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Academic Apprenticeship

Back in 1981, GG was heading to grad school, as were a number of his classmates. One was jubilant: “They want to pay me to go to school!” Yes, after four years of writing checks to a college, going to grad school in earth science meant getting offered not only admission but also a stipend. Sure, you had to be a TA or an RA or, if really good or lucky, a fellowship, and the amount was kind of just enough to keep from being destitute, but it seemed like a great deal.

Fast forward to today, and we are seeing a major strike against a university system over pay for TAs and RAs. Demands from the unions involved include about $54k in pay, more than double existing pay (and more than double the inflation-adjusted stipend GG recalls getting). Keep in mind that for most of these workers, that is in addition to getting tuition paid for. The argument is that existing pay, especially in the more ritzy corners of the UC system, leaves students rent burdened. Just how did we get here, and what does it all mean?

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The Student-Athlete Fantasy Ends

Here at old CU, the natives are restless. A team that bled out 28 football players to other schools, many of them starting players, has barely scraped together a single win. So alumni are demanding that CU be more attractive to transfer students. And the main obstacle? Credits from some schools don’t come through to CU because CU has (gasp) standards. How dare they!

Now look, it is likely that the business of transferring credits is badly run and has lots of glitches (yes, we are a big state university). We see that with regular students transferring in and can sympathize. And if that is what the alums and coaches are complaining about, well, OK. But what is spoken (in this case, literally, by a football alum) is “Let whoever wants to come to CU come to CU.” Transferring from a rural 2-year school where the highest level of math taught is bookkeeping and use those credits against a math requirement in an engineering degree? Welcome!

Under the fantasy of the student-athlete, though, such rule changes would apply to all students entering from elsewhere. And if you are really eager to diminish a CU degree, that would be a fine step to take. Of course to football fanatics, there should be special rules for student-athletes as opposed to everybody else. Good luck getting the faculty to buy into that.

The reality for many years now is that revenue-generating sports are an irrational place for a university to invest in. The usual argument made by chancellors and presidents is that this provides a gateway for alums to donate and an excuse to rub elbows with movers and shakers elsewhere in the country. Maybe you could sell that when a student choosing between, oh, say USC and CU and Kansas State might be looking at what that degree might be worth. But now with pay-for-play (aka the name-image-likeness rules), there is real money on the table. When a single player at a school pulls down $1M in NIL money, it is time to simply forget that these players are students. They are employees; if they choose to go to school on the side, well, great, but the reality is that they are professional athletes. Boosters who had to be imaginative in years past to sneak around NCAA rules now have a clear path to buying the best team they can, and no doubt in coming years it will get easier and clearer.

And it isn’t like these student-athletes were free to pursue a major that they were passionate about. The rigorous time demands of these sports exclude times when many majors teach required classes. Want to major in Geology? Best of luck if you play football; GG is aware of one student who finally left the team rather than change majors. So even with the incredible demands put on student-athletes, they are far less free to be students than anybody else on campus.

So it is time to do as that CU alum wants and welcome any who want to play who are deemed worthy to come and play football on a team with a buffalo mascot and with a fight song and all that. Just don’t make them students of the university. If it makes everybody feel better, offer them a free year of tuition and fees for every year they play for old CU, to be redeemed whenever they want. But let some other organization run the football team (and probably any other team where NIL money is more than a couple of bucks).

Passing Thoughts

Recently, Peter Molnar passed away of pancreatic cancer. There are already several solid obituaries and reminiscences of him, and more are on the way. In short, Peter was a leader (if not the leader) in understanding mountain building and its impact on the climate system. He started with seismology, pushed to collect data from some of the most remote and difficult places to work, while also making contributions to plate reconstructions (some of the first with actual uncertainties came from him and Joann Stock). As he recognized the importance of gravitational potential energy in mountain evolution (in part through working with people like Phil England and Greg Houseman) and the continuum nature of deformation within large orogens (in part from work with Paul Tapponnier) he recognized the significance of paleoelevation and began scouting what others were doing in this regard. This led to working with climate scientists and paleontologists to find robust ways of getting around numerous problems in estimating the elevation of ancient mountain belts. This also led to a couple of papers (with Phil England) challenging the inference of surface uplift from erosion. Even as he plunged into unfamiliar regions like paleontology and climate science, he continued to work on instability of mantle lithosphere and its role in continental deformation. As the world of climate science became more familiar, he got interested in some largely climate science type questions such as the cause of northern hemisphere’s Ice Ages (Pleistocene). He was a prolific author with several hundred papers and an h-index over 100. Beyond that, he had an encyclopedic memory for authors and papers, a characteristic that was a huge help in developing personal connections within the field.

I am not here to talk about his contributions (and the many omissions in my summary above should be in indication of that); I list the above to make clear just how successful a scientist Peter was and to provide a hint of the breadth of his interests. I want to talk about how he felt about the scientific enterprise.

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The End of the “Student-Athlete” Fantasy?

A UCLA quarterback got in some hot water a couple years back for pointing out the obvious: Being a Division I football player was incompatible with being a degree-seeking student. While the degree to which there was a disconnect between student and athlete has varied from sport to sport and program to program, the latest conference reorganizations makes it abundantly clear that the “student” side of “student-athlete” is no longer a serious thing for many division I athletes. Joining a league that will require frequent cross-country trips is hardly the mark of an organization that prizes academic achievement; it is the mark of an organization that seeks every dollar it can get its grubby little hands on. It is time to quite pretending and be proactive. Athletes in revenue-generating sports are increasingly getting to see the money that their activities generate. Athletes in non-revenue generating sports–which includes nearly all women’s teams–are going to see hits in their budgets unless athletic departments figure this out and fast. And the reality is that this is probably out of their hands anyways. When you see sportswriters recognizing how insane this is, you know something needs to break…

Realistically football and men’s basketball are development leagues for the NFL and NBA with pretty strange rules. Sure, there are the feel-good stories of some walk-on getting to be a hero or a student who excels scholastically despite the demands of athletics, but they are peripheral to the main storyline. While these athletes were only getting a free ride in college (which, um, is worth some serious change–a five year scholarship for an out-of-state student could approach a quarter million dollars), their coaches were the ones who got rather wealthy; that dynamic is rapidly changing. Boosters might decide to funnel money to athletes directly rather than pad the salaries of coaches (e.g., the near $1M the Alabama QB is supposedly raking on on Name Image and Likeness). And if judicial trends continue to question the NCAA’s vision of amateurism, odds are good that actually paying the athletes will not be far in the future. It is past time to recognize that what is good for athletes is not good for students and so the artificial bond there should be broken.

A lot of folks point to the big television dollars as important to the universities. Really? Sure, a $50M payday is huge for an athletic department, but a school the size of UCLA or CU or Michigan? It is down in the noise when your annual budget is well north of a billion dollars. And there are some universities that seem to do just fine with lousy athletic programs (some places on the Charles River in Cambridge come to mind, for instance). Universities could walk away from athletic payouts with little or no fiscal damage if they also walk away from expensive coaches and premier athletic facilities that only benefit a tiny number of students. Frankly, it is time to do just that. License the school’s name and logos to some independent group that runs the football program; charge them for use of the stadium and campus facilities but otherwise let them run their program however they like. If it makes administrators feel better, make free tuition for athletes part of the package, but allow the athletes to decide when they want to use that benefit. After all, the travel and practice demands of college ball exclude many possible majors from being pursued; why should the athletes that want to pursue those options only get the chance while they are playing? Use the money that comes in to support, probably at a lower level than at present, the students who still are student-athletes in non-revenue sports.

Frankly GG has no interest in trying to teach a student who is only present less than half the time and who has to wedge in study time between practices, mandatory outreach efforts, and travel. Let the club sports teams represent the actual student body; let the semi-pro athletes be semi-pro athletes and compensate them accordingly.

So…We’re the problem?

Ben Sasse, Republican Senator from Nebraska, has written a lengthy essay for The Atlantic on higher education, mainly railing against debt forgiveness and accreditation while contending universities are not meeting student needs. Much of what he says is fair–for instance, relieving doctors and lawyers of debt makes little sense. But then he calls for more profound change:

Debt forgiveness would pour gasoline on the bonfire of education costs. According to the Education Data Initiative, “the average cost of college tuition and fees at public 4-year institutions has climbed 179.2% over the last 20 years for an average annual increase of 9.0%.” (For comparison, personal health-care costs—another disproportionately inflationary sector—have increased 58 percent over the same period.) The universities that take in federal dollars without useful tools to measure student outcomes have had too little motivation to resist price hikes. 

Ben Sasse, The Atlantic, June 2022

This is profoundly dishonest, and Sasse is smart enough to know it, too. So tuition has shot up because of the greed of public four-year schools? And just exactly what “federal dollars” are we talking about? GG hasn’t noticed “payment from federal government” in the pie charts showing where university educational funds are coming from. And why are we using that specific subset of colleges? Oh right, it’s because the main force behind the rise of tuition at public four year colleges has been state legislators deciding to cease supporting their four year colleges, which means schools turn to the only other funding source available, namely student tuition. A lot of that increase came in the Great Recession. Perhaps a good question might be, why put out lots of money for loans–maybe this would make more sense by directly supporting the public universities? Just how did that transition occur from olden days of cheap public schools and no loans to where we sit today? Who thinks that it is better to make loans to students to pay higher tuitions than to fund the education directly? And, just wondering, how much of that student debt is owed because of private, predatory schools? Exactly why are we picking on public schools?

So what does Sasse want to do, seeing as the current system is broken?

Most colleges today underinvest in student advising and mentoring, and in intensive internships and career development. Our standard testing practices encourage mindless cramming and dumping, rather than critical engagement. All students would benefit from more frequent, low-stakes, real-time, individualized assessments….Why can’t we have more travel options, more service options, more intensive internships, more work opportunities? 

Um, simple answer: it costs a lot of money. Who is taking weeks of the school year to give those frequent individualized assessments? What are they getting paid? Or do you think that magic computer software fills that needs? You think travel is cheap? Maybe Sasse hasn’t noticed, but the widespread replacement of teaching faculty by instructors is in large part an attempt to save money–which, you know, seemed to matter to Sasse a lot a few sentences back. (The curious want to know: was there an increase in instructors when Sasse headed a small religious college in financial turmoil?) This is right up there with teaching small classes (which is another way to give individualized feedback). Yes, absolutely, it would be better for students…but there is a price tag. And as for work and internships…er, they exist but are created by, um, employers, not the schools. Are we suggesting that schools need to come up with make-work opportunities? Or is this a call to action by the private sector to make more internships? If so, it was cleverly camouflaged.

Certainly some of the suggestions Sen. Sasse makes are worthy of consideration, but to frame this first as “college is too expensive” (but don’t throw money at it!) and then prescribe far more expensive changes as a solution is dishonest. And the appeal to technology as the magic way to reduce costs just begs for some real experience with such systems–one thing we’ve learned the past two years is that sitting in front of a computer (aka, the magic technology that allows students to learn at their own pace) is not something that appeals to most students. MOOCs have a niche, but it is becoming clearer that a niche is probably their limit. They work really well for things like professional advancement, but not so well for the typical undergraduate.

Some of what he promotes is actually already there. He decries “sage on the stage” without seeming to recognize that lots of large courses utilize means other than the big lecture to help students learn. And he encourages flexibility but then decries the 5.5 years an average student might take to get a degree–not seeming to recognize that that is as often a measure of flexibility as students take a semester or year off or take a lower load while working, or as students discover that the original major they thought they wanted was not the one they really want to pursue (we in earth science see this frequently). Travel and study? Yeah, those programs are there and are pretty popular.

Sasse asks for colleges to have skin in the game. Presumably this means that he’d like to see universities act as guarantors for student loans. Which, universities being pretty conservative places, would probably result in them declining to take a chance on non-traditional or lower class students. Is this the desired outcome?

Look, there is a lot of room for improvement in higher ed, and it is nice that a US Senator is giving it some thought. GG agrees that we need to shift the post-high school focus from “you must go to college” to something much broader. All faculty see students in college who really don’t belong–that kind of education isn’t their cup of tea, but other models (including some Sasse promotes) are ones that can appeal to such individuals at a far lower cost. Too many schools are trying to build themselves as tier I research universities while marginalizing their teaching missions. (Senator, perhaps you’d like to examine the programs like EPSCORE that reward building research schools in states that historically have lacked them? States like…Nebraska? Think that might be playing a role in more expensive undergraduate instruction?). GG is an absolute luddite when it comes to new educational philosophies, but even he was engaged with the Science Education Initiative that sought to improve student success in science classes, so it isn’t like there has been no efforts from faculty.

So here’s the challenge Senator: you’ve been a college president and you have access to lots of skilled budget crunchers. Show us a university budget that recognizes the smaller funds from a state’s general fund, the lower tuition you think is reasonable, that has all the kinds of flexibility you envision with the personal individualized feedback, that can hire the accountants to help with the means testing you propose, and we’ll talk.

Not So Big State U?

Here in the foothills of the Rockies, there has been conflict between the flagship state university and the community. The conflict revolves around size. Now in Colorado the university has a lot of independence from local laws, but in this case they want some property annexed by the city so that city services can come in and allow for a fairly dense development. This gives the city some leverage.

Now Boulder has a wealth problem. Those that have wealth have a roof over their heads; those that don’t are on the street or commuting from somewhere else. So the city has had a goal of increasing affordable housing. And a big part of that discussion concerns CU students, who absorb a lot of housing in the city, presumably crowding out others who might want to live in town.

So the university is saying that their property will be largely used for making housing for students and staff and faculty. You might think this would find a lot of support in the area. Well, think again. One branch of opposition likes the open space that the university inadvertently has been preserving and doesn’t want to see it built over (to be fair, though, the site is mostly an old gravel mine with severely damaged soils). Another branch (mainly people who live downstream) don’t want to see development so that larger flood control structures can be built on the land. It is the third branch worth pointing out today. This group wants to limit the size of the university, arguing that there are plans for nearly doubling the size of the school, and blocking this development would align with their goals.

Now that wish of a smaller school seemed pretty pipe-dreamish…until a similar group in Berkeley managed to get their flagship school in court, where they were ordered to freeze enrollment, which will result in a fall class a third smaller than planned. A line from the story could easily come from Boulder: “Many neighbors are upset by the impact of enrollment growth on traffic, noise, housing prices and the natural environment.” And that is the basis for the lawsuit. The university is looking at a big hole in their budget if this order stays in place.

Could CU be blocked from growing by something similar here? Hard to say; Colorado laws are not as strict as California laws. Should CU cap its growth? That is a worthwhile question. It might be wise for the powers that be to consider how vulnerable the school is to something like the Berkeley situation.

What is Peer Review for, anyways?

Every now and then GG encounters things as he dons the different hats of a professional earth scientist that just require revisiting some aspects of the job. And so today’s topic is peer review.

First let’s dispense with the obvious: peer review is not saying “the scientific community has examined this research closely and guarantees it is free from mistakes and blunders and is a true representation of reality.” Yes, many of you are laughing, of course it isn’t! But the public often is led to think this is what it is.

Now, we do often like to say that it is a means of preventing bad science from being published. This is also untrue: with the plethora of journals out there, it is awfully hard to prevent bad science from being published somewhere. GG has had the experience of leading an author point-by-point though mistakes in their work only to have that author claim to agree but leave the same wretched mistakes in the revised manuscript which, once rejected, promptly showed up in another (clearly less discriminating) journal. At most we might prevent bad science from being published in our journal, but unless the AEs and editors are all in lockstep, even that is too strong a statement. A related and fairly uncommon (in GG’s experience) situation is a paper that fails to recognize it isn’t offering anything new; in this case, this might prevent unnecessary duplication within the literature. Of course there are the examples of deceit that we now find occasionally in the literature; these are really outside the pale and not part of the run of the mill execution of the scientific enterprise.

GG’s view is that normal peer review will usually address two things: one, whether the journal in question is appropriate, and two, if or how authors have failed to clearly make their point. There are perfectly fine works that simply are not a good fit for a journal. Ideally the editor catches these and pitches them back, but sometimes it is the reviewers. This is typically a small part of the operation for anything other than the most high profile letter journals. The second point, though, is really where peer review matters most.

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Silencing Comments

A thread on an AGU bulletin board emerged demanding that an AGU journal return to allowing the practice of comments and replies. Many went so far as to call the absence of a comments policy to be an assault on science. The basic argument is that if you find an error in a paper that should be corrected, there is no easy way to point this out without a comment–the error might not itself amount to a new publication.

This is kind of an interesting conundrum. On many public-facing websites and publications, the comments section is proof of a lowest possible level of discussion with ad hominem attacks and irrelevant discussion [not here, of course!], so it is kind of amusing to see such a venue desired in the scientific community. Except, of course, the scientific comments are not off-the-cuff challenges to the intelligence of the authors, but are instead carefully written documents that point out an issue in a published article. As such, these are usually reviewed at minimum by the editor of the journal and often are sent out for mail review. So what’s not to like?

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Pronouns and Papers

Over the past few years, it has become standard practice in many universities to list preferred pronouns for individuals.This allows individuals to be characterized in a manner consistent with their desires. It might be time to carry this into the scientific literature, but probably not the way you are thinking.

Consider the following from one of GG’s papers:

Some numerical experiments by O’Driscoll et al. (2009) explored concepts relevant to this hypothesis; they found that the presence of a lithospheric root will lead to… 

Jones et al.., Geosphere; February 2011; v. 7; no. 1; p. 183–201; doi: 10.1130/GES00575.1

This is pretty standard usage, yet what really is the antecedent for “they”? It happens to be O’Driscoll et al. (2009). Which is a single paper, not a group of people. This is exceptionally common usage in the literature, in that we assign to the authors the results of the paper. Part of this is avoiding personifying an inanimate object (the paper didn’t “find” anything any more than your water glass “found” the water in it). But occasionally when people change their minds, you can find some things that might look silly. For instance, it would be fair to write “Jones (1994) felt that the Isabella anomaly came from the lithosphere under the Tehachapis, while Jones et al. (2014) argued it came from under the Sierra Nevada.” Now that is the same Jones, yet the interpretations are different. And this is because the earlier paper doesn’t change meaning as the author revises interpretations. So would you really want to write the same information this way? “Jones (1994) used an early seismic array to image the Isabella anomaly. He argued it came from under the Tehachapis, while Jones et al. (2014) argued it came from under the Sierra.” This Jones fellow seems pretty slippery, no?

This might seem silly; after all, the meaning is still pretty clear; author Jones changed his mind somewhere between 1994 and 2014. But the thing is, by personalizing the paper–making the association between the author(s) and the paper so strong that they are interchangeable–we make it that much harder for readers to separate a specific product of a specific study with the individual(s) who wrote up the study. Once we release a paper into the wild, it is gone, not to be fixed by a later change of heart. It is the paper that will continue to make a claim long after its author has moved on. So maybe we should use pronouns other than “his” or “hers” and move on to “its” to make clear that it isn’t the current state of the authors that we are looking at, it is the material presented in the paper.

There would still be instances where referring to the author(s) instead of the papers might make sense. Consider this (from the same paper):

Only Bird’s (1988) specific geodynamic version of the flat slab has provided quantitative predictions at a lithospheric scale from trench to foreland; it is based on a review of the physical relations of several aspects of the hypothesis (Bird, 1984). In developing his model, Bird sought to not only produce deformation far to the east of earlier shortening…

In this case, the text in the last sentence is stepping out from the two papers cited to consider motivations driving the development of the published papers. Now this might not be fair, but it is exploring what the person was doing from the 1984 paper to the 1988 paper. There is still some ambiguity of timing, but in this case it isn’t quite the papers per se being considered but the person doing the work.

Anyways, for more straightforward examples, would the use of more generic pronouns for scientific publications be kind of annoying for us fossils? Sure, but then we’ve had to deal with personal pronouns of “they/them” that just produce cognitive dissonance as our internal English teacher lashes out from years ago. If we can deal with that, maybe we could depersonalize the presentation and discussion of science in a way that makes it easier for authors to later revise their views without seeming to be contradictory.

Whose job is it to share science?

Consider these two quotes. One is from the FAQ for Merchants of Doubt:

Many scientists think that their “real work” is in the field or the laboratory, and that communicating science in plain language is someone else’s job. We think that should change.

Merchants of Doubt website, FAQ page

The other is from a recent editorial in Science:

…[A]sking someone to be a skilled science communicator after taking one [science communication] course is like asking someone who has taken a course in chemistry to discover a novel reaction. Truly well-trained science communicators—individuals who devote their lives to helping the public understand research—deserve more respect from their research colleagues.

Tharp, It’s not as easy as it looks, Science editorial, 2021

Keep in mind that we’ve been getting increasing pressure from all sides to be our own science journalist. From the continuing expansion of the “broader impacts” component of grant applications to the “plain language” summaries in some journals to the requests from universities for documentation of reaching out to the broader community. Frankly, being an academic scientist is already challenging enough, wedging in actual research between teaching commitments and writing grant applications and recruiting and supporting graduate students, it is pretty overwhelming even before running your own science communication office.

We really need to prioritize.

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