Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It's almost done

Surprise!!!! I still know that this blog exists, I just tend not to have the time or desire to post anything to it. I've found that twitter and facebook have offered adequate ways to vent my frustrations. Until now.

It seems that this semester is determined to suck every last drop of joy and interest I have in teaching. The students have been the most apathetic I have yet encountered and the number of excuses/problems these students have had is unparalleled. Since the story could become far too long to go into in any real depth below is the bullet point version of the crap I've been dealing with:

  • Multiple questions about when the labs start, despite numerous emails and class announcements indicating the date.
  • Midterm 1 - Three students don't write the exam. Two re-write it, one emails me a week AFTER the exam to be able to make it up.
  • Midterm 1 grade range: low = 5%, high = 99%
  • Course attendance dropped to about 50% by the end of the semester
  • Coincidentally, 50% is also the average grade on both midterms
  • Midterm 2 - The day before the exam a student emails me asking to take the exam next week, he's not ready to write it yet.
  • Two students forgot to put their names on an assignment/exam
  • Three students requesting alternate final exam dates; the most recent request two days before the exam.
  • A possible accusation of an attempt to sabotage a student's academic progress - the email was in such broken english I'm not sure if I was being accused or if it was directed towards another prof.
So that is just a sampling of the crap I've had to deal with. On top of that are all the stupid questions; such as the student asking me if they can do a specific calculation, rather than trying it themselves to see if it works. What particularly irks me this semester is how poorly my students are doing in the course. The grade distribution is all over the place, with the usual number of really strong students acing everything, but then there is a huge gap to the rest and the average seems to be right around 50%. This is all in spite of the fact that I have done the following to help them do better in the class:
  • All lectures are recorded and distributed as audio and video files in iPod friendly formats.
  • All lecture slides are posted in advance of the class with room for note taking.
  • Each class has an excess of sample problems pre-written and downloadable and the solutions to all the problems (even those not done during the class) are downloadable following the class.
  • That adds up to 150 (often multipart) questions provided for them to learn from and use.
  • Only the best 3 out of 5 assignments are counted.
  • Sample textbook problems are also provided.
  • Sample midterms, final exams and additional sample final problems.
  • Open office policy; if a student stops in for help I help, I don't send them away.
  • A course syllabus that has apparently made students not in my class envious of the organization of the course.
Yet with all these options the grades suck and I get the general impression that this class is just a bunch of slackers. Of course there are some who are doing fabulously, but it's the large group (close to half the class) that didn't come to the classes for the last half of the semester that I am concerned by. Sure, they may be watching the videos of the lecture and doing just fine, but I have a feeling a bunch of them just realized today that 26 hour and half lectures to listen to doesn't leave them much time to sleep before the exam.

I guess we will see how it goes in a few days. I just hope I don't get such a shitty class again next semester... though there is a good chance that I will have a number of these students again. Crap!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Good & Bad Rides

Some bike rides are just turn out great, others are far from it; in the past week I've had one of each.

Last Saturday I did the usual group ride at 8:00 am. As the first day of my week long break from work I wasn't too enthused to be getting up so early, but the ride is a good one and I rarely can sleep later than 8:00 or 9:00 anymore anyway. Well, this day that ride just went wonderfully. I think I've mentioned the ride here a few times before, about halfway through the ride there is a good climb and near the end a nice long flat stretch to a sprint point. As usual I was solid on the climb, cresting the hill fourth on a day that I really wasn't feeling all that much power at the start of the climb.

But the climb really isn't my favorite part of the ride, though I like it, the sprint is really what I love. It comes at the end of a nice long flat stretch, probably at least 5 km of solid hard pace lead up to the sprint. For those that have never done a sprint on a bicycle it is nothing like a track and field sprint, it is far more complicated, tactical, dangerous and fun! Unlike a running sprint, on the bike you get to use other riders to help you get across the line first. This means saving as much energy as possible for the time that you need to accelerate at the end. So you have to constantly be aware of your position in the bunch, the last place you want o be as on the front, where you do all the work pushing through the wind. But you also don't want to be at the very back, because gaps form and it's just too far to move all the way to front in time. Plus you have to think about the wind, what side you want to pass people on to avoid the wind as much as possible, but not to let yourself get boxed into a place you cannot get out of in time.

All in all, it's quite like a game of chess, only the pieces are moving around 50 km/h and touching someone else's wheel will cause a massive crash. So the times when you are setting up for the sprint and you see everything, know where everyone is and are just feeling fresh are really lots of fun. That was the case last Saturday, everything worked out perfectly, I made all the right choices and right moves to take a decisive win in the sprint. Not that I got more than a pat on the back from a friend after the fact, but the act itself is rewarding.

Today, however, I was at the other end of the spectrum. I thought that my week off from work would be a good time to ride up palomar mountain. I hadn't tried the ride before but I've done similar ones out in Jasper and figured this would be a nice ride to do on a weekday when the motorcycle enthusiasts aren't all over the climb as well. Unfortunately it also seems to be the day that my legs just decided that they really didn't want to do any work. Now part of the problem may have been the starting point for my ride, a casino at the very base of the climb, so I had only about 50 meters of flat road before things started going upwards. But there were no real alternative starting points. Anyway, after climbing the first 5.5 km of the over 25 km long route I had planed I realized I was never going to make it. My heart-rate was red-lining almost from the start and I just never felt like I was going to be able to get my legs to move smoothly enough to make the ride feasible. So I shamefully turned around and coasted all the way back to the car. In my defense I coasted down the 5.5 km at upwards of 70 km/h so it was pretty damn steep to start with.

Though I know that there isn't much I could do about it the whole thing was quite disappointing, it's very rare that I cannot accomplish something on my bike and to fail at this one so spectacularly and soon was really a shame. Not to mention that I had to drive an hour just to reach the starting point. Oh well, maybe I can try the ride on one of the furlough days that I won't be allowed to work this semester.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

A lot of work done.

The past few weeks have have just been a blur. I was read somewhere, a couple of days ago, that it had been over a month since Michael Jackson had died. I was stunned by this because I was certain that it had only been a week or maybe two ago. But it seems when your days are dominated by writing grants the days just blur together.

But I'm finally done! In the past two months I have completed three major grants. One for the NIH, one for NSF and the latest was for the new version of the US anti-doping agency. All in all I've asked for just over a million dollars in total from the three institutions (to be paid over three years). The reality is I would be extremely lucky to get any one of those grants funded; though I just had a little moment of freaking out about what would happen if they were all funded. That might be the worst case scenario; I would be pretty hard pressed to get them completed in the given time if that was the case. But it's a problem I would be happy to have.

One of the ways I benefit directly from the grant is being able to supplement my income. I typically ask for about 10-20% of my salary, in the hopes of being able to by myself out of some of the teaching I have to do. Though if I get the funding this year I'm more likely to just pocket the money, as the budget cuts have now cut my salary by 10%!

The furlough plan recently passed, though I use the word plan in the loosest possible sense of the word. The plan, as we have been told is that we will be furloughed twice a month; we don't (legally prohibited from going to) work two days a month and are paid less as a result. Now the people organizing how the furloughs will work have all kinds of rules in place, such as the maximum allowable furlough days per month, the maximum number of consecutive furlough days... It's all well and good, except that there is no plan on how to implement furloughs for faculty members.

The problem is we don't all work the same schedules. Some classes are Monday, Wednesday & Friday, others are Tuesday & Thursday, some are only one day a week... this is not the typical government office type of situation. So the difficulty is how to implement a fair system for the closures of the university. Do you do it every other Friday? But then those who teach Tues. & Thurs. still work the same amount. Do you force every class to miss two lectures a month? Well that's not any better because now some classes will miss 25% of their lectures. Oh, did I mention that the students are now paying 30% more for the classes. I wonder how happy they will be with this whole situation?

To end this blog post on a more positive note I did just download a new game for my iPhone that is a total blast from the past: Worms Armageddon! Ok, so the armageddon part was dropped from the name, but the game is in the Apple App store. It's not perfect, but hey, for a platform with no real buttons nor a mouse it works pretty damn well. So I now have something new to play with on the days when I'm not allowed to go to work.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Style over substance

So if you are at a university and the weekly email newsletter has a link to the bookstore's "MAC-over" you probably assume it's some kind of Apple promotion. After all, most university campuses seem to have a deal with Apple computers for educational discounts. Sure, it's commercialization of the university, but an argument can be made that it is related to academics/education by virtue of the ubiquitousness of computers in modern education. And further to that, the student body does get an educational discount on their purchases, so at the very least there is some return to the students.

Well, it turns out my impression of what the "MAC-over" was missed the mark by just a bit... ok, by a whole hell of a lot. The article explained how the bookstore was happy to have their "first choice" of MAC cosmetics offer a fully stocked cosmetics counter with "technicians"; taking up space in the already tiny bookstore.

Now I understand the the need and utility of cosmetics; but when your university is always in Playboy's top five party schools, this kind of action just makes it seems like the school is giving up on the hard things, like books and learning, and taking up the challenge of finding the right concealer. I wonder if this is a sign that I should just look better for my lectures and forget about actually teaching things. Hell, the way the budget and furlough plans are going maybe I'll start being a corporate shill too.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

10% less = long rambling blog

So I have been wanting to post this for a few days, I just hadn't gotten around to it until now. But a few days ago I got an email from the California Faculty Association; it was not good news. It seems that the California State University (CSU) system, of which I am a part, is getting hit with a huge budget cut this year; over $500 MILLION!

For a bit of background I should point out that California has an economy larger than most developed countries. It actually has a larger economy than Spain or Canada! One would think that this is a good thing; it probably is, if the state wasn't governed by a bunch of morons. I don't know enough about economics to understand what the root cause of this crisis is, but here are some potential reasons.

Ultimately the problem seems to be the binge and purge nature of the state spending history. If they have money they spend like mad and as soon as it runs out they cut everything. I'm not sure what "brilliant" economists think this is good way to manage one of the largest economies in the world, but I'm fairly certain if this was a Latin American country the government would have been overthrown by now.

So, why am I bitching about this? Well, I have to admit that I have been rather isolated and hadn't really cared about it until recently. I feel bad about this in retrospect, because I am only now faced with the problems that other state employees have already had to face; a 10% cut in salary! This is a huge hit to anyone, particularly in the fashion that it has been done here, which is with little to no notice. Of course it's not called a salary cut, it's called a furlough; you just don't get to come to work on two Fridays each month. Until now this has not affected the universities, but because of the magnitude of the problem, the CSU is now proposing to have faculty members, along with the staff, take furloughs as well.

Of course the problem with this is that nobody seems to have thought through how this will work. Sure, if you are working on a road crew you can take a couple of days off a month and the project will still get finished, eventually. But as a faculty member I don't quite have the same option. I still have to teach my classes, grade homework and exams, prepare lectures and all the rest of the work that keeps me up at night. Now, will I be allowed to just not mark 10% of the students work? I'd be happy with that; I really hate grading. But I won't be able to, I have to maintain the same level of education standards. And what about the other aspects of my job; you know the research, grant and paper writing the part that really keeps me up at nights working my ass off way more than the number of hours I'm paid to work in a week. If I do 10% less on those fronts will I still get tenure? Fuck that, I'll still be judged in the same way I always would have been. So ultimately I will be doing exactly the same amount of work, just for 10% less pay.

Now I realize all the points above are ultimately petty issues. The real problem of course is the surprise salary cut. I have no idea when/if this may (or may not) happen. Nor do I know how long it will last. Oh yeah, if it doesn't happen there may be layoffs; and in such a case the most recently hired faculty (potentially me) will be let go first. The reality of the problem is that I have not been in a position to be saving even close to 10% of my salary each month; so this clearly will not be a good situation. I'm sure we can make it through, but I certainly won't be spending more money. Which makes me wonder; isn't my spending money what helps fuel the economy and increase state funds through tax revenue? I've said I'm not an economist, but I see something fundamentally wrong with this model.

Final, and possibly most important for the long term, is what this situation has done to my perception of the university system in this state. This is not the first time such a crisis has hit the state and I seriously doubt it will be the last; they didn't learn the last times why would I expect it to be different this time. So, as a highly desirable university professor why should I stay in this state any longer than necessary? Do I really need to go through this kind of crap every 10 years? Why not move to a more stable state/country and teach there? So far, I can't come up with a good reason not to consider the option should it present itself, and when more and more good faculty member think this way is when the long term damage will become evident.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The difference a ride makes

The ride home from work today once again reminded me why I like bicycling to work so much. The ride itself is pretty unspectacular, there is a nice enough descent and a pretty good climb, then a whole lot of traffic lights; but it's the act of riding that makes it worthwhile.

By the end of the day I was feeling pretty run-down and just in a bit of a funk. I think this has something to do with feeling as though I have not accomplished anything since getting the grant out; revising a lab manual and writing a recommendation letter seem kind of trivial in comparison to a grant for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now, if I had to drive home I'm certain that my mood would not have improved. I never feel better driving somewhere; most often I get annoyed at bad drivers, shitty traffic and/or lack of parking. But on the bike things are different.

I guess it just comes down to doing some physical work and probably the general feeling of joy that I get from riding. It doesn't matter that I probably have over a dozen stop signs/lights on my ride or that I have about a 2 km long hill to climb (with backpack), those things are trivial in the end. Certainly the riding does take something out of me, by the end of the week I'm topping 100 km of riding just for commuting. It's not as much as I used to ride (hell that could be less than a single ride/race) but with the pressures and time of work it gets physically tiring. But all the same it results in an inevitable change in my attitude, I can be feeling crappy before a ride, I never feel (psychologically) crappy after a ride.

So let me just throw this out as a suggestion to those few of you who read my blog. If you do drive to work daily try riding home from work one night. Sure the logistics suck in some cases to set this up, but give it a shot, you may be surprised at the difference it makes.

As a side note, if you are looking for a way to listen to music or podcasts while you ride get an iPod shuffle. I have one of the previous generations and as you can see from the photo below it can be very convenient to use. I happen to have earbuds with a cord that can be shortened so I don't have to deal with a really long mess of wire. I would also suggest only using a single earbud, so that you can hear traffic with the other ear. And if you are wondering what I'm listening to I've started the Great Conversations series from the University of Minnesota; the older ones are a bit dated, but quite engaging to listen to.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Another one down

So if you've been following my few and random twitter posts you're up to speed on most of what is going on with me; albeit in absolutely tiny context-less amounts. So this will be a bit of a recap, or for those with better things to do than wait for me to tweet, the whole story of what I have been up to.

One of the things that I have been doing a bit more of lately is bicycling; mostly to work but some on the weekends, when I get out and ride with my team and a few other clubs on a mixed ride. It's been interesting to see the ride transform over the past months; from something that was kind of mellow with a few fast points, to something that's a lot faster most of the time, with the same fast points, that are just faster. The fun part to all of this is that my fitness is surprisingly good; I always seem to be one of the first up the major climb on the route and I'm always right there for the sprint after the long flat drag a bit later. It makes me really miss the days of racing, hopefully one of these days I'll get a handle on the work enough to have time to race again. Oh, if you were wondering, the SRAM Red gruppo is absolutely fabulous! I'm so glad I made the investment.

On the work side of things I can't complain too much about how things have gone. I just finished off my first big NIH grant. If I get it I'll be pulling in $275,000 for the lab, and another $136,000 for the research foundation. Of course I will see none of the at goes to the "foundation", nor will they really do much other than file some paperwork for me and hold the purse-strings on the $275K that is mine. Yet somehow this entitles them to about a 50% cut of what I ask for. I think I might actually just be institutionalized "protection" money; it has a whole mobster feel to it. But at least the grant is done, now I just have to wait 8 months to find out if I get anything.

I finally seem to have my undergrads working in the lab again. Though one of them is an absolute mess. I really should not have agreed to take this student on over the summer; I had my doubts and they aren't being alleviated by the student's performance. I only hope that the effort that I put in to train this one pays off, so far I'm not sure the student can even hold onto a concept for more than a few minutes. I just really hope the student doesn't break anything expensive, I'm out of start up funds and can't afford to replace things.

Anyway that's about it for now, tonight I get to take a break from working for a change. But soon enough I will have to be back at it, there is another grant cycle coming up next month and I need to get some papers out. But at least tonight I can take the time off and not feel too guilty about it.