Another fine mess.

Dr Chuck Pearson

Posts Tagged ‘academia

One more meaning of open

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This post, and all others with the “openlearning” tag, are part of the #OpenLearning17 cMOOC that is ongoing under the auspices of the AAC&U. However, none of these posts are going be very neat reflections on the week’s events and readings, and I’m limiting myself to a short amount of time to compose them and leave them in an attempt to redevelop a discipline of blog writing. We will see where this takes us.

I was reminded a little more than a year ago of what I’ve always wanted “open” to mean in my classes.

I was getting to know a couple of pretty nifty football players in my physics classes at Tennessee Tech in Fall 2015, and was reveling in getting to further my bit of football nerd with guys who played. I remember thinking that this was going to be a bit of fun the afternoon the football player in my PHYS 2020 section dropped by the office to ask a couple of questions about the first exam and the conversation turned towards the end to his high school teammate who was quarterbacking the Iowa Hawkeyes, which of course brings out the BIG TENNNNNNNNNNNNNN [1] fan in me, because I forever wanna go back to Ohio State, to ol’ Columbus-town. [2]

I’ve always enjoyed the student-athletes in my classes, and always enjoyed the ways they broke the “dumb jock” stereotypes – especially the football players who owned their science coursework, from the elite linebacker slaving over a copy machine in the library to the placekicker owning a physics lab by sheer force of personality to the wide receiver making the mathematics behind classical mechanics look far too easy. I’ve always felt like I understood the double life those athletes have to lead, and that I’d supported them as well as I could.

I believed that until roughly the afternoon of November 8, 2015.

I’d recognized there had been tensions building at Mizzou all fall, and I think I had heard a rumor or two about a graduate student leader organizing action in defense of both grad students and African-Americans. (Naturally, I was more concerned about the graduate students and whether they’d have insurance on their assistantships.) I know I hadn’t heard a lick about what Concerned Student 1950 was, or how that leader was so alienated by his university’s lack of concern about the racism he experienced on a regular basis that he was moved to hunger strike.

And when that alienation drove players on the football team to tell their coach that they didn’t feel like it was time for games, and their coach (and all credit to Gary Pinkel forever for his immediate support) arranged for that picture to demonstrate that he stood with those players, my lone reaction was “I really don’t have a clue, do I?”

So many others have described that disconnect, but I’ve since always thought Bill Connelly described it best when he described his own experience as a student:

There have always been two Missouri campuses, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that isn’t unique for college towns. There has always been unofficial segregation, and most of it comes by choice. You gravitate toward that with which you are familiar, even (or especially) when in unfamiliar territory. Maybe that means people from your high school. Maybe that means people of your color.

I was lucky. Mizzou attracts a pretty diverse population, in part because of the journalism school. My dorm floor was made up almost equally of students from Kansas City, St. Louis, rural Missouri and Chicago. I came from a small Oklahoma town that had more Native Americans than African Americans, but I was on a floor with quite a few black students. One became my roommate. Others became good friends.

You can find common ground with just about anyone if you try, and we didn’t have to try very hard. But no matter how similar we were in our tastes and preferences — sports, music, TV, girls, whatever — I was randomly exposed to our differences. One friend had regular meetings with an advisor as part of aid he was receiving to be able to attend the school. Another would act differently when we would encounter a black acquaintance on campus.

Little things opened a window into a different world. Things like attending the NPHC Homecoming step show, where you’re suddenly in the vast minority and having an incredible time.

It didn’t take much empathy to realize the experience of any member of any minority population is simply different. It could still be good or mostly good, but it was going to be different, and there was no way around that. And while every black student gets exposed to a white world while attending college, not every white student gets the same experience.

At one point in my life, I was immersed in the recognition of every different culture that made the modern university. You could not possibly attend Ohio State and not be made aware, and – God bless Elizabeth Gross, God bless her priorities steering admissions to the Biophysics Program at Ohio State – I was in a far more diverse environment than most at Ohio State. Students from all around the country, men and women, never as many students of color as Dr. Gross wanted but dang if she didn’t try. And then the international students, and she could have filled a program with students from China or India with the pile of superior applications from those two countries, but she made a point to push the admissions committee to take applicants from every nation seriously, and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and the Ukraine and Nigeria and I know for a fact I’m not remembering every example. The student who followed me in my graduate lab was from – of course – Iran.

Having the best program – having the best university – meant diversity mattered. It meant we recognized one another’s voices. It meant we recognized how we thought differently, how we engaged differently with the science.

That was an incredible inheritance for me to receive. And then I moved south, first for the postdoc in Birmingham, then for the faculty job in the deepest Deep-South part of Georgia. And although it didn’t happen all at once, my surroundings began to get progressively whiter, and progressively more comfortable. And my understanding of that inheritance started to fade.

Twitter helped some, forced me to pay attention a little bit better. But the Mizzou boycott snapped me to attention. I felt comfortable, and many of my students felt comfortable. But some might be afraid. Some might be desperately so.

I made a point in my next meeting with my classes to say that this was on my heart, and a guy like me might think he understands but he might not have a clue. And what’s more, he might think it’s cool to be seeing a bunch of football players in his class and enjoy a few yuks with them about the game but he really doesn’t understand a thing about their experience, especially when they’re black and he’s white. And I promised – whenever a need was in front of them, and they felt burdened – to be an ear who would listen.

I have kept that promise imperfectly, perhaps even horribly. I jumped jobs within the year, after all. And even as I left one group of football players behind, I entered into a new class at the new place and couldn’t seem to build the connections with those athletes burdened by that double life anywhere near as much as I wanted. Part of the difficulty is simply the age difference. Once I might have that cool young prof who could do no wrong and who everyone wanted to hang out with. Now I have students who are the same age as my own kids, and I’m the same age as their fathers – or even older. Father Time, the saying goes, is undefeated.

But even in this moment of history – especially in this moment of history – we’re still human, together, in a time where the laws are being torn up and rewritten seemingly to inflict maximum pain on the people who aren’t like me, who don’t share my skin tone, who aren’t my gender. It seems to me that even pointing out the age difference is so much useless whining. We need one another, we need to be working together and not against one another.

I care about so much of this open pedagogy movement, so much about making academic resources available freely (“free” as in speech and “free” as in beer), so much about opening my educational practices to empower learners. But – with all respect to Pomerantz and Peek, and all understanding why I should read an article on the “fifty shades of open” – the meaning of “open” that matters most to me is the open relationship I need with my students.

My student’s lives are important. I don’t need to pretend that they are simply in my classroom as automatons and their engagement and effectiveness aren’t influenced by what happens outside the classroom, what happens in their families, what happens in their workplaces – and yes, what happens in Washington, D.C.

I need to create the space that allows my students to be the most open, the most honest, the most free (and “free” as in without restraints, without judgment, without fear). That doesn’t just matter in humanities or arts classes, that matters in the sciences as well. Students need to be affirmed. Students need to know their experience matters.

And I need to continue to commit myself to the willingness to listen, no matter where that listening takes me.

[1] BIG TENNNNNNNNNNNNNN, of course, should always be spelled with fourteen “n”‘s. No real reason.
[2] to the stadium to hear the band, by far the finest in the land

Written by chuckpearson

30 January 2017 at 03:28

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I need excuses to try new things, or: Saying Hello to #OpenLearning17

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I’m getting ready to go to bed, honest.

But before I go to bed, I need to thank Autumm for reminding me of what I heard at OpenEd – that #OpenLearning17 is a thing, and is happening, and I’d fully intended on being a part of it.

Even as I’m still getting my arms around this demanding new job in this demanding new place, I am going to take a few hours of my time this spring to (attempt to) keep up with this and make a few public comments along the lines of this here syllabus. I have plenty of good reasons – nah, let’s be real, excuses – for doing so:

1. I’m still an Open Education neophyte. I threw in a couple of last-minute assists towards one open educational resource in particular that I love a lot, but OER are one thing; that’s not fully shifting your attitudes towards the classroom or your methods of teaching to give the learner more control and to give you less. I want to see more of what my peers at other institutions are doing.

2. I speak for two groups of faculty that don’t tend to get a whole lot of attention in these dialogues.

  • I’m science faculty, and historically physical science faculty (although I seem to be focusing a lot more on biology these days, darn that cross-disciplinary doctorate) and I’ve had roles in pre-professional education and pre-professional advising in particular. Premeds get a very precise list of courses they have to take to prepare for a very precise standardized exam that plays a very outsized role in their admissions process. Other pre-professionals (pre-dentistry, pre-optometry, pre-pharmacy) have different precise demands. The things asked of those teaching and advising those students don’t tend to get associated with “student agency.” How do we take well-defined – even overly-defined – curricula and bring open attitudes towards our work there?
  • I’m employed at a private (or, to use the industry euphemism, an “independent”) institution with less selective admissions in the Central Appalachians. When you think of private colleges, you think of places that have large endowments and a wealth of resources – environments that I have never worked in.  And when you hear of institutions tending towards open access, you think community colleges or regional state universities, not privates. The vast majority of my students are either local or are student-athletes drawn from a wider region (but still generally East Tennessee or border counties of nearby states). There are a lot of faculty like me, but I don’t hear too many of the voices like mine among the open education community. How do we take our rurally-educated, tradition-conditioned students and reveal the possibilities available to them?

3. I’ve had an occasion or two to start conversations locally about what Open Education is and how to go about implementing it – despite the fact that, at present, I’m not really anything that resembles a role-model. (This semester will be, I fully hope, my last pass at teaching organic chemistry for some time. Am I having my students purchase access to a vendor’s proprietary software so I don’t reinvent the wheel for a class that I may never teach again? You betcha. There’s open practices, and then there’s essential laziness, and I am fully embracing the latter right now.) I need more deliberate ideas for how I go about becoming somebody who has practices that can be pointed to, especially if (as above) I’m constructing those practices specifically within that premed-education context.

4. I still have a ton of thoughts throwing around my head about my fall, and everybody’s fall in particular, and a really stupid election, and a really amazing conference, and these people who have come into my life both locally and internationally and have been inspiration and dedication and love. I’m not going to get them out without a framework. This is a nifty and relevant framework. Let’s go, then.


So, #OpenLearning17, then. I’m going to speak up, and probably be kind of dumb doing so, and probably leave myself open to be shouted down a bit. That’s fine. I have a lot to learn.

Be patient with me. I will be listening.

But first, sleep.

Written by chuckpearson

23 January 2017 at 04:11

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What it means to go home

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(1) I have written entirely too many of these things, because I have moved my family around entirely too many times.

Real Professional Development Goal, August 2016-forever: make this the last of these things I ever write.

(2) In July of 2011, I wrote this:

I have been offered a position at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, VA, to teach chemistry and physics and play a key role in building that school’s natural science department. The position and the surrounding professional development is nothing short of the perfect job for this point in my career.


For those of you who came into my orbit sometime after that, and don’t know how that story ended, it ended with financial problems overrunning the college, and getting laid off not even three years later. It was not a fun time.

Now for you to be convinced that I’m crazy: I still believe what I said five years ago to be true.

With all respect and love to my friends in Georgia who were so good to me, but who I left to chase what was to me a dream of a job: Virginia Intermont was where I found and made a home. I thought I loved the mountains when I lived in Rome (Georgia, y’all) and worked at Shorter. In Bristol, I knew. I saw this forgotten and less fashionable part of the country and, being a less fashionable person myself, I found a real sense of place.

I went all-in on Virginia Intermont because I saw what was possible for that kind of school in that season of time when I was at Shorter, how the unlikely student could grow into the leader and the visionary. I built an entirely-too-vivid picture of what that looked like at VI. I wanted to see that vision become a reality, so badly that I bought a house and made Virginia Hill my home.

What I found in exchange was the truest sense of learning community, unlike any experience I have ever had. It was the greatest of privileges to be a part of it. The students I taught at VI are people I cherish and love – every last student, through the good times and the bad that we shared (and God knows, if you’re that close, you’re going through everything together). We went through as difficult a transaction as anybody in education should ever deal with. They have been faithful to me, and I hope that I have been as faithful to them. Those students, far above and beyond anything else, were worth that move for me.

But they weren’t the only benefit. The other thing I realized in my time at Virginia Intermont was how much of an island I had been on in the work that I did. The very first time I went to an Appalachian College Association Summit, and had time to talk to colleagues from places like Ferrum and Montreat and Ohio Valley and Pikeville and Brevard and West Virginia Wesleyan – and realized that these people had been talking to one another for quite some time about the same troubles I had as a faculty at a resource-limited small private college in the South – I realized what professional development what would look like for me over the long term.

Losing Virginia Intermont didn’t just mean losing the school and the students – it meant losing colleagues over several states in this precious region who had wisdom to share and who knew what the difficulty in this time of history for small private colleges looked like. It was such a benefit over those three years. It ended abruptly – I was scheduled to attend an ACA Teaching and Learning Institute in June 2014, before VI closed in May 2014. The abruptness was as hard to take as anything.

The time I spent at Virginia Intermont confirmed some things that I valued and revealed new things. I always knew how much I valued the time spent with students and how much I appreciated institutions that encouraged the development of genuine learning community. I really understood – for the first time in my young-punk career – how much I had to learn from those who had done the same kind of work I had, at the same kinds of institutions I had.

And – there is no other way to say this – I fell in love with Central Appalachia. And I longed to make that place home.

(3) I have been ridiculously fortunate to have been at Tennessee Technological University for the past two years. I had wanted to chase after better, more active learning in my classroom for a long time; I knew the benefits, and it’s not like I didn’t try to draw communication out of my students in the classroom, but I was exceptionally comfortable in a traditional chalk-and-talk mode, and in a position where I was teaching three different courses at once, as much as I loved that diversity of work, I didn’t really find myself in a position where I could push the active classroom as much as I wanted to – or, really, as much as I needed to.

Observing Steve Robinson and Paula Engelhardt in the process of implementing an active learning curriculum for the algebra/trig-based physics sequence has been, in nearly every sense, a better educational experience than anything I got out of a postdoc. This is the stuff that will make me better as a professor: finding ways to make students productively uncomfortable in a classroom setting, and creating an environment where they aren’t just hearing information but internalizing it and making knowledge their own. I don’t have all the answers, and maybe I have a ton of experience with some of this stuff, but it’s so much more valuable when the student makes an observation, draws a conclusion, carries a new experience with them to inform how they see the world.

And I have been privileged to work alongside this whole department – but especially with Mary Kidd, Mustafa Rajabali, and Adam Holley in making this curriculum work for the wider student population. The one time before in my career I worked alongside another physics educator, I was a problem child and overopinionated and I am sure I torched more than that one bridge in the process. I probably was the same here, but rather than putting me off, these sweet people listened and challenged me right back, We have been, I hope, iron sharpening iron day in and day out. I could not possibly have had better colleagues these past two years.

I have very few regrets, but not finding a way to teach like this and engage like this sooner in my career is one of them; as much good as I’ve done in a classroom in my career, I am more confident than ever that there is a better way than simply telling a class what I’m going to tell them, then telling them, then telling them what I told them.

There was a thought that simply doing this work, and refining this work to make it more and more effective, would have been the most valuable thing I could do going forward. I did have the opportunity to remain at Tennessee Tech, within this department, and I’m grateful for all the people here who supported me and invested so much in me. At several points in April, I was seriously thinking of what settling in Cookeville would look like.

That would have been bittersweet. As good as it was to be wanted, it would have involved narrowing my vision – the career spent bouncing between disciplines would be over, the advising of students at various points on academic and pre-professional paths would be over, the focus on the wider institution and on higher education would have been over. So many things that I have valued so deeply would no longer come with that place. Quality teaching is so important, and being in a role focused on quality teaching would be worthy. But there were so many things I felt were undone.

And there was that tiny little issue of a place, a place where my eldest child was finding home as well, still carrying an attachment. And wondering if there was a way back.

And I reached a point where I didn’t think there was a way.

And then things started to happen.

(4) I honestly didn’t know what to think when I received that first email, except an old colleague was there and she had been pretty high on the thought of me getting the job and joining the faculty. I honestly thought the email came too late; we were ready to decide to stay put; I had other interviews at similar schools and found in one way or another that they were after somebody to fill a very narrow faculty line and could do as well to hire a young punk straight out of grad school (like I once was) than somebody who had been around the block a time or two.

And then a phone call. And a serious conversation. And a recognition that I came from a different place and a different experience, and a recognition that they were looking for a different professor and a different impact. We agreed to keep talking. And soon.
The interview, honestly, wasn’t like any interview I’d ever had in my career. It was comfortable, from the very first moment. Many of the formalities started to be dispensed with early. I was recognized, not as somebody who was a warm body seeking a job, but somebody who had a unique skill set, a unique background, and who could do unique things.

I started to understand that they didn’t just want a physicist, or a chemist, or even a molecular biophysicist. They wanted me – who I had been, who I am now, who I could become. And I could get a picture of becoming a far better scholar in this community than I am now.

Future colleagues – for that’s what they turned out to be, and what I was able to see them as from even the first conversation – spoke directly, and honestly, and with hope. Students spoke to what was good about their experience, what needed to improve, and why they loved the place.

I’ve left interviews before being completely confused about what the job was, and what my responsibilities might be. Here, I saw a role, and I saw it completely.

I have never been so excited leaving an interview (even as I left it to scramble back to Cookeville to give an exam). The place was not perfect, but the imperfections were very clear and not hidden at all. The job ahead was clear. And I hoped I’d be given the chance.

(5) When the dust settled, on April 21, I had an offer from Tusculum College, just outside Greeneville, Tennessee, a little more than an hour away from Bristol, on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest on the North Carolina state line.

It was an offer to join their faculty as Associate Professor of Natural Sciences, with teaching responsibility across physics, chemistry, and – my word, is this really happening? – molecular and cellular biology.

There are a host of other benefits and responsibilities that come with that. But, more than anything else, it’s a return to a faculty position serving a small, teaching-centered liberal arts (and, Tusculum would remind you, civic arts) college in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.

It’s work I’m prepared for in every way, shape and form.

I am as grateful as you could possibly imagine for the opportunity.

My prayer now is very simple: for me, forever, this will be what it means to go home.

A certain arch on a certain college campus. Thanks to Ronda Gentry for the picture.

Written by chuckpearson

29 April 2016 at 18:33

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On not knowing what’s next

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Most of you are outside of the Virginia Intermont community who have a gander at this space, and so you haven’t much cared about the fact that VI’s intended merger with Webber International fell through today. Go and read about it if you want. I’ll wait.

All that really says:  I, and a whole lot of people I work with, and a whole lot of students I teach, have no idea what our lives look like after July 1.  VI has not officially closed yet.  But the fact that the release talks about “moving with haste to guarantee accredited options beyond July 1 for our students who are not slated for graduation” gives you a clue how certain the path forward isn’t.

I’ve suspected that this was the direction things were heading for a while.  I thought I was ready for it.  I honestly didn’t have a clue, and having talked to a lot of sweet people today, they weren’t totally ready for the reality either.

So: if you want something out of me about our future beyond a massive shrug, I ain’t got it.  Sorry.  I may be able to do better next week.

What I know is this: I’m going up to campus tomorrow morning and running my mouth about physics and chemistry, and I’m going to do some stuff in a chemistry lab tomorrow afternoon, and in the midst of everything I’m going to listen to my students as they wonder about their own futures and how I can help them.  Which is, more or less, what I’ve done for the past 14 years of my life.  As long as I have stuff of that sort to do, I’m going to continue to do it.

A couple of weeks ago, after David Letterman retired and late night went into upheaval all over again, I remembered how Conan O’Brien carried himself at the end of his run on the Tonight Show and how impressed I was with how positive he was.  Today, I watched that again, and got inspired all over again.  Frankly, I think it’s the most Christian response to disappointment I’ve ever seen:

All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people that watch. Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you. It’s just true.

There are two things that are true of my life in 2014.

I have not gotten exactly what I thought I was going to get.

And amazing things have happened to me.


Written by chuckpearson

15 April 2014 at 22:26

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Facebook status rant, March 14, 2014

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I made the mistake of starting to scan a Department of Education document on gainful employment rulemaking (related to for-profit colleges in particular), just released, to see if I can get the drop on the higher-ed policy nerds on my Twitter feed.

I got to page 47 before my jaw hit the floor, and I haven’t been able to pick it up. Check this out:

Our analysis of the D/E rates component of the 2012 GE informational rates reveals these poor outcomes among some GE programs. For example, 27 percent of GE programs evaluated produced graduates with average annual earnings below those of a full-time worker earning no more than the Federal minimum wage ($15,080). Sixty-four percent of GE programs evaluated produced graduates with average annual earnings less than the earnings of individuals who have not obtained a high school diploma ($24,492). Of programs with average earnings below those of a high school dropout, approximately 24 percent of former students defaulted on their Federal student loans within the first three years of entering repayment.

Okay, now in English:

I know that there are any number of ways you can define “gainful employment programs” and that there are any number of devils that can be found in details in a federal report. But for ANY possible definition of such things, the fact that over half of the possible programs don’t do any better than a wretched high school education in actually getting their students paid – and that those programs base their entire business model off of federal funds – should horrify everyone concerned.

This is where the screaming about for-profit colleges comes from, folks.

(Be aware: there’s naming and shaming in this document, too. Long and probably not good for casual reading, but I like to cite my sources.)

Written by chuckpearson

14 March 2014 at 07:28

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Why I (stupidly?) took Nick Kristof’s clickbait personally – or, where #EngagedAcademics came from

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Let me make sure this additional waste of time is given the appropriate level of importance:

This is my navel gazing, then. It is long, and it is ranty. You have been warned.

For those new followers and the like who’ve never heard me tell this before: In my second or third year of grad school at Ohio State, sometime when I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a Christian and do biophysics and actually make some sense out of what I was doing for the rest of the universe, I had a conversation – I think on the old USENET group, of all places – with a guy who became, over time, a dear ‘net friend. He said he was reading Mark Noll’s book Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and I should check it out.

I had never taken a single serious thought about the concept of an “evangelical mind”. At that time in my life, Noll’s argument was an absolute revelation. And although there aren’t many direct ways that Noll addresses this, I found an undercurrent in the argument of the failure – of scholars and of Christians doing scholarship in particular – to directly engage with the public and to communicate why scholarship was an important thing. “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” – so somebody get to work on building one, then.

As I’ve progressed in this career, what I’ve found is that this isn’t purely a Christian anti-intellectualism that I was encountering. It extends further into all corners of American life. There’s not much of an American mind, period. The work of the academic – particularly the work of the academic that leaves a research-one university like Ohio State and goes to work at places like Middle Georgia and Shorter and Virginia Intermont, or (to choose another example) gets the modern languages doctorate and has all sorts of trouble finding a job, taking adjunct and visiting positions all the while – is incredibly misunderstood and consistently mischaracterized. It’s taken as an article of faith that the PhD has the office, and simply sits in that office, thoughtfully smoking a pipe and then randomly writing fifty-cent words into an article that only four or five people in the world will understand.

The upward trajectory in college attendance, the political importance of the completion agenda, and the wholesale transformation of the college-attending population – away from the mythical meritocratic best and brightest and towards university genuinely for everyone – demands that the vast majority of people who hold doctorates and get jobs in higher education spend the majority of their time teaching the traditional collegiate canon to people who, two generations ago, would never have set foot on a college campus. It demands creativity, lucidity, and a ton of hard work. And for the job to be done well, it demands a capacity to engage – to communicate sophisticated ideas in a way that keeps students on board and opens up a path for them to become content experts as well, if they choose to do so.

And the reality I’ve found: when you do this well for the students, you open up the capacity to communicate with family and friends as well. You don’t merely become someone who is an imagined figure surrounded by deep thoughts in an office; you become “hey Mom, this is pearson, he’s the reason I survived physics” (or “he’s my insane physics prof,” which often means the same thing) or something of the sort. And that can go double when you get off the campus every now and again, and you talk astronomy with a bunch of middle schoolers (even though the thought of a biological physicist talking astronomy should frighten you), or you read a quiz bowl match for the high school kids and take extra time to hang with the team who just got blown out of the room, and as strange as it has become in my life, you become somebody people want to see come around, instead of this isolated person.

I am one guy, and I don’t pretend to be anything different. The marvel of falling into the rabbit hole of Twitter is finding this massive population of people who have their own ways of engaging with the public, of recognizing this hole between what the perception of academic life is and what academic life actually is for most of us in 2014, and who are working their heads off to accomplish that engagement. They might be super-important full professors at Duke, or department chairs at Union, or underrepresented minorities with newly minted PhD’s, or underrepresented minorities who are doing all sorts of important stuff while finishing that PhD. Those are just the examples that I come up with off the top of my head; you ask somebody else who’s fighting it like I’m fighting it, and they’ll have different examples of people who inspire them with the extent to which they’re engaging people outside of the normal audience of academia.

We should be hearing about these people. They should be championed, and they should be inspiring us to do more ourselves.

That is why I read this latest example of a white male privileged New York Times columnist being clueless and found myself launched into a Twitter rage. Here’s Kristof core take:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

Obviously, this isn’t true across the board at every academic institution; if it was, Wikipedia wouldn’t have nearly as many articles. </rimshot> And for crying out loud, there are a ton of us who do communicate with the masses. Why not get our take, instead of just writing the blanket condemnation of PhD program culture?

I did immediately get feedback from one of my fellow travelers, though, who immediately made clear to me that you can’t downplay the importance of that argument; in her PhD program, she got clear and strong pushback because she wanted to write publicly about her sphere of expertise, and she was told that it would be “wasting her time”. If that’s so tangible now, okay, fine, I understand that take.

It still assumes that all of academia is research-one schools. It still assumes that academics are those pipe-smoking, office-dwelling, masses-disdaining figures from another place. In other words – as the New York Times is so prone to do, when talking about higher education – it assumes that regional universities and state colleges don’t exist. It assumes that teaching-centered liberal arts colleges don’t exist. It assumes that most church-affiliated schools don’t exist. Good heavens, don’t even speak of the community colleges.

And it assumes that everyone who could possibly serve as a public intellectual is a FULLPROF or is on the path to FULLPROF status. Non-tenure-track instructors? Visiting professors? God forbid, adjuncts?

Oh, but if it wasn’t enough to be wrongheaded, Nick Kristof had to go to where I live:

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.


Here is my Facebook page. You will note that I’ve been at this social media business since NOVEMBER 2005.

And – from DAY ONE – using those tools to engage with students. And, when the opportunity presented itself, using those tools to engage broadly with the public, too.

If anybody cares to share evidence of Nick Kristof being on social media before then, I’ll gladly eat that helping of crow. Maybe Nick Kristof really does get public engagement more than I do. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

Yes, I know that there are far worse injustices in the world that exist, even and especially tonight, than a bullcrap New York Times column. I also know that I’m not a small amount of privileged myself. I’m a white dude in academia. We have enough of those. We have MORE than enough of those.

But I recognized that responsibility very early on, too, and I hope you’ll find that the writings here and in the social media space reflect that, and I believe my work in the classroom and in public reflects that. If I’m done and the only people I’ve encouraged on into science and into professional fields are more white guys, I haven’t been successful with my work. I firmly believe science works better with diversity.

And ultimately, with much gratitude to all of you who have read through my navel-gazing, this is the point: I can’t possibly believe I’m alone in this. I’ve been in too many good meetings with people from across the Central Appalachians (with much love to the ACA) to believe that I’m alone in this. I’ve seen too much of the good work that my new Twitter-mates do to believe I’m alone in this. I’ve worked with too many partners in crime to believe I’m alone in this.

Charles Knight asked me this:

And I started to answer with just a few Twitter handles, and something in me snapped, and I replied:

And that’s how this mess started.

One request, if I can make it: I think it’s a fair thing to keep the focus of an #EngagedAcademics hashtag on academics who engage well, not just with each other, but with the world around them, and especially on those who make efforts to make the language they use language that can engage the public, not their discipline. I don’t mean that they dumb their work down; I mean that they make their work understandable and accessible for the masses, while maintaining its rigor. (The primary reason I love reading Tressie McMillan Cottom isn’t the rigor of her sociology or the accessibility of her writing – it’s that they’re both there, together, in an authentic North Carolina African-American voice.) We should be saluting people who go that extra mile in outreach, and who do their part to take the caricature of the college professor and shatter it.

That, at the end of the day, is what I wish Nick Kristof would have done.

And finding examples isn’t so hard. After all, I found most of mine completely by accident.

Written by chuckpearson

15 February 2014 at 20:59

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Throwback Thursday, starring a couple of photosynthesis researchers

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"Yes, Nicole, I know what you did there."

I don’t play Throwback Thursday often, but apparently, when I do, Nicole supplies me with the picture.

The woman on the left, Elizabeth Gross, is the reason I have a PhD. In her role as chair of the Biophysics Program at Ohio State, she took a chance on a punk from Rose-Hulman who bugged the mess out of her (and even drove to Columbus on something of a lark on a Saturday to see what was there, and what could have been a 30-minute interview-type thing turned into a 3-hour conversation), and then, the moment the words “Brownian dynamics” were mentioned in casual conversation, bugged her some more during his first year until she let him into the lab, with no funding and a wild concept of a project. And patiently, through every conceivable TA appointment imaginable while the research was going on, she kept letting me bug her, and even started to bug me back a bit as she got seriously interested in the modeling herself. We worked out how plastocyanin and cytochrome f get together to do electron transfer, basically by taking every computer package written to model proteins and other macromolecules and forcing them to do what WE wanted to do, whether that was what they were designed to do or not. She had that “feeling for the organism” that Barbara McClintock wrote about – she understood how chloroplasts worked, and had a gut feeling for how proteins did chemistry, and 99% of the time, she was right.

And that’s before we get into her metaphors that were simply brain-bending. Those who live in tin houses should not throw can openers, though, so I won’t touch that with a 12-foot Norweigan.

The woman on the right, Nicole Vanderbush, was in my first group of students at Shorter. She was loudmouthed, obnoxious, kind of a punk herself – and insanely passionate about whatever she was passionate about at the moment. I have no idea what drew her to me, and I honestly wonder why I had confidence in her in those first days myself. All I know is, I have never had a student trust me so much, and who latched on to an idea so tightly. She took that very same Brownian dynamics problem and ran with it, got interested enough in the proteins to turn out a research project that could actually be presented somewhere (the only student I’ve ever had to take those steps, and I’ve been at this now for nearly a decade and a half), and landed at an REU at the University of Arkansas – as fate would have it, working for Dr. Gross’ first grad student, Dan Davis. That REU turned into her own PhD project, and Nicole became a better experimentalist than I could have ever dreamed of being. Now she’s at Shorter – and carries the title of Assistant Professor, the thought of which blows my mind daily.

The place where they are standing is the office space at Ohio State where I spent the better part of six years of my life. It is, I believe, cleaner in this picture than it ever was when I studied there.

One of the biggest regrets of my life is that there is not a picture of these two women, together with me. They represent two of the most important stages of my life.

And yes, if you knew these sweet people’s personalities, it is thoroughly appropriate that Nicole has broken out the bunny ears on Liz, and Liz just keeps grinning as if to say “yes, Nicole, I know what you did there.”


One other thing that it’s important to note.

These two, the two most important people in my career in science, are both women.

There are not many guys who can say that bit.

It is a bit of a quirk of fate (or providence?), when you think about it. The right person to guide me through the PhD, and the right first student for me to start through that path.

I don’t know what to make of that, except that I’ve found myself uncommonly sensitive to issues of women’s success in science, in the physical sciences especially, over the course of my life. It registered very early on that there were many people who had talents who simply let those talents go because there wasn’t someone there who would affirm those talents, and who would talk about the path to doing science as a profession being available to them.

Part of the conflict within me over the current state of academia, the current dearth of jobs out there for people with PhD’s even in the sciences, is that we still need to address the gender imbalance in those professions, and take maximum advantage of the talent available, instead of losing people on the path. That needs to happen even as the jobs available is dwindling and the political will to support academic science goes from slim to none.

I’ve become very passionate about health professions advising, because that’s another way to nurture those talents and put them to good societal use, and the jobs are there for those who complete those paths successfully (even as those paths involve residencies and other sorts of credentialing hoops). But that’s not a substitute for our best thinkers applying their thinking to basic science problems, trusting that the benefits to them personally will prove over the long run to be benefits to society as a whole. And it’s not a substitute for ensuring that our best thinkers are a diverse group, with diverse experiences that turn into diverse means of solving big problems.

I have no answers, but I have a set of values that I find important, and I have a host of people in my life who have informed those values. And at key points along that path, those people have been women.

I am incredibly, incredibly grateful for what I’ve inherited, and I need to be a good steward of that inheritance.

This is why I do what I do.

Written by chuckpearson

13 February 2014 at 08:42

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