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.

Summertime on Campus

After the stress of the end of semester, the crises at UMass, and the fiasco with the car breaking down last week, I enjoyed a quiet weekend at home with the family. I got a new cell phone, a Motorola RAZR. It took some effort, but I think I've made the calendar syncing work (although you have to use a cable, rather than Bluetooth, because Verizon believes they can make more money selling people broken firmware and having them do stupid things, like email their photos to themselves through the cell network, rather than just download them. Crazy.) I'm hoping to not have to carry around a palm pilot anymore, since you can't get one that uses Graffiti anymore. I really liked my palm pilot. One thing I did over the weekend was to set up special ringtones for some people. For Alisa, I have the Imperial March (ie, Darth Vader's theme). For Lucy, When the Saints Go Marching In. For Philip, I found a midi file of the theme from StarCraft. Even Alisa said that was cool when she heard it.

I got a request from Kalle Kniivil


A Boston Herald editorial this week claimed that faculty are merely whining about process. Process, however, just means following the rules -- in this case, a principle called "joint effort" -- formally adopted by the UMass Board of Trustees. We all depend on "process" for everything from ensuring fair treatment when we get a parking ticket to defending our fundamental freedoms like habeas corpus or freedom of speech. Replace "process" with, say, "freedom of speech" in the statement from the Herald and you get something like: "this reflexive whine-fest among some journalists is all about freedom of speech". Most journalists would argue that freedom of speech is a big deal. For faculty, the idea that the University is governed by the principle of joint effort is also a big deal.

The recent events highlight an important difference between academia and top-down models of governance, like business and our current national government. Business employees are not surprised if they are not consulted when there is a shakeup in management and might wonder why the faculty are upset. In our national government, it has become clear that the voices of the constituents mean little, when people like Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales hang onto their posts long after the public has made its opinion known. So the public may be excused if they fail to see what's happening at the University as anything out-of-the-ordinary.

Academia is intentionally organized differently than business and government. Scholarship, to be free to pursue the truth, needs to be protected from the vagaries of momentary economic or political influence. Professors pass through an arduous process to receive a doctorate and tenure. Academia does not generally offer competitive salaries as reward for this dedication, but instead provides academic freedom, tenure, and the right to joint effort in the governance of the institution.

In Massachusetts, the principle of joint effort is outlined in the Wellman Document, originally adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1973. The primary responsibility for "academic matters and faculty status" rests with the faculty. The Board of Trustees, "while retaining its ultimate legal authority in governing the University, recognizes that the faculty, the students, and other groups within the University have the right, the responsibility, and the privilege of advising on policies affecting the University. The Board will ensure these rights, responsibilities, and privileges through the various governing bodies

UMass Faculty Demand Joint Effort

On Tuesday, Max read excerpts from a letter from Wilson at the MSP Open Meeting. The letter indicated that that the governance proposal "should also be taken off the table" and "should only be brought up again if the initiative should come out of campus-based constituencies." This sounded great and, when asked about it by the press, I was quoted as saying, "What he's saying sounds good, but we don't know what that actually means until we see if the actions match. So, I think it's too early to know what the outcome will be." Today, we know.

The Globe has an article where Wilson and Tocco are reported saying "in separate interviews that they have no plans whatsoever to change their proposal. The only difference, they said, is their intention to drop the phrase "one university" in talking about their proposed overhaul." Really? What a surprise.

Wilson's Words and Actions

There was an open meeting of the MSP yesterday where there was a frank discussion of the faculty's perceptions regarding the unfolding events at the University and how to move forward productively. The meeting was attended by 60 to 80 faculty and there was a lively debate and exchange of views.

There was an update about on-going activity. Letters are being drafted to the governor from the joint MSP and Faculty Senate leadership to Governor Patrick to ask for a meeting to discuss the need for a truly independent commission and to ask that the Governor not accept the resignation of John Armstrong. Armstrong has been a strong advocate for higher education and the Amherst campus.

Much of the discussion focused on the need to communicate our interest in exploring a vision for what's best for higher education in the state. We don't want to get caught up in debates about particular people, nor do we want to either demonize or beatify anyone. This is not a battle or a choice between Lombardi or Wilson, but a process of advocating for all of higher ed and for greater accountability and openness.

There was serious concern about the current operation of the Board of Trustees. We need to look carefully at how future Trustees are selected. Trustees should be: (1) individuals of profound, national distinction; (2) have deep, scholarly understanding of public higher education; (3) should be UMass alumni as much as possible; and (4) represent the entire state, not just provincial appointments.

My suggestion was that the Faculty Senate immediately establish a set of ad_hoc committees to begin exploring governance structures and implications for the higher ed system and the Amherst campus. Reports from these committees could be useful to communicate with the commission that we hope the Governor will establish.

Finally, we need open and accountable leadership at every level of the higher ed system. We need openness and accountability not only at the Trustee level, but for the President, Chancellor, Provost and for the deans and chairs as well. The University will be a much stronger system if we can get the substantive debate about what's best for higher education out of the backroom and into the boardroom, where it belongs.


Subscribe to Bierfaristo Blog RSS