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
Beyonce.
Image result for kim kardashian magazine cover
Kim.
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!
Ben

--

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. :)

Best,
Jean

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.

thanks,
Ben

--

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.

-CLG

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Why We Need to Talk About the Collaboration Problem

Today I spoke with a Computer Science professor who is finishing a semester of teaching a notoriously challenging advanced undergraduate course.

"I figured out the problem with my female students," he told me. "It's their partners."

All semester, this colleague--let's call him Albus Dumbledore--had been telling me about the strange phenomenon of drama with his female students and their project partners. The course has a significant project component, and successful completion of the project usually depended on both partners pulling their weight. Mediating partner disputes became the responsibility of the instructor. And what the instructor noticed was that an alarming fraction of the disputes seemed to happen when one of the partners was female.

After wondering all semester how bias might contribute to the drama of the female students' partners, Albus had a relevation. The female students complaining about their partners all seemed to have better overall grades than their partners. Not only did the partners have lower GPAs, but many of them were from outside of Computer Science. Albus surmised that these partners were, in fact, probably not pulling their weight, and that the students had every right to complain.

"But why would these strong students choose such bad partners?" he asked.

That female students had bad partners was, to me, not surprising. After all, nobody had asked me to work on any problem set until the second semester of my sophomore year, and a fellow student only asked me after obtaining an unprotected copy of course grades on our department servers and discovering I had the second-highest midterm score in one of our courses. I told Albus about how a friend once confessed to me that before she had gotten to know me, she had forbade her boyfriend from working with me. I told him about how problem set partners often preferred to solve problems for me rather than with me. My best collaboration in college had been with another woman, and she had been so initially skeptical of my abilities that it took me at least half of a semester to win her over with how fast and how correct my code was.

"So it's not by choice," Albus concluded. "What can we do about this?"

Important question. For my first few years of college, the collaboration problem had left me feeling so isolated and so much in doubt of my abilities that I often thought about switching away from Computer Science. If not for a chance encounter with a friend, one year behind me and facing similar problems, I might have left. What began as a quick hello as our paths intersected on the way back from class turned into a long discussion about the difficulties we both had in finding people who would collaborate with us. I had graded this woman's homework in multiple classes, so I knew the problem was not that she was not capable. This was when I began to realize that the problem may not be with me, but with the way people perceived me--and other women.

Years later, when I was starting Graduate Women at MIT, this conversation led me to put together a panel on collaboration--specifically, on collaborating as women in male-dominated fields. I felt so validated when the panelists--three women at various stages in their careers, each at the top of her field--said what I had observed for years, but had never dared to say out loud. It can be hard to collaborate with men, one panelist said: they often talk at you rather than to you because they are socialized to impress women. It can be harder to collaborate with two men, another panelist said: they will often talk only to each other while trying to impress you. (I don't like to make blanket statements about all people of a gender, just like I don't like to make blanket statements of all people from a culture, but these kinds of conversations can be helpful for recognizing patterns.) While much of this advice was unsurprising, and also depressing, it felt incredibly powerful to hear someone else say these statements out loud. Talking about this explicitly seemed like the first step towards solving the problem.

In the intervening years, I've collected much more evidence of the problem than I have solutions. It is undeniable that collaborations account for much of people's success in technical settings. Albus talked about how, in his class, the students with subpar partners struggled to complete their projects. A recent study I read* cited female academics' ability to travel for international collaboration as one of the biggest determinants of their success. Yet collaboration seems to remain a problem. At a recent lunch of Women@SCS in my department, I spoke about my experiences with Graduate Women at MIT, including about the collaboration panel, and the student kept returning to the issue of collaborating in a male-dominated field. Students asked about how to find collaborators who would take them seriously. Students asked about what to do in groups when people may not be listening to them. A student asked what to do if she has had so many negative collaboration experiences she is reluctant to collaborate anymore. A student said that she, too, felt like male collaborators were often trying to impress her rather than work with her, but she had thought it was in her head.

After the recent lunch, a student asked me about the benefit of talking explicitly about these issues. Wouldn't it be better, she asked, to not draw attention to gender and wait for the problems to go away? I, too, would love to live in a post-gender world where people can just be people. Unfortunately, it seems that collaboration is a topic we need to address explicitly. Not only do these cross-gender/culture problems not seem to be going away on their own, but they also seem to be increasing certain inequalities. Especially in Computer Science, smart people have done an excellent job of solving many other problems of gender equality. I have full confidence that once we recognize this as a problem, we can find good solutions. I would love to hear your ideas.

* In the process of looking for this citation... Let me know if you have it!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Post-Election Email Exchange on Academia and Politics

Since Tuesday, I've been thinking about what we could be doing better--in terms of encouraging civil participation, in terms of satisfying the needs of the people who did participate in the last election. I don't yet have fully-formed thoughts, but in the meantime here's a recent email exchange.

--

from:Jean Yang
to:Robert M Ochshorn,
Chinmay Kulkarni
date:Fri, Nov 11, 2016 at 8:27 AM
subject:Academia and politics

In an email thread the other day, a colleague wondered whether we should be more like the "universities of the 60s" and take a more active role in politics. I had thought then that this wasn't the case, that the issue was these rural voters we couldn't reach, but then I learned that only 1/3 of millenials voted. I came upon this thread on Twitter today:
https://twitter.com/FuckTheory
It's not *quite* my experience, but I think it's useful to talk more about the politics associated with science, and not just the politics of how we talk about science.

An underlying theme of my seminar has been "politics is everything," but previously the scope had been limited to discussing why papers were written the way they were, why certain papers were considered important, the actual impact of papers with respect to some notion of "real world." Yesterday we spent the first thirty minutes talking about the election, and I made a point to talk about the mechanics of the electoral system the way we've been talking about the mechanics of the publication system--something I've gotten pretty worked up about is voter protections. Later we talked about the relationship between science and funding, and how projects could be for both good (e.g. curing disease) and sinister (e.g. surveillance) purposes. The students seemed to appreciate this discussion, and my one student had that nice quote: "We may be solving biological cancer and creating a social cancer."
I previously didn't know how far to push things when it came to talking about the social aspects of science, especially since this is a class in the Computer Science Department, but the students have seemed to appreciate it when I've talked about systems, hierarchies, and the underlying reasons things happen the way they do. I've been thinking about how to connect my relatively narrow academic activism to more generalizable messages and lessons for students who are going to graduate and be the technical/scientific elite.

--
Jean Yang
website | twitter

--

from:Chinmay Kulkarni
to:Jean Yang,
cc:Robert M Ochshorn
date:Fri, Nov 11, 2016 at 10:13 AM
subject:Re: Academia and politics

Activist campuses are great, if they know what they are activating. The 60s coalesced around peace and civil rights, but what do we want now?

I've been reading a lot into social disenfranchisement, and I worry that things are only going to get worse. Automation is an exponential process, so we're kinda screwed if we don't figure out what people who don't have jobs should do. 

To me, this translates to two actionable things:
1. We've got to start teaching students to take initiative. You can't be the elite if you are a cog. We've got to start thinking about how to make students more entrepreneurial so they don't have to face a time when they have no "job"
2. we are currently letting mathematicians and engineers run the world without a clue about how to reason about ethics or about the social fabric that ties us together. That has to stop. We've got to go beyond "You just tell me the utility and I'll maximise it" to one that is a lot more examined. Otherwise the masses who get left behind are going to be (rightly) electing Trumpian candidates.  
3. Finally I agree with your actions. Academics got divorced from morality as a result of governmental crackdowns on activist campuses: http://www.irwinator.com/124/123.htm And look where it's got us. We cannot train an intellectual elite without moral values.

Chinmay

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Dropbox Selective Sync Bug, or How It Took a Whole Evening to Update My Profile Photo

I encountered a pretty bad Dropbox bug today. I'm wondering if anybody else has encountered anything similar, and also wanted to share how I got around it in case it happens to anybody else.

This evening I was changing my Twitter profile photo back to the usual photo, as one is wont to due on a Sunday evening while procrastinating work. I was horrified to discover that the photo was nowhere to be found. In fact, my entire "photos" folder containing all of my key photos of the last few years was gone. It was not in my machine's Dropbox folder, not in any of my machines' Dropbox folders, and not on the Dropbox website.

I was not entirely surprised. Over the last few months I've been having some problems maintaining a shared Dropbox folder between my Linux and Windows partitions. I think the main problem is that Dropbox for Linux is simply not very good, but the fact that my use case is so fringe probably doesn't help. My trajectory of use has gone something like this: set things up according to some blog post; enjoy file sharing across partitions for some time; start getting strange error messages about starting Dropbox on Linux; sit helplessly and watch as something strange happens. Previously, the "something strange" involved Dropbox failing to work anymore. This time, involved my files failing to exist anymore.

Bug: selective sync doesn't uphold its end of the bargain. This latest episode of something strange happening had to do with my using the "selective sync" feature. This feature supposedly allows users to select which folders each machine syncs with Dropbox, allowing users to store terabytes of data on Dropbox (because that's what we're paying for) without needing to eat up terabytes of data on each machine. When you choose to selectively sync, an icon appears assuring you that the files are disappearing only from your machine, and not from all of Dropbox. Except, in my case, the files disappeared from all of Dropbox. I assume what happened was that the selective sync had registered as a deletion, but not a proper deletion, or otherwise it would have made it easier for me to retrieve the files.

Fix: do sketchy things to get at files. After sending Tech Support a strongly worded note about how-could-they-lose-all-my-files, I started poking around the Dropbox website. I discovered a "Deleted Files" section that allows you to restore files you deleted up to a month ago. Restoring here recovered many of the missing files, but not all of them. (After all, I had lost the files through a bug, and not in some normal way of deleting files.) I then went to the "Events" page and confirmed that there had been an event October 2, after syncing my Linux partition, that involved the deletion of over 1000 files. (Thanks, Dropbox, for not sending me a message asking if I was sure this was something I wanted to do.) Still no sign of the "photos" folder and the desired new/old profile photo. All I needed was a link to the folder. Once I had that, I could request to restore the files.

After this, I was almost out of ideas when I realized that some of my Dropbox "shared" folders had been subfolders under the "photos" folder, and that the Dropbox website has a separate section for managing "shared" folders. (When other people share folders with you, you can choose whether to actively add the folders to your Dropbox. I had un-added most of my folders before I upgraded to more space.) So I went there and and restored these folders. Then I looked in the "Recents" tab and there it was, a link to the "photos" folder, corresponding to a notification that subfolders had been re-added to my Dropbox. Now that I had a link to the "photos" folder, I was able to click on the "show deleted files" icon. Once I was able to see the deleted files, I was able to restore them. (And I've been doing them one subfolder at a time, while writing this post, because there are bugs when I try to do multiples at a time...)

And this, ladies, gentlemen, and people who identify as neither ladies nor gentlemen, is the story of how I changed back my Twitter profile photo.

Conclusions. All software has bugs, so I can't be particularly angry with Dropbox, but there are many ways in which Dropbox can improve user experience with respect to this particular situation. Here are my main takeaways:
  • Until Dropbox pays more attention to their Linux product, one should be wary of selective sync. (Dropbox! We're paying so much money for this! The least you could do is to not put us through these emotional roller coasters by deleting our files after promising not to.)
  • If you're not getting what you want out of a user interface, it may be possible to do sketchy things until you can get where you want to go. But Dropbox could also improve its interface for accessing files that may have been disappeared against the will of the users.
  • There are tradeoffs to using something like Dropbox instead of managing your file backup yourself. On the one hand, you give up control and are subject to their bugs wiping out your entire digital photo archive. On the other hand, respectable companies do keep a lot of backups and with some work you should be able to recover things. So, thanks Dropbox for not deleting these files altogether, even though you really didn't make it easy for me to find them.
And, of course, this brings us to my main points in life. We need to understand our software better! Better languages and tools would allow programmers to better understand what is going on, making these kinds of strange bugs less likely! Allowing programmers to express high-level policies about consistency and desired system behavior would also decrease the prevalence of these kinds of situations! Instead of funding Dropbox, maybe people should fund programming languages research kthxbai!

Friday, September 30, 2016

On Avoiding Stress Culture

I've been at Carnegie Mellon University as an Assistant Professor for a little over a month now, and the students tell me we're approaching "Deep Semester." The glow of summer vacation has worn off. People are skipping classes and skipping meals in pursuit of Excellence. A pall of Seriousness has descended upon the Gates Hillman Complex. (Many days this week, the Seriousness has physically manifested as heavy rain.)

Now is a good time to remind myself that I can stay out of it*. Jim Morris, the former Dean of CMU's School of Computer Science, once told me, "Stress culture is worst among junior faculty. Avoid it." Jim seems to live by this advice. He teaches a course called Campus Stress as a Wicked Problem**. My friend Chinmay, who is in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute with him, tells me Jim is one of the few professors on campus who isn't "so busy" all the time.

At first glance, it may seem difficult to avoid stress culture as a junior faculty member. After all, everyone knows that being junior faculty means working all the time, never sleeping, and having so little of a life outside of work that you can only keep plants alive if they are in the office. But people also seem to think being a PhD student means working all the time, and there are many examples of successful people who did not work all the time as PhD students. Thus I'd like to posit the hypothesis that the idea that one must work "all the time" as junior faculty comes more from a culture of stress than necessity for success.

But why, you might wonder, would this stress culture exist among junior faculty members if it were unnecessary? I speculate below:
  • Your responsibilities are much more divided than they were before and it's difficult to juggle. It's possible to spend all time doing any of the following: teaching, advising, writing grant proposals, and attending committee meetings. Also note that this list does not include the reason you presumably became faculty in the first place: doing research. The solution is not to implode, but to compromise.
  • The closer you get to the top of a hierarchy, the more intense people get. When I go out into the real world people find me to be a total megalomaniac. My academic peers don't seem to think the same thing about me.
  • A lot of people who made it all the way to becoming faculty did get there by working all the time. Though not the only way, this is a legitimate way of working.
  • As humans we're not engineered to say "no" too often, and there are infinite things to say no to as a faculty member. If I said yes to every meeting and answered every email I'd die of not eating and not sleeping very quickly. (This might be a harder thing for women because we're socialized to be agreeable.)

In support of my hypothesis that stress culture is something to be eschewed rather than embraced, I present a list of my role models when it comes to finding space and balance:
  • My undergraduate professor Radhika Nagpal. This recent excellent profile of her talks about how, as junior faculty, she avoided politics and made it a rule not to check email on weekends. She wrote the most-read post on Scientific American's website about her approach to the tenure track called "The Awesomest 7-year Postdoc."
  • Turing Award winning MIT professor Barbara Liskov, who famously worked only 9 to 5 on weekdays, working an evening here and there only if there was a deadline.
  • The aforementioned Jim Morris, and also my friend Chinmay, who seem to make time to do the things they want to do.
  • My postdoc advisor Walter Fontana, who lives by the Goethe quote "Do not hurry; do not rest." He seems to have always found the space to do the science he wants to do. He once told me it is important to have a "strong internal compass" and know when you believe your work to be good so you can avoid pressures to hire more and publish more.
Stress culture might not be bad for everyone***, but it certainly is not productive for me. (My friend Seth once observed that I seem to work best in the complete absence of pressure.) So though I could be doing more work, right now I'm going to go read a book. Good night.

* In Influence, Robert Cialdini says if you want to do something, tell the entire world. Then you'll feel more accountable and be more likely to do it.
** The course focuses on problems at CMU, but in terms of pressure CMU is not so different from the other elite higher-education institutions I've experienced.
*** A student once told me I needed to put more pressure on him so he would get more work done!