Field of Science

Friday Fabulous Flowers - Olfactory edition

TPP walked into the glasshouse and immediately knew that the taro (Coleocasia esculenta) was in bloom. Generally most people don't notice the distinctive fragrance nor the actual "flower" which hides among the large leaves. This is an aroid, Jack-in-the-pulpit being the best known member of the family here abouts. So, what you really have here is a spike of flowers, an inflorescence known at the spadix,
surrounded by a modified leaf, a bract, known as a spathe. In the case of taro only half the spike is visible; the lower half is pretty tightly enclosed by the spathe. After flowering the upper part of the spike and the upper part of the spathe dry up and fall off. In this particular aroid, the flowers on the base of the spike are "female" and will produce fruits. The upper flowers are pollen producing "male" flowers. You can see the accumulation of pollen around the spike at the "waist" of the spathe. Sterile flowers separate the two and cover the top of the spike. The latter make a lot of fragrance, which is some aroids is a carrion odor. Taro isn't, but the fragrance is hard to describe, sort of a musky, heavy floral odor, not altogether pleasing but not revolting either. Several people noticed the odor today, but hadn't located the source, and it surprised them.  

Your Birthday Song

This link is little bit of fun.  Enter your birthday and it returns the number one song on the American top 40 for that date.  Found out the F1's song was Call me by Blondie, which is sort of appropriate. TPP's is from a totally different era, or is that eon?  The 12th Street Rag (by Pee Wee Hunt and his Orchestra), and yes, TPP likes ragtime; always have. 

Music for cats

Just when you think you've seen, or heard, it all, along comes something completely different. Some cats are pretty quiet.  Some cats are quite talky, yacky, and chatty. Some cats seem to chirp. Some seem a bit whiny and pleading, especially in the morning before breakfast. Slow old humans.  But never thought of any of our cats as being musical.  So here it is, music for cats.  Now that I think of it, one of ours hums Cosmo's air frequently.

Wind chill and plant cold hardiness

A reader asks an interesting question.  How does wind chill affect plants?  If a plant is cold hardy to say 10 F [22 degrees F below freezing for those of you who use rational C units], and the wind chill is -20 degrees, will the additional cold hurt or kill my plant?  OK, the short answer, no. The wind chill doesn't affect plants, only the absolute temperature. The wind chill factor is how much colder the temperature seems to us warm-blooded animals because of the wind, but it is still the same temperature.  Remember the wind chill factor is the number of degrees that is subtracted from the actual temperature; it is often reported so that you don't know if it is the apparent temperature that is -20 degrees or if you must subtract 20 degrees from the actual temperature.  But to the plant it is simply 10 F; not being warm-blooded plants don't get colder because of the wind.  Here's a couple of refreshers on cold hardiness from TPP's archives:
Why don't trees freeze? and It's the extremes. This winter, '14-'15, with the jet stream positioned where it is, our snow is coming from fronts moving up from the south west, and then the cold air pushes back south and a blast of frigid air follows.  So this winter has seen several nights where the temperature has reached 32-39 degrees F below freezing. Zone 5 plants will be fine, but any plant not fully hardy in that zone may get damaged or killed. So TPP has a bad feeling about the Helianthemum replacements. They were under a good snow cover for the first couple of cold blasts, but the last blast caught them bare, naked of snow. Ah, well. What kind of gardener are you if you don't push the envelope a little says the man with an Ashe Magnolia to plant come spring. 

News, infotainment, comings and goings

These days it's hard to draw a line between news and entertainment. Although TPP doesn't rely upon these types of TV shows for news, apparently many people do. John Stewart's annoucement about leaving the Daily Show left TPP quite sad; he did a great job of putting things and people into perspective, and giving you a grin or two during grim times. The revelations about Brian Williams generated a feeling of who cares? Never watched the guy and wasn't impressed. Watching Bill O'Really getting his notoriously thin skin poked has been amusing as is his totally predictable response. He seems to think that if you bully someone into submission, your point of view wins. Cannot for the life of me understand the popularity of this second rate thinker. Less than impressed so far with the Nightly Show, although Larry has had his moments. Even John Stewart took awhile to hit his stride, find his rhythm. That and he's on a bit too late for us senior citizens.

How to run a university - who are the low cost employees?

A cheerful memo arrived just the other day.  It informed faculty that the Building Service Workers (aka custodians) would no longer empty broken glass containers in labs and classrooms. The memo then went on to inform us where the containers should be placed when full, and that new containers could be purchased at the stock room for some lordly sum (about the same as a good latte).  Now there are two things about this.  First, there is the assumption that yours truly will be emptying broken glass containers. This suggests that the administration thinks it too expensive to have BSWs doing this, so let's let faculty do it.  Well, that never was in my job description, although the rule is that if you break it, you clean it up. And if the administration thinks TPP is going to buy containers for classrooms, well, let's just wait and see if it ever happens. My budget line for broken glass containers is zero. Now of course this is aimed at people who have grants and even they will not spend their grant money on classrooms.  Isn't that what tuition is supposed to pay for?  Second, why do we have broken glass containers anyways?  Why it was too dangerous for BSWs to empty the trash bins if they contained broken glass, and if it did they wouldn't empty it. Will that be the next task dumped onto faculty? Now this is the rather ludicrous part of this whole thing. To save a little money, or make BSWs a little bit more happy, they take a task and transfer it to faculty.  And how is this a savings? Who gets paid the most for 20 minutes of labor? A time study a few years back showed that faculty active in scholarship spent over 50 hours a week with teaching, scholarship, and service, and faculty don't get overtime pay for those 12.5 hours worked above the official 37.5 hour week. TPP doubts the philosophy or English or history faculty have this problem. But rather than have BSWs who accommodate the crap that actually happens when people do science, the science faculty get more custodial duties. Yeah, that's how to run a university.

Why does anyone care what politicians think about evolution?

It's only been a dozen days since Darwin's birthday, and evolution is in the news, and not because of some new study, but because a possible presidential candidate punted when asked about it.  Clearly at one level what difference could it possibly make what a politician thinks about evolution? A successful alumnus of our university with a position on the foundation board once asked TPP if he "believed" in evolution.  TPP responded, "It's not a belief; it's a well documented and very useful scientific theory, and yes, I use it all the time". What most people don't understand is that if you could poke a hole in some major component of evolutionary theory (science proceeds by falsification) it could make your career. And what we do for research is constantly testing various components of the theory, and even though biologists have been at it for 180 years, the results have been to improve understandings and add components and nuances to the theory, to meld various fields together, but no holes have been punched.  So why ask a politician what they think about evolution?  An essay in the NYer does a nice job of explaining. "What the question means, and why it matters, is plain: Do you have the courage to embrace an inarguable and obvious truth when it might cost you something to do so? A politician who fails this test is not high-minded or neutral; he or she is just craven, and shouldn’t be trusted with power. This catechism’s purpose—perhaps unfair in its form, but essential in its signal—is to ask, Do you stand with reason and evidence sufficiently to anger people among your allies who don’t?"  And in this context this is a more certain test than asking about climate change. 

Planning ahead - corned beef version

Home-made, home-cured corned beef is a wonderful thing. It's another one of those things that TPP just does once a year in the third week of February. There are two reasons why. One, without a whole lot else to do, it keeps you busy for about an hour, that is if you have secured all the necessary ingredients.  If you should decide to try this, the recipe is at that link, and hopefully you'll be able to purchase some saltpeter. With everything on hand, and having acquired a great big old brisket (on sale no less), the brine was mixed up and spiced, now you just have to wait a couple of weeks (although you can get away with 10-12 days in a pinch). Two, if you look ahead on the calendar you'll see this means the corned beef will be ready for St. Patrick's Day to satisfy some deep seated genetic urge. This is one of the ways you get through February; you have something special to look forward to. Next weekend is the local Texas Independence Day chili cook-off, and another good excuse to make a huge batch of some authentic chili (no beans, no ground beef, no corn, no macaroni, or other things that don't belong in chili).  Now to check the chili pepper supply!

Back pack with built-in stool

Every now and then you see an idea that is clearly a winner, and this looks like one to TPP.  Now of course the demographic TPP has in mind is 18-22 years old, and there might be 30-50 students of this age lounging on the floor along the hallway outside of this office waiting for the next class to start.  In their wisdom the university added only 5 benches along the hall, one for each classroom, but actually 4 of them are outside of a lecture hall that seats over 150 people. And they didn't do this until the building was 45 years old!  People space, not even a concept. Even when you're young and flexible, the floor is hard and uncomfortable, and these days, students just want to play with their phones to kill some time. So this bag that makes into a stool looks like a winner from my perspective.  You know this is a staged photo because this young lady doesn't have her nose touching the screen of her iphone.  Here's the link to the story and brand name as this blog doesn't endorse products, or accept advertising, or allow tacky popup ads. TPP hopes readers will show some appreciation for the purity of this approach. 

Dang, not a "real expert" on evolution

Right Wing Watch reports that American Family Association governmental affairs director Sandy Rios...explained on her radio show today that, “science has done nothing but disprove the theory of evolution.” “There is no scientific evidence” to substantiate evolution, she said, at least according to “the real experts”.
Gee, TPP feels badly; he didn’t get that memo, and since he doesn't know about the disproof, he isn't a "real expert". How deflating. This is typical of the criticism of science and evolution. You just keep saying there isn’t any evidence over and over, and the gullible believe it. If you had the time, say 10 years or so, to show this woman all the evidence for evolution, it would not make an iota of difference. But to simply say that science has done nothing but disprove the theory of evolution is an astonishing assertion. It is correct in exactly one thing; science does operate by disproving, falsifying hypotheses. TPP knows because data has not been kind to a couple of his best ones. But evolution? Why just today, a published study showed that populations of a Rhododendron in Ireland had changed genetically relative to ancestral  populations in Spain, perhaps as an adaptation to local pollinators. And that's just in the first journal seen today. People like Rios are really quite pathetic because they don’t know what they don’t know, but still aren’t afraid to mouth off about it anyways.  

Please extend some sympathy

When spouse and F1 team up on you, you don't really stand a chance. In this case however they teamed up with the NSA or some other nefarious government agency to track my movements. You see, since retirement freed TPP from his academic demands and regular schedules, his where abouts have been far less certain, so in an effort to maintain communications with a this retired botanist, his significant others exercised a family plan and acquired a smart phone for him, his first ever cell phone of any sort. Now one point that they made was that field work is a "young" man's game, and that solo field work by a clumsy aging fool would be safer if it were possible to call for help. OK, a valid point. Hmm, does the new wine bar deliver? That could be handy. A colleague and collaborator upon learning of this acquisition said, "Let's see it." TPP replied, "Well, I don't have it with me." They then suggested that somehow the main point of owning such a device was being missed. When you have carried nothing in your pockets for years, this is quite a change.  But now comes the real question, what are the best apps for a botanical scientist and gardener? Surely some uber geek readers can make some suggestions otherwise TPP is facing a steep learning curve. Now about that chip implanted in the back of my neck; what's that for?    

February - tough month for gardeners and recent retirees

The most recent snow missed us (too bad), and now another cold front has settled upon the upper midwest. It looks grimly cold outside. This is a tough month for gardeners psychologically, and physically with limited exercise, but things are even worse for non-gardeners. As a recent retiree, people keep asking if TPP is OK, enjoying retirement, and keeping busy? Yes, yes, yes. There is a great thing about being a plant-loving, gardening botanist which is that you cannot actually find the demarcation between your work and personal life. So, when gardening is bleak and impossible, TPP turns to curation work and plants growing in the glass houses, and other things. And even now arrangements are being made for the purchase of a new Scaidopitys to replace the one that died from the summer drought in 2013. And of course, sort of conflicting with gardening, field research continues, although at this stage its just preparing for the field so seeds are being vernalized and seedlings have been brought out of cold storage. Lastly when you get stone cold bored, you can always blog, or cook, or do home improvement projects for you know who. So, no question about it, TPP finds plenty to keep himself busy and amused. An encounter with an unfortunate colleague demonstrated the problem some recent retirees have. He doesn't garden, cook, or do anything domestic; his research was expensive and the grants dried up, and students did all the work anyways, and someone else will be assigned the lab space. He said he found himself sitting at home watching TV and he realized how pathetic that was, but still hasn't found anything to keep himself amused, which is why he was hanging around the dept office talking with people. The lesson here is that everyone should garden; you always have something to do even if it's just reading seed/plant catalogs and browsing through nursery web sites waiting for February to pass.

Pale blue dot

This is an interesting juxtaposition with the previous blog. That tiny blue dot is Earth seen from Voyager 1 at a distance of just 6 billion kilometers, and it was taken 25 years ago. Let TPP say now that Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog is one of the most consistently interesting and informative science blogs out there. Please take the time to read the essay by Carl Sagan posted there because even though our residence is part of a galaxy not unlike M106, this tiny blue dot is all we got. Wish we would take better care of it and stop acting as a species as if it was ours to squander.

WOW! Galaxy M106 poses

This is a pretty mind-blowing image of galaxy M106, and you can download an even higher resolution image. This is pretty amazing stuff. Apparently some of this composite image, the red arms, result from a massive black hole spewing out energy & hot matter across, across, hmm, no idea the scale of things here, thousands of light years?  If you look at the back ground, you see all those other things, and they be other galaxies. Just wow! 

Valentine's day doings

It's cold today, and getting colder, and with a stiff wind blowing so the wind chill factor is significant. The weather news people never make it clear whether they are reporting the wind chill factor or the apparent temperature with the wind chill factored in. Is the apparent temperature -13F or is the wind chill factor -13 degrees, in which case the apparent temperature is -2 F (11 F -13 degrees). At times you wonder if they know the difference themselves. Saturday morning errands occupied the morning: replenish wine supplies, stock up on groceries, get light bulbs, a new light fixture, and who knows what at a big box. You should know that TPP got Mrs. Phactor some dark chocolate passion fruit cream truffles. Yes, they (passion fruit) are her favorite, a lasting artifact of our time living in the tropics. Now she is busy making a quite magnificent Italian cream cake for a dinner party this evening. The frosting uses cream cheese and butter, which is then topped with chopped pecans (and yes, TPP chopped them this being the critical component). Now that the kitchen painting is completed replacing, or rearranging, many items has commenced, and with each change a domino effect takes place resulting in other changes. However, it does look better, and fresh. Drinking a nice Rogue mocha porter while blogging, and it is highly recommended, drinking while blogging. Now that was one too many things: beer, blogging, and black cat in lap, and while you can do any two of these three, you cannot do all three at once. Cat left to lick some cream cheese frosting from the cook's finger. And that's just all that's going on.

Another weird garden

If things come in threes, then TPP hardly knows what kind of garden to expect next! Earlier this week it was an erotic garden in Thailand, now (via this article at Slate) a strange, weird sculpture garden in Britain called the Forbidden Corner. Some of this registers a full 8.0 on TPP's weird-stuffameter.  But hey, one of the sculptures may be of an ancestor, a knight brandishing an armored leg is on the family coat-of-arms of TPP's alter ego!  Nice bunch of people, really. At any rate good old Atlas Obscura continues to deliver the goods; it's a good place to poke around.

Happy Birthday Charles

Today February 12th is Charles Darwin's birthday, and my dear little Sister's birthday too (A card is in the mail, Sis.); she's just a tad more than 1/4th as old, which sounds much worse than it is as this is Darwin's 206th birthday. In years past TPP would have cake and get out his Darwin library (10 of his books) for his students to peruse, but this year not. So here's your tiny dose of Darwin: "We now come to the nyctitropic or sleep movements of leaves." (The Power of Movement in Plants, 1880) The image shown is a species of Oxalis, a wood sorrel, which have leaves with three sort of heart-shaped leaflets. Darwin devoted several pages of this book to describing their sleep movements.  Sleep movements of leaves occur in many plants characterized by a drooping of the leaf and a folding of the leaflets such that half as much surface area is exposed. Reading his books leaves you impressed by Darwin's powers of observation.

Lincolnland needs a state vegetable? Well, don't nominate a fruit!

When it comes to crops here in Lincolnland, there are two, maize and soybeans. In terms of value nothing else comes close. Some 4th graders decided that the state needed an official vegetable, and one of our legislators with nothing else to do decided to help, so they are nominating sweet corn as the state vegetable. Except of course, it's technically a fruit, an immature caryopsis with sugary endosperm, i.e., a cereal grain. It's hard to know if Lincolnland has any vegetables of note; maybe asparagus. Now of course this is a repeat of the all too annoying problem of usage versus botany. Tomatoes and cucumbers are fruits. And so are cereal grains. Now apparently our citizens each eat on average something like 50 lbs of sweet corn, but is that the weight at harvest?  As you know, you buy sweet corn by the ear (infructescence) and the husks and cob are not eaten and discarded, and you hardly know where to put a high carb "vegetable" like this in the food pyramid. And of course when you got 4th graders doing the voting it skews things a bit toward the tastes of a younger cohort. According to their criteria the state "vegetable" should probably be squash, marketed as canned "pumpkin", for which the state is actually famous (pumpkin capital of the USA) but does that bounce it back into the fruit category where it actually belongs?  Who knows. Go for it kids.

Erotic garden in northern Thailand

Sorry TPP missed this erotic garden on his last visit to Thailand, but it's newly opened. Not sure this is quite TPP's cup of tea, but it does have a tea house. To be sure, this is not the first place featuring numerous phalli that TPP has visited; one temple in southern India had thousands. That the owner of the garden looks like a very nice lady only demonstrates how differently different cultures perceive such imagery. In the USA you'd probably get arrested for pornography or lewdness for constructing mammaries in your garden. But were they botanically true to the theme? Will they have Amorphophallus and Phallus growing? There are other plants that might be appropriate too, e.g., Clitoria, Mammillaria. Why things may get out of hand and require some Euphoribia antisyphilletica. Here's one of the milder images for this family-oriented blog, quite an idea for a fountain really (a phallic phoutain?) but suddenly TPP feels a strong urge to urinate!  Must be the tea.  Wonder what the ladies over at Garden Rant will think of this garden design. Ladies? 

Lincolnland's science deniers in Congress

Actually Lincolnland only has 5 hard-core science deniers, and all things considered that ain't bad, but sadly, disturbingly, one of them represents TPP's district.  And somehow having elected "leaders" who prefer Biblical prophecy to science when it comes to making policy is something TPP does not find comforting at all. Here they are, complete with quotes, thanks to Bill Moyers.  Go to that link and look up your own state, readers, and for my foreign readers, just snicker away because the USA strives to provide the world with political entertainment in place of real leadership.  Here they are: Mike, Rodney, Randy, Peter, and John, oh, and they all are GnOPe.
Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL-12): When asked during a radio interview whether he thought climate change was real, Bost said, “I don’t. I don’t know that I do; no.” He continued, “Some scientists do; some scientists don’t” believe in climate change. [St. Louis Public Radio, 10/16/14]
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL-13): During an interview with Illinois Public Media radio, a constituent asked Representative Rodney Davis what he planned to do to combat climate change, and he responded that “global warming has stopped 16 years ago.” He then went on the say that climate change is real but the debate is over whether or not it is manmade or natural. [Illinois Public Media, 10/16/12]
Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL-14): “The greatest impact on our climate clearly is the sun, and we have very little impact on the sun and how much energy and temperature the sun is sending to the earth. We have seen clearly over thousands of years that at different times more energy has come through and different times less energy has come through, and that variation has impacted climate change. Over the thousands of years that’s been recorded we’ve had both colder times and warmer times. It happens to be that we’ve recently come out of a warmer time and now actually we’re headed in to a little bit of a colder time, the impact of the sun is much different than impact that we could have had.” [Illinois Review, 12/2/09]
Peter Roskam (R-IL-06): During a debate at the College of DuPage, “Roskam drew the ire of the crowd by calling global warming junk science.” [College of DuPage Courier, 10/20/06]
Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL-15): During his introductory remarks at a House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing, Representative Shimkus read from the Bible to prove that global warming will not destroy the earth because only God can decide when the earth will end: “The earth will end only when God declares it is time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.” [House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment Hearing, 3/25/2009]

Mid-winter garden status report

So far the winter of 2014-2015 has been fairly mild.  Some unseasonal cold during the late fall to winter transition. Some snow, but nothing unusual. A night or two of deep cold, around 0 F, but not prolonged or severe cold. And now following some a couple of modest snow events, a mid-winter thaw. This provided an opportunity to have a look around at the gardens, an inspection of sorts. There be lots of limbs and twigs to pick up, the result of having had a couple of fairly wet, heavy snows. It'll take a couple of hours to gather all that dead wood, but fortunately nothing got smashed in the process. The Rhododendron-hating oak missed; probably didn't factor the wind correctly. Evergreens in general look OK including a new Cephalotaxus, plum yew. Nothing looks dry or brown, or both. Hard to tell if a Helleborus foetidus is going to flower or not, even zero degrees, which is way below freezing in F, is pretty cold for it. No obvious bunny damage although a couple of bunny barriers has to be repaired. Bunny population is not quite so high as last year, but as soon as it gets dark they appear and will visit the area around our bird/squirrel feeders to see if they find any food. Evidence indicates that the Cooper's hawks have been foraging OK and that the Phactors have a couple less cardinals than they used to have. Must be their protective coloration. Tiny sprouts can be seen where the Scilla is poking up promising a blue lawn (here and here) will follow. A few other early spring bulbs are also showing up, and yes, those have been nibbled. Bunnies got to eat. So the general status report is good for this time of year. Hard to know as variable as the weather has been what the next 4-5 weeks will be like. But what the heck, TPP planted some parsley seed in some Jiffy-7s just to get things going.

Promoting literacy, but not in our neighborhood

TPP's walk to work takes one of three paths, all quite pleasant, two of which are green boulevard malls. It's good to switch things around, but generally, the eastern most street is taken to campus and the western most street taken home. The middle street, one where the Phactors lived for 22 years is seldom walked now for no good reason. At any rate, on the way to campus TPP walks past one yard where what looks like a doll house sits on a pole. It is a little free library; take a book, bring back a book. This has always struck TPP as a fine gesture, a really nice, simple thing to do to make the world a slightly better place. However it turns out that not everyone has neighbors as nice as ours, or neighborhoods as nice as ours; in some places neighbors complained about these little libraries and dopey city officials citing ordinances stored away for decades just for such purposes deal with squeaky wheels by giving in to their curmudgeonly complaints and asking for the removal of these book exchanges. This makes TPP want to put up a little library along with a Thai spirit house (not an endorsement), especially if little floral leis were easy to come by as they are in Bangkok. How about that neighbors? Freedom of speech right beside freedom of religion.

Assessing risk and the anti-vax position

TPP grew up when measles and polio were real threats. Kids died of measles too. Every one of my grade school classrooms had at  least one student who had some form of paralysis from polio, so when the Salk vaccine became available parents wasted no time in getting their kids vaccinated. Polio has basically disappeared and the measles was almost eradicated in the USA 15 years ago and hasn't been a serious health problem for at least twice as long. This means that living within a well vaccinated herd the risk of these diseases seems very low, very distant, so avoiding vaccinations does not seem to place you at any risk. The recent measles out break shows how wrong that is in our global community where it is pretty easy to get to places where measles still exists. Then when the vector returns home, and visits some high traffic public place, you get an out-break of measles. In the safety of our herd, other risks are perceived to be greater like the discredited association of vaccinations and autism. This is a case of coincidence - the onset of autism often appears at about the same age as childhood immunizations and people naturally sought to find cause and effect relationships. This is an easy error in judgement to make, the result of only counting hits and not the way more numerous misses. Humans are quite bad at assessing risk; people fearful of flying think nothing of driving their cars although the latter is a far greater risk. In spite of the actual data, people see driving as a lower risk because they are in control. TPP gets parents terrified of letting their college age students take rain forest field trips because of the "dangers", but yours truly is much more worried about them the one night they spend in a city. But now the situation is becoming dire as the herd immunity has fallen below a safe level especially for something as easily vectored as measles. Now the decision to avoid vaccination for your children is no longer personal and no longer low risk; it affects the general public and your kids are at greater risk especially if they travel. This is why states used to require proof of vaccination before you could attend public schools; people make poor decisions that affect others. A good case can be made for not allowing unvaccinated people to leave the country, not because they are at greater risk catching a disease, which they are, but because they become vectors reintroducing an eradicated disease. 

Assessing assessment in higher education

In an article entitled “The walking dead in higher Ed” (whatever that means; it never says) Geoff Irvine tees off on what passes for assessment in higher education, and at the institutional level, it is indeed woeful. So what the ever-loving hell does this guy mean when he says “they [colleges and universities] can’t prove that students are learning”? That is what this faculty member has done for the past 35 years! TPP constantly assesses student learning; they learn content, they learn to make connections with other fields of knowledge, a hallmark of a liberal education, they learn to understand concepts in more sophisticated ways, they learn to think, they learn to observe, they learn how to frame questions and test them, they learn how to learn. This all can be demonstrated to just about anybody if they have the time to wade through all the materials collected during a typical semester-long course. However, multiply this by the number of courses, and the mountain of material becomes insurmountable, so the university hired this faculty member to provide a single letter summary, a metric quite limited to be sure, and then they take my word for it that students have learned what the course was intended to teach them. Now of course what administrators really want, and what the non-educators who impose their views on higher education really want is some nice easy metric that says this university is this much better or worse than that university (nothing new here). Oh, there are lots of metrics that don’t have anything to do with learning, e.g., graduation rate. It is important to graduate students at a high rate, and it may mean you are good university, or an average university with very good students, or an easy university; it all can look the same. Teaching and learning are complicated things to assess, and at higher levels, institutional levels they never are assessed because the essential interaction is at the grass roots level between faculty and students. TPP has tried more new things, more new approaches, and more new techniques that you can imagine, some work well and others are quickly discarded. But really, you think students can pretend learning and this faculty member won't notice?

What does this guy means when he says, “the primary source of evidence for a positive impact of instruction has come from tools like course evaluation surveys”? Course evaluation surveys tell you one thing and one thing only; they tell you what students liked and what they didn’t like. As a long time professor, TPP can assure you that students can learn a great deal from things they don’t like, but fortunately as a pretty creative instructor, he has found a lot of interesting, and yes, fun things from which they also learn. And of this learning, he has direct evidence in many forms. Still you must take my word for it because even with all the materials is you won’t know what evidence of learning and what isn’t without my input.  To demonstrate this to an administrator once, TPP wrote three short justifications for a research project and told them one of was a total fabrication, an out-and-out fib, and challenged them to pick it out. Of course, in a distant field, someone could do the same to me. 

Geoff says, “the problem is that faculty and program leaders are indeed content experts, but they are no more versed in effective assessment of student outcomes than anyone else on campus.” Say what? Who else is going to assess whether students learned anything in my class? Who else would know?  You must challenge students with situations, some few of which are called exams, where they must demonstrate learning by first drawing the dots, using correct terminology and examples to label the dots, and then connect the dots in a manner that demonstrates learning when done on blank pieces of paper. 
 What Geoff was trying to accomplish with his article was pretty easy to figure out; he’s an entrepreneur, a huckster for his own company’s assessment product. He’s just one more assessment consultant trying to win the hearts and minds of clueless administrators who believe his assessment critique BS. Yes, that’s right, Geoff Irvine is the CEO of Chalk and Wire,  where you will find “all you need, to achieve your assessment vision”.  TPP envisions people learning the correct use of commas, but here we have evidence that they don’t, an illustrative assessment.

Inside Higher Ed should provide a disclaimer before they let a guy with a vested monetary interest in criticizing assessment use their publication as a bully pulpit. In case it isn't obvious, faculty generally dislike guys like Geoff because they seem to lack a basic understanding of the educational process, and a general contempt for what faculty think of as assessment, and how faculty assess learning.  At the very end of the article, Geoff says that institutions of higher education need “one essential unified goal: to make certain students are really learning”.  Always thought that was our single reason for existing, and to say we need such a goal rather indicates Geoff's disconnect with what he wishes to assess.

A brief history of "quotation marks"

Who knew? Well, of course things like quotation marks and other such punctuations must have a history, but TPP never thought about it before. Here's a link to a brief history of "quotation marks", which at one point were double commas, a concept TPP really likes,, probably because he doesn't type so good. It was very interesting and naturally the history of such marks starts at the library in Alexandria. The article was excerpted from a book titled Shady Characters, which might be worth a read if only to find out how poorly us poor bloggers use punctuation.  If you like such things you find more at Slate's Lexicon Valley, playfully clever place for lovers of language.

Cooking up a storm

It's a stormy winter weekend here in the upper mid-west. And it's Stupor Bowl this Sunday, and little but college basketball otherwise. Neither one generates any interest, and if you don't know, dumping on basketball in the heartland of the USA is a sacreligous in the minds of many. Sorry, but us hockey guys never understood how a game without sticks where hitting is against the rules could be called a sport. So what do gardeners do? Well, you cook up a storm. A dinner party for 6 close friends had the Phactors roasting a marinated leg of lamb (raan) with a potato-cauliflower stir-fry, a cucumber raita (yogurt), flatbreads (naan), a vegetable (kohlrabi, carrot, parsnip) mulligatawny soup (dynamite!), some spicy shrimp in coconut milk sauce, and a passion fruit mousse (neither of us like Indian desserts) to finish things off. Today TPP made a roasted potato soup for Mrs. Phactor's womens' group coming for din-dins tomorrow and pizza dough and sauce for our own dinner tonight (saving the left over lamb later in the week). Wow, how did so many pots, pans, and dishes manage to get dirty?  How did so many bottle of win manage to get empty? OK, if you knew our friends you could answer that one. Needless to say, the Phactors spend a great deal of time in their kitchen, which is also the room in our house with the best view of out gardens, now re-cloked in white as this storm moves through. A cold blast will follow this front, so that potato soup will be darned comforting 24 hrs from now.