Category Archives: teaching

Advising PhD Students: Innovative Instructor

Check out the most recent post on the Innovative Instructor blog from JHU’s Center for Educational Resources, including fresh advice from Science:coffee cup

  1. Approach the power dynamic between mentor and mentee by invoking relevant research. Aspects of mentoring line up with aspects of parenting; to say this is not to infantilize students but rather to acknowledge the power difference as well as (often) the generational difference—and to avoid reinventing the wheel. Research shows the benefits of “authoritativeness, which is defined by both high expectations and high attentiveness; offering a safe haven in times of distress; and fostering a secure base to promote exploration.”
  2. Communicate your confidence in students’ abilities and potential. Again, from the research: “if students think their professors believe that only a few special people have intellectual potential, it can harm their sense of belonging and their performance.”
  3. Model a growth mindset, and “help mentees embrace failure as growth.” One of the authors, Jay J. Van Bavel, shares his unofficial bio alongside his formal one. Some faculty circulate failure CVs.

(The whole article, from March 2019, is here: “Three research-based lessons to improve your mentoring”)

And these closing remarks from JHU Vice Provost for Integrative Learning and Life Design Farouk Dey: “Try not to ask [students] ‘What do you want to do?’ Instead ask, ‘What has inspired you lately?’ ‘What action can you take to turn that inspiration into reality and how can I help you with that?’”

Barbie, astrophysics, and the problem with perfection

Screen Shot 2019-03-05 at 4.12.29 PMIn her op-ed in USA Today titled “Astrophysicist Barbie is perfect. That’s not how you attract more girls to STEM careers.” UVA biomedical engineering professor Silvia Blemker writes about cultural standards of perfection for women, the academic reality that “criticism is part of the job,” and what happens next.

An excerpt is below, but first, yes: that’s a polar marine biologist, wildlife photojournalist, astrophysicist, wildlife conservationist, and entomologist. Coming to you in Fall 2019, in partnership with National Geographic.

Back to the excerpt from Dr. Blemker’s piece:

The new astrophysicist Barbie, announced by Mattel last month, seems well-intentioned enough: Its goal is to encourage young girls to enter science and engineering fields by wedding Barbie’s glamour and intellectual gusto. In reality, it’s just another cultural message of unattainable perfection, and our messages of perfection for girls are already keeping them out of STEM work at the highest academic levels.

. . .

Of the grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health, fewer than 20 percent are likely to be funded. That means that I have to become OK with the idea that, at least 80 percent of the time, someone is going to tell me that my idea is not good enough.

recent study showed that women have similar funding success rates as compared to men; however, women tend to apply for grants at lower rates than men. So, while our ideas are equally meritorious, women seem to be more afraid to put their ideas out there. The result? More funding goes to men than women.

If applying for a grant doesn’t seem like it should require a thick skin, then consider what a peer review of a science publication feels like.

The primary journal in my field has an acceptance rate of 16 to 19 percent, meaning I have more than an 80 percent chance of getting a paper rejected when I submit to that journal. These papers describe the work that my students and I worked on for years.

2018 study suggests that female authors take less risky publication routes: Female authors have especially low representation in top journals that have the highest rejection rates, even though overall acceptance rates of papers with women listed as the first author is higher than those with male-first authors.

What’s more, after pouring my heart and soul into teaching undergraduate engineering classes, while some students sing my praise, I’ve had some students absolutely rip me apart in their anonymous student evaluations. And, there is strong evidence that female professors receive lower student evaluation scores than their male counterparts — particularly if the female professor is young and if the subject matter is mathematics.



Improving student evaluations of teaching: Univ. of Oregon

Recent studies at the University of Oregon indicate that student evaluations are not only biased but also do not correlate with student learning. Based on this, faculty and administrators set out to revamp their student evaluation process. Here’s an excerpt from Kristin Doerer’s article “Colleges Are Getting Smarter About Student Evaluations. Here’s How.” in the Chronicle


The University of Oregon, which has students answer evaluation questions on a one-to-five scale, is looking to eliminate numerical ratings. “It’s pretty clear that if there’s a number out there, it’ll get misused,” said [Bill] Harbaugh, economics professor.

Oregon decided to have students select, from a list, teaching elements that were most beneficial to their learning and those that could use some improvement. They were then asked to provide written comments about those areas. The responses are aggregated, so professors can see if a cluster of comments indicates particular weaknesses or strengths.

The goal of all of those efforts is not only to minimize bias but also to ensure that instructors can learn from student feedback and act accordingly. “It’s so important,” said Stetson’s Peter Lake, “not to weaponize student evaluations against people but to use them constructively.”

. . . That’s in large part why Oregon decided to try a midterm student-experience survey that only the applicable faculty member can view. An instructor can make changes in the middle of a semester, when students can still benefit, encouraging them to give constructive feedback.


Notes on Graduate Student Advising Coffee Hour

coffee cupOn November 26, 2018, 25+ faculty members and administrators from KSAS, WSE, and the Provost’s office gathered for over two hours to discuss the challenges and opportunities of graduate student advising—particularly in light of the recent NAS recommendations.

Our conversation was wide-ranging and lively; the notes below don’t begin to do it justice. What they try to do, though, is represent the ideas discussed (whether or not everyone agreed on them) and to inspire further discussion of this on the Homewood campus.

For resources on this topic, please visit our file cabinet.

Mentoring: How? When?

  • One challenge is the question of how to inspire faculty to take on mentorship roles
  • Once inspired, we need to learn how best to mentor
    • One program already in place is the Master Mentoring is for faculty who are mentoring junior faculty, and the skills learned in this program should also be applicable to mentoring grad students.
  • When and where should mentorship happen for graduate students?
    • Some advocate mentorship at every stage of graduate school
    • Additionally, mentorship isn’t limited to one’s home institution. There are networks across schools, in disciplines, for example:

Establishing community values & cultural norms

  • How can the institution best use orientation (with particular consideration for international students coming from different cultural contexts) to set a supportive, professional tone for academic life at JHU?
  • After orientation, how can we as an academic community sustain and normalize conversations about professional, respectful, inclusive interactions? Some ideas:
    • Small group discussion with case studies: such-and-such happened in the lab or grad student workroom, what would we do?
    • Regular lab/cohort meetings with scenario of the month?
    • Use the concept of the “safety moment” common to chemistry lab meetings? Call this the “inclusive moment” and have examples of inclusive behavior?
    • Ask grad students take the lead in discussions and inclusive practices, as long as they have full support from their PI/advisor?
  • Can the university provide resources/case studies for this effort?

Defining the faculty/grad student relationship

  • Collaborative relationships are most productive
  • Vocabulary matters: think and speak of students as colleagues who are not as far along in their careers as we are—rather than, for example, as our employees (casting the relationship as boss/employee creates problems in attitude on both sides)
  • Some junior faculty need help adjusting their expectations, particularly of first- and second-year grad students. They may have themselves been extraordinarily independent, savvy grad students and may expect all of their students to be just as amazing. They may not realize what guidance they received and therefore not be cognizant of what guidance they need to give.

What the NAS recommendation to “diffuse the hierarchical and dependent relationship between faculty and trainees” means in practice

  • Diffusing power is not the same as disavowing power. We do not help students by giving up the power that comes with our positions
  • We can, however, clarify our status as mere mortals—for example, by inviting students to comment on drafts of our work; by telling them about times when we’ve run into stumbling blocks, etc.
  • Ensure that grad students and postdocs develop the independence to meet their deadlines. A grad student should not depend on an authority figure to get them to meet a deadline, nor should deadlines be disregarded
  • Talk to each other about systems that work and adopt/adapt those systems as appropriate.
    • It seems that different departments handle graduate student advising quite differently, and we as faculty do not necessarily know what other departments are doing. For example: In biophysics & biology, there is a committee of faculty for each graduate student and yearly meetings throughout graduate school. In EPS, grad students have to meet with advisor before they can register for next semester
    • Feedback is important for both the adviser and the advisee. In some places, graduate students have to write a letter to their advisor/DGS about their goals & their progress; faculty had to do the same. Then, based on this exchange, faculty advisors can adjust, give them internships, redirect according to new interests, etc.
    • Some parts of JHU have individual development plans (IDPs). I believe these are required by NIH training grants. Should these be universally required?

Challenges of writing letters of recommendation

  • It is important to recognize that these are inherently biased; we as faculty should pay close attention to language. We discussed various approaches for minimizing bias:
    • Have students write a paragraph for the letter
    • Have students make a bulleted list of talents, etc., and have their peers help them do it; train students to be more proactive about articulating and advocating for their accomplishments and strengths.
    • Show examples
    • Share the literature on this with faculty and grad students alike (see Gender Equity in Science bibliography)
    • Ask students for CV and give them feedback on their own professional presentation.
    • Ask students for the cover letter
    • GRO used to have an active committee on professional development; their website may be of some help
    • During department orientation, offer best practices for how to ask for a letter of recommendation

Concerns about graduate student mental health & job market

  • National stats make it clear that most students will not end up in tenure-track academic jobs in almost every field.
  • Concern about high rates of depression among grad students . . . pressure, especially in humanities, is sometimes unbearable. CUNY Graduate Center made astounding foray into what it would mean to appoint somebody whose single job was to organize workshops for nonacademic careers . . .
  • Students in the humanities (?) have 5 years of funding, but median time to complete the PhD is longer, so what are they supposed to do?
  • There is excellent movement at the Career Center, with many good things happening, but we must advertise and support the opportunities there IN the department; if we don’t talk about the career center in our academic programs, students will perceive it as second class.
  • One way to think about career planning for graduate schools is to disavow the notion that only academics is the only career track for “successful students,” i.e. “There are no alternative careers. There are only careers.”

How to institutionalize changes in how we approach graduate training? What is the path toward turning some of these good ideas into requirements?


  • For example, University of Michigan uses launch committees (ADVANCE) for new faculty during their first year. The convener of the committee gets $1000 in their research account.
  • Institutional change will require changing how we do things—which will require changing how we encourage and reward faculty for these kinds of contributions.
  • Reward teaching and service more explicitly in tenure review. This will set the tone for valuing teaching, mentorship, etc. Currently, teaching serves as a “hygiene factor” in tenure decisions—above a certain level, it makes no difference. Carl Wieman (Nobel laureate in physics who now focuses on science education) would not get tenure today.
  • Valuing teaching, advising, and mentorship is good for all students. This is particularly important for diversity and inclusion, and it is critical in courses at the introductory level because those students are new to college and coming from very different levels of high school preparation.

Potential stumbling blocks

  • Putting something out as best practices helps good faculty become great faculty. But the challenge always is: what happens when faculty either get busy & forget the best practices? Or what about faculty that simply abuse their power?
  • Departments don’t always carry out guidelines they are given. There will be different levels of advocacy, implementation, etc. A lack of consistency fractures the larger community, and the best practices cease to become a policy, which undermines the community.
  • Faculty fatigue.


We’ve updated our file cabinet

cabinet-2027625_1280 Hoping we might learn something from Dartmouth? Curious about critiques of student evaluations of teaching? Perhaps you want to read the NAS report for yourself, or JHU Vision 2020, the Columbia equity report on tenure-line faculty, or the American Physical Society LGBTQ+ Climate Report. . . . The Women Faculty Forum File Cabinet is always there for you. We just freshened it up, in fact.


Come browse anytime, and please email us suggestions for additions at