Friday links: how to have a writing day, and more

Also this week: Stephen Heard vs. Paul Erdős, your PhD vs. you, and more.

From Meghan:

This “My writing day” piece by Jon McGregor is great. Here’s a brief part, but it’s hard to find just one quote that does the whole thing justice:

There are other sorts of time, besides the writing time. There is thinking time, reading time, research time and sketching out ideas time. There is working on the first page over and over again until you find the tone you’re looking for time. There is spending just five minutes catching up on email time. There is spending five minutes more on Twitter because, in a way, that is part of the research process time. There is writing time, somewhere in there. There is making the coffee and clearing away the coffee and thinking about lunch and making the lunch and clearing away the lunch time.

Not surprisingly, I also loved this part of the McGregor piece:

(Fun fact: I have never been asked how I juggle writing and fatherhood. I’m not complaining; it’s nobody’s business, and nothing to do with writing. But I wonder what assumptions lie behind the question of juggling writing and motherhood coming up so regularly?)

PsycGirl had a post on importance vs. sustainability, which notes:

Something can be really important to you, but not sustainable. Just because something is important does not mean you can sustain it on sheer wish alone.

I think I need to remind myself of that more!

From Jeremy:

Stephen Heard’s Erdős number is 3. Can anyone here beat that?

One reason why it is difficult to “rationally” decide whether to get a PhD: a PhD may totally change you.

Why is there a widespread perception that history is “declining” as an academic discipline in the US, but remains prestigious in the UK? I know nothing about this and so can’t evaluate it. I just find it interesting to read about how people view their own disciplines.

Economist Claudia Sahm on the proposed professional code of conduct for economists. Very good piece. (ht @noahpinion)

Pew has a big new report on experiences and perceptions of harassment, discrimination, and diversity in US STEM workplaces. (ht @noahpinion)

New proposed indices of citation counts. From economics, not sure how well it would translate to other disciplines. And of course, any quantitative metric is only going to be a crude measure of “influence”. But still, I thought these indices were kind of interesting.

Sadly, I think Kieran Healy’s read of the market for books about academia is correct.

Who would you nominate for the Crafoord Prize?

The Crafoord Prize is a Nobel-like award that goes to up to three biologists (with an “emphasis on ecology”), once every three years. It goes to people in other disciplines in other years. In practice, the biology award usually goes to an evolutionary biologist rather than an ecologist; more on that below. Anyway, the Crafoord Prize is one of the most prestigious and lucrative awards in biology; it’s worth over $700,000 USD at current exchange rates.

The next Crafoord Prize will go to a biologist; nominations are due Jan. 15. I got a letter inviting me to submit a nomination (a “perk” of being a blogger, presumably), but anyone is allowed to do so. Who would you nominate?

I’ve thought about it a bit and have a few candidates in mind. But I think it’ll be a more interesting conversation to talk about the thought process, rather than just listing names. Here’s my thought process; please share yours!

  • I’d like my nominee to have a non-zero chance of being selected, insofar as outsiders can judge that.
  • Looking at the list of past winners, the prize invariably goes to a very famous, very senior person, for work done many years earlier. Here’s the full list of past biology winners, 1984-2015: Dan Janzen; the Odums; Paul Ehrlich & E. O. Wilson; W. D. Hamilton & Seymour Benzer; Bob May; Ernst Mayr, G. C. Williams & John Maynard Smith; Carl Woese; Bob Trivers; Ilkka Hanski; Dick Lewontin & Tomoko Ohta.
  • Personally, I’d rather the award go to someone who’s still an active researcher doing important work. I’m fine with lifetime achievement awards in general (in the unlikely event anyone wants to give me one in 30 years, I won’t say no!). But when the award comes with a cash prize this big, I’d prefer it to go to someone who’ll spend it on great science. Ideally, the sort of science that would be difficult or impossible to fund with a conventional grant. Kind of like a MacArthur “genius grant”.
  • But given the past history of the awardees, there’s no way it’s going to go to a mid-career or early career person.* So my search image is “famous senior person still doing leading-edge work”. Someone who’s a plausible candidate on “lifetime achievement” grounds, but who also is still achieving significant scientific advances.
  • The biology award has only ever gone to one woman, Tomoko Ohta. It’d be nice to diversify it.
  • As an ecologist, I think it’d be nice if a prize that’s supposed to emphasize “ecology” went to an ecologist instead of the evolutionary biologists it usually goes to.
  • I thought of one candidate I really like, but that candidate doesn’t meet all of my criteria. So I want to think about it further and hear from others. Hence this post.

But that’s just one person’s thought process. What do you think? Looking forward to your comments, as always.

*You may feel the prize should go to an early- or mid-career person, on the grounds that such a person likely would have more need for the money or make better use of it. Or that it should go to a team rather than an individual, given the increasingly-collaborative nature of science these days. Or that it shouldn’t exist at all, that in a better world that money would go to support grad students, or to a worthy charity, or whatever. My own view is that (i) the prize exists, (ii) there’s no way to make it not exist or go to very different sorts of people than it’s historically gone to. So the thing to do is either not nominate anyone (if you feel like you have better ways to spend the time required to write a nomination letter), or else nominate an outstanding still-active senior researcher. But your mileage may vary.

Finding evidence for land restoration strategies

Restoration has never been more important, with almost a third of the world’s land surface degraded. But what exactly is restoration? And how do we know if it works? Madelon Lohbeck continues our Special Feature series on Functional traits in agroecology. Read the full article, Trait-based approaches for guiding the restoration of degraded agricultural landscapes in […]

Teaching tip: Use a discussion thread to decide what to cover in a review session

Last week, I gave one teaching tip I learned from Trisha Wittkopp: start lectures with a short video. Today, I’m giving another one I learned from Trisha: use a discussion thread to decide what to cover in a review session.

When I first taught Intro Bio at Michigan, one of the things that made me nervous was the in class review sessions that occurred on the day of the exam. (Our exams are in the evening, and we don’t cover new material in the regular class session on the day of an exam.) I had no idea of how to structure the review sessions, so I asked the person I taught with that semester. He said he just showed up and answered questions. So, I did the same. Sometimes this led to covering useful material, but sometimes it meant that the questions were about some obscure point from the reading* or about something that few in the class wanted covered. I remember one student who really wanted to discuss amensalism, which was something that the book had mentioned but that we didn’t discuss in class and that I didn’t think was important to cover/know.**

(In case you don’t follow those footnotes: yes, this reflects other problems with how the course was set up that semester, which we’ve worked to change.)

When I next taught Intro Bio, I taught with Trisha Wittkopp, who taught the first half of the semester. Her approach is to set up a discussion thread on our course webpage (now on Canvas). Students can respond by suggesting a topic (e.g., “How nitrogen moves through food webs”) or a particular question from the practice exam. We ask students to look at the existing topics before they post a new one, and tell them to upvote a question/topic if it’s the same as the one they had.

This system works really well. The biggest benefit is that it means I can start by focusing on the topics that the most students are confused about, rather than the topics that the least timid students ask about. It also gives me a sense of how much confusion there is about a particular topic. For example, this year a student asked

Can we go over the difference between assimilation efficiency, consumption efficiency, production efficiency, and transmission efficiency?

It was the most upvoted question, so I wrote a series of clicker questions for the review session (and turned it into an optional homework that I posted on the website for students who didn’t attend/view the review session).

I don’t restrict myself to the topics that are posted; sometimes I add in some topics that I’ve realized students need more practice with based on office hours, but those tend to overlap pretty strongly with what students post about on the discussion thread.

I think this approach works well (though admittedly this is just based on my impressions — I have no way of assessing the effectiveness of the different formats).

I was reminded of how much I like this approach last semester when a colleague asked me for advice on how to run a review session. That question made me think of the contrast between the way I originally ran them vs. how I run them now. The new approach is simple to implement and much more effective! And it seemed to help that colleague to share Trisha’s tip with them, so I figured I’d share it more broadly here.

I’d love to hear in the comments from others about how they structure review sessions (especially in very large classes!)


*Perhaps another teaching tip topic could be how we’ve changed the way we assign readings. When I first taught Intro Bio, the readings were often an entire, very dense chapter. Over the course of the semester, it became clear to me that students were not actually well-served by doing the reading, since so much of it was irrelevant to what we discussed in class. We now give much more focused readings and, in cases where the material is too spread out across the text (or simply not there), I write a short summary myself. We also write a pre-reading guide that gives students more information about what to focus on in the assigned readings.

**Another potential future topic would be our use of learning objectives to make it much clearer to students what they should focus on when they study. We did not do a good job of signaling what students needed to know in that first semester when I taught, but I think we do a pretty good job of it now.

Infographic: the impacts of roads on grizzly bears

In this infographic, Clayton Lamb demonstrates how reducing roads and restricting vehicle access can support grizzly bear density. Read the full article, Effects of habitat quality and access management on the density of a recovering grizzly bear population in Journal of Applied Ecology.

#Readinghour: My plan to read more in 2018

A common theme that comes up when talking with other scientists and academics is that we wish we had more time to read. I’ve been trying to figure out how to do a better job of reading for years, and spent 2015 tracking my reading using #365papers. The goal of that was to read a paper every day – I wasn’t planning on reading work papers on weekends, but I thought there would be enough work days where I read more than one paper that it would offset it. I was wrong. I didn’t get anywhere near 365 (I got to 181), but it still motivated me to read more than I would have – at least, until teaching Intro Bio completely took over.

Having just completed another semester of teaching Intro Bio (and having it take over), I was thinking again about how to reprioritize reading. I decided that I would prefer to have a time goal (30 minutes per day) rather than a paper goal, since I felt like having a paper goal was distorting my reading habits in a way that wasn’t useful.

I mentioned on twitter that I was thinking of using a time goal this year, and loved this reply:

That was exactly what I had in mind! So, in the end, I’m going to use #readinghour to track my reading this year, even though my goal is 30 minutes per day.

My goals:

  1. Read at least 30 minutes on work days
  2. On some non-work days, aim to spend 30 minutes reading books that are sort of work related but not enough to feel like I should spend work time reading them (e.g., The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Merchants of Doubt).

My #readinghour goal will be greatly aided by not teaching this semester and being on sabbatical next fall. (Yes, I realize how lucky I am.) My hope is that having a goal like this will allow me to make sure reading stays a priority throughout the year.

If you’d like to join in using the #readinghour hashtag, please do! Your goals/rules don’t have to match mine. But I know I’m not alone in wanting to try to carve out more time for reading, and hope the idea of a reading hour (or half hour or twenty minutes or whatever works for you!) will help others.

Caitlin MacKenzie and Anne Jefferson both had great posts recapping their #365papers reading from 2017. They’re worth a read!

Leveraging functional diversity in farm fields for sustainability

The latest issue of Journal of Applied Ecology includes a Special Feature, Functional traits in agroecology. To accompany the feature, we’re introducing a series of blog posts from the authors themselves. The first of these comes from Jennifer Blesh and discusses her article, Functional traits in cover crop mixtures: Biological nitrogen fixation and multifunctionality. Global climate, […]

Issue 55:1

To start 2018, we’ve compiled some of the highlights for our first issue of the year. As well as a Special Feature on Functional traits in agroecology, issue 55:1 includes topics such as conservation, invasives and agricultural landscapes. Here we take a look at some of the author and Editor comments on articles in this […]

Bears on the move: effects of human development and climate change on hibernation in a large carnivore

How is climate change affecting both black bear hibernation and our interactions with the species? Associate Editor, Claudia Bieber comments on the recent article, Human development and climate affect hibernation in a large carnivore with implications for human–carnivore conflicts by Heather Johnson et al. As we were enduring extremely high summer temperatures in Vienna, it was […]

Editor’s Choice 55:1 – Integrating local knowledge and ecological research

The Editor’s Choice for issue 55:1 is written by Associate Editor, Paul Kardol. The article chosen is Integrating local knowledge and research to refine the management of an invasive non-native grass in critically endangered grassy woodlands by Firn et al. Elucidating patterns of species invasions and the underlying mechanisms are key challenges for present-day ecologists. They […]