Testimony for Cherish Act hearing

I drafted comments to be presented at the Cherish Act hearing tomorrow at the State House.

Biology is a discipline where modern facilities and equipment are critical to providing an effective education to our students: to prepare them to move seamlessly into the growing life-science industry. Unfortunately, after years of declining funding, our introductory biology facilities had suffered.

We have been successful at attracting large grants from Howard Hughes Medical Institute and others to make improvements over the years, but those organizations are rarely interested in funding the basic infrastructure.

Recently, the University re-introduced "lab fees" to raise money from our students and their families to fund these needed renovations. This purchased new lab benches and facilities for more modern labs. But it's yet another example of the state shirking its responsibility to provide for the basic needs of the curriculum and requiring students to shoulder a larger burden, through debt, that many will still be paying for years to come. It's disgraceful and makes me ashamed to be a part of the institution.

Exactly the same is true regarding the new "technology fee." The University should be funded sufficiently to provide the basic infrastructure needed for a 21st century education. Students should not be going into debt for our necessary facilities and infrastructure.

Please fund our future and pass the Cherish Act.

I am hopeful that, after years of declining state funding for public higher education (we're still below 2001 funding levels) there is enough momentum to pass this act which would bring funding up to 2001 levels over 5 years during which time we could freeze tuition and fees. We can always hope.

Melamine Effect

In the book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn describes the perverse effects of incentive systems. Incentive systems fail because it's always easier (and cheaper) to game the system than to actually win. If you incentivize "call length" in a call center, for example, employees will hang up on people. If you incentive "resolutions" the staff will find short cuts to mark calls as "resolved" rather than to actually solve people's problems. He found that the best way to get people to do good work is to compensate them adequately and support their efforts to do good work.

Several years ago I wrote a post about educational measurement in which I described a phenomenon I have come to call the Melamine Effect. In 2007 and 2008, pet food and then milk were found that were contaminated with melamine. The consequences were horrific. In 2007 hundreds of pets were killed. In 2008, tens of thousands of infants were poisoned, many suffering liver damage. Several died. It turned out that unscrupulous people were diluting milk with water and then adding this cheap, industrial chemical — that coincidentally increases the score on a widely-used test for protein content — as a way to increase their profits.

Seeing the effects that standardized testing and so-called education reform were having on schools, I realized that the circumstances are perfectly analogous. If you measure something and use that measure to understand natural systems, you're fine. But if you start looking for treatments that will shift the measure, you're inviting all kinds of perverse effects, because educational measures can't actually measure what people are interested in (i.e. learning or understanding): they only measure factors that tend to covary with them in natural populations. Once you start applying treatments -- especially the cheapest ones -- you're almost assured of toxic effects.

And it should go without saying that just changing a measure doesn't mean you will actually produce better outcomes either. For years, people were told to take niacin to improve their cholesterol test scores. But a long-term study revealed that, although it did improve the scores, those gains were not actually associated with reduced risk of disease.

For a while the term was "data driven", but more recently the term is "evidence based". When people start using words like this, your hackles should rise. Look critically at the underlying model and how it relates evidence to the dimension of interest. This isn't always easy with the "dashboards" of the modern analytics systems. But it's the only way to avoid the "melamine effect".

Writing in Biology: First Class

Before the first class meeting of Writing in Biology, while the students are coming into the room before class, I invite the students to play a parlor game. I usually show up about 10 minutes ahead of time and, as the students trickle in, I invite them to play Anne Miller from Cripple Creek. In this game, you guess what things Anne Miller likes and doesn't like, usually presented as pairs of things that she likes and doesn't like that, on the surface seem similar or contradictory. For example, Anne Miller likes "glass", but doesn't like "windows". I explain that the same is like science: you need to construct a hypothesis and then test the hypothesis. Once everyone has arrived, we begin the class.

I start out trying to provide students with a reasonably familiar classroom experience. In the long run, I'll want to draw myself out of the center of the class. But I've found that if I start out that way, some students are very uncomfortable, so in the first class, I'm pretty directive -- more than I would ideally want to be.

I introduce myself. I speak briefly about my education and history at the university. I tell them my pronouns, where my office is, when my office hours are, etc. And I tell them that they "have me" for the semester: if they have any questions, they are invited to stop by my office anytime (or make an appointment if they want to be sure I'm there.) And that they're welcome to call on me, not just for questions about the class, but anything else at the University. They're my students and although I might not be able to fix everything, I'm happy to help them figure out who can -- and to help them follow up if something isn't working.

At this point, I ask them to move their chairs into a circle (leaving them in rows to start, is part of the "familiar classroom experience"). And then I have them introduce themselves to the people sitting nearby. I explain that then I'll want each person in the class to be introduced to me by someone else who should tell me their name and the answer to a question. I usually use "what kind of tree would you want to be and where would you grow?" I've occasionally picked other questions, but the tree question works pretty well as a quirky icebreaker. After a few minutes, I start going around the room and have each student introduced to me and begin rehearsing the names in order out loud. "Bob, Karen, George, etc. etc." It turns out it's trivial to memorize 25 names more-or-less in order. I had a professor who could do it with first and last names of 60 students and required everyone in the class to do it as well (each student had to introduce all of the previous students.) I don't do that because it's stressful for the students. Once I get to the end, I usually get a round of applause from the students and I joke that they must always sit in that order from now on. It turns out that many of the students tell me that have never been in a class where a professor learned their names. Which is sad. I promise them that I will do my best to learn everyone's names and they should help me remember.

The key exercise of the day is an observation activity. I give each student an object for them to observe and write about. The object I select varies depending on season and availability. One year, I gave each student a live baby scorpion to observe. In the semester we studied spiders, I gave each student a live Cellar spider (Pholcus). I've often used meal worms (sometimes two different kinds, without telling them that they're not all the same.) Bait shops often have interesting little maggots (spikes) and caterpillars (waxworms) which are good. My favorite are Eristalis larvae called "mousies" in the bait trade. The goal is to have something living and unfamiliar. If something is too familiar (like walnuts), students won't bother to look carefully.

Before class, in the first week's prep page, I have asked them to read Chapter 7 of Louis Agassiz as a Teacher before class. In that story, Agassiz has a student observe a fish for days and write observations. I invite the students to sit for two sessions of 15 minutes to observe and write down everything they notice: To start with just a list of ideas, then to identify questions, and to try to turn the writing into paragraphs. In 15 minutes, we share some observations and reflect a bit on what they've been able to observe and the kinds of tools that might help observation. I've usually printed off some paper rulers that I pass out and encourage them to think quantitatively. After another 15 minutes, we through other observations and then I ask them to count up how many words they wrote in a half hour.

At this point, I go through the structure of the class: I briefly touch on my expectation for weekly draft writing (3 hours divided into 30 minute chunks that they work into their schedule). If they ask how many words they should write, I point out that they just counted how many words they could write in a half hour and that if that was how many word they could write about a maggot, they should surely be able to write about something really interesting. I explain the Perfect Paragraph activity, and describe each of the major projects in turn (Methods, Research Proposals, Research Projects, and Reflective Essay.)

We take a break for a few minutes at this point and reconvene in the Biology Computer Resource Center. I make sure they've set a password for their Biology Account and ask them to confirm they can log into our computers and ask them to log into the Biology Department website I use (which I will describe separately). We spend the rest of the period making sure they can log in, create a blog post as a draft (with some of their observations), create a second post as a Perfect Paragraph, and then comment on someone's Perfect Paragraph.

At the end of class, I point out the prep page for the next week, briefly describe what it contains, when prep-pages will be posted, and ask them if they have any questions.

And that's the first class meeting.

Writing in Biology Retrospective

I first started teaching Writing in Biology in 2002 when several senior faculty retired and the Department was having difficulty finding new instructors to cycle in. In Biology, the course was considered a "short straw" assignment and was taught by a mix of tenure-system and non-tenure-system faculty. I saw potential to have students do projects and write about them and volunteered for the assignment.

Every major at the University is required to offer a junior-year course on Writing in that discipline. The Faculty Senate approved the plan in 1982.

Each department, school or college, in consultation with writing specialists, will determine what kinds of writing competence its majors need.

I don't know if this ever happened in Biology. Two of the retiring faculty gave me their course materials. In consultation with materials from the Writing Program, I developed a version of the class and began teaching it. The course has evolved in small ways since then, but structurally is still largely the same as when I first taught it.

In part, I used the course as a testbed for new technologies: I used wikis early on, then migrated to Drupal with revisions, and most recently have used Google Docs. I even put up an instance of Moodle and used that for one semester, long before the campus adopted Moodle as a learning-management system.

At first, the deliverable for the final project was a manuscript, like the others. But after the chair balked at purchasing a poster printer in response to a new faculty member who wanted one, I made a persuasive pitch that my volunteering to teach the class freed up sufficient funds to justify the purchase so I could use it to have students print posters.

When they shortened the semester by a week, I dropped one of the projects. I used to have students to do a mini "observation project" during the first two weeks of the semester. I really liked the project as it provided a microcosm of what completing one the projects took.

Over the years, I've added a variety of in-class and pre-class activities primarily in response to recognizing specific deficits that students tend to come into the course with: transforming narrative to exposition, writing figure legends, etc.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to write a series off posts to describe the goals of the class and how I try to create an environment for students to achieve those goals.

BCRC Server Update

We updated the BCRC server over spring break. We've known we needed to do it for a long time now, but have been putting it off because we have old Drupal 6 sites that need to be migrated, I've believed that they (or some of their modules) will probably not work with newer version of PHP in this version of Ubuntu. During the Fall, we updated the server in the ISB and, to prepare, we tested and I rewrote some of the old legacy code that I had written. So we knew that much. But this server was enormously more complicated.

It turned out there were only two serious problems with my old code. Originally, PHP used its own regular expressions library (ereg) but, at some point, started including functions against the perl regular-expressions library (preg). I've probably been using PHP since before it had either. But I had to make minor API changes and update my functions to use perl regular-expressions. I also had start using mysql very early and those functions had become deprecated, so I needed to make minor changes to all of those.

The first serious problem was that our MySQL databases didn't get updated properly. The updater is supposed to be able to ask mysql to update the databases, but something went wrong. At first, mysql wouldn't start at all, I think because it was confused about which my.cnf it should be reading. This was probably why the update didn't work correctly. This server has existed since ~1995 and was originally a Sparc 10. Then we got an E250, then a T5220, and most recently a Supermicro running Ubuntu. But a lot -- too much -- of that history is still there. Once I cleaned up the my.cnf files, we got mysql running, but it couldn't read the database of users and so nothing could get access to its data. It turns out that to update the database, you need to log in as "root" so if you can't log in, you can update the database. So then I shut down the service and started it manually with --skip-grant-tables. Then I was able to run the upgrade script. Then mysql came up. (Note this story actually skips several epicycles I made trying to sort out the problems, but is what I did in the end.)

Before the migration, I had started re-building a new web-tree around Drupal 8 (rather the old tree which was built around Drupal 6) hosted at a different CNAME. I had migrated the key pieces of what I wanted going forward, without taking down the old web-tree. After the update, I switched to the new web-tree and then migrate stuff out of the old tree to the new one. I figured this was potentially more disruptive, but safer: there was a lot of old history that was infested with bitrot. It seemed better to start with known good things and then rescue stuff that people identified as missing after-the-fact.

There are still a lot of rough edges: broken paths, missing images, stuff that needs to be reconfigured. But basically good to go. The two most complicated updates are yet to come. But this was a good test-bed to help us prepare for what we need to do for those.

How to Reduce Cheating Without Evil Robots

Recently, Turnitin was purchased for $1.75 billion dollars. Turnitin is the malicious corporation that neoliberal universities use to de-skill faculty labor. Ostensibly, it's to "reduce cheating", but -- as many have pointed out -- they do so in a simple-minded way that steals student work (everything students submit in the so-called "learning management systems" gets piratically stolen by the corporation and used to support their business model) and undermines the relationship between students and faculty. I use three strategies to reduce the incentives and potential for student cheating without Turnitin.

My primary goal is to have each student or group do novel projects. If work is actually novel, there are no easy candidates to cheat from. If each student (or group) is working on something unique, they can collaborate and share resources without the potential for competition or cheating to come into play. If you have students all working on identical papers (or solving "classic" problems) there is always a tempting array of examples of the "work" already done (and probably done better than any student could do it).

Second, I have students do their work in an environment where I can see the the development of the project over time. I used to use a Wiki or Drupal Revisions for this. Currently, I'm using Google Docs. This way, I can see snapshots of the project from inception to outline to finished document. I can provide feedback along the way and, in the end, have great confidence that the finished product was the authentic work of the student(s) -- much more so than if the document sprang into existence the night before it was due.

Finally, I aim to have students work on projects that are genuinely engaging. If students do authentic work that they see as valuable, there's no incentive to cheat: students will do the work because it's real work that has intrinsic merit to them.

The only reason for something like "Turnitin" is that we've created an environment where faculty have too many students to get to know them all personally. Neoliberal universities are constantly reducing the number of faculty, increasing their workload, and substituting robot labor like "Turnitin" to allowing faculty to know their students well enough to offer meaningful work and guide their writing personally. Faculty should resist the speed-up and opt-out of having their students' submissions be stolen by the parasitic corporations that aim to create a hostile environment for everyone.

Saving My Gratitude

I saw this tweet recently, which made me reflect on the question, "What should we feel grateful for?"

I've been thinking about this for a while at least in part due to watching Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid. There are several scenes where the characters express, what seems to me like unreasonable levels of gratitude for very small things.

I mean, anything Kanna does is sweet and charming. And it fits in well with my preferred genre of television programming: soothing shows where people are praised for doing inconsequential things. Wouldn't it be nice if we could all be so grateful for small things? But something about it niggles. Why should we have to feel grateful for stuff?

Wouldn't it be better if we didn't need to feel grateful for little things? Wouldn't it be better if the little things were taken care of, so we could free up our gratitude muscles to feel grateful for really big things?

Of course, it's a truism that you don't know what you should feel grateful for (like health) until it's gone. But I want to save up all of my gratitude for when the Mueller report finally comes out.

Breath of the Wild

Over the holidays, I decided to devote some time to playing Breath of the Wild. The game was released almost two years ago and, although it made me drool a bit at the time, I hadn't felt like I had time to devote to games. And I still didn't have the time. But I decided I needed some distraction from depressing real life issues and made the time for it.

It's an amazing game. I've played most of the previous Zelda games and this was a worthy example of the craft with significant enhancements. The open world gameplay and hyper-realistic landscape made for a highly relaxing and aesthetic experience. There was little pressure, so you could just wander aimlessly to discover things, or make targeted efforts to complete various kinds of "quests". And then there were the overarching story arcs.

My least favorite part of the game was using the controller. The controller has 12 buttons plus two joysticks and a D-pad. Ugh. Too many buttons for my monkey brain. I remember playing a combat game for the Wii that used a wiimote plus the attached "nunchuk" controller and finding that very enjoyable. Then I tried the version of the game for X-Box that used a standard controller and was never able to really make it work: it was easy to aim by pointing -- aiming with a joystick was just beyond me.

In point of fact, though, I got lazy about playing this game: when I would get to difficult bosses or puzzles (that required too much controller puissance) I would get one of my boys to do it. Over the weekend, however, one of them who had never finished his game file realized that I was ahead of where he had left off his file. So he scrambled around and finished the game on Saturday so I wouldn't finish ahead of him. So Sunday night, I had him fight the final boss to finish my game so I could see the ending. Pretty satisfying.

I might go back and play some more -- there are a bunch more side-quests I would do. But perhaps not: it was a good distraction, but now that the semester's started again, it's hard to justify the time.

Moronic Foreign Policy

As Democrats express reservations about the sudden, unilateral withdrawal of troops from Syria (and Afghanistan), some Republicans are trying score cheap political points, saying (in effect), "You were against sending troops there in the first place but now you want to keep them there?" These positions are not inconsistent at all. If the Republicans wanted to clear-cut old-growth forest, Democrats might well object. But after the forest was cut down, the Democrats would also want to stay long enough to ensure that erosion didn't wash away all the topsoil leaving a barren wasteland.

And, in point of fact, anyone who isn't a moron understands this too.

Flickr Offers a Bad Choice

I've written about flickr before. I was an early user of Flickr and have continued to use it because it has suited my needs extremely well. My primary use of it has been to share the small number of photographs I take each month in a medium that easily allows me to: apply a Creative Commons license, add metadata, and share via Twitter. Flickr also gives access to the full-size original image file, and, finally, allows access to resized versions that I can use to illustrate blog posts. This was an incredibly convenient feature, early on, when I realized I could manage all my imagery efficiently on one site and use the imagery for blog posts on all my other sites.

But now Flickr offers only a bad choice: purchase a Pro account or else.

I was previously a Flickr Pro user: I was happy to support Flickr because it met my needs at a time when few others did. But this time, I'm not inclined to sign up. I'm only using 1.2% of the 1TB storage. It's hard to justify paying full price for something I barely use. They're pricing themselves out of having me for a customer and their "free" account simply has no value for me since it doesn't match my use case at all.

Previously the limitation was how much data you could upload per month. This time, however, they propose to delete all but your most recent 1000 photos. Having used Flickr for 15 years, I have 4700 photos. I don't like being told that my history is going to be erased if I don't pony up the money. It will be impossible to go back and fix all the posts where I shared a photo using Flickr. But I figure the most important thing at this point is to build on a solid foundation going forward.

But in addition to using Flickr myself, I've also used Flickr in my teaching to help students find good creative-commons licensed imagery. If they throw away most of the historical imagery on Flickr (because I assume no-one will pay for it), Flickr AS A SITE will have *way* less value and I'll have to find another source for imagery for my students too.

I think their plan is exactly backwards: it reduces the value of their site and punishes the people who've used the site for the longest time rather than rewarding them for loyalty. It's not my place to tell them how to run their business, but I guess I'll have to vote with my money.

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