The Good News, Bad News

There's good news, and there's bad news. Research shows that it's better for recipients if you lead with the bad and end with the good. But this isn't a posting about the psychological effects of presenting news. Nope, I actually have some news.

So, first: The bad news. I didn't get the job that I applied for last month. News like that is difficult to hear. When you apply for a job, it's usually not a shot in the dark. (I mean, I'm not going to go to the Toronto Raptors training camp. My slam dunk needs serious work. Also: I need to gain a few feet in height. And: Some athletic skills.) You apply because you think that you have a chance, even though the new job may be outside of your usual skill set. You look to challenge yourself, grow, develop, and change. Or maybe you're just tired of the same old, same old. If you believe this of yourself, why wouldn't others, too?

But then...maybe the hiring committee was right. Maybe I'm not the kind of person they need in this position. If you're looking for someone who's going to be an arm-twister, trying to get professors to buy into new ways of teaching, I'm not your guy. Courteously, I was told of the committee's decision in person--not in an email or, worse, only hearing about it when you learn that another candidate got the job. And I was given some reasons, which were along the lines of you're-good-but-you're-not-the-right-fit-for-this explanations. Although the higher pay and tenure would have been nice, if I end up being stressed and hating the nature of my job, it's not worth it.

So: On to the good news. I'm still a Faculty Lecturer. I've got a 2-year rolling contract, which gives me more job security than many other Contract Academic Staff: Teaching (even if there is a clause in my contract that says they can dump me with 2 weeks notice!). And the hiring committee made a case to the Vice Dean of Science that my contract as a Faculty Lecturer should be a 5-year renewable, like all Faculty Lecturers in Arts. There even have been rumours of an interest shown by central admin in creating a category of tenured teaching-only positions--maybe just a glimmer at the end of the tunnel, but it's better than nothing.

The best news: I'll still be teaching--8 classes a year. It would have been really hard to give that up. It energizes me to see so many students keenly interested in learning, and sharing the passion (ugh, that word) that I have for psychology.

Why aren't you studying?

The Academic Interview Day 2

As I wrote in my last post, the Department of Psychology is hiring a new FSO Teaching and Learning. I described day 1 of my experience, which included giving a presentation on the state of teaching and learning in my department. Did I mention that day got off to a great start? As soon as I got home from dropping my kids off at school, the phone rang. It was the school, asking me to pick up my youngest daughter, who was sick. Argh. Arrangements were hastily made (it’s not good to show up for an interview with your sick first-grader in tow). Day 2 would be different--no hitches, glitches, or problems of any kind. Right? Just sail through meetings that went straight from 8:30 to 4:30.

I had had a busy weekend, which was probably a good thing. My elder daughter’s soccer team was in provincial finals. Thankfully, the games were held in Edmonton this year, not Calgary. Shuttling her to four games over three days kept my mind off anything to do with the job, my presentation, and everything else. Mostly. (BTW, her team didn’t get a medal this time.)

First thing on my agenda was a breakfast meeting with the Chair of the Department at 8:30 a.m. No problem, right? I left extra early, allowing myself an extra 20 minutes “just in case.” On my way to the University, I heard the traffic reporter on the radio mentioning something about “the Groat Road problem.” Huh? What problem? I knew they closed Groat Road to work on the 102 Avenue bridge overnight, but Groat Road was supposed to be open again. Was it...still closed? Since I was now one block away from Groat Road, this was a pressing concern.

Yup, I could see the taillights of all the vehicles backed up. My mind raced. How else--where else--could I cross the river to get to North Campus? If Groat bridge was still open, I could...maybe...swing through downtown. This was the same idea that hundreds of my fellow Monday-morning commuters had. Argh. I sweated through every centimeter of progress, every minutes that ticked off the clock. I got to my breakfast meeting 15 minutes late, and very stressed out. I gulped my coffee and choked down a muffin.

Next up was my “guest lecture.” This is so that the hiring committee can see for themselves what I do in a classroom and how I do it. Hilariously, I was offered the opportunity to lecture in someone else’s class, if I chose. Naw, I just went ahead and invited people to come to one of my PSYCO 104 classes. I didn’t do much different, although I spiffed my lectures up a bit and made sure to run some clicker questions at the end. Of course, I ran into technical difficulties: one video wouldn’t run so I had to fire it up manually, and then I somehow put the clicker system into numerical mode and couldn’t change it back. Argh! (Just a typical lecture for me, eh?) I don’t think my colleagues learned anything new or interesting about Pavlov, either. (Did you know that he didn’t use a bell at first? He took the metronome from his wife’s piano.)

Next: more meetings--including a lunch meeting with graduate and undergraduate students. It was very instructive to hear their concerns. Unfortunately, I didn’t spend a lot of time eating. By the time my actual interview with the hiring committee was to start, I was exhausted and hypoglycemic. I think that’s why I got a bit emotional, recounting the story of a student who chastised me a few years ago. She missed an exam because her father had died. I told her the procedure to follow, what paperwork she had to fill out, blah blah blah, so that I could transfer the weight of the midterm to her final exam--all stuff that’s in the syllabus. A few weeks later, she approached me at the end of class. She was visibly upset. When I had rattled off all the information, I had neglected to say one important thing: “I’m sorry for your loss.” She told me how disappointed she was in me that I was so unfeeling. Since that time, I have always made an effort to be sympathetic to the situations that students find themselves in.

One more meeting, and then I was able to relax in my office and process a midterm. Yup, that’s right. Instead of going home and pouring myself a nice, stiff drink, I sat in my office and worked on an exam. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as uploading marks to eClass. Of course, I had made an error in coding one question. Of course, I had to go through and manually fix everyone’s mark. THEN I went home a poured myself a nice, stiff drink.

The next day was the wrap-up dinner, with two profs and an undergraduate student. This dinner was originally scheduled for Monday, but had to be moved to Tuesday. (This, after me going through three of the choices given to me, and finding out that none of them were open on Mondays.) I was grateful for the respite, even if it did extend my “interview” by another day. And I got to go to my first choice of restaurant!

It’s a bit strange to go through this process. I’ve had the same job for 15 years, and the interview process back then was a lot less involved. There have been jobs I’ve applied for over the years, but obviously didn’t get. Even though I’ve been kicking around the Department of Psychology for so long, I finally had the opportunity to talk to some people who I’ve never talked to before. It was also intimidating to hear all the things they expect from the new FSO Teaching and Learning.

Well, whatever happens, happens. If I get this new position, my life will change--at lot. If I don’t get it, I’ve still got a great job that I love to do. (Unfortunately, I ended up catching my daughter's cold, which also turned into a sinus infection, bronchitis, and now laryngitis. Stress will do that.)

BTW, if you ever apply for a tenure-track position, here's a great primer from University Affairs.

Why aren’t you studying?

The Academic Interview Day 1

The Department of Psychology is hiring. The position is for an FSO Teaching and Learning. “FSO” stands for Faculty Service Officer, an academic position that’s kind of a catch-all for a lot of varied things. For example, in psychology, there are currently two FSOs: one person who handles the department’s intranet, manages the psychology workshop, and deals with various research issues; the other person runs the psychology internship program.

This new position is about teaching and learning, which is right up my alley, so naturally I applied for it. It is also a tenured position. These kinds of jobs don’t come around often; I know that a lot of contract instructors with PhDs in psychology applied for it. It’s amazing that in this current budget climate, the Faculty of Science is willing and able to fund this position. I think that speaks volumes to the Faculty’s commitment to teaching and learning.

I am pleased to report that I was chosen to be interviewed (as was one other person; and there is apparently one other candidate being interviewed in a couple of weeks).

Let me step you through the application process. There are a number of documents that you have to submit. At the top of the list is your CV (“curriculum vitae,” which is basically your academic resume). You have to ensure that you CV is up to date with your most important accomplishments, publications, awards, etc. A teaching dossier is also required, which includes your philosophy of teaching, approach to pedagogy, and so on. To support this, it’s important to include some course syllabi and the results of student evaluations (USRIs: Universal Student Ratings of Instruction). Then, you have to find three people to write you academic letters of reference that speak to your ability to manage projects, teach effectively, get along with others in a team or group, and so on. Lastly, you have to write a cover letter. That’s just the paperwork.

I’ve been on screening committees before, so I know how this works. Part of it is to weed out people who can’t complete the paperwork. If you are unable to find three people willing and able to write you letters of reference and send them in by a deadline, that sends up a red flag. And if you don’t include documentation about how students view your teaching, what’s up with that? Teaching will be an important component of this position, in two ways. First, this FSO position is about leadership in teaching, which means supporting the Department of Psychology’s teaching mission. That might mean working with Contract Academic Staff: Teaching or tenured faculty to apply new teaching techniques in their classes. Or it could include training graduate students who may be teaching their very first course. Secondly, the FSO will be required to teach two courses per year. That would be a huge reduction for me, as I currently have to teach eight as a Faculty Lecturer. I had to think long and hard about applying for this position; teaching fewer courses was a big downside for me. I love teaching, and it has come to define how I think of myself. To consider changing that was very difficult. The lure of a tenured position is strong, though. Finally, there is also an administrative and service workload--which means being on a lot of committees.

The interview process is not like what you’d expect for a typical job. You don’t come in, talk to the hiring committee for an hour, and then leave. Oh no. My “interview” was a day and a half long (plus a dinner on yet another day). Two major components are an open presentation, and a guest lecture. The presentation is where you talk about your ideas for what you might do if you get the job. This lasts an hour, and includes time for questions (the scary part). I chose to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of teaching in the Department. Think about that: I’m potentially criticizing the people who are considering hiring me. Yikes. I then talked a bit about various trends and buzzwords in pedagogy (MOOCs anyone? Flipped classrooms?) and briefly evaluated them. The people at my presentation (faculty, graduate students, administrators) took it pretty easy on me. Or maybe I just rendered them comatose with my Powerpoints. Zap!

(Sorry about being circumspect in describing my presentation, but there is still one other candidate who will make a presentation in a few weeks. It’s in my own best interest to not say too much. Maybe I’ll post my presentation at some point in the future.)

A few faculty members requested meetings with me. So, after my presentation, off I went to six half-hour meetings in a row. Everyone offered me coffee, which I declined. (That’s all I need: six cups of coffee in a row. That’s enough to make me vibrate.) Everyone had different things that they wanted to discuss. Some of them were casual chats; others were serious discussions about the future of teaching and learning on campus. These meetings are not part of the formal job interview; however, after talking to me, these faculty members will generally give feedback to the hiring committee about my ideas. You have to be “on” all the time, make a good impression, and know your stuff.

That was day 1 of my interview. Well, half a day, anyway. It took place on a Friday. Now I had a whole weekend to stew about my performance, and get ready for day 2 the following Monday.

Next: Day 2, in which actual bridges play a role.

Why aren’t you studying?

#TheDress Explained

You know about "The Dress"? It first appeared on Tumblr? The one that's freaking out the Internet? Or at least, making it lose its composure? And Twitter's, well, all a-twitter about it, too? Yeah, that one. Here's the deal: some people look at the photo and see a black-and-blue dress. But others look at the same photo and see a gold-and-white dress. Wha--? How can that be?

Calm down, Internet. I'm here to explain. I'm a psychologist specializing in perception. I'm trained to handle situations like this.

What we "see" is affected not just by the pattern of light that falls on our retinas, but also by unconscious assumptions that we make about the visible world. Like, for example, the ambient illumination.

Say you "see" a piece of red paper. Is it red paper under white light? Or is it white paper under red light? If you don't know for sure about the light falling on the paper, your assumption about the illumination makes all the difference. Your unconscious assumption makes you see the object one way, or another. Same goes for the dress. (What if it's red paper under red light? Shut up. I'm trying to make a point here.)

Usually, our assumptions about things match the reality. We know what the ambient illumination is. It's obvious. But what if reality is ambiguous? That is, what if we don't know for sure what the ambient lighting actually is? Like, say, in a poorly exposed photo? Can we force our perception to change?

Let's try. Want to see the dress as gold and white? Try scrolling the photo so all you see is the topmost part--just to where the frilly ruffly bits start. Then tell yourself that the black neckline under bright illumination is actually a gold colour under low illumination. Also, think about the lighter areas as actually being white, again under low illumination. (Likewise, if all you see is a gold-and-white dress, imagine that you're looking at the dress under much brighter illumination.) You're using "top-down" perception, driven by your beliefs about the stimulus, not just about the "bottom-up" incoming signals from your eyes.

Still not working for you? Wait until it's dark outside, or go into a completely dark room. Download an image of the dress from the original Tumblr page. Pull it up in a graphics viewer. (I like FastStone.) View it full screen, with nothing else around it, just a black background. Now decrease the brightness of your computer screen, and turn off the lights in your room. At the lowest screen brightness, try again to convince yourself that you're looking at a white-and-gold dress. There's no guarantee this will work. I mean, maybe you're brain damaged, I dunno. It's late and I'm tired, and I want students from my classes to stop sending me emails about this dress. It's pretty ugly. (Sorry.)

There ya go, mystery solved. It's all about your unconscious assumptions. As to why some people can more easily see it as gold and white, whereas others cannot, well, that's an interesting question!
(By the way, the dress is actually blue and black, according to Amazon. That's the objective reality. So stop arguing.)

Why aren't you studying?

The Reading Week Reading List

Happy Reading Week! I don't have as much time as I'd like to read. Sure, there's all the stuff that I have to read (new textbooks, scientific papers and whatnot). There's also what I feel obligated to read: the newspaper (I've read the newspaper every single day since I was in grade 1. Not that I was reading about global socioeconomic events back then; just the comics. I was amazed to find comics in the newspaper. Now I do read about global socioeconomic events...and then read the comics to cheer up again.). Then there are the magazines I subscribe to. I have to read those; I'm paying for them. (For the record, these include Wired and Consumer Reports.)

And then there are the books I read for fun. Listening to audiobooks counts as "reading," right? I'm going to say it does. I "read" a lot during my commute: it makes the time pass by faster, and it's better than eyeball reading a book while driving. A lot of books I read are nonfiction, science-based and usually about psychology, but I enjoy other topics, too. Like economics. (What? What's wrong with economics? It can be fun. Well, maybe not macroeconomics.) I do read fiction, too, but not as much as I'd like. Anyway, here's a sample of some books I've read, or am reading.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
This one's right up my alley: A book for middle-aged white guys, full of references to D&D, classic video games, and '80s music. Apparently, other people enjoy it, too. The story itself is structured like a video game, making you wonder whether the protagonist will complete the final level and defeat the boss. Not only was the book filled with all kinds of coolness, Cline also wrote a working Atari 2600 game, The Stacks. This game was part of an online scavenger hunt; the winner was given a DMC DeLorean by Cline. This book is going to be made into a movie. Read the book, cuz we all know the movie is never as good. Atari 2600, eh? That brings me to...

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort & Ian Bogost
Ah, more geekery. This book is about the inner workings of the Atari VCS, a.k.a. the 2600, the game console of my youth. It starts by explaining the technical workings of the system, like the horizontal blank and the vertical blank. And then it gets really interesting. No, really. It explains the development of six classic cartridges including Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, and Pitfall! Even if you're not into the technical side of games, if you've ever played these games online, it's interesting to read about the stories behind the games. For example, I learned that Yar's Revenge started off as a port of the arcade game Star Castle. Neato!

Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat by John McQuaid
Although it sounds like this is a "food" book (another one of my favourite topics!), it's really about the sense of taste. You gotta love a book that starts off with a discussion of Edwin Boring's mistaken tongue map. Other chapters cover the quest to grow the world's hottest chili pepper: for the record (literally), the Carolina Reaper, and the effects of the miracle fruit. Although it seems like it's all about taste (per se), there's also quite a bit about flavour. What's the diff? You could just look it up on Wikipedia. Or you could take my PSYCO 367: Perception class. I'll be sure to add some interesting things from this book.
What are you reading?

Why aren't you studying?

The Awards: 12

It was my pleasure to be invited again to the ISSS (Interdepartmental Science Students' Society) Instructor Appreciation Night. Apparently, some nice person (or persons) nominated me, and ISSS decided to give me an award ("for excellence in teaching" and "In Recognition of Your Dedication to Undergraduate Teaching"). Thanks! On the left is a pic of the nice plaque I received. Congrats as well to the other 17 instructors and 13 teaching assistants who received awards. Special shout-outs to my psych department colleagues who also picked up awards, Dr Anthony Singhal and Dr Erik Faucher.

There was a nice reception in the PCL Lounge, followed by an even nicer dinner at the Faculty Club. I don't go to the Faculty Club often; I don't have a membership. (Contrary to what many people think, no one automatically gets a free membership. Membership costs $25 a month. And I'm a cheapskate.)
This dinner was the culmination of a big week for ISSS: Science Week! If you're not aware of all the services that ISSS provides to Science students, you should check out these services.

Somehow, I managed to get a seat at a table with a couple of Associate Deans. You've got to be careful in a situation like that. (It's not good to spill a drink on an Associate Dean.) There was some interesting information going around the table. Apparently there are some rumours going around about me, but I couldn't get any details. Does anyone know anything? Is there something in my teeth? Should I be looking for a new job? Are my ties not cool enough?

Why aren't you studying?

The Conference

On Friday, I was away at a conference. I don't go to conferences often. (OK, so I was away 11 months ago. But I called that a "business trip.") It wasn't a scientific conference--that is, it was not organized by a professional organization like the Association for Psychological Science or the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. (I'd really love to go to one of those conferences--but I've have to cancel a lot of classes. APS is in May, and HFES is in October. It was bad enough that I had to cancel my intro class on Friday. I feel so guilty...)

At a typical scientific conference, a lot of researchers present their findings as talks or posters. Plus, there are opportunities to meet with the researchers and with students. Usually, a notable person delivers a keynote speech. This conference was organized by a publisher (like my business trip last year), but it was filled with scientists (psychologists, mathematicians, and physicists) and people from the publishing company, Pearson. The conference was billed as a "Digital Innovation Summit."

Instead of presenting research papers, people discussed their teaching, with an emphasis on how digital technology is changing pedagogy. There were opportunities to talk with others over breakfast and lunch (I bumped into a colleague who, like me, is teaching in Science 100 this year), so that was nice. And the keynote was given by Professor Eric Mazur, who is on the forefront of innovations in teaching. (He is "author or co-author of 288 scientific publications, 36 patents, and several books" and has contributed to a number of startup companies, like Learning Catalytics.) He was amazing to hear, and I think his talk on changing how we assess students made all of us think about teaching in a different way.

There wasn't a lot of time for fun, but I did get tickets for Flyover Canada with my hotel room, so I checked that out. (Verdict: Fun; much like Soarin' Over California. The older ladies sitting next to me sure had a hoot.) Beyond that, though, there wasn't time for anything else. I had to zip back home for one daughter's soccer game (they won, and are now in city finals, yay!), and another daughter's birthday party. Still, if you're jealous, it rained. A lot. Like a 90-mm-severe-rainfall-warning lot.

Here's a photo out the window of the plane, and a crummy shot of Canada Place, where the conference was held:

Part of the conference was slanted toward the publisher showing us that they are serious about changing education for the better using digital tools, which is good to know. Will going to this conference influence me, making me more likely to pick their textbooks in the future? I try to be objective in selecting a textbook.

Full disclosure: although the conference--including breakfast and lunch--was free, I had to pay for my own airfare, hotel, and transportation. (I didn't have the breakfast.)

Why aren't you studying?

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