The two types of teaching assistants (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

I had a few perceptions about teaching assistants when I was an undergraduate student. There were two distinct types of teaching assistant personalities that seemed alarmingly obvious. The first “type” of teaching assistant was the one who didn’t care, who just went to class to teach because they had to, and who graded word for word based on whatever teaching rubric they were given. Then, you had the T.A. who was completely, utterly, in love with the subject they were teaching–their enthusiasm showed in ways in which the word “passion” would be an understatement. These were the ones who wanted you to love the subject as much as they did, and when they were good at it, boy were they good. One in particular made me love American History–and believe me, I am a complete science nerd at heart.

My first class as a T.A., I decided I wanted to be the later. I wanted to show how passionate I was about learning to my students so that they would become excited and want to engage with me as well. Let me tell you–it’s exhausting. After a full day of lab, sometimes I don’t want to be that happy-go-lucky girl who has a giant smile on her face as I’m talking about human migration out of Africa. But I try. At the same time, being a T.A. has taught me that it is not easy. Time management is key–grading 75 papers each week isn’t something that can be done in one sitting. On the other side of the fence now, I realize how much T.A.’s put into their courses, even if they are the first type that I mentioned previously. I appreciate them so much more now, and especially the later who encourages, listens, and shows passion. I only hope that with time I can inspire my students as much as some of my T.A.’s did in the past.

Originally posted  on November 13, 2012

What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done. Continue reading “What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)”

Teaching Non-Majors (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

One important aspect of being a teaching assistant is learning to teach non-majors, since in many cases, these students don’t come to class with a strong interest in the subject or with particular or special motivation for the course (it is, after all, not in their major subject). In my experience in mathematics, I have seen that the plurality or majority of teaching resources seems to be spent teaching students outside their respective department (at least by some measures, e.g. number of courses offered). This is probably true of many other departments. Teaching majors being a serious and core priority, teaching non-majors should nonetheless be a different, but still important, sort of priority. Continue reading “Teaching Non-Majors (Throwback Thursday)”

Benefits to Being a TA (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

When I was first looking into graduate school programs, I was attempting to avoid having to teach at all costs. However life, and especially research funding, does not always work out as planned. I’ve been a TA now for several years and have to say teaching has greatly enhanced my graduate school experience. Yes, it does take a lot of time away from doing your actual thesis research, but it does develop many valuable skills. I’ve noted a few: Continue reading “Benefits to Being a TA (Throwback Thursday)”

Sacrifices

In the past month, two of my three closest friends from high school have either gotten married or placed a down payment on a house. Two weeks ago at the wedding, the single one, whose house is still currently in the process of being built, showed me pictures of the structure and mentioned how real it felt as they began to put the windows into place. Being stuck in grad school while close friends make these huge commitments is less than ideal to say the least. As their future gets clearer, they pose questions about the cloudiness of mine and as I’ve posted on the blog before, my aspirations of going into academia don’t necessarily impress my trio of friends: The Dentist, The Surgeon, and The Homeowner.

Seeing their lives progress while much of mine has remained at a stand still somewhat made me question my chosen path. These interactions combined with the barrage of academia job applications I’ve sent out without much any response hasn’t been positive reinforcement that this is going to be my career.  Even if I thought industry was a good fit for me, I haven’t had any sort of formal experience since my internship in 2009 and wouldn’t really know where to begin to make the switch. Most of my professional experiences the last 4 years have been so focused on teaching, I’ve been honing skills that I’m not sure how valuable they would be in an industry setting. Sure, my public speaking is much better, and I’d argue I can communicate science better than most of my peers, but even students from my department who have much more impactful research and leadership experiences than I do have struggled finding a job.

About a month ago, I set a deadline of June 1st as when I’d start looking for positions in industry,  just to see what was out there and if I could find a position that would work for me.  That was Monday.  However last week, the instructor for the summer course I’m TAing for had a conflict and needed me to cover her lecture.  I’ve given talks at conferences and departmental seminars, but this would be the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to probably outside of my high school graduation.  It was an introductory lecture, Biological Molecules, teaching the building blocks of proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids, something I had no problem teaching but given this was my first time, I had this odd feeling of nervous excitement, similar to Christmas morning as a child, heading into the lecture. 2 hours later…okay, you caught me, I let them out early. 1.5 hours later, I felt inspired and confident that that all the sacrifices I’ve made to be here have been worth it, and that the wedding and the house are still in my future and I’ll get to them.  First comes the hard part, finding someone to let me teach.

Teaching Assistants: Teachers in Training

Serving as a graduate Teaching Assistant or “TA” provides graduate students with opportunities to experience and learn what it is like to teach. The role of the TA often depends on her/his subject matter expertise for the course. Whether serving as a professor’s assistant or primary teaching support, teaching class part-time, or as the primary teacher for a course, a graduate student TA experiences firsthand the joys and challenges of teaching. Serving as a TA is often the first real teaching experience for those aspiring to become a faculty member. Although TA’s usually have experience performing research, writing, and working with colleagues both faculty and graduate students alike, they often lack real teaching experience. Serving as a TA helps them understand the important difference of being in front of the classroom and sitting within it.

TA’s are compensated. TA’s receive a significant stipend plus payment of their tuition and fees. In return, TA’s work 20 hours per week. TA’s usually have some background in the course or courses for which they serve as a TA. TA’s often have taken the course or related courses for which they serve as a TA. In return, TA’s often have office or lab hours in which they work with students. TA’s help grade exams and papers subject to the professor’s judgment. Also, TA’s may lead exam review sessions. Most importantly, professors often assign TA’s to work one-on-one with students having difficulty with the course.

All of the TA’s roles and responsibilities not only assist the professor, help students learn the course’s content, and build a sense of classroom community but also provide the TA with valuable training. How well a TA benefits from this training is directly related to how well s/he teaches when s/he becomes a professor. This training enables a TA to better communicate her/his expertise to her/his students when s/he becomes a faculty member. Serving as a TA is integral to a TA’s success when s/he becomes a professor because the experience will enable her/him to teach more effectively and enhance students’ learning.

Learning to Teach Something New

I have taught school finance as an adjunct professor at the graduate level for many years, and my ideal role is that of professor. I enjoy teaching, writing, publishing, and research. One of my greatest joys is observing how students begin to grasp school finance concepts and budgeting principles before ultimately developing an understanding of how proper school finance is linked to the provision of a top quality education. Like all students regardless of age, educational setting, or grade, the epiphany occurs differently and at different times for different students. Most importantly, the epiphany occurs and serves my students well over their careers.

The overwhelming majority of the students, who have attended my school finance course over the years as part of their Master’s in Education, are teachers. Almost all of my students report feeling some level of trepidation when registering for the course because school finance has the little or no overlap with other courses they have attended or previous life experiences. However, my students report that they find it instructive to attend a course that has the little or no overlap with other courses they have attended or previous life experiences because it helps them focus on understanding how students learn new things and, perhaps more importantly, how to hone their skills for teaching concepts that their students find new.

I help my students overcome their trepidation by demonstrating how they have performed many of the budgetary process steps that we discuss in the course in their own life; they called them something different but many of the underlying concepts are the same. Slowly but surely my students gain confidence. Many of my students have told me following the course that their experience in overcoming their trepidation for attending a course focusing on “something new” and learning the new material has informed their pedagogy.

Perhaps we can all benefit from accepting challenges to learn new things especially when these new things seem outside our comfort zone. Moreover, perhaps those studying to become teachers will work hard to understand what it is like for students who feel challenged learning new material because they fear they might fail while doing so. Similarly, those studying to become teachers might incorporate this understanding in their teaching by demonstrating the keen sense of accomplishment that stems from learning something new and realizing a return on their investment that overwhelms their risk.

Teaching Issues: Behavioral Ethics

As graduate students, we share our opinions with the force of fact.  In many fields, this unwavering confidence is necessary for ideas to be considered.  We are required to frame our ideas so we receive thoughtful insight,  constructive criticism and no nit-picking.  Typically, this means significant amounts of preparation and burrowing into the ideas which we support.  What a fantastic skill to develop!

Have you ever considered what happens when you stand up in front of an audience with this strong bias towards your own ideas?  As a presenter, you are serving as an “expert” on a topic.  While you may want to persuade your audience of an opinion (yours, your advisor’s your department chair’s), doing so without all of the relevant information, including opposing points, is deceptive.

As teachers and mentors, what is our responsibility to our students?  Is it ethical to share your opinion without letting them form their own?  Or to present one side of a research argument without at least mentioning the other?  The one-sided or incomplete seminars I have experienced left me skeptical and unexcited.  The classes I’ve taken taught by stubbornly opinionated professors have left me questioning the expertise of the professor.  Perhaps these are conscious choices of the presenter, but it is unclear if these individuals understand the mistrust they instill in their audience by forcing their own perspective or missing important information.

I found an interesting series of videos on behavioral ethics that discusses social influences on individual choice.  As leaders in the classroom, laboratory or organization, graduate students have influence on undergraduates and peers.  It is important to acknowledge this influence and use it carefully and thoughtfully.  When you prepare for your next class just consider what you are sharing, or not sharing, with your audience.  Consider if you are being honest about what you do and don’t know to support your conclusions.

Have you ever considered this perspective or your responsibility as an authority figure?  Leave comments on the post to continue this discussion…

5 Teaching Tips for New TAs

A year ago, I was starting my first semester as a TA in the new Biology Workshop set-up. This change was going against decades of pedagogy as TAs were asked to act as facilitators rather than re-lecturing content that professors explain in lectures. Now, I had taught some informal pass/fail classes before, as well as done some science outreach teaching middle school students (Rutgers Science Explorer Bus), but this was my first experience teaching course content to college students. To make matters worse, I hadn’t taken biology since my first year of college! But over the past year, I’ve not only learned more about biology than I ever thought I would need again (as a chemist!), but I’ve learned even more about teaching and controlling a classroom.

1. Learn Student Names

After my first year teaching, I was appalled at how few TAs actually took the time to learn student names. I’m actually very poor with remembering names but as an instructor I think it’s important to know who your students are as it makes you seem more personable, as well as holds students accountable for their actions. If you have a Sakai site, getting photo rosters from them is extremely easy. I’ve actually made use of seating charts to help me early on each semester. From a student’s perspective, it might be the only time during their first year that an instructor of a class knows their name.

2. Be Yourself

Whatever your personality, find a way to integrate that into your teaching style. I feel most first year TAs try to portray an image of them acting like a professor, I know I did when I first started teaching, but I often find imitating the intimidation of a “scary” real-life professor can sometimes curtail questions from students. If you like to joke around, find ways to connect to your students that way. If not that is fine too, but students need to see you as knowledgeable AND approachable before they’ll feel comfortable in your class.

3. Be Prepared

I try to account for every situation imaginable but I’ll be the first (hopefully!) to tell you things will go wrong sometime this year. You will make mistakes, but that’s okay!! As great as technology is, it can lead to problems. This happened to me this week as 35 minutes wasn’t enough time to prevent tech issues from showing up 1 minute after class started. As someone who has a strict routine in almost all aspects of my life, teaching helped me think on my feet and innovate on the fly! You’ll need this in any job, especially teaching.

4. Grade as You Go

If your students are handing you work that needs to be graded, don’t take any new assignments until you hand them back. If you are expecting students to generate content, you should be generating feedback. As a side bar, hand out previous assignments/quizzes at the end of class as low grades can increase side chatter as well decrease motivation to listen during class.

5. Don’t be Afraid to say “I don’t know”

There have been times when students have asked me a question that I couldn’t answer. These are maturing adults. Copping out with an answer like “That’s a good question, look it up!” or merely avoiding makes you seem like you don’t know the answer AND you don’t care if the student finds out either. Try looking it up yourself, asking another TA, and if necessary follow up with the student the following week. It’s actually a nice way to review content and build connections from past material to what you are covering that week.

Most importantly, if this is your first semester teaching, good luck and I hope you learn from your students as much as they do from you.

What I Learned This Summer

Summer teaching is a unique experience for many graduate students. For students in many disciplines, it may be the first, primary, or only chance to teach one’s own class. In addition to being an opportunity for graduate students to transition to instructor roles, summer courses also give students and instructors alike different opportunities than a Fall or Spring term.

For me, this summer presented the chance to develop new and exciting (to me, at least) materials for the course MATH 244, which is a course on differential equations geared mainly to engineers. Without changing the overall curriculum of the course, I decided to integrate computer-based exercises (small & large) to give students the chance not only to learn computer skills that accompany the mathematical material in the course, but to use computer-based work to aid them in learning the rest of the material.  The goal of these changes was to improve learning.  Although the course was not long enough to establish serious, long-term, in-depth skills, the experience should serve as a useful introduction to particular sorts of software and to computing skills.

an epidemiological model

I also believe the use of the computer modernizes some of the other instruction, and benefits students with algorithmic, visual, or kinetic learning styles. I believe the ability to manipulate mathematics and see significant visual output in real-time has a profound impact on how students understand concepts like the stability of equilibrium-solutions to differential equations.

I would also argue that this approach helped better organize the course, both logistically and in students’ minds, as components of the course related to computation and visualization were not segmented into awkward places throughout the term. By making computation and visualization more central, and more hands-on, students more easily integrated this material with the theoretical and non-computational methods.

an information flow model

This also effectively separated the computational and visual elements of the course from exams, where asking students to perform tasks better suited for a computer limits the assessment. Students were instead asked to delve into complex computer-based tasks over a longer period of time, as “projects”. (This, as a side-effect, provided some relief from high-stakes testing.)

Students used complex computational and graphical methods.

Student evaluations seemed to indicate that students perceived this part of the course as beneficial: Instructional survey scores for “I learned a great deal in this course,” “I rate the teaching effectiveness of the instructor as,” and “I rate the overall quality of the course as” were substantially higher than average. Individual comments reflected positively on the use of computers for assignments and for in-class demonstrations. Five respondents to the instructional survey (over 25% of the class) indicated that computer-based work was how “this course or the instructor encouraged [their] intellectual growth and progress.”

A population dynamics model

Of course, this was challenging for students, but despite the fast-paced nature of a summer course, most students did not feel overloaded with work. For every student who believed there was “extra work” due to the additional computer-based workload, there was another who realized that this was eliminating a significant amount of alternative work to be done without computer to cover the same material.

Here is an interactive demonstration similar to those used and produced by students. The Wolfram CDF Plugin is required.

Images used in this entry are used under fair-use guidelines. They are excerpts from student-generated work in the course described in this blog post.

What lab reports can learn from literary analysis

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done.

As many commentators have previously complained, standard labs teach students that doing science means following a recipe (e.g., the instructions from your lab book), and there is a “right” way to do it and a “wrong” way to do it. (Of course, the “right” way results in data that agrees with the hypothesis.) Practicing scientists know that actual science looks nothing like this. You rarely start with a clearly-defined hypothesis and straightforward experiment to test it. Instead you usually just have some vague idea you want to investigate, and then you do some calculations, perform some experiments, whatever you can think of, but with no guarantee they will work or solve your problem. And often you end up addressing a problem different from the original one you were trying to solve (see my post about this here).

But I contend the lab report fails to teach another important aspect of science: how to craft a persuasive, evidence-based narrative. Real scientists almost never write anything that looks like a lab report. A lab report is, well, just a report: rigid, sterile, lacking any point of view. Reports are what police officers write after they investigate a crime. Scientists write papers for scholarly journals. And scientific papers, in my opinion, are much more like the literary analyses I used to write for humanities classes. They’re persuasive. They have a point of view. You start off with a thesis, which can be pretty specific and quantitative (“My model in equation 1 describes the data well”) or broad and qualitative (“Protein folding stability is the main determinant of protein evolution”). But just like in literary analysis, you’re advancing a point of view, and your job is to convince the reader that it’s valid. To support the thesis you build a narrative based on evidence — in literary analysis, this may be quotations from the work being analyzed or historical facts about the author, while in science the evidence is experimental data and calculations. One professor I had in college described scientists as “lawyers for the natural world.” Your paper describes your case. You are trying to make a persuasive case about some phenomenon in nature, convincing the readers (the jury) that your thesis is correct.

The cold, rigid nature of the lab report pretty much kills this aspect of doing science. To students the lab report mainly serves as proof that they did the experiment “correctly,” and any discussion of the data is perfunctory and merely reiterates what they think is obvious, that the data agrees with the hypothesis. We need to break free from the rigid structure of the lab report and allow students to see their write-ups as opportunities to craft convincing narratives in support of a (scientific) point of view, supported by evidence. We should select topics that allow students to form a non-obvious point of view that must be carefully justified with data and argument, rather than giving them experiments where the outcome is obvious and the data is self-evident. Not only would this teach a much richer and more accurate version of science, but it reveals a major place of harmony for the sciences and humanities: how to use evidence and logical argument to support an idea through writing.

Teaching physics with social media

It shouldn’t be surprising to see social media seeping its way into classrooms these days, given its growing diversity and ubiquity.  I had the chance to try social media for a class I team-taught last spring, Physics 106 (Concepts of Physics for Humanities and Social Science Students, also known as “Physics for Poets”).  Previous incarnations of the course have essentially been watered-down versions of the introductory physics courses for pre-med and engineering students.  Along with three other graduate students, this year we completely redesigned the course to focus less on blocks sliding on mysteriously frictionless surfaces, and more on modern, relevant topics like cosmology, energy sustainability, and superconductivity.

We experimented with making social media a major part of the course.  Although this runs the risk of being a mere gimmick, we were committed to social media applications that were really in the best interests of the class.  Since the course is intended for students not pursuing scientific careers, one of our main goals was to stoke the students’ interest and develop their familiarity with popular science media, which is how the students will likely access science for the rest of their lives.  Popular science, like so much media these days, has a major presence on social media, especially Twitter and blogs.  To that end, we incorporated Twitter and blogging into the course.  We created a Twitter feed for the class (@RUPhys106), and several times a week we tweeted links to articles, videos, and websites with cool science content, most of which was directly related to the current course material.  For example, we were able to share this interactive NY Times feature on the hunt for the Higgs boson when we discussed particle physics.  When we talked about protein folding, we tweeted this beautiful blog with art inspired by protein structures.  Out of the approximately 100 students in the class, we accumulated a few dozen followers; we also embedded the feed into our Sakai homepage, which meant students who didn’t use Twitter or didn’t follow us still would see our tweets.

We also had the students write two blogs.  The topics were related to material we covered in class, but that required them to pursue further reading and develop their own take.  The students first posted drafts of these blogs to Sakai through the built-in blogging tool, and then each student had to review two of their peers’ blogs and leave comments.  Using this feedback and additional feedback from the instructors, the students revised their blogs into final drafts.  We were very impressed with the quality of many final blogs; several had the potential to be posted publicly.

Obviously, our use of both Twitter and blogging had direct benefits within the course — the articles and videos linked in our tweets provided content enrichment beyond the lectures, and the blogs required the students to learn to express scientific ideas in their own words.  But beyond these immediate benefits, our hope is that many students have come away with more familiarity and excitement about the outstanding popular science media out there: all the great Twitter feeds, blogs, websites, YouTube channels, etc.  Regardless of whether any of our students remember what wave-particle duality is 10 years from now, if they keep clicking on links about quantum mechanics as much as they do for links on the Kardashians or the world’s 12 cutest animals, our course will have been a success.

Fight for your right — no, your privilege — to do science

At the American Physical Society March Meeting a few weeks ago — the biggest confluence of physicists in the world, with over 9000 in attendance — there was a session titled “American Science and America’s Future.”  Now, who could miss a session with a grandiose name like that?  Well, it seems that a lot of people could, since the cavernous ballroom they reserved for it was less than 10% full.  To be fair, I attended a similar session last year, which featured much better attendance.  Having a Nobel Prize-winner on the panel probably helped.  But this year’s disinterest disturbed me, as did the small number of people who signed the periodic form letters APS prepares for members to send to Congress.

The fact of the matter is that most of us do science at the pleasure of the public.  We as a society have decided that scientific research is something we value — ostensibly because of its future economic dividends but also because, frankly, it’s one of the things that makes a civilization great — and since it’s something the market won’t carry out on its own, we pay for it with taxes.  So our ability to continue the scientific research enterprise that has made the United States the most powerful economic, cultural, and intellectual force in the world rests squarely on taxpayers, and more importantly, their political representatives, continuing to value what we do.  If they don’t, our privilege could be taken away.

My fear is that many scientists view this support as an entitlement, a right to follow their scientific curiosity wherever it takes them on taxpayer expense.  This hubris is not only selfish, but dangerous.  Without proper advocacy and education, the public and the political leadership are at serious risk of losing sight of science’s value to society.  There is already frequent grumbling about cuts to federal funding agencies, widespread ignorance of scientific issues affecting society like climate change and healthcare, and the growing weaknesses in science education in the U.S.  While the NSF and NIH aren’t going to shut down anytime soon, it’s very possible that science funding could face gradual cutbacks or at least radically slowed growth, especially in the face of competing funding priorities.  If and when this happens, scientists shouldn’t blame the ignorant public or politicians — they will have to blame themselves, because that ignorance is our fault.

So the time is now for scientists to take action.  Get in touch with your political representatives, both local and federal.  Write letters to the newspaper.  Be active in your community, so your neighbors can be in that small minority of folks who know a real, live scientist.  Get involved in public outreach.  But whatever you do, don’t take your research support for granted.  Let’s get the science that we all pay for with our taxes into the public consciousness.

Educational Jargon

As I have moved through my career as an educator and student of education, I have encountered numerous terms that, though unfamiliar at first, are now a part of my everyday vocabulary. Unlike terms associated with specific scientific disciplines, or even with other areas in the social sciences, educational jargon is present, at some point, in all of our lives. However, it is rarely explained and educators often forget that these are terms that they once did not know either.

When I teach Introduction to Education, I am constantly reminded that many educational terms are specific to the discipline rather than universal. One of the most commonly used terms is “pedagogy”, which I often explain as fancy way of saying “teaching style”, although it also involves a person’s philosophical beliefs about education and how children learn. In recent years, many terms related to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) have entered into everyday educational talk. For example, educators regularly refer to the ability of a school to make AYP, or adequate yearly progress. This refers to whether or not the required percentage of students in a given school have passed the state exams. It also refers to whether the correct number of students in each subgroup have passed the exams. This term “subgroup” is another piece of the jargon and refers varius groups present in schools, including racial/ethnic groups, English Language Learners, students with IEPs (individualized educational plans), and economically disadvantaged students. Whether or not a school meets AYP has an immense impact on how schools are run and the funding they receive, and it is often used without explanation. Other commonly used terms, like “tracking” and “inclusion”, refer to specific practices that are often debated in education. In order to make sense of what is written and said about education in the United States today, it is important to understand these terms.

In writing this post, I found two useful websites that give an overview of some common educational jargon. The Dictionary of Educational Jargon (http://www.teachervision.fen.com/pro-dev/new-teacher/48466.html) provides two pages of commonly-used terms defined for those entering the educational profession. The Glossary of Educational Terms (http://www.schoolwisepress.com/smart/dict/dict.html) provides a more extensive list of educational terms defined to assist parents in navigating the educational world. Both sites are useful if you would like to learn more about educational jargon, or, like many of us, simply understand what everyone is talking about!

Breaking through the Jargon Barrier

While recently reading an article in an education journal [1], the word “frame” kept jumping out at me.  The author, a sociologist, kept using this normally unremarkable word in a way that I found unusual and confusing.  Soon, though, I realized that “frame” was probably a piece of jargon with a specific meaning within sociology, distinct from its everyday use in English.

The author likely failed to clearly explain this usage (he parenthetically defines it later in the article, unfortunately not immediately after the first instance) because he was so accustomed to speaking sociology’s language of jargon that he forgot the double meaning of this word: its standard English usage, and its sociology usage.  Certainly this is an easy mistake to make for any scholar, but it poses a barrier to effective communication of ideas to a larger audience.

I think there are generally two classes of jargon which (in the spirit of creating even more jargon) I will define as class I and class II.  Class I consists of words that are unique to a particular field of knowledge, with no meaning in standard English.  We have lots of excellent examples of these in physics: “fermion,” “quasar,” or more infamously, “boojum” [2].  While these terms tend to be the scariest for a non-technical audience, in some sense they are also safer from a communication standpoint: “fermion” has no meaning outside of physics, so while lots of folks won’t know what you’re talking about if you say it, they will never confuse it with something else.

Class II is sneakier.  It consists of words that DO have a common, everyday meaning, but also have a very specific technical meaning within a field, like the aforementioned example of “frame.”  Ref. [3], which discusses the challenge of communicating climate science to the public, provides several fascinating examples of such words.  The most notorious of these words is probably “theory.”  To a scientist, theories are the most established and complete scientific ideas, typically referring to whole frameworks for understanding a wide range of phenomena that have been rigorously validated by experiments and observations over decades.  Good examples include Newton’s law of gravity, quantum mechanics, and evolution.  To the layperson, however, a theory is what a scientist would call a “hypothesis” or “claim”: an educated guess that hasn’t been verified or fully understood yet (e.g., “conspiracy theory”).  Obviously, you can see why biologists cringe every time someone derides Darwinian evolution as a mere “theory”!

So while we tend to focus most of our attention on class I jargon words when communicating to a wider audience, we should pay greater attention to class II words.  They have much more potential to mislead.  This was demonstrated especially in the recent “Climategate” ordeal, in which e-mails of climate science researchers were made public.  One point of contention for climate science deniers was the scientists’ use of the term “trick” in analyzing data.  Most scientists recognize this usage as referring to a legitimate but clever method for solving a technical problem (e.g., “I solved the equation using Fourier’s trick”).  But in ordinary English, “trick” usually refers to an intentional act of deception, which is obviously what climate science deniers were hoping to find in the e-mails.  Awareness of these class II terms in our respective disciplines, and an alert eye for them while reading about other disciplines, would serve us all well.

[1]  Wilson WJ.  (2011)  “Being Poor, Black, and American: The Impact of Political, Economic, and Cultural Forces.”  American Educator, Spring: 10.
[2]  Mermin ND.  (1981)  “E Pluribus Boojum: the physicist as neologist.”  Phys. Today 34: 46.
[3]  Somerville RCJ, Hassol SJ.  (2011)  “Communicating the science of climate change.”  Phys. Today 64: 48.