STEM over-emphasized?

Even at Google collaborative skills matter more than technical ones:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

I suppose that’s unsurprising in a sprawling corporation like Google. When you’re working to advance mass interests within a bureaucracy, human interaction can often be the most important factor. Working alone on your own project technical competence and motivation may matter most, but in a web of people the way you affect the others will often be paramount.

Modern board games

Here are a couple of interesting journalistic accounts of complex modern board games:

They both emphasize games that seek to accurately model military conflicts, particularly “A Distant Plain“, which is about the post-2001 intervention in Afghanistan.

A few years ago, I tried to convince the student government (Lionel Massey Fund, or LMF) at Massey College into buying a game called “Persian Incursion” which sought to model an Israeli attack against the Iranian nuclear weapons program. They rejected the proposal as too expensive and controversial. It would be interesting to try a game like this sometime, but no board game café where I have asked yet has carried them.

2017–18 course 1 essay 1

This term’s first big batch of grading — essays for my Canadian politics course — is due no later than Monday evening. Please wish me fortitude in getting through the last three dozen.

I believe basically everyone finds grading stressful and tedious. It invalidates my ordinary procrastination flowchart, since it is always possible to devote time to long-term projects or self-care activities instead of reminding people that essays need to have a thesis, or tabulating grades in Excel and U of T’s poorly implemented online portal.

Encouraging equitable tutorial participation

This is my sixth year as a teaching assistant at U of T. While a big part of my TA duties has always been grading, for almost all the courses I have helped teach I have lead tutorials.

Early on, I tried to emulate a system that was common in my small group classes in Oxford (“tutorials” there means one-on-one discussions with your supervisor). The instructors would ask everybody to write a concise summary of each assigned reading and would then call on a student at random for each reading to present their work. The idea is to create a stronger incentive to be prepared for tutorials, and also to give all students an equal chance of contributing. The second part is important because tutorials can easily be dominated by the students with the most privilege, in the sense that they feel entitled to speak and for others to listen to them.

At some point, I conducted a survey and wrote a report on this approach. The big downside was that people were worried about being called on to present, so they did not attend. Attendance in U of T political science tutorials is poor to begin with, so I concluded that this was probably asking too much.

Much later, for a course at UTM, it was necessary to assess participation in tutorials with impractically large numbers of students. On the advice of a fellow TA, I devoted 10 minutes of each 50 minute tutorial to students writing a paragraph or two based on a writing prompt I provided, then rapidly graded participation based on them showing me what they wrote at the end of class (basically on the spectrum of ‘wrote nothing at all’, ‘wrote two lines of nonsense’, ‘pass’).

This year, I am TAing two courses to try to cover the cost of another unfunded summer. In one students are meant to give one presentation. In the other, tutorial grades are all up to me.

My aims when leading a tutorial are principally to encourage a respectful and educational discussion among the students. This is often hampered because nobody is prepared for the tutorial, so all my leading questions about the readings, tutorial topic, and discussion questions yield little response. It is also often hampered for a different reason: because some students dominate discussion – interrupting others, feeling entitled to respond immediately to evert comment made by others, and generally inhibiting the respectful atmosphere which is a precondition for participation among the less privileged and confident. This is especially true in the huge tutorials which are standard in political science at U of T.

So, I am considering alternative means of moderating the discussion. My intuitive approach is to begin by calling on those who first raise their hands, to always call on those who have not spoken yet before calling again on someone who has, to call on people who spoke before earliest before letting people speak a second time, and to gently correct students who speak without recognition from the chair (me) or whose comments are otherwise problematic.

In my six tutorials next week I am planning to explain some of these issues of equity and the mechanics of maintaining a speakers’ list. I will summarize my intuitive approach and suggest some alternatives. One of those would be asking for a student to volunteer in each tutorial to manage the speakers’ list: taking note of people who raise their hands and using some combination of agreed rules and their judgment to choose who gets to speak next.

One idea from U of T seminars generally attended by graduate students and faculty which might be worth incorporating is the “two finger” gesture. As opposed to raising one’s hand, one raises two fingers to say that one has an immediate response to what was just said. This can be important because back-and-forth between people with theories and those who question them (or between people with different points of view) can enrich discussion.

I will also bring up the basic version of the Progressive Clock, which tracks speaking time for female, male, white, and coloured people and can generate graphs and exportable data. If people think it would be valuable to track speaking time in that way, I would ask for a second volunteer to do so and send the data to me.

I take my work as a teaching assistant seriously. That’s central to grading, obviously, but the pedagogy of teaching matters too. I welcome comments on any part of this (and I will try to find that report on random presentations).

Ethics protocol going for full review

On October 10th I submitted the proposed research ethics protocol for my PhD research to the University of Toronto’s Office of Research Ethics.

My committee thought that the subject protection risks were minimal enough to make a delegated review adequate, but I learned today that the protocol has been escalated to the full-REB meeting on November 15th. I should expect comments a couple of weeks after that, and will almost certainly then need to modify the proposal and ethics protocol in response.

In the meantime I am continuing with reviewing key texts and developing the cross-Canada census on the basis of public documents. I also have both my sets of tutorials to lead next week, and will be receiving this year’s first batch of essays to grade on Monday.

Learning and teaching

Thesis proposal reading continues to dominate my information diet, but I bought a couple of unrelated books today.

Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s Napoleon’s Buttons — recommended by my friend Myshka — describes the influence of seventeen molecules on human history. I’m about 60 pages in and have been finding it entertaining and reminiscent of James Burke’s Connections television series (he also talks a lot about coal tar and the rise of synthetic chemistry) and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.

I also got Naoki Higashida’s Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man’s Voice from the Silence of Autism, which was recently reviewed in The Economist.

Term time is rapidly approaching. In addition to my PhD research, I will be working as a teaching assistant for a second year “U.S. Government and Politics” course, which I did previously in 2013/14. I also applied for TA jobs in “Introduction to Peace, Conflict and Justice”, “Quantitative Reasoning”, and the “Canada in Comparative Perspective” course I have helped teach three times already. I’m done with coursework and comprehensive exams, so a double TA load should be manageable. It’s pretty important given that I haven’t had a paycheque since the spring, and my funding package as a sixth-year student is cut in half.

Ian Townsend-Gault

I was saddened to learn while watching the U.K. election that a former professor of mine — Ian Townsend-Gault — died in 2016.

I studied international law with him as an undergraduate, we had many engaging conversations over the years, he encouraged one of my early publications, he edited other early pieces of writing, I attended excellent parties at his Bowen Island home, he served as a reference for many of my grad school applications, he gave me good advice while I was at Oxford, and we met once in London.

Ian was memorable for his good humour, friendliness, and hospitality. He had a talent for making arcane subjects intriguing and even fascinating. I think the remarkably candid obituary above would not have displeased him.

Learning to write as an undergraduate

Most undergraduate students would really benefit from an intensive one-on-one tutoring program in writing essays. Even among third and fourth year students, it’s something most of them can’t or don’t do competently. While U of T offers some writing resources, you can’t really turn up at a writing centre with an unstructured, ungrammatical, and unconvincing draft and have someone teach you the basics of being credible and convincing in an hour or so.

It would be better to find a subject that is of particular interest to the student, and then begin with some lessons on what distinguishes credible sources and how to conduct research. The tutoring could then progress to a review of the basic essay template people should have learned in high school or earlier: an introduction with a clear thesis and a basic outline of the argument, body paragraphs with organized and coherent lines of evidence and argumentation, and a conclusion that wraps up and perhaps points to some broader implications.

They need to be guided away from both mindlessly vague claims with no substantive content and from the wild extrapolation and hyperbole where ludicrous statements are made about how the small topic of their paper will have vast, automatic, permanent, global effects. This one little UN initiative will save the world’s oceans, or one tweak in parliamentary procedure will save Canadian democracy, etc.

They could also be taught to edit. Clearly, most of them don’t even skim through their own writing looking for awkwardly phrased and ambiguous passages or language problems. They could, however, be taught to go beyond that to really think about making an argument and being convincing: evaluating whether each sentence and paragraph is serving their overall purpose, and how to hold the interest and win the respect of the reader.

Doing all this one-on-one would overcome the limitations of drop-in writing help, where the tutor doesn’t know the student’s strengths and weaknesses and can only provide ad hoc suggestions and corrections rather than a broad and coordinated program of improvement. A bespoke approach would let tutors avoid boring students by rehashing things they already understand, while letting the student focus on subject matter where they have actual passion.

Such a program of tutoring could do a lot to enhance what is almost the only tangible skill developed during an undergraduate program in the humanities or social “sciences”, and it would be a small investment of time and money compared to the undergraduate program as a whole.