What if the way Covid-19 forces us to teach is actually better?

Well, I survived – barely – my first full semester of teaching online;* and I’ve jumped into my second. Will it be the last? My colleagues certainly hope so, with “I can’t wait to get back in the classroom” beginning to be the most distinctive vocalization of Homo professorius. And you don’t have to look far to find media articles condemning online teaching: it’s lazy, it’s short-changing students, it’s unfair, it reduces learning to watching YouTube.

What if all that is wrong? Continue reading

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Three reasons for the red pen

I’m gearing up for the latest offering of my Scientific Writing course, and that’s got me thinking about my (metaphorical) red pen. As scientists, we spend a lot of time commenting on other folks’ writing. I do it extensively in my writing course, but I also do it for my grad students writing thesis drafts, for my coauthors, for my colleagues who want friendly review of manuscripts and proposals, and for other colleagues when I’m a peer reviewer. I’m also often on the other side of the exchange, as my own drafts get marked up by coauthors, colleagues, and reviewers. I’ve been in this game for a while, and one thing I’ve learned is that most of us wield our red pens instinctively rather than deliberately. And that’s not a good thing. Continue reading

A year of books comes to an end

This is it: the last instalment of #AYearInBooks (in which I’ve been tracking the non-academic reading I do).  Here’s why I decided to do this. After I report on my year’s last few books, I’ll wrap up with a few comments on the experience.

The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955). There’s a certain feeling of dread when you pick up a book you loved 30 years ago and haven’t opened since. Will it hold up, or will you lose that happy memory? (Rewatching the first few seasons of M*A*S*H had this problem; as much as I loved the show, the early episodes, at least, didn’t age well.) I’m happy to say that The Chrysalids really is that good. It’s post-apocalyptic building-new-society science fiction, with a strong message of tolerance for the different – a message that hasn’t lost any importance in the 65 years since The Chrysalids was written.. I’m encouraged now to re-read Chocky, which was always my favourite of Wyndham’s books. One more thing. Usually I use the current book covers to illustrate – but check out the lurid cover of my Penguin edition! Remember when science-fiction book design boiled down to “paint me something alien, and if it’s totally unrelated to the book, that’s a bonus”? My Penguin edition does.

Hitching Rides with Buddha (Will Ferguson, 1998, also published as Hokkaido Highway Blues). The amusing travel book is a difficult genre to get just right; the line between poking gentle fun at the place you’re visiting and being cruelly sardonic or culturally insensitive is a thin one. Bill Bryson is probably the most famous practitioner of the genre, but even he occasionally failed. (My favourite of Bryson’s books is In a Sunburned Country because in that one, he failed in the other direction: he kept trying to make fun of Australia, but you could tell he just loved the place too much to succeed).  In Hitching Rides with Buddha, Ferguson hitchhikes the length of Japan, following the cherry blossoms from south to north. He flirts with that thin line, and I thought for a while he would fall across it, but there are enough touching passages to balance out the more acerbic ones – most notably, a long conversation with an elderly gentleman who was taken prisoner by US forces during the Second World War. It also helps that like Bryson, Ferguson is often amusingly self-deprecating. This is a fun one.

A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles, 2016). I guess I’m late to discovering this book, but if you are too, it’s just fantastic. It’s improbably fantastic, too: the story of a man in house arrest in a Moscow hotel, from not long after the Russian revolution through the 1950s. Thirty years in a hotel seems to offer rather limited scope, but Towles is a genius in finding sparkle in very small things – while world events go on outside, the eponymous gentleman deals with buttons and soup and two absolutely scene-stealing children, and it’s all just completely captivating. I did not expect to like this book, and I am so very happy to have been utterly, totally wrong.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman, 2013; illustrated edition, Elise Hurst, 2019). Oh, this is wonderful: the story of something fantastical, something creepy and scary and sad and also heartwarming, that happens to a 7-year-old boy in rural England. (No further spoilers here.) It’s atmospheric but also gripping, and the illustrations I think intensify both of those. I couldn’t decide if this was a children’s book or an adult book and the answer, I think, is that it’s both; but the way the adult narrator remembers (and doesn’t) the events of the story rings true in a way that I would have missed, had I read this (had it been written!) when I was young.

Pilgrimage (Zenna Henderson, 1961). I don’t think Zenna Henderson’s books are read much any more (although there are a pair of recent compilations I’m coveting). Pilgrimage is one of her books of stories (thinly stitched together in this novelization) about “the People”, aliens with special abilities stranded somewhere the southwestern US. You can argue that Henderson’s work is a bit dated, especially in gender roles (but then, you can argue the same about the Brontës’). But the themes of exclusion and belonging, and of how those who are different relate to a wider society, are timeless. If my heart is warmed a little each time Twyla looks at the Francher kid, maybe I’m just sappy, or maybe these books have some universal truths. Let’s say the latter, which makes me feel better about coming back to them over and over.

The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafón, 2001; translation Lucia Graves, 2004). This is the story of a young boy in 1940s Barcelona who becomes obsessed by an obscure novel by a forgotten novelist – and who realizes that a mysterious someone is hunting down and destroying every copy of the book. You can imagine how much I’d be into a book about books, and about the first third of this novel was completely fascinating, with rich detail and a plot with twist after twist. But eventually, it bogged down a little in its own complexity and I found myself wondering whether I really needed another belated realization that obscure character X wasn’t really what they seemed. It’s a bit odd to enjoy a book and still be a bit relieved when it’s over, but that’s about where I settled on this one.

The Library Book (Susan Orlean, 2018). Like me, you probably don’t realize that the Los Angeles Public Library burned on April 29, 1986. Not a tiny fire – 400,000 books were destroyed and another 700,000 damaged; but Chernobyl also burned that day and pushed the LA Library fire out of the news. In The Library Book Orlean intended to tell the story of the fire and the man who was charged with setting it. She failed: there just wasn’t, apparently, enough to be said.  So you’d think The Library Book would be a dud, as Orlean was left to assemble a rather ragtag bunch of library-related anecdotes to pad out the fire-and-arsonist story. And by all the rules of trade nonfiction (which is supposed to have a single ‘through line’, a question asked and answered), it is a dud – but I don’t care. I love libraries, and I love books, and I loved this book. Library trivial, colourful librarians (Charles Lummis, for example, who walked from Ohio to LA in 1885 to take up the job of head librarian) – what’s not to love?

The Found and the Lost (Ursula Le Guin, 2017). This is a bit of an oddity: a collection of (all) Le Guin’s novella-length fiction. Grouping a writer’s output by length rather than by subject or date is a little arbitrary, unless perhaps you’re studying the particular construction or accomplishment of the novella form. So this collection suffered a little from not hanging together. The first three novellas did little for me (Le Guin is at her strongest when experimenting with social constructs in the worlds she creates, not when experimenting with storytelling techniques). I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because the book’s centre is a series of six related novellas, part of her Hainish Cycle, that are just fantastic. There are also three Earthsea novellas (which I skipped, as they’re in Tales from Earthsea and I’ll revisit them when I, inevitably and regularly, re-read that wonderful series), and a standalone set on a generation starship. Together, these novellas show just how amazingly well Le Guin could invent different human societies – all strange, but at the same time all oddly familiar.

And that’s it: that’s my Year of Books. Looks like in 2020, I read 60 books.  (I also published one. I figured I should sneak that in somehow, despite its utter irrelevancy to this post.)  Some were old friends, and some were new discoveries. Some were terrific and some were terrible – and in each category, some came as surprises.

I know that 60 books sounds like a lot of reading to some folks – actually, it sounds like a lot to me. But nontechnical reading has always been my most important diversion, and my default activity when I’m not otherwise busy. (Five minutes waiting for the rice to be done cooking? Read!)  Now, 2020 turned out to be a year of completely, ludicrously, overwhelming workload, for me as for a lot of other folks. That definitely cut into my reading time, but it also made what remained even more important to me. As per the title of this series’ sixth installment, reading can be a refuge.

I’ll be reading in 2021 too, of course, but I won’t be documenting it as I did with this series. It’s been interesting sharing all this with you, but I was a bit surprised to discover that it changed my relationship with the books – and not for the better. Knowing I was tweeting and posting the books led me to occasionally wonder whether I was reading too fast, or reading too slow. Those are really stupid things to wonder; but it turns out that when you’re doing anything publicly, there’s the temptation to do it performatively:* to read at the “right” rate, to read the “right” books. And yes, I found myself wondering what people would think if they knew I read that particular book. I think I resisted the temptation to read performatively (there’s some absolute dreck on my list!), but I didn’t enjoy wondering if I was, or if I should. In 2021, my reading will mostly be between me and the authors and the characters – as it’s been all my life.

So that’s a wrap. I hope you’ve found a book on my list that you can enjoy.

© Stephen Heard  January 7, 2020

Did you miss the first seven instalments?  Need some books to read (and a few to avoid)?  Here’s the first, and here’s the second, here’s the third, here’s the fourth, here’s the fifth, here’s the sixth, and here’s the seventh. Wow, that’s a lot of links.


*^This temptation explains a lot about Twitter. If I read one more deliberate misreading of Love, Actually designed to make the tweeter seem really, really woke, I swear I will… well, do nothing other than roll my eyes. But I will roll them viciously!

2020 was weird for blogging, too

Warning: navel-gazing.

Did anyone else notice that 2020 was a really weird year?

OK, yes, you probably noticed. Lunatic wannabe despots trying to subvert elections; overwhelmed professors desperately struggling to move entire curricula online on a moment’s notice; idiots insisting that a scrap of cloth covering their mouth and nose is a fundamental infringement on their freedom. It was that kind of a year – thank goodness there’s now light at the end of the tunnel.

But you don’t want to read about that serious stuff, not this week, and not when you’d rather be enjoying that glimpse of the light.  So instead: 2020 was weird for blogging, too.  I mean, what on earth do you people want? Continue reading

How to review an NSERC Discovery Grant

This is a guest post by Jeannette Whitton, Group Chair for Group 1503 (Ecology & Evolution) of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (Canada) (and Professor of Botany, University of British Columbia). She has extensive experience with the review and evaluation of NSERC Discovery Grants (among other things!) While Jeannette writes here specifically about reviewing proposals for Discovery Grants, much of her advice will serve you well in reviewing other kinds of grants, or grants for other agencies*. It will also serve you well in writing grants – because if you know what reviewers and evaluation panels are looking for, you can deliver just what they need.  Dig in!

Some weeks ago, you graciously agreed to review an NSERC Discovery Grant (DG) proposal, or possibly two or three**, which makes you an awesome person, especially in 2020. Because of confidentiality issues, we don’t get much training with reviewing grants – but just as for manuscript reviews, it takes time and care to provide a thoughtful grant review. How I review DGs changed after I served on the evaluation panel and got to see what was most useful, so I thought I would write down some thoughts about what to focus on. I hope this helps those who are new to NSERC DG reviews – or to reviewing grants more generally.  Comments are most welcome! Continue reading

Do people really not know about research ethics boards?

Warning: I’m feeling cranky today.

It’s great to see scientists getting excited about doing interdisciplinary work – for example, in science studies.*  It’s embarrassing, sometimes, to see how bad they are at it. Continue reading

The teaching book I’ve always needed

I taught my first undergraduate course in 1992 (I think it was), as a final-year PhD student. I had no idea what I was doing.

28 years later, some days I feel like not much has changed.*

I’m like most university instructors, I think, in three important ways.  First, I’ve never had any formal instruction in how to teach.** Second, while I know there’s an enormous literature on the scholarship of teaching, I’ve read very little of it, and when I try, I usually find it impenetrable. Third, I care about my teaching and want to do it better. (Yes, I’m aware of the apparent tension between the third statement and the first two – but that will have to be a blog post of its own.)

What I needed desperately, 28 years ago, and still need now, is a user-friendly book that could orient me to best practices in teaching. Continue reading

Opinion, evidence, and preprints

Perhaps you’ve noticed that scientists, like other humans, can hold very strong opinions about certain things.* Perhaps you’ve also noticed that those opinions are sometimes backed up by voluminous evidence (gravity points down; climate change is real and caused by humans; vaccines are safe and effective) – but that sometimes they are not. Here’s a great example related to preprints.

Preprints are probably the most interesting development in scientific publishing in the last 100 years.** Continue reading

The Easter eggs in my entomology course

No, not that kind of Easter egg.

Our fall semester is in the home stretch now, much to my relief – and I’m sure that of my students, too.  My teaching this fall was entirely online. While those with strong but uninformed opinions were furiously tweeting about slipper-wearing profs dialing it in from their easy chairs, I was working hard – unsustainably hard – to produce online courses that work.

Was I successful? I don’t know. But I used every technique I could think of to make my online entomology course navigable, transparent, and engaging. Continue reading

Art and science in “This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart”

Read any good books lately? I have.

CP Snow famously argued, in the 1950s, that science and the arts/humanities were “two cultures”, with a gulf between them that was far too seldom bridged. While there’s been pushback against Snow’s portrayal,* it’s surely true that there’s more separation between the two than there ought to be (just as an example, I’ve commented here on the relative dearth of scientists as characters in novels). After all, if points of contact between science and the arts were commonplace, people (including me) wouldn’t be so fascinated with them when they do occur. Continue reading