Last modified: Monday February 24, 2020
I entered university in the spring of 1976, in Natural Resources. I had been out of school for a while, and had to take remedial math courses in my first year (I think the phrase 'remedial coursework' is out of fashion, replaced by 'bridging courses').
The attachment shows a snippet from my academic transcript two years later (surveying, silviculture, forest economics, biogeography, plant cell physiology). I took courses I was interested in, and got out of sync with course requirements for any program very quickly. After 2 1/2 years (with a 'B' grade point average), I left, worked for a year (saving money), entered Friends World College and studied in Japan.
After arriving in Japan, my first scientific experience was as a research student (kenkyu-sei) with Professor Shidai Nakayama at the Miyazaki National University in Kyushu, Japan. My research project was looking at flowering in duckweed (Lemna paucicostata). The attached is an example of experimental measurements made in January, 1980.
I was gaijin (foreigner) and the object of much curiosity in Miyazaki, a relatively small city with a semi-tropical climate, but the hospitality was very special. My experiments were about how night (dark) duration affects flowering. So, I had to come into the lab in the middle of the night to do light treatments to the plants. It was my introduction to photobiology, something that still fascinates me, though the emphasis shifted to light regulation of ion transport. I don't have many relicts of my time there. Professor Nakayama gave me a calculator (to assist my scientific research), it still works after 35 years! After about four months in Miyazaki, I went to Kyoto.
The first presentation I ever gave was when I was an undergraduate doing research in Professor Shun-Ichi Ohnishi's (Ohnishi-sensei) Laboratory in the Biophysics Department at Kyoto National University in Japan. I gave it at the 18th Annual Proceedings of the Japanese Biophysics Society held at Tokyo National University (10 October 1980). All in Japanese.
The first attachment is the abstract from the Proceedings. The second attachment is a page from my notes, used when I gave the presentation (the corrections in red were from a member of the Ohnishi Lab and are mostly politer verb endings than I was used to using in casual conversation). One of the data slides is shown in the third attachment.
Over the years, I have often heard colleagues talking about how important presentations are. That the experience they had as undergraduates giving presentations was so crucial for them in their future careers. I don't think they gave their first presentation in a foreign language.
The presentation I gave was bad. Really awful. Ohnishi-sensei was very upset —furious in fact. If he had been an old fashion professor (the kind who would wear a hakama for formal occasions), he might have wanted to ask me to commit seppuku (ritual suicide when one has disgraced one's research laboratory). Thankfully, the other lab folk got him drunk that night, and by the next day he had mellowed considerably.
Some of my colleagues extoll the virtues of teaching students 'how to give a powerpoint presentation'. Not me. I came too close to Ritual Death.
I graduated from Friends World College (FWC) in 1981. My degree was conferred by FWC and the SUNY Board of Regents. FWC was an experimental institution devoted to international education and experiential learning. Real experiential learning. There were no classrooms, minimal library resources, no professors, no set curriculum. Instead, students developed their own learning objectives and documented their achievement in a journal. Students might apprentice to a master potter or work in community outreach, etc. The possibilities were broad but many students emphasized Social Change. I was unusual for my interest in scientific research.
Since there were no grades (not even pass/fail), the transcripts are quite long. The attached has been cut and paste from one semester for two learning objectives (Area Studies and Science) to give my colleagues a flavour of the academic documentation.
I once told a colleague that I thought many of our students and some of our colleagues had an unhealthy obsession with grades, and mentioned my experiential learning as an undergrad (no grades, not even pass/fail). She asked me whether I had learned anything —of course I had. Another colleague thought a student-planned curriculum would be easy on the students —but most of my cohort never completed their degrees. It takes self-discipline to be an academically assessed independent learner. At normal universities like York, professors 'drive' the learning experience; and for students, being told what to do is simpler and easier.
York has recently been touting "experiential education". But York's definition is a pale shadow of real experiential learning. Ahhh, the good old days. Maybe it is time for some Social Change.
When I arrived at Cornell, my graduate supervisory committee advised me to take undergraduate courses, to upgrade my academics in biochemistry and physical chemistry.The transcript shows courses I took in my first term at Cornell. Three were graduate level (Ecology and Physiology of Yield, Plant Physiology Advanced Lab, and Plastid Biogenesis), two were undergraduate (Principles of Biochemistry, Individualized Instruction and Physical Chemistry). The Biochemistry course was offered lecture-based, or as a tutorial with quizzes —all students took the same final exam. The tutorial format provided scheduling flexibility that worked well for someone like me (doing experiments in a laboratory). Very few of the students in the course opted for individualized instruction even though the academic outcomes were similar in either case —I guess most students prefer to listen to lectures!
My grades tended to be A's and B's (S and SX are a 'pass', X means the course was only offered pass/fail). However, I took a graduate-level course entitled Biosynthesis of Macromolecules. Basically, it followed Kornberg's DNA Replication. I got a 'C'. I have kept this a secret from my colleagues for 25-plus years, but finally feel compelled to confess my poor academic record in molecular biology. DNA replication was boring, a 'near-death experience' for me. My graduate supervisory committee reminded me often of my poor academic record in the course, on Many Occasions.
As a postdoctoral fellow, I had the opportunity to learn patch clamp techniques at an EMBO Experimental Course. It was the foundation for ion channel measurements I did when I first arrived at York University as an Assistant Professor. I self-studied German before I went (practicing numbers/counting while doing experiments). When I first arrived, as soon as I tried to say something, it came out in Japanese.
The organizers focused on plant cells, so the course was designed to "...introduce the techniques of protoplast preparation, patch clamping and the potential of their combined application to the study of ionic mechanisms in plants." They found a good graphic of a tomato for the poster and the obligatory t-shirt. The patch clamp technique was sparking a conflagration of mechanistic explorations of ion transport in cells. My initial patch clamp focus after arriving at York was light-activated ion channels in algae. It was fascinating times for a young scientist.
I applied to York University in 1988. At that time, I still had family living in Ontario (Elliot Lake), who had encouraged me to apply. I think the only difference back then was that application letters tended to be composed on a typewriter, and were shorter. I've attached it. I don't have the original job advertisement, but did take notes that are probably close to verbatim:
"York University, Faculty of Science, Department of Biology
plant cell/molecular biologist
Applications are invited for a tenure-stream position for a person with a PhD degree and a background in plant, algal, or fungal biology and current research emphasis on cell or molecular biology. An established and vigorous research programme is paramount but teaching ability in plant-related topics is important. Start Date: 1 July 1988. Send letter, c.v., and letters of reference by 22 Feb 1988. Dr. M.B. Fenton, Chairman, Department of Biology, York University, North York M3J 1P3, Canada."
I was offered the position (at 40,000 per annum, which seems so paltry 25 years later) and started in July of 1989.
Looking back, I'm struck by the cyclical nature of the 'Naming of Things'. In 1988, it was the 'Faculty of Science'. At some point, it became the 'Faculty of Pure and Applied Science', then it changed to 'Faculty of Science and Engineering', and has now returned to its 'Faculty of Science' roots. I can finally start using the old letter stocks again.
In the application letter, 'a passing acquaintance with Characean algae' meant that I walked by a tank of Nitella every day when I was a graduate student at Cornell University. I never expected to 'return' to Characean algae. But when we were developing the Biophysics II lab exercises (in 2009), we wanted to offer labs on electrophysiology, and Chara is a Biophysicist's dream organism for that kind of work. So, I found myself looking innocent as I declared my algae (kindly provided by a colleague at SUNY-Buffalo) at the border, assuring the customs and immigration officer that it was completely safe. A few years later, Chara had 'spread' to the Biology 2070 lab course.
It will probably be a complete surprise to my colleagues to learn that I was one of the architects of the Biotechnology stream in Biology (and the last one still in the Department!). The earliest records in my files are from 1990. Bertrand Lemieux and I spearheaded the effort, causing (I am sure) much grief to the Chair (Brock Fenton). All Chairs should avoid having anything to do with new (and brash) faculty. The most telling document I could find was a memo from the Chair, providing 'blunt' advice to Bertrand and I when we were planning the Biotechnology Lab course. We did get the money we needed, and lots of support from the Department as the stream achieved official status.
The formal program —commencing in 1994/1995— was originally "Applied Science Area of Concentration in Biotechnology and Molecular Biology", now it is the "Biotechnology Stream". Although I taught part of the biotechnology course in the 'primordial days', others soon took over. I have attached snapshots of the course in 1991/1992 (Lemieux and I taught it —Plant Transformation), 1997/1998 (Daphne Goring —Plant and Yeast Transformation), and 2004/2005 (Kathi Hudak —Eukaryote Transformation). The course description evolved rapidly.
Bertrand and I (and the other new Plant Scientists in the Department —Joel Shore and Dawn Bazely) were mostly embedded in the applied aspects. Now, everyone eats GMO food, but back in 1991, industry was just gearing up to produce financially viable products so the course was about practical plant transformation. With the departures of Bertrand Lemieux and Daphne Goring, the emphasis has changed, but Plant Biotechnology remains the industrial moneymaker.
I still teach aspects of biotechnology in Photosynthesis (a service course for Biotechnology and Biochemistry students). With the advent of effective transformation vectors of the chloroplast genome in the past ten years, the advances have been astonishing. Bioengineering of metabolic pathways is poised to be the next Big Thing in Biotechnology.
Barry Loughton got me involved with the Science Olympics soon after my arrival at York. He was a beer brewer. That, in combination with the development of the Biotechnology program led to the first competition I was involved with: Fast Fuels. Basically, high school students were asked to experiment at their schools to devise a fast and high productivity fermentation. Did they taste their results? I think so.
In 1992, it was EconoFuel. Barry Loughton oversaw Next of Kin in 1993. I did Evolving O2 in 1994. I was involved eight times from 1991 through 2011, just one of many biology faculty who contributed events to Science Olympics over the years. The undergraduate Biophysics Club ran the last event I was involved in (Biophysical Currents) in 2011. For that competition, students had to experiment with different fruits and vegetables to determine which provided maximum current when impaled with copper and zinc nails. The Faculty of Science got us large quantities of things like oranges, potatoes etc. The high school students choose which one they would use when they arrived for the event. The leftovers were donated to a Food Bank.
Keith Aldridge had been the Coordinator of the Science Olympics for years. There were usually about 100 high schools competing, from as far away as Sudbury, and even further north. With Keith's retirement, it became more difficult to sustain the event from year to year. It was a wonderful opportunity to showcase Science@York. I hope it gets reincarnated. It was an important part of ongoing science enrichment/outreach that continues to grow.
My Life and Times isn't about science. But I thought that my colleagues might be interested in the evolution of graphics. The examples are current-voltage relations dating from 1991 to 2007.
1991 — inward potassium channels function in cell growth (my first York paper) 1996 — whole cell currents are insensitive to cell pressure 2004 — in situ vacuole currents respond to osmotic shock 2007 — potassium and chloride currents dominate current-voltage relations.
In 1991, I drew graphs with technical pens on a drafting board. Text was drawn using a Leroy lettering set. For offset printing I needed to use high quality vellum and opaque, indelible inks. If I made a mistake, I had to start over. Working with technical pens required a lot of skill, and it could easily take a day to create a complicated graphic. By 1996, technical drawing included computer-generated graphics. By 2004 (and 2007), publishers were starting to request electronic files (often encasulated postscript). Adobe Illustrator liberated us. With modern graphing programs it was trivial and easy to show all the data on a scatter plot. It changed how I created data visualizations.
When I first arrived at York, Gord Temple had his hands full taking pictures of x-ray films for the molecular biologists (and image layouts for the cell biologists). When he retired, the digital imaging 'revolution' was in full swing, and all of this had migrated into individual labs. I am not nostalgic for the old days.
I suspect that all of my colleagues would agree that achieving tenure and promotion is a harrowing experience. The candidate is very much at the mercy of students, departmental colleagues, and professional colleagues, all protected by anonymity. Looking back now, I am grateful for the goodwill of my colleagues on the T&P committee who spent considerable time building the T&P file and adjudicating it. The excerpts document the first stage (Biology approval of tenure and promotion) and the final outcome (in my case, from the 'Acting President' at the time). I think the initial departmental letter would have been written in early November, 1992, but my copy has a date of January 4, 1993 (the Faculty T&P committee probably asked the departmental committee to revise the initial letter for some reason). All told, it took about a year from start to finish. Since then, I've been on T&P committees (and chaired them) at various times, usually at the Faculty level. Candidates succeed! When the tenure and promotion procedures were revised in 2003, one of the objectives was to speed file creation and adjudication. I don't think it worked. University Deliberations tend to be a Low Reynolds Number process: as slow as molasses.
By 1991, the Chair (Brock Fenton) had slotted me into teaching Introductory Biology. I don't know why. I'd never taken an Introductory Biology course (I'd never taken any biology course), had never TA'ed a course, and had no experience teaching large classes. Of course, I never told him this. The first time I taught it was a spring term course (April to June). This meant that many of the students were more experienced than first year students —very helpful for a newbie like me. I have no idea how I survived, I still don't really know what meiosis is. The next year, Brock slotted me into the first year Intro class. There had been a snafu by the Registrar, and much higher enrollments than normal (about 500 in a single lecture hall), so some of the labs had 28 students, and I had to call in the fire marshall to ensure we were complying with fire code regulations. It really was a baptism by fire.
In February 1994, I got a morning call from Brock: "Come immediately" he said. It turned out that there had been a complaint, an anonymous one, that had raised the ire of the Centre for Race & Ethnic Relations. I've attached a scan of the letter. Back then, the course was co-taught. It turned out that I wasn't the cause of the complaint, Peter Moens was, something I discovered when I arrived at the Chair's office and found Brock and Peter chatting amicably. Brock's response to the compliant is also attached, I never saw Peter's response.
I had asked a student how things were going now that Peter was lecturing, she responded that Professor Moens had made fun of every religion when talking about evolution. That may be where the anonymous complaint "Addressing all non-Christian religions as tools for suppression of the development of sciences" came from, although I am absolutely certain Peter included Christians in the mix.
As a young professor, I had a high opinion of my teaching ability compared to older profs. The course evaluation summary I've attached from the same year proved me wrong. Peter had said he could teach Introductory Biology with one hand tied behind his back, apparently he could, and get much higher ratings than me! It was a turning point for me —rethinking how I taught and engaged the students.
I don't remember when I started playing softball in the York University
League, but it would have been soon after I arrived at York (before 1992). We
usually played one to two evenings a week, it was a welcome break from lab work.
The Phoenix Flyers started in the lowest division (the 4th), and slowly worked
their way up to the first division. The team was a mix of graduate students,
faculty and staff, and alumni. Some of the people are still here after 20 years,
others graduated and went into industry or (for one person) returned to
I was a fielder and a base hitter. I was not a slugger, home runs were very rare. My first home run (1995) was 'witnessed' on the game ball. Some of the comments: Way to go! / Nice Hit. The shot heard round the world. / Rog, you're the best / Awesome hit dude! / "Dr. D" says it is about time! Congrats! / All right Roger!. My second (and last) home run happened in 2007.
I stopped playing for a few years because of family, but then returned to the field to play with the Comets. By then I had no throwing arm left. Besides, the team was awful, we lost every game, but we did have fun!
In 1997, I took my first sabbatical at Woods Hole at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in the BioCurrents Research Facility. York faculty went on strike that year, but as a sabbaticant, I missed all the excitement, leaving it to my colleagues to walk the picket lines (and get noticeably tanned as a result). The picture shows me with a big smile. The original writing on the sign in the photograph has faded since 1997, so I photoshopped what it said: I was "On Strike".
The facility provided state-of-the-art biophysics instrumentation for visiting scientists. All in a location that was stunningly beautiful. Woods Hole is very crowded in the summer, but I always planned my visits during the off-season (fall or early spring) when things were quiet and I had the luxury of having the equipment all to myself. The weather was 'typical marine'. Foggy (at the beach), sunny (at the harbour), and the occasional northeaster that would drive the rain horizontally.
I was a Research Collaborator at the Facility, so I had to write up a short blurb for their Facility grant applications (NIH/DOE) every few years. The Director always asked me to try and be a bit 'biomedical' to satisfy the selection committees. I complied.
I was able to 'sabbatical' at Woods Hole four times (1997, 2003, 2006 and 2009). It was productive, and a wonderful respite.
In 1997/1998, the Chair (Brian Colman) asked me to teach Plants. This was a lot more challenging for me than I was willing to admit to anyone —I had very little academic background in any aspect of plant diversity (I'm a cellular physiologist / biophysicist). At least I had a sabbatical year to read up and get a handle on the huge gaps in my knowledge. Even so, the first year was a case of the 'blind leading the blind'. Now, I've taught the course 13 times, so I am a bit more familiar with the material.
Within three years (2001), the Department re-vamped its view of what a biology student should be required to know, resulting in a flexi-core curriculum. This revision was spearheaded by the ecologists, but the molecular biologists didn't mind since it allowed them to specialize earlier in the four year program. Enrollments in the Plants course fell since it was no longer required for our huge complement of pre-med students. I used the flexi-curriculum as an excuse to modify the Plants course. The description was revised to 'Current advances...' (so that anyone could teach whatever they wanted, as long as it had something to do with plants), the labs were changed dramatically. We removed dead botany slides from the labs, and introduced live material. We paid a student artist to draw new and improved life cycles for the lab manual. The course 'Plant Biology' was born! Now, the students document life cycles from live organisms in the labs, and I devote 50% of lecture time to eco-physiology. The course has evolved a lot, a liberation for me.
The first graph shows grade distributions for the course since 1988. This is as clear as the evidence can be that the lecturer dictates the grade distribution. In the language of the students, under Heath it was a bear course, under Bazely, it was a bird course, etcetera. The outlier is my teaching after 2007. The reason is simple. I started to adjust grades upward to account for grade inflation in other 2000-level courses.
The evidence for grade inflation in 2000-level courses is shown in the second graph. The technical difficulty of the Plant Biology tests has never changed, so I know that students are still as smart and intelligent now as they were in 1998. I just assign them a higher grade to harmonize with other 2000-level courses.
In 2012, a student raised their hand and said "My professor told me that taxonomy is dead". It took a lot of sputtering before I could answer coherently. I told them that when it comes to taxonomy "Things change faster than we can die". It's really true —molecular phylogeny is moving at a breathtaking pace. I fully expect that the molecular realities will finally force the animal biologists to teach the fungal groups in their course in the not so distant future (Molecular phylogenies are clear: animals are far more closely related to fungi than plants are). As to Plant Biology, I learn something new every time I teach it.
From 1998 through 2001, the Associate Dean of Student Affairs (Dave Logan) asked me to be a member of a Sub-Admissions Committee for the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science. The committee considered special admissions. Normally, 'special' meant that the applicant was from an unusual educational background and had to be considered separately from the standard OAC (now grade 12) pool. Or, the applicant could have a poor academic record from long ago, and were now requesting a first or second chance at Higher Education. Besides myself, Dave Logan, Jim Burt and Gail Thomson did the adjudication. I don't remember the name of the woman in Admissions who set-up the files for us. I do know we had a reputation in the Admissions Office. It was because of Nessie, who normally lives in my lab. The problem was multi-fold. Dave Logan loved to expound on Civil War history, Gail and I were serious fans of Xena, Warrior Princess. This meant it was hard to keep us on track... If you squeezed Nessie's nose, a scottish tune would start to play, a clear sign to whoever (usually Dave) was 'wasting time' to get back to the business at hand. We used to have So Much Fun. When someone else from Admissions had to prepare the files, he told us that he had been warned we were a wild group.
What we did was actually serious: Providing Educational Opportunities to people who would otherwise be denied the chance to get an education. It was something I felt strongly about.
From 2001 through 2005, the Chair (Art Hilliker) asked me to teach part of the summer Introductory Biology —a very intense course for teacher and students because a 7 month course was being squeezed into 3-4 months. There weren't that many biology majors —most of the students were 2nd or 3rd year (majoring in kinesiology, chemistry, etc.) and a smattering of students from other universities picking up a required course. Jennifer Lavigne kept on trying to early-enroll first year students into the course and I had 'tense discussions' with her about it. The pace was just too fast and furious for a student fresh out of high school.
The letter is a 'thank you note' for letting YUELI students (english as a second language students) audit a lecture. The second paragraph extolls my teaching abilities. Let me quote it to you. In full:
"The lecture itself by all accounts was an excellent example of York teaching at its best —a well-structured exploration of important concepts and a style of delivery that left everyone infected by your enthusiasm for your subject. The students particularly appreciated the humorous anecdotes you wove so effectively into your lecture without obscuring its overall shape and development."
Anytime I needed some encouragement, I re-read it. I should get it framed.
In 2002, we finally completed a new and vastly improved Plant Growth Facility. It gets used by a diverse groups of researchers (entomologists, chemists and the odd cell/molecular biologists, plus ecologists). It may surprise some to learn I don't use the Facility for my work. Soon after it was finished, the York Gazette (Michael Todd) published an article on York's New Greenhouse: Some Like it Hot.
A new greenhouse facility was long overdue. It was a modest capital project (all told, about 2 million). I coordinated planning/construction/commissioning. Kathi Hudak was soon to arrive at York, and had suggested we could get supplementary lighting by tapping into the marihuana industry. When grow-ops are shut down by the police, the lighting they use is confiscated. I knew nothing about this. Really. But after some fascinating conversations with local police, I learned that we could receive the lighting (from a warehouse at the Downsview airport complex). We carted 50,000 worth of lighting and supplies back to York. Michael Todd thought this would make great copy, which is why the article ended this way:
"One interesting aspect of the new building is the soon-to-be-installed lighting confiscated by Peel Regional Police in various drug busts of illegal hydroponic operations. York got the lighting free under a Federal seized property program. "We like to call it our 'druggie lighting'," notes Lew.
Club Fed anyone?"
Of course, there was an old tradition that grad students used to grow marihuana in the greenhouse back in the 1970's when the University was first opened. And of course, some people think we supplement our research funds with a 'commercial' operation in the basement of the greenhouse (we do have enough power —sufficient to run a subdivision). But I know nothing about this. Really.
From 2000-2003 and 2004-2010, I was the Technical Services Committee. The committee had a membership of 'one', so I always joked that it was very easy to get consensus! The job description explains the role fairly well. Basically, anything technical that impacted on the Department was my purview. I have collated some email subject lines from archived emails, to give a sense of how varied that purview was.
Because I had work experience in construction and maintenance, I was familiar with the nuts and bolts that made the buildings functional, so it wasn't difficult service. On the other hand, there was a tendency for people to get excited when something untoward happened, resulting in a stream of emails of limited to nil usefulness. Eventually the problem became clear, its causes were discovered, and the solution was achieved.
At some point, the University started to exert more control over technical support of research and teaching, and hired a manager to oversee facilities and technical services for the Faculty as a whole. Over time, the departmental Technical Services Committees became redundant, and the Departmental Committee on Committees stopped assigning anyone to the Technical Services Committee. No longer was I called in on a report of odours coming out of a sink (the results of an experiment gone awry?) to assist in fixing whatever the problem might be.
In 2005, The Chair of Biology (Imogen Coe) asked me to be involved in the preliminary planning for a Biophysics Degree Program with Paula Wilson (left). I was an internal consultant for the Physics undergrad programs in 2002/2003, so I knew the existing Physics curriculum and departmental members quite well. And having started my scientific career in a Biophysics Department, this was familiar territory for me.
The program was launched in 2006, with the first cohort entering in 2007. Physics launched the program in style. I have attached the Yfile article, and a link to the original article. Logan Donaldson, Valeria Tsoukanova and I gave talks to the high school physics teachers. They would become our major 'recruiters' for students from the GTA. The Physics Chair even sent a Thank You letter (below), with a gift card! Very classy.
I taught a third of the Current Topics in Biophysics course for seven years (!) (Stan Jerzak was the Course Director), and contributed Lab Exercises for Biophysics II (BPHS4090). Logan Donaldson and Vivian Saridakis contributed lab exercises in nmr and x-ray crystallography.
Inter-disciplinary programs are hard to implement and hard to sustain. The entire infrastructure of teaching and research is embedded within individual Departments, who struggle to get their share of funding from the University —not a good environment for inter-disciplinary initiatives. Biophysics succeeded because of a lot of Good Will, and offers a wonderful inter-disciplinary mix for students.
The Dean of York's Faculty of Graduate Studies asked me to serve on an Appraisal Committee at the Ontario Council of Graduate Studies (OCGS), probably in 2004. Initially I declined because I was going to be out of the country doing research and would miss too many meetings, but then agreed to a three year term (2005-2008). The workload was very high: about 5-fold greater workload than NSERC selection committees (on which I had served previously). The committees met every 6 weeks, and normally appraised 5-8 graduate programs per meeting. Because it was province-wide, committee members from distant universities had to be flown in and housed in Toronto. I think some of them received teaching relief from their home universities. Not York. And I never charged OCGS for the subway fare. In my third year, OCGS tried to streamline the paperwork by going electronic. No, that was not to be. It was one thing for me to slip a file into a overnight bag and read it in an airport terminal, writing notes on the pages as required, another thing to peer at a small computer screen for interminable hours. They did offer to buy me a laptop. I declined, telling them "I have enough computers already". The other scientist on the appraisal committee laughed, knowing full well what I meant: Whether computers increase productivity or not depends on the task at hand.
Appraising graduate programs gave me a very practical overview of where the Biology Graduate Program at York stood. I was privy to York's file (although recused from deliberations). It was clear that we were (and probably remain) "Above Average". By appraisal standards, that is a very positive assessment.
The most discouraging thing for me in terms of teaching are negative comments by the students. I have attached an example from BPHS2090 (Current Topics in Biophysics). I think the 'Rate my Professor' and hand-written comments come from the same person, because he or she likes to capitalize entire words. I have also attached the instructor evaluation with comments compiled for all responses, to counterbalance the negativity of the one student.
From the mid-1990s, I have used the same course evaluation for all of my teaching. I do use the departmental evaluation, but retain my original evaluation, because I do not want to lose twenty-plus years of a consistent survey of student feedback on course and instructor.
Rate My Professor is a for-profit owned by ViaCom (mtvU, their youth-oriented subsidiary) —its focus on 'easy courses' must certainly attract students! Its ad revenue is estimated to be about $20,000 per month. When it became popular, I started to mount the results of my evaluation on my course websites (and added a section 'Advice to Prospective Students' in 2011). I think students find it very helpful to see a complete and comprehensive rating of the course, with comments. My younger colleagues may wish to do the same. It is a positive way to respond to the sentiment that teachers should be graded, a sentiment that has its dark side.
One of the new educational initiatives that has taken root internationally is the Creative Learning Commons: learning that is openly accessible to anyone with internet access. Matthew George in Physics spearheaded an initiative to mount the lab exercises for BPHS 4090 (Biophysics II) in a Learning Commons format (the same software used for Wikipedia). I followed his example when I revised the lab manual for BIOL 4160 (Photosynthesis). Colleagues who have developed the lab component of courses are well aware of how time-consuming and challenging it is to develop exercises that actually work! Creating the BioWiki to mount a web version of the manual added to the complexity. The students were positive about the new approach (the majority of the students gave it the most positive rating on the course evaluation, though some lamented the passing of a printed lab manual). The BioWiki is visited monthly by people from around the globe, hopefully they will put it to good use. Are Creative Learning Commons the future of Higher Education? I think so. It is an affirmation of Public Education.
Undergraduates have contributed to research in my Lab. A Lot. I have always paid them (on an hourly basis, more than graduate students!) because I had to work as an undergraduate (as a work-study), and providing students with a paying research job is the Right Thing to Do.
Aryan is one example. He used high resolution fluorescence imaging (confocal microscopy) and tedious motion tracking and vectorial mapping to measure flow velocity profiles of organelles in fungal hyphae. The data supported the concept of pressure-driven mass flow in hyphae, the work was publishable. When it was published, the Faculty of Science did the Right Thing and highlighted his achievements in an annual report: Providing undergraduates with real research experience is common throughout all of the science-based Departments at York, it is something to celebrate. In my lab, undergraduate contributions can translate into publications in established peer-reviewed journals, but even when they don't, their research is 'published' on the Lew Research Home website.
I started doing scientific research as an undergraduate in 1980 (35 years ago). Without that experience, I never would have embarked on a scientific career. It was the beginning of My Life and Times.
One of the teaching techniques that I thoroughly enjoy goes by the pedagogical term "Open-Ended Problem Solving". Education researchers have even developed taxonomic classification schemes to describe it. I ignore that aspect. Completely. For me, it is just a way to have fun (while learning of course). Students usually enjoy it, although the absence of a pre-defined rubric and the unexpectedness of the questions can be challenging for them.
I've attached an example from BPHS2090 (Current Topics in Biophysics). It is Godzilla, who gets bigger and bigger with each successive movie. The question for the students was simple: Would It Work? They had at their disposal physical and engineering concepts from a case study in lecture on the height of a tree —Euler's column works for both a tree and a leg bone. These are the kinds of questions that don't have a 'correct' answer and required an adaptive rubric that accounts for how the students analyze the problem.
It works in upper level courses too. In Membrane Transport, one assignment was: How Many Bananas will Kill a Human? (it is the elevated potassium, which depolarizes membranes to trigger action potential trains). The average answer was about six bananas, disturbingly low, but we were ignoring potassium clearance by the kidneys.
Asking questions like this on assignments (or even tests) is fun. But one student told me that every time someone in class asked me a question during lecture that I didn't know the answer to, he held his breath. He already knew that after I said "I have no idea", I might say "What a wonderful question for an assignment"!
To thank twenty-five year old-timers, the University gives them a choice of a gift. I opted for a donation to the Lander Dandy award in Biology.
"Lander Dandy Prize in Plant and Animal BiologyFor me, it was an affirmation that Biology is about biological life —both plant (BIOL 2010) and animal (BIOL 2030). A Biology Department needs to recognize students who learn about both, the Lander Dandy Award does exactly that.
Donor: Friends of Elizabeth Lander and Cynthia Dandy
The prize is to honour the contribution of Elizabeth Lander and Cynthia Dandy during their careers at York. A book prize and certificate will be awarded to the student with the best combined performance in the concurrent completion of the courses SC/BIOL 2010 4.00 and SC/BIOL 2030 5.00."
In 2008, the funds for the award had become depleted, and Biology Faculty were asked to donate by myself, and others who had recently taught the two courses:
"...Drs. Scott Kelly, Tanya Noel and I can assure you that every year there is an outstanding student who reveled in biological diversity as evidenced by excellent marks in both courses, and is most deserving of the award.A lot of Faculty did donate. Enthusiastically. They all must agree that plants and animals are the foundation of Biology!
The problem is that the fund has been depleted. So we are asking faculty members to donate to the fund..."
I put 'My Life and Times' together because I was going through old papers —rediscovering things. It grew organically, and might be interesting to my colleagues. I know that some of 'My Life and Times' will jog their own memories of 'Their Life and Times'.
It was fun putting it together. I hope you enjoy it.