Field of Science

Our college mission statement is a crock!

Well there it is. My college's mission. What a revelation! Why do these things always sound this way? Why do they have to suck so mightily? Well, for one thing a committee wrote it.

The mission of the College of Arts and Sciences [of a great, old, publically-assisted institution of higher learning in the Land of Lincoln] is to provide students with the core disciplinary and transdisciplinary knowledge of a liberal arts education. We deliver high-quality general education and rigorous degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the humanities, social sciences, and mathematics and the natural sciences. We are engaged in disciplinary research and creative activities that lead to the discovery, application, and dissemination of new knowledge; the excellence of the college’s programs results from our engagement in the creation of disciplinary knowledge and our longstanding commitment to teaching. We are committed to diversity and to adopting cross-cultural and transnational perspectives in our teaching, learning, and scholarly activities.

Let’s have some fun and deconstruct it!

core disciplinary and transdisciplinary knowledge of a liberal arts education
The mission of arts and sciences is to provide students with a liberal arts education. If that no longer means broad and interdisciplinary, then we are in trouble. Transdisciplinary is a made up word and it sounds silly and pretentious, oh, but this is a mission statement so it goes without saying that it’s supposed to be pretentious.

We deliver high-quality general education and rigorous degree programs
Doesn’t everyone say this? And it would be correct if “some” were inserted between deliver and high-quality. Because some are quite frankly pretty average. It would be a refreshing admission.
the natural sciences
As opposed to the unnatural sciences? Scheesh, it’s just science people, but they really don't get it. All the sciences are natural in that they and they alone deal with life, the universe, and everything else that isn’t a human artifact. Oh, maybe criminal justice science, consumer science, political science and the like are the unnatural sciences, the made up disciplines.

We are engaged in disciplinary research and creative activities that lead to the discovery, application, and dissemination of new knowledge
A nice short phrase like, we are scholars, period, should never be allowed to replace a long wordy sentence. This must be a rule when writing mission statements. Why you would think no one knows what a scholar is without having it defined for them. Interestingly enough, this doesn't endorse transdisciplinary research, so one wonders where the transdisciplinary knowledge we teach (see above) comes from.

We are committed to diversity and to adopting cross-cultural and transnational perspectives in our teaching, learning, and scholarly activities.
Well, I’m not committed to all of these things in my teaching and scholarship. The reason is quite simple, these “values” are generally meaningless in science. And they certainly don’t mean diversity in a biological sense because otherwise I would get some kind of award for raising the consciousness of students to the fact that more than one species exists and deserves our attentions. Even worse this sentence is in no sense part of a mission, but rather it is a values statement, which tend to be even suckier than mission statements, and that’s where this belongs. Some trans-fat heads must have worked on this mission because transnational is another made up word.

And I won’t get into it now, but I simply can’t resist one last dig. Our college's “vision” includes a commitment to “programs that … exceed the highest academic standards”.
I’m certain this is too picky for a committee, but how do you exceed the highest? Is this promoting cheating because that’s the only way I know to get 110% correct?

Of course, all of these objections were delivered to the committee when they asked for comments, and you see the results of supplying constructive criticism. They were ignored transcommittee, so now if these comments are a source of embarrassment for anyone, well, too bad.

NIU's Cole Hall - A Rational Reaction?

The news that NIU wants to tear down Cole Hall and replace it with a new $40 million building seems both inappropriate and an overly emotional response that borders on downright stupid.

Cole Hall is a building, no better and no worse than most in the Illinois system of public schools. A terrible tragedy occurred there, but this administrative/political reaction makes no sense. Six violent deaths do not argue for attempting to erase the event by tearing the building down, attempting to turn Cole Hall into "consecrated ground", or attempting to build an expensive memorial.

Without doubt this was an emotional event, and many people react with understandable emotional in the immediate time frame. But memories do fade, and their emotional impact will diminish. Put up a plaque or other suitable memorial, but don't be irrational. In one sense the official reaction to the NIU deaths is symptomatic of the climate of fear that has been propagated in this country. The shooter wanted to instill fear, an act of terrorism, but not one with a political motive. And no matter what the motive, you defeat terrorism simply by not being afraid.

No doubt some will think this a callous reaction, but what if only 1 person had been killed? What if students had only been injured and their had been no fatalities? People die senselessly all the time, and while we should react with compassion, we also should react with reason. Four teenagers were just killed in our area in a senseless automobile accident; the result of an overcrowded pickup truck, no seat belts, and reckless driving. Should we rip out the blacktop eliminate the road and then rebulid it as the "Memorial highway"? Is the NIU tragedy 50% more awful and demanding of more drastic reaction? Are these any greater tragedies than a lonely, desperate person who commits suicide alone?

There is no hard fast line where a tragedy is of such a magnitude that it demands some type of extraordinary public reaction. Close Cole Hall, gut and refurbish the lecture halls, then a year from now reopen the building in honor of the memories of the students who died there. And you demonstrate to everyone that you are not going to give in to terrorism, to a climate of fear, especially at an institution whose mission encourages rational thinking.

So Few Measures of Student Learning

Andrea Loughry is the vice chair of the University of Tennessee System. In the most recent issue of Trusteeship she expresses the opinion that with "so many rankings (of institutions), there are so few measures of student learning" (p. 37).

Now before I respond in a calm and reasonable fashion, let me say that as a long-time inhabitant of the trenches on the front line of higher education, I don’t want boards of governance involved with measuring student learning any more than public officials. The reason is simple, neither one knows what the heck they’re doing.

Trusteeship is not a publication that I recommend to any serious academic, but I skim the articles and commentaries in each issue out of a sense of duty. I interact with trustees on a regular basis, and I like to know what these people who “run the show” think and read. It doesn’t inspire great confidence; fortunately most trustees of my acquaintance are successful professionals who don’t have time to read this journal.

Now back to the commentary. What does Andrea mean when she says there are so few measure of student learning? What does this lady think I do with my time? What does she think I'm doing in my classes when I make students do all that work, read all those assigned material, write all those papers, engage in all those diverse laboratory activities and discussions, research the many assignments, and take all the exams? Students don't think the learning measures are few. And does Andreas think students who can do all these things successfully have still not demonstrated any learning? Or is it that I have failed to demonstrate to my trustees that they have learned anything? Do they want to see all the papers, assignments, exams, essays, and notebooks? I can have them boxed up and delivered. If such activities are not measuring and assessing student learning, then why the heck am I bothering?

In case you are unfamiliar with educational jargon, let me introduce you to “learning outcome measures.” If you are teaching faculty you may be surprised to know that you use these. LOMs are basically all the things you do to evaluate student learning, but only people in colleges of education felt a noun-phrase-label was needed. Here’s a more official definition. LOMs are any “activity, product, behavior, knowledge, skill, ability, or attitude that we want a student to manifest in measurable or observable ways.” I don’t have a problem with any of this, although phrases like “learning outcome measures” hurt my brain. But here’s the rub, and where Andrea and I part ways.

Andrea calls on her fellow trustees to ensure that their institutions are setting high standards and “measuring student learning in a transparent manner.” I wish I knew what she actually meant. To me being transparent means making sure students understand what they are expected to do and know, and how I will evaluate it. But I think Andrea wants some kind of "learning measure" that can lead to comparisons among institutions, and she suggests learning outcomes measured “by a variety of broad and narrow tests selected by the institutions.”

Yikes. No Child Left Behind testing comes to higher education! Oh, and this is better in what way from having public officials demand testing? So much for all the diverse, multifaceted LOMs that I employ to determine student learning in my classes! No, my trustees are being urged to use some type of banal standardized exams to obtain transparency in student learning assessment. Well, the outcomes will be transparent OK because they have no substance. One might say such testing will be produce ethereal results.

Such testing is not going to capture the nuances of economic botany, plant taxonomy, or rain forest ecology, or any other subject area for that matter. What a crock! Any trustee that suggests such a thing should be dismissed on the spot for having displayed such a gross misunderstanding of the educational enterprise.

The take home message is pretty straight forward. First, trustees like Andrea obviously don’t trust me to do my job. Second, somehow trustees understand better than I how to set high standards and measure student learning. Third, and with all due respect to well-meaning trustees, this is what you get when amateurs are allowed to run an educational organization. And you only get this in higher education. House keepers don’t sit on the board of Proctor and Gamble, but people whose only association with higher education was that they were students once and graduated from your institution, are placed in the position of telling me how to do my job.

Oh, Andrea, it scares me that you don’t know better. Now I don’t mind telling you or showing you how I evaluate my students. And I guarantee that I set high standards and get my students to perform. But no testing you can imagine is going to give you something that allows comparison of student learning among institutions. Testing is not an assessment; how my students perform once they graduate, now that’s an assessment. And this is why faculty like me will fight tooth and nail to prevent something as banal as “a variety of broad and narrow tests” from acting as a stand in for us who are the only people in a position to actually measure student learning, even if most of us don't know what an LOM is.

Cats ownership prevents heart attacks

I have long thought that cats contributed to good mental health. I have always been suspicious of dog owners; people whose personalities constantly need unquestioning adoration. But cats have a certain attitude, and they don't suckup to you like dogs. I have always felt better for having one, or two, or three cats around. But who knew that owning a cat could lead to a much reduced risk of heart attack?

Well, if having one kitty cat is good for your health, then just think how healthy you are going to be with 50 pounds of Maine coon cats! T-Bear and Rocky, pictured here on bird feeder patrol, provide a whole bunch of preventative medicine.

Seriously, how could cats possibly reduce your risk of heart attack, especially since dog ownership did not do a thing for your health? A couple of furry baffoons is certainly a great stress reliever, and nobody gives better lessons in relaxation than cats. I often envy their ability to flop liquidly and drop to sleep so effortlessly. Stress is not in their vocabulary, as long as car rides are not in their itinerary. And even better, their favorite recreational substance, catnip, isn't against the law.

When you arrive home after a stressful, hectic day, your preventitive medicine meets you at the door and demands to be fed, as if you existed for any other purpose. And that's the key. Cats put you in your cosmic place, and not being comfortable with your own insignificance produces a lot of anxiety. The zen of cats is sort of contrarian in nature. Cats like to help, to make your life better. And if you're feeling a bit down, their assistance with little things, like unrolling all the toilet paper or fishing the ice cubes out of your margarita with their furry paw, all the while purring contentedly about the great job they are doing, will naturally make you feel better.

Artichoke - fruit or vegetable?

As an academic botanist I get to answer all kinds of sintillating questions. I once asked why all the weird and wacky botanical questions got routed to my inbox. "It's because you always have the answer." So why not share the excitement. Here's today's intellectual challenge.

Is an artichoke a fruit or a vegetable?
The person asking the question had heard that an artichoke is a flower, and wondered if that made it a fruit or a vegetable.
So what is the straight skinny on artichokes?
The artichoke is an immature (at the stage we eat it) thistle. Here's a picture of one cut down the center. In fact the name artichoke is derived from the Turkish word for thistle. When it flowers (here's a link to pictures) it's a nice big purple thistle. However to call it a flower or flower bud is not correct either.
Like all the other members of the Aster or Sunflower family, the artichoke clusters a lot of small flowers together into a head, an inflorescence, that has the appearance of a single flower, a nice way for small flowers to have a big visual impact and attract more pollinators. You can see the ovaries (little oval-shaped things) of each flower lining the cup-like receptacle, and each of these will make a single-seeded fruit called an achene. The sunflower "seeds" are actually one-seeded fruits where we discard the dry fruit and eat the seed. But thistle "seeds" are too small except for finches.
Fruits are flowers at the stage of seed dispersal, after pollination, and after development of the fruit (from the ovary) and the seeds. Some fruits are eaten at an immature stage (bush beans, okra, cucumbers) and others are eaten when the seeds are mature (tomato, apple). So if we use pollination as the dividing line, then pre-pollination flowers (broccoli) would be vegetables. But even then the flowers of artichokes aren't eaten. The part of the artichoke that is consumed is the fleshy receptacle and the fleshy bases (both sort of cream colored) of the bracts (modified leaves) that surround the flowers. And like broccoli, most of what is eaten in the artichoke are these vegetative parts associated with the flowers. So basically, the answer is artichokes are vegetable.
Wasn't that exciting?

Do mosses get Alzheimer's?

A protein central to amyloid plaque formation in the brain, a condition that causes or contributes to Alzheimer’s disorder (not disease, which refers to an infection by organisms), has been found in a moss (link to news article). Clearly the same gene has two different functions.

When this protein is deactivated in moss, the moss’ growth form becomes abnormal, and when the human gene is inserted, the moss returns to its normal form. The last common ancestor between the lineage containing mosses (land plants) and the lineage including humans (animals) must date to more than 2 billion years ago when early eukaryotes were diversifying. And yet this gene has been conserved, undergone so little changes since, that the human protein remains functional in the moss.

Now the exciting news from a botanical perspective is that a bryologist has an angle to get their hands on some NIH funding. Move over neurobiologists, here come the bryologists!

But this is an interesting example of another widely misunderstood biological phenomenon. When people express their doubts, their incredulity that evolutionary processes can account for all the observed diversity and innovation, they only express a naïve perspective. Close inspection of diversity demonstrates precious little real innovation, and a great deal of recycling. Very similar and nearly identical “parts” can take on whole new functions and used in completely different ways, just as a wheel on an axil can have many functions in a vehicle. The raw material of evolutionary processes are slight variations in the genetic instructions of organisms. And it will be interesting to try to figure out why a protein with two such different functions nonetheless was conserved in very nearly identical forms.

If Kosovo, why not Washegon?

The right to self-govern and the right to self determination are fundamental principles of democracy, so the Current Occupant, representing as he does our entire country, has recognized the Republic of Kosovo’s declaration of independence. One can hope their document is as high-minded, and that their ideals are not as often betrayed by political ideologies as ours. Of course most recent examples of newly independent republics display a splintering along ethnic, tribal, and/or religious lines, which hardly seem in keeping with democratic principles. But leaving that aside, a far more interesting question arises. Where do you draw the line in supporting such principles?

Let us suppose that the people of an independent minded region grew tired of the federal government’s heavy hand. They weren’t allowed to legalize marijuana for medical use (scientific evidence in favor of its use is a federal anathema at present), to permit physicians from assisting terminally ill people commit suicide to end their suffering (against federal ideology, and to declare every rare sunny, cloudless day a state-wide holiday. With this suppression weighing heavy upon them, the residents declare Washegon an independent republic. Upon receiving this document the Current Occupant calls a press conference and wishes them and their descendants an apple, hop, and salmon filled future.

Want to bet about the response? Of course not. The shoe would now be on the other foot and the federal government of the USA would now be the Serbia and Washegon the Kosovo. Although hypocrisy is a well known conservative trait (what’s good for them isn’t necessarily good for us), this does raise an interesting question. Where do you draw the line in supporting such democratic principles?

What about Cajuns? The federal government hasn’t done much for this ethnically, linguistically, gastronomically unique group. Following Washegon’s example, they might decide to form Acadia figuring they couldn't possibly be worse off. And next might come the Providence of Upper Peninsula, which is so geographically isolated it is hardly part of the contiguous states even now. And before the ink is dry on the UP’s declaration, those independently minded Alaskans might decide to form Sewardia.

The last time such a secession was attempted in our country, the episode got more than a little out of hand. The response and outcome of this one example is clear. The Confederacy lost the War of Southern Independence, and the secession was quashed, although not forgotten. Does our democratic republic support the use of force to maintain a nation of states, even against the wishes of people seeking self determination? The answer clearly depends whether you are talking about them or us.

Our government encouraged the independence movements of many Soviet Republics resulting in the partial disintegration of the USSR, but have no doubts about our government's response to Washegon’s declaration of independence; it would be pure hypocrisy because now it’s happening to us, not them. Why one might even think such decisions were based upon antedated cold war ideologies, and not real democratic principles at all.

Religious loonieness from the Land of Lincoln

To raise some much needed cash, a state legislator in Illinois has proposed vanity license plates for cars embossed to say “In God We Trust”, the brain child of Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion. Mr. Bradley says, “It’s an opportunity to give people that want to recognize their heritage an ‘In God We Trust’ motto on their license plates.”

It's a great idea Mr. Bradley, but you just didn't go far enough. How about selling slogan license plates to other constituencies? My Hindu friends would only want a small change “In Gods We Trust”, and it’s so small a difference most people wouldn’t even notice. I’d like to display a different religious heritage on my license plant. How about plates that read “In Reason We Trust”? I’ll happily contribute to the state coffers for this slogan. Well, I can guess why we aren't going to get such an option.

A local Lutheran minister once publicly stated that no one should have any problem saying “under God” while pledging allegiance to our country. This was a secular statement recognizing the Christian heritage of our country. Right. So how well did he react when I asked if we could make one little change, adding an s to make god gods? Well you can guess, he was outraged at the suggestion, but I had to ask why he was upset if this was just a secular statement? Well, of course, the motto on our money and the words “under God” in the pledge aren’t secular, and no honest person thinks they are. So we have the remarkable situation that in a country whose constitution guarantees freedom of religion, those of us of other persuasions must abide the arrogance of the religious majority and, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, acknowledge the one true religion with every transaction, with every pledge.

Even more amusing is the accusation that people such as myself in criticizing this motto are infringing upon the religious freedom of others. How so? Apparently forcing others to acknowledge the existence of a god is part of their belief system.

But back to the constitutional issue. Mr. Bradley doesn’t think this violates the separation of church and state because their purchase is voluntary. The idea is quite simple, the government, run as it is by our taxes, has no business promoting a religious position, and quite simply, this is a specific religious belief that is not shared by the entire public. So, either allow alternative slogans suitable to other beliefs and persuasions, or get Illinois out of the religion business altogether. And lastly Mr. Bradley, is this the best you could think of to help the state’s dire financial situation? No wonder Illinois is in trouble. It’s politicians like this that make me want an “In Reason We Trust” plate more than ever.

Illegal alien orchids?

Somehow I always think of orchids as rather rare, rather delicate organisms. Many of the terrestrial orchids of North America are rather small so it always comes as a pleasant surprise to unexpectedly notice one. The plant in question is Epipactis helleborine, commonly called just helleborine, which means little hellebore, and this doesn't make any sense because hellebores are buttercups not orchids, but that's common names for you. This one was growing, protected from picking and disturbance by the surrounding Wisconsin state park on the shore of Lake Michigan, but no matter how cute, this is an invasive plant, an alien species brought to North America and turned loose. From its introduction decades ago it has spread across northeastern United States and adjacent Canada.

I don't know if the presence of helleborine orchids does any harm. They are charming to see flowering in the forest understory, which is usually pretty dull and devoid of flowers in the summer. Most forest plants flower in the spring.

But helleborine is an invasive alien plant. Hard to know whether to pull it or praise it, but yanking up orchids is such an ingrained botanical no-no that even knowing this orchid is an alien I find myself troubled at the thought of pulling them up even though it is no different than a ragweed or bull thistle.

Alphabutt - Worst Academic Fashion Statement Ever

A colleague who shall remain nameless was bemoaning the lack of a dress code, the lower standards of acceptable attire, for both faculty and students. No question about it, times and attire have changed. I used to wear a tie, and sometimes a jacket, whenever I taught. But I haven't worn a tie in probably 10 years, and that's too bad because I used to have some great ties carefully chosen to mock professional attire. Unfortunately power ties became acceptable, even stylish, so my ties with loud colors and bold designs were seen as fashionable. When I switched from a steady diet of lecturing in large, introductory courses to smaller upper division classes, and I decided tropical print shirts were appropriate, and even themed them to discussion topics.

Students have always been pretty casual at the public schools that employed me, and for the longest time nothing there seemed to change. Jeans were the standard, but then the t-shirt, formerly underwear, became outerwear and a communications medium at the same time. I keep expecting to see a communications course on t-shirts; you literally take the shirt off your back for exams. Now even some faculty dress this way, and to keep themselves from being mistaken as faculty, students have descended to slovenly paradies of homeless derelicts. If a person in authority ever demanded that students dress such that their underwear was always hanging out of torn and tattered clothing, I can imagine the outcries of protest.

But the absolute worst fashion statement ever to appear is alphabutt. While letters and emblems have long adorned jackets and sweaters, this was mostly the style for jocks and cheerleaders. T-shirts not only lowered the bar, but lowered the location for emblazoning messages.

I will maintain that there are very few if any butts, even young ones, whose appearance is improved by displaying large words and letters. Most are limited to initials, often refering to the insitution, like the South Henrietta Insitute of Technology, or some obtuse reference to color, for example, PINK seems a favorite hue. People should be proud of their homes and institutions, and while OHIO isn't too bad, MICHIGAN suggests a healthier diet and more exercise is a good idea. Even more dismaying is the observation that alphabutt is far more popular with young women unless this points to a change in body conscious attitudes. But in a time when a careless look can be misinterpreted as a leer sending the recipient off to complain (to a jacket and tie) about sexual harassment, I can only say don't wear it if you don't want people to read it.

And to the young woman whose sweatpants read, in suitably small font, "If you can read this, you're looking at my butt.", one can only say, "well, yes, you have a great one."

Where to begin?

It is best to begin at the beginning. But where might that be? First, I am not certain that I am totally enamored with the blogosphere. Like many things with few constraints, much is a wasteland. And yet, as I wander, some few thoughtful and insightful commentaries are encountered. And it is by no means certain if I shall offer anything new or different.

Among science blogs, to whichI plan in part to contribute, it comes as no surprise that organisms green with chlorophyll and the people who study them seem woefully under represented. Why should the blogosphere be any different that real life? So the choice is either whine or join in, and whining has never been my style. And so a plant pundit is born.

Academic life is quite the hoot, part circus, part anarchy, part passion, part coaching, part scholarship, part entrepreneur, part frustrating, and mostly an interesting way to make a living, certainly better than working. As an observer of this enterprise for over 4 decades, I have gained a few insights into what makes academia and academics tick, and I find myself part sage, part curmudgeon, but by no means finished. It also makes me one of the senior bloggers, an old fogey in a younger person's pursuit. Just like the music of the 60s and 70s, we baby boomers just won't fade away. And one can take a certain satisfaction that their mere existance annoys some people.

I am purposefully keeping this blog simple; I don't want to spend too much time messing with it. A lunch time dabble in blogging is fine; but some people need to get a life. I have one, and am only willing to share so much.

With that I begin. Nothing very profound or even entertaining, but a first step taken. Seems positive.