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2016 August 11

Email to professors

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:37
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This is the time of year when many semester-based colleges are starting classes again, so there are the usual spate of blog posts from faculty trying to orient the new students.  On perennial theme is on how to communicate with faculty, since so many students seem clueless about it.  (Two years ago, I plugged the book Say This, NOT That to your Professor, which I still recommend.)

Today, I happened to see the post How to Email Your Professor (without being annoying AF), in which Laura Portwood-Stacer provides a template and explanations:

10 Elements of an Effective, Non-Annoying Email

Here’s a template you can follow in constructing your email to a professor. Each element is explained further below.

Dear [1] Professor [2] Last-Name [3],

This is a line that recognizes our common humanity [4].

I’m in your Class Name, Section Number that meets on This Day [5]. This is the question I have or the help I need [6]. I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class [7], and I think This Is The Answer [8], but I’m still not sure. This is the action I would like you to take [9].

Signing off with a Thank You is always a good idea [10],
Favorite Student

Element #1: Salutation …

Element #2: Honorific 

Element #3: Name …

Element #4: Meaningless Nicety…

Element #5: Reminder of how they know you …

Element #6: The real reason for your email …

Elements #7 and 8: This is where you prove you’re a wonderful person …

Element #9: Super polite restatement of your request …

Element #10: Sign-off …

The hidden Element #11: The follow-up …

I don’t think that Ms. Portwood-Stacer is a professor, as her advice seems more appropriate for freelance writers than for students.  It isn’t bad advice, but I’d recommend something slightly different.

First, I don’t care much whether students include elements #1, #2, and #3, though I agree with her that “Hey!” is offensive. I don’t mind students using my first name, and I tell them so, but I agree that it is probably safer to use “Professor X” if you don’t know the person’s preferences.  In a formal business letter, the proper salutation is important, but in an e-mail without CCs it can be omitted.  (In an email with CCs, it is important to indicate who is being addressed.)

I disagree strongly about #4. I read a lot of email every day, and don’t want to have to wade through meaningless noise.  Skip the chitchat and get to the point—don’t waste my time.

Along the same lines, move #6 to the front. Ask your question or make your request directly, don’t bury the lede. After you’ve made a clear request, then provide the background information: who you are and what you’ve already done to try to get an answer. Make this more complete—if you are asking for something in my role as undergraduate director, for example, I need to know your major, your concentration, and which year’s catalog you are following.

The “thank you” at the end is nice, but a followup thank you message after my reply is appreciated more—the extra trouble taken makes the thanks seem more sincere.

One missed point—provide your full name and your nickname if you go by that in class right at the beginning of the message: This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in class. I have to read my university e-mail with Google, which does an absolutely horrendous job of showing me who messages are from (there are probably 40 people it identifies to me as just “David”).

Use the official University e-mail address, as FERPA rules require me not to discuss your academic record with anyone but you (unless you’ve given explicit permission otherwise). We’ve had incidents of people pretending to be students to get information they had no right to, so I’m trying to be careful to respond only to the official email addresses. Remember to edit your campus directory entry, so that your email is associated with your real name, and not just your userid (I have no idea who “alkim345” is).

So rewriting her example for a classroom question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in Class Number. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class, and I think This Is The Answer, but I’m still not sure.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

For an advising question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly”. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’m a bioengineering major in the bioelectronics concentration, following the 2013–14 curriculum. I plan to graduate in Spring 2017.

I’ve looked at the curriculum charts, in the online catalog, and at the online advising web pages; I asked the professional advising staff; and I was directed to ask you.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

If you need to meet with me, which is not needed for a lot of routine things, but is sometimes quite useful, add

May I come to your office hours next week at 3:15 p.m.?

Technically, you don’t need an appointment for open office hours, but those who have reserved slots ahead of time take priority over those who drop in. If you can’t make scheduled office hours and want to meet in person, say something like

I have a conflict during your office hours, but am free at the following five times …, would any of those times work for you?

2014 October 13

Say this, not that

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:00
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This summer I bought my son a book to prepare him for college: Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success. He read most of it, and found it to be reasonably well-written, somewhat poorly copy edited, and worth reading once. Most of the advice in the book he felt was just common sense, but that only means that he has been raised in an academic culture.  What the child of a professor sees as common sense in dealing with professors may seem arcane for someone coming from a different culture—perhaps the first in their family to go to college.

For the past 3 years, over half of our admitted students are first in their family to go to college. So what my son finds “common sense” may be the cultural knowledge of academia that many of the students at UCSC are missing.

After my son left for college, I decided to read the book for myself, to see if it was worth recommending to students at UCSC.

The author, Ellen Bremen, apparently teaches communication at a two-year college (Highline Community College in Des Moines, WA, about an hour and a half south of University of Washington by public transit), and some of the advice she gives seems to be more directed at two-year college students than research university students.  For example, she provides no advice on how to ask a faculty member if you can join their research group, because most 2-year college faculty have no time to do research, but she provides a lot of information about what to do when you miss half a quarter’s classes.

Her example students also seem to be a bit more clueless than the students I see at the University of California.  Perhaps this is because of the stricter admission criteria to UC, or perhaps she has selected the most extreme cases to use as illustrations. Or maybe I just haven’t dealt with enough freshmen—I generally see students in their sophomore through senior years, after they’ve had a chance to get acculturated to academia.

About 3/4 of Bremen’s book is dedicated to what students do wrong, and the last quarter to how students can deal with professors who screw up—about the right ratio for a book like this. Although the actual incidence of student mistakes and faculty mistakes is a larger ratio (more like 10:1 or 20:1), the student mistakes tend to fall into the same sorts of things over and over, with only the players changing names, so a 3:1 ratio is reasonable.

The advice she gives is generally good, though she recognizes only the teaching role for faculty, and assumes that all faculty have as much time and desire to meet one-on-one with students as she does.  At UC, many of the professors see their research role as more important than their teaching role (and the promotion process, summer salary, and publicity about faculty activity clearly favor this belief), so faculty are a little less willing to dedicate 10 hours a week to office hours or meet with students at random times outside office hours. I’m doing a lot of additional appointments this quarter, and it really does break up the day so that I can’t carve out a chunk of time for writing papers or programming.  In previous years I’ve kept one day a week free for working from home, free from student interruptions and meetings all over campus, but this quarter I’ve not been able to do that, so my research time and book-writing time has dropped to almost nothing.  Just coping with the pile of email from students every few hours eats up my day.  I find that a lot of student requests can be handled more efficiently by e-mail than by scheduling meetings—the extra non-verbal communication that Ellen Bremen is so fond of often gets in the way of the actual business that needs to be transacted.

Overall, I think that Bremen’s book is a good one, even if some of the advice is slightly different from I would give.  I think that she would do well to work with a second author (from a research university) for a subsequent edition, to cover those situations that don’t come up much at 2-year colleges.  Despite those holes, I still recommend the book for UC students, particularly first-in-family students.



2014 June 26

What you do in college may matter more than where you go

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:48
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Back in May, I read a blog post (Life in College Matters for Life After College) that pointed to the Gallup-Purdue Index Report 2014. I finally got the time to download the report and look at it.

The report has a rather ridiculous interpretation of copyright on its copyright page: “It is for your guidance only and is not to be copied, quoted, published, or divulged to others.” This is particularly ridiculous for a report that they are distributing for free—I think that they have a piece of boilerplate that they put on all their reports, written by lawyers who want to claim far more that copyright law really provides.  They’ve got deeper pockets than me though, so the threat is effective—I won’t directly quote them in my blog, but just summarize what I see as the main points.  If I mangle their message, they have only their own over-zealous lawyers to blame.

What the report is ostensibly about is whether college prepares students for an “engaging” job and a good life.  They were looking for whether students were engaged in their jobs and at five measures of well-being that Gallup has used in other studies: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. They were also looking at how attached alumni were to their alma maters (which, of course, is primarily what Purdue was interested in, as that determines how much money they can extract from alumni).

Basically, they started with the assumption that the point of college is to get a “great job” and a “great life” (a debatable point, but a widely held belief).  They then tried to determine what produced these outcomes, by interviewing 30,000 graduates.  Note that they did not interview those who quit or were kicked out of college—they were only considered those that college thought had succeeded.  It might be interesting for them to look at the outcomes for those who dropped or failed out also, to see whether the things they think mattered in college also affected the students who left without a degree.  (I suspect that the effects would be even stronger, because of the higher variance in the outcomes, but guessing about sociology is not one of my strengths.)

Their main result was that it didn’t really matter much where people went to college (other than that results were consistently worse at for-profit schools)—what mattered is what they encountered there.  Having an inspiring professor who cared about them, excited them about learning, and encouraged them doubled the odds of their being engaged at work after college. Internships in which they applied their learning, multiple-term projects, and being extremely active in extracurricular activities also doubled the odds of their being engaged at work.

(They use the term “odds” rather than “probability” consistently, so I’m not sure if they mean the probability p or the odds ratio \frac{p}{1-p}. If p is small, these are almost the same, but the overall engagement at work for college grads was reported as 39%, so it makes a difference here.  At one point in the report they mention that 40% of students finishing in 4 years or less are engaged in their jobs compared to 34% of those who took five and a half or more years, claiming that completing in 4 years doubles the odds of engagement.  I can’t come up with any definition of “odds” that makes this more than a 30% difference.)

I think that UCSC does manage to provide some engaging faculty—most of the students I talked to in senior exit interviews had at least one faculty member who excited them about learning (but that’s fairly common—63% of graduates reported that in the Gallup-Purdue survey).  I don’t know that we do as well at providing professors who show that they care about the students or providing mentors who encourage students to pursue their dreams—those are hard to provide at scale, as they rely on matching personalities as well as having enough faculty time to spend. Indeed, in the Gallup survey only about 27% of graduates felt that professors cared about them as a person and only 22% felt they had a mentor who encouraged them, so we’re not alone in finding this difficult to supply.  I suspect that students doing senior theses get more mentoring than those doing group projects, but a lot depends on the student and whoever is supervising the work.

One thing that the Jack Baskin School of Engineering at UCSC is doing right—all the students in bioengineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering, and computer game design are required to do 2-quarter or 3-quarter-long capstone projects.  (That alone should be a 1.8× on the odds of being engaged at work, and only 32% of students in the survey reported having that experience.)  Our students do not do so well on the “extreme extracurricular activity”, though, as few engineering students feel they have time for much in the way of extracurriculars.  Internships are something that UCSC could be much better at—there is a huge industry base only 40 miles away in Silicon Valley, but students are left on their own for finding internships, and not very many do.

The two strongest predictors of engagement were not really what the college did, but what students thought about the college:  if they thought “the college prepared me well for life outside college” or that the college was “passionate about the long-term success of its students”.  These raised the odds of engagement at work by 2.6× and 2.4× respectively. Causality is not clear here, as these attitudes may have resulted from their engagement at work, rather than being causes of it.

The report is very sloppy about confounding variables:  they report that women are more engaged at work than men, and that arts, humanities, and social science majors are more engaged than science or business majors.  But they don’t seem to have done anything to determine which of the two highly correlated variables is the causal one here: gender or major.  Their sample is large enough that they should have been able to get at least a strong hint, despite the correlation.

One unsurprising result: those who took out large loans as students were much less likely to be thriving in all 5 areas of well-being than those who took out small loans or no loans. Since financial well-being is one of the areas, and large loans make it difficult to achieve financial well-being, this is hardly a surprising result.  It would have been more interesting if they had reported differences in just the other four areas—did the large loans have any effects other than the obvious financial one?  They’ve got the data, but they didn’t do the analysis (or they’re not sharing it in the free report, which seems more likely—I’m sure they’ll share it for a hefty consulting fee).

Given that there was almost no difference in well-being based on public vs. private or selective vs. non-selective colleges, the big negative correlation of large loans with well-being sounds like a strong argument to go to a college you can afford, rather than taking out large loans. (Again, the report did not attempt to look at confounding variables for the for-profit schools—how much of their poor performance was due to the large loans they encouraged their students to take out?)

The results for alumni attachment were much stronger than for well-being or job engagement, probably because the background level of alumni attachment was fairly low—only about 18% of college graduates were emotionally attached to their colleges by the criteria used in the poll.  The biggest drivers for emotional attachment were whether they felt the college had prepared them well and whether they felt it was passionate about the long term success of the students.  Again, I question the causality here—it seems likely that those who are emotionally attached are more likely to hold these beliefs, irrespective of what the college actually did.

I’m also confused by their “odds” again, where they report 48% of a group being emotionally attached as 6.1× the odds of another group where 2% are emotionally attached.  I don’t see how they computing their “odds”—it is a very odd computation indeed! Update: perhaps the odds they mean are \frac{p(x | y)}{p(x | \neg y)}, in which case they are comparing the 48% to some unprovided number, probably a little lower than the background 18%.  I’m still having a hard time making that 6.1.  Maybe \frac{p(x | y)(1-p(x|\neg y))}{(1-p(x|y))p(x | \neg y)}?  I can’t seem to make anything match their numbers.

Although the basic conclusion of the study seem reasonable to me (that what happens to you in college is more important than where you go to college, and that large loans make you miserable), the survey seems rather sloppily done, confusing correlation with causality, not attempting to disentangle confounding variables, and doing some sort of arithmetic that seems completely inconsistent so that the “odds” they report are incomprehensible. Also, they asked few questions and every question they asked seemed to have about the same effect on the odds, so I don’t know whether the survey was actually measuring anything (no negative controls).

I’d hesitate to invest money or make academic planning decisions based on this report.  I think that Purdue wasted a lot of money on a load of crap (unless they got a private report with a lot better data and analysis).


2013 September 11

Not just a job ticket

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:31
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On my MIT tour post, Nita commented

As an engineer myself, I find it rather interesting that people automatically think that going to MIT will secure a certain type of position or opportunity. So not true for the field. There is such a need for developers that many of them don’t even have 4 year degrees to be viable in this field. Just getting a Certification in Oracle, Cisco and more will get you in the door to a ‘Help Desk’ or ‘Jr. Programming’ job without a degree and if you are good, your salary and the salary of your peers will be the same in about 5 to 10 years … all without a degree. Now if you want to become a Software Manager or Engineering Architect, the highest degree most have is a Masters—but it’s not necessary, what they want you to have is another ‘Certification’ a PMP which takes about a week to get. Really spend time talking to people in your child’s chosen career makes a big difference.

I started to respond to the comment, but as my response got longer and longer, I decided to turn it into a separate post.

While it is certainly possible to get a job in IT without a degree, I think my son would not be happy in a “Help Desk” or “Jr. Programming” job for very long (by which I mean more than a few weeks). He is patient with people who don’t know what he knows, and (I’m told) he’s been a good teaching assistant for the home-school Python class, but I think he’d get frustrated dealing with the rude behavior by stupid people that most help desk personnel have to put up with. A junior programming job would not be very rewarding either, as people in such positions are not trusted to make any decisions about the code, but just to implement what they are told or slap patches on badly written code that is already so patched by incompetents that it is nearly impossible to maintain. The most tedious and unrewarding parts of programming are given to junior programmers, with almost no opportunity given to show what one is really capable of.

His goal in going to college is not “to get a good-paying job”, but to learn cool stuff and to do cool stuff (which for him, at the moment, mainly means writing programs, though he’s gotten a bit interested in designing digital hardware as well).  It is unfortunate that computer science has recently been oversold as a job ticket, because it means that in most colleges he’ll be surrounded by people who are just there for the money and have little love for the learning. Computer programming suffers from even wilder boom-and-bust swings than other engineering fields, and I suspect that a lot of the current pushing of CS as a ticket to a good job is deliberate hype to keep labor costs low.

Part of what we’re looking for on our college tours is a place where many of the students are there for the learning, not the job ticket. Of course, since most parents and students have been taught to think of college as a job ticket, the information sessions and campus tour guides often spend a fair amount of time talking about how good the job prospects are for their graduates.  Both Brown and Stanford made a big deal out of Google’s active recruitment of their students, though Stanford included Google only as one of the many examples of employers who pay big bucks to recruit Stanford students.

We’ve been trying to read between the lines to find the places where he’d get the learning he wants and where he’d be surrounded by other students with similar motivations.  A high rate of students going on to grad school in CS and doing well is a good sign, for example, because it means that the students loved learning enough to forego high-paying jobs in order to learn more.  For students primarily interested in getting one of those high-paying jobs, the number of people getting job offers immediately after graduation and the size of those job offers may be more important than the number going on to grad school. Google recruiting is a good sign for both groups of students—Google pays well, but they are also interested in finding people who can do new things, not people who’ve just gone through cram-and-forget training to get a piece of paper with BS on it. Having a large number of successful startups formed by students or recent alumni is also a good sign for both groups, at least if the startups are doing cool new things, and not just random tweaks to whatever the current fad is.

Getting paid well to do cool stuff would be nice, but my son is not primarily driven by money.  His motivations might be different if we were rich and spent all our time comparing ourselves to still richer people, or if we were poor and spent all our time trying to make ends meet and pay off crushing debts.  But our family is solidly middle-class, with a paid-up mortgage and just enough income to indulge our cheap tastes and save for retirement and college. Our biggest expenses are food and education.

My son’s future is undetermined: It’s possible that he’ll get rich from creating a startup that hits the big time.  It’s possible that he’ll become a hot-shot programmer or engineer at a large company. It’s possible that he’ll end up as a professor or as a senior researcher in a national lab.  It’s also possible that he’ll end up as an actor, doing various contract programming and web-design jobs as day jobs to pay the rent between acting gigs.  He’s preparing himself for any of those possibilities (and probably others).

Right now, being a student is most attractive to him, and he is trying to optimize that experience.  If learning continues to be his main passion, he’ll probably stay in school through a PhD.  If something else beckons along the way, he might stop (or perhaps pause) with a BS and pursue the other opportunity.

2013 August 24

Which college?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:08
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I’ve been thinking a lot about where my son should apply to college (all applications must be completed by January 1, and some of them will take him a long time to fill out—especially the dozens of application essays).  So I was interested in articles like Mark Edmundson’s in The Atlantic, ‘Where Should I Go to College?’. He starts out with a good framing question:

Where should you go to college—assuming you’re a high school student and getting ready for this new phase of your life? Where should you encourage your son or daughter to go—assuming that you’re a parent? As a college professor, I get asked the where-to-go question frequently, and I know that all of us teaching in colleges and universities do too. How should one answer? What is the right thing to say to someone deciding on his or her future? For myself, I’m inclined to respond by posing another question.

Are you looking for a corporate city, or are you looking for a scholarly enclave? Neither of these kinds of schools exists in its pure form. To the scholarly enclave, even the most ideal, there will always be a practical, businessy dimension. Somebody’s got to keep the books and pay the bills. And even in the most corporate of colleges, there will be islands of relative scholarly idealism.

The article goes on in great detail about the corporate/idealism axis that he sees as the most relevant one for students choosing a college.  But he sees the distinction as almost synonymous with an engineering/humanities axis, which I don’t agree with—I know engineers and engineering professors who are very idealistic, who went into engineering with the hope that they could improve the world by solving some of the problems facing us.  The word “entrepreneurship” is a dirty work to Edmundson, but he has apparently not heard of “social entrepreneurship”, which attempts to use the high energy and adrenaline of start-up culture to do good, instead of to make piles of money.

His description of the “corporate university” does remind me of some colleges, where faculty and students alike seem to be always looking for fame and fortune (and fame is just as potent a driving force as fortune).  There are some faculty and students like that even in the most scholarly places, though the faculty usually job-hop out within a few years. But being laid-back and not interested in the corporate rat race are not the same thing as being scholarly.  There are plenty of places where students and faculty wander around rather aimlessly, just going through the motions of a scholarly life without the trouble of doing any original thinking. (Watch out for tour guides that talk mainly about the sports teams—a place that regards tailgate parties as the high point of college life is not likely to be scholarly.)

There is a quality axis that is orthogonal to the corporate/idealism axis.  Some schools strive for very high quality in teaching and research, independent of the uses that the students will put the skills to.  Such places may end up anywhere along Edmundson’s corporate/idealism axis, though he equates the corporate end of his axis with a disdain for learning: “Students still study. But in the old high school tradition, you study only as much as you need to study to get your A’s. If expedient but slightly shady means of A-getting arise, you may even evaluate them using a risk-reward equation.” There is some truth to what he says—that attending college for monetary goals is often in conflict with scholarly goals, but the “only as much as you need to study” attitude seems to be more prevalent in the humanities than in engineering, even though many students go into engineering in search of high-paying jobs.  (His description seems spot-on for business majors, though, who epitomize the corporate-university mindset, and who seem to be at the center of many cheating scandals.)

Even the most corporate of universities come in different flavors, with some preparing students to be cogs in existing corporations, while others are preparing entrepreneurs to start new ventures.  Those different goals require very different education and different psychological mindsets from the students. A risk-averse student may be very poorly served by an entrepreneurial approach, where the rewards are often more the adrenaline rush of high-stakes gambling than a high median return.  Similarly, a serial entrepreneur might be poorly served by a college that prepared them for a slow slog up a corporate ladder.

Larger schools can support both a corporate culture and a scholarly culture on the same campus—which aspect of the college you see depends on where you look and who you hang out with.  Places like MIT and Stanford come to mind.  Smaller schools may have a more monolithic culture, and figuring out where it fits along Edmundson’s corporate/idealistic axis may be as important as figuring out where it is on the quality axis.


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