Friday, December 23, 2016

Let's Talk About How We Talk About Science

A while ago, Brian Burg commented on Twitter that he would like to see more discussion of marketing in academia. I decided I'd rather write a meta-post about how we need to talk about how marketing is affecting our evaluation of science.

Image result for beyonce magazine cover
Image result for kim kardashian magazine cover
If you want to be on the cover of Glamour magazine, you know what to do. Put your hair in glamorous waves, wear something small, and stare directly at the camera with slightly open lips. It helps if you have the Look. (Has anyone else noticed that Beyonce and Kim are being airbrushed to look more and more like each other all the time?)

If you want to be on the cover of a glamour journal, things are not much different. Open with a deep-sounding but incontestable vision of where you think the world is going. Hone in on a specific problem. Make the problem sound hard. Make your solution easy for a casual reader to understand. Write with the voice of a winner. It helps to have picked a topic that a science journalist might drool over. Oh, and if you are going for the cover: make sure to have good images.

But, you might say, fashion magazines are frivolous, and science is Serious*. I'll be the first to agree that the investigation of the fundamental truths of reality is a worthy endeavor requiring brilliance, hard work, persistence, and all kinds of other positive qualities. (Side note: beauty is also hard work, and used to oppress women.) But people determine what science is higher-profile than other science. People live in society, and it is widely acknowledged that society is superficial. Many a fairy tale involves a causal relationship between the changing of clothes and the changing of fortune. In Thomas Carlyle's satirical novel Sartor Resartus, religion itself is a matter of clothing.

In fact, a major part of my metamorphosis into a Real Researcher has involved accepting that appearance matters. When my advisor and I used to get papers rejected in the beginning of my PhD, we would spend a long time thinking about how to make the work so good that the paper was not rejectable. I have come to realize that this is the equivalent of failing to impress on a first date and hoping that soul-searching will address the issue for the future. Looking deeply into one's soul, while usually good in the long term, often does not address the problem of first impressions.

Sure, part of preparing one's research for wider dissemination involves doing what everyone would expect of good communication: having a clear description of the goals, clear explanations of the solutions, and a clear explanation of the context with respect to previous work. Good logical reasoning goes a long way. Good evaluation of results does as well. But if we look at the papers that do--and don't--make it into the "glamour" conferences and journals, we begin to suspect that there are other factors at play.

If we look more closely, we can see that American** science replicates patterns of elitism and gatekeeping that we see in the rest of American society. In Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite, Columbia sociology professor Shamus Khan reports on behavioral traits that characterize the new elite. Khan describes how, rather than stemming from family prestige, the social status of the boarding school students he observes comes from an ease of moving through social situations and a cultural omnivorousness (embracing both the high-brow and the low-brow). Especially since these behaviors are learned at elite institutions, they serve a gate-keeping function similar to explicit markers of socioeconomic status. People look for this ease and this omnivorous, for instance when interviewing candidates, justifying their choice with some idea that such traits somehow make people more deserving. There is also a mythology about hard work that serves more as a justification than an explanation for elite status: students feel that they are receiving the benefits they do from society not because they were born into it, but because they "worked so hard to get there."

As it turns out, the training of elite scientists also involves learning gatekeeping behaviors. In science there is, a similar mythology about hard work being responsible for differential success. In Computer Science, the privileged behaviors I've observed include having research vision (as opposed to making solid technical contributions), being aggressive about imposing that research vision upon others, and having a "genius quality," which involves pattern-matching on similarities to previous successful scientists (often white men). Like ease of interaction and cultural omnivorousness, these traits are often associated with people deserving of recognition, but their presence does not mean the work will be good. I would not be surprised if having research vision and exhibiting genius quality were more correlated with being educated in an elite American institution than with potential for long-term scientific impact. With this premise, the recipe for academic fame involves not only marketing one's work as making positive contributions to science, but also demonstrating a combination of privilege and flash. The privilege here is more subtle than that of having cover-girl looks, but it is a very real kind of privilege nonetheless.

But how, you may wonder, do people not see through the shiny exterior? Those who have been following American politics in the last year may be familiar with the answer: insufficient attention. Publications are reviewed by researchers under increasingly high demands to pass quick judgments. Between December 2015 and February 2016, for instance, I had accidentally agreed to be on two concurrent major conference Program Committees, and had a reviewing load of over 60 full-length (12-page, 9-10 pt font) papers. (And I am not the only person who had such reviewing volume!) Had I only been on one Program Committee, the reviewing load would have still required me to evaluate, on average, a paper every two days over the course of two months. Under such reviewing pressure, it is easy to succumb to flash judgments, emotional first responses to a paper's Introduction section. It is easy to accept the paper with the good story over a paper with a deeper but more subtle result.

Despite all this, I believe in the future of science, and that we can shift back to a situation where we are making space for "real" science, what science looks like before the makeup and airbrushing. To do so, we need to wage a similar campaign to the one people waged on unreasonable beauty standards. We need to teach people to recognize--and be skeptical--of "Photoshopped" results: all that is too slick, too inspiring, and too good to be true, in both individual papers and in the story of a scientist's career. We need to raise more awareness about what "real" science looks like: the incremental results required on the way to big discoveries, the science that is foundational, necessary, and often with subtleties difficult to communicate to non-experts. Making structural changes that reduce reviewing loads and allow for deeper evaluation also reduces the incentives that have led to the proliferation of these current practices.

Elite institutions are much more than a finishing school for scientists, but we have been moving to a model where the marketing is coming to dominate the science. To protect the pursuit of truth, we need to admit that people can be shallow when it comes to evaluating science. We need to talk about how we talk about science so we can make space for science that is slow, science that is subtle, and science that is outside the mainstream.

With thanks to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who told me my first draft lacked a cohesive point, and Adeeti Ullal, who very patiently helped me with the last paragraph.

* I don't believe fashion magazines are blanket frivolous, but you might.
** I don't have the depth of experience to comment on how this generalizes to other cultures.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Structured Procrastination Trap

A wise professor once told me to take advice with a grain of salt, as it is mostly highlights and wishful thinking. Structured procrastination is a prime example of wishful thinking doled out to students eager to ease growing pains.

Structured procrastination promises a productive life with minimal pain. The basic premise is that if you always do something other than the task you are supposed to do, you will be able to always be doing something that you want. Don't want to write that report? Play ping-pong with your students instead, and people will be impressed with how easy you are taking life. Don't want to respond to emails? Read papers you like instead, and people will be surprised you make time to read papers. If you keep waiting, you will want to do that thing that you have been procrastinating, and then you can live a completely pain-free life!

Now let's look at the premises for structured procrastination. It requires that there is always a task that you can and want to do that is productive. It requires that deadlines make tasks miraculously desirable, and it is the fact that something is due soon that makes a task easier to do, more so than other factors (like how easily you are able to do the task). It requires that you have a good sense of how long tasks should take. For structured procrastination to make sense, you need to be at a point where life is simply a matter of execution.

In my many years of being alive, I have discovered that these premises often do not hold. When I was a graduate student and looking for shortcuts to the Productive Life, I felt like I was doing something wrong. When I aggressively tried to apply structured procrastination to my life, I produced a lot of bad work. There were long periods of time when I would try to get into immersive "flow states" where I could have pleasurable levels of focus, but everything felt difficult. I've spent a cumulative total of days, maybe weeks, of my life wondering why it takes me so long to write a paper, or to prepare a talk, or to debug my code. For years I thought that it was possible for life to always be easy, but I had somehow not figured out how to do it.

What I realized is that life is hard, and especially hard if you want to do things you have never done before. If you are doing something that requires you to grow, what you need is a lot of time, and the discipline to force yourself to keep doing something even when it feels like the most painful thing in the world. If you are doing a high growth activity, you need to abandon the idea of structured procrastination. You need set hours that you are going to sit down (or stand up, and lay down) and stare at your notebook, or laptop, or the wall, where you are dedicated to making progress on the Very Important Task. Limiting these hours makes it psychologically bearable. Making these hours the same time every day makes it more likely you can keep this.

Of course, structured procrastination is not all bad. I have recommended this technique to many people, as it is a great way to get oneself out of unproductive loops when a looming deadline kills all desire to do anything. If you allow yourself to admit that you are not going to work on your Very Important Task, then you can at least do "productive" things (like make Ryan Gosling memes) instead of sitting around angsting (which could also be productive according to some value systems). Procrastination is also a good way to trick yourself into doing more things, because deadlines often do make people more efficient.

While structured procrastination provides a useful execution framework, there are times in life when you need to suck it up and do the Very Important Task. In fact, structured procrastination may be most seductive when what you need most is structure. For this reason, you should always think before you procrastinate, and avoid the trap of false busyness.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What Professors Can Do About the Collaboration Problem

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the "collaboration problem" that sparked a significant amount of discussion among my colleagues in academic computer science, in large part because many people had observed the same problem, without ideas for great solutions. Here are some emails I've exchanged with Ben Zhao, a professor of Computer Science at UC Santa Barbara, and my colleague Claire Le Goues in the School of Computer Science at CMU about how to address the problem in the courses we teach. (Ben recently posted this article on social media and had quite extensive discussion with many people in the field about how to address the problem.

I hope this will generate even more discussion that brings us closer to solutions.


from:Ben Zhao
to:Justine Sherry,
Jean Yang
date:Tue, Dec 13, 2016 at 1:50 PM
subject:looking for advice

hey Justine, Jean.

Random email out of nowhere, hope you’re both doing great, and happy holidays!! :)

So I’ve been thinking and reading a fair bit on group dynamics in CS classes, esp. w.r.t. female students, with a fair bit coming from you guys. There aren’t that many in my classes (I teach undergrad networking and OS, so they’re almost all juniors/seniors by the time they make it to my class). So I’d like to make sure that I’m not contributing any more to the gender imbalance.

I need help. As strong women in CS, would love your take on a couple of key questions (but also would love any general advice you want to share, period).  And I know you’re busy super busy, but hopefully this is something that won’t take too much time. Either way, your advice would immediately impact 10s of female students in the coming quarter...

Key questions on my mind right now are:
- How should I do group assignments for larger classes with moderate to heavy projects? About half of my networking class homeworks are in groups of 2, and nearly all of my OS class homeworks/projects are in groups of 2-3.
- From what I have thought about and seen in past classes, I think my past practice of letting students choose their own groups doesn’t work. I recall something like 1/2 of all groups with at least 1 female student experiencing some type of malfunction, either due to the male student(s) flaking out or just failing out.

Right now, I’m considering something like the following:
  - Beginning of quarter, I reach out individually to all female students in the class (maybe 10-15, 20 if I’m lucky), and I ask them to attend an open discussion with me on campus.
  - I ask them for their experiences and concerns in the class, and esp. for group projects
  - I lay out what I think are challenges that they could face
  - I give them the option to find partners within the group, before the overall group formation process starts.

What do you think? Would this work? Would female students react negatively to being singled out? What happens if they don’t care and don’t show up?

Thanks in advance, and again, I’d love to hear any thoughts on this or on any other topic..

thank you thank you!


from:Jean Yang
to:Ben Zhao
cc:Justine Sherry,
Claire Le Goues
date:Wed, Dec 14, 2016 at 12:16 PM

Hi Ben,

  Thanks for writing! These are great questions, I'm glad you're asking them. I'm looping in Claire Le Goues, another professor at CMU, because we've been talking about how we could address some of these collaboration issues with curricular changes, and about proposing an audit of the curriculum to make sure students are learning collaboration skills.

  Here are some things I learned from people after my blog post about the collaboration problem:
- It's important to keep in mind that all students have trouble with collaboration. It may disproportionately affect female and other minority students because 1) there are already so many factors that wear away at their desire to participate, and 2) students without strong social ties within Computer Science may not have access to as desirable of a partner pool. But an important take-away is that all students struggle with learning how to collaborate well, that we don't teach it in lower-level courses, and that in upper-level courses collaboration ability becomes important for academic success all of the sudden.
- There is strong evidence that self-selected groups are not as good as instructor-assigned groups.
- There are many resources out there for helping students work in teams more effectively. I was given this as a starting point:
- There are ways to get students to more actively work on their collaboration skills. Claire addresses this in the software engineering course she teaches. Some professors have reported having students assess how collaborations went, and docking points for students who didn't collaborate well.
- Several women, including myself, said that their best collaborations during undergraduate were with other women. I'm still not sure what to make of this in the context of other findings.

  Given this, I have the following thoughts about your proposed plan:
- I like the idea of talking to students about collaboration issues, but there are two main reasons I wouldn't do it only with the women. First, collaboration is an everyone problem, and not just a women's problem. It also affects people along lines of race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, etc. Second, even if the problem were only one of gender, it's a problem to be addressed by people of both genders. I've long believed that in order to solve the gender problem, we need to address the stereotypes associated with both femininity and masculinity. Only involving one of the genders in the conversation places all of the burden on that gender, and when it's the women, we are burdening an already burdened group. For these reasons I'd encourage a discussion about collaboration with the entire class, and then support to ensure collaborations are going as smoothly as possible throughout the semester.
- It doesn't hurt to check in with women and minority students, but without making them feel like they are being singled out, or because you are interested in them primarily because of the women in CS problem. My undergraduate professors paid a lot of attention to me, and I always assumed it was because I was a woman, and in fact this made me feel like I was less deserving of attention.
- I do like the idea of making it easier for minority students to find each other, but I don't know that it's your place to do it as the instructor. I don't know if there's a non-awkward way to bring this up during the whole-group discussion. Also, based on what people say it actually seems better to assign the partners as the instructor, and then it would not seem appropriate to assign people to work together based on their minority status. I'm still really not sure how to think of partner choice vs. partner assignment, and welcome discussion about this!

  Curious to hear your thoughts after your Facebook post about this topic blew up. :)


P.S. This discussion is interesting. What do you think about me posting this to my blog, maybe after Claire/Justine chime in?


from:Ben Zhao
to:Jean Yang
cc:Justine Sherry,
Claire Le Goues
date:Wed, Dec 14, 2016 at 1:27 PM
hey Jean.

Great thoughts.

I’ve been learning a lot from the various viewpoints on the FB post, but I’m slightly frustrated by the lack of consensus as to the right solution. First, I agree with all the viewpoints that the problem is broader (re: your point on everyone having collaboration issues and others’ points about male students sharing in the solution), and any effort to address it should be more inclusive. That I think is very doable: I can talk about the issue early on in the class with some of Sarita’s slides she shared on the FB post. Hopefully I can do it in a tactful way that doesn’t alienate any group.

By beyond that, I’m sort of torn. It’s clear that different personalities play into how different women reacted to my suggestions. Some, like my senior colleague Linda Petzold, reacted fairly negatively because (I think at least in part) she has a really strong personality, and perhaps had less of an issue handling those situations herself. Perhaps I’m generalizing too much based on a sample set of maybe 2-3, but I’m guessing there might be an inverse relationship between a student’s own ability to deal with these challenging situations and their sensitivity to being singled out. In other words, is it possible the women (or other minority groups) who are most vulnerable to the negative situations (because they’re less assertive or more introverted) would be less concerned about being singled out as a group?  I don’t want to downplay comments from you or Linda (and a couple others on the FB thread) about being singled out, but do you think that then sensitivity might be less of an issue for less assertive students? Given my slightly biased sample of strong female colleagues, I’m not quite sure how far off I am on this line of thinking.

My overarching concern is that a broader discussion, while very positive and definitely much better than nothing, is still not quite enough. I worry that individual students will find it difficult to reach out to me the professor to discuss group issues. This has been very much my experience in the past, that students don’t want to appear like they’re a hassle, and no matter how I try to make myself approachable and less intimidating, there’s always a high barrier to overcome (especially for those more shy/introverted students). So all those comments/suggestions that involve groups reaching out and giving me feedback about their own individual group dynamics, I think they’re somewhat naively optimistic.

So I will definitely do what I can for the broader class. But I worry that won’t be enough. Beyond that, I can do random group assignments. But there I foresee lots of complaints by students unable to work with their friends, and any personality conflicts will be blamed on me (which is ok). There I worry that the disruption to the class group formation as a whole will produce more issues, and I haven’t convinced myself that random assignment is a better solution in general.  The other option is more proactively reaching out to female students. There the question is do the ends justify the means: would the potential benefits of helping women students form self-selected groups outweigh the initial discomfort of being “singled out”?

Any/all thoughts welcome, and thanks for spending your time on this. I’m fine with whatever you want to post on your blog about the issue. I think more exposure can only help, as I’m pretty sure that most (if not all) of my male colleagues in the dept have no idea group dynamics is even an issue.



from:Claire Le Goues
to:Ben Zhao
cc:Jean Yang,
Justine Sherry
date:Wed, Dec 14, 2016 at 5:46 PM
I don't think that the following response is by any means complete, but here are some offhand thoughts:

I also wouldn't single out female students. I do think you can signal that you are a supportive ally in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways, especially at the start of class.  For example, giving the students a survey wherein you ask for their names, preferred names/nicknames, and pronouns indicates that you are a person who understands that pronouns are a thing worth asking/caring about.  This can indicate to marginalized students that you are more likely to be educated/aware of gender dynamics overall and thus they may feel more comfortable approaching you with concerns.  

My take is: Many women or other members of underrepresented groups *know* that life can be challenging as a woman in homework groups.  Having someone tell me those challenges neither solves them, nor makes me feel much better.  On the other hand, having you publicly talk to everyone, men included, about challenges that groups face, covering elements like subconscious bias, diversity/groupthink, etc, and the ways those forces hinder effective teamwork, might frankly resonate more with the women than singling them out, and might actually get the guys to think about their lives/privilege/behavior a little bit.

What you might do, if you don't necessarily want to go the random route, is ask *all* the students at the beginning (as part of a start of semester survey) if they have someone they want to work with.  You can say something like "I haven't decided yet how to assign groups but I am willing to entertain suggestions, so let me know by filling out this form; I will not share your answers with anyone."  If all the women pick someone reasonable, and all pairs are matched (like I say Jean and Jean says me), then you let them pick their own.   That way you're neither saying "HEY WOMEN YOU ARE BEING SINGLED OUT" but you can still get at the information you want.

We do assign students to groups pseudo-randomly, which is honestly pretty consistent with the literature.  We ask for schedule availability (there's an online tool for this I can dig up) and use that to assign groups, looking to maximize times they can work together while honestly trying, when we can, to split up known cliques.

This is all made easier by the fact that I teach a class explicitly about software engineering, including teamwork and process, and so we can very easily and truthfully say: You will go work for a company and get assigned to work with a team of people you do not know, and so being able to do that effectively is one of the learning goals of this class.  The students are generally receptive to this argument, even though there are always a dysfunctional team or two.  Teaching a systems-y class lends itself to the same line of argumentation: either they're going to industry or academia, and regardless, they need to learn to work with people who are not their friends.

The literature is mixed on group composition.  There is some evidence that putting members of underrepresented groups together is good in early classes (100-200 level), and additional evidence that past that, it doesn't really matter (because if you haven't dropped out yet, group composition is unlikely to be the deciding factor?).

Other thoughts on what we do: 
(a) We provide opportunities for individual assignments/assessments, ideally with each group assignment or milestone (so the first part is group work, and a smaller component is to be done individually).  This lets us identify malfunction and ensures that we are actually assessing individual as well as group performance, 
(b) We do not do peer grading by default but reserve the right to start if teams report serious problems.   Peer grading skews incentives within groups in a way that interferes with our particular learning goals in an SE context. However, it might work in your context where the "learn to work in teams" is less explicitly a goal of the course. 
(c) (speaking to your concern about students being hesitant to surface or discuss issues with you) At various points in the semester we specifically survey the groups about how they think they're doing and aggregate the feedback from everyone to send it back to them (these are teams of 3--5, so it's easier to do anonymously than teams of 2).  The form we used is based on literature on assessing group performance; I can find it if you're interested.  We then reach out to students who are reporting problems.  We talk to them individually and then also reach out to the whole group as appropriate (if the individual student says they're OK with it).  We do encourage them to try to sort it out by talking about it amongst themselves, and regardless, we follow up with the individual students to see how they feel after a week or so.  We do not use those feedback forms for grading in any way (and we tell them so).  I have found that about half the time, the frustrated students just want to vent for a half hour and then say "yeah I feel better, no need to do anything else." ;-)  When we bring them in as groups, we try to make them do as much of the talking as possible.  Like "Hey everyone, how's it going?  What do you think you're doing that's working well?  What are you doing that's not working well?  How can you fix it?"
(d) We cover effective teamwork in class at the start of the semester; practices like "have specific roles that you rotate; document agreements and assignment of responsibilities" (also from the literature---I think the Oakley article Jean linked).  I'd emphasize both the explicit assignment as well as the "rotation" aspect of the roles---otherwise, the female students tend to get "scribe" duties all the time. We've debated ways to enforce those practices (like asking for documentation of who does what), but have never formally done so.  

Honestly, I've never heard anyone say that having the students pick their groups worked out particularly well, frankly.  There are profs who say "Oh, but they complain if we assign them randomly!" And perhaps I'm too cavalier, but my response is: so?  They also complain if the tests are hard and if we give them too much homework, and we do it anyway because it serves our pedagogical goals.  I feel the same way about assigned groups.

Assigned groups don't solve all sources of team dysfunction, of course, and so I think we should as a curricular point do more to mitigate the risks that groupwork poses particularly to marginalized students and to teach students how to work together.  They spend their childhoods being told they're not allowed to work with others, and then we throw them into teamwork situations with no training, and then are surprised when they're terrible at it.  I think covering those challenges and strategies to mitigate them and proactively paying attention to team dynamics over the course of the semester is important to help them learn, though I by no means think we have a complete answer on that.