Wednesday, August 12, 2015

One mermaid's path to tenure

I’m not writing this in hopes that you’ll congratulate me. This is just meant to give readers a peek behind the curtain.

I’m writing because maybe you, or maybe someone who has sway over your career, has read an academic's blog and wondered how it would affect their chances for tenure. Or, maybe you or a colleague, your chair or department head, your dean, or your provost has wondered why anyone would bother going to the trouble to write on a blog when there are more important things to accomplish. Well, in my case, there clearly weren’t, because I managed to write on this blog and still be awarded tenure. What's more, I know, without a doubt, that my writing on this blog was integral to it.
Not me and not Proconsul.
This is the seriously awesome result of googling for "Mermaid Professor." (source)

I’ve written about why I blog before. And, looking back, there is so much more I could add to that post because of what's occurred over time since. However, the main reason still stands: Writing on The Mermaid’s Tale has been immensely important for my academic life. The reading and writing I do here enhances my teaching and research and the enlightening discussions I participate in here and elsewhere (facilitated by my writing here) boost my teaching and research even more.  And the people who make the decisions about my tenure definitely noticed. My departmental colleagues, my dean, and the provost all readily acknowledged the value of my blogging in their letters recommending me for tenure. And the good people who served as my external reviewers didn't see my blogging as damning enough to withhold their support. And the good... no, great people who collaborate with me certainly never turned up their noses either!

I've known since receiving the provost's letter that I owe it to readers and other bloggers to post something about getting tenure. I also thought a tenure-related post could help out younger academics, in general, by exposing how someone who's never taught in a graduate program--with all the intellectual buzz and the worker bees to help, you know, the academic model us Ph.D.s are most familiar with--can still get awarded tenure.

But I've been dreading such a post because I really don't want to write a biography right now. It feels quite narcissistic to get tenure and then to post your life story as if tenure somehow validated that, as if anyone could possibly emulate another person's detailed path to tenure, as if anyone would want to!

Plus, where to begin? So much so deep in my past has set me up for getting awarded tenure, so many people have been crucial to this outcome, that it's impossible to know where or with whom to start except, obviously, at conception.

But what I really don't feel like writing about publicly, and in association with hooray-for-tenure, is about why I haven't done much work on early Homo despite studying with a terrifically wonderful advisor, Alan Walker, to do just that. And that's because part of the reason is a statistic here. That, as well as other parts of the explanation take away from the fact that I'm very happy with the way my career has panned out and I continue to look very much forward to every single day I'm an anthropologist.

So instead of a tour through my influenced and circumstantial history leading up to tenure, maybe I'll post the narratives I included in my portfolio. It's going to be uncomfortable. I'm going to have to look away while I paste the text, like I do when the phlebotomist pricks my vein. But here you go, minus the files of evidence that go along with each narrative.* This is a successful tenure portfolio at a small state school, in an undergraduate-only program. Hope it's useful because ouch it feels quite personal:

Tenure Portfolio Narratives
Statement of Teaching and Learning
I’ve taught four different courses so far at URI and they all focus on human origins, evolution and variation. The introductory course, APG 201: Human Origins, counts as a general education requirement for the natural sciences and also is a requirement for majors and minors in anthropology. The upper level courses attract not just anthropology majors and minors but students from diverse scholarly backgrounds who are interested in the in-depth examination of issues in biological anthropology. These upper level courses include: APG 300: The Human Fossil Record (a hands-on course which is why I dedicated a large portion of my start-up funds to the purchase of new fossil casts which augmented the existing collection); APG 310: Sex and Reproduction in Our Species (a course I created because of my new research interests in the evolution of human reproduction, as well as in procreative beliefs and how they have influenced human evolution.); APG 350: Human Variation (in which I will continue to use personal genomics to engage students.). In all of these courses, my two most important teaching goals are:

(1) Students should get as strong a handle on evolution as possible, shedding as many misconceptions as possible, so that they can best comprehend the biological, ecological, and cultural significance of human variation and evolution. (That, in a nutshell, is why human evolution is taught and studied within an anthropological context!)

(2) Students should achieve as much of this evolutionary and anthropological understanding on their own as possible, by thinking creatively, synthetically, and critically about the evidence.

Number one means that I probably take more time with evolutionary theory than most of my colleagues at other institutions. But because biological anthropology is the only college-level exposure to evolution (let alone biology) that many undergraduates have, it’s important that it's strong. Once they graduate, they’re consuming, producing, and voting based in no small part on their understanding of their place in nature and their (and others') place in the human species. This one chance that we get to represent evolutionary theory and human ecology and biology is crucial make-or-break time for us anthropology professors. Number two means that I have to deviate far from the conventional format for the introductory course.

In January 2012, I was awarded a $21,842.50 from the Provost’s Office under their initiative called “Innovative Approaches Using Technology to Enhance the Student Experience at URI”. The title of my proposal, “145 URI undergraduates peer into their genomes to trace their ancestries, discover their individualities, ponder their futures, and celebrate their unified humanity,” sums up nicely what students were able to do. It has been a transformative new curriculum on many planes, from my perspective as a teacher, from student perspectives as learners, and also for the impact it is making on how my colleagues in my field and beyond will use personal genomics to teach anthropology. That is why I will continue to use personal genomics in APG 350.

I'm always updating APG 201, every semester, with new findings in human evolutionary biology and physical/biological anthropology. I'm also always modifying pedagogy and adapting activities with the goals of improving and broadening student learning. For example, I use colored index cards (in lieu of clickers) for regularly practicing questions with immediate feedback, which seem to engage and motivate students in new ways. I also used personal genomics in this course when I awarded the Provost’s grant, however, I plan to only use it in the upper level course (APG 350) in the future, not because it wasn’t a success, but because it takes up too much time away from fundamentals that need to be covered in this introductory course.

Since arriving at URI, I have dramatically rearranged the traditional presentation of APG 201 course materials (as they are presented in every major textbook for this popular Gen Ed course in North America) and have taught it for three years in this new way with great success. The major difference is that I start with active observations and then work on explaining them with evolutionary theory rather than beginning with evolutionary theory and then asking students to apply it thoughtlessly to spoon-fed information. Starting in Spring 2015, I will begin teaching it without a textbook, using two excellent popular science books and many on-line high-quality readings instead. The syllabus for this new curriculum is included in my portfolio. I will provide essential, fundamental material in handouts when it is not covered explicitly in the readings—something I’ve been poised to do since I wrote a reference/textbook Human Origins 101 in 2007. I plan to eventually publish a paper describing this new strategy of guiding who I call “naturalists in a molecular age.” Because word has gotten out to my colleagues about both the personal genomics as well as this new curriculum, I’ve been invited to participate in an education symposium (that’s been accepted) at this year’s physical anthropology meetings in March 2015.

One of the most positive outcomes of the first run of APG 310: Sex and Reproduction in Our Species was the recruitment of a student (name withheld, Anthropology and Chemistry major, class of 2014) to take on a project in APG 470: Directed Research with me, guided by constructive input from the whole class. He updated a survey from a 1960s Master’s thesis at URI that looked into “premarital sexual behavior” of undergraduates here at URI. After earning IRB approval to administer the survey to volunteer participants, he presented his research at the end of the Spring 2014 semester to a group of students and faculty. Most interesting was the result showing no significant difference in the amount of premarital sexual behavior that male and female students reported, as opposed to the significant difference between the sexes that the first survey found, decades ago. This sort of work piques student interest and two anthropology majors from my second-run of APG 310, name withheld and name withheld, have worked with original student name withheld to rewrite the survey to bring it up to date, to be more health-focused, and in hopes of making the results more instructive to the URI community. Name withheld and name withheld will be submitting their proposal to the IRB committee in October 2015 and if approved they’ll be collecting the data and analyzing it over the course of the academic year.

I have been very lucky that some of the most enthusiastic researchers and clever minds have opted to work on projects with me for credits in APG 470. I asked name withheld (Anthropology & Biology) to co-author an article on the evolution of childbirth with me for the Annual Reviews of Anthropology because of her research skills and also her relevant interests as demonstrated in prior anthropology courses with me. And then name withheld (Anthropology & Biology) has gotten a head start on her Honors project with me already. She’s taken up a project that I’ve been wanting to get started since 2006. She’s figuring out how apes lost their tails and, thus, why we ended up tailless. In the coming academic year, she’ll be applying for funding to travel to regional museums to collect data on primate skeletons.

In the next few years, I will be devising short courses and field trips through the study abroad office to sites of anthropological interest—not just to my fossil field sites in Kenya, but to other sites in Africa, Europe, and Latin America where students can chase primates in the wild or crawl into painted Paleolithic caves.

Statement of Research
How did humans become humans, how did apes? How does evolution work? And does it work differently in humans or because of humans? These are the questions that drive my research and educational endeavors. Since arriving in Fall 2011, URI has encouraged and supported my scientific and scholarly activity as I have pursued two main areas of research (below). I have also begun a book project that brings all of these things together. These three research areas should continue to challenge me and create opportunities for students for many years to come.

1. Augmenting and making sense of the fossil record for ape and human evolution.
As part of an international and interdisciplinary team, funded by the Leakey Foundation and the NSF, I perform paleoanthropological fieldwork on Rusinga and Mfangano Islands in Western Kenya. Fossils from these sites represent plants and animals that lived in the early Miocene epoch (dating to about 20-18 million years ago), some of which, like the primate Proconsul, are good candidates for some of the earliest apes. Without the origin of apes, chimpanzees and humans would not have occurred. This work is not only geared toward finding more specimens of Proconsul and other primates, but we are also reconstructing the paleoenvironments in which these primates lived and evolved. Our latest paper to come of this project was published in Nature Communications this year.

Here at home, I continue to work on the functional anatomy and growth and development (ontogenetic) patterns of fossil apes like Proconsul, particularly in their feet and hindlimbs, as those traits relate to locomotion and to the ability to cling to mother during development, and over evolutionary time. It’s important to reconstruct how this fossil ape was moving about if we’re to understand how modern ape and human behavior came about. Since coming to URI I have taken advantage of our proximity to the primate skeletal collections at the American Museum of Natural History where I have gathered data on extant primates to compare against the fossils. Up until recently this work has been a continuation of my doctoral dissertation on anthropoid feet and hindlimbs, but recently I have begun a similar project with undergraduate anthropology/biology major and honors student name withheld on tails. By looking to primates in the fossil record (like the tailless Proconsul), to variation in extant primate tails, and to known genes for tail development, we are answering the question, “Why don’t humans have tails?”

Although there’s much to keep us busy in addressing these matters here in the U.S., I would still like to return semi-regularly to Kenya to continue the lifetime of work that needs to be done at Rusinga and Mfangano Islands, in both fossil collection and analysis. I hope to create a short course with International Programs to give URI students a marvelous experience doing paleoanthropology.

2. Reconstructing the evolution of human pregnancy, childbirth, and infant development
Living apes, not just fossils, also offer a glimpse of evolution. So along with another team of collaborators, I study energy use in apes and other mammals. Mammals process energy differently from one another and these differences may reflect different evolutionary selection pressures both internally within the organism and externally from the environment. Energetic use in humans is fairly well understood but it's only through comparison with other species that we can understand human energetics from an evolutionary perspective. Likewise, human data are necessary for understanding the energetic use of other primates. To this end, I’ve collected energetic and behavioral data from the chimpanzees and gorillas at Lincoln Park Zoo. The first paper to come of this work was published this year in PNAS.

I am particularly interested in the energetics and metabolic parameters of pregnancy, fetal growth, infant growth, and lactation and how those determine the timing of birth in humans and other mammals. This is a significant area of anthropological research, given how it has long been assumed that the unique human skeleton, particularly the pelvis and how it’s metamorphosed for upright walking, has limited gestation and fetal growth—that the skeleton explains why our babies are difficult to birth and are quite helpless when they arrive. My research has shown that this traditional pelvic explanation (the “obstetrical dilemma”) is much weaker than its popularity indicates and that maternal metabolism and how mothers process energy are likely to be the primary determinants of gestation length and fetal growth, not just in humans but across primates and placental mammals. Although it is my primary goal to reconstruct human evolutionary history as accurately as possible (or at least as plausibly as possible), there are also potential applications of this research toward better understanding the causes of pregnancy disorders like preeclampsia.

This research has attracted attention and I have been invited to give talks at numerous college campuses as a result. The highlight so far has been the invitation from organizers (and established human reproduction researchers) Karen Rosenberg and Wenda Trevathan to participate in a scholarly seminar at Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research (SAR) titled “Costly but cute: How helpless babies made us human.” The collection of our papers is currently under peer-review and the volume should be published next year. I’ve also been invited to write on the evolution of childbirth for the Annual Reviews of Anthropology. That manuscript is due in January 2015 and I’ve enlisted a keen undergraduate anthropology/biology major, name withheld, to co-author the piece with me.

I am currently scheming up my next research steps. (The rest of this paragraph is redacted because it's a big fun secret for now.) 

The Baby Makers: Scholarly/Popular Trade Book Project
For the last two years I’ve been working with a literary agent on a proposal for a book that I’m very excited about. It’s requiring me to scratch at the overlap between evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology—disciplines that are diametrically opposed in the eyes of many scholars. Reconciling these two schools of thought as well as discovering what, perhaps, evolutionary biology cannot explain is challenging but feels necessary in order for me to go on as both an anthropologist and an educator. The book assumes, as its premise, that ... (The rest is redacted because it's a big fun secret for now. It's a project that I've since partnered-up with Anne in, and we'll gladly talk about it but not post much about yet. We're very excited and having a ball.)

Statement of Service and Professional Outreach
I have participated in service projects at many levels at URI and within my field, while I have also prioritized outreach, locally and beyond. I will continue to perform these duties and hope to increase my contributions and impact, but here is what I have done so far:

Our department had a successful search for a new colleague and I’m proud to have been on the committee that helped to accomplish it. In addition to our regular advising majors and minors, I served as the anthropology advisor at University College for the 2013-14 academic year. The same year I joined the Faculty Senate and I served on name withheld’s Master’s committee in CELS where he defended a stellar thesis on shark feeding morphology. This year I served on the search committee for a multicultural postdoctoral fellow in BES/CELS chaired by name withheld.

Beyond URI, I have reviewed manuscripts for several scientific and scholarly journals, as well as grant proposals for NSF and the Leakey Foundation. In 2013, Nature Education launched the room of open-access, peer-reviewed articles on The Human Fossil Record, which I edited as part of their Biological Anthropology series. There are even more articles in press that will be posted soon. In addition, I was invited to give a talk at the California Academy of Sciences in November 2012 about my experience with personal genomics (23andMe) as an educator, as an anthropologist, and as a human being. While I was in San Francisco I visited an assembly of 3-8 graders as well as a high school genetics class and talked with them about science, genetics, paleoanthropology, and evolution. There, I also gave a presentation to the Leakey Foundation’s Scientific and Executive Boards about the research I’ve done that they’ve funded and will hopefully continue to support. It was well received and I was encouraged to keep applying for funding. Here in Rhode Island I have presented on evolution at a public library, a Masonic lodge, a Catholic elementary school, and three times at assisted living/retirement homes.

For the past three years I have been a core team member of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins Program Educator’s Network (HopEdNet). My duties include fielding questions about human evolution, via email, that visitors to the exhibit hall in Washington DC type into the computer. I’m also involved with the Smithsonian in a magnificent project called “Teaching Evolution Through Human Examples” (or “TetHE”) which is led by PIs name withheld and name withheld of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program. I have helped to create new resource activities and teaching strategies focused on human evolution for AP Biology. My primary role is as scientific content consultant but I am part of a larger group of people, including the leaders of the AP Biology standards as well as pedagogy experts, all working together on this project. These curricular packets will be complete in date withheld and I am very much looking forward to using them in APG 350: Human Variation, both to teach biological anthropology but also to expose our students to this pedagogy should they become educators themselves. It’s through my TetHE colleagues that I got my scientific process lesson plan published at Berkeley’s Understanding Science site. It’s currently one of the top three teacher resources there.

I try very hard, where and when I can, to engage the greater public in anthropology, evolution, and science and so I continue to write on the blog The Mermaid’s Tale. I write about new discoveries in biological anthropology, including my own, as well as educational issues (mainly for my colleagues), and larger “how do we know what we know” questions. This is most definitely an outreach endeavor, however, the boost to my own research and teaching that comes from writing here, and engaging with my blog’s co-authors and colleagues who read the blog, is significant. A list of my best, most popular posts is here. In total, my posts have received 110,000 hits since I began writing in 2009. Most of my posts are read by hundreds, but a few have been seen by as many as 13,000+ because some colleagues assign them to students (as do I) and others have cited or re-published them on their own websites. My most recent post on natural selection was republished by the on-line science magazine io9. Another of my posts was re-published on Scientific American’s site. It’s due in part to my activity on my blog that my anthropological research got noticed by the BBC and I was asked to be part of an episode of their science program Horizon (equivalent to our Nova). Here’s the piece in the Guardian that discusses my research and that was published to announce this television program. I also filmed all about ape and human tail loss for PBS’s “Your Inner Fish” program: “How do we know when our ancestors lost their tails?”

Do you have questions? Anonymous or otherwise, feel free to post here or on Facebook or Twitter and I'll do my best to answer them. Cheers.

*Here's my CV and here's my profile. In the above narratives, you may see some new typos because I've just copied and pasted them from a pdf and also because I make typos. Hyperlinks are gone because they're not the point, and I replaced all names with "name withheld" because Google searches for those people shouldn't land on this.


AEMcDonald said...

This is great that you are sharing this! I included my social media activities in my tenure portfolio, but I don't have direct evidence that they swayed the committees one way or the other. Congrats on getting tenure!

Ken Weiss said...

No one is more pleased to have had Holly be a part of a blog as Anne and I are. Her promotion is a wonderful and wholly earned recognition of the many, diverse, and high quality skills that Holly has, and her dedication to all parts of her job as a university faculty member. She is both an elegant, humorous, and highly skilled writer, but one who thinks deeply and creatively about many different subjects. Because we know her, we know that she is also very dedicated to her students as well as to her research interests.

Holly has made the Mermaid's Tale a blog site we hope is worth being pleased with, or even proud of, and a site that tries very hard to contribute to both the professional and general public thoughtful presentations. And, hopefully, to make them interesting reading as well.

Holly's a terrific person in general, so her tenure is an all-around very good commentary on ways in which the world, even the academic world, can recognize diverse talents and contributions, that is, the things universities claim is their mission. And beyond all that, she's a very fine friend!

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thank you for the moving comment and love to you both from too far away.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Holly !!

Would you please explain to me what tenure means? Tenure, as the history goes, was introduced in 1910s so that the university professors could make political statements against wealthy donors without being defunded by them. In that system, the donors could donate money to universities, but did not have any say over how the university spent it or the donor could not exclude certain professors.

These days, the funding comes from the Federal government and no professor makes any statement against NIH due to the fear of offending some NIH big-shot. What does tenure mean these days? Don't you need a 'political statement' along with teaching statement and research statement?

Holly Dunsworth said...

Nothing useful comes to mind as response.