor. He began the meeting by saying he didn't have anything to say -- and then spoke for 45 minutes. It's been interesting to try to triangulate in on what's happening based on the perspectives of the different players involved. Tomorrow, the Faculty Senate executive committee will meet to continue moving the issue forward.

Today, the MSP board met to bring everyone up-to-date. At the same time all this is going on, we continue to negotiate next year's contract. The meeting today was encouraging that both sides are close to resolving the outstanding issues. There are several parts of the new contract that I'm particularly interested in. Unfortunately, it looks like we're being strong-armed into accepting a one-year contract, but if the contract is signed and funded on-time, it will be a first since I came to UMass.

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