Teaching Controversial Subjects in a Conservative Area

Andy here-

Political polarization, the ever-widening divide between Right and Left in the US, is an obvious problem. We have lost our ability to communicate with one another: using different sets of ‘facts’ to back up our arguments, with the ‘facts’ depending on our side of the political spectrum. The internet has in large part facilitated this fracturing. One can spend 10 minutes on Google to find support for anything that they believe. For example, Youtube videos link to increasingly conspiratorial videos, pushing us farther apart. This loss to our collective conversation is damaging in most arenas, even in the classroom or lecture halls. When a collection of outright lies masquerading as facts meets science, it causes problems. When a student population has firmly-held beliefs in concepts that are simply not true, as a facet of their personal values or beliefs, this presents a difficult and unique challenge for an instructor. I was a visiting assistant professor in a conservative area, dealt with these issues, and hope to provide some help for those who are walking into a similar task in this post.

I loved teaching at Sam Houston State University (SHSU), enjoyed my time with both my students and colleagues. Some of this is going to read as if I was combative the entire time I was at SHSU. I wasn’t. I truly enjoyed interacting with my students (and most liked interacting with me, from reading my evaluations), especially the ones who thought about topics differently than I do. College is supposed to be about exposure to new ideas, after all. I find it difficult to let people believe in materially incorrect things however, especially when they’re detrimental to their lives, and to my own or my family’s lives. SHSU is in a very conservative area in East Texas, and my introductory, general education course covered both climate change and evolution. Covering these subjects meant that the students signing up for “Historical Geology” as an easy science credit got a more ‘controversial’ course than they expected.

To say that climate change or evolution is controversial is imprecise. Both subjects, scientifically, are not controversial, especially at the introductory level. Evolution is a multifaceted theory that is accepted by scientists and there are no competing arguments; this has been understood for 150 years. Scientists also agree that the climate has been changing for decades, and that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a potent greenhouse gas since Svante Arrhenius calculated the extent to which increases in CO2 can cause heating in the atmosphere (he was alive in 1859-1927). Both subjects, unfortunately, are controversial in the public’s eye. Today, 29% of the American public believe scientists do not agree that humans have evolved over timeand 32% reject the scientific fact that is human-caused climate change (and 24% are uncertain!). Walker County, TX, which SHSU is in, has 7% lower acceptance rate than the national average. When I asked my students if scientists agree or do not agree that evolution is a fundamental process describing change through time, ~20% said scientists did not agree. To say that my classes were comprised of more conservative students, with strong personal beliefs, than an average introductory science course in the US is probably accurate.

Teaching these particular students about climate change isn’t simply because it’s course material–it’s vital for them specifically. My second week of teaching was canceled entirely by the university because of the impact to the region by Hurricane Harvey. SHSU is a 45 minute drive from Houston, and areas of the town were closed. Many students were commuting from the south, and some had to miss additional classroom time. One individual had to miss many Fridays that semester because he was working on fixing his mother’s house. Climate change has a direct impact on that region, will continue to have a direct impact, and these students should be fully cognizant of their choices when acting as consumers or citizens. There is an irony to a region economically-driven by oil production reaping the consequences of climate change. That, however, doesn’t mean that the population should suffer

Flooding in Houston, Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The hurricane caused unprecedented flooding which displaced 30,000 people from their homes, causing more than $125 billion in damages. Image by urban.houstonian

Educating a student population with strongly held personal beliefs counter to course material doesn’t work well with traditional teaching methods. We not only have to teach students the material that they need them to understand for the course (past greenhouse gas changes, radiative forcing, proxy data, feedback mechanisms, etc.) but we also have to convince them of barefaced reality. We have to convince them that, no, scientists aren’t lying to them or the public. We have to convince them that we’re not in the pocket of ‘big-environment’, reaping the benefits of ‘big’ grants. We have to recover their idea that there can be legitimacy of the scientific process. If you say the words ‘climate change’ to someone of a Right ideology, they are likely to not listen to what you say afterwards because you’ve been written off as ‘far-Left’. How do you teach when your students might react that way?

A Hybrid Teaching Approach

Instructors, professors, and educators have to engage in science communication rather than teaching. Not entirely, but to a degree that can be uncomfortable. To explain: Science communication is sharing scientific results with the non-expert public. It relies heavily on a ‘values-based’ model, which is empirically more effective than the older ‘information-deficit’ model. The information-deficit model said that “People just don’t know enough, so if I explain what I know, they’ll agree with me.” That’s standard teaching. The professor explains the subject, the students take notes, everybody agrees the professor is telling the truth and that the professor has the most thorough understanding and information. The information-deficit model assumes that facts win, which simply isn’t the case.  We resist facts that don’t conform to our strongly held beliefs. It doesn’t work if everyone does not agrees that the professor has authority in the subject. If a large enough number of the class think the professor is a member of a global conspiracy of attempted wealth redistribution, then the information deficit model falls completely apart. If the information-deficit model worked, then no one walking out of a (properly taught) high school biology course would believe intelligent design or creationism. That’s simply not the case.

The values-model says that the communicator (professor, instructor, educator) establishes shared values with their audience and communicates with them in a back-and-forth exchange.  They then explain why a scientific concept is important to them, and why it should also be important for those who share the same values. That’s not teaching, in the purest sense, because it’s broader than just pure information conveying. That’s also not possible in the lectures we frequently find ourselves teaching.

Let’s assume that our goal is to take students who are uncertain about climate change, or don’t believe that evolution has occurred through time, and get them to accept scientific truths. Information-deficit isn’t going to get us to students accepting the truth, if we’re dealing with a resistant population. While not all of my students were resistant, I like to ‘swing for the fences’ and get everybody to understand concepts. Past students said they liked the ‘nobody left behind’ classroom ethos I set out. The values-model is uncomfortable for scientists, in particular. A scientific-upbringing, like one has while you get a Ph.D., prizes the ultra-rational and eschews ‘values’ for data (click here for a discussion about science being inherently political). 

Blending both the values-based and information-deficit models of teaching might be the right approach. We need to communicate information, but if we demonstrate to students why the subject matters, how it fits with their previously held ideas, or even provide space for them to blend their faith with known biology, then we move them away from irrational, ill-placed skepticism.

I had these concepts gnawing at the back of my head while I was teaching my introductory course (Historical Geology). There was one particular moment that help me see a blending as the correct way forward. In class I occasionally asked students to submit anonymous questions to me on note cards about either impending or just-covered subject material. I’m one of the only research-centric scientists these students might ever meet, and I know from conversations with students that they have questions that weren’t covered in the course. Sometimes I answered the note card questions in lecture alongside the regular material, like in my climate lectures. Other times they exchanged cards with 5 other people, then the last person decided if they wanted to ask that now-anonymous question right then. At the end of my evolution section I got the question “What are your values?” from a student. I used my answer to that question as my first slide when discussing climate change.

That’s me sharing a value that most folks should share: that truth is important, something that we should respect. I used it to set the stage for a series of lectures on climate change that talks primarily about the mechanism and past examples, but also talked about climate models, future projections, and why we’re still arguing about it.

The following are my suggestions for how to teach a subject that folks in your classes think is controversial.

Basic Structure

I opted for an overt structure to the roughly two weeks that I discussed climate change. I went methodically through a series of questions, going from “What can change climate?” to “Has climate changed in the past?” and “Why might it matter?”. Touching back to the objections that folks have to climate change and systematically explaining why they are wrong is useful, and makes a really compelling way to organize your lectures. Just be sure not to reinforce the incorrect material by stating it as a statement, rather phrase them as questions. So, you shouldn’t say things like “‘Climate changes all the time, so it doesn’t matter if it does now’ is wrong”, instead it should be “Has climate changed in the past? Yes, but here’s why that’s important”.

Spend Time with Contrarian ‘Evidence’

I had a student bring up a conspiracy theory: the Rothschilds were funding research in climate change and if the research came up counter to human-caused climate change they’d bury it. The student then brought up a ‘fact’ which I’d never encountered before, which they said had been buried by the Rothschilds company. The fact was counter to a huge amount of real research. All I was able to do in the moment was to explain the way things really are, but if the student has decided that the underlying data is falsified it’s difficult to counter. Since then, all I’ve been able to find is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory from the Napoleonic Wars and a Democratic DC Council member talking about how the Rothschilds control the weather. I still do not know where the student got their ‘fact’. I feel like I was under prepared to handle that interaction.

The index card activity that I mentioned above allowed me time to prep for these kinds of questions from my students, when I ask them for questions for the next lecture. I prompt them with “What’s a question that you’ve always wanted to ask a climate scientist? Something you heard about that sounds wrong or is confusing?”. On the spot, it’s difficult to do the due-diligence of tracking down the source of the student’s misconception. A student in another class wrote a question about Al Gore’s prediction of a sea-ice free Arctic Ocean by a certain deadline. The student missed several key points; it was about Arctic summer ice, Gore is not a scientist, the actual analysis Gore got that from was correct, Gore just used the most pessimistic number rather than the scientists preferred value, etc. Those aren’t facts I keep in my head, but I was able to collate them and present them one-after-the-other as a way to dismantle that piece of misinformation.

One way to view the interactions is as an accidental “Gish Gallop”. Dwayne T. Gish was a debater of evolutionary biologists. He was infamous for his rapid-fire objections to evolutionary science. He would place a simple objection, “There are no transitional forms,” and then another and another, then the scientist would need to explain why that’s clearly not true. The explanation requires a great deal more time. Any unanswered objection is then assumed by the audience to be correct. Such is the way in these classes. If you don’t clarify or correct a student’s point, that point is assumed to be correct, at least by the students you’re trying to reach the most, the ones that don’t accept the legitimacy of climate or evolutionary science.

In an ideal world a student would say, “Did you know crazy-thing-X?” and you respond, “I saw that somewhere, but that’s completely wrong because of A-B-C-D, and have you considered that person-backing-X does so because of E-F-G?”. It’s easier to catch something out of left field if you have some knowledge of the outfield.

Consider Your Approach

Telling somebody to their face that they’re an idiot for voting for somebody might be both cathartic and true sometimes, but it’s not that effective. Changing minds doesn’t involve hurling epithets, even if the president and his supporters are doing it (please see section My Perspective below for an important caveat). Scientists have facts on our side. Proving your point without literally cursing the name of the current president during a lecture in class is more effective than adding “*&@^ Trump”. Are you just venting your own frustration or are you trying to actively convince these folks who are wrong to join the correct side? By all means, force your students to grapple with the underlying long-term consequences of their voting choices, if they voted for him, but do it in the most effective way possible. Yelling at them is just going to stop them from listening.

An example: three students and I are having a conversation that explicitly turns to voting for Trump*. One student voted for Trump because Trump was going to redistribute wealth to the little guy, the other voted for Trump because Trump was going to engage in trickle-down economics (a failed style of economic policy that gives taxes breaks to the ultra-wealthy that then increases economic benefit down the class structure [it fundamentally does not work]). I tried to make sure they realized that they voted for him for polar opposite reasons, and that at least one of them had to be wrong about what Trump would do in office. Just like we try to do in education: making them walk down the path themselves, providing a guiding hand when necessary, and not just telling them, is more effective than yelling it at them (I’ll admit I laughed at the idea that trickle-down economics would actually be effective, but it took me by surprise).

I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the students perceived me as the messenger. I am originally from the Northern Midwest, where “hey guys” is a gender-nonspecific greeting for a group. In Texas it’s “y’all”, which is actually gender-nonspecific, unlike guys which is just used as nonspecific while being male. It’s very easy to adopt regionalisms accidentally or when it appeals to you for good reason. I’m living in the UK now and I’ve no reason to start saying trousers but I have. I fought the “y’all” change because it felt like the students would perceive me trying to co-opt their language to be more like them, which if you add me trying to push them away from strongly held viewpoints, would lead to resentment.

*This happened without me trying to get the conversation there. I try to discuss the political issues with my students, not the individuals involved in politics, when possible.

Talk Politics

One of the questions that stuck out in my mind most from the folks who already accepted and had seemed like they might have a solid understanding of climate change was “Why do some people not believe in climate change?”.

Besides the word ‘believe’ in there, it’s a really astute question. Why is it? The physical basis is solid and fairly simple. The question ends up being more of a social science question. Leaving that unanswered though, falls into a serious trap. If you’re presenting the physical science of climate change you leave questions in your students’ minds. They know there’s another side to the ‘debate’. While the ‘there are two sides to every story’ journalism trope has plenty of faults, we’re conditioned to expect to hear the other side’s opinions. So cover it! Without it you seem like you’re trying to obfuscate.

Explain how the Pope, the U.S. Department of Defense, and all oil companies have statements affirming that climate change is real. Go to Open Secrets and show them where the lobbying money goes (mostly Republicans, with the occasional Democrat from an Oil state like North Dakota). Talk about the fight to remove lead from gasoline (which has a great connection to the age of the Earth), or talk about cancer and tobacco litigation.  I also try to explain to students about the Dunning-Kruger effect and how confident non-experts can be when discussing topics (which explains the bulk of the internet). Explain how you can simply say the words “Climate change” to someone on the right and they erect a mental wall, not hearing anything after. Explain that the divide on climate change acceptance can be attributed strongly to political party. It is scientifically shown that climate change is a a political issue . By ducking the question you’re doing a disservice to your students.

Judging Pseudo-scientific crap (fact checking?)

A basic understanding of how to engage in sniffing out pseudoscience is useful these days. There are folks peddling all sorts of incorrect information, and students should be inoculated to that. It’s certainly relevant to climate change, where on social media stories about how climate change is all faked go viral very quickly. Giving students a primer on how to suss out lies, misinformation, and disinformation is important in your class and literally every other!

Individual Actions vs. Community Actions

Lastly, while this might lose your conservative students, it’s important to discuss with your students the actions that can be taken. While individual actions are useful and important, we all have our roles to play in conservation, those individual actions aren’t going to solve anything by themselves. The issue in climate change isn’t solved by one, two, or a hundred people starting to recycle (though that is a good end), it’s systemic change that is required to fix this problem. The end goal of doing this is to motivate the students to vote or to engage with their policy makers in some fashion. Them driving less is important, but the impact is not of the magnitude that we need.

I’m deeply uncomfortable with advocating for individual solutions. As a physical scientist teaching a physical science course at a public institution, it’s not really my purview to go into what solutions are politically feasible, unless asked. I explain the situation, I go through some of the solutions we have, and the implication is that the most effective one is to get involved politically. Because it is. That’s the solution to the community action; to involve the community in solving the problem.

My perspective

All of this has been from my individual perspective. I’m a straight white dude in my thirties. I look, and probably outwardly project, a more traditional set of values than I actually hold. That affords me a whole lot of privilege in certain situations. Particularly in conservative areas there’s a baseline respect that comes with students having to call you ‘Sir’, ‘Doctor’, or ‘Professor’. It works, I think, really well to act as a Trojan horse for these students as someone who is not immediately othered within their views. For example, I don’t appear as and am not queer, so there aren’t quick barriers thrown up that my views or perspective is from ‘one of them’, similar to how when the words “climate change” are used, conservative individuals ignore the rest of the argument made.

So your mileage may vary. This advice may not work, some might actually be horribly counter productive for somebody who doesn’t have a similar background or the assumed respect that goes with being a white, male professor. I chose to keep my preferred pronouns out of my email signature while at SHSU, because that’s a clear sign I’m a lefty. Part of my privilege is that it’s not a life-and-death or job-or-no-job situation for me to fight for those rights. I don’t have the level of righteous anger of someone marginalized, targeted, or worse by our government, which allows me the privilege to not having to worry about getting into many possible unsafe situations. I opted to not engage on some issues in my first semester teaching, and to only deal with very specific battles. Making sure that I taught my course material, including those viewed as political, as effectively as possible seemed like a good first step.

 

 

Implicit bias in STEM

Jen here –

This post was originally written as a response to an email that was sent out in my department. That email was worded in a way that suggested that women are not underrepresented in STEM fields. I’ve reworded and rewritten my original email here. Included in this article are numerous links to studies to support the claim that women and other diverse groups of researchers are discriminated against.

Language is powerful and in order to have productive dialogue regarding representation of diverse groups in STEM fields, it is best not to start with suggesting that any underrepresented group is not underrepresented. This is simply counterproductive. The barriers to women in science are worldwide and supported by quantitative data.

An article cited as supporting the ‘myth’ of underrepresentation in STEM (here) was directed at the publication results of women, but only samples American Geophysical Union (AGU) journals. Even if women have a higher acceptance rate by the 19 AGU journals, this is not a representative sample of ‘high-impact’ journals, as it is only sampling from a small subset of journals. Furthermore, it is mentioned we (scientists) should use caution when quoting specific studies, but the article is a news story- not peer-reviewed literature. We must take into account why fewer women are submitting to these high impact journals, such as Nature and Science. This is a systemic problem that is rampant in academia. Institutional policies and subtle biases within an individual’s academic career perpetuate gender inequality.

More specifically, data has been mined from the Paleontological Society and the North American Paleontological Convention to explore gender gap trends in paleontology. The gender breakdown data of members of these societies depicts a near even 50-50 split among graduate students, but a reduction to 25% women and 75% men at the professional membership level. This indicates that at somewhere between grad school and academic careers stages, women are being lost from the geosciences. There are easy steps to support these women graduate students as they transition to early-career stages in all areas of the sciences, such as: providing childcare at meetings, fostering mentoring opportunities, confronting internal biases, and conscious efforts to invite women as speakers. Women are less likely to be asked as invited speakers in a variety of venues, for example: TED talks and conferences. Additionally, work has been conducted to explore the likelihood of choosing women speakers at mathematics conferences compared to the observed outcomes. The author provided evidence that underrepresentation of women as invited speakers in mathematics should, in fact, be an overrepresentation given individuals in the field (easily digestible article on the content here).

The gender gap permeates through the peer review process, in terms of women suggested as reviewers and editors inviting female reviewers. The aforementioned link provides a comprehensive summary of many peer reviewed publications on the subject. Furthermore, the STEM community must take into account implicit gender bias (which refers to the attitudes and/or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner), a main contributor to the gender gap. Work has been conducted on the gender differences in recommendation letters, indicating that female applicants (to jobs, graduate schools, etc.) are half as likely to receive excellent letters versus good letters compared to their male counterparts. Here is an article with six tactics to counteract unconscious biases. This permeates into funding opportunities and invited papers as well and has a direct effect on career success of women. Women commissioned to write Nature News & Views is much lower than the women scientists in their respective fields. One study determined that male applicants were funded over female applicants on the basis of ‘quality of researcher’, rather than ‘quality of proposal’. As academics we are evaluated based on our publication rate, but if women are commissioned less to write for high-impact journals, refused funding more frequently, and given less excellent letters of recommendation, then publication rate is an inequitable measure. This has been recognized in the medical literature as well. A recent study suggests that this bias is much less substantial when grant reviewers focus solely on the quality of the grant, instead of the presumed quality of the author of the grant. Gender bias goes away when grant reviewers focus on the science.

Further complicating the idea that women ‘publish less than men’, women in academia-namely, those in a university setting, are much more likely to be asked of favors from students. Meaning, women are much more likely to spend extended time with students who ask for ‘special favors’ (e.g., second chances on assignments, etc.), Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests. Women statistically also do more internal service than men, says a study that surveyed approximately 19,000 faculty members across the country. Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family? This increased service load leads to lower productivity in other areas such as research and teaching, which can directly affect salary and success in academia.

All of these issues are even further compounded when you consider that women of color, women with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community are under considerably more discrimination than white, heterosexual, cisgender, nondisabled women (accessibility in the geosciences). There are a multitude of studies indicating that academics that are part of more than one underrepresented group are further discriminated against (e.g. Racial Microaggressions Against Black Counseling and Counseling Psychology Faculty; Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards). While there are numerous variables involved in understanding these biases, we do know that these biases affect people very early in life, as there are many studies that identify problems like students of color are less likely to be identified as gifted by their teachers, thus taking away opportunities at a formative time (read more here).

To create a more inclusive and diverse scientific community we must recognize our implicit bias and work to support and encourage diversity. The onus should not  rest on women and other underrepresented groups to  fix the systemic discrimination in academia, as well as provide evidence that it exists every time issues arise concerning it. 

Related article (here) by Dr. Phoebe Cohen that has similar goals and is easy to read and well organized.

A journey into geology

Rose here –

Howdy! Today I want to share with you some of my journey to get to where I am in grad school. I am currently finishing up a master’s degree in geology, but I didn’t always plan on going to grad school, or even going into science.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, some of my favorite books were the ones on earthquakes and volcanoes, which were both very real geologic hazards in the area I lived. Someone gave me a book on identifying rocks and minerals and I started a rock collection with rocks I found down by the river or in my parent’s driveway. My grandpa loved rocks and geology and taught me how to identify various rocks and minerals and even pan for gold with sand and gravel he brought back from the Mojave desert in California.

However, by the time I got to high school I was struggling with algebra and higher level science classes and didn’t think I had what it takes to be a scientist. There were no high school level geology classes offered at that time and I didn’t even know that “geologist” was an actual job title. I discovered that I was really passionate about education and helping folks with special needs so I decided to go into special education.

This is the group photo from the 2012 GEOL 210 course at CWU, an introductory field methods course. We took this photo standing in the White Mountains near Bishop, CA with the Sierra Nevada range in the background.

After high school, I started at nearby Green River Community College (GRCC) so I could save money by still living at home. In the spring of my second year I had to take a science elective and ended up in Geology 101. I could write a whole post on how important geology classes at community colleges are, but I’ll save that for next time. This class quickly became my favorite class from my time at GRCC. The professor focused on how geology can be useful in our daily lives by framing each unit in terms of local geologic hazards to consider when buying a house or how to know what geologic processes have occurred when looking at a landscape. This made geology seem very interesting and relevant.

Now that I knew what geology was all about and what geologists do, I started seriously considering a career as a geologist. I loved the idea of studying the earth and the processes that formed it and are still shaping the landscape today. I especially loved learning about different hazards that affect people’s lives in different places in the world and how geologists can help prepare for and mitigate after disasters. The accelerated pace of college classes seemed to be what I needed to finally figure out higher level math, and I was actually enjoying my algebra and chemistry classes. I started paying attention to geology stories in the news and was in my professor’s office almost every day to talk about a recent earthquake or a cool rock I had found, etc. I decided to pursue a BS degree in geology after finishing at community college and looked into quite a few undergrad programs from Alaska to Ohio. I settled on Central Washington University, about an hour and a half from my childhood home, but on the other side of the Cascade Mountains so I got to experience a totally different type of climate and landscape. In the CWU geology department, every class that could had at least one field trip, and often more. There were good examples of almost every type of geologic process within a couple of hours of our university. I loved every class I took there and it seemed like every day was constantly reaffirming that this was where I was supposed to be. Even the informally dubbed “weed-out classes” I loved, which I was assured was the whole point: if you loved even the classes with 4 hour labs and 25+ hours of work outside of class time, slogging through all kinds of geology problems, then you were in the right spot.

Here we are setting up a geodetic survey station during a geodesy field course at CWU. We were down near Three Sisters, OR and used the GPS data we gathered to study how the earth is deforming (moving up, down, or sideways) near these active volcanoes.

When I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree and pondering what was next, I thought that I wanted to go to grad school, but not just yet. I had been in college for 5 years at that point and felt like I needed a little break. But then I attended a national Geological Society of America meeting in Vancouver, BC during the fall of my senior year. This is one of the biggest conferences for geologists every year, and there were scientists from all over the US and the world and from every branch of geology. I saw so many cool projects and was so inspired by all the interesting geology that I decided I wanted to be a part of that as soon as possible. When I got back I did some research and started sending e-mails to professors I was interested in working with. I didn’t get a single response to my first round of e-mails and was kind of discouraged. But I still really wanted to get in on some cool geology research so I sent out a second round of e-mails to completely different professors and heard back from all of them within a couple days! I was so excited to begin this journey and immediately started the application process, took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and waited eagerly for acceptance letters. I got in to two of the four schools I ended up applying to. I had a choice between living in Tennessee or Alabama, but decided I wanted to be closer to the Great Smoky Mountains (a dream destination since my childhood) so I went with Tennessee.

Here we are sitting next to the Borah Peak fault scarp in Idaho. This was during senior field camp and we had to map out the extent of the scarp and measure how much deformation had occurred.

I moved to Knoxville and started my master’s in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I was prepared for an adventure, but even this one didn’t go the way I thought it would. My first project didn’t quite pan out the way I thought and I ended up switching projects and advisors toward the end of my first semester. This is way more common than you hear about…I have several other friends who switched advisors or projects as well. Sometimes it’s a personality or advising style issue, or sometimes the project itself is just not a good fit. The thing I had to keep reminding myself during this time was that it wasn’t a failure to change projects and not do what I thought I was going to, it just meant it wasn’t a good fit for me.

So I was on to my new project: contributing to a geologic map of a local area on Mars. Before starting this project, I didn’t know scientists even had the data to do geology on Mars! I was a little disappointed to not be doing field geology on Earth, but I thought this was a great opportunity to learn something new and expand my skills in geology and mapping. I discovered in undergrad that I loved mapping and structural geology (faults and earthquakes and how rocks move and deform). This project combined both by allowing me to map structural features on Mars and try to figure out a little about how they formed and contributed to the landscape in my study area. Throughout my time on this project I have come to appreciate the

I’ve been on this project for two and a half years now and I’m nearly done and thus began pondering again: what’s next? I applied to lots of jobs in geology or related fields and got only one phone interview. This is fairly common, but it’s still difficult not knowing what’s next. Then over Christmas break I remembered that in undergrad I had considered someday being a librarian. I am really passionate about reading and writing, about the community spaces libraries provide, about making information available and accessible to all. I had sort of pushed this idea to the side while pursuing my master’s in geology, as a “someday dream”. Now that I was almost done with my geology studies, I decided maybe “someday” was actually “now”. I did some research, talked to friends who were librarians, and sent more e-mails to professors. I ended up applying and being accepted to the Information Sciences program at UT to start in Fall 2018. I am so excited to explore the possibilities of combining my passion for geology and information: some potential jobs include positions at state geology libraries, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) library, national labs, or as a subject librarian at academic libraries.

Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School

Megan here-

Graduate school is one of those experiences that can bring out the worst in you. Sure, there are a handful of encouraging moments; like when you read a paper and actually understand it, or finally figure out what your advisor was asking you to do (even though you can’t actually do it, at least you now know what it is that you can’t do). Victories are few and far between, and the continual obstacles and failures take a toll on students. Filmmaker and once-PhD student Duncan Jones said it best: “When I was at graduate school you wouldn’t have recognized me I was so different — and not a nice person: a grumpy, surly, upset, confused, lost person.”

A theme among graduate students is feeling lost and confused, and consequently becoming upset that you’re lost and confused. You develop insecurities and wonder if you’re even supposed to be a Master’s or PhD student at all. The feeling grows and persists, all while undermining your confidence. This is the Impostor Syndrome.

What exactly is the Impostor Syndrome?

It’s a sense of incompetence, self-doubt, or anxiety accompanied by abundant evidence that you’re actually quite competent, intelligent, and hardworking. You are constantly second-guessing your qualifications and sometimes feeling that you’ve fooled people into thinking you’re smart. In fact, this sometimes-debilitating condition is quite common among successful people, and I’ve found it to be considerably persistent in my geology graduate career thus far.

Much of graduate school is admitting what you don’t know.

It’s true, you have to acknowledge what you don’t know in order to move on. Once you’ve done that, you recognize the information you need to learn, the skills you must master, and the tools you should develop. But in that process of identifying knowledge deficiencies, I’ve found that I end up feeling less intelligent and less capable. Letting my weaknesses undermine my confidence is easy. Thoughts of “I’m not cut out for this” or, “I’m not smart enough to be in this program” can work their way into your head and really throw you for a loop.

Despite this constant fear that I’m not doing anything right, I somehow still love graduate school.

I really mean that. Graduate school is this wild experience in which you probably have no idea what you’re actually doing or why, but you get to learn about the very topic that interests you most. You’re surrounded by equally ambitious peers, you work with revered professors, and you have an advisor whose fundamental job as an advisor is to make you better at what you do. There are definitely frustrating, disheartening, sit-in-your-office-and-contemplate-whether-geology-matters moments. And when Impostor Syndrome gets the best of you, here’s some advice.

My advice:

  1. Use logic against negative thoughts. Whenever these “impostor” thoughts begin to brew in your mind, try to remind yourself that Impostor Syndrome tends to affect successful people. Consequently, you must be successful and competent too. Check out this comic from PHD Comics for a good laugh and a nice reminder that you’re not alone.
  2. Practice internal validation. Many people thrive off of external validation, like praise from their peers or professors. Try complimenting yourself and focusing on acknowledging the effort you’ve put into your research.
  3. Avoid comparing yourself to others. Every student has had a different educational experience leading up to graduate school. When we compare ourselves to our peers, we often identify insufficiencies in ourselves and end up feeling unintelligent or incapable. Instead, recognize your skills and abilities, then use this opportunity to collaborate with your peers.

If all else fails and you need to commiserate with others, PHD Comics is a good place to turn. Check out their Impostor Syndrome comics (here, here, and here) and don’t be afraid to get lost in the hilarity PHD Comics has to offer.

Attending Professional Conferences as an Undergraduate

Rose here –

Attending professional conferences can be a lot of fun. I have had the opportunity as a graduate student to attend several geology conferences around the country, but the first conference I attended was as an undergraduate senior geology major, and it set me on the course to pursuing graduate school.

Conferences for many professional organizations move around to different cities from year to year, making it easier for people in different regions to attend. During my senior year as an undergraduate, the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA) was held in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, just a few hours’ drive from my university, Central Washington University. Because of this, our department encouraged as many students to go as were able, since it was so close that we would not have to pay for plane tickets or other large travel expenses. There are several scholarships and travel grants available to students who are presenting research to attend professional conferences, but since I did not participate in a research project as an undergrad I was not able to receive this type of funding. To keep costs down, many of the students and professors from my department carpooled up to Vancouver and we crammed as many students as we could into a cheap hotel room a few blocks from the conference center.

Once we got to Vancouver and got settled in our hotel rooms, it was easy to see that this was the perfect place for a geology conference. It was my first time in Vancouver and I fell totally in love with the views. There were beautiful forested green mountains coming down right into the harbor. It was easy to imagine the subduction of the Farallon plate under the North American plate, forming the tall, (geologically) young mountains, followed by the giant glacial ice sheets covering the area during the last ice age and then retreating to leave behind such a beautiful landscape for us to enjoy.

During the conference, I was able to attend many interesting talks and poster presentations on a wide variety of geological topics, including paleontology, planetary geology, structural geology (earthquakes and tectonics), volcanology (volcanoes!), and metamorphic petrology (studying rocks that have been heated and transformed under high pressure without being totally melted). I was delighted to find that there were so many people studying so many interesting facets of geology, and was inspired to check out some ways to get involved in research myself.

There were many events happening during the week of GSA, some specifically aimed at students, and I attended as many of these as I could. Most were free or very affordable ($5-$15) for student attendees. There were a few networking events such as career lunches with professionals with jobs in industry (e.g., oil & gas), government, and academia. These lunches usually included a panel discussion or Q&A, followed by time to just mingle and talk to professionals and fellow students. Most GSA technical divisions (Structural Geology, Sedimentology, Planetary, etc.) had formal business meetings and social events (often combined) during the week of GSA. Some of these were free and some were ticketed, though if they charged they likely had a reduced rate for students. I found that these meetings were a good way to meet folks in fields of geology I thought I was interested in, and most of the people there loved to talk to students about what they do. One of my favorite events at GSA every time I’ve been is the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG) networking breakfast. This is their annual business meeting, but also a way to get a good breakfast and meet other women geoscientists during the conference.

The exhibit and poster hall was one of the biggest rooms I had ever seen. There were hundreds of poster presentations of people’s work. This was a good way to spend time if I had an hour or two free. Walking around and looking at all the posters was a fun way to learn a lot about branches of geology that I knew very little about. There were also quite a lot of exhibitor booths for universities, geological equipment manufacturers, and various companies that hire geologists. Many of them were giving away free stuff (bookmarks, flash drives, pens), so it was fun to go around and see what I could get. I also loved walking around to all the booths for university geology programs and talking to students from other schools.

As a result of being exposed to all this cool science, I ended up applying to grad school for geology, and am now in the last semester of my Master’s degree! If you are an undergraduate (or even high school student) interested in science and you have the opportunity to attend a science conference in your area I highly recommend it.

Applying to Graduate School

Maggie here-

I am finishing applying to grad schools for my Ph.D. and figured some of you might also be currently applying to graduate programs or starting to think about if you want to pursue a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. My main goals for this post are sort of two-fold: what is the process of applying to graduate programs and how do you stay sane while applying. So let’s get to it!

Key aspects of this post

  • Look for people and research that interests you, not just locations
  • Contact people at the school that you would want to work with-this is key! Look for people whose work interests you and start contacting them early-ask if they are taking students, what kind of research they do, what it would entail, etc.
  • Communicate with friends, professors, etc. if you need help with your statements or even just someone to say I know this sucks!
  • Make time for yourself-do things that aren’t related to applying to schools and have fun!
  • No matter how daunting and stressful this is, you are capable of doing this!

How to Apply for Grad School

Applying for grad school is very different from applying to undergraduate programs and unfortunately a lot less intuitive. When you were in high school (or shortly after) and applying to colleges there were a lot of people who were around to help you navigate applications and there may have only been one application you needed to fill out to send to many schools. You could also choose colleges based on what state or even which city you wanted to be in for the next four years.

Grad school is very different in that you are looking for specific research programs and people that you want to work with, rather than a location. The location can sometimes be a driver for your research, but in most cases that really is one of the last things that plays a role in your decision to apply there. Grad applications are also more short statement driven; you will be asked for statements of purpose (why do you want to come to this school), personal history statements, and the ever vague “additional statements.”

Statement of Purpose

This statement really is the meat of your application. What has made you decide to go to grad school, what do you want to study, why do you think this school and this advisor is the only place that you can learn what you want to learn. This statement can be totally daunting because often there are no directions or clarifying statements about what to include. I personally like to include a quick paragraph that is more of a narrative- what experience in science did I have that has stuck with me and made me want to be a scientist as an adult? Did you go to a cool summer camp or have an awesome science teacher? Something to show your background and make you a human can make your statement easier for you to write and easier for people to read. After that paragraph is your chance to wow them- what super cool research have you done, do you have a research question that you just have to know the answer to? How does this advisor and school help you reach your research and personal goals? This statement really is up to you to decide which direction you take it in, just make sure that if a school does want you to address something specific in this statement that you answer it!

Personal History Statement

The personal history statement is a place for you to go a little more in depth with personal experiences that you have had (positive or negative) that have led you to where you are today. It can be family or personal matters, or even research experiences that you feel have shaped your career trajectory. In this statement you can also address any “problems” in your transcripts or academic records. If you do choose to address something that was a challenge to you or something that impacted you negatively, try to keep positive language throughout. How did you overcome these challenges, what did you learn about yourself with this challenge, etc. Grad schools and advisors want to know who you are now, not who you were your first semester freshman year. If you have something in your transcript that you want to address and a personal history statement isn’t asked for, I have also asked a trusted letter writer to discuss that in my letter. The personal history statement is a chance for you to show how much you shine, even in the face of adverse conditions.

Other Documents

This upload button can cause a lot of grief because it will literally say “other documents.” Don’t panic, this is not required and you don’t have to upload something if you don’t have something else you want to add. If you know you want to be a professor and you have already had some teaching experience so you have a teaching philosophy or want to learn how to teach more effectively, that could be a statement you might add. If you love doing outreach and you feel very strongly that you can bring something to the table with your outreach efforts, you can add a statement about that. I just submitted my first “other document” with my Ph.D. applications and I only submitted it because I feel very strongly about the importance of teaching and outreach and wanted to share that side of myself with the schools I was applying to. If you don’t feel like you need to share anything else with the schools, don’t. It’s not something to stress too much over, because this whole process is stressful enough!

How to stay sane while applying

As someone who is currently applying for grad schools, this is 100% the hardest part for me. Even though I have really supportive family and lab mates who read over every statement that I write, the process can still feel very overwhelming. You have worked so hard for so long and you just want these people you have talked to to see how great you are and be deemed worthy enough to work with them. The best advice I can offer is to surround yourself with friends. Some of them may have done this before or are in the process of doing this with you, take the time you need to talk about applications but don’t let it consume your life. Spend time with people away from computers, go do fun things, remind yourself that life isn’t just about school. Take walks during the day-I spend ~8 hours a day sitting at my desk and a lab bench and I have found that taking a walk with my friends during the day can be just what I need to feel refreshed and ready to keep working. Play with animals-my cat has been a very big help in this application process because he provides so much comic relief! Play music that boosts you up and makes you feel good-this past week my lab group had a jam session to the Moana soundtrack. If that isn’t love and support, I don’t know what is!

On when you don’t uncover a clear answer

Sarah here –

Last summer, I went to southern Indiana to do some fieldwork with my undergraduate research student, the wonderful and intelligent Sarah Johnson (who has since graduated and gotten an excellent job working at an environmental consulting firm in Texas). We went there to collect data to answer a really intriguing question that, I am very sorry to report here, we still do not have an answer to. This post is about fieldwork, undergraduate research, and even more importantly, the importance of reporting the experiments and the field expeditions that just didn’t work out.

I work on a group of unusual extinct echinoderms, the diploporitans (you can read more about them here). One of the many weird things about this group of echinoderms is that no one can find fossil evidence of them as juveniles- we only find them as adults. All living echinoderms have a free-swimming larval stage- meaning, even the echinoderms that don’t move much as adults (like crinoids) are quite mobile as juveniles! For other groups of fossil echinoderms (like blastoids), there are plenty of examples of very small juveniles that likely moved the way that modern ones do-as larvae. However, there’s no known fossil evidence for this in the diploporitans.

This is a specimen of an adult diploporitan, found near Napoleon, Indiana. We spent a lot of time this past summer looking for juveniles, but unfortunately, didn’t find any.

So my student, Sarah, and I went to the one place in the United States that we would expect to find juveniles, if there are any to be found- Napoleon, Indiana. The reason that we would expect to find juveniles is that there are a very large number of preserved adults there-which makes it more likely that smaller ones would also be there (too small to see with your eyes). Sarah and I searched the outcrop for hours looking for the areas that had the highest density of fossils, collected about 50 lbs worth of sediment, and drove back to Knoxville, TN.

Sarah and Russell Godkin, my other undergraduate research student, then spent the rest of the summer sifting through the seemingly endless buckets of sediment that we brought back-they used microscopes and analyzed the smallest sediment grains for all fossils. They pulled out thousands of tiny corals, brachiopods, and pieces of crinoids. However, after countless hours, they didn’t find a single diploporitan juvenile-not. a. one.

Obviously, we were all quite disappointed-we really wanted to find these fossils (and Sarah and Russell were really tired of looking into microscopes-but I digress). There’s an important lesson in here, though- the LACK of an answer is just as important. The lack of an answer can help us develop new hypotheses as to why we can’t find these juveniles and it can help other scientists better understand related questions about echinoderms and fossil preservation. So-never fear, the hunt to figure out what juvenile diploporitans looked like is still on!

The Importance of Mentors and Advisors Through My Academic Career

Helping to bring in a core aboard the RV JOIDES Resolution, Summer 2017. It took many years of training and several awesome advisors for me to get to this point in my life, where I could participate in super cool science and be a confident researcher!

Adriane here-

I wouldn’t be where I am, academically speaking, if it weren’t for a couple factors: my stubbornness, drive to succeed, love of fossils and learning, and support of my family and advisors. But here, I want to talk about how important my advisors have been and still are in my academic life.

I’m a first-generation student meaning that neither of my parents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Since grade school, I knew I would attend college, as my mom never said ‘If you go to college…‘; rather, our conversations regarding my education began with ‘When you go to college…‘.  As I grew older, I knew college/university wasn’t the only career path for me, but to attain my goals and dreams, I knew I would need to one day go to graduate school. But first, I had to get through high school and an undergraduate program.

I had a hard time in high school, as I was constantly bullied for being the shy, quiet nerd. I didn’t really fit in anywhere, and every chance I got, I skipped class to go ride our horses. Predictably, my grades suffered. By the time graduation rolled around, I knew I didn’t have the GPA to get into college; in addition, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, I began taking classes at my local community college, and long story short, I fell in love with geology as soon as I took my first class. By the time I graduated magna cum laude from community college, I was accepted into James Madison University in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

At first, I felt out of place, as everyone in the Geology department at JMU knew one another and had formed friendships.  I felt like an outsider, a feeling that was amplified by being a first-generation student and a transfer student. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one: other students in my program also came from community colleges! Still, my confidence in my ability to conduct science and be a great student were low. University classes were a different type of beast compared to community college courses, and the pressure was on.

As I moved through my geology program and took more classes, my confidence started to build. As a student in the Geology department, I was required to do undergraduate research. I was both excited and nervous about this, but knew it was going to be a challenge that would make me a better candidate for graduate school. By the second year into my degree, I had taken a paleoclimate and paleontology class. I absolutely loved both, and wanted to do a research project that included fossils and revealing something about our Earth’s oceans. The opportunity arose when one of the department’s professors, Dr. Kristen St. John, sent out an email with an opportunity to construct a foraminiferal biostratigraphy from deep sea sediments in the Gulf of Mexico. I leapt at the opportunity! I still remember the day I approached Kristen to tell her I was interested in conducting research with her. I think my face got red just talking to her, and I had to convince myself for a good 10 minutes that I should talk with her before I actually did.

Kristen (left) and I at my first Geological Society of America meeting. Here, I was presenting my undergraduate research.

I did start doing research with Kristen, and it went extremely well! I loved learning all the different species of foraminifera, and would spend hours at the microscope. I remember one day, Kristen came into the lab and told me I was working and researching like a Master’s student. I was over the moon excited to hear this, because it gave me hope that I would, and could, succeed in graduate school! Kristen was a very encouraging advisor, meeting with me weekly to chat about research and helping me find relevant papers. She, along with our department head Dr. Steve Leslie, even took me to the United States Geological Survey in Reston, VA one day to meet with a planktic foraminifera specialist! After this, Kristen introduced me to her good friend and collaborator, Dr. Mark Leckie, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. I was able to go to UMass as an undergrad and work with Mark for a few days to conduct stable isotope analyses. It was an awesome experience, as I was able to network with two scientists outside of JMU. I was, and forever will be, grateful to Kristen for investing her time in me to make me a better scientist and more confident researcher.

By the third Fall I was at JMU, I attended my first big geology meeting where I presented my undergraduate research. It was here that had also set up meetings with potential graduate school advisors. I was still torn between majoring in paleoclimatology or paleontology, so I had contacted professors working in both fields. My heart was set on going to UMass to work in Mark’s lab, but at the time, his lab was full and he didn’t have funding. I was crushed, but carried on. I met with several professors at the meeting, all of whom were encouraging about pursuing an MS degree with them at their university. One of the other professors I met with at the meeting was Dr. Alycia Stigall, who was a friend of my undergrad professor Steve. I sat down with Alycia for about 20 minutes, and instantly liked her (read her ‘Meet the Scientist’ post here).

My last year in undergrad, I ended up applying to about 6 universities for graduate school. I was so nervous that I wouldn’t get in, as my confidence was still lower than most students’. The day I got the email from Alycia that I was accepted in her lab and the Ohio University program as a fully-funded teaching assistant, I cried with joy! I moved to southeastern Ohio the following Fall to start my life as a Master’s student specializing in paleontology. It was here, at Ohio University, that I met Jen.

Me, Jen, and Alycia at an outcrop in Estonia. This was my first international geology meeting.

Working with Alycia and with her other graduate students was an amazing experience. At JMU, I never had confidence in my math skills, but after taking a few classes at Ohio, I was doing statistics and learning how to code. I taught my first paleontology labs, and even helped Alycia create a new class for the department. In addition, I was able to publish my first paper during my first year, and present research at an international meeting. I flourished working alongside Alycia, as I felt totally comfortable in her lab and with her. Most of the other graduate students in the lab were from divorced, low income, and/or conservative families, so we had a lot in common. I didn’t feel like an outsider, and often talked with my lab mates and Alycia about my home life.

But it wasn’t just that I was comfortable at OU, I had a mentor, an advisor, a colleague, a friend, and a role model all in one. Alycia was the role model I needed at this time in my life.  My fiance and I were talking seriously about marriage and about the future, and I wasn’t sure how this would work while I was in graduate school. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to balance work and life, and moreover, even have a life outside of grad school (at this time I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD). But Alycia assured me I could have both a successful career and home life. She herself was (and still is) amazing at balancing her academic and home life. It was because of Alycia I knew I, too, could be an awesome scientist with a family.

Me, Steve (from JMU!), Steve’s PhD advisor, Stig Bergstrom (me and Jen’s ‘Paleo-Grandpa’), Alycia, and Jen at the geology meeting in Estonia.

By the time I graduated from Ohio University, my confidence was soaring. I knew I could do anything I wanted to, mostly because I had been trained to critically think, problem solve, and had a killer work ethic. That spring of graduation from OU, I had been accepted to the PhD program at UMass Amherst in Mark’s lab (remember Kristen’s friend I worked with from undergrad?). Life has a funny way of working out, as I never thought I would ever get the chance to work at UMass. But here I am!

When I first started at UMass, I was scared to death. I wasn’t as confident my first year at the university as I had been at Ohio University for a few different reasons. First, this was the first R1 university I had attended (R1’s are universities that grant MS and PhD degrees, and generally have large and intense research programs). Second, I felt like an outcast (again) with my slight southern accent, coming from a lower-income family, and being a first-generation student. Third, I had totally switched interests from invertebrate paleontology in the Ordovician (~450 million years ago) to working in the field of Neogene (~15 million years ago) paleoceaonography (although I will always consider myself a paleontologist first before a paleoceanographer). I had a lot to learn, on top of a lot of work. But I persevered, asked a LOT of questions, and continued on.

Conducting field work in Colorado with Raquel and Mark.

Lucky for me, Mark is just as great an advisor as Kirsten and Alycia, something I am very grateful for. When I wanted to go on a scientific ocean drilling expedition, Mark worked closely with me to craft a well-thought out application (I did get accepted, read about my experience here and see above image). He also gave me the opportunity to build and teach an upper-level geology class, an experience that most graduate students don’t get. Through teaching and researching, I have regained my confidence, and know once again that I can do anything I put my mind to.

So, there are a few words of advice I have from my university experiences for any student wondering how they’ll make it in grad school and/or with low confidence:

  1. Find an advisor that you can trust, and that you click with. In my opinion and experience, this was the most important factor when choosing a graduate program and advisor. My close relationship with my previous and current advisors are one of the reasons I’ve succeeded as a graduate student.
  2. Find a mentor. Advisors and mentors are not equivalent. Advisors will help you through your education, but mentors are guides who will help you navigate life. Some advisors are also mentors, while others are not. Other times, mentors come in the form of lab mates and friends. Both advisors and mentors are crucial to survival in graduate school.
  3. Find your people. Make friends in and outside of your department. Being a student is hard, and finding friends to commiserate with and draw inspiration from are essential.
  4. Believe in yourself. This is cheesy, and easier said than done, but change begins with you. When you start being confident in your abilities, you’ll find your confidence will increase over time. Also, reading A LOT of published literature helps here too.
  5. When you are able to, be the mentor/advisor for younger versions of yourself. By helping students from all backgrounds and identities gain confidence in themselves and learn how to conduct research, we can all make STEM fields more accessible and welcoming to all.

I love introducing students to geology

Sarah here –

I was recently asked a question during a job interview- which level of students do you most enjoy teaching and why? I thought for a minute and then gave my answer-introductory level students-and the entire panel seemed surprised, which gave me the idea to write this post. Right now, I am a visiting faculty member at a huge university-my entire job is to teach a lot of classes every year. These classes can range from graduate seminars, upper level geology classes, to introductory level classes, where the majority of the students are only there to get their core requirement classes out of the way.

Don’t get me wrong- I love teaching and working with graduate students and geology majors. It’s a blast to work with students who care so much about the material already and who have a thirst to learn more. But what I really love teaching-and the teaching that I find to be the most impactful- is teaching those intro classes.

One of Sarah’s awesome introductory geology students, Kelsey, with her super creative timeline of Earth history.

Nearly 90% of the students in my intro classes will never take another science class again. Most of them, on day one, probably don’t even want to be there-I am told by the students quite often that they’re terrible at science, or that they don’t have any interest in the subject, or even that they have learned some terribly untrue things about science (many of my students come in believing that science and religion are at odds with one another and can’t coexist peacefully-not true at all!). So why do I love teaching them? Quite simply, I am presented with an awesome challenge-to change their minds about science. With every semester, I am given the gift to encourage sometimes hundreds of students to explore the beautiful world of science. I get to show students volcanoes that burn bright blue because of the sulfur in the lava and show them reconstructions of how we think the earliest and weirdest of our ancestors might have lived. I get to help them learn to take a few pieces of evidence and draw conclusions and expose them to a new way of thinking. Geology is an incredibly fun and exciting science and to see intro level students get so engaged and passionate- and to let them see how passionate you are about this subject (seriously, I’ve gotten teaching evaluations that have said “too enthusiastic about science” before)- is a feeling that just can’t be beat.

However, this is also such an incredible responsibility- we have to teach them how science truly works and how to spot bad science, which is increasingly prevalent, in popular culture. We have a responsibility to help them see how their actions, like not recycling, have a direct affect on the people with whom they share the Earth. These classes help students form their opinions on the issues shaping our world today-is GMO food safe? Why do we care if evolution is taught in the classroom? Do we really need to be concerned about climate change? If this is likely the only science class they’ll take, this might be the only time they’ll ever learn how to form their ideas about the scientific issues facing our world-and most importantly, found their opinions based on scientific evidence. If, in a decade or so from now, at least a few of my students think back to their intro geology class with Dr. Sheffield and remember that they should really use those reusable shopping bags or that they might know how to correct someone’s misguidance on climate change or evolution, then I will have helped make a difference. And what could be better?

I wish I had had such an eloquent answer during my interview- but if I could go back, I’d say this: teaching these introductory classes is one of the most important things that we can do as scientists. Don’t take the responsibility you have to inspire a whole generation of enthusiastic and scientifically literate students lightly!

What it’s like to be a new faculty member

Andy here –

I just finished my first semester at Sam Houston State University (Sam for short). My position is a temporary one. I have a contract to teach there for a single academic year (Visiting Assistant Professor). The ‘load’ is a 3/3, three sections each semester. I teach two sections of Historical Geology, together about 90 students. In the fall I taught about 23 students in my Stratigraphy & Sedimentation course, and in the Spring I’ll have 20-30 in my Paleontology of Invertebrates course. I’m also the instructor for the upper-level labs. Sam treats labs as a part of the same course, while many other places consider the labs a separate, so in another University or College this would be a 4/4 (four classes taught per semester). I have not taught any of these courses before, though I was a teaching assistant (TA) for a course at the University of Massachusetts that was essentially a combination of all three courses I’m currently teaching.

Preparing 11 hours of lectures or activities a week, a total of ~165 hours (that’s roughly a week) of talking and guiding folks through science, is a brutal non-stop experience. Here are a few things to expect:

You are going to be seriously bad at it.

I was the top TA at UMass in Geology for a while, at least according to the award and recognition I got. When I lectured for Physical Geology I had students say “He’s the best professor I’ve had at UMass”. I was invited to talk to the incoming TA cohort about how to be a good instructor by the University one year. I am really good.

I was not good this semester. I know this. More than just an ‘aw, I wanted to do better’, I was just an acceptable instructor. My Sed/Strat class barely got to Stratigraphy even though I personally am a stratigrapher.

You will make some really harsh choices.

I knew that I had to spend more time on one course than another. I could either do a boring, mediocre job on both, or do a passable job in one and a crummy job in the other. I have 90 students for two semesters in my intro class (~180 total) and only 23 in Sed/Strat. Historical is the last time many of these students are going to be exposed to science in a classroom. Therefore, I view it as a moral imperative to do a decent — no, a good — job on that course.

I chose to spend more time crafting a Historical course. Making that choice was horrible, and I could tell that that my upper-class students knew I was phoning in some days. There were occasional times where I managed to work far enough ahead in Historical that I could spend time developing an interesting day in Sed/Strat. When that happened, the difference in the room was noticeable. I had students come to my office and tell me that it was a much better lecture and fascinating. It sucks to realize that you are failing a certain section. Make your peace with that, because it will happen. Maybe not catastrophic, but significant issues will happen, even.

You will burn out long before the students.

Before Thanksgiving I was just destroyed. In a single day four or five different students told me that I looked tired and asked if I was ok. It’s honestly hard to write about that because the burnout was so bad. I have never experienced that level before. One evening I went basically catatonic on the couch. It was, frankly, scary.

The only reason I’m still standing is that I made time for my family and slept over our Thanksgiving break. My wife and I went to a movie, the three of us went to the zoo, had a nice Thanksgiving. [Note: this was written in between the last lecture and finals.]

You will fail your family.

I, with all the stress, was a less patient father, quicker to loud frustration with my four year old. My daughter picks up on that and has become more quick to loud frustration as well. I was also, equally as apparent, not the husband that my wife deserves. I wasn’t able to listen to her problems as I was constantly going over new tactics to reach students, or designing activities, or worried I was not communicating important ideas. Even while not actively working, you’ll have enough of a stress level that you aren’t shutting down. It’s a tough thing to live through, but it’s apparently equally difficult to cohabitate with it.

Yes, it can be harder than the end of your dissertation.

Remember graduate school? Remember the push to your dissertation, when you didn’t sleep, you got heart palpitations because of all the caffeine? When you stopped taking care of yourself because you just didn’t have the willpower or time? When you got writing tunnel vision and all you saw when you slept was the blinking cursor of Word?

This is that, but instead of just your partner, your family, your advisor, or whomever, if you fail you aren’t just letting those about 10 people down, you’re letting down the hundred or so students, the professors that get them next who need to clean up your mess. The students don’t understand the stress that you are under. It will not occur to them, even if they personally are naturally disposed to empathy.

“Dr. Fraass, why do you look so tired, it’s almost finals. We’re stressed, but aren’t the professors basically done?”

“…. No, I have two interviews to prepare for, a conference that I’m presenting at and organizing a session, and I also need to write two exams, grade them, then figure out final grades.”

“Oh.”

Your students will hate you.

I am a friendly person; I like to think of myself as very personable. If departmental culture didn’t dictate me using Dr. Fraass, I’d have all the students call me Andy, just like the departments I was in as undergrad and grad. I have students in classes that come and sit down during my office hours to chat, or make appointments for mentorship.

I was shown a private chat thread some of my students had going about the class at one point. Many of them hate me. I’m too hard, I don’t explain things, I don’t care, on and on. For the record, I hold nothing against those folks, at all.

With more than 200 people making an impression of you every year, many of them are going to hate your guts, particularly when you control their grades. Yes, some of it is griping or venting, or simply individuals dealing with stressful situations, not everybody likes everybody else. Nobody is 100% likable. With an N of >200, even 1% means somebody is going to be mad for a full semester. Factor in that when you start you’re going to hold folks to a standard different than other faculty, and it’s probably well over 1%.

Sit with that feeling. It sucks, but that’s part of the job.

What is this thing you call research?

I got the tiniest bit of research done. Even that was overly ambitious, but with a Geological Society of America talk and an invited American Geophysical Union talk to prepare for, I didn’t have a choice. I read a single (1!) paper this entire semester. It described the creation of a database, but didn’t have a strong analytical aspect to it, so it wasn’t like it was even a complicated paper to read.

I doubt I’m a unique case. Just accept that there’s a pause and you can’t do anything about it.

Advice

Create set pieces.

I am a stratigrapher, a paleoceanographer, a paleontologist, and a member of a number of other little subfields of geology. The most important issue of our time, and in my classes, is climate change. I carved out time to develop impactful lectures on past and modern climate change. I also spent time throughout the semester preparing for a week long mock-UN climate negotiation game.  It isn’t ideal, but by deploying a really intense, interactive game in a confined window, it minimized the amount of time I needed to prepare, while still giving the students an experience. I had them fill out cards, so I know it made a heck of an impact on several of them. I plan on developing a game for evolution myself (a significant minority of my students come to me as creationists, due to a lack of understanding science and evolution itself) since that worked so well.

It also feels great to really nail the ever living hell out of something. You are good at what you do, but much of the semester is going to be spent feeling like you’re not doing a good job. Doing a lecture about something that you really care about is going to remind you that you can be a good, or even great, instructor.

Get into a faculty writing circle.

Getting your next job, or tenure, requires publishing. Without the faculty writing circle I got in, I would have gotten no research done. A faculty writing circle is a group of faculty that come together once a week and meet to talk about research and writing. It helps to provide some accountability to be productive during the week. I still only managed 30 minutes on a really good day, but that’s more than nothing. Teaching is a massive time suck, and there is always more work that can be done to do better. Having a group of folks that constantly encouraged me to do more writing, more research, helped with the pull from the students and my department.

You have to look out for yourself. You won’t be active in publishing, but try!

Manage your stress.

Ride your bike to work. Do yoga, play video games to shoot some Nazis for that cathartic release. Find something that you can do to help manage stress because this is going to be rougher than you expect.

And I’d expect it to be really, really rough.

Have a shutdown time.

There’s been a 8:00 PM work-stop time in my family since my time working towards a MS degree. I can’t sleep for hours after I stop plugging hard on something, so if I stop at 8 I have some time to slow my brain down. It also gives me time with my wife, even if it’s just watching Brooklyn 99 or The Defenders. Work will be there in the morning, and you’ll be able to teach better if you sleep.

Teaching isn’t writing. Your students will be able to tell if you aren’t in the moment. If you’re on 4 hours sleep, you won’t be in the moment. You’ll be on autopilot. They will be too.

Be as specific as possible when writing exam questions.

Technically amphibians are ancestral to a dinosaur, but the answer is archosaur, man. Give me a break. Also make your answer keys as you write the test. It’ll save time in the future.

Be OK with a bad lecture.

They will exist. They will happen. You’ll have bad weeks or a bad month. Students will stop showing up, even after just one. It’s ok. My attendance was ~50% when attendance wasn’t a part of the their grade (Normal Sam attendance with it being a part of their grade is much lower.) You are there to do your best, no matter how many are in the room. I gave mine 5% of their grade just for showing up to the last week of school, which I told them about for the entire semester. Only 58% showed up for the full week. You can only do so much.

You have some time to fix things that come up. There is time, because you’re creating this material on the fly, to revise how you’re developing materials. I changed the format of my exams after my first in Sed/Strat. I changed how I was giving out review materials too. Don’t go overboard, though. Think of it as refining your aim, rather than shooting at a different target.

That said, strive to do better. A bad lecture is something to fix next time, and to try to do what you can to not have it happen again. But it will. Keep notes on what didn’t work, or what did. I wish I had, it’d be worth the time.

Lean into the lecture format.

They’re faster to prepare. It just is. They aren’t the most effective, the students don’t react well to them as they’ll bury themselves in their phones.

Do what you can. Don’t lecture when you have something great, but be ok with them. You are in survival mode.

I want to leave you with one thing. I was talking to a friend a little while ago. She, being far smarter than I, told me:

The first year isn’t about hitting a homerun. It’s about getting on base.


Survive. Learn from your mistakes if you can, but most importantly: Survive.

That’s the best you can do.