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The Bruce Voyles Rule and the Samuel A. Rebelsky Rule

For a bit more than a decade, Grinnell has been sponsoring student-faculty research projects that we call Mentored Advanced Projects, or just MAPs for short. This (hopefully short) essay reflects on two of the rules associated with MAPs.

Back when MAPs were new, there were a few experiments to figure out what form compensation should take. One of the options was $1,000 per student. Henry Walker noted that at that rate for summer MAPs, we not only made less than the students, but possible less than minimum wage. An alternative was soon developed: Every six MAPs could be traded in for a course release [1,2].

There weren’t a whole lot of guidelines for the MAPs, except that they had to be serious research projects with an expectation of external presentation or publication. Faculty responded in many different ways to the MAP program. Some decided not to do MAPs (or not to do many). Some, with multi-year projects, expressed frustration that they could not do MAPs under the expected publication guidelines, and took research students without compensation. And some tailored the MAP program to their own research preferences.

My colleague in Bruce Voyles usually had a large number of students interested in doing research with him, and too little time to do that research, particularly during the academic year. Bruce did the sensible thing (at least from my perspective) and decided to take six MAP students each semester in lieu of a regular course. Those students got excellent experiences and publications, particularly because Bruce could focus more on them than he could in a typical upper-level class of 18 students or so.

I will admit that I much prefer summer MAPs, because I think the experience of working full-time on a project is important. I also know that that summer MAPs help our mid-level students realize just how strong they are. So I generally made it my practice to take as many summer students as I could, whether or not I got compensation [3]. I’m not sure how many students I took that first summer, but it was more than anyone expected a faculty member to take.

I don’t know about Bruce, but I find that the students have a better experience once we hit critical mass. After some point, they start serving as resources for each other, and learn that they can be experts. It’s a second reason I take so many. (I don’t find that this happens as much during the academic year; students really need to be full-time to develop the expertise to support their peers.)

And then the committees got involved. In particular, Curriculum Committee got involved. They said something like We don’t think anyone can successfully supervise more than two students in a semester, or maybe three if they are working on the same project. We don’t think anyone can supervise more than eight students in a summer, and then only if they are working on two or three common projects. Bruce and I pointed out that we’d been successful with more students. Bruce’s students had journal articles. Mine had just won an outstanding paper award at a conference, and given a presentation to an SRO crowd [5,6]. So, whether or not they believed it, it was clearly possible to successfully supervise that many students.

Now, it’s pretty clear to me that there were good financial and systemic reasons to make those rules. I’m not sure that the College could afford to have a large number of faculty members teaching six MAP students during a semester rather than teaching what would usually be a larger class. If enough faculty members chose that model, our regular classes would increase significantly in size. Similarly, I don’t think a faculty member should be able to build up more than one course credit over the summer, and perhaps not even that much. I think we both said something like If it’s a financial issue, cap the compensation, but not the number of MAPs. But the committee (or perhaps just a few powerful folks on the committee) said We don’t believe that students will get good supervision if faculty take on more than that many students.

And so those two rules were put into effect. I call the one that limits the number of MAPs during a semester the Bruce Voyles rule and the one that limits the number of summer MAPs the Sam Rebelsky rule [8]. I don’t mind limits [9], but I’d like people to be honest about the rationale. Since there is no official cap on the number of directed research (399s), independent study (397), and guided reading (297) students a faculty member can take on, it’s pretty clear that the rationale is not based on expectations of quality (or lack thereof), or we’d put similar limits on those other kinds of independents.

It’s somewhat funny to see what effect the Voyles rule has. For example, Chemistry requires every student to do a significant research project, most typically through a MAP or an REU [11]. However, that sometimes requires that a faculty member take on more than the Voyles limits. And so some students get designated as 399’s, even though they are doing exactly the same work. Yay pointless policies!

I’m hoping that now that we’ve decided to change compensation for MAPs and have initiated the Research Opportunities for All project [15], these two rules will disappear. I know that the Curriculum Committee is currently considering changes to correct the Voyles Rule. I’m guessing that some form of the Rebelsky Rule will stand, even though we have limits on summer compensation and already have processes in place for when the demand for summer MAP students is more than the budget can handle.

Oh well, at least I have a rule named after me (at least in my head). And I won’t deny that I’ve participated in the creation of some rules that I regret [18]. But I do wish that we’d be more explicit about why we make rules, and that we’d find ways to revisit them more frequently.

[1] Yes, this policy applied to both summer MAPs, which students work on for about forty hours per week, and academic-year MAPs, which students work on for perhaps a dozen hours per week. I can probably write more about that later.

[2] The faculty recently voted to change our mechanism for MAP compensation. Academic-year MAPs are no longer-compensated, and summer MAPs are now compensated at $1,250 each, with a cap of $5,000 for the summer. However, in exchange, all post-tenure faculty get full-year sabbaticals at full pay, rather than half-year sabbaticals at full pay (or full-year sabbaticals at half-pay).

[3] In the years before we were compensated for MAPs, I also took summer students. And since we’ve instituted MAPs, I’ve still found ways to support students (e.g., through our 399 program), even if I get no
compensation for supervising them [4].

[4] Yes, I like compensation. But I do the work because it’s important, not because I receive compensation.

[5] SRO is a TLA for standing room only.

[6] The student was Rachel Heck (Rose), who continues to present to SRO crowds, at least at the last GHC [7].

[7] GHC is a TLA for Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing or just Grace Hopper Celebration.

[8] I should probably call it the Samuel A. Rebelsky rule, since I prefer to appear in print as Samuel A. Rebelsky. But I usually speak the name of the rule, and I’m fine with Sam Rebelsky in spoken form.

[9] Although it’s ironic that we imposed them during the wonderful No Limits campaign [10].

[10] I kept insisting that we were spelling it wrong, and it should be Know Limits, but no one listened.

[11] REU is a TLA for Research Experiences for Undergraduates. REUs are an NSF-funded [12,14] program to encourage undergraduates to further their careers in science.

[12] NSF is a TLA for National Science Foundation.

[14] I’m not sure what to do when I have an endnote and a hyphen. Should that have been NSF [12]-funded? That form looks pretty awful.

[15] We do not yet have an acronym for Research Opportunities for All. Should it be the TLA of ROA or the slightly sillier RO4A? Perhaps it should be OfAGStPiaREialOoMoTMaC for Opportunities for Advanced Grinnell Students to Participate in a Research Experience in One or More of Their Majors and Concentrations [16,17].

[16] Dear close readers, including my sons: I don’t care whether or not I got that stupid acronym right. No one will ever use it.

[17] Amazingly, my spell checker seems to think that OfAGStPiaREialOoMoTMaC is misspelled.

[18] Since middle son will ask: I was on the task force that revised voting procedures at the College. One of the policies we added was that SFS faculty cannot vote on new hires. I think we had a good rationale: The continuing faculty in the department should be able to determine their colleagues. But I also realize that it can feel very unfair to the SFS folks.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-12-12.