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Review of Beth Shapiro, "How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction"

So it turns out that -- title notwithstanding -- Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (Princeton University Press) is not a do-it-yourself manual. What’s more, cloned mammoths are, in the author’s considered opinion, impossible. Likewise, alas, with regard to the dodo.

But How Not to Clone a Dodo would never cut it in the marketplace. Besides, the de-extinction of either creature seems possible (and in case of the mammoth, reasonably probable) in the not-too-distant future. The process involved won’t be cloning, per se, but rather one of a variety of forms of bioengineering that Shapiro -- an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz -- explains in moderate detail, and in an amiable manner.

Her approach is to present a step-by-step guide to how an extinct creature could be restored to life given the current state of scientific knowledge and the available (or plausibly foreseeable) advances in technology. There are obstacles. Removing some of them is, by Shapiro’s account, a matter of time and of funding. Whether or not the power to de-exterminate a species is worth pursuing is a question with many parts: ethical and economic, of course, but also ecological. And it grows a little less hypothetical all the time. De-extinction is on the way. (The author allows that the whole topic is hard on the English language, but “resurrection” would probably cause more trouble than it’s worth.)

The subject tickles the public’s curiosity and stirs up powerful emotions. Shapiro says she has received her share of fan and hate mail over the years, including someone’s expressed wish that she be devoured by a flesh-eating mammal of her own making. Perhaps the calmest way into the discussion is by considering why reviving the mammoth or the dodo is possible, but would not be the same thing as cloning one. (And dinosaur cloning is also right out, just to make that part clear without further delay.)

To clone something, in short, requires genetic material from a living cell with an intact genome. “No such cell has ever been recovered from remains of extinct species recovered from the frozen tundra,” writes Shapiro, whose research has involved the search for mammoth remains in Siberia. Flash freezing can preserve the gross anatomy of a mammoth for thousands of years, but nucleases -- the enzymes that fight off pathogens when a cell is alive -- begin breaking down DNA as soon as the cell dies.

What can be recovered, then, is paleogenetic material at some level of dismantling. The challenge is to reconstruct an approximation of the extinct creature’s original genome -- or rather, to integrate the fragments into larger fragments, since rebuilding the whole genetic structure through cut-and-paste efforts is too complex and uncertain a task. The reconstituted strings of genetic data can then be “inserted” at suitable places in the genome of a related creature from our own era. In the case of the woolly mammoth, that would mean genetic material from the Asian elephant; they parted ways on the evolutionary tree a mere 2.5 million years ago. In principle, at least, something similar could be done using DNA from the taxidermy-preserved dodo birds in various collections around the world, punched into the pigeon genome.

“Key to the success of genome editing,” writes Shapiro, “has been the discovery and development of different types of programmable molecular scissors. Programmability allows specificity, which means we can make the cuts we want to make where we want to make them, and we can avoid making cuts that kill the cell.”

Cells containing the retrofitted genome could then be used to spawn a “new” creature that reproduces aspects of the extinct one -- pending the solution of various technical obstacles. For that matter, scraping together enough raw material from millennia past presents its own problems: “In order to recover DNA from specimens that have very little preserved DNA in them, one needs a very sensitive and powerful method for recovering the DNA. But the more sensitive and powerful method is, the more likely it is to produce spurious results.”

Also a factor is the problem of contamination, whether found in the sample (DNA from long-dead mold and bacteria) or brought into the lab in spite of all precautions. Shapiro leaves the reader aware of both the huge barriers to be overcome before some species is brought back from extinction and the strides being made in that direction. She predicts the successful laboratory creation of mammoth cells, if not of viable embryos, within the next few years.

It will be hailed as the cloning of an extinct animal -- headlines that Shapiro (whose experiences with the media do not sound especially happy) regards as wrong but inevitable. The reader comes to suspect one motive for writing the book was to encourage reporters to ask her informed questions when that news breaks, as opposed to trying to get her to speculate about the dangers of Tyrannosaurus rex 2.0.

Besides its explanations of the genetics and technology involved, How to Clone a Mammoth insists on the need to think about what de-extinction would mean for the environment. Returning the closest bioengineerable approximation of a long-lost species to the landscape it once inhabited will not necessarily mean a happy reunion. The niche that animal occupied in the ecosystem might no longer exist. Indeed, the ecosystem could have developed in ways that doom the creature to re-extinction.

Shapiro is dismissive of the idea that being able to revive a species would make us careless about biodiversity (or more careless, perhaps), and she comes close to suggesting that de-extinction techniques will be necessary for preserving existing species. But those things are by no means incompatible. The author herself admits that some species are more charismatic than others: we're more likely to see the passenger pigeon revived than, say, desert rats, even though the latter play an ecological role. The argument may prove harder to take for the humbler species once members of Congress decide to freeze-dry them for eventual relaunching, should that prove necessary.

By now we should know better than to underestimate the human potential for creating a technology that goes from great promise to self-inflicted disaster in under one generation. My guess is that it will take about that long for the horrible consequences of the neo-dodo pet ownership craze of the late 2020s to makes themselves fully felt.

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A new funding program at the NEH hopes to bring more humanities research to the general public

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New grants from National Endowment for the Humanities aim to encourage books based on humanities research that are accessible to nonscholars.

A Look at the High School Biology Teacher Workforce

Biology educators occupy nearly half (44 percent) of all high school science teaching assignments -- more than double the percentage of chemistry educators, according to a new study published in BioScience. The biology education workforce increased some 50 percent between 1987 and 2007 due to biology’s “gateway” status among the high school sciences, the study says. The female proportion of the biology workforce also grew over the same period, from 39 to 61 percent. That’s more than in all other science, technology and math fields, according to the study.

At the same time, biology educators were more likely than their colleagues in other fields to teach outside the discipline. The number of biology educators with more than 20 years of teaching experience also dropped by some 20 percent between 1990 and 2007. Lead author Gregory T. Rushton, an associate professor of chemistry at Kennesaw State University, and his co-authors note that this is due in part to increasing numbers of teachers entering the workforce after careers outside education, for whom “the biologist identity may be stronger than that of teacher.”

Rushton and his colleagues propose stricter certification requirements for biology teachers and more targeted professional development. They also propose matching curricula to teachers’ expertise, as opposed to offering “a static, predetermined slate of science courses at each school.” The longitudinal study is based on the National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing surveys from 1987 through 2007.

U of Georgia to Hire 56 New Faculty Members, Reduce Class Size

The University of Georgia is launching a $4.4 million initiative to reduce class size, it announced Monday. The university will create more than 300 new course sections in 81 majors by fall 2016, mainly through hiring dozens of new faculty members in the coming year. Georgia’s current student-faculty ratio is relatively low for a research university, at 18 to 1, but the initiative ensures that a majority of the new course sections will have fewer than 20 students each. The move builds on other recent attempts by the university to increase student-faculty interaction, including a new graduation requirement that all 27,000 undergraduates engage in experiential learning such as internships, research or study abroad.

Essay on being a junior professor at a campus where sexist traditions are a form of harassment

I have a picture saved in a folder on my laptop. It is a picture of me, and it was provided to me somewhat reluctantly. It’s a photograph of my face, taken from my faculty profile page at the religious college where I used to work, placed onto the body of a scantily clad lingerie model. This Photoshopped image was part of an annual tradition, one that used such manufactured images of many of the faculty and staff members at the institution as part of a presentation designed to “skewer” faculty and staff for humorous effect. Sometimes it was a suggestion that a religion professor who was also a Baptist minister actually wanted to be the pope. Sometimes it was a joke that one of our very tall business professors was secretly an Olympic beach volleyball player. The year that I was on the docket, I was a Vegas showgirl, and thus my head was superimposed upon the body of a midriff-baring, garter stockings-clad lingerie model in a semitransparent bra.

This performance was done during a convocation for students, but it was popular among faculty members and administrators, who made a tradition of attending the annual “roast.” Aside from the general fact that mocking faculty members in front of a group of students already skeptical of us is pedagogically questionable, the sexually suggestive Photoshopped picture of me -- and similar photos of some of my female colleagues -- was a clear case of sexual harassment.

But this had been done for years. It was simply “tradition” and we were supposed to be part of a family -- and what family doesn’t pick on one another just a little bit?

I like to think of myself as a strong woman, one who won’t put up with abusive comments or disrespect. I’ve learned to ignore street harassment; I’ve spent a lot of my life figuring out which battles are the ones to fight, and complaining about the minimal harassment I’ve experienced in the workplace really wasn’t worth the disruption to my life, though I would like to think that if it represented a pattern of behavior -- and others were being harassed as well -- that I would step forward and tell my own story.

But this I was afraid to complain about. I wasn’t present at this convocation, but all the same, it was humiliating -- so humiliating that some of my colleagues who were at the convocation wouldn’t tell me about it and refused to make eye contact when I asked them directly about what had happened. It was several days before someone involved with the program finally acquiesced when I said I wanted to see the image myself and sent me a copy of it. The experience undercut my authority in the classroom, as many of my students were already inclined to believe that women should not have positions of authority over men.

Nevertheless, I was afraid to complain.

I was afraid to complain about it, because the person who did the presentation every year was an administrator, one who, when we had our first mandatory sexual harassment training session for the campus employees, started with a joke: “If these rules had been around when I met my wife, I wouldn’t be happily married today.”

What was I going to do? This was a prominent member of our small-town community. I had seen administrators retaliate against faculty members for asking what I thought were reasonable questions or making reasonable complaints about their treatment, and I was untenured in a work-at-will state. Did I really have any choice? I had the evidence. It was a clear case. Quite likely, it would have simply resulted in administrators apologizing and being embarrassed, but it also like would have resulted in having to hear multiple times that “he’s a part of an earlier generation” for whom such things were different. More importantly, I feared I also risked losing my job, but without any proof that it was retaliation. I’d seen other people at that institution fired (or, more euphemistically, told that their tenure-track contracts were “not being renewed”) under mysterious circumstances. Because there was no record of any discussion -- and the fact that work-at-will means that employers don’t have to give you a reason to let you go -- those people could not prove any discrimination had taken place.

While this is certainly anecdotal and only my own experience, it does color the way that I think about claims of sexual harassment, both by faculty members and by students. When we think about harassment and our approach to it at universities and colleges, we need to remember that they are workplaces, despite all the talk about being members of a family or part of a community, with real disregard for equity. It’s difficult in many environments to come forward with complaints of harassment -- particularly when young scholars are being discouraged from doing so, either through well-meaning but ultimately wrongheaded advice like Alice Huang’s a few weeks ago, or through the outright attack on those who bring complaints about the harassment. It’s also difficult when so many of our institutions have steeped themselves in decades-long traditions that blur the boundary between work and personal lives, particularly when we forget that colleges and universities are not always the bastions of progressivism that the public sometimes thinks we are.

We need to think about these places and their traditions, and consider how an unexamined status quo can contribute to a larger environment that allows sexual harassment to go unchecked for years and that preserves and promotes a culture that thinks of women in positions of authority as merely objects to make fun of, not as leaders of institutions. Academe is part of a larger culture that promotes such objectification constantly, and I think it’s important to hear the voices of women who claim to have been marginalized or discriminated against, when those women are brave enough to come forward, and think about the legitimacy of those complaints. What seems like acceptable “good fun” to some people may seem unacceptable and hurtful to others, and their opinions and insights need to be considered.

Is there potential for abuse of Title IX or sexual harassment statutes as they currently exist? Of course. The potential for abuse of the system exists in any system. But even as we discuss the merits of Title IX complaints, we cannot forget the continuing problems that exist, those continuing problems that gave rise to the need for Title IX and sexual harassment laws in the first place.

These things are still happening, and we do ourselves and our students a grave disservice by cloaking them in the name of tradition and “good fun.”

The author, an assistant professor of English, no longer works at the institution described in this piece.

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Essay on whether academe knows how to judge teaching

Early in my career, there was an incident involving a senior professor in another department. He was a mild-mannered man but deeply embittered about his career. He began savagely berating students in feedback on assignments and writing vitriolic reviews of junior faculty members. To avoid an inevitable lawsuit, the college negotiated his early retirement. At commencement, the college always announced the recipient of its top teaching award. I happened to be standing near this professor before commencement began. I heard him tell one of his colleagues, “This is my last commencement, it would be really nice if I won the teaching award.” I was stunned. How could someone being forced into retirement for abusive practices believe he might be chosen as the outstanding teacher?

The experience raised a basic question in my mind: What do people think professors do to deserve teaching awards? The answer to this question is important. It defines the kind of teachers we strive to become. For institutions, the answer determines the kind of teaching that is rewarded with tenure and promotion (at least at places that don’t focus exclusively on research).

When someone wins an award for outstanding research or artistic expression, we understand that the person has made a critical discovery or created something unique and significant; but when a person wins a teaching award, what do we think he or she did to deserve it? Do we believe the recipient did something extraordinary and important, or do we attribute it to less admirable reasons, such as being popular among students? In my experience, the most positive reasons people give to explain why a colleague won a teaching award is that the person is especially passionate or dedicated to teaching. We applaud colleagues who win teaching awards who have sacrificed in some way for teaching, or who have worked to make their classes particularly fun and engaging, or who inspire students to excel.

What is notable about these reasons is that they have little to do with actual teaching skill. The implication is that award-winning teachers are not any more effective at engendering student learning than the rest of us. Rather, they devote more time and attention to their teaching and students than we do, or they persevere through greater challenges. I propose that these traits, while certainly important, are not the critical reason why some faculty deserve to win teaching awards.

During my career I’ve seen faculty members who are deeply passionate about teaching and care greatly about their students who nonetheless are not particularly successful teachers. Passion, dedication and sacrifice are no guarantee of teaching effectiveness. They do not automatically translate into student achievement or satisfaction. Neither does disciplinary knowledge; faculty with distinguished research records are not necessarily better teachers than graduate students.

What, then, is the critical element for teaching success? I say the best teachers are learning driven; their teaching is wholly focused on developing a deep understanding of the subject matter in the minds of their students. This entails much more than presenting information. Learning-driven teachers don’t simply wish or hope their students learn -- they take actions to see that the desired kind of learning takes place. Consciously or not, learning-driven teachers are concerned with an array of factors that influence student learning. For example, they manage the class’s collective attention, monitor metacognitive awareness, respect the constraints of working memory and promote transfer-appropriate processing, even if these teachers are unaware of the formal names of such concepts.

These teachers create a classroom atmosphere that supports learning. They become trustworthy sources of knowledge for students. These teachers show students the shortcomings of their current thinking and understanding, and convince them of the value of developing a deeper, more accurate understanding. They create learning experiences that promote both long-term learning and appropriate recall and application beyond the classroom. These teachers are able to assess the level of understanding of students and recognize how to move that understanding toward a desired learning goal. The ability to accomplish all these tasks defines teaching skill.

The best teachers develop an accurate understanding of how people learn. They recognize the power they have to either help or hurt student understanding. They see learning as a shared responsibility between themselves and the students. Quality of teaching is judged by what students learn and how they can use the information. If students don’t learn, teaching is not successful, regardless of how brilliant and engaging the teacher might be.

A learning-driven approach can be contrasted with an information-driven approach to teaching. Faculty who adopt this approach see the goal of teaching as presenting information the students are responsible for learning. The teacher’s responsibility is to make sure the information is accurate, up-to-date and presented in as clear, organized and engaging way as possible. Quality of teaching is judged by informational content and quality of delivery. Little knowledge beyond up-to-date disciplinary expertise is needed. Cutting-edge faculty use the latest educational technology and the most current teaching methods, but their use and implementation is not guided by student learning. In this approach, the teacher either cannot or should not influence learning beyond the method of delivering information.

The two approaches lead to different views of teaching awards. From the information-driven perspective, teaching is straightforward. Anyone with sufficient disciplinary knowledge has the ability to teach effectively. The challenging part of teaching is developing good presentations and grading assignments. From this perspective, most anyone is deserving of a teaching award if they make a sincere effort to be clear, current, engaging and organized, because that is about all a teacher can do. Some faculty have a special knack or talent for teaching, but it isn’t something that can be developed through training. For learning-driven faculty, teaching is a complex challenge requiring innovation, creativity and constant adaptation based on evidence of student learning. The challenge of teaching is creating conditions in which learning will occur. Teaching awards are for teachers who have mastered that challenge more successfully than others.

One belief that both perspectives share is that student evaluations alone are not a sufficient measure of teaching effectiveness, but the learning-driven approach points to the kinds of additional information that should be collected. A learning-driven perspective demands evidence that one pedagogical approach or activity is superior to another in a way that contributes to learning. The same evidence that can help improve student learning can be used to evaluate teaching effectiveness.

The consequences of these two different perspectives on teaching are far reaching. For example, consider grade inflation. For information-driven teachers, if a large percentage of students in a class earn high grades, it is a sign the class is too easy and cause for concern. Learning-driven teachers distinguish between making it easier for students to get good grades and making it easier for students to learn. Learning-driven teachers see the former as grade inflation, but the latter as skilled teaching. In addition, the information-driven perspective means that universities need not provide much training to graduate students or faculty on how to teach, while the learning-driven perspective means that universities should provide professional development opportunities to help faculty become award-winning teachers.

Finally, the information-driven approach allows faculty members to believe that they are doing all they can to promote learning when their teaching may actually be suboptimal and even detrimental. As a result, they may end up with a poor classroom experience for both themselves and their students. They may mistakenly blame the indifference of the current generation, the inadequacies of high schools, or mollycoddling by the students’ parents. Faculty members may become frustrated and deeply embittered, like my colleague in the opening story. No, he did not win the teaching award, but the tragedy is that his students didn’t learn and he didn’t have the satisfaction of helping them learn, which should be award enough for any teacher.

Stephen L. Chew is professor and chair of psychology at Samford University.

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Essay on how new Ph.D.s should prepare resumes for nonacademic job searches

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Joseph Barber explores how to think about your résumé -- and how to reshape the language you use -- if you are a new Ph.D. looking for employment outside academe.

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Colleges award tenure

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The following individuals have recently been awarded tenure by their colleges and universities:

Arkansas State University

U of Toledo launches first full undergraduate major in disability studies

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U of Toledo will start nation's first full undergraduate major in an interdisciplinary field that has taken off.

Tread lightly before using classroom observation to judge professors (essay)

The controversy over the value of teaching evaluation surveys completed by students has led to increased calls to include some type of faculty observation as part of one’s teaching dossier. Those against student evaluations argue that direct observations of teaching avoid the questionable validity of student opinions, which are heavily influenced by popularity and are vulnerable to faculty pandering. Even those who feel that student evaluations are still valuable for faculty evaluation feel that gaining additional data through observation is a worthy goal.

We argue that although there may be a place for direct observation of teaching (e.g., professional developmental -- such as helping new faculty members master a particular classroom technique), this type of evaluation raises a number of questions. Moreover, we believe that after careful consideration of the complexities of faculty observation, what now seems like a reasonable alternative or addition to student evaluations is not a worthwhile pursuit. Most important in this regard is that the observation of faculty does not help us deal effectively with critical issue of faculty accountability in the classroom.

There are both conceptual and methodological problems with direct observation of teaching. One concern is that it violates a sense of professionalism and academic freedom, both of which have been cornerstones of teaching in higher education. College professors, unlike secondary education teachers, are expected to assert their agency as scholars. Professors are trained, credentialed and expected to be responsible for their professional work. Both teaching and research depend on the assumption that professors do not require top-down management of their work. As a core principle of our professionalism, academic freedom is intended to preclude direct interference in our teaching and research.

College teachers are to be held accountable, yes, but as professionals who are governed by intrinsic dedication to teaching rather than extrinsic management. Having an outsider to the class drop in to watch seems to disrespect the professionalism of college teaching.

The classroom is not the factory floor; college teaching should not require nor should it tolerate efforts to manage the process from beyond the agency of the teachers themselves. The idea that we need outsiders to watch us teach is the kind of assumption that can transform a teacher into a mere knowledge worker. Evaluating a college professor is not the same as evaluating a teacher in grades 1-12.

Teaching is ultimately an intimate affair, regardless of whether it occurs with a single student or a class of 500. Students and teachers engage in a personal dance; we do not teach classes, we teach students. Direct observation of classroom performance can be a major intrusion that disrupts the very nature of the teaching moment.

Methodologically, there are several practical questions about faculty observation that are rarely addressed. First, who will actually observe? Perhaps it will be leaders of academic units (i.e., department chair, associate dean or dean). The problems with such a strategy are that administrators have likely not been fully engaged in the classroom for some time, and (like most college faculty) they probably have had little or no formal training in theories of teaching or pedagogical techniques. There is no more harmful evidence than that generated by an uninformed, incompetent observer.

Especially troubling is the prospect of an administrator observing and evaluating faculty from disciplines that use different pedagogies than their home department. Alternatively, some or all faculty in a unit could serve as observers. The problems here are that some faculty will balk at the idea of judging their peers, especially without anonymity, and others may be unwilling to participate as observers because it takes away valuable time from other scholarly activities. Another problem with faculty observers is that the amount of teaching experience between observers will likely vary a great deal. This raises questions such as, “Should an untenured faculty member evaluate a senior tenured colleague?”

Second, how should what we will call “observer bias” be handled? This bias may occur because each observer is likely set in their own way of teaching. Different faculty members have radically different teaching philosophies, and our attitudes toward our philosophies will taint our regard for different approaches. In addition, an observer may be biased because they have a limited repertoire of teaching experience. For example, an observer may not have taught the course being observed or may not have taught a class of the same size. How valid are judgments about teaching in a class of 500 made by an observer who has only taught seminars?

Third, how many peers should observe each faculty member and how many observations should occur? There is considerable evidence that observational evidence can be easily distorted. For example, both the number of observers and the number of observations can dramatically influence the validity of observations.

Also, should the teacher being observed know in advance of the observational session? It would seem that unannounced observations would better serve the evaluation process, but that strategy introduces its own problems. For example, variations in course content (some topics are more difficult than others), external factors that impact students (the stress of midterm exams), and the physical health of students and teachers can all affect teaching and learning. To be observed on the wrong day by the wrong observer could easily produce a meaningless assessment.

Fourth, how should the observer evaluate the faculty member? There are many possibilities for this type of evaluation ranging from some type of behavioral assessment (e.g., how many students attended lecture) to tallies of how many active learning techniques were used during a class period. However, given the amount of variability between college courses, it is simply unclear what evaluation technique(s) would be best.

As accountability in higher education continues to grow, fueled by both internal and external institutional forces, expect to hear louder calls for improved teaching. Consequently, expect more hand-wringing over our inability to effectively measure teaching competence, and watch the momentum rise for implementing quick fixes such as direct observation of teaching.

Of course, instead of measuring the process of teaching, we could adopt the more reasonable tack of measuring what students actually learn. Rather than having faculty invest time and creativity in improving assessment of teaching as a proxy for measuring learning, we should be more deeply committed to the latter. Given the impressive progress shown by mind sciences in understanding learning, memory and thinking, and given the many new tools available as a result of the digital revolution, we believe it is possible to do just that.

It is our opinion that this measurement does not require reliance on standardized tests, simplistic rubrics or other conventions of the assessment movement. Rather, if we trust that faculty can design effective measurements of learning in their classes (e.g., through exams), then we should be able to develop ways of using similar measures to evaluate teaching effectiveness. As we move toward developing these measures, we should never forget that teaching is merely a means to an end, and it is that end for which we need to be accountable.

Jonathan M. Golding and Philipp J. Kraemer are professors of psychology at the University of Kentucky.

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