Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Adjunctivitis

2006.10.21 - Life Sciences South, University of Idaho The life sciences building at the University of Idaho. Photo by jby.

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! Noah Reid tackles the question that was left hanging in my recent article about a six-day creationist teaching introductory microbiology at the University of Idaho: how a person with such questionable credentials could have been hired in the first place. Noah argues that it’s a symptom of the poor treatment of adjunct faculty in American higher education.

These faculty are hired on a course by course, semester by semester basis. They receive no benefits and don’t have a shred of job security. By some estimates an average “full-time” adjunct faculty member teaching 8 courses a year (3 each semester and 2 in the summer, perhaps?) would make less than $30,000 a year and it’s thought that adjunct faculty are now doing 70% of the teaching at higher education institutions in the US.

… In response to this, I want to use a recent post at this blog to highlight a slightly less well covered aspect of the issue and the other side of that coin: when you offer shitty compensation, you might just get shitty employees.

To see the argument in full, go read the whole thing. Edited to add: and see also P.Z. Myers’s blistering reaction.◼

Felony experimentation

This story is, rightly, blowing up the science-y internet:

Kiera Wilmot got good grades and had a perfect behavior record. She wasn’t the kind of kid you’d expect to find hauled away in handcuffs and expelled from school, but that’s exactly what happened after an attempt at a science project went horribly wrong.

Wilmot apparently mixed some “household chemicals” together inside a small plastic bottle, producing a reaction that caused the bottle to explode. She told police that she meant it as a scientific experiment—clearly she was curious to see what would happen, which makes it an experiment in spirit, even if it didn’t take place in a lab. The chemicals involved aren’t specified, but anyone who grew up among nerdy teenagers probably remembers doing exactly this, and probably can recall the recipe. Trouble is, Wilmot did it on school grounds, outside of a supervised science class. And the response of the folks who run her school was totally fucking disproportionate:

After the explosion Wilmot was taken into custody by a school resources officer and charged with possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device. She will be tried as an adult.

One of the people who might have something to say about this said this:

“She made a bad choice. Honestly, I don’t think she meant to ever hurt anyone,” principal Ron Pritchard told the station. “She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did. Her mother is shocked, too.”

And now a sixteen-year-old girl with no prior behavioral problems and good grades is at risk of acquiring the kind of criminal record that screws up job interviews, credit checks, and applications to college. All for setting up an experiment you can see performed in any number of YouTube videos.

And, oh yeah, Kiera Wilmot is African American. DNLee digs into the sad, infuriating racial component of this whole sad, infuriating mess over at Scientific American, and this is really her wheelhouse. My only contribution to that part of the conversation is: I grew up in a rural, predominantly white, predominantly middle-class school district. Among my friends, when I was sixteen, were any number of white, male, middle-class kids who set up “experiments” far more dangerous than what we’re told Kiera Wilmot did. They set off explosions with household chemicals, firecrackers, model rocket engines—and none of them were charged with felonies.

I’m pretty sure none of them would’ve been charged with felonies even if they’d set off one of these experiments on or near school grounds. Yes, they might’ve been suspended a day or two, or made to attend a safety lecture, but no one dismissed the destruction of their future with the blandly hateful accusation that they “made a bad choice.”

Because they were white, teenaged, middle-class boys in a rural school district, and blowing things up was just what white, teenaged, middle-class boys did. Everyone knew that.

There is, at least, a petition. I’d suggest that you sign it.◼

Graduate degrees underwater

Emily Bazelon discusses how freshly-minted PhDs, Masters, and JDs say they’re coping in the Great Downturn.

The studies that show [the economic benefit of an advanced degree] typically crunch broad swaths of data. They look at the census, or other large population samples, and show a positive correlation between income and years of education. This means that college and graduate school are generally a good bet. But it doesn’t tell you that every single degree pays off financially at every single point in time.

And so there are lots of just-graduated grad students, many with debt from student loans, unable to do the work they’re highly qualified to do.

I’m fortunate in multiple regards, here; I’ve probably got another two years to go, thanks to a just-received DDIG, so I’m not hitting the job market until the worst has (hopefully) passed. Because I’ve been lucky enough to be funded as either a teaching assistant or a research assistant (and can expect continued funding as one or the other), I don’t have new debt related to grad school, even if I’m not exactly getting rich doing it. Being in a mostly NSF-funded field has been harrowing in recent years, but under the new administration things are looking better for funding in pure science – NSF did pretty well under the stimulus package, and should see better treatment in the regular budget, too. My only major worry is that when I graduate, I’ll be competing for post-doctoral spots with an extra-large cohort of other folks who waited out the downturn as students.

Funny how these things look, in retrospect

On BoingBoing Gadgets, an almost-entirely-random but excellent essay from John Brownlee about a particular Christian edutainment series, which in retrospect is pretty creepy and philosophically squishy and maybe a bit scary when you think about it. I don’t think I ever saw the video franchise in question, but I definitely got a lot of exposure to that sort of thing growing up. (“McGee and Me” anyone?) My parents are anything but fundamentalists, but no congregation is ideologically uniform – and so I was subjected to more-conservative-than-at-home Sunday School lessons maybe 75% of the time. (I’d say my family falls into the leftmost quartile of most of the churches we’ve attended.) This phenomenon probably reached its apogee in early middle school, when I was recruited, along with all my peers, into a “Children’s Sunday” service culminating in an elaborate choral number – performed in front of the whole congregation, with one of us* dancing around in a gorilla costume – about how silly and nonsensical and fundamentally un-cool it is to believe in evolution.

I guess I can’t really claim to have been brainwashed.

* Not me.

Christ Church as it is: Creationist Credentials

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho’s friendly neighborhood theocracy-in-embryo, which weds garden-variety Christian Right hypocrisy with creepy, racist Neo-Confederate overtones. Today, I’m going to have a look at the Christ Church-affiliated New Saint Andrews College.

NSA cultivates a reputation as the ivory tower’s ivory tower – the curriculum includes lots of Classical studies, including Greek and Latin; the school’s vision statement puts much emphasis on the supremacy of Western Culture (or “Traditio occidentalis“). Zombie C.S. Lewis could totally be a member of the faculty, if he were into theocratic fundamentalism. Said faculty are all wearing Scholarly Robes in the group photo.

The original ivory tower is at the
University of Pittsburgh

Photo by Jeremy B. Yoder.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on classical studies. NSA’s air of musty erudition has attracted a mostly positive profile by the New York Times Magazine and a favorable rating from the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (Full disclosure: my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, was also recognized by ISI.)

But, basically by their own admission, Christ Church’s theology is strongly right-wing. Is NSA’s ivory tower secure against the ideology of the church that founded it? The evidence is, not so much. NSA’s Code of Conduct sounds all sorts of alarm bells:

“The College seeks to recover true academic freedom, that is, submission to God’s Word in all our actions and attitudes in and out of the classroom.

As does the NSA Students’ Pledge:

I pledge to maintain sound Christian doctrine, to regularly attend an orthodox church, and to maintain a teachable spirit. I pledge to abstain from actively promoting doctrines contrary to the mission and goals of the College.

Who decides what is “God’s Word” and “sound Christian doctrine?” Conveniently, Doug Wilson, the pastor of Christ Church, is both a Board of Trustees member and a “Senior Fellow” at NSA. In fact, of seventeen faculty members, three are Wilsons. That’s DW, his son (if I’m not mistaken) Nathan, and brother Gordon.

Gordon L. Wilson, the “Senior Fellow of Natural Philosophy,” is actually my closest contact to NSA. Last fall I attended a debate on the topic of intelligent design between GLW and Washington State University biologist Mike Webster. It wasn’t pretty. GLW, who is basically miles to the right of Michael Behe, didn’t make a very good impression on behalf of NSA’s high-minded curriculum in rhetoric and philosophy – he dodged questions, failed to support his assertions, and generally displayed an inability (or unwillingness) to comprehend the logical underpinnings of the Scientific Method. In a particularly telling moment, he asserted that the reason ID/Creationists haven’t developed any testable hypotheses is because biased funding agencies won’t give them money.

That, of course, is laughable to anyone who does science for a living (i.e., a sizable chunk of GLW’s audience), because no one gets grant funding to develop hypotheses. Funding requests are descriptions of how you will test a hypothesis through a specific program of experiments or data collection. In other words, scientists receive funding after they develop hypotheses and convince funding agencies that they have a good way to test them.

The Eastern Box Turtle,
Terrapene carolina

Photo by West Virgina Blue.

It’s entirely possible that Gordon Wilson doesn’t actually know how scientific funding works. Which is consistent with the hypothesis that he’s more interested in adhering to his concept of “sound Christian doctrine” than doing science. The only published peer-reviewed research NSA’s Senior Fellow of Natural Philosophy has produced is a 2005 paper on the breeding ecology of box turtles [$-a]. (GLW’s NSA profile also mentions published “research, field notes, and abstracts,” but this is the only paper that comes up in a Google Scholar search.) It’s basically a census, although there are some t-tests. And it was funded not by an outside grant, but by what seems to be a donation from the biology department where GLW was an instructor when he did the study. Here’s the only mention of funding in the Acknowledgments section:

We would like to thank Paul Sattler (Chair) for allocating Liberty University Biology funds for the purchase of much of the field equipment necessary for this study.

To put this in perspective: I’m now a fourth-year doctoral student, and I’m not nearly to the point of having enough published work on my CV to say I’ve earned my doctorate yet, much less apply for a faculty position at a good university. I’ve personally written (as near as I can recall) four major grant requests, and contributed to a fifth; I’m a coauthor on a review article, one published original research article [$-a], and a third in press; I’m a coauthor on two more articles that are submitted for review, and I’m waiting for my first first-authored paper to go out to reviewers. And (what the heck) I’ve been published in the letters column of Science. Let me repeat: my pubs list is piddly. But it’s bigger than Gordon Wilson’s, and he’s somehow on the faculty at NSA. With the word “senior” in his title.

NSA might have a bang-up program as far as Latin studies go, but its resident “biologist” is clearly more interested in ideology than biology. I can’t say that bodes well for the “intellectual rigor” of the rest of the curriculum.

Edit, 7 Sept. 2008:
Added a couple of links to the NSA faculty pages in references to Doug Wilson’s positions at NSA and the number of Wilsons on the faculty.

Correction, 9 Sept. 2008:
Corrected the relationships between the Wilsons on the NSA faculty.


W. Godsoe, J.B. Yoder, C.I. Smith, O. Pellmyr (2008). Coevolution and Divergence in the Joshua Tree/Yucca Moth Mutualism The American Naturalist, 171 (6), 816-23 DOI: 10.1086/587757

R. Gomulkiewicz, D.M. Drown, M.F. Dybdahl, W. Godsoe, S.L. Nuismer, K.M. Pepin, B.J. Ridenhour, C.I. Smith, J.B. Yoder (2007). Dos and don’ts of testing the geographic mosaic theory of coevolution Heredity, 98 (5), 249-58 DOI: 10.1038/sj.hdy.6800949

G.L. Wilson, C.H. Ernst (2005). Reproductive Ecology of the Terrapene carolina carolina (Eastern Box Turtle) in Central Virginia Southeastern Naturalist, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1656/1528-7092(2005)004[0689:REOTTC]2.0.CO;2

J.B. Yoder, B. Shneiderman (2008). Science 2.0: Not So New? Science, 320 (5881), 1290-1 DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5881.1290

Teaching evolution below the Bible Belt

Today’s New York Times has a fantastic piece that follows Florida high school science teacher David Campbell as, with the support of new state science education standards, he teaches a class of mostly conservative Christian students about evolution. I’m probably going to steal some of Campbells lines in my own future teaching:

“True or false?” [Campbell] barked the following week, wearing a tie emblazoned with the DNA double helix. “Humans evolved from chimpanzees.”

The students stared at him, unsure. “True,” some called out.

“False,” he said, correcting a common misconception. “But we do share a common ancestor.”

I attended a church-affiliated high school and university, and I know my teachers and professors put up with at least as much resistance as depicted here; possibly more, since a lot of parents sent their kids to my schools looking for safe havens from the “dangers” of biological fact. But in spite of all that, my biology teachers and professors taught evolution. And there’s something kind of heroic about that.

Science as storytelling

Photo from the Radiolab blog.

This week’s podcast from Radiolab is co-host Robert Krulwich’s commencement address to the class of 2008 at the California Institute of Technology. It’s a rousing call for scientists to put in the effort to talk about science to non-scientists, and how to use stories to do it. Because, says Krulwich, science is valuable:

But somewhere in that nightmare of work [leading up to graduation] you may have noticed that your teachers were giving you more than tension headaches. They were giving you values. A deep respect for curiosity. For doubt, always doubt. For open-mindedness. For going wherever the data leads, no matter how uncomfortable.

But that doesn’t do it justice. Go listen to the whole thing. Now.

Berea College: Wait, there’s more!

And but so after posting about Berea College’s incredible commitment to no-tuition higher education, I actually got around to looking over their website. And I found this:

The Preamble to Berea’s Great Commitments begins, “Berea College, founded by ardent abolitionists and radical reformers, continues today as an educational institution still firmly rooted in its historic purpose ‘to promote the cause of Christ.’ ” The question arises, “Does one have to be a Christian to promote the cause of Christ?” Berea’s historical record says no. [Emphasis added]

So Berea is a Christian school, and its tuition-free model arises directly from what looks to be a highly progressive and inclusive faith statement. If Berea weren’t primarily a teaching school, I might be strongly inclined to look there when it came time for my first faculty position.

College, tuition-free

Photo by blueathena7.

At Berea College in the Kentucky Appalachians, students don’t pay tuition. At all. They’re supported, instead, by working on campus or at the College-owned hotel, and by Berea’s $1.1 billion endowment. The New York Times says that the model is attracting interest from other schools in the era of exploding tuition costs:

… the proportion of low-income undergraduates at the nation’s wealthiest colleges has been declining, as measured by the percentage receiving federal Pell Grants, for families with income under about $40,000. At most top colleges, only 8 to 15 percent of students receive Pell grants.

At Berea, more than three-quarters of the students receive Pell grants.

According to the Times article, Berea’s model comes at the cost of high selectivity (only 22 percent of applicants were accepted this year), and faculty salaries. Nevertheless, Berea is an effective reminder to other American universities that the point of higher education should be to help students improve their lives. And it’s hard to do that if you don’t make a real effort to provide access to lower-income students.