Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A simple 10 step method to write an expository paper for school

1) Think about and research what you need to say.
2) Create a logical sequential bullet point outline of what you want to say, with citations.
3) Go back and turn each bullet point into a crystal clear, grammatically correct, SIMPLE declarative sentence.
4) Go back and connect the sentences. You can do this in three ways:
a) Modify each sentence so that each follows from the previous.
b) Combine two adjacent sentences into a compound sentence.
b) Add transitional sentences.
5) Go back and connect the paragraphs, last sentence of previous paragraph to first sentence of the following paragraph usually works.
6) Double check that you have it correct by making sure that no paragraphs or sentences can be reversed in order without screwing up the flow of ideas. Remember that interchangable sentences or paragraphs almost always mean something is wrong.
7) Run your spell/grammar checker and fix your mistakes.
8) Have a friend or colleague proof read it for you and make a change for every problem they notice.
9) Run your spell/grammar checker and fix your mistakes.
10) Either go back to number 8 or declare it finished.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Just a thought on how class privilege in science led to the research grant system

Sometimes it is easy to forget that science started out with only the idle rich could having the time and the money to explore natural phenomena. Perhaps the only notable great exception was De Vinci who rose from poverty on his talents but was still completely dependent on the patronage of the wealthy and defense money to pay for his artistic and scientific endeavors. Today, this academic legacy is most evident in the domination of white males and the middle and upper class members of academia. One of the over looked vestiges that allows this privileged barrier to STEM is the grant system.

Ask yourself this, would a plumber or a builder or any other laboring be expected to come to your house with their own funding to do their jobs?  This is exactly what is asked in any STEM job advertisement requiring an “externally funded research program”.  It is the same old model of an academic community of the privileged classes who can enter only if they can bring their own money and equipment to the society meeting.  More recently in the 20th century, the state has stepped in providing self-funding through NSF or NIH grants, but the academic model for hiring a new assistant professor is still based on the idea that an academic should be professionally wealthy enough to bring their own money and help support the university rather than working for the university. A university STEM job advertisement is not so much an offer of employment as it is a request for at least 7 years of charity work. The job benefits only come later with tenure and then that is not even certain.

The result is that the established funded community who dole out the money has then become the new wealthy social class that is determining who is in and who is out. Indeed, networking, belonging to certain lab groups with the correct linage, speaking the correct language with the accepted ideas are critical parts of belonging the any scientific community. These are the same communities that set the standards and determine who gets the grants. I sometimes wonder if STEM academia has not just replicated a Victorian gentlemen’s academic club, but with women admitted as well. Thus, the research university system is still a system of science that at its core remains designed for competition among members of the moneyed classes.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

How I effectively stopped plagiarism in my classes

Last year, a significant proportion (about 20%) of the my third year genetics class submitted final lab reports that were plagiarized to different degrees (mostly cut and pasted sentences with  and without citations) This past semester I employed several techniques to bring that proportion down to ZERO cases.  I did it by first thinking about why my students plagiarized then implementing policies to directly address those reasons.
I think that students plagiarize because they either do not understand what plagiarism is or they see the risk as being worth the potential reward. The answer then must be to 1) educate them about plagiarism, and 2) shift the risk/reward calculation against deciding to plagiarize. Here are my specific actions and policies targeting these two factors that seemed to work:


1)      I took the time to teach the definition of plagiarism and assessed the students on their understanding of plagiarism. I made a concise clear handout that we went over in the labs followed by a quiz that students had to pass before I would accept any written work (handout and quiz below). I talked one-on-one to students who had any wrong answers and walked them through to the right answer. The most important concept that they had misconceptions about was the general idea that plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work or ideas as your own. Many students thought only in terms of specific acts (i.e. copying and pasting text, putting their name on another person’s paper, copying from a classmate etc.) instead of the general definition which covers all of the different variants.  I also found it helpful to approach it from the perspective of giving credit where credit is due. This more positive approach seemed to create empathy with the person who is not getting credit for their ideas.
2)      I kept a copy of the quizzes and told the students these would be used in academic dishonesty judicial proceedings if necessary. This removes the “I didn’t know” defense, increasing the risk of consequences if caught.
3)      I assigned a lower point presubmission of the most plagiarized section of the assignment. This was a presubmission of the introduction where students have to synthesize existing literature. The motivation to take a chance plagiarizing is lower for assignments worth fewer points resulting in no plagiarism. By doing a low point presubmission the students had a plagiarism free rough draft as a starting point for the high value final submission. This takes the pressure off in terms of points for the first submission and reduces the time pressure for the final submission.
4)      I told them I report all cases of plagiarism where I impose any penalties to the university. This is the number one most important key policy!  Negotiating penalties within your course reinforces the behavior by validating the students risk/benefit calculation. Such negotiations results in plagiarism becoming just another part of the academic game of manipulating the instructor to get the best grade possible.  I am convinced that serial plagiarizers depend upon and factor into their decision the opportunity to negotiate their way out of serious sanctions when caught. Any teacher who deals with plagiarism cases privately within their own class is harming their students and perpetuating a culture of sweeping the problem under the rug. The penalty that really has an effect is having it go on their record outside of your particular class (usually temporarily, at least in my institution). Your students may cry and sometimes fight it in whatever judicial review you have at your university, but this level of sanction alone is the only way to increase the risk to unacceptable in many students' minds. If every instructor did this from year one I am convinced that plagiarism would cease to be a problem by the junior year.

So if you want to stop plagiarism in your classroom, this is what worked for me.  Number four takes some courage and willingness to follow through, but that threat with the other mitigating actions should prevent most students from making the wrong decision. 

The Handout:

Plagiarism Policy

It is my policy to routinely report all cases of plagiarism where I have to enforce a penalty to the Dean of Students. If you decide to plagiarize then it is your decision and my responsibility to report you. You will have only yourself to blame for the consequences. There may be a negotiation on the grade penalty to ensure the advantage you gained is fairly negated relative to students that did not plagiarize, but whether or not to report the case to the university is non-negotiable.

Definition of Plagiarism: passing off someone else’s work and ideas as your own.

1)    Direct copying
a.    Turning in someone else’s work as your own. (from another student, bought essay, copied off the internet)
                                          i.    Blatant and deliberate academic misconduct.
b.    A good indicator: If you are using the “cut and paste” function to put something into your writing you are plagiarizing unless it is a direct quote with a proper citation.
c.    Easiest to catch with software and a bit of Googling.

2)    Rewriting someone else’s work
a.    Rewriting someone else’s work is plagiarism.
                                          i.    No amount of rewording someone else’s sentences or paragraphs is acceptable!!!
Actual case: a student once showed me an original sentence from a published paper and his extensive modifications and asked me if it was changed enough from the original to pass!!  Someone else’s sentence can never be changed enough to not be plagiarized if you are trying to reword someone else’s work to make it pass as yours.
Also see http://sociobiology.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/plagiarism-is-more-common-than-i-thought/  for a good explanation with a concrete example.
                                         ii.    The only way to avoid this is to do it yourself from scratch, with your own outline, then put in the citations later where you refer to or use other’s ideas.

3)    Referencing is not enough.
a.    You cannot take someone else’s writing or Powerpoints or any other work and pass it off as your own by just adding a citation. Otherwise you are just stating from where you plagiarized the material. This is called “cut and paste plagiarism with references” and it will not be tolerated
                                          i.    The criteria is simple:  Have you made it crystal clear to the reader what parts are your work and ideas, and what are the other person’s work and ideas?
                                         ii.    You cannot in anyway imply, directly, indirectly, or by omission that someone else’s work or ideas are yours.


The quiz (answers, 1a, 2e, 3a-e):

Name______________________    Date_________________________________

Plagiarism Quiz, You must get 100% before I grade your written work.

1) I read and understand the plagiarism statement.
a) Yes
b) No

2) What is the best definition of plagiarism (pick ONE)
a) Putting your name on someone else’s work and turning it in as your own work.
b) Copy and pasting material without citing the source
c) Copy and pasting material without direct quotes, but citing the source
d) Rewriting a sentence from a source until it passes a plagiarism checker with or without citation
e) Directly or indirectly implying that someone else’s work and/or ideas are your own

3) Which of the actions below will get you reported for plagiarism? (Mark all that apply).
a) Putting your name on someone else’s work and turning it in as your own work.
b) Copy and pasting material without citing the source
c) Copy and pasting material without direct quotes but citing the source
d) Rewriting a sentence from a source until it passes a plagiarism checker with or without citation
e) Directly or indirectly implying that someone else’s work and/or ideas are your own



Saturday, January 28, 2017

Why I am against the tenure system in academia.

I am going out on a limb here as a tenured academic and argue that “tenure” as we know it should be abolished. There is a misperception that tenure means a job for life when in practical terms it actually just means a post-probationary full time job in a very stable and secure organization. Tenured faculty can still be fired for any number of offenses from misconduct, bringing "disrepute" to the university (yes this is in my contract), financial emergencies (frequently open to interpretation), and if you actually read the contract, not doing the job. These are EXACTLY the same reasons anyone outside the ivory towers in a permanent salaried job can be fired. Most people do not consider that universities tend to be more stable than private companies over the long run giving the false impression that it is tenure and not the stability of the institution that results in job security. The fact is that a full time banker, accountant or construction worker is effectively no less tenured  than a university professor after they pass probation.

One of the  most significant differences between tenured academic positions and the real world is the extended probationary period where young faculty are at the mercy of tenured faculty. In how many other jobs does five to six year probation end with a private vote of your full time colleagues on whether you stay or go? A new hire lives with a sword over their head trying not to offend or in any way cross the senior faculty who can fire them for effectively no real reason at the end of the trial period. Junior faculty cannot say no to any favor asked and must be constantly biting their tongues holding back from expressing controversial positions in order to navigate the internal often factionalized politics of the department. In many places, young faculty are expected to publish, get grants, work much harder and be more productive than those with tenure. Junior faculty depend upon a strong chair and hopefully a wise department that will defend and not abuse them. This pre-tenure probationary period is one the most stressful and uncertain times in any academics career, and it usually lasts five to six years with an uncertain outcome at the end.

Any unfair protection from tenure comes from the good ol’boy self-governing university system with senior tenured people colluding to back off to a more humane and reasonable workload after earning tenure. Many back off too enthusiastically practically stopping work thus hurting the university and undermining the original purpose of tenure which was to protect academic freedom. This aptly named deadwood is a drain on departments and is often cited as one of the strongest arguments against tenure. In reality, it is a problem with complicit management that lacks the will to go against tradition and enforce contractual obligations. Before anyone says it’s the union’s fault, I will argue that any manager who uses the union as an excuse is weak and lazy. No union contract ever requires you keep on someone who is able and refuses to work. Competent managers will document the offense and enforce the contract, not hide behind it.

We need to abolish traditional tenure by replacing it with stronger rules protecting academic freedom at all levels. The free expression and evaluation of ideas in academia sometimes requires the ability to publicly both criticize and undermine our pay masters at the university and at the state level. This often includes ideas that many members of the public will find untenable from their moral and religious points of view. Hence, there should be an explicit policy that faculty cannot be sanctioned or fired for bringing political or media pressure on a university for any statements or expression allowed under the 1st amendment. What I mean here is that any expression not outlawed at the federal level is fair game. That represents a huge expansion of free speech rights over what most people working in private companies are allowed.

Faculty also must be protected from sanctions or firing for any threatened or incomplete litigation from students. Only after a court rules should any punitive action be allowed by the university. Policies need to be in place ensuring that the university has the faculty’s backs. Some might argue that this would limit a university’s ability to respond to harassment, but these incidents should not be quietly covered up in the first place.

I propose that we replace the current tenure track with policy that all academics, from the day they are hired, be given safe haven as described above for free-expression and academic freedom. This is effectively granting the protection of "tenure" to new hires as well. The probationary period needs to have very clear written unambiguous  objective criteria of what must be done in that period (number of papers, grant amount, minimum teaching scores for example) to remove subjective personal biases. Passing probation should be a simple, independently verifiable box ticking exercise not up for a vote by department members but rather doable by someone outside the department. Only this way can a new hire freely contribute ideas to the department and university. After probation, we should be required to actually do the job we are paid to do throughout our careers. Publicly presenting peer reviewed scholarly work of the specified kind at the specified rate, teaching the required hours, and midrange student feedback scores should be all that is necessary and sufficient for continued employment. As in any other profession, not hitting these criteria should have paycheck ramifications with the possibility of termination in extreme cases. Finally,we really need to either start calling every permanent job tenured or drop the word entirely given the negative connotations it has acquired by its abuse in academia.

Friday, January 20, 2017

My Guest Blog for Wiki Edu



I don’t usually do guest blogs for the simple reason that I have too much trouble trying to post regularly here but sometime the invitation is too important. I recently did a presentation on my experience implementing writing for Wikipedia in my fourth year Cell Biology Class. It is available here (http://digitalcommons.plattsburgh.edu/feinberg_events/1/). Wiki Edu really liked it and invited me to write a blog entry for them, so I did. The focus is on the first part of my talk and is really as much about higher education finding it’s purpose as it is about how a
Wikipedia writing assignment works towards that goal. The Wiki Ed blog post is herehttps://wikiedu.org/blog/2017/01/20/rediscovering-the-higher-in-higher-education-with-a-wikipedia-writing-assignment/

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Year's resolution: schedule writing and no email until after 9am


It’s a new year and my number one New Year’s resolution is to write more and more regularly. The trouble is how to steal back the time to do it.  I have tried scheduling writing, and journal reading, but something always comes up. I seem to lack the backbone or selfish heart to tell students and fellow faculty with urgent problems to go away and leave me alone during my reading and writing times. So here is my solution that I hope does not get me into too much trouble. I am going to write first thing in the morning at home, or at school with my office door firmly shut first thing every morning, and not read any email until after 9am in the morning. That last part has me a bit worried as I have a 9am genetics lecture this semester so I will essentially not be contactable until after 10am MWF.  This is also going to require some discipline to make sure I don't have any other anticipated urgent business to do before lecture. Unfortunately I see no way around this. The morning is my best time intellectually and I have noticed that the only things I can be 100% certain of doing happen before I open my email in the morning. So let’s see how it goes and maybe I can revive this blog in the process!