Month: September 2014

Things that I Learned While Putting Together my Tenure Package

This fall I applied for tenure at my university. Below, I’d like to share some of the things that I learned putting the application package together. This includes a lot of legwork that I was glad I did over the past several years which made it much easier to organize and articulate my arguments for why I should keep my job.

1. It is never too early to start thinking about your tenure package. I advise all new faculty to start a paper filing system for each year that they are on the tenure-track as well as an electronic filing system for digital materials. When you do something that is relevant to research, teaching, service, outreach, etc. put something that documents that activity into one of these folders. Your future self will be emphatically thanking your past self when tenure time rolls around. This is also a handy tip for completing annual activity/performance reviews.

2. Use your calendar to document meetings and events and make sure that your calendar records from previous years are accessible and searchable. It doesn’t matter if you prefer to use a paper or electronic calendar, but having a tangible record of past efforts is extremely valuable.

3. As soon as you start your job make a list of what materials might be relevant to include in a tenure package; some of these are not obvious. This step allows you to plan ahead. When you start your tenure track position, think about what information is useful to include in your tenure package. For example, I conducted my own teaching evaluations in addition to the official institutional ones. This allowed me to get some useful comments and feedback from my students about my teaching. I used these evaluations as another line of evidence to support my claim that I am an effective and engaging teacher. Are there any graduating students that you would like to approach for letters of support before they move on? When someone sends you an email to thank-you for something that you did, make sure that you save it. Try to keep duplicates of important documents. Papers get lost and computers can cease to function at any time.

4. Keep that CV updated every month. I have a standing appointment in my calendar that reminds me to update my document once a month. It is amazing how many different things you can accomplish in just 30 days! If you stay on top of keeping track of what you’ve done as you go, you won’t be rooting through piles of paper or electronic files years later. Keeping your CV updated is also a good idea so that you can take advantage of opportunities that have tight deadlines (e.g. collaborative grants, award nominations, guest speaker invitations, etc.) when a current version of your CV is requested.

5. Preparing your tenure package is a great opportunity for self-reflection and to feel proud of what you’ve been able to accomplish in a few short years. It gives you some time to think about where you’ve been, where you currently are, and where you want to go next. The other side of this is that it is also an opportunity for the imposter syndrome to rear its ugly head and cause a great deal of self-doubt. Be kind to yourself during this process. Accept that you have done your best given your individual circumstances. I was up for tenure at the same time as a colleague and we offered each other support, advice, and encouragement during the process which was immensely valuable.

6. Don’t leave it to the last minute. There is a lot of personal and professional reflection that needs to occur during this process. I started working on my package at the beginning of the summer and did little bits and pieces here and there. I completed the content of the package by the end of July and then went on an extended vacation. When I came back I made some final adjustments, but by that time all that was left to do was organize and assemble the package.

7. This is one time in your life where you do not want to be modest. You need to toot your own horn effectively, but do it in a way that is not off-putting. Make a statement, support it with evidence, and build your case. Don’t make people put two and two together or read between the lines.

8. Ask several colleagues to look over your package before you submit it. They will see things that you don’t and will make excellent suggestions for improvement. Be sure to ask people who will not be in a conflict of interest (e.g. avoid co-workers on the tenure committee or who will be voting on your package).

Any other tips to offer on putting together a tenure package? Feel free to leave advice in the comments!

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Active Learning Exercises for Teaching: Photosynthesis

I teach a 3rd year Plant Physiology course and a 4th year Environmental Stress Biology of Plants course. In both of these courses I go into quite a bit of detail about photosynthesis. This is material that my students have been exposed to in previous undergraduate courses, but in the context of these two courses my aim is to show students why the process of photosynthesis can be a double edged sword. I think that most people assume that plants love any level of light and that the more light that plants have access to the better. We often talk about photosynthesis as a steady-state pathway when in reality plants are constantly acclimating to their light environment likely on the timescale of milliseconds. I use an active learning exercise in my classroom in order to teach my students that photosynthesis is a dynamic process fraught with dangers for plants.
For this exercise I bring in a bag of soft plastic balls. These were left over from a ball play-set that my son had when he was younger (think the ball pits that you can find at IKEA or that used to be present at indoor play areas). I also bring in a large metal bucket. I ask for 6 volunteers from the audience to participate in the activity. Each student represents a complex/mobile carrier involved in the photosynthetic electron transport chain (e.g. photosystem II, plastoquinol, etc.) and the last student in the row is the enzyme ferredoxin-NADP+-reductase. The balls are used to represent electrons. The first student’s job is to accept the balls that I pass to them and then pass them to the next student. The other students in the chain in turn accept the balls and pass them along the chain. The last student in the chain aims to deposit the balls in the metal bucket. The bucket represents the ability of the plant to use the electrons to produce NADPH and ATP and to fix carbon.
The first time through the exercise I put balls into the chain at a very low rate. This shows the students that sometimes plants can have difficulty generating energy and fixing carbon if light is limiting. This would be similar to severe shading effects for example. I then put the balls into the chain at a reasonable rate. This represents a “steady-state” for photosynthesis where the process is running efficiently. For the last part of the activity I put the balls into the chain at an extremely high rate; as quickly as I can pass the balls to the first student in the chain. Inevitably the balls get dropped frequently at various parts of the chain and many of the balls do not make it into the bucket, or the bucket overflows. I use this to demonstrate over-reduction of the electron transport chain and to explain the generation of reactive oxygen species during photosynthesis.
Based on previous course evaluations, the students enjoy this exercise and claim that it helps them to remember key aspects of the photosynthetic electron transport chain. I’ve found it to be an engaging and effect way to teach about photosynthesis in my classroom.

See You in September

I’ve always liked September because it signifies new beginnings. I think this way because I’ve been in school in some form or another since I was 5 years old; first as a student for many years and now as a professor. September means super deals on school supplies in store flyers, like the fancy pens that I like and my favourite notebooks. I must admit surprise upon seeing that paper hole re-enforcements are still being sold. Whenever I think of September, I always think of freshly sharpened Laurentien pencil crayons (Peacock Blue or Cherry Red anyone?) I could spend hours happily walking the aisles at our local Staples store…
At my university September is also when the campus comes alive again. Although many of us have been on campus all summer, September is when the vast majority of our undergraduate students return to school. There is a feeling of nervous energy and anticipation that exists in the air during the first week of September that is comfortingly familiar.
My children also returned to school this week and the list of required supplies hasn’t changed much since my times in elementary school with the exception of one item. Evidently it’s no longer called Liquid Paper; it’s now correction tape.
Best wishes for a great first week of the semester!