Saturday, June 29, 2013

Professor for one year (week 11): What does University contribute to Society?

Last week, I participated in the Global Perspectives Programme, a joint program from University of Basel and Virginia Tech to foster academic exchange about Higher Education.  This year, the topic of the program was "University and Society: Meeting Expectations?"  We explored various aspects of "Society," "University," and "Expectations."  There are so many definitions and views of these broad concepts, that one could discuss hours and hours.  One aspect, however, is what university is expected to contribute to society.  Is it about providing solutions to current or future problems?  Is it about foreseeing future problems?  Is it about developing resources to be used for society's needs?  Is university urged to serve society and provide what society explicitly wants or to provide what society unconsciously needs?  So far, we wondered, what kind of solution universities would produce.

Most of the time, faculty and administration talked just about the questions we were exploring.  During our one-week trip in the US, the Basel group also visited Virginia Tech and had a vivid conversation with faculty of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI).  Christopher Barrett, Scientific Director of the VBI, argued that universities would provide methods and tools to be used by society, i.e., policy-makers, to solve problems.  He emphasized that universities do not contribute solutions for current or future problems.

This statement made me wonder: At the one hand, with an attitude like this -- universities provide resources and tools to be used by others -- there is much room for basic research, i.e., research with no urgent application but that could be useful in the future.  Researchers are freed from the pressure to explicitly show usefulness in today's society.  And it makes clear that society is responsible for solving problems and for making use of the provided resources and tools.  A very comfortable statement for research, I think.

On the other hand, it reminded me a bit of the drama "Die Physiker" (The Physicists) by Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt from 1961 and the Manhattan Project (Einstein later regretted having signed the letter to Roosevelt in 1939 recommending that atom bombs be made).  And more so as Barrett told us that he had worked at Los Alamos before coming to VBI.  When universities -- or more precisely: researchers -- say that they only provide tools to be used by whomever, researchers implicitly say that they are not responsible for any outcome.  A researcher invents something, hands it over to the public and then doesn't care about how and by whom it is used. 

Although I appreciate the attitude to provide resources and tools rather than tailored solutions, I think universities should carefully state how to make use of their tools and emphasize the intended use.   Researchers should always take into account possible use of their findings -- the affordances -- and how to prevent criminal, inhuman, or warlike use.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Professor for one year (week 10): I'm substituting

My current job title in English is "Acting Professor", although I'm not sure if this is correct and what impression people have when they read it.  The German term is "Vertretungsprofessorin", showing my gender, confirming that Germans love compounds, and providing a precise job description, all at the same time.  One also finds this position translated as "Guest Professor" or "Visiting Professor".  However, these two are different as the guest or visiting professor can choose on their own what to teach, a "Vertretungsprofessor" teaches the courses the professor she substitutes for would have taught.  The term "Substituting Professor" seems to cover the duties, but reads rather odd.

I guess, "Vertretungsprofessor" is a rather European or even German concept.  When a professor cannot teach, someone else with equivalent qualifications is substituting for her.  This can be rather planned for professors on sabbatical or for the period after a professor retires and before a new one has been chosen.  Sometimes you can even apply to substitute, because there will be an official advertisement.  Most of the time, the person substituting for a professor will be contacted directly.  So one should have a good network, have an uptodate website, and be prepared to teach something new on short notice.  There are also rather unplanned occasions, when a professor get's seriously ill or even dies, when a professor applies for some kind of sabbatical that might or might not be accepted, or when a professor accepts a new position at another university on short notice.

Several concepts exists how substituting works: Other faculty members or staff members teach single courses as additional teaching load to their regular classes.  Sometimes a course is taught by an external or internal lecturer who is paid for this course as an adjunct lecturer. So the teaching load of the professor is split up between several lecturers.  It's not uncommon in Germany that adjunct lecturers get paid rather symbolically, the paiment is a few dozen Euros per hour taught, i.e., excluding time needed for preparation, grading assignments, or answering students' questions. 

The fact that another researcher -- who in principle would be eligible for professorship -- acts for the professor on sabbatical, is rather special.  The substitute does not only do the teaching, but also overtakes all duties and responsibilities like supervising masters' theses, grading final exams, and attending meetings.  However, most of the time the substitute gets paid according to the PostDoc scale -- i.e., according to the current status of the substituting person.  The University of Konstanz pays acting professors according to the salary scale of the professor who is substituted for.  This is rather unusual, I guess.

However, I'm still a PostDoc, I'm not a regular Professor and I'm not allowed to use this title.  In some occasions a researcher substituting for a professor might even be allowed to use the title during the time they substitute.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Professor for one year (week 9): Lots of trouble

Last week was a busy week.  I spent two days with the GPP13 participants in Riva San Vitale (TI) with lots of discussions and interaction.  Students at the University of Konstanz had to solve assignments on their own in the computer lab.

Before I started the trip to Riva, I got a message that over the weekend somebody committed burglary at the university.  They stole some items from the athletics office.  This office has a connecting door to our computer lab.  And there we had a dozen iMacs and a dozen MacMinis.  All of the Minis have been stolen!

Now this has various impacts:  Most obviously, my colleagues have to deal with the police and probably with the insurance company.  Then we have to by new computers and set them up.  For the moment, the technician is busy with configuring old iMacs to make sure teaching can go on.  I don't know yet how I will conduct the computer-based exam at the end of July.

Not so obvious are some other effects:  The lab is a bunch of stand-alone computers, you start the computer and then log in using a local account.  There is no connection to any net-based disk space.  Everything is stored locally.  That means that everything students had stored on the MacMinis (e.g., programs and notes) is lost.  Some students already had started to work on projects; unless they had stored these data on a private device, this work is lost, too.

So it is always a good idea to have backups on a local device or to send everything to yourself via e-mail.  But of course it would be even better to offer access to net-based disk space.  When you log in, you connect to your university account and you can store everything there.  This also means that you always use your personal account, not a local one.  That's the way computer labs at the University of Zurich work.  So students don't have to remember which computer they worked with during the last lecture and they can access their data from everywhere.  Also OLAT, the LMS used in Zurich provides some personal storing space; students can use this to store data they want to access from different locations or they want to share with student fellows for project work or the like.  Unfortunately, ILIAS (the LMS used in Konstanz) does not offer this.

When I was just recovering from the burglary message, I got another message basically asking, if I was aware that next semester I would not teach the courses I offered to teach some days before -- instead of a research colloquium, I'm supposed to offer a seminar for students enrolled in teacher training for German.  Aha!

This week is a "normal week", I hope.  Next week I will be in the US, again with GPP13.  I hope surprises will be kept to a minimum.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Professor for one year (week 8): Hey professor!

How do professors talk to students, how do students talk to professors?  And what about written communication like e-mail messages?

When I was a research assistant and taught programming courses, I used to talk to students on a first-name basis and they also talked to me in a rather informal way, both face-to-face and in e-mail messages.  I did not ask for permission, though.  At that time, I was only five years older than them and some students were even older than I.

But time changes, and now my students start to be only half my age.  As a PostDoc in Basel I still talked to students in an informal way addressing the group as "Ihr" and not as "Sie" and addressing single students as "Du."  At the beginning of the course I asked students if this would be OK and they agreed.  I did not explicitly offer that they could use my first name, but I was fine with that.  Of course, in face-to-face communication, you can often avoid to directly address the other person.  Although most of the students talked to me rather informally, the majority did not use my first name in written communication.  Here they were back to "Frau Mahlow" and "Sie."  So I got messages starting with "Hallo Frau Mahlow" or "Liebe Frau Mahlow."  When answering them, I used the form they had chosen in the first place:  if someone addressed me as "Frau Mahlow", I answered in the formal way, but would still talk to them using "Du" instead of "Sie."  Sounds complicated?  Yes it was.

When I started substituting in Konstanz, I decided to completely switch to the formal style.  So I would communicate with all students in all situations addressing them as "Sie."  That's rather simple.  However, in Germany, academic titles seem to be more important than in Switzerland.  So I get messages starting with "Sehr geehrte Frau Professor Mahlow" (although I am an acting professor, I'm not allowed to use this title), "Sehr geehrte Frau Dr. Mahlow", "Hallo Professor Mahlow", "Hallo Dr. Cerstin Mahlow" and so on.  Some salutations read rather odd and you can feel that the student was unsure about how to address me -- the English speaking student addresses me as "Dear Dr. Cerstin."

When I started my academic career in Zurich, I thought it was rather awkward that my supervisor was on a formal basis with all students, but as soon as they graduated he offered to use the informal communication form.  Sometimes as last thing in the oral exam.  But now I think that this in fact a good solution; I changed it a bit and with my student assistants I also communicate on a first-name basis before they graduate.  It feels comfortable this way.