Multiple choice

I’ve resumed a lot of committee duties and one thing I’ve been pushing for the last couple years is more TAs (we have the money) and fewer multiple-choice questions on tests. The argument is always that if we had free form answer there aren’t enough people to grade for the larger early career classes. Hence the need for more TAs. They might be correct because the most I’ve had in a class is ~80 with one TA. I haven’t had any of the 100+. That being said (and typed), I always have free form answer because I feel that best exams test the student’s knowledge. Multiple choice (especially when things are written intentionally to trick the students, like swapping a letter or using quadruple negatives in a sentence) tests will test what a student doesn’t know. I hated them as a student (bear in mind that I did very well on them), and I hate them as a professor. I see it as lazy. I brought this up, and was met with a lot of contention and excuses. And I understand all the points, but part of our job is education in the classroom. We all have busy personal and lab lives that we have to juggle with these teaching loads, but we shouldn’t be just caring about a grade number and trying to trick students into getting questions wrong. We should teach them well, test them for what they know, and assign scores accordingly. I’m all for trick questions, but I’m also for partial credit. If someone set the boundary conditions properly, but I inserted a trick unit mix-up and they screwed up they deserve a lot of credit. A multiple-choice test (unless broken down properly) would give them zero.

One person advocated for a problem broken down into multiple parts, then each part have a multiple-choice questions associated. So, outlining the problem gets a question, BCs get a question, math gets a question, solving then discussion both get questions. Then if they got the question wrong we reevaluate for partial credit. This kind of works, but still doesn’t fully test the students’ knowledge. In addition, this doesn’t work for classes that are, say, more biology-focused. There’s not as much critical thinking in these types of classes (which I do have to teach). In these, I still test them long-form, and I can really tell if a student understands something or not.

I know I’ve made a few enemies and will continue to make more with this campaigning. But I really do think multiple-choice tests are lazy. I will always make time for the students. The same goes for Chalkboard, which I’m forced to use, and which I only use to disseminate documents to my students. Everyone is busy, but students ultimately come first. I would feel bad failing a student for knowing a topic, but unable to decipher the convoluted ways I have to phrase questions to trick them. It’s lazy tests only what students don’t know, and I’m not changing my mind about this.


The holiday season has been over for a good bit of time, and I feel like I’ve finally recovered. I had to host a few people that made pilgrimage to see my little one, and some were great guests and some got in the way. Overall, it was a good holiday season with a decent amount of relaxation. We just took down the decorations (a pseudo-Queen’s Chistmas?). I have no teaching duties again this semester, so the last semester and this one I’ve termed as my babybatical. My SO has been able to shoulder some load so I can at least stay reasonably involved in my research from both an external and internal standpoint. I didn’t want to show my face too soon or I thought people would think that I’m a bad parent, but if I didn’t show up at all I felt like people would think I’m a bad researcher. I know that’s totally messed up, but I sometimes buckle under pressure that I most definitely put on myself. So I did some outside appearances, and have been keeping on my lab relatively well. I do feel grimy for thinking this way though.

I know my students’ hours have dropped off during the babybatical, but I’m still holding them responsible for a certain amount of progress. I suppose that my constant bothering them has allowed them to focus. Though sometimes they’re focusing in the wrong direction and I notice that the course correction is more difficult when I’m not on them more. It has been nice to not have teaching duties, but given the complete lack of sleep and constant attention to the baby, though rewarding so far, it’s incredibly tiresome. I don’t think I want to go through this again; I’ll gladly teach.

With my sole work focus being research, during moments of lucidness I have been able to start on a couple new grant ideas. I love my time with industry, and it’s a major part of what I’m doing, but my projects are at a point where it’s a little more on the basic research side of things rather than applied. I also want to wean off of industry because the heavy leaning worked well when establishing my lab and while every company out there was pouring money into new technology. There’s been less technology investment from talking to my industry funding sources so it is coming at an ‘ideal’ time. And this babybatical has given me the chance to reorganize.

Thanksgiving and falling behind…and stuff

I hope everyone out there had a decent Thanksgiving! Visiting family is always something I feel an obligation about. Having a little one automatically allows me to have an excuse not to travel, and it was great. So I invited a couple friends and any homesick students over for dinner and games. A few students took me up on it (never ones to turn down free food) and I kicked their butts in Mario Kart, and they kicked my butt in Settlers. Then we hung out in the freezing cold with a good fire going. I intentionally don’t ask about my students’ personal lives much, so it was interesting to actually hear about it. It was nice to see them for longer than 30 minutes a week since I’ve been away so much, and also nice to not be talking shop the whole time.

I still felt a little guilty about not going to visit family, but to avoid the constant criticism from my family it’s worth it. I do miss seeing nephews and nieces, but they know I’m around if they ever want to visit. I’m visiting an industry partner a short skip away from them so I might stop through for a quick visit next week. On that note…

The industry partners are less understanding that I’m on leave. They still have pretty aggressive goals, and I remember part of what I hate about corporate America. Everyone says they care about something (in this case, paternal care), but there’s a lot of talk and not a lot of action. It’s not necessarily hypocritical, but it’s very fake. And it got me remembering how corporate America can be so fake with regard to employee welfare, the environment, work-life balance, among other things. Profit is the only thing that matters to them under the guise of caring about other things, and while I’m on leave I’m afraid they won’t be so accommodating. So I’ve brought in another senior student to help with the work. I feel really shitty because it’s not like this will go into her dissertation, but I need the help for the next few months. She understands and has said she’s grateful for the opportunity, but I just don’t like distracting her at this point in her program. But I need to keep this afloat for the next year so I don’t have a choice. Every time I get offered to go back to industry to run a lab, I get tempted because of the massive pay bump, but luckily I remember all the shit and politely turn them down.

The little one is doing very well. The amount of time needed is daunting. I can’t imagine with my old job pressures of being able to do this, and I have a newfound respect for some of the people having kids while in my previous high-pressure atmosphere.


In nearly every profession there are superstars. And with stardom comes worship. This happened in industry where people would practically worship upper-management. Like some brainwashed cult members. In academia, the superstars PIs get the red carpet treatment and people lining up to see them. I could just never understand this. I never understood celebrity culture: getting all amped and wanting pictures with this person or that person. Correspondingly, when people would recognize me, I would shy away. I just don’t like the idea of worshipping people. I understand having respect for and wanting to meet certain people, but the worship I’m talking about reminds me a lot of cults. I have plenty of respect for leaders in the field (as researchers), or certain politicians or philanthropists, but whenever I’ve met one I shack hands, have a good talk then walk away. I’m not trying to be cool, I just don’t care that much.

I have nothing against it, it’s just not my thing. One of my students wants to submit for a specific conference because an important person in that field will be there, and he wants to go to “get his picture with him”. Not to network or anything, just get a picture and say they met them once. It’s a good conference, so obviously I’m not denying them if they can get a travel grant, but to me this is crazy. In industry, I would see coworkers try to catch upper management during coffee breaks to just see them. This is all crazy to me. I’ll never understand.

Taking care of myself

I was always a focused person: in high school I excelled in sports and academics. I had my pick of an academic or athletic scholarship (I picked one then the other). As an undergrad, I had no problem getting straight-As. As an MS student, I was able to shine even among the surrounding PhD students. I was off to becoming a lead researcher at a national lab. My PhD was filled with awards before eventually becoming the head of an industrial lab. Everything was lining up. Except that I only really mentioned work and school stuff. I didn’t really try to take care of myself emotionally or enjoy myself. Physically, I did (and still do) take good care of myself. Even with the new bundle, my work activities and physical exercise are still a big part of my life. A few days ago, I had just put the little one to sleep and after a long week, I just collapsed on the couch and sat there for about 30 minutes just looking at the wall. Completely blank. Every once in a while I have to remind myself to step back and gather some perspective and I’ve decided that this leave is my chance to do this. No one ever tells me when I’m running too hard, but what’s the point of working so hard if I can’t enjoy. When I retire and people ask what I did, I don’t want work to even come out of my mouth other than, “I was a professor”. I want the rest of the stuff to be about great times I had with friends and family. I do have those, but they frequently are taking the back seat and I’ve realized that I want to start making active decisions to prevent burnout.  I’ve been checking emails, but I’ve decided that I’m going to completely avoid this next grant cycle. In the middle of the Spring semester I’ll pick it back up, but I want to start taking more breaks and leave work at the door. When I go on a backpacking trip, I don’t want to worry about whether an experiment will provide useful data to keep me funded. I love what I do, and couldn’t be happier with my career, I just want to give the brain a break.


Tired and stuff

I never wanted to be someone who just stays at home under the reasoning of ‘the kids’. I have friends that have done this, and it just never sat well with me. No judgment on them, it just doesn’t mesh with how I like to do things. I’ve been trying to get out and not miss out on much with my service or research (teaching is excused this semester), but I’m beginning to just be too tired to do it. At the same time, I hate being cooped up. Also, I’ve been told I shouldn’t drink coffee. So I was just powering through all the tiredness, and I’m certain I look worse for wear because of it. At a recent service outreach event, I was able to bring the energy for the hour, but when I was driving home I had to pull over because I was so tired. Now, a new doctor said it’s fine to drink coffee. I have had a fair amount of physiology training so I assumed it was okay, but then when I was told it wasn’t I just followed blindly. Now, a couple cups a day has made a world of difference. I’m still a little too emotionally exhausted to do a lot, but it’s making a big difference. So I haven’t become the ‘I can’t go out because of the kids’ person, but it’s incredibly tempting.

One of my better students is preparing to graduate. I just finished markups on their dissertation. It took a long time because of the tired. Also, it took a long time because I look at their body of work and just keep thinking, “how the heck am I going to replace this student?”. They are heavily responsible for some big grants I brought in. I go through this every time a strong student prepares to leave, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over this. In industry, when people left I never felt this way. I would wish them well, put out a job posting, then work would slow, but always recover. They were relatively interchangeable. I don’t know why this is different. I trained up both the industry employees and my students, spent just as much time with them, and I don’t see the difference other than my internal panic. I’ve gone through this before, and I’ve written about this before, I just don’t have the energy right now to train another student. The gas is running low.

Fluorescence versus bioluminescence

As part of my service activities, I regularly participate in a few family scientific outreach events. Some kids that come in from their schools are supervised by their teachers, and some kids are visiting with their parents. The most recent event was at an aquarium. S.O. walked around with the little one and got some funny pictures with them making big-eyes at the larger-than-them fish swimming about. I was stationed as a docent. At this aquarium, like many aquariums, there were some jellyfish. This is where I was stationed. Many a child would come up and ask why some jellies would have bright green colors, and maybe why a comb jelly had rainbow colors. I would explain fluorescence and diffraction in a simplistic way, then they stare for a bit at pretty colors, thank me, and walk off. Maybe they won’t remember that in 15 years, but for a second they got a little smarter. Cool shit.

Now, when a parent walks up with the kids and the kids inevitably ask the “where do the pretty colors come from?” question, the parents will almost always respond with “bioluminescence”. Some jellies do have bioluminescence, but these do not. And I feel like a dick if I contradict the parent in front of their kids. So I let them walk off having bad information. What I don’t understand is that the parents could have read the information blurb about the fluorescence or diffraction responsible for the pretty colors, or ask the person wearing an aquarium docent shirt (me). I’m hoping that the person just didn’t know better and thought they knew, but not knowing the differences between fluorescence, diffraction, and bioluminescence are annoying to me. And then the child asked how bioluminescence occurs and the parent said “they just glow”. I was biting my tongue hard. At a different event, a parent talked about the octopus’s ear hole at the tank I was stationed at. Octopods do allegedly have an ear-like apparatus, but it’s not the funnel. Now the kid thinks the funnel is an ear hole because dad couldn’t be bothered to ask me about it (or read).

In my day-to-day life I ask a lot of questions if I don’t know the answer. More and more I have been coming across people that act like they know, but really don’t. And I think that they don’t know that they don’t know, which is worse to me. This has been happening with my students and collaborators, too. And I never know if it’s okay to correct them/I’m too scared to. So I sit silently and just let them spew incorrect information, and educate other people that believe them. I just wanted to get this off my chest (also, this versus that). That’s it.