On the occasion of our 1,300th posting I thought I would give you some thoughts on a few of my favorite postings over the last 15 years. This is of course only a tiny sample of what I could choose, but it should give you a flavor of the type and range of the contributions we have had the pleasure of posting.
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A Few of My Favorite Things (from past postings)
Are women better principal investigators? When is it enough in terms of class preparation time? Are professors too focused on appearing smart to their students and colleagues? Why do professors have tenure and business people don't? These are just some of the hundreds of challenging questions addressed in more than 1,300 Tomorrow's Professor eNewsletter postings over the past 15 years. As current subscribers know this free electronic e-mail newsletter consists of twice weekly 1,500 to 2,000 word articles taken from publications, books, speeches, and papers - both practical and provocative - in key areas of interest to academics. On the occasion of this 1,300th posting I thought I would share just a few of the provocative ideas from each of the five posting categories;Tomorrow's Academy, Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs, Tomorrow's Academic Careers, Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning, and Tomorrow's Research. All past postings are archived on the Tomorrow's Professor website sponsored by Stanford University and can be searched by key words and phrases. Anyone can subscribe to the eNewsletter by clicking the SUBSCRIBE button at the end of this message.
Two of the most intriguing articles in the Tomorrow's Academy category are, "Why Professors Have Tenure and Business People Don't" (#106), and "Appearing Smart" (#526). The first article discusses the fundamental differences between academia and industry and why tenure makes sense in the former and not the latter. It makes the argument that in many cases higher education institutions can actually save money by having tenured or tenure-track faculty. Tenure is seen by faculty as a benefit just like vacation time and health care and they are willing, even if they don't explicitly realize it, to trade off higher salaries for it.
Appearing Smart argues that in our attempts to impress to our students and colleagues with what we know we end up paying a high cost in unforeseen ways. Setting such standards for ourselves leaves little room for mistakes: the resulting performance pressure, both inside and outside the classroom, gives us little opportunity for self-reflection, understanding, and growth
'What They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School ' (#952) under the Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs category gives recently minted PhD's a reality check by reminding them that, among other things, their PhD is a "certification of research ability based on a sample of one". As the authors Paul Gray and David E. Drew, professors at Claremont Graduate University in California, note: "The PhD certifies that you are able to do quality research. Unlike the MD, which requires extensive work with patients followed by years of internship and residency, the PhD is based on a single sample, your dissertation. The people who sign your dissertation are making a large bet on your ability to do quality research again and again in the future."
'The Next-Stage Approach for Preparing for an Academic Career ' (#59) implores graduate students to think ahead, look ahead, and to some degree act ahead of the stage they (and their future competition) are currently occupying. By doing so, they not only demonstrate their willingness to assume the role of the position they are seeking, but also their readiness to do so. Just as most of the best graduate students began taking graduate courses and/or conducting research as college seniors, while they are still a graduate student and postdoc they need to begin doing some of the things professors do. Today it is not enough to be outstanding in your current job; you must also demonstrate that you can be successful in the next job for which you want to apply by actually performing in advance some of the activities and responsibilities that are part of that job.
By far the largest category of articles is that of Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning with 535 postings. "The Ten Worst Teaching Mistakes" (#961) tackles some of my favorite pet peeves such as asking a question in class and then immediately calling for volunteers to answer it. The same few students always volunteer, or you end up answering your own question in a few seconds. Either way most students learn to avoid eye contact, not even think about the question, and just wait it out until you move on.
Another article, "Exam Wrappers" (#1260) gives students a new and very interesting tool to enable them to think more carefully about their studying and learning. Exam wrappers ask students three kinds of questions: How did they prepare for the exam? What kind of errors did they make on the exam? What could they do differently next time? Answering all three via short activities "directs students to review their performance (and the instructor's feedback) on an exam with an eye toward adapting their future learning."
Although not without controversy, there are several studies suggesting that women make better research managers than men, as noted in the posting, "Are Women Better PI's" (#1035) under the category Tomorrow's Research. Several of these studies show that women are more likely to "adopt characteristics that are associated with more effective leadership, such as delivering rewards for performance and consideration for the growth of the individual." Still other studies show that females are more likely to "recognize the skills, abilities and limitations of members of their organization and facilitate positive group dynamics and mutual respect."
Another posting in this category, "Write Before You're Ready: First Steps to Avoiding Writer's Block" (#936) takes the counter-intuitive position that you need to start getting words on paper (or screen) even when you don't think you have anything to say. Cognitively speaking it is much easier to edit what you have already put down than to create it in the first place, so writing informally or "writing blind" through pre-writing and draft outlines that are built upon later, is a great way to get started. As the author Peter DeVries noted, "I only write when I'm inspired, and I make sure I'm inspired every morning at 9 am".
Finally, my two favorite articles from the Tomorrow's Academic Careers category are the very first two that appeared back in March, 1998, "Establishing Your Absence" (#1) and "Quick Starters" (#2). In posting #1 Alison Bridger, chair of the meteorology department at San Jose State University talks about how when she was a beginning assistant professor her goal was to be seen by everyone: students, colleagues, and administrators. Being present on campus as much as possible was important to her and also quite exhausting. It was only when she received a grant to do research one day a week at the nearby NASA/Ames facility that it dawned on her that she didn't need to be available to everyone all the time and that "establishing her absence" where she could work away from interruptions was just as important as establishing her presence for her long term academic success. Related to this point is the notion of limiting the amount of time you spend on any give task, including class preparation. As noted in posting #2, Robert Boyce has studied such "quick starters," those faculty who had excelled at teaching, research, publishing, and networking and found that they strived for competency through balance rather through a hidden agenda of perfection.
Tomorrow's Professor is proud of having offered "Desktop faculty development, 100 times a year" to so many around the world for the past 15 years. In the next 15 we hope to reach even more people, as 50,000, while a significant milestone, represents a small fraction of the estimated 2,000,000 world-wide English speaking university faculty and administrators who could possibly benefit from such information.