Riding the Grad School Motorcycle

From my journal, October 2013, about one month after I began grad school:

This morning when my alarm went off I was deep in a dream – a rare experience for me. I was learning to ride a motorcycle, and my learning method was just to go for a ride on the highway. As I was picking up speed on the ramp, I yelled to my dad’s friend, on a motorcycle beside me, “How do I shift gears?!” His reply: “With your hands.” That much I knew. If you know how to ride a motorcycle, maybe “with your hands” is an adequate explanation of how you shift gears. Since I’ve never driven one, just knowing I had to use my hands did not seem like useful information.

I was puzzled by where this dream was coming from until I remembered that today was my day to lead a seminar discussion on 120+ pages of material that I barely grasped. A little like learning to ride a motorcycle by just speeding ahead and giving it a try. The advice to shift “with my hands” is also pretty analogous to the advice I’ve gotten since I’ve started grad school. The answer may as well have been: “figure it out.” Luckily, the negative consequence of not figuring it out is much harsher in my dream than in real life.

Maybe this dream was some unconscious way of coping with my stress, or maybe it was just a coincidence. But almost 3 and a half years later, I still really like the analogy. The whole point of academic research is to uncover knowledge that is currently unknown by anyone. With that task, it’s often hard to give concrete advise on how to do things. People can give vague advice like shift with your hands (or find a work-life balance or communicate your science clearly), but those pieces of advice are often followed by the question how? and that answer is more elusive. That can be stressful.

But it can also make research so much fun.

Choose your own framing.

Climate change is like a medical disease

I recently wrote for PLOS SciComm about a very cool study on the benefits of using analogies to talk about climate change (aptly called The Promise and Limitations of Using Analogies to Improve Decision-Relevant Understanding of Climate Change). The researchers found that using any analogy (comparing climate change to a medical disease, a courtroom, or a natural disaster) was helpful, but that the medical disease analogy in particular helped people consider important aspects of climate change that often polarize people along political party lines.

Please check out the full piece here!


Becoming a better teacher: Fish is Fish

This summer, I’ll be the Instructor of Record (real teacher, not Teaching Assistant) for the first time. I’m teaching Research Methods, which is a “lower level” (mainly first- and second-year undergrads) course that I’ve TAed for twice, and I really enjoy its content. Because I’m participating in UCSD’s Summer Graduate Teaching Scholar Program, I have to complete a course called Teaching + Learning at the College Level. We’re two weeks in, and I’ve picked up some interesting nuggets from the readings and class discussions, but one analogy in particular is still on my mind.

We talked about the children’s story Fish is Fish by Leo Lionni. I’m kind of glad I never encountered this story when I was a kid because its novelty had a great impact on 25-year old me. The story is about a fish and tadpole who wonder what life on land is like. Eventually the tadpole becomes a frog who can leave the water to learn about the land. He reports back to the fish, listing off features of things on land. Cows, he says, have black spots, four legs, and udders. The frog describes birds and people too, and here’s what the fish imagines:

The fish and the frog are talking about the same things, and they assume that they have common concepts of cows and birds and people, but their actual mental representations — what they see in their mind’s eye — of these things are quite different. If the fish had been given a traditional paper and pencil test that asked him to define a cow, he’d be correct in writing that it has 4 legs, black spots, and udders. He’d ace the test, fooling not only the teacher, but also himself, into thinking he actually knows what a cow is.

The takeaway, of course, is to try to make sure your students aren’t fish. Find ways to lead them beyond their fishy cow concepts, which can especially be hard when they’ve never been on land and they come to class knowing only what fish are like. Students almost always need foundational knowledge in order to understand a new concept, and there’s a good chance that at least some of the students in any class are missing that foundation.  Instructors need to be mindful that there will be times when they have to step back to assess and teach prerequisite knowledge before launching into an hour-long lecture about cows (or cognition). And then once they think the students actually know what cows are, it’s important to provide assessments that actually test understanding, and not just memorization.

There are plenty of things I might not pull off perfectly when I teach for the first time this summer, but I do feel confident that I’ll at least be on a quest to help the fish in the class become frogs so they can see what cows are really like.

Teachers of all levels and subjects: I invite you to share how you make sure your students are truly understanding and not simply parroting. How do you make sure their concepts of the cow are really cow-like, and not just fish with spots and udders?

CogSci 2016 Day 3 Personal Highlights

  • There is more to gesture than meets the eye: Visual attention to gesture’s referents cannot account for its facilitative effects during math instruction (Miriam Novack, Elizabeth Wakefield, Eliza Congdon, Steven Franconeri, Susan Goldin-Meadow): Earlier work has shown that gestures can help kids learn math concepts, but this work explores one possible explanation for why this is so: that gestures attract and focus visual attention. To test this, kids watched a video in which someone explained how to do a mathematical equivalence problem (a problem like 5 + 6 + 3 = __ + 3. For some kids, the explainer gestured by pointing to relevant parts of the problem as she explained; for others, she just explained (using the exact same speech as for the gesture-receiving kids). The researchers used eye tracking while the kids watched the videos and found that those who watched the video with gestures looked more to the problem (and less at the speaker) than who watched the video sans gesture. More importantly, those who watched the gesture video did better on a posttest than those who didn’t. The main caveat was that the kids’ eye patterns did not predict their posttest performance; in other words, looking more at the problem and less at the speaker while learning may have contributed to better understanding of the math principle, but not significantly; other mechanisms must also be underlying gesture’s effect on learning. 

    But in case you started to think that gestures are a magic learning bullet:

  • Effects of Gesture on Analogical Problem Solving: When the Hands Lead You Astray (Autumn Hostetter, Mareike Wieth, Keith Moreno, Jeffrey Washington): There’s a pretty famous problem for cognitive science tests studying people’s analogical abilities, referred to as Duncker’s radiation problem: A person has a tumor and needs radiation. A strong beam will be too strong and will kill healthy skin. A weak beam won’t be strong enough to kill the tumor. What to do? The reason this problem is used as a test of analogical reading is that participants are presented a different story – an army wants to attack a fortress (and the fortress is at the intersection of a bunch of roads), but there are mines placed on the roads leading up to it, so the whole army can’t pass down one road at a time. Yet if they only send a small portion of the army down a road, the attack will be too weak. The solve this by splitting up and all converging on the fortress at the same time. Now can you solve the radiation problem? Even though the solution is analogous (target the tumor with weak rays coming from different directions) people (college undergrads) usually still struggle. It’s a testament to how hard analogical reasoning is.
    But that’s just background leading to the current study, where the researchers asked: if people gesture while retelling the fortress story, will they have more success on the radiation problem? To test this, they had one group of participants that they explicitly told to gesture, one group that they told not to gesture, and a final group that they didn’t instruct at all regarding gestures. They found that the gesturers in fact did worse than non-gesturers, and after analyzing the things that people actually talked about in the different conditions, discovered that when people gestured, they tended to talk more about concrete details of the situation – for example, the roads and the fortress – and this focus on the perceptual features of the fortress story actually inhibited their ability to apply the analogical relations of that story to the radiation case.
    Taking this study into consideration with the previous one, it’s clear that gesture is not all good or all bad; there are lots of nuances of a situation that need to be taken into account and lots of open questions ripe for research.
  • tDCS to premotor cortex changes action verb understanding: Complementary effects of inhibitory and excitatory stimulation (Tom Gijssels, Daniel Casasanto): We know the premotor cortex is involved when we execute actions, and there’s quite a bit of debate about to what extent it’s involved in using language about actions. They used transcranial direct current stimulation – a method that provides a small electrical current to a targeted area of the brain – over the premotor cortex (PMC) to test for its involvement in processing action verbs (specifically, seeing a word or a non-word and indicating whether it’s a real English word). People who received PMC inhibitory stimulation (which decreases the likelihood of the PMC neurons firing) were more accurate for their responses about action verbs, while those who received PMC excitatory stimulation (increasing the likelihood of the PMC neurons firing). This at first seems paradoxical – inhibiting the motor area helps performance and exciting it hurts, but there are some potential explanations for this finding. One that seems intriguing to me is that since the PMC is also responsible for motor movements, inhibiting the area helped people suppress the inappropriate motor action (for example, actually grabbing if they read the verb grab), and as a consequence facilitated their performance on the word task; excitatory stimulation over the same area had the opposite effect. Again, this study makes it clear that something cool is going on in the parts of our brain responsible for motor actions when we encounter language about actions… but as always, more research is needed.


  • Tacos for dinner. After three days of long, stimulating conference days, the veggie tacos at El Vez were so good that they make the conference highlight list.

For every cool project I heard about, there were undoubtedly many more that I didn’t get to see. Luckily, the proceedings are published online, giving us the printed version of all the work presented at the conference. Already looking forward to next year’s event in London!

Metaphors and the government shutdown

Jon Stewart comically pointed out some bizarre metaphors bering used to talk about the government shutdown:

For one, Obama drew an analogy to workers at a factory, saying that the shutdown would be like workers who decided not to return to work if their employer refused to give them the benefits they demanded. Personally, I don’t think this analogy is too clever – that’s exactly what happened, but I guess if Obama thinks his message will be clearer to the average American if he talks about it in the context of a job the average Joe might have… it’s an interesting rhetorical strategy.

Stewart also showed a clip of Republican Senator Tom Coburn comparing the nation’s debt to credit card debt, and making a show of physically ripping up a giant credit card, belonging to “Washington.” Again, I’m not sure I would call this metaphor very creative, and I’m skeptical that his show of cutting up the card was very persuasive… but another interesting rhetorical strategy.

The final spotlighted metaphor in the Stewart segment was by Republican Senator Mike Lee. He compared spending in Congress to an instance of going to the grocery store and being forced to buy a book about cowboy poetry, Barry Manilow albums, and a half ton of iron ore, when he only wants bread, milk, and eggs. At first, his point was lost on me, but then I realized that his gripe is with paying for things for other people – things that one might not actually want. For some reason I have trouble feeling sympathetic for someone whose grocery store sells Barry Manilow albums and books of cowboy poetry – it sounds much more interesting than the one I frequent.

Although I think the metaphors that Stewart highlights are all pretty weak attempts at reframing the current situation, I think it’s cool that politicians intuitively (I’m assuming) appreciate metaphor’s persuasive power and are attempting to use it to their advantage. If they actually did a good job of it, it might be cause for worry- the possibility that they might be able to persuade just by referring to Congress as a factory is a little alarming!- but for now, I don’t think we have much cause for worry.

Grad school is like…

Now that I’ve survived my first full week of classes in grad school, I am clearly a grad school expert.


But I have been spending quite a lot of mental energy trying to figure it out – noticing how it’s similar to, and especially different from, undergrad; working to figure out what’s expected of me, by others and myself; and trying to articulate what exactly my goal(s) is/are.

This look is pretty consistently on my face. Image:

This look is pretty consistently on my face.

I’ve also been a bit preoccupied with metaphors, as I’m working on a metaphor-based research proposal for a fellowship application. I guess the two have become intertwined in my subconscious, because my first (coherent) thought upon waking up this morning was, “grad school isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon!” Not long after I began giving myself credit for this clever analogy, I was racking my brain for more. As a firm believer that concrete metaphors help us make sense of complicated abstract concepts, I was determined to uncover more metaphors for grad school as a means of better understanding what exactly it is I’m doing with my life.

Naturally, I turned to Google, querying, “Grad school is like “. Here’s what I found:

According to Ronald Azuma:

“Being a graduate student is like becoming all of the Seven Dwarves. In the beginning you’re Dopey and Bashful. In the middle, you are usually sick (Sneezy), tired (Sleepy), and irritable (Grumpy). But at the end, they call you Doc, and then you’re Happy.”

Another way to think about it might be the Dorothy’s saga in The Wizard of Oz. So far this aspect of her story feels most parallel to mine:

A huge weather event occurs, dramatic enough to lift the whole house and deposit it in a parallel universe, bursting with plastic flowers and a phalanx of Little People dressed in outfits vaguely reminiscent of lederhosen.  

This is true: perplexing undergraduate creatures are everywhere!

 Another metaphor I found intriguing is that grad school is like kindergarten:


After this exercise in metaphor collection, I feel much more confident that I’ve got a solid mental conceptualization of grad school. I’ve got it dialed in now, and I’m ready for week 2 🙂

The Trolley Problem

For the first time in my life, I read an entire book dealing with ethics. And loved it! Tom Cathcart’s The Trolley Problem approaches a famous thought experiment in which a trolley is headed toward 5 people on the track (with the assumption that they will all die if the trolley continues), and a bystander has the opportunity to pull a switch, sending the trolley onto an alternative path where there is only one person who will be killed. Most people agree that pulling the switch is ethical, since five lives are saved, despite the one lost. Many alternate versions of the trolley problem have been devised over time to make different philosophical arguments about ethics and morality. In one version, for example, the trolley is still heading for the 5 innocent people, but a man on a bridge above realizes that if he could throw something heavy in front of the train, it will stop and the five lives will be spared. So he throws a heavyset man, again sacrificing one life to save 5. In this version, the idea that one death is better than five no longer seems to rationalize the person’s action. The trolley problem demonstrates that human ethics are far from clear-cut.

trolley book

In the book, Cathcart makes a thought experiment out of the thought experiment by writing as if the original trolley scenario actually did occur, and Daphne Jones, the woman who pulled the lever and caused the trolley to kill only one person, is on trial for murder. Many different angles are presented, including the prosecutor, defense, a number of professors in various fields, a bishop, a psychologist, and people who call in to express their views on NPR.

Each view is cleverly written, and as one of the jurors admits, regarding the arguments brought up earlier in the book, “After each one of you has spoken, I’ve found myself agreeing with you. Your arguments are all very persuasive – until I hear the next one.” I couldn’t agree with her more.

In the epilogue, Cathcart asks whether we’re any wiser, after hearing arguments for both sides of Daphne’s case. I can only speak for myself, but I feel wiser. This work continually forces the reader to reconsider what seems like a cogent argument, to question intuition, common sense, and rationality. If these faculties are fallible in this fictive case, can we trust them in our real lives?

The section that expressed a professor’s lecture in a class, “Critical Thinking in Contemporary Life,” really struck a chord with me because the subject of the lecture was analogies. She taught that analogies usually compare two people or things without expressing what about them is similar. And while they’re similar, they’re not actually the same, or it would make for a lousy analogy. In the context of Daphne Jones’s case, we have to decide which situation, given a handful of others, some in which the protagonist seems clearly guilty and some in which he/she seems clearly innocent, is most analogous to Daphne’s. The professor warned her class that analogies are “both very useful and very dangerous.” When I read this, I felt the need to both underline this phrase and dog-ear the page. I was pretty excited.

I really loved the interdisciplinary nature of this book – within a few pages, arguments were made based on St. Thomas of Aquinas’s teachings, Jeremy Bentham’s writings, and fMRI findings. As a side note, I’d advise readers to splurge on the physical copy of this book over an e-version, since the cover is a clever depiction of the original thought experiment that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on.