Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Professor for one year (week 36): Being cheered

Last weekend, I had a non-academic adventure: I ran the Silvesterlauf in Zurich.  I was one of the Happy Runners, which means I did the four big rounds in 60 to 70 minutes, summing up to 10km.

I love long-distance running, I did the Berlin Marathon several times and I ran some of the races as part of the ZüriLaufCup over the past years.  I will never win my age group, in fact, I'm always in the last quarter or sometimes even at the very end of a race.  But guess what: That's perfect!

People cheer for the very first runners, but those are usually very fast; so as viewer, you can hardly identify them.  And they are so focused, they won't realize who is cheering and what people are shouting.  In the middle field, it's mostly extremely crowded and runners hear a lot of cheering and shouting -- it's hard to identify the viewers who are actually cheering for you.

When it comes to the last runners, the situation is easy to grasp.  Runners are slower and only a few at a time, viewers can easily read the names on the number bib -- the Swiss print the actual number consisting of digits and the first name, most of the time the name even in a bigger font (Germans don't print the name or only in a very small font, so nobody can read it).  And viewers like it when runners react to their cheering.  There is a lot of high-fiving at the end of the field.  And even the marshals are a bit relaxed and cheer for you.  I served as marshal for the marathon part of the Zurich IronMan a few times, so I know both perspectives.

Of course, people pronounce my name differently, depending on the cultural background, or it's even changed into "Christin".  As long as it's close enough to the original, I take it as cheering for me -- when I hear "Natalie" or "Beat", then I know there are still runners following me. 

So the last Silversterlauf was a one-hour cheer-up -- you hardly find this in academia.  Recieving notifications for accepted papers or grants isn't as exciting as being cheered by completely foreigners all the way.  Or when was the last time somebody rung a big cowbell (Treichel) just for you as you ran up the Rennweg

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Professor for one year (week 35): Should everybody know how to program?

This post is the report, I wrote for the GPP 2013.


Being a computational linguist, I was trained in programming as well as in linguistics.  After school in the mid-nineties, I couldn't decide whether to focus on linguistics (or nowadays "humanities") or computer science/math (or nowadays "STEM").  So I was quite happy to be able to focus on both when studying computational linguistics.  I always loved algorithms, abstraction -- and yes, I also loved Latin.  Maybe that's a rare combination, but in today's world it turns out to be quite handy.

One aspect of the 2013 GPP motto "University and Society -- Meeting Expectations?" is the aspect of university as the institution to prepare students to be successfull in today's society.  In the last decade, we saw the emergence of more and more electronic devices, "digital" is one of the buzzwords in several scientific fields, technology becomes pervasive.  We speak of the "Generation Y" as being "digital natives."  However, if we look how today's students use technology, they are only users, they are not creators.  They often even don't know how to configure programs.

Douglas Rushkoff in his book Program or be Programmed argues that everybody should know how to program to understand today's technology and to be able to control it instead of becoming a slave of the electronic devices surrounding us.  So my personal focus in the GPP 2013 was to explore how universities support or enable learning to program.  Of course students in computer science (CS) and related fields (like computational linguistics) are trained in programming, but I was interested in courses for non-CS students.

Answers from US professors

During our visit in the US, I asked my question at two places explicitely and I got two different answers. 

At North Eastern University, Dr. Neenah Estrella-Luna, an assistant academic specialist,  as she described herself, argued that indeed, computer literacy would be a valuable topic to teach considering that university should empower students to deal with current challenges.  However, she admitted that there are no courses offered to all students, not to mention being required.  My question was understood as asking about "teaching students how to program." 

At swissnex in Boston, we met Dr. James Honan, senior lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  He understood my question differently and answered that students would keep faculty busy and push them to use more technology.  He talked about MOOCs before and probably this influenced his answer.  However, his statement made clear that there is a view of "computer literacy" as "being able to use devices", including the expectation that instructors offer digital content and e-learning material.

At this moment, I was a bit disappointed.  Either the necessity of teaching and learning how to program is not recognized, or, when it is recognized, it is impossible to offer such courses for all students.

While at the MIT, we visited the Media Lab and the "Lifelong Kindergarten" headed by Professor Mitchel Resnick.  We got an introduction into scratch, the programming language and online community intended to teach kids how to program using a game concept.  They learn abstraction, algorithmics, and data structures while they play with code snippets, interact with other kids around the world, and program their own games and worlds.  It's an advanced model of learning the concept of recursion while playing "Towers of Hanoi."  I was aware of scratch before and I really enjoyed seeing some demos and talking to the researchers involved in designing and implementing scratch.  I think using games as a vehicle for teaching important concepts is a good strategy -- the users aren't probably not even aware that they acquire valuable knowledge they will use later in school, in university, and in their jobs.

Situation in Switzerland

On the morning of the day I took my flight to Boston, I took part in a meeting of an experts panel on CS competencies of the Hasler Foundation in Berne.  The foundation is working towards a proposal for a general subject "Computer Science" at Swiss schools.  Currently, some schools in some cantons offer CS as supplementary subject (in German: Ergänzungsfach).  However, this subject is often taught as it was in the 1990s: students learn how to use certain software, they don't learn to program, they don't learn about abstraction, algorithms, and data structures.  In the publication "informatik@gymnasium", published by the Hasler foundation through NZZ Libro (note that the German version of this book is already sold out!), the authors argue that CS and using software are two differnt things and that school should teach students the basics of CS to prepare future citizens to cope with everyday life.  It is probably a long way to achieve this goal, but it's a goal worth all the effort.

However, here we talk about serious teaching, not about fun instruction as in the case of scratch.

Answers from the Web

After coming home, I searched the web for comments about computer literacy and opinions or activities on teaching programming.  Bill Gates, in a questions session at Microsoft's Faculty Summit, confirmed that there is indeed a "gap between how computer scientists use computers to automate their lives and how most people don't really know how to use them effectively."

Larry Hardesty talks about the "programmable world" that surrounds us and that will change the world as we know it by making the distinctions between virtual and physical objects obsolete.  To make good use of the new world, we should be able to understand opportunities and challenges (and issues) and how to manage them.

In England, efforts are on their way to teach algortithms to primary school kids.  The government acknowledges the need to "catch up with the world's best education systems."  However, this new curriculum is still under development and the teacher's union isn't sure about when would be a good starting point to introduce it -- they object to only react to governmental decisions.  According to Sean Coughlan it will include computing defined as:

Computing will teach pupils how to write code. Pupils aged five to seven will be expected to "understand what algorithms are" and to "create and debug simple programs". By the age of 11, pupils will have to "design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems".

It would be great if England could manage to design and actually implement this aspect.

And there are discussions going on in the emerging field of "Digital Humanities": In a twitter post, Jan Hecker-Stampehl (@heckerstampehl) asks "Should humanities scholars learn to program or trust that the programmers in DH projects will understand them?", obviously not aware of the more than 30-year old answer, Jacques Froger gave 1970 (Froger, J. (1970). La critique des textes et l'ordinateur. Vigiliae Christianae 24 (3), 210-217.), as Michael Piotrowski responds:

Il n'est pas indispensable que le philologue établisse lui-même le programme, encore que ce soit infiniment souhaitable ; il devrait au moins connaître assez le langage de programmation pour contrôler le travail du technicien ; en effet, l'expérience m'a appris qu'il ne faut pas s'en remettre les yeux fermés aux électroniciens, mal préparés par leur formation mathématique à se faire une idée juste de problèmes concrets qui se posent dans la domaine de la philologie.
(English: It is not absolutely necessary that the philologist writes the program himself, even though it would be extremely desirable; but he must at least know the programming language, so that he is able to check the work of the technician; in fact, experience has taught me that one should not blindly rely on the electronics people, whose mathematical training has hardly prepared them for fully understanding the concrete problems encountered in the domain of philology. (translation by Piotrowski))

However, even in fields where you would expect learning to program to be part of the curriculum, it is rather rare, as the blog post by Philip Guo shows.  He argues: "If you're a scientist or engineer, programming can enable you to work 10 to 100 times faster and to come up with more creative solutions than your colleagues who don't know how to program."  Students would need more concrete motivation than only arguing that programming helps them become an empowered citizen (the argument Estrella-Luna used at North Eastern).  Guo accepts that programming tools, i.e., text editors, should be improved to foster programming, but in the meantime we should focus on teaching students programming skills to support creative problem solving.

Selena Larson emphasizes the need to teach programming to students in schools already.  She supports the Hour of Code initiative during Computer Education Week 2013, following a similar strategy as scratch: Using games and fun figures, kids should understand basic principles and get an idea about what it means to program.


Studies by professional assocations like the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) regularly show an increasing number of jobs requiring programming knowledge.  They also show that there is a lack of people with appropriate skills meeting these requirements.  So there is an urgent need in society. 

As I agree that school would be an appropriate place to start teaching basic concepts of CS, university should be the place to empower students to actually program.  Maybe learning to program, acquiring knowledge about algorithms and data structures should be a required course in every curriculum.  I strongly support the statement made by Steve Jobs in an interview in 1995 saying "It teaches you how to think.  I view computer science as a liberal art.  It should be something that everybody learns."

However, we are still on the way to implementing those ideas into education, be it in school or at university.  If we have the chance to support initiatives like the Hour of Code or panels and experts groups designing curricula, those of us having the respective knowledge, should take part and see this as opportunity to serve society.

Professor for one year (week 34): GPP2013 aka higher education bootcamp

This year, I could take part in the Global Perspectives Programme (sorry for the British spelling) -- GPP2013 --, a joint program by the University of Basel and Virginia Tech.  In Basel, we were 8 participants (mostly PhD students) from Chemistry, Law, Sports Medicine, and Computational Linguistics (that's me).  We met in March for a kick-off and started our social-media journey: setting up blogs, joining Facebook and LinkedIn groups, creating a Twitter account, becoming familiar with document sharing applications (Adam, a Moodle clone in Basel, and Scholar, a Sakai clone at Virginia Tech). 

We subscribed to three groups working on aspects of this years topic "University and Society -- Meeting expectations?"  Those groups were formed by participants from Basel and Virginia Tech.  However, we didn't invest much in this groupwork before meeting in person when the Virginia Tech participants visited Switzerland in early June.  They were based in Riva San Vitale (TI) and visited several universities in Switzerland, France (Strasbourg), and Italy (Milano).  We could join them for two days in Riva San Vitale, got to know each other, and started exploring the topic.  Similar to us, the US participants came from different scientific fields and were at different stages in their academic career -- there was no postdoc, though.

In the middle of June, we flew to Boston to start our visit of US institutions of Higher Education.  An two days in Boston, we visited Northeastern University, Boston College, swissnex (where we met James Hanson from Harvard), and the MIT.  On the evening of the second day, we were supposed to travel to Blacksburg.  However, due to bad weather conditions, our flight was delayed and we spent a few hours at a bar at the Boston airport before taking the last flight to Charlotte.  We slept a few hours in a motel and then took the first flight to Roanoke Regional Airport -- of course we couldn't access our luggage, so we had to come up with innovative solutions for cleaning contact lenses and brushing teeth.

Our colleagues from VT picked us up at the airport and gave us a ride to Blacksburg.  I guess nobody slept in the vans, we chatted a few hours and arrived at the campus quite exhausted and looking for a shower.  However, we started exploring the campus immediately, looking at student housing, meeting with faculty, and trying to make a good impression.  In the afternoon we visited the New River Community College and then we headed back to the VT campus to finally get a shower and dress up for the formal reception.

We started the next day with a working breakfast, discussing how to present group work outcomes at the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C. at the end of the day.  Then we took the vans again to go to Washington, D.C, and to visit two other universities on the way: George Mason University and Virginia University.  More and more, the journey turned into an academic bootcamp: We had less and less time to meet with faculty at each station -- and thus needed to shorten our introductions and ask short and precise questions -- and finally we dressed for the formal reception at the Air and Space Smithsonian (we could take part in welcoming the crew of the Solar Impuse who had almost finished their journey across America a few days before) within 15 minutes on the George Mason parking lot.  And I think we all looked great and behaved well!

The next morning, our colleagues from VT drove us to the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C., where we presented the outcomes of our group work and posed some answers and even more questions to the audience.  We had a lively discussion during this official session and then we had lunch at the embassy.  It was very nice to continue discussions we had to cut short during our trip -- people from George Mason University and from Virginia Tech attended the meeting.

After coffee, it was over.  We had to find our way back to the hotel on our own -- of course nobody was prepared which subway to take or even knew in what part of the city the embassy was located.  Later we met for a final dinner and a short debriefing and then we started our trips home (some of us with a stop over in New York, some stayed a bit longer in Washington, D.C.).

A few weeks ago, we had the final closure of GPP2013 at the Institute for European Global Studies in Basel.  We had met before during summer for attending doctoral defenses or birthday parties.  We have become friends, and this is probably due to those bonding experiences during the GPP bootcamp.  I really enjoyed this experience!  And yes, I would do it again.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Professor for one year (week 33): Coding is the new Latin

A few days ago, I tweeted this:

With a link to a short statement by Steve Jobs.  Two sentences in his statement triggered this tweet:
  • "It teaches you how to think." (with "it" referring to learning how to program)
  • "I view computer science as a liberal art."

And I added a follow up tweet stating that Latin and Algorithms and Data Structures should be required for all studies at a University.

Initially, both tweets are an reaction to the initiative Hour of Code, which is simply great.

However, the more I think about it -- and look at my Twitter timeline following Digital Humanities conferences over the last weeks --, the more I believe that coding actually IS the new Latin already;  it just hasn't hit universities while Latin is on it's way out of universities (fewer and fewer study programs require proper knowledge of Latin).

When you look for arguments supporting Latin for everybody, you find:
  • It's fun.
  • It's the basis of European languages, you learn other foreign languages much easier if you know Latin.
  • It's the basis of European languages, you gain competencies in your native language.
  • It teaches you how to think.
  • You learn a lot about logic and abstraction.
  • There's no better way to learn grammar.
  • It's part of our (European) cultural heritage.
  • It teaches you how the world works today.
If you look closely, a lot of those arguments are valid for programming, too:
  • It's fun.
  • It teaches you how the world works today.
  • It teaches you how to think.
  • You learn a lot about logic and abstraction.
And that's basically, what Steve Jobs was referring to.  And I agree, although there is a learning curve, you can do a lot with programming, even as a beginner.  It is a kind of craft, you have to practise a lot; but it's also a kind of art, you can enjoy it while doing it and you can enjoy the final product.

Usually, it's "critical thinking" what we want to trigger in students, but I think "being able to abstract" is a more appropriate goal.  And probably a prerequisite to critical thinking -- you have to discover large lines of arguments, you have to abstract from singular examples, you should see commonalities and general discrepancies before making your own arguments and expressing pros and cons.  Being trained in logical thinking and abstraction helps you to do so.  And there is no better way to learn those two than via learning Latin, math, or programming. 

Actually, there might be another link between Latin and programming -- it's a kind of closed community of those who know it.  Therefore a programming language could be seen as a kind of "code" -- i.e., a "cipher" --, and you have to be an insider to decipher it and grasp the true meaning.  It's a kind of jargon spoken and understand in a closed group.  Maybe people referring to "programming" as "coding" are not aware of the ambiguity of "code," but I think the sense of "speaking an encrypted language" is a valuable one.

There's already a lot of research literature with respect to "code literacy," also emphasizing that you should learn how to program to become part of "the club of the privy."  And of course discourse following the book Program or be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff supports this view.  In this regard, the term "hacker" -- often used as a derogatory term by society, but as a badge of honor for expert programmers in hacker culture (see the definition of "hacker" in the Jargon File) -- could even become a synonym for "member of the new elite."

Professor for one year (week 32): Postdoc programs

In 2012 and 2013, I could take part in the PostDoc Program (PDP) of the University of Zurich.  Eighteen postdocs had been chosen in a competitive selection process.  We met for six workshops during these two years.  Coming from several disciplines, such as film studies, forensic medicine, politics, biology, linguistics, and computational linguistics, we couldn't share experiences and knowledge on a scientific level, but rather our experiences about being a postdoc in general.  Some of us had experiences in interdisciplinary research, some of us had experiences in highly structured environments like chemistry labs.  And all of us had good and bad experiences with supervisors and research assistants.

Being part of this program meant meeting people with very different backgrounds but a common goal: to become a professor in the near future.  The program is meant to help participants to estimate and increase their success in academic careers, to find ways to promote themselves, to understand and play by the rules of academia, and to get to a point where they can successfully apply for professorship.

We talked about different perspectives on teaching and research and about strategic decisions concerning the next career steps.  Each of the two-day workshops was a sometimes welcome, sometimes disruptive break in our daily routine.  Some of us had to answer calls and e-mail messages during breaks or return to the office immediately after the workshops.

However, without the workshops, I would not have sat down for a few hours to reflect on my career as it had went until today or to plan which steps to take and where to invest in order to gain new skills.  We could discuss strategies and tactics for moving towards professorship and try out interview situations and trial lectures. The six workshops on application training, funding, leadership, career paths, publication strategies, and competencies and skills where lead by experts in the field -- professors, coaches, members of the ERC review board, etc.  And all shared their knowledge and encouraged us to ask everything what we always wanted to know.

Of course you could find most of the information by searching the web, but without the course context, I wouldn't have invested the time to do so.  On the workshop days, we could spend the whole day on "daydreaming" a scientific career and got to know what happens behind the closed doors of search committees or funding boards.  And with every workshop going by, I got even more convinced that this is exactly the career I dream of: self-determined research and teaching, leading a research group, advancing the field and the scientific community, and being part of the academic discourse -- with the "field" referring, in my case, to Computational Linguistics and Writing Research.

The program finished in September 2013, but we managed to maintain regular meetings as a group.  I really hope we can continue do this for quite some time, even if some of us start  moving to other universities in other cities and countries.

If you ever have the chance to attend a workshop on career training or even a whole series, don't hesitate to apply.  It may seem a lot of time to invest (and you need all the time you can get to publish, don't you?), but it's totally worth it!

During the program I also found a mentor, supporting me in strengthening and polishing my application documents.  He isn't a member of "my" scientific community, and although it felt a bit odd at the beginning, I really enjoyed those meetings -- I was forced to think about wordings and he helped me to look at my achievements from an outside perspective.  I really appreciated this mentorship!  If you have the chance to engage in a mentorship relation, I totally recommend it.  My mentor even told me that he chose to act as mentor for junior scientists because he had made this experience as a mentee before and he liked it a lot.  That's a great attitude, and I hope that one day I myself can support mentees on their way towards an academic career.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Professor for one year (week 31): Supervising students

Currently, I supervise three students as "first supervisor;" last term, I was the "second supervisor" for three students.  Two students write their BA thesis and one student writes her MA thesis.  I won't report on their topics, but on the supervision as such.  As second supervisor, I only have to read and grade the thesis, as first supervisor, I'm responsible for a good topic and I'm the person students contact for help.

Actually, I don't differentiate whether I supervise BA or MA theses or term papers -- there are only gradual differences with respect to the amount of time to invest, the number of words or pages to produce, and the kind of topic.  At all levels, I expect students to come up with a proposal first; they should define themselves which topic they work on for the next few weeks (or months in case of MA theses).  We discuss the proposal and then they have to write a one-page abstract defining their research question, what kind of material to use or to produce, and they also should list first literature references.  I don't expect them to read 24/7, but they should investigate relevant literature for their topic.  Then we discuss this abstract and refine the research question.  I also point them to unmentioned papers or journals and book series they should consider consulting.  And then I send them off to work.

Usually, there is a fixed date for handing in the thesis or the seminar paper.  When half of the time is over, I invite the students for another meeting.  A few days before, they send me everything they have produced so far.  At this point in the process, it's time to have a look at the structure of the text, even if some sections are still to be written.  The list of references they want to cite should be nearly complete.  This appointment forces them to actually write something and not spend time procrastinating.  There is a strong correlation: Students with little and/or poor text half way through their paper, usually hand in poor final versions.  They underestimate the time needed for revising, editing, and printing (university regulations often require printed theses).

Sometimes, students see those two appointments (preparing a proposal and discussing it, and sending mid-way material and discussing it) as some kind of cruelty.  However, it helps them a lot in focusing on their topic, developing critical thinking, and producing high-quality texts.  After grading their work, students can also make an appointment to get detailed feedback.  

When I teach seminars where several students write a paper, I often make some of these appointments a group activity:  students report on their research question in the first session, we discuss how to define a good hypothesis and how and where to find relevant literature.  In the half-time session, students report on their progress and the group comments on whether to refine (expand or narrow) the research question or their ambitions.  That's also a perfect opportunity to realize that all the others also struggle a bit, didn't manage to write as much text as they expected, etc.

Interestingly, the Department of Linguistics at the University of Konstanz recently developed a checklist for BA students:  they should reflect on the competencies required to write a thesis (including writing competencies) and they should prepare a one-page abstract before looking for a supervisor.  The checklist is intended to help students define a topic and become aware of all the skills involved when writing a thesis, and the filled-out list should inform potential supervisors about the students.  As for me, I don't need this list, its elements are part of my supervision style anyway.  However, preparing such a checklist is a sign for aiming at a somewhat more homogeneous supervision for all students, but you could also see it as an indication that not all potential supervisors have a real interest in mentoring students.

What's your supervision style?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Professor for one year (week 30): Device naming systems

Last week, I wrote about my private geek devices.  And I mentioned the names they have:
  • heinz (the black MacBook)
  • horst (the router)
  • herbert (the old Toshiba)
  • gunther (the other router)
  • fred (the new MacBook Air)
  • marlene (the old MacBook Air)
  • waltraud (the work computers used for E-Learning and OldPhras)
  • berta (my Nokia 6700 c)
  • Fräulein Meier (the iPad)
  • tippse (the Bluetooth keyboard currently paired with Heinz)
There is actually an Internet Request for Comment (RFC) on "Choosing a Name for Your Computer" (RFC 1178) from 1990.  It points out that "[e]xperience has taught us that it is as easy to choose bad names as it is to choose good ones," and goes on to list a few do's and don'ts, such as: don't use long names, don't use your own name, use words that are rarely used, use theme names.
Well, my list of names is balanced with respect to gender and age.  I don't follow a specific naming system (so no theme names), but usually come up with a name when I unbox the device.  A black MacBook just looks very maculine, while the first-generation MacBook Air surely is a feminine device because of the shape.

"marlene" and "waltraud" allude to Marlene Jaschke, my favorite stage personality of the comedian Jutta Wübbe, and her budgie.  I actually knew the name for my iPad even before unboxing it -- I wanted a meaningful signature instead of the default "sent from my iPad" signature and now it says "Von Fräulein Meier verschickt" ("sent by Fräulein Meier"). "tippse" is a derogatory term for a typist.

"heinz", "horst", and "herbert" are references to my northern German heritage.  You use those names to refer to "someone" (similar to "Tom, Dick, and Harry" in English) -- you also can refer to several unknown people by naming them Horst1, Horst2, and so on. "fred" is just another northern German male name -- as the MacBook Air is thin, it had to be a short name, and a male one because of its angular shape.

The computers I used while working at the Institute of Informatics and later the Institute of Computational Linguistics at the University of Zurich were named:
  • keywest (when it it was a Sun workstation, until ca. 2006)
  • renamed to sylt
  • caipi (when it was replaced by an iMac)
  • gnaegi (when I moved caipi to another office, the colloquial term for the Swiss Army Trikothemd 75, a light olive-green jumper, named after former Federal Councilor and minister of defense Rudolf Gnägi, who introduced it)
When almost everybody worked with a Sun, there was a naming system in place: workstations were named after islands (e.g., keywest, sylt, poel, utopia) and servers were named after famous composers' first names (e.g., alban, arvo, igor, gustav, nikolai, bela).  When the workstations were replaced by Macs, cocktail names were used.  So at that time, they followed themes.  However, the admins only gave names to desktop Macs.  MacBooks usually got names following the pattern "username's MacBook" -- not very creative and no theme anymore.

When I studied at Friedrich-Alexander University, the computers in the lab of the Department of Computational Linguistics (CLUE) were named after planets -- or what they assumed to be planets -- e.g., saturn, uranus, sol, terra.  Later that was changed into a naming scheme "clueXX" (with XX being the last part of the IP address).  I worked with clue21, IIRC.

In Konstanz, the iMacs in the computational linguistics lab are named after Roman emperors (e.g., augustus, vespasian, domitian, hadrian, titus, aurel, caesar) and the Mac minis after comic figures (e.g., professor-x, wicked, quicksilver, iron-lad, aurora, captain-ultra, lightspeed).  Also theme-naming here.

Names for my partner's devices at home also follow a theme: Greek mythological figures (e.g., gaia, selene, themis).  However, when I think about this theme-naming recommendation, I do follow a theme: I name my devices according to the first impression they make.

What is your naming theme?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Professor for one year (week 29): Devices galore -- am I a geek?

How many electronic devices do you use regularly?  When you go to a conference or attend a meeting, the first thing participants ask for is Internet access -- and then coffee.  So organizers estimate the number of participants, add some tolerance and then order a certain number of WiFi accounts.  When you look around, almost everybody uses a laptop.  But people have a laptop and a tablet.  So you should double the number of accounts.  And then almost everybody uses their smart phone, too.  Which triples the original estimate.  I don't have a smart phone, but I too travel with laptop and tablet (mostly because I always have to prepare some longer texts for which I prefer a real keyboard and Emacs -- while you can use an external keyboard with an iPad, Emacs is not available for iPad).

When I survey my home office, I discover a high number of computers per square meter:  A black MacBook from 2004 named Heinz, a MacBook Air from 2008 (the rounded-edge model) named Marlene, a MacBook Air from 2013 (the sharp-edge model) named Fred.  Then there is my partner's late-2008 model MacBook (named Themis) and a Celeron PC running NetBSD (named Eurus) we use for scanning -- so we do have a scanner, too (no name for this one!).  All in 10 square meters.  We have a cable modem, which is connected to an AirPort Express wireless router named Horst and a printer named Gaia also connected to the wireless network via a second AirPort Express named Gunther.  And then there are Fräulein Meier, the iPad, Laurin, the iPad Mini, Tippse, my Apple Wireless Keyboard, and Berta, my Nokia phone, floating about the entire apartment.  That's a lot and everybody is talking to everybody via WiFi or Bluetooth!  And in a corner, there is still Herbert, my old Toshiba Satellite notebook from 2001.

I use Heinz for iTunes mainly, I haven't quite finished the migration from Marlene to Fred yet -- Marlene was kind of a lemon, she got a new SSD, but this didn't fix the unexpected crashes and her refusal to install updates.  At my previous jobs, I always had a computer, too.  As I sometimes had several employments at the same times, this almost doubled the number of computers I used regularly: A Sun and later an iMac (with alternating names because of network changes) at the University of Zurich, a Dell laptop at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland named Waltraud, and after that an iMac at the University of Basel also named Waltraud.

Switching computers requires data management, like deciding where and how to access e-mail messages, and where to store documents -- I used the versioning system CVS with the repository stored on the network at UZH, so I could check out and commit drafts from anywhere.  In Konstanz, I decided to use only Fred and not another computer -- I'm also running out of names, but more on this next week -- and asked for a big screen only.

Professor for one year (week 28): Another German compound process: Reisekostenrückerstattung (travel reimbursement)

Last week, I wrote about my conference tour this fall.  As this tour had no private aspects, it was a "Dienstreise" (business trip) and in that case, you can get a reimbursement for your traveling costs -- train or plane, hotel, conference fees, etc.  In German, that's "Reisekostenrückerstattung" and it's not only a compound, it's also complex.

In Konstanz, you have to fill this two-page form: 
It first asks for your address and some personal data and your bank account in the left part of the first page -- this part is easy.  Then you find seven points of instruction how to fill out the reverse side.  Generally, if you need complex instructions for a form, it's a badly designed form.  So this is a first hint that the whole process might not be an easy one.

You have to state when and where you started your travel, when and where it ended and when the "Dienstgeschäft" -- the reason for your travel -- started and ended.  If you remember last week's post, I started my tour in Paris (not my usual "Dienststelle" (place of employment) nor my "Wohnort" (residence) and neither in one of the corresponding countries) and it ended in Zurich (my residence, but a different country than my "Dienstort").  I went from Paris to Berlin to Zurich (for a short stop-over and exchange of cloths) to Florence -- so from France to Germany to Switzerland to Italy.  I crossed three borders and I would have to state the exact time when I crossed which border -- I never heard the captain of a plane announcing that just now we would be crossing a border, so I invented a time.  For the hotel where you stayed you have to justify why you stayed in exactly this hotel.  Of course for Florence and Berlin it's "Nähe zum Dienstgeschäft, Einsparung von Fahrtkosten" -- it wouldn't have been possible to commute.  But these boxes look like check boxes, not radio buttons, so should I also tick other possibilities?  But it was different for Berlin and for Florence.  But then, these boxes are identical to the ones you have to choose for the end point and starting point of your travels and here it's impossible to start from two or more places at the same time, so maybe they are both radio buttons.  I treat them this way.

Interestingly, if you don't travel by train, bus, or plane but by "Kfz" (motor vehicle), you have to state the "Hubraum" (engine displacement) -- up to 600ccm or more.  There are probably different reimbursement rules depending on whether you go by Harley or by VW van.

You have to input the amount of money you spent, but no currency is given.  So do I have to convert expense in CHF and US$ to € or just state them?  I chose the latter and wait what will happen.

For comparison, this is the form the Institute of Informatics at the University of Zurich uses:

Yes, apart from stating address and bank account, it's a simple table where you insert the kind of expense you asking reimbursement for.  And it's even assumed that you might have had expenses in different currencies.  It's a simple single-page form.  You might invent other layouts for this form, but the important part is that you don't spend hours with filling the form.  The German Department at the University of Basel had a similar simple document.  For reimbursements by the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences there isn't even a form, you submit receipts for all your expenses, state your bank account and address and that's it.

And don't forget to add your "Dienstreisegenehmigung" (business trip approval).  For this I had to fill an even worse designed two-page document beforehand asking all kind of things -- but not about estimated costs.  It has even more explanations and the parts to be filled out by you are scattered to the two pages.

You even have to fill this document for trips you won't ask for reimbursement.  I guess the main reason for those approvals are insurance issues: You have insurance at your place of employment, but for all other places you need a private insurance.  So if something happens outside your office, the employers insurance is responsible only if he approved that it was necessary that you had to be outside your office.  It's different in Switzerland: As soon as you work more than 8 hours a week, you're insured via the employer for accidents inside and outside your office ("Berufsunfall- und Nichtberufsunfallversicherung").  So there is no need to get official approval to meet with colleagues or clients for a meeting outside your office -- you only need to get approval in case you ask for reimbursement of travel costs as different grants or accounts might be used to cover your expenses.

I guess the more badly-designed documents you have to fill, the more you get accustomed to fill them without thinking.  But this is no good excuse to design poor documents!  And I even haven't mentioned the language used in those forms -- it is far from plain language.  There is much room for improvement from a document design point of view.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Professor for one year (week 27): Conference season

In the first half of September, I had my conference tour: From a private visit in Paris, I flew to Berlin for two workshops, than back home to Zurich for one day, and than to Florence for a conference.  As I had had no time for writing something to submit to ACL, NAACL, and RANLP, I did not attend conferences in August and unfortunately did not meet with some colleagues.

However, I was invited as speaker at the workshop Corpus-based historical linguistics (CBHL) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.  I talked about challenges and solutions for retrieval and annotation of German phrasemes in heterogeneous diachronic TEI corpora, i.e., what I implemented for the OLdPhras project to help phraseologists search phrasemes in Early New High German texts when no linguistic annotation is available.

The next day, together with Michael Piotrowski, I organized the Third International Workshop on Systems and Frameworks for Computational Morphology (SFCM 2013) which also took place at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.  We had seven interesting talks and an additional invited talk (also with a publication in the proceedings).

Although both events are labeled "workshop", there is a huge difference: The first one was a linguistics workshop and the latter one a computational linguistics workshop.

  • For CBHL, all speakers had been invited by the organizer who set the topic and attracted the audience.  Each speaker gave a longer talk of about 50 minutes and then there was some time for discussion.  So a "workshop" is more something like a place for getting to know various research, it's not a place to actually work on something together as it might be the case in rhetoric and composition.  There will be no publication, so this is only for the "Talks" section in your publication list. Sometimes, somebody arranges for a special issue in a journal or an edited volume in a book series and asks participants to contribute to this publication.  So maybe you write an article about the things you presented and some years after the workshop, your contribution is published.
    The work we presented at the Conference on New Methods in Historical Corpora in Manchester in April 2011, finally has been published some weeks ago in a volume of the series Korpuslinguistik und interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf Sprache (CLIP). Meanwhile, the project for which we announced how to proceed, is finished.
  • SFCM 2013, and workshops in NLP in general, are more small-scale conferences: There had been a call for papers (full papers of 10 to 20 pages according to LNCS style, not 300-words abstracts!) to be reviewed in a double-blind fashion by the members of the program committee.  We accepted seven of 15 papers to be published in the proceedings of the workshop and to be presented at the workshop (acceptance rate for workshops is usually higher than for high-end conferences, where you have a 20 to 25% acceptance rate).  All authors got elaborate feedback from at least three reviewers; for accepted papers, authors had to revise their papers considering reviewer comments to submit a final version compliant with given style guidelines 10 weeks before the workshop.  We (the organizers) then edited the proceedings: writing a preface, creating author indexes and table of contents, fixing style violations, rearranging tables and figures -- i.e., creating a camera-ready version of the proceedings.  Everything was then shipped to the publisher who sent galley proofs to all authors and the editors two weeks later.  And one week before the workshop, we received the printed volumes.  So as organizers, there is no work left after the workshop and participants and everybody else can read about the work presented.  It's a very fast process and it helps to make recent research available almost immediately.
    So here, "workshop" is also a bit misleading in general.  However, for SFCM we incorporate a bit of the literal meaning by having a two-hour demo session where participants (no matter if they gave a talk or are listening only) share recent developments, can get help with implementation issues (in 2011, the invited speaker Lauri Karttunen helped fixing some bugs in XFST scripts) and maybe prepare collaborations.
After SFCM, I went to the 13th ACM Symposium on Document Engineering (DocEng) in Florence.  Although ACM is the professional association for computer science, conferences follow the same schema as in computational linguistics.  At DocEng 2013, I organized and chaired the first doctoral consortium (ProDoc@DocEng).  The symposium took place in a former church, which was an impressive room, but resulted in challenging acoustics.  However, ProDoc@DocEng was a success, the students got a lot of encouraging and challenging feedback, and I will organize the consortium again at DocEng 2014.  There where a lot of interesting talks and activities at DocEng, I met old friends and we made plans for future activities within DocEng.

When I came back after these two exciting weeks, I actually was a bit exhausted and needed some days to sort ideas, links, papers and papers, and catch up with e-mail messages and other deadlines.  However, this is how conference season ends, it's part of the game.

Professor for one year (week 26): Half-time

In week 26, the first half of my year as acting professor was over.  Actually, this was six weeks ago -- I'm a bit behind with blog posts.  However, I will try to review this first half:

When I started teaching in Konstanz, I had sort of a cold start as I had almost no time for preparing lectures.  In summer term 2013, I taught three courses: Grammar Engineering (basically writing LFG-grammars with XLE), Perl for Linguists, and a seminar on NLP for Writing Technology.  I had taught the latter two before, so there was plenty of material available including assignments and sample solutions, but I had to adapt it.  I had no experience with XLE, so I had to learn it while preparing lectures, but I had a teaching assistant to help with assessing assignments and with tutorials.  In the end, I prepared lectures week to week.  For the first half of Summer term, I also had a teaching appointment at the University of Basel, finishing my seminar in Spring term (for musings on different term dates see this post). And I also finished the implementation of the annotation application for the OLdPhras project in Basel.

There was no time left for research of for writing publications.

Additionally, I participated in the PostDoc Program at the University of Zurich and in the Global Perspectives Programme at the University of Basel. So I had a really busy summer!  I still have to write my final report for GPP ...

Usually, NLP conferences take place in fall and submission season is spring or summer.  So with no time for writing articles, I don't have publications for 2013?  No, I do have, because in 2011 and 2012 together with colleagues I submitted several papers to some linguistics publication channels.  And in the humanities, publication takes time -- so these papers did appear 2013, and I'm still waiting for another one that is still "in press".

After the end of summer term in Konstanz, I had two weeks of vacations, and then I started my fall conference tour.  Although I didn't submit something for the major NLP conferences, I was busy in fall, see the next post.  When I returned, I would have to prepare teaching for winter term, and I planned to do this well in advance, to also have enough time for doing some research, applying for grants, and for blogging -- well, you can guess from this "behind schedule" post, that I didn't manage to balance everything.

All in all, I did enjoy these six months: I got to know another university with lots of specifics (as it is also one of the "Reformuniversitäten" in Germany), I enjoyed to be in a more linguistic environment and from talks and colloquia I got a lot of input and new ideas I could adapt for further research.  I never taught so many courses, this was indeed a very new and very challenging experience, but in the end it turned out OK and in winter term I also teach four courses (but all four at the University of Konstanz).  The students attending my classes were an even more heterogeneous audience than at the University of Zurich.  But I had the impression (and the result from the evaluation surveys support this), that we created a challenging but supportive learning atmosphere where they could benefit from one another.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Professor for one year (week 25): Dress properly

When you look for advice on how to dress professionally, you always hear: "Dress appropriately," and "You should feel comfortable with what you wear."  OK, the second part is easy: It depends on the season how many pieces you wear, and maybe after Christmas-New-Year-holidays you'll have to adjust your clothes a bit.  But "appropriately"?

When you have a job interview, this is a critical question.  For people in medicine or law it's easy, you wear a suit as a man and a pantsuit or deux-pièces (skirt suit) as a woman.  You want to look like "one of them," you want to look like the other professors.  So what do professors in Computational Linguistics look like?

The old men wearing three-piece suits are retiring these days.

When do you see professors wearing formal clothes?  Maybe on conferences.  Only a few men wear suits regularly, most wear pants and coats, some even wear jeans and pullovers or fleece jackets.  Women wear pants and coats, some even wear jeans and fleece jackets (oh, no gender difference?  OK, some women also wear skirts or dresses, but I'm not into skirts.)  So maybe for very official occasions, I get a bit more formal with pants and a blazer.

But what do you wear on a day-to-day basis?  You won't look overdressed and feel comfortable at the same time, so jeans and fleece jacket would be OK?  But then you make experiences like I did on my first days in Konstanz, people treat you like another student.

How could I show that I'm a bit more mature than my students?  Maybe getting grey hair would help.  But that's not the best option, you simply feel old -- not mature or professional -- discovering the first grey hair in the mirror.  As a man, I could grow a full beard.  But wait, I already had bachelor students with full beard -- so no significant difference again.

I guess I'll have to live with being mistaken for a student from time to time, a deux-pièces simply doesn't go with my EDC -- Kitchensink and Motörizers.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Professor for one year (week 24): Teaching load and learning load

Teaching load for lecturers and professors is usually given in hours per semester (German: Semesterwochenstunden = SWS).  And of course this differs from country to country and from state to state.   Senior researchers  with a full-time position in Zurich should teach 4 SWS; full professors at the University of Zurich should teach 6 SWS, in Baden-Württemberg (i.e., Universities of Konstanz, Heidelberg, Stuttgart) teaching load for professors is 9 SWS.  A course has a certain number of hours per semester, usually this is the number of hours student spend in class; this is also given in SWS.  Depending on this number, a professor in Zurich teaches two to three courses per semester, while a professor in Konstanz teaches three to four courses.  That's almost twice as much!

Two of the courses I teach or taught in Konstanz, I already taught in Zurich ("Introduction to Perl for computational linguists" and "Introduction to Prolog for computational linguists").  For the Perl course, students in Zurich would earn 3 credit points, in Konstanz they get 9.  In both cases, I taught 2 hours per week in class face-to-face, students then had to do exercises.  There was also a tutorial, where students could go to get advice for solving tasks, this was one or two hours.  I had/have a teaching assistant for this tutorial hour(s).

According to the Bologna rules as implemented in Switzerland and Germany, 1 ECTS point is equivalent to 25 to 30 hours per week; this "hour" is made of 60 minutes, whereas the hour in "SWS" is made of 45 minutes only.  So for 9 ECTS points in a 15-week semester, students should invest 15 to 18 hours (for a 14-week semester, its 16 to 19 hours).  If we subtract the face-to-face hours, students have to invest 12 to 15 hours per week working on their own: reading articles, solving tasks, preparing talks, etc.  

For a programming course, students should get immediate feedback.  Usually, I prepare several tasks per week, students then have to submit their solutions before the next lecture, the teaching assistant helps with assessing these solutions.  For the face-to-face time, I have to invest a certain amount of time for preparing slides and example programs; this time is the same, irrespective of the number of ECTS points students get.  But it makes a huge difference when preparing tasks, so students spend 15 more hours for 9 credit points or 3 more hours for 3 credit points, and the difference is even bigger with respect to assessing their solutions and giving feedback. 

Taking the face-to-face time into account, professors in Konstanz have to invest more time for teaching (including preparing each lecture) than in Zurich, depending on the SWS for each course, it's 1.5 to 2 times more.  But considering the number of credit points for each course and taking into account the time needed for preparing appropriate tasks and giving adequate and helpful feedback, it's way more: 3 courses with 2 SWS and 3 to 4 ECTS points each (ca. 6 face-to-face hours and 12 ECTS points in total) vs. 4 courses with 2 to 3 SWS and 9 ECTS points each (ca. 9 face-to-face hours and 35 ECTS points in total).

Teaching load for lecturers and professors should thus be calculated taking both numbers into account: the number of face-to-face hours (i.e., SWS) and the number of credit points students can earn.  The ECTS system should not only be used for calculating the amount of work of students but, as this has a direct impact on the workload of instructors, it should also be taken into account for them.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Professor for one year (week 23): Repositories

In today's scientific community, it's all about publications, journals, and impact factors.  So you not only publish your research in a high-ranked journal or via a high-ranked conference, but you keep track of your publications, make lists, allow others to access your publications, and hope to get cited.

For me, the best place to store and maintain publications is CiteULike:

I have full control of what is listed here, I can store full papers, and I can extract the publication meta data as BibTeX data.  This also means that available categories are consistent with usual BibTeX categories, i.e., article in proceedings, book, edited book, book chapter, thesis, technical report, etc.

CiteULike is also the place I store all bibliographic information of papers and books I read (or I want to read) and the papers itself.  I put quite some effort in this: if the paper is available online, I upload it and add the link, if it's from a paper-only publication, I scan it and then store it there.  So for almost all of the seven hundred and something papers in my library, I can access the paper itself.  I add abstracts and keywords.  I can export the meta data as BibTeX and thus use it for referencing stuff when writing an article myself.  It's consistent and up-to-date.  There is very convenient feature: the Post-to-CiteULike button you can add to your browser.  In most of the cases, I can add a reference by using this button and then maybe correcting some information.

The only drawback with CiteULike I encountered over the years:  I cannot download all the stored papers at once.  It would be very convenient to have off-line access to all data when writing an article -- however, abstract and keywords are included in the BibTeX export, this already is quite nice.

I also have a ResearchGate account I try to maintain:

There are some odd things with ResearchGate: Look at the very first entry, it refers to the proceedings of SFCM 2013.  I'm one of the editors of this book.  Yes, it's an edited book and/or "conference proceedings (whole)."  However, ResearchGate lacks both of these categories: if you choose "book", you have to input "authors."  After exchanging quite some e-mails with them, they were finally able to list the publication at all.  But it now has authors and editors and those are identical.  Very annoying.

Next, ResearchGate tries to find your publications in the Web.  When creating an account, this is somewhat convenient, you don't have to input all your publications by hand -- uploading a valid BibTeX file as exported from CiteULike doesn't work properly.  However, as publications are listed at various places, sometimes with different (wrong) meta data, it also finds incorrect data.  And it comes up again and again and again proposing to add this data -- it's impossible to stop this.  Oh, and the number of citations is wrong.

However, it's a nice place to be informed about recent publications of colleagues.  I also had an eye-opener some time ago: When you list the people you follow, their names, ResearchGate score, and impact factor is listed.  I follow some linguists, some computer scientists, some psychologists, and some computational linguists.  And it's very easy to recognize the computational linguists -- they have very low impact factors or none at all.  A very nice empirical confirmation that journals (and moreover: indexed journals) don't play a big role in computational linguistics.

I also have a Google Scholar account I try to maintain:

Google Scholar doesn't come up with suggestions to include incorrect data and I can add information myself.  The citation number seems to be somewhat realistic, although you never know about the missing citations (except your self-citations).

I also have an account with Microsoft Academic Search I try to maintain:

Here, incorrect information is included -- I'm not into Chemistry, although I did my secondary school written exam in Chemistry, but how should Microsoft know about this?  You can try to edit and add data, but it takes a long time until it finally appears.  The number of citations is incorrect, the list of conferences, too.

I put most of my publications in ZORA, the Zurich Open Repository and Archive, hosted by the University of Zurich:

I don't maintain this list anymore, so publications there stop in 2011.

I list my publications on my website:

Here the order is by type of publication (journal articles, edited books, book chapters, conference/workshop papers, other) as usually done in the humanities.  If possible, I give the link to the full paper, i.e., to a repository (most of the time it's ZORA) or to the original article if published as open access.

And of course I need a list of publications for job and grant applications.  Here I order them by year and mark the topic (linguistics, NLP, e-learning, writing research).  Additionally, I list the publications "in press" with the date of submission of the final version.

And yes, publication number 32, final version submitted in October 2011, still is "in press".

Oh, and some of my publications are listed in the catalogue of the German National Library and in the ACM Digital Library.

I seem to have an account with Academia, which I don't maintain:

The only reason for this profile: I wanted to download a paper from there following a provided link.  But I had to click through a dozen of pop-ups creating my own account before being able to do so.  I never access this site and so it includes invalid information, most importantly: No information on co-authors is given.  Actually, it seems to be impossible to list co-authors at all.

I still have an account at ResearcherID:

I don't maintain this account.  The interface is ugly and maintaining the list is annoying -- you have to use an online version of EndNote, which is slow and not very user friendly at the same time.  I think I also lost the password, so I cannot delete this account.

I also had an account with Mendeley, but I managed to delete this one some months ago.  It was as user friendly as ResearcherID, I never used it.

That's a lot of places.  But wait, I also added some publications to the Konstanzer Online-Publikations-System(KOPS) and some to the Uni Basel Research Database (those publications that had been published when I was employed at these places -- and yes, some publications appear at both places, some because I had been employed at both places at the same time, some because the co-authors belong to different institutions): 

I used to list my publications also on the website I had at the University of Zurich and at the University of Basel -- I don't maintain a website at the University of Konstanz, there is only a link to my private-professional website. And when I start a new job at another institution, I will probably link to my CiteULike list of publications only.

But maybe the perfect repository is still to come?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Professor for one year (week 22): Bachelor Thesis

This post is more retrospectively:  The week before vacations, I listened to some talks students gave as the last step of their Bachelor (BA) thesis.  I had read the theses of the three students I co-supervised and the talks where quite OK:  Students could show what they did, how and why, and they answered all questions properly.  It was organized a bit like a thesis defense:  Supervisors are supposed to ask first and then everybody else can pose a question.  The audience is the lecturer responsible for this event, the supervisor(s), and the other BA students who already had presented or will present later.  As I understood, there was a course running the whole semester where students discussed how to present their theses. 

This "defense" is not part of the official procedure, it doesn't influence the grade.  But as supervisor, I liked it a lot -- I could see other students and get to know about the topics they had been working on, and I could very easily test if "my" students really had been working on their topics on their own, and if they really understood what they had written down.  I'm not sure if the students liked this part of their BA thesis, but I hope so -- it's the only possibility to tell a bigger audience about the work of the last weeks that had absorbed all your energy.  There are only two people who ever read the thesis paper (the supervisors), but here are 10 or 15 people listening to what you discovered and what you think about related work.

The BA is a proper final degree, so students could leave university and start the real life with a real job.  Studying linguistics, i.e., something from the humanities, your degree basically says that you learned to read, think, and write.  Therefore you should have written a longer text (ca. 50 pages) and spent quite some time researching and thinking.  That's what your thesis proofs.

However, not every BA in the humanities requires writing a thesis.  At the German Department in Basel, students have to write two term papers (ca. 20 to 25 pages each).  Topics could be related, but don't have to.  So this is not a "longer text", and students don't invest that much time and energy.  I don't consider this a good solution.  A the Faculty of Humanities and Arts in Zurich, the first version of the BA regulations had no specific demands with respect to a thesis -- depending on the courses students choose, it was even possible to obtain a BA degree in the humanities without having been writing a single term paper ever.  Regulations for seminars afforded getting credits by giving a talk only.  They changed this now, but a proper BA thesis would be an even better idea, I suppose.

Of course, in the Swiss Bologna implementation, the MA degree is the "proper final degree." and towards your MA degree, you have to write an MA thesis.  But first surveys show that indeed, students leave university after having completed their BA and maybe or maybe not return later for doing an MA.  As there is no long final written or oral exam for the BA study as a whole -- students just collect credits during terms -- the BA thesis is the only possibility where students can show that they not only acquired snippets of knowledge and single competencies, but that they are able to combine everything they learned and solve a bigger task -- and write a longish text.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Professor for one year (week 21): The WWW

The University of Konstanz uses ILIAS for E-Learning.  So far, I also worked with OLAT/OpenOLAT and Moodle, I will compare all three in a later post.  Today, I will only comment on the WWW I found in ILIAS.  No, not the World Wide Web, but the World's Worst Wiki.

That's how the editor looks like, you can modify text and make it bold, italic, etc. And you can itemize and enumerate things or have three levels of headings.  That's what I did in this short text: three headings (level 2) followed by a bit of text each.

Then you hit "Save" and face this:

The text is broken into small pieces and you are no longer able to edit the text as a whole!  You could edit or delete one of the headings or one of the paragraphs independently.  Awkward!

Sure, for the visitor of the page, it looks like it was intended:

With an interface like this, it's no fun to edit wiki pages.  Therefore I can forget about this activity in my courses -- I always have students organize group work, discuss ideas to present, collect material, and decide who is responsible for which part.  All of this involves structuring text, moving parts of written text around, editing and restructuring.  Which is impossible with this GUI.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Professor for one year (week 19 and 20): Vacations!

After 22 weeks of teaching in a row, exams, and grading those exams, I finally went on vacation.  Usually, I take with me a lot of work (on paper and electronically), that I didn't manage to process the weeks before.  The idea is that during the next two weeks with no obligations, I will find enough time to  finally get this done and then I can start with a clean desk when I return to my office.  Fortunately or onfortunately, most of this work involves looking up information online, asking people for feedback via e-mail, and sending back or submitting PDFs.

This year, I left everything related to work at home.  I really needed two weeks of not doing any scientific work, but just go swimming and biking and reading some of the volumes from my "to-read-shelf."  And there is one thing that really supported this decision:  We didn't have Internet connection in our vacation appartment.  And there was even no wireless connection via smartphone possible in the entire village.  Great!  My "out-of-office message" worked quite well, I wasn't able to read or answer e-mail message for two weeks.  And two weeks is probably a perfect duration for vacation from work and from the Internet:  A lot of requests to read this and decide that had taken care of themselves when I returned.

I really can recommend vacations from the Internet -- there is no sense in doing work-related things during vacation.  It's better to come back to a not so clean desk with a refreshed mind than coming back to a clean desk still feeling somewhat exhausted.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Professor for one year (week 18): Don't call us, we call you

Over the last months, I've applied for several positions as assistant professor or research group leader at different universities in different countries.  All applications were rejected.

No, wait, that's not quite true:  

My application at UT Austin, TX, was rejected three days after submission -- that was fast!  

I applied for two positions at Saarland University, the rejection for the second application was sent out two weeks after submission; for the first application, I asked about the procedure three months after submission -- the answer was something like "Oh, we did send you the rejection some weeks ago, you should have received it."  No, I hadn't.

I applied for a position at the University of Tübingen, they sent a detailed schedule when to expect which action and which week was planned for interviews.  When I hadn't received any information the Friday before this week, I called and was told: "Oh, we sent out the invitations three weeks ago, if you haven't received one, your application probably has been rejected."  Aha.

I applied for a position at the University of Zurich.  Two weeks after submission, I saw the list of invited candidates to give a public talk in a newsletter.  No, I hadn't been informed officially that I was not on this list -- I could see it in the newletter, after all.  When I asked about the formal rejection, the contact person appologized and made clear that she hadn't liked this procedure anyway, but the professors in the commission had told her to not send rejections to the non-invited applicants and that she was not aware that I subscribed to the newsletter.

I applied for a position at the University of Amsterdam.  Half a year later I asked about the process and got a message saying: "Oh, we did send you the rejection some months ago, you should have received it."  No, I hadn't.

I applied for a position at the University of Bern.  Some months after submission, I got an invitation to send my best publications.  Some weeks later there was a message that the whole process was on hold and that I would be informed about the next steps -- in the meantime, I could see on their website that I was not on the list of invited candidates for a talk that already had taken place.  No message came, but there is now a welcome note for the new professor on the institute's website.  When I asked about the formal rejection, they appologized and admitted that it was a bad idea to not send rejections to the non-invited applicants.

I don't get it: in the job descriptions for these positions, they ask for excellent people, they look for the elite.  And then they treat you like a beggar.

And of course all the rejections had nothing to do with me as person and I would be perfectly qualified for these positions and they wish me all the best for further applications.

Addendum September 30: Oh, and I almost forgot that I applied at the TU Braunschweig -- no comment until today, but their website lists the invited talks to be given by August 26 and 27 this year (i.e., one month ago). Thank you very much for not informing me!

Professor for one year (week 17): The magic 6 years

For several years now, Germany has some rules concerning fixed-term contracts in academia.  Roughly speaking, you can be employed for 6 years after you got your degree in order to work towards your PhD.  And then, after obtaining your PhD, you can be employed for another 6 years.  In this second part, you should work on your "Habilitation" or, more generally speaking, towards a professorship.  Most of the time, people get fixed-term contracts for two or three years (Maybe that's not even true: according to the union GEW, most of the fixed-term contractors in academia are employed for only a few months at a time) and then maybe these contracts will be extended until the 6 years are completed.  If you go to another university after having worked towards your (still uncompleted) PhD, let's say for 4 years, you can only work another 2 years at any other university in Germany to complete your PhD.  Of course, there are some possibilities to extend these periods when you have kids or when you have to look after your parents and the like.

On the one hand, these rules (especially concerning the first 6 years) could be seen as in favor of PhD students: supervisors know that the PhD student has only 6 year's time and they should support their students to finish their theses within this period.  Before this rule applied, some (or most?) PhD students weren't able to finish their theses within a reasonable period; they had so many tasks at the institute that there was almost no time left for their own research.  Surprisingly, this habit of exploiting assistants hasn't changed much.  The only consequence:  PhD students finish their theses while being unemployed, because their 6-years period has finished -- or they emigrate to Switzerland.  One could of course argue that this is intended and part of getting a PhD ("Lehrjahre sind keine Herrenjahre" -- you have to pay your dues); young researchers thus face the fact that staying in academia is not easy and they should think carefully about how to proceed their career.  You are in your early 30s and there are still many options to get a good job in "the real world," so you benefit from your studies and from having a PhD. 

It's worse with the second 6-year period.  Maybe you even could extend this time because you have the average 1.39 kids and you even could acquire a grant for yourself, so you stayed 9 or 10 years at university after your PhD -- of course, you had contracts at two or three different universities.  But after this?  You may be qualified for professorship and maybe you could interview for some positions, but you haven't gotten one yet -- only a very small percentage of all students get a professorship, there still is no tenure system.  You cannot stay at your institute, but now being far in your 40s, never having worked outside the Ivory Tower, who will offer you a "real" job in the "real" world?  And you face a de facto professional ban in academia -- unless you find one of the rare unlimited positions or you emigrate to Switzerland.

Germany has no real tenure track system, but some years ago, they invented "Junior Professors."  You can be a professor without a habilitation, and you can get this professorship after only a very few years after having completed your PhD.  Sounds good, right?  But the magic 6 years are involved as well.  

To acknowledge that people have different educational paths and maybe decided to study after having completed an occupational training and may have worked even some years in their profession, we now have a certain age (i.e., your real age) and an academic age -- the years after a certain degree.  So two PhDs can be in their second postdoc year, but one is 29 and the other 39 -- there shouldn't be any discrimination.  Usually, with the academic age, you refer to the most recent degree.  

But that's not how the rules for Junior Professors work:  You can get a junior professorship only within 6 years after you finished your studies and you have to have a PhD and a good publication record, be recognized as researcher in your community, etc.  So for me, the moment I finished my PhD, I was too old -- after my studies, I worked for 6 years (yeah! 6!) as e-learning consultant, I got my PhD 10 years after I got my M.A.  In Switzerland, the MA is considered the regular degree -- every BA student has the right to enter a MA program, parents are obliged to support their kids until they finish their MA.  In Germany, the BA is considered the regular degree -- if you have Abitur, you can enter (almost) every BA program, but to enter a MA program, you have to meet strict criteria.  This is obviously a different understanding of the Bologna process, but that's not my point here.

Up to now, the rule "6 years after you finished your studies" refers to the MA degree -- that's what you find as explanation.  But when the BA is the "regular degree," this would actually mean that you only can apply for a junior professorship within 6 years after your BA.  Which is rather unlikely -- you need two more years for your MA, which you need to be qualified for doing a PhD, for which you need another three years.  And when you are a "real" humanities scholar, you probably haven't published anything until then and it will take you three more years to even have your dissertation published in a series of a "recognized" publishing house your supervisor happens to be an editor for.

On the other hand, universities increasingly see this junior professorship as another form of a "senior assistant" -- the position for a postdoc working towards their Habilitation or professorship.  And if you look at the salary, that's true.  The only difference is that for a regular postdoc position, you have 6 years after your PhD, whereas for the junior professorship, you can apply within 6 years after your first degree.

Brave new world.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Professor for one year (week 16): What is excellence?

After one semester of teaching at the University of Konstanz, it's time for some retrospection.  Konstanz is one of those "excellent" German universities -- which also means they have a bit more money than non-excellent universities.  (By the way, how are these universities labeled: "ordinary", "miserable", "amateurish"?)

So far, I spent several years at the University of Zurich (UZH), at the University of Basel (I taught at both), and at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (although I didn't teach there).  As researcher and lecturer, I had contact to departments concerned with study affairs and teaching in the broadest sense (e.g., teaching evaluation, examination authorities, e-learning consultants), to people concerned with facilitating research activities (e.g., publication database managers, third-party funding offices), and to the general administration (e.g., human resources, secretaries, and the "Abwart" or "Hausmeister" [caretaker] -- nowadays called "facility manager" in German).

For general issues like getting keys and a badge, German bureaucracy meets all the known prejudices perfectly.  You have to go from pillar to post just to realize that today nothing will happen, you will not even get the form you have to fill before being eligible to get a key.  The scene where Asterix and Obelix have to get permit A38 is a perfect match.  You have to find out by yourself about all the things you might need.  I was told, I even had to fill a form and get the signature of the department confirming that they would pay the costs for a -- trash bin!  I didn't even try to get a pencil, yet -- I rather bought one myself.  Whereas at Swiss institutions (not only in higher education) everything is prepared beforehand and you will get an invitation when to come where and collect your keys and your badge.  You are taken care of.  You just go and grab a new pencil.

At all Swiss institutions I worked at, offices were cleaned twice a week, restrooms were cleaned twice a day (around noon and in the evening, so when you come the next day, everything is clean).  In Konstanz, offices are cleaned twice a month, restrooms once a day (around 16:00; of course, people use them after this, so when you come the next day, everything looks messy again).

Swiss offices and lecture halls are equipped with high-value furniture from USM or Vitra, and desks and chairs are renewed regularly.  There is a design concept defining which furniture goes in which kind of working space (there are different chairs for offices, lecture halls, cafeterias, and waiting areas).  It gives a good atmosphere, you feel valued.  Someone invested in getting you a great office to create a positive and creative working ambiance.  Chairs meet ergonomic standards.  Oh, and you just order a new shelf, another chair for visitors, or a desk lamp by e-mail or online -- some days later you find it in your office.  In Konstanz, desks and chairs look very used and accidentally assembled.

I was lucky that someone wanted to get rid of an old orange desk lamp with a proper light bulb and I could use it; I don't like neon light coming from the ceiling.  And yes, this red chair is a victim of the ravages of time.

The only design furniture I am aware of are original Eames Side Chairs on stretchers in front of some professors' offices (a kind of waiting area for consulting hours). 

But this is probably due to the time the university was build: In the 1960s, the Eames furniture served -- as intended -- as mass produced chairs; you can still find the fiber chairs in older stadiums, concert halls, or universities.  Today's Eames chairs are rather expensive (at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau, several dozens of original Eames DSS had been stolen this Spring) -- but still very nice for large seating in cafeterias or concert halls.

What I do like in Konstanz are some rather "facilitating" aspects:  As lecturer you get a link to configure evaluation questionnaires for your lectures, then you receive the printed copies to use them in your class.  Only two hours after submitting the filled-in questionnaires, I got an elaborate analysis via e-mail.  That's great!  At the UZH I had to evaluate the questionnaires myself manually.  Part of getting the excellence label for Konstanz meant  investing in support for students -- for example, they have a very active writing center -- and for researchers.  They provide a regular newsletter pointing to open calls for grants and awards sorted by topics -- i.e., calls for linguists, for chemists, etc. -- and by career level.  That's very convenient!

And then there are some simple things when you realize that this excellence label means something else than the word "excellence" -- Swiss universities don't label themselves as "excellent", but they offer more convenience for scientists.  For example, let's consider getting reimbursed for expenses related with attending conferences.  As researcher you go to conferences and workshops to present and discuss recent findings and to do networking.  In some areas like computer science or computational linguistics, where publications are mainly conference proceedings, authors have to attend the conference and give a talk to get their articles published.  Depending on the location and the duration of a conference, this can get rather expensive.  Since the university has an interest in publications, they should pay for it.  At UZH and in Basel, researchers could get reimbursement up to CHF 1000 per year.  Swiss researchers can also get funding from academies.  So maybe going to two European conferences per year is possible.  If there is additional money at the general budget of the institute or as part of third-party funded projects, you can even publish more.  In Konstanz, the amount of money available is very limited -- less than 2000 € per year to be split between all junior researchers (i.e., non-professors) of one rather large department.  Oh, and don't forget the messy forms you have to fill in before and after the conference!  And of course you have to submit two copies of the form, both signed and filled manually (as always, the forms cannot be filled properly by using a PDF viewer).  If you don't have third-party money, you will have to pay everything yourself -- which is feasible with a professor's salary, but not with the usual 50% or less assistant salary.  In the end, this contributes to statements like "in engineering, regular money is less than 20% of the general budget" (see here) -- everything else researchers acquire themselves.  The time you spend writing grant proposals is time you cannot spend to do research, to publish, or to teach. 

Comparing just single elements (reimbursement of conference travels, furniture) at Swiss and German universities shows that indeed Swiss universities are much more attractive without labeling themselves as "excellent" -- of course not to do so is part of the Swiss culture, but then: what does this say about German culture and the German self-perception? But of course these conclusions are based on a very small sample.