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The Weekly Blab 4.4

The Weekly Blab

Volume 4, Issue 4—November 3, 2009


Please note that there are several embedded links in case you want to read more on a particular subject.


Good Stuff This Week:

Lisa, Mary Ellen McGee and I attended the first USG Diversity Summit at UGA on Wednesday and Thursday of last week.  It was an interesting event from several perspectives.  First, being on the organizing committee showed me that trying to pull together a conference involving 35 different universities is a meta-herding cats challenge.  Cheryl Dozier (from UGA) and Marci Middleton (from the system office) deserve major kudos for pulling off such a complex task. 


Second, while the speakers at the summit were quite good, the conversations that took place as part of the summit were even more valuable.  One that sticks in my mind was the one on incorporating diversity into the classroom.  While many campuses have separate courses on such topics (“Hispanic Literature”, for example), many others incorporate diversity into the “standard courses” (“American Literature”, for example).  There’s an ongoing debate on which way is better, and whether the separate course model is another way of marginalizing groups. 


Another way of showing how diverse cultures have influenced our various subject areas is to teach a course on the history of that area.  In my own field of chemistry, just to cite a few examples, the first person mentioned by name (2000 BCE on a clay tablet) who practiced a chemical art was Tapputi-Belatekallim, a Babylonian woman perfumer, who was able to distill and extract fragrant oils from the desert date tree.  The well-known Greek cosmology, where all materials were thought of as being combinations of air, water, fire, and earth, was influenced by similar ideas from the Indo-Aryan philosophers, who had a five-element cosmology associated with the senses (air/feeling, water/taste, fire/sight, earth/smell, and ether/hearing).  Similar cosmologies appear in Buddhist and Chinese traditions.  Chemistry in the so-called dark ages was largely kept alive and advanced in the Arabic world (Jabir, Al-Razi, Avicenna).  As a final example, steel was first produced by the Haya of Tanzania, using kilns made from the clay of termite mounds.  None of these examples are trivialities, pulled out for inclusion’s sake—they are major topics in the history of chemistry. 


I’d be interested in hearing how you all incorporate issues of diversity into the courses you teach.  I’ll summarize interesting results in a future Blab.


So how diverse are we at SPSU?  As you all know, I was gathering some information about where our faculty were from for a presentation, and I promised I’d share the results.  Not surprisingly, the largest number of SPSU faculty were born in the USA, and I got a lot of Bruce Springsteen jokes in your replies! We have faculty from 34 countries and five continents:

North America (Canada, USA, Mexico, Jamaica, Puerto Rico), South America (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador), Africa (Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire, Nigeria), Europe (Scotland, Netherlands, Germany, Romania, Albania, Russia), and Asia (Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines).  If your country wasn’t mentioned, that means you didn’t respond to my email!  Our students come from 61 countries, the most intriguing of which is Niue (a small island formerly a dependency New Zealand).  Since Niue only has about 1700 inhabitants, we probably have a higher percentage of Niue’s population attending SPSU than from any other country!


We will be doing a presentation on Diversity at SPSU in the near future, which will detail some important milestones in our history.  Stay tuned for details.


Issue to Consider:  Diversity and Testing for Creativity

An article related to diversity appeared in Psychology Today (and showed up in the ASEE daily update) that I thought was interesting.  The authors, Robert and Michelle Root-Bernstein, write a blog on ordinary and extraordinary genius and the subject of how to promote creativity often comes up.  This particular entry was on the subject of some papers by Lubinsky and Benbow, who are studying students who at an early age (12-13) score unusually well on SATs.  They found that while girls were well represented in this group, essentially none went on to earn doctorates in STEM fields, whereas boy in this group often did.   The two articles talk about gender differences on visual/spatial thinking tests (women do worse) as a possible explanation for part of this difference. 


The Root-Bernsteins go on to state that visual thinking can be taught effectively, and should be included in STEM curricula.  They conclude: “Rather than waste money using visual tests to search for Edisons and Fords (both male!), we suggest modifying science and technology curricula to teach the ‘thinking tools' that underpin all creative thinking. Visual thinking (indeed, imaging and manipulative skills of many kinds that are valuable to scientists and engineers) can and ought to be taught to improve the skills of all students (especially women), thereby equitably enlarging the pool of potential innovators far beyond a few Edisons and Fords.”  This is something we may want to think about doing at SPSU.


The Lubinsky/Benbow paper finds it fascinating that a single 2-hour test (the SAT) “can identify 12-year olds who will earn this ultimate educational credential.”  They go on to say that selection of careers is a complex thing that depends on how well your skills line up with your profession’s skill requirements (satisfactoriness) and how your interests are reinforced by your profession (satisfaction).  Ultimately, and after much statistics crunching, they conclude that the women in the study had higher verbal skills than men, which allowed them to select from a broader range of careers and that STEM lost out in the competition.  Since many non-STEM fields are increasingly technical and many people earning STEM degrees wind up working in non-STEM areas, they felt it shouldn’t be looked at as a loss to STEM areas, writing:  “Are such career choices or shifts really a representation of a loss of talent?  Is saving a large segment of precious Alaskan land through expertise in environmental law less of a contribution to society than publishing a discovery about the physical universe in Nature? What is the right balance?”


I always have a visceral negative reaction to papers like the one by Lubinsky/Benbow—research that purports to show that a single test can predict a far-off future.  History has not been kind to earlier versions of such theories, and the tests have often been used to justify some pretty ugly outcomes (often against the original intents of the developers of the tests).  I’m stating my pre-existing bias up front here, because I find some holes in the paper’s logic.  Of boys and girls who scored in the upper reaches of the top 1% on the SAT, a full 50% went on to earn doctoral degrees, with a disproportional number also being successful as faculty at top 50 universities, earning more money than their counterparts, etc.  This is pretty heady stuff, but there’s another way of asking the question and looking at the data. 


First, while 50% did indeed go on to earn doctorates, nowhere near 50% of the persons earning doctorates test at this high level.  Thus, using the test to identify future doctoral candidates will result in lots of people being missed.  Yes, I know that they don’t claim to be able to catch everyone this way, but if this kind of test score becomes associated with doctorate achievement ability, the result will be that students who don’t score this high will have the idea that they’re not “doctorate-worthy” reinforced.  Among groups that traditionally have not gone on to graduate school, this would be the proverbial double-whammy to such ambitions. 


Second, the authors assume that the SAT test is testing intelligence.  There are certainly plenty of people who think it does, but there are also plenty who don’t, and you can count me in the second category.  My own view is that the SAT measures education and wealth more than it measures intelligence.  Most (not all but most) students who score high on a test that measures things far beyond their grade level (such as those in this study) have likely been exposed to those things in advanced classes, after-school enrichment activities, and by well-educated parents.  Thus, the wealthy have a built-in advantage.  They also have an advantage in being able to pay for elite colleges/ universities and in being able to access graduate school. 


Third, there are lots of other factors that can explain the gender split in going into STEM fields.  Some pretty simple ones are that women may perceive the STEM fields as being unfriendly to women in various ways—the high amount of time needed to be successful in research being a bad match for wanting to raise a family for example, or due to societal steering of women away from STEM.


We’re currently involved in writing a grant proposal to “measure the environmental temperature” for female faculty at SPSU, which may lead to some interesting research findings of our own.


Last week’s Issue to Consider:  Treatment of Adjuncts

I didn’t get a lot of responses from adjuncts about their views of adjunct treatment, perhaps (as one full-time faculty member suggested) because not all adjuncts are on the “academic affairs” email list, and thus never get the announcements about important things like the Blab :>)  Department chairs—please include your part time faculty on the email lists.


One of the responses I did get said (with personal identifications removed):


“I started teaching at SPSU in 1994, which means that technically I have been at SPSU for 15 years.  I say technically, because in reality SPSU still considers me to be a temporary employee, and as a result when recognition for years of service takes place each spring, I (and other part-timers) are never included.  I never know from one semester to the next whether I will have a job and I don't actually know what my pay rate is.  I find out when I receive the first check in the fall…My mother served as a part-time faculty member for 40+ years.  Compared to what my mother experienced, I receive much more respect and recognition.  She spent many years as almost a non-entity.  This did change eventually, and as the years passed, she was allowed to attend faculty meetings (though she could never vote on issues) and eventually was awarded a contracted part-time position in which she was assured a job for five years at a time.
My only regret, really, is that while I definitely feel that I am a part of [my] Department, I don't much feel a part of SPSU as a whole.  Most campus-wide faculty events are directed at full-time faculty and occur at times that are impossible for a part-timer to attend.  I have, however, learned to accept that as just part of the job.”


Another wrote:

“I'm an adjunct professor - I've felt some of the frustrations you discuss in your article, but I'm not sure there's a good answer.  [My department chair] has bent over backwards to include me in faculty meetings, retreats, etc.  When I can attend, I do, and I have been welcomed.  So I think it's just a matter of mutual efforts by both sides of the equation.  Of course more money would also be warmly accepted!”


There are some things for us all to think about in both responses.


This Week’s Trivia Contest:

This week’s trivia contest (which can net you yet another Jazz CD) requires you to answer the following questions related to the Andy Griffith Show.  No peeking on the web now!  The person with the most correct answers takes the prize.


  1.  What were the names of Andy’s three major girlfriends?
  2. What high school did Andy and Barney attend?
  3. What TV show did Andy Griffith spin off from, and what two TV shows spun off from Andy Griffith?

and two tough ones:

  1. What was Barney’s landlady’s name?
  2. What was Andy’s fishing rod’s name?


Last Week’s Contest: 

Our winner, by being first to get 3 out of the five questions correct (which was the best anyone did), was Stephanie McCartney, laboratory manager in Chemistry.  Obviously, our faculty and staff aren’t reading the funnies enough!


1.  By what other name is the Phantom known?  The Ghost Who Walks (or Mr. Walker).

2.  What famous comic strip creator absolutely hated the name of his strip?  Charles Schulz,          Peanuts.

3.  What was Dick Tracy’s girlfriend’s name?  Tess Trueheart.

4.  What comic strip’s name is based on the names of two philosophers?  Calvin and Hobbes.

5.  What was Blondie’s maiden name?  Blondie Boopadoop.