Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Well, the weather here has finally turned to Spring (so you can surmise I am not in Alaska)...and I cannot concentrate. Last week was spring break, and I had a nice weekend getaway with my DH. Actually it was the first time we have been away from the kids overnight in over a year, and the first time that it wasn't business ever. It is hard enough to get back into the swing of things without the fact that it has been a beautiful 70-some degrees for the last three days. And, the University hasn't turned the air on yet, so my windows are wide open. I can feel the breeze; I can hear the birds chirp, and I'm supposed to be working on a grant proposal! Here's hoping for rain.

In addition to all that, my kids are now old enough that for the first time in about 6-7 years, I have some free time. [Probably should be working on my proposal during that time instead of sitting on the porch drinking beer with DH.] I almost feel like I'm back in college. It's so liberating. I have deadlines, but there is no pressure of a thesis or job hanging over me. I can just be. Wow, not sure what to do with myself now. Oh well, enough procrastination, I should probably get back to the proposal.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Lazy Days and Final Grades

Ah, spring break. Have you ever had one of those lazy days where you just complete a lot of busy work, listen to your IPOD and kind of veg out. Yeah, that's today.

I wrapped up the course that I am teaching last week, and am now gearing up for the next one. Things went pretty smoothly, although the final was not good. I really backed myself into a corner. They did poorly on the midterm which was conceptually hard but not time limited. So I curved it, actually over curved it and promised that the final would be easier. Unfortunately, that left me with grades that were too high, and a promise for an easier final. The only way to lower the grades and have an easier test, was to make it time limited, which was a disaster. As a rule I hate time limited tests anyway because only certain kind of people perform well on them anyway, and people with test anxiety, like my DH, are at a particular disadvantage. But, I marched forward with it, and got one of the worst distributions I have seen. There were 3 A's, 1 B, a couple of C's and then the rest of my class crowded into the 50-60% range, which is almost no distribution at all. On top of that, some students who did well all quarter bombed the exam and dropped a letter grade. I did my best to amend the damage with the curve, but some people couldn't be helped without singling them out in particular. Oh well...lessons learned:

1. Don't promise students anything. You just back yourself into a corner.
2. Save curves for the end. [or make them conservative]
3. Time limited tests are a disaster, don't do it. Instead make a test more conceptually challenging.
4. Someone will always complain about their grade.

Now, that I've goofed off here, I guess I'll go back to my IPOD.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Teaching to the Top

I am starting to hear feedback about my teaching and have hit an ideological question. Should you teach to the top, middle, or bottom of the class? A student in my class was talking about her struggle to understand the concepts this quarter. She's doing okay, but feels much less certain about the material than she did last quarter. She described what the instructor did last quarter. He had the class work on worksheets, which were shorter versions of HW problems. His exams were very similar to worksheets. I would consider this teaching to the middle. He is teaching students how to perform concepts in exactly the same way that they are presented in the text, but he is not encouraging them to grow beyond the text to to recognize problems in new situations that can be solved with the same tools.

Turns out I have been teaching to the top. I have been really encouraging my students to stretch and reach to that synthesis phase of learning (never thought I'd use that Bloom's taxonomy stuff but there it is). I want my students to understand the material deeply so that they can see how the principles and equations that they learn are applicable to other problems and to daily life.

The problem with teaching to the top is this. Students at the top feel pretty good. It is a little hard, but they get it. This is about the top 15% of the class. The middle students (25-85%) have trouble getting it. They are used to understanding and feeling comfortable with concepts and for what may be the first time thing aren't coming easy to them. Because of this, they lose confidence in their abilities which can negatively impact their grade. I have seen students who are doing well in general make simple mistakes because they don't feel "sure" about a problem. Several studies examining the classroom environment for women and minorities have shown that confidence in one's abilities (perceived or actual) can influence performance. So perhaps teaching to the top undermines the abilities of the middle section of class, which is most students. Meanwhile the bottom part of the class (last 25%) really doesn't get it. If a student would normally have trouble getting a concept as written in the book, they will have a great deal of time stretching that limited understanding to new classes of problems.

So the question is: which is better to teach to the bottom or the middle or the top?... and if I teach to the middle or bottom, how can I be sure that the top students are still challenged? How can I encourage students to develop a synthesis level of understanding without undermining confidence in their abilities.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Getting things together

Well, the dust is settling and I am really starting to get a handle on teaching. I love it, but it takes so much time. The problem is that the class that I am teaching uses examples from some archaic fields that were popular in the 50's and 60's but now only make up about a 1/3 of the areas that students are hired in. I took over the class from more senior faculty who are fabulous teachers, but don't have as much experience in these new areas. I chose to rewrite a lot of exams, quizzes, and worksheets to include examples from the new fields. I think the students benefit from this tremendously, but it takes a lot of time.

I keep hearing from other faculty something along the lines of ...Wow we have heard what you are doing with your course and we are so excited. That must have taken a lot of time. Hope we can get your notes, lectures, and other materials for when we have to teach that next.

I am not sure if this means wow we love what you are doing or wow you are crazy to work that hard.

Regardless the dust is settling.

On another note, I am having trouble getting papers out. I have a few papers left from the post doc. One in particular just came back from review, with minor requests for changes. Unfortunately, postdoc advisor did not have a chance to review this paper before it went out (it was for an invited issue) so he told me to send it without his comments and he would add his changes when we addressed reviewer comments. Well, wouldn't you know it almost all the criticisms address issues that he would have caught if he had read the paper. Now he has had it for 2-3 months, still don't have comments, and I am going crazy. The kicker was last week he said, I sure hope I finish this soon because we're having the baby on Tuesday. I'm like..excuse me...baby? [This can only happen with male faculty.] So my chances of getting my paper back just sunk into infinitismal. And the worst part is that I would never harass a female faculty member about getting a paper back a week after having a baby, so I feel guilty even calling him to ask how its going. Oh well. At least the reviews were positive.

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