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2015 March 14

Not been blogging much

Those who have been following my blog for a while may have noticed that my blogging frequency has dropped quite a bit for the past few months.  I had planned to blog after every class meeting of the freshman design seminar, as I did last year, but I’ve simply been too busy. In addition to teach the freshman design seminar, I was also teaching the senior thesis writing course. Although both of these are 2-unit courses with small numbers of students (so the department gets essentially no additional resources as a result of my teaching them), they are both somewhat time-consuming, though the senior thesis writing much more so than the freshman design.

This weekend is the first weekend that I did not have a stack of thesis drafts to provide detailed feedback on (I’ve been averaging over 6 drafts a week to comment on all quarter).  In addition to the thesis drafts, I also arranged to have a 20-minute individual meeting weekly with each of the 19 seniors writing theses this year.  Because the meetings often ran over, I spent about 7 hours a week on those meetings.  I started each meeting with the student giving me a 2-minute elevator talk (after telling me what audience they were addressing the talk to and with what purpose). This served two purposes: to get the students to practice concise descriptions of their projects and to remind me which of the 19 projects we were talking about. (Several pairs of students were doing closely related projects in the same lab, so it was really easy for me to mix up the projects—and I have almost no memory for faces and names, so I needed the prompts!)

Next weekend I’ll pay for this weekend off—I’ll have all 19 theses to grade between Thursday night and Tuesday morning.  I won’t be doing as detailed feedback on this round—first, because there aren’t enough hours to do 2–3 hours a thesis; second, because I suspect that half the students won’t come by my office to pick up the graded theses (even those who still have a quarter to go before their theses are complete).

I hope to have the freshman design course all graded before the senior theses come in—they have their last lab on Monday and their design reports are due Tuesday.  The freshman reports are much shorter than the senior theses, so I can probably get them all graded on Wednesday.  If I get them done in a timely manner, I may take the time to try to do an end-of-quarter summary of the freshman design project course, which I think ran more smoothly this year, though not quite in the direction I had originally thought we would go.

This weekend, I’m getting back to work on my book, since I want to release a draft for the applied electronics course that starts in 2 weeks. I at least want the chapters and labs for the first two weeks to be finished, with no major overhauls planned for the remainder. I spent about 4 hours on the book today (after goofing around for a while with some phototransistor circuits that aren’t really relevant to the course—I’ll probably blog about that when I have more time, but it will take about 8 hours to do a good blog post on it, and I don’t have that much spare time this week). I hope to have the schedule for all the labs finished this weekend also—I made a good start on that in December, when I last had time to work on the book.

Next quarter will not give me much writing or blogging time—instead of the 12 contact hours (plus office hours and grading) that I had this quarter, I have 19 contact hours (3.5 hours of electronics lecture, 12 hours of electronics lab, 3.5 hours of banana slug genomics) plus grading 15 prelab assignments and 15 design reports a week for the electronics course. I’m hoping I can convince my co-instructor to do what grading we’ll need for the banana slug genomics, or that we won’t assign much that needs grading.

Also Spring quarter is when most students declare their majors, so I’ll probably have to increase my office hours from 2 hours a week to 3 or 4 to handle the advising load.  Two hours a week was just about right this quarter, especially since I allowed students to reserve a place in line by email.  I only had an empty office once or twice, and only ran an hour over once or twice.

On the administrative side, at least I’ve gotten the 20-page bioengineering self-study  and my 3-page contribution to the bioinformatics self-study done, so I won’t have too much to do on those next quarter.  The Curriculum Leave Plan is done for next year, and I hope it won’t need further modification. I’m reducing my teaching load next year to merely heavy (from insane this year), and some of the buyouts we had counted on for paying lecturers are not coming through, so the department has a structural deficit of about $30k, and only enough reserves to cover that for a couple of years (with no way to replenish the reserves).  I don’t know what we’re going to do long term, as we need to add more offerings of some of our more popular courses, at a cost of about $20k each.

2014 November 3

Advising too many students

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:39
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I’m advising between 300 and 400 students this year, plus teaching two classes each quarter, meeting with 3 grad students, and being department vice chair. This makes my week a busy one—I don’t get any convenient large blocks of time for doing research, and  I probably spend about 6 hours a week in one-on-one meetings with undergraduates.

Because I have to meet with students a lot, and I have a lot of scheduled classes and meetings, I need to keep an appointment calendar. But I’m not willing to have students signing up on it directly—no one gets to put things on my calendar except me.

I’ve set up two open office hours a week, for which students can reserve a place in line by e-mail, or just show up and wait until those with reservations have all been served. I stay until all the students have had their time with me (I made the hours 4–5pm), which means I’m usually doing 4 hours a week, not 2, but I can leave as early as 5pm if there is no one waiting (which has happened, but not often).

I also allow students to make appointments at other times—but they have to send me their schedules, and I look for an opening on my calendar. Because some openings are more valuable to me than others, I try to give them a slot that will fit their openings but minimize disruption to my day (an optimization that never happens if others put appointments on my schedule). I never give the students multiple options when they are asking for times outside my allocated office hours. They tell me when they are available, and I ask them to come in the first of those slots that fits my schedule. If they don’t come then, I mark them on my calendar as a no-show, and wait for them to reschedule (but I’m less generous about giving up prime slots to no-shows).

Why do I have so many advisees this year? Simple: the bioengineering major has been growing rather rapidly recently, which has converted a reasonable load into an unmanageable one. Also we completely revamped the curriculum last year, so that it is effectively 4 different majors, with only about 30% overlap in courses. That means that there are 7 different curricula students could be following (the 3 old concentrations or the 4 new ones), and considerable confusion on the part of students about what their options are—they hear something about the new curriculum and assume it applies to the old one, or vice versa.

There is a staff adviser whom students are supposed to see before coming to me (the bioengineering advising is a full-time job for her), but I have to handle all the exceptions and all the “what-elective-should-I-take” questions.  I also have to sign the independent study requests and approve the senior thesis proposals. I like reading the thesis proposals and talking to students about what courses can help them learn what they want or need to learn—that is the rewarding part of the undergraduate director job.

One of the most useful questions I ask students is “what do you plan to do with your degree once you get it?” Somewhat surprisingly, many of them have never been asked that and never thought about it—they are so focused on the B.S. as a goal that they’ve never realized that the B.S. is not a goal: it is a means to an end, a stepping stone. Where they intend to go after that should be determining what electives they take, what concentration they choose, even what major they choose. My job is help guide them on their path, but if they don’t know where they’re going, I can’t help them get there.

Not all my interactions with students are that much fun, though. Just before the add/drop deadline and just before the declaration of major deadline, I get all the students who were too disorganized to do things in a timely fashion, who are also often those who’ve made a hash of scheduling their courses and are looking for exceptions so that they can graduate despite having missed some requirement that they should have fulfilled years ago. Dealing with these students is often a major pain—particularly since they are so late in making their requests that they often expect me to drop everything else so that they can make their deadlines.  Sorry, kids, a failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.  I’ll deal with them fairly and do what I reasonably can to help, but I’m not going to say “there, there, you don’t really have to take that tough course that you’ve been avoiding for so long that your financial aid has run out”.  Luckily, I don’t have the power to waive prerequisites—I can honestly tell the students that they have to convince the instructor to give them an add code, as only the instructor can waive the prereqs.

I avoid some of the problems with handling so many advisees by sending out e-mail to the entire list of majors and premajors occasionally, when something comes up that I think will be a common question or that may students would benefit from hearing. I also handle a lot of routine questions and approvals by e-mail.

Based on the load last year and this quarter, I can tell that I’ll be inundated in the spring quarter, when all the sophomores will have to declare their majors. My teaching load will be a lot heavier then also, as one of my two classes will have 6 or 12 hours of lab time a week (depending how many students will be taking it), with no TA. So I’ll need help. I’m going to try to get some other faculty to start advising in a couple of the concentrations, so that the load can be spread a bit.  I’ll still end up with the thesis proposals and the exceptions, but some of the major declaration and guidance for elective choosing can be done by others.

Update 2014 Nov 7: This week, I have gotten three other faculty to agreed to serve as faculty advisers for the students in Assistive Technology concentrations (the smallest part of the workload).  I will be looking to get some faculty advisers for the biomolecular concentration (the largest part of the workload).

2014 March 3

Fifteenth day of freshman design seminar

Filed under: freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:57
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I had a couple of announcements at the beginning of the class:

  • If the TAs go on strike on Wednesday, I would have class as usual, but not require anyone to be there, if getting there meant crossing a picket line. I usually support the TA union pretty strongly, but this time the demands on their posters seemed petty and childish (like demanding genderless bathrooms) or illegal (like equal access for undocumented workers). I always have a bit of trouble with strikes at universities (or any other public service union), as the people hurt by the strike are the students not the administrators—it is quite different from a traditional industrial action, where stopping production stops the source of income for the administrators. The students don’t get back any tuition for any instruction that they don’t receive, so denying them instruction seems wrong. A one-day strike to raise public awareness and sympathy can be a valuable tool, but I doubt that the TA union is going to get much sympathy with their current strike, given the unpopularity of their demands with the public. If they had focussed on just major points (like the math department hiring people who are not grad students to do TA jobs at lower pay, dodging the unionization of the TAs), there might have been more point to the strike.Incidentally, I do hire undergraduate “group tutors” to help in some of my classes. They are doing some of the same work that a TA would but generally for shorter hours (4–10 hours a week, not 20 hours a week).  There is no way to hire 1/5 of a TA for a course, so the undergrad group tutors are a good compromise, when the expertise of grad students is not needed. I’ve not had a class large enough to get a TA for several years now, since it requires something like 80 students in a class before a TA is budgeted.
    [UPDATE 2014 Mar 4: The UAW and the University settled, and there won’t be a strike tomorrow. The silly things on the union posters were not at issue—just two substantive issues: one about TAs in one department being required to work more than the 20 hours a week they are paid for, and the other about the math department hiring lots of undergrads at low pay to replace TAs. I think that the silly issues came from UCB, and that the UCSC TAs were more interested in things that were actual grievances. I am curious about exactly how the math department TA issue was resolved, and how it will affect my ability to hire group tutors for classes that wouldn’t get a TA anyway.]
  • I’m planning to have a library information session to help the students learn about non-book resources in the library and about search strategies, though I don’t know when one can be scheduled—I forgot to ask the librarians early in the quarter, when I should have done it. I sent in the request early this morning, but haven’t heard back yet.

After the announcements, today’s class was mainly a group advising session—I took questions from the students at the beginning of the class, as I often do, but encouraged them to ask about courses as well as anything technical related to their projects.  We spent almost an hour on various advising questions, since most of them are trying to sign up for courses for Spring (and many of the classes they need are already full before they are even allowed to sign up).  We talked about such things as what physics series to sign up for, what the differences were between the 4 different ways they could get into programming at UCSC (Python first, Java first, C and assembly first, or Java first slowly). I suggested the Python-first course for those in the biomolecular concentration (since the examples in it are aimed at biologists and biochemists, and you get to a useful level of programming quicker), the C-and-assembly-first course sequence for those in bioelectronics or the new assistive technology:motor concentration (since those concentrations involve hooking things up to microcontrollers), and the Java-first approaches for the new assistive technology: cognitive/perceptual concentration, since they will mainly be writing larger programs.

At the end of the class, we discussed t-shirt designs.  I offered to do a design like the ones I’ve done for other classes (see Cyberslug t-shirt designs and Bar exam for circuits class), but the students seemed more interested in coming up with their own design (which I see as a good thing). One of the students has a small side business selling t-shirts he has designed, and he showed some of his work.  Another student wanted to put a cartoon of me on the shirt. We talked a little bit about the differences between silkscreen printing and transfers, and I suggested that they come up with a design that used no more than 2 silkscreen stencils.

I also said that I didn’t care much what design they came up with, but it should be something that nearly the whole class liked well enough to want to buy, as the cost per shirt goes down substantially with the size of the order.  I also mentioned that I greatly prefer black t-shirts to other colors (about a third to a half the class was wearing black t-shirts, so I think that this may be a common preference).

I told the students to send their design ideas to the class mailing list, so that people could vote on what they wanted on the shirts.

2010 July 30

Should I be a teacher/professor/researcher?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:29
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Paul Bogush asked what to tell students who ask “Should I become a teacher?” I tried putting a long comment on his blog, but edublogs rejected my attempt to type the antispam word and threw away my draft, so I’ll try again here, where I can save drafts and not have to deal with the limitations of the comment field.

As a professor who teaches mainly graduate and senior-level courses to bioinformatics and bioengineering majors, I do not get many students asking me if they should be K–12 school teachers.  Students considering that career rarely take the intensive courses needed for an engineering degree, and college seniors in engineering rarely consider getting certified as teachers.  Perhaps having a higher percentage of engineering majors going into K–12 teaching would be valuable, both for the teaching profession and for the future supply of engineers, but it doesn’t often come up as question from students.

What I do get asked about is whether (and where) students should go to grad school, whether they should stop at an M.S. or go for a Ph.D., whether they should look for a job in industry, in a national lab, as faculty at a research university, or as faculty at a teaching college.  The question is often motivated by the same underlying question as the one Bogush asked about: “Knowing what you know now, would you choose this career?”

If asked directly about my choices, I can easily say that I do not regret my choices and that I am in about as good a position for me as I can imagine.  Being a professor at a university that values both research and teaching is a good fit for me.

When I’m asked about what a student should do, I’m much less definite.  I generally answer with questions:

  • Do you enjoy writing papers? How many have you written?
  • How many classes have you taught?
  • Do you enjoy standing in front of a group of people explaining difficult concepts?
  • How good are you at organizing thoughts clearly and presenting them?
  • What new ideas do you have?  Are they practical, money-making ideas or more fundamental research?
  • What sort of hours do you see yourself working?
  • Who is doing the sort of research that interests you?  Where are they?

I generally modify the questions a bit based on my knowledge of the strengths or weaknesses of the student (if I know them well enough), but I rarely give specific advice.  Occasionally I get questions from a student who has enormous talent but is uncertain of it, and I push them to be a bit more ambitious.  A little more often I get questions from students who are barely passing their classes, but think that they are brilliant—I gently dissuade them from going into Ph.D. programs, steering them a little towards productive work within their capabilities. Most often, I am dealing with students who could do any of the things they are considering, if they want to enough.  I try to provide them with some information about the consequences of some of their possibilities, but mostly I give them questions to ask themselves, so they can find the path that is most comfortable for them.

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