Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Don't Teach Phylogeny This Way (Anatomy of a Failure)

I've posted previously on class activities that work. Here's a post on a class activity that failed. Failed spectacularly. Crashed and burned and took out half the class . It was bad.

Never, never, never teach phylogeny this way.

First, a (mercifully short) description of the bad, bad, so very bad class activity, and then some thoughts for improvement.

Bad Activity:
To teach about phylogenic trees and how they are made, I had students divide into groups of 6-8 and imagine they were each representatives of a separate living species. Using only physical traits that were within their control (that is, the clothes they are wearing, length of hair, glasses, makeup, tattoos, etc.), I asked them to create a tree that grouped subsets of "species" based on shared, derived traits. Using one group's tree as an example, we went through as a group and talked about how to read a phylogeny.

What Went Wrong:
The activity wouldn't have been so bad as a brief introduction, except my class schedule was thrown off this semester for various reasons, so I wasn't able to spend as much time on the concepts of cladistics and systematics and I usually do. So, although the students were exposed to different types of phylogenies in their book, briefly in lectures, etc., the class activity, during which they arbitrarily chose random traits to create subgroupings of "species", became their main exposure to the whole concept of phylogenic trees. On the exam, they were given some fake animals (star and pentagon shapes, with weird squiggles representing traits), and asked to create the most parsimonious tree showing the relationships between the animal species. The vast majority of students did exactly what they'd done in class: picked a random trait and used it to divide the animals, and then kept dividing until they'd created a nice-looking tree. But, in doing so, they created trees where some traits had to evolve independently five different times, or more. The trees looked nice, but said absolutely nothing about the evolutionary relationship between the species. 

What Went Right:
Well, they learned how to draw trees. They just didn't learn much about why one would draw them in the first place, or the purpose of the whole exercise. Ugh.

Ideas for Improvement:
I don't think this is a fatally flawed exercise, it just needs to be done differently. 

1. Explain about parsimony at the beginning of the exercise

2. When students get into their groups, have them write down all of the visible traits present in their group. For example, it may be easiest to have students make trees based on clothing alone, so one set of possible traits could include jeans, chinos and leggings. Another set of traits could be fuzzy (wool, knit, etc.), smooth (leather, silk, etc.), and hard (hell, maybe someone comes to class in armor.) It would probably be best to give them a limit to the number of traits they can consider.

3. Then students could use those specific traits to create the most parsimonious tree using the traits they have written down. During discussion afterward, we could talk about how the traits they chose to consider affected the tree they created, and how adding or taking away traits would change their groupings. This would be particularly helpful since we discuss fossils and the difficulties with fossil species in the same unit.



Sunday, January 5, 2014

Stop pushing students toward graduate school!

I read Hope Jahren's post, "ten things to do after you get tenure". (If you're click-averse, all ten boil down to "speak out more on issues that matter"). While I was wondering what mattered enough to speak out about, a friend posted this article from Karen at The Professor is In, about the privilege of tenure-track faculty to ignore the injustice of systemic inequality in adjunct employment. (Note, she is making an analogy to white privilege, a much more serious social problem, and she apologizes for minimizing issues of systemic racism in her subsequent post.)

My husband is an adjunct, I spent my first year here on a temporary contract, and we've been very happy with the treatment of non-tenure-track faculty at UMM. We do not have a large number of adjuncts here, and most of the adjuncts we have are either spouses of tenure-track faculty members on long-term contracts, or people with full-time contracts. I'm not saying there aren't problems. Many adjuncts would like to be tenure-track, and we've lost tenure-track faculty because their spouses could not get permanent positions. But all in all, UMM is not exploiting adjunct labor.

Where we are part of the problem is in encouraging students to go to graduate school for academic career paths when There. Are. No. Jobs.

It's hard to get good data about the academic job market that's specific to anthropology, but trying to read the graphs in this AAA presentation, it looks like 520 PhDs in anthropology were granted in 2009, the most recent year presented, but only 370 jobs were advertised that year. Note, these are jobs advertised on AAA, in other words, these are not all tenure-track jobs. In other words, there aren't even enough jobs for all of us to be exploited adjuncts!

According to the AAA Guide, in 2010-2011, there were only 373 PhDs awarded (239 in cultural anthropology, 78 in archaeology, 37 in biological anthropology, 19 in linguistics.)* I did a quick count of the entry-level, tenure-track jobs in the US or Canada posted on the anthropology job wikis from that year, and there were 82 in cultural anthropology, 17 archaeology, 39 in biological anthropology and 6 in linguistics. This count is probably an over-estimate, since not all entries listed if the job was tenure-track or not (and I assumed they were if I didn't know), plus some jobs were listed on more than one wiki (for example, both on the cultural anthro wiki and linguistics, and I didn't take the time to avoid double-counts). So, in 2010-2011, there were tenure-track jobs posted for only 34% of cultural PhDs, 22% of archaeology PhDs, all of the biological anthropologists (!), and 32% of the linguists. And there are always PhDs from previous years who have not yet found employment and are also on the job market.

Before I got tenure, I was one of a panel of speakers on graduate school in Anthropology/Sociology, and although I was far from acting the cheerleader, I was reluctant to express the full depth of my concerns about the academic career path. I'd be more open now. We shouldn't be pushing students toward academia. For students with the ability to continue on with their education, there are a number of professional programs, from public health, to medical school, to social work, that offer fulfilling careers.

There are a number of reasons we push students toward graduate school:

1. We honestly love our students, and we love our field, and we can see how our beloved students and our beloved field would make such a beautiful, productive couple. Faculty who haven't been on the job market in the past 15 years haven't experienced how hard it is for excellent people to get any job, much less a good job. And those of us who know better can be in denial, because we love our jobs and want the same for our students. Both students and faculty need to educate themselves on the job market reality.

2. When our students attend graduate programs, it's personally validating. It shows that our students are as good as anyone's, that we've taught them so well that they are prepared to thrive in the competitive environment of graduate school. For those of us at undergraduate only institutions, this is the only way we can leave behind academic progeny to the next generation.

3. Finally, (and most problematic), sending students to graduate school can be one of ways that the worth of an undergraduate program is measured. The university - and society at large - is understandably interested in the outcomes of the education we provide. One important outcome is the career paths of our graduates, and we are asked during various review processes to provide information about our alumni. Who went on to graduate school? What professions have they entered? No program here at UMM has been pressured to send more students to graduate school, but it's certainly one metric used in program assessment, and program assessment has implications for funding, for approval of tenure-track searches, and, in bad years, whether or not a program is considered for "reorganization" (a fancy word for getting the ax.)

This isn't to say students should never go on in anthropology. But now that I'm tenured, I feel more free to say "Stop pushing students toward graduate school!"

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*Thanks to Michelle Bezanson for the data.