Sunday, April 27, 2014

Professor for one year (week 43): Will there be research after your PhD?

This week, the new Rektor of the University of Zurich started his job.  There were several articles and interviews in various newspapers, where he announced what he wants to do next and what his long-term goals are.  In one article in the NZZ am Sonntag, one sentence struck me: "Wirklich geforscht habe er zuletzt als Doktorand" (The last time he did serious research was as a doctoral student).  And he apparently regrets that.

This statement made me wonder: What's your task as postdoc or as professor? When it's not research,  is it about writing grant and project proposals for other people only?  Is it mainly about teaching (looking at the workload, you could think so, I will comment on that in a later post)?  Or are your days filled with more administrative stuff, the higher your professional rank is?

There are several indicators that in fact, postdocs and professors acquire the money to then hire some doctoral student(s) to carry out the research the applicants have a genuine interest in.  For example, with the Swiss National Science Foundation, postdocs cannot submit proposals where they actually would carry out the research themselves (except for the Ambizione program, but that has specific requirements and is part of the career track, not of the project track).  You can submit a proposal and then hire someone -- but the proposal will be evaluated against the applicant's research profile.  The  DFG (German Research Foundation) recently introduced an instrument where you can apply for a grant for your own position as postdoc.  So this looks a bit better.

On the other hand: As a doctoral student, you are not eligible to submit proposals, so you have to find a postdoc or a professor who submits a project proposal you can then carry out.

Given that proposal writing is a serious but tedious task, there is of course less time to actually do some research.  Some universities in Germany have decided that some professors (rank W1 and sometimes even rank W2) cannot negotiate about academic personnel -- there simply will be no academic personnel, you have to write proposals to hopefully acquire third-party money to hire a teaching assistant or a doctoral student.  Isn't that weird?  Public universities are funded by tax payers, so shouldn't that cover all costs to run a university including all personnel needed?  Third-party funding today makes up almost a quarter of the budget of German universities.  On the one hand, it's a good sign: researchers find people who think the proposed research is worth funding it.  But it's also a bad sign: The state is only able (or willing) to fund three quarters of universities' budgets.  But that's more of a political discussion, I think.

However, there seems to be the general perception, that after your doctoral studies, there will be no time for serious research.  I recently heard the conversation of two PhD students: A just submitted his thesis and told B that he would have liked to investigate a slightly different topic, but his supervisor told him not to do so because of the risk of failure -- his research could have produced negative results.  They both agreed that this would have been more interesting and even more fun than to do something one could somehow even predict the results.  And then B concluded: "Only doctoral students do real science, so why don't they let us do risky things?  After your dissertation, you will not be able to really investigate something anymore."  Isn't that weird?  It seems to be widely accepted that your scientific life won't include research after you defended your dissertation; at the same time, it is assumed that you can only do "real" research if you've obtained a PhD, i.e., submit research proposals ...

I really have some research interests in computational morphology, computational phraseology, and writing technology where I would appreciate the help of master students or doctoral students, but where I would also like to explore some things myself -- even if this includes tedious annotation or hacking.  That's fun and only this way you can really discover something new.  I definitely aim to facilitate research by coordinating and managing projects, but I would still like to be part of the actual investigation.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Professor for one year (week 42): Ich hab Vertrag

OK, the title of this week's post is a quote or a reference to German soccer speak.  Mostly it's used to express that one has an ongoing contract.  However, I can now officially announce that I signed a new contract this week for when my year as substituting professor ends.

I will join the Institute for Natural Language Processing (IMS) in Stuttgart on April first (this is hopefully not a bad sign!).  It's only a 18-months contract, but I hope there will be a possibility for an extension.  I will do some teaching, coordination work for the Stuttgart CLARIN-D center, and I will continue research on phrasemes, morphological components, and writing technology.  At least, that's the plan.

What is most important: My academic adventures will go on after March 30, that's really good news. But there is a catch: We have to move.  But this is a different adventure.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Professor for one year (week 41): What's in your syllabus?

It's evaluation time again and one of my students wrote in the free form field "What else would you like to comment on":  "I don't know the learning objectives.  I searched the slides and didn't find anything."

I was offended: Why didn't she (it's a girls-only class) ask?  Of course it is in the short description of the class in the Learning Management System (we use ILIAS).  Of course it is in the short description of the class which instructors have to provide to be listed in the study management system where you find schedules, instructor information, etc.  Of course it is on the slides for the very first session -- I always have a proper slide titled "Learning objectives."

But somehow, she had missed the information.  So maybe one slide, five bullet points, or two paragraphs are not enough.

In the study management system, it looks like this:






You find all relevant information, it looks a bit structured, but no explicit learning objectives are given.  They are somehow hidden in the description field.  Instructors are asked to provide certain information (language of the course, material used, kind of exams), but they are not explicitly asked to provide learning objectives.  Maybe there should be even an extra field.

When I realized that other information is missing, too, I looked around how other instructors write a syllabus.  As a case in point I looked for writing related courses and found these:


All of them have extensive descriptions on what the course is about, what students will do, what's the motivation behind this course, comments on literature or other material used, etc.  Carrie Lamanna and Cheryl Ball have long explanations about the assignments: What do students have to do, how will the assignments be graded, and how do single assignments contribute to the final grade.  I do communicate these information, too, but I rather announce it in class and don't write it down to be read before the course starts.

Additionally, you can read the instructions for each assignment.   I only have this when I hand out the assignment.  As I found the syllabi after the courses had taken place, I cannot say if the assignments had been published before the courses started or if they had been added once at a time.

Of course it's great to find these sources and be able to use them as inspiration for your own course, but on the other hand, it means you cannot re-use those material for the next course (when I teach a similar course at another university, I often re-use assignments as there is only very little chance that students from university A have friends at university B who took my course).  And the instructors probably didn't use an LMS -- I don't think you put everything in your LMS and have an elaborate website.

If all material had been set up before the course start, this means a lot of preparation effort.  There are lists on which papers to read for which session, sometimes with comments even.  Although I have a schedule concerning which topic to cover in which session, I often search for papers one or two weeks before a particular session.  Maybe I should think about this and really invest a reasonable amount of time in proper preparation for the next classes.  Of course it helps if you teach a course for the second, third, etc. time -- you only have to look for new papers for a certain topic, but you already have all canonical material and you know how to proceed and what works in class.

What I really would like to adopt is the kind of course policy Cheryl Ball has in her syllabus.  It's an explicit list of what students can expect from this class and the instructor, and a very clear statement of what the instructor expects from the students to make this course a success for both parties.

I especially like her comments on grades: "Everyone in this class starts with a B/C.  How you participate changes that grade higher or lower."  And then follow a lot of actions influencing the grade positively or negatively.  For programming courses, when you actually can check student answers against a sample solution, grading might be a bit easier and more formally.  But in courses where there is no single right answer for an assignment, grading is much harder and usually students try to argue about grades.  So a policy on what influences the grade in a positive or negative way is really helpful -- and there should be no room for discussion left.  Everybody knows the consequences of their actions in class.

So I hope to have enough time before the next teaching appointment to spend more time for preparation and start actual teaching a bit more relaxed.