The Teaching Schedule

One of the most important aspects of my job is the classes that I'm assigned to teach. This really defines my life for that whole (4-month or 6-week) term, and what I do in advance of that to prepare for my assigned courses. So: important. This is how it works. In the summer, people in each research/teaching area have a meeting to discuss what courses will be offered, and who wants to teach them. I’ve been put into the Comparative Cognition and Behaviour group because I teach the high-demand PSYCO 282: Behavior Modification course, even though my other courses fit into different research/teaching areas (perception courses are part of Behaviour, Systems and Cognitive Neuroscience, and my human factors & ergonomics course is closest to Cognition). We don’t plan for the academic year that is about to begin, but for the year after that. (Yes, things are planned over a year in advance. There are implications of a professor taking a sabbatical, for example.)

In August, I submit my teaching preferences. However, as the term progressed, I realized that teaching two 400-level courses (Advanced Perception, and Human Factors & Ergonomics) in the same term results in a really high workload for me, because I do most of the marking of the short-answer/essay exams. So I asked that, in 2016/2017 my Advanced Perception course be replaced by PSYCO 367: Perception. The response: Sure, no problem. However, things are not a simple as that.

Many factors have to be considered by a department when deciding what courses to offer. Are there enough sections of each course satisfy demand? Are there too many sections? If someone is going on sabbatical, who is available (and capable) of taking over their courses? And then there’s the pecking order (I hate that term, but the only other alternative I could find was “dominance hierarchy,” which doesn’t sound right either).

Here’s how it works: professors get first choice of what to teach. Then come Faculty Lecturers, and then everyone else (i.e., other Contract Academic Staff: Teaching or “sessionals” and graduate students). This means that if I want to teach a certain course which has low demand, but there’s a professor who also wants to teach it, I’ll get bumped. It’s happened before a few times, like in the upcoming Spring term. In addition to PSYCO 258: Cognitive Psychology, I asked to teach PSYCO 367, but there’s a professor who wanted to teach it, so I got bumped. There’s not enough demand to fill two sections of that class. So then I asked for PSYCO 104. Strangely, though, I did not bump out the sessional who had been assigned to that class. Instead, the department created a new PSYCO 104 course section. This is pretty unusual to do--there is really not enough demand for two daytime PSYCO 104 sections (plus one night class) in Spring term. OK, well, whatever. (I want to be clear that I am not happy to “bump” any of my CAS:T colleagues. Work is hard to find, and the economy is not great. Costing someone a teaching assignment is not my choice; it’s the way Department policy works. I would be perfectly happy teaching Perception and Cognitive Psychology every Spring term, as I’ve done for many years, and not bumping anyone.)

Last week, I finally got access to my 2016/2017 teaching schedule in Bear Tracks--after students had already been granted access. I was shocked to see that the 300-level perception course was not on my schedule, but the 400-level advanced perception course was--and there were people already registered in it. What the...? So this time, I got bumped again--even though there is enough demand to support two sections of PSYCO 367 in Fall term. Clearly, there is some inconsistency in how policy is being applied.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to hate teaching Advanced Perception. I like it. But I had been spending my extra time since September working on developing PSYCO 367 instead. I wanted a year to rethink and restructure Advanced Perception. (I’ve been developing a new lecture on Illusion, Magic, and Perception, which is really fun--but it won’t be ready for this fall.)

So, what about my preferences for what times and teach, and in what rooms? Don’t get me started.

Why aren’t you studying?

On Being Picky

Some students consider me to be very picky, focusing on subtle, minute differences between words and phrases on exams and in marking, to the point of seeming almost completely arbitrary. For instance, the difference between the words since and because. They’re the same, right? In common usage, since is frequently used in place of because. “Since I am allergic to nuts, I cannot eat peanut butter.” Substituting the word because wouldn’t change the meaning at all: “Because I am allergic to nuts, I cannot eat peanut butter.” So, they’re synonyms, right?

What about this sentence: “I haven’t eaten anything since noon.” Substitute the (apparent) synonym, and... Wait, this makes no sense: “I haven’t eaten anything because noon.” The word since refers to the passage of time; the word because is used to indicate causality. In scientific writing, precision is very important, and selecting the proper word is essential when trying to explain something accurately.

Exam questions also frequently depend on particular meanings of words. If you change one word in a definition, it can completely change the meaning of the term. Take a look at this sample exam question:
Who is considered to be the father of psychology?
    a) William James
    b) Sigmund Freud
    c) Willhelm Wundt
    d) Ivan Pavlov
Know the answer? Some students will argue about a question like this. They’ll point out that there is no such person as “Willhelm Wundt”--it’s actually spelled “Wilhelm.” Thinking that it’s a trick, these students then pick anything other than choice (c), and come up with a rationale for their choice. (The answer actually is (c), but it contains a typo--it’s not a trick.) Faced with a situation like this, what should I do? Should I mark their answer as correct, because some random website somewhere supports their choice? (There are websites that support James, Freud, and Pavlov as being the the “father of American psychology.” the “father of modern psychology,” and the “father of Russian physiology,” respectively.) Should I reward their careful attention to detail and critical thinking skills? Or, come on, the answer is actually (c), and they should not get a mark for picking anything else.

Is this issue all about a simple misspelling? Or is the underlying problem really about the question being far too general? So maybe after fixing the typo, I’ll change the stem of the question to read: “According to the textbook, who is considered to be the father of psychology?” Or maybe even: “According to chapter 1 of the textbook, who is considered to be the father of experimental psychology?” (Wanna try, “According to page 6 in chapter 1 of the textbook, who is considered to be the father of experimental psychology?”) As you can see, the question becomes increasingly specific with every iteration. The advantage is that there is less wiggle room for students to criticize the question--but the disadvantage is that the question is becoming highly specific and, well, picky.

The result is that students will no longer argue about the structure of the question, but will complain that there’s no way that they can memorize the entire textbook. Now imagine that this happens with most of the questions on every single exam. Nit-picking forces me to refine my questions over and over, making them more and more specific. There are no longer any general questions, which are the most prone to interpretation and criticism. There are extremely few application questions, which people complain are subjective and arbitrary (even though they are not). The exam is now full of highly specific definition-based memorization questions.

Learning the meanings of and being able to correctly apply terminology is an important aspect of psychological science. In writing my lectures and exams, I select words incredibly carefully for utmost consistency, clarity, and accuracy. But over time, I have also made my exams far more picky than they were to begin with, because my behaviour has been shaped by students. So if I appear to be excessively picky (and, according to, I apparently am), you can thank the students who previously took my exams...and were very picky.

Why aren’t you studying?

The Quote (Revenge Ratings)

Image: Marie Espenido, The Gateway

I don't appear in the media very often. Occasionally, there's a mass email that goes out to Department of Psychology members, asking if anyone with a certain kind of expertise would mind talking to a reporter. A lot of the time, none of us are expert in what they're looking for. More often, you'll see a story on some of great research being done by UAlberta psychology researchers. Want to know the truth about "midlife crisis""? Maybe geographical differences in bird behaviours? Or why snunkoople is funny? Is the psychology of leadership your thing? Effects of screen time on young children?

I've been mentioned in the Gateway once or twice. There was the memorable front-page story about me proposing to my now-wife--in class. (I'm not going to do that ever again...) I also had a little story published in 1989 or 1990 about my experience getting to campus in the middle of a massive snowstorm (called "Black Friday" I believe).

Recently, I was approached by a student who writes for the Gateway. She wanted my opinions on the topic of "revenge ratings", online postings made by disgruntled students that trash their instructors. In particular, the article mentioned and how their policies (and postings) seem to have changed recently.

I had a nice chat with the writer--about 20 minutes long. I thought I had lots of really quotable things to say--but then, I always think that. She ended up using one line of mine in the article, published January 19.It's a good read, if you're interested: Rate My Prof’s “revenge ratings” offer nothing constructive.

Why aren't you studying?

The Sunshine List

You've probably heard that the Government of Alberta has a "sunshine list" that discloses the names and salaries of government employees who make more than $100,000 per year. (This number is indexed to inflation, and is now at $104,754.) The idea behind it is to disclose who is making what, and (presumably) to allow the public to speculate on whether the person receiving their hefty salary is worth it.

The Government, however, now wants to expand the sunshine list to include publicly funded people like doctors. The point of doing this is not clear to me. You can find physicians' fee schedules online. Want to know how much your family doctor is getting to do your annual complete physical? It's in there. Why would you need to know how much they're getting paid per year? What difference does that make to you, as a patient? If a doctor is getting paid more, is that better? Or worse somehow? If they're earning more, that means they're seeing more patients, working longer hours, working more days. The sunshine list data only gives the doctors' billings, it doesn't show what their overhead is. It's the doctors who have to pay their receptionists and nurses, pay the rent, update their equipment. But all you'll see on the sunshine list is their gross, not net, income.

Worse yet, the Government also wants to reveal the salaries of employees of post-secondary institutions. That means--yes--your instructors could find their salaries posted online. I'm okay with seeing how much the higher-ups in central admin are earning. This data has been discussed in the news before; it's not private, confidential information. And if you want to know how much academic staff, support staff, or graduate students make, the salary scales are easily available online (this includes my pay scale, for CAST). True, this data doesn't tell you how much a given individual makes--that depends on the merit increases they have accumulated over their careers, and and "top-up" funds that are often given when hiring academic superstars. But do you need to know how much your chem prof is making? Or your English TA? Do you care? Does it matter? Aren't there other data that are more relevant, like maybe USRIs? Or number of publications?

The Arts Squared blog has pointed out that the legislation contains no rationale for exposing professors' salaries, and that Alberta post-secondary institutions have been chronically underfunded for years. Are profs being overpaid here? Not compared to other universities in Canada: UAlberta (Full Professor, minimum) salaries are a pitiful 17th overall (see section 2)--awfully low for the 5th-ranked university in Canada. (It's also interesting to see how much less lecturers get than full professors.) If you want to shed sunshine on some numbers, it looks like we're substantially underpaid. What's more, some research suggests that sunshine lists will actually end up increasing salaries. (Incidentally, I'm happy with my salary. I love my job, and I'm not complaining. Academics, though, will leave a job if they can get paid more somewhere else. That will end up affecting the quality of teaching and research, and in a bad way.)

To me, it looks like this is a bad case of governmentitis: "Hey, this worked over here! Let's try it over there!" Seeing how much Alberta public servants make is one thing. Applying it outside of public workers makes no sense. There's no good reason for it. In fact, there's no reason for it at all.

Why aren't you studying?

What I Did on my Winter Vacation (2015 edition)

Happy holidays! That is, I hope your holidays were happy. Me? Nothing as exciting as last year. I went through most of November and December with a persistent cold that I couldn’t shake. Congestion, cough, and a sore throat that lasted 6 weeks. Bleah. That’s why these posts have been scarce lately. By Christmas, I was starting to feel (and sound) better.

If it seemed like last term dragged on longer than usual, it did. The new Reading Week prolonged Fall term by 3 days. Not a lot, but enough to notice. It seemed like I went directly from marking term papers to marking exams to prepping for Winter term. Although it was nice to have a break in the middle of term, I think I prefer being done earlier.

Hey, here are some pictures of Quad that I took in late November, coming back to get my car after going to dinner and a concert with some of my friends. Even though there’s no snow, I loved how it looked.

On Christmas Eve, my family was invited to a friend’s house for their annual Christmas party. There was lots of food, a lot of people, and a white elephant gift exchange. Much to our relief, the gift exchange all worked out okay in the end. I got a USB charging station, my elder daughter and wife ended up with the gift cards they wanted, and my youngest daughter stole the big box of chocolates/candies/treats that was one of the gifts we brought--and no one dared to steal it away from her.

A. Lot. Of. Chocolates.

Speaking of treats, some of my wife’s patients gave her boxes chocolates, candies, or cookies for Christmas, which was very generous of them. Um, too generous? I counted 12 boxes--and that doesn’t include the treats we got from my parents, sister-in-law, and Santa, or the two gifts-from-patients that haven’t been unwrapped yet, but sure sound like boxes of chocolates when you shake them. Hey, I do like sweet treats (I handed out over 200 chocolate chip cookies to one of my classes at their final exam last term), but I don’t want to end up in a hyperglycemic coma. These boxes of chocolates (the unopened ones) are going to find good homes, thanks to the Edmonton Food Bank.

Going out to visit friends and share a meal is a usual part of the holidays, and this year was no different. But we also have two birthdays to celebrate--which means going out for special dinners. All that food and lots of sitting around (I’ve barely broken 10,000 steps on my Fitbit in a month) mean that I’m going to resolve to...actually, I don’t make new year’s resolutions. But I better try harder to hit my goal of 10,000 steps a day if I want to fit into my Speedos by summer. (Just kidding about the Speedos. It’s a thong.) (Just kidding about the thong. I go to nudist resorts.)

Amidst the holidays were a couple of disappointments. Our furnace gave out (again). That’s our third inducer motor in 6 years. Grr! Oh, and I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Yes, it was a disappointment. Not just for all the many plot holes, but because it made me feel old, obsolete, and irrelevant--like Han, Leia, and Luke. (Did I mention I also had a birthday over the holidays?) My eldest daughter thoroughly enjoyed it, however. Hmm, maybe it’s time to pass my lightsaber on to the next generation...

Did the Force rock your world? Did you go anywhere exotic over the holidays? Ah, never mind. Keep it to yourself. No one posts comments anyway.

Why aren’t you studying?

The Universal Grade Change Form

Universal Grade Change Form
To: (professor/teacher)__________
I think my grade in your course,__________, should be changed from___to___for the following reason(s) [check all that apply]:
  1. The persons who copied my paper made a higher grade than I did.
  2. The person whose paper I copied made a higher grade than I did.
  3. This course will lower my GPA and I won't get into: 
    __Med School __Law School __Grad School
  4. I have to get an A in this course to balance the F in ___________.
  5. I'll lose my scholarship.
  6. I'm on a varsity sports team and my coach couldn't find a copy of your exam.
  7. I didn't come to class and the person whose notes I used did not cover the material asked for on the exam.
  8. I studied the basic principles and the exam wanted only facts.
  9. I studied the facts and definitions but the exam asked about general principles.
  10. You are prejudiced against: 
    __ Males
    __ Females
    __ Minorities
    __ Poor people
    __ Rich people
  11. If I flunk out of school my father will disinherit me or at least cut my allowance.
  12. I was unable to do well in this course because of : 
    __ mono
    __ acute alcoholism
    __ drug addiction
    __ VD/STD 
    __ broken baby finger
    __ pregnancy
    __ fatherhood
  13. You told us to be creative but you didn't tell us exactly how you wanted that done.
  14. I was being creative and you didn't appreciate it.
  15. Your lectures were: 
    __ too detailed to pick out important points
    __ too boring 
    __ not explained in sufficient detail
    __ all jokes and no material
  16. Some of the questions in your exams were not covered in the lectures.
  17. I was always prepared except for the few times you called upon me in class.
  18. This course was scheduled: 
    __ too early
    __ too late
    __ before gym 
    __ after gym
    __ before lunch
    __ after lunch.
  19. My (dog, cat, gerbil, baby sister, baby brother) (ate, wet on, threw up on) my (book, notes, paper) for this course.
  20. I don't have a reason; I just want a higher grade.
(credit/blame: Ed Reilly )

Why aren't you studying?

The Reading Week Reading List (Fall, 2015)

Welcome to the (new) Fall Term reading week! If you've got all your work done (ha!) and are looking for some good reads, I've got ya covered.

BTW, these are not the books I'm reading this week. These are leftovers from my summer reading list. Wait, that sounds bad--like I'm not reading all the time. I read constantly, either book-books or ebooks or audiobooks. Listening to an audiobook is a great way to make the commute go a lot faster. Time travel? Nope. Psychology!

So, in no particular order...

Thinking, Fast and Slow
This book has been on my to-read list since it came out in 2011. Daniel Kahneman is one of the few psychologists to have won the Nobel prize (in Economic Sciences). He gave a talk at UAlberta a few years ago. Totally worth cancelling my class for. In this book, Kahneman describes his research, which includes behavioural economics, judgment and decision-making, and subjective well-being. Along the way, he generously gives props to his colleague Amos Tversky, who died in 1996. Kahneman's work (and this book) is broadly applicable to everyone--it's not esoteric, inaccessible academic blatherings. Read this if you have a mind and want to know how it works.

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control
Mischel is best known for his research study that has come to be known as "the marshmallow experiment." You know, put a kid in a room with a marshmallow--if they can resist eating it, they get two marshmallows. Waiting is taken as an index of self-control. Years later, Mischel started to wonder about these kids, and what their lives were like. The follow-up research showed that high self-control is predictive of a staggering array of life outcomes, including increased educational attainment, longer-term marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health, lower incidence of drug use, and more fulfilling lives. Mischel even consulted with Sesame Workshop on the application of his research in episodes of Sesame Street. Mischel describes some good self-control strategies in later chapters.
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives
Gretchen Rubin is not a scientist...and it shows. I was eagerly waiting for this book, stoked by Rubin's frequent blog posts about the book's progress. Teaching behaviour modification (which includes habits), this book seemed to be right up my alley. Unfortunately, I ended up disappointed by this hot mess of anecdotes and personal stories, with supporting research only tossed in briefly if and when it supports the anecdotes. Looking for a better book on changing your bad habits? Try Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit. Or Jeremy Dean's Making Habits, Breaking Habits. Or even Kelly McGonigal's The Willpower Instinct. Or Roy Baumeister & John Tierney's excellent Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy
In my first ever post on this blog, I admitted my fondness for behind-the-scenes director's commentaries. As if there's not enough goodies in the new Blu-ray BTTF set (for the record, that's a triple-dip more me: the third time I've bought Back to the Future discs), this book has loads of interviews with and stories from Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis, Neil Canton, Dean Cundey, and actor people like Christopher Lloyd, Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson... It's a love letter to the movies and fans; don't expect a lot of trash talk. Well, maybe a little about Crispin Glover.
Finally, we come to my guilty pleasure read of the summer. (No, the previous book was not a guilty pleasure. What's guilty about it?) Ernest Cline wrote one of my favourite fiction novels of the past few years, so I was hoping for, well, more of the same. I got it--sort of. Once again, it's a book bursting with 1980s pop-culture references to movies, music, and computer games. Just the thing for a middle-aged guy like me. But it's a bit harder to justify some of the more implausible twists when the characters are not in a "game-world," but are in the "real world." Not as much a page-turner as Ready Player One, but it was an okay summer read. Even I have to turn my brain function down to "low" sometimes.

What have you been reading lately?

Why aren't you studying?

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