Advice from a professor who almost flunked out

Sometimes students see their professors as truly gifted brainiacs, and there are certainly some people like that among my faculty colleagues.  Most of us, however, are nothing special.  What sets us apart really just boils down to two things: interest enough in something to invest years of our lives to study it and caring enough to get things right when we know better.

When I was an undergrad I already had those qualities and I had wanted “to be a professor” since I was a little boy.  Through grammar school and high school, it looked like I had the tools to do that.  I managed straight-As with very little effort, and it wasn’t until Calculus that I hit something that really stumped me.  I remember investing a whole four hours in study for the AP exam in Biology in 1985.  It was the most I had ever studied for anything, and probably equal to the amount of time I had spent on homework and studying my entire senior year.

"And I'm 'Peaked-in-8th-Grade' Tim O'Connell"

“And I’m ‘Peaked-in-8th-Grade’ Tim O’Connell”

As you might imagine, that warped sense of what work really meant (academic work, that is – I knew what it was like to mow lawns for 8 hours a day) did not prepare me well for college.  I was probably already in way over my head by the second week of classes my freshman year.  I went from A-student to C-student almost overnight, culminating in placement on the academic warning list for a sub-2.0 GPA in the spring of my sophomore year.  I wasn’t partying.  I wasn’t drinking. I never skipped a class. I was really trying.  The problem is that I didn’t yet know better.

I love this place but it brought me to my knees.

I love this place but it brought me to my knees.

Full disclosure - studying a bit *more* might have helped me too . . .

Full disclosure – studying a bit *more* might have helped me too . . .

I spent the next two years learning how to study.  It took more than buckling down.  The old adage applied to me that I needed to work smarter not harder, but “smarter” varies with the individual.  No one can tell you what it is that will turn things around for you.  I had to discover it for myself, and I suspect you will too.

For me, the thing that ultimately worked was a change in attitude.  First, part of knowing better is the realization that the level of information that might have been sufficient for us in high school is not the level expected in the real world.  This fact is self-evident to everyone but high school students; it’s the reason that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CEO of Intel, and your friendly neighborhood heart surgeon are not high school students.

Yes, there are too many white dudes in this photograph, but there is exactly the right number of high school students.

Yes, there are too many white dudes in this photograph, but there is exactly the right number of high school students.

In college, the student begins to be held responsible for a greater depth of understanding than required for high school.  For just about everyone, that added depth requires a change in approach as opposed to just doing more of what worked in high school.  So stand back as I’m about top drop some serious wisdom here.  This is what really worked for me, and helped me dig out of my academic hole.  By my final semester as a senior, I made the Dean’s List.  I’m still growing and learning and in some ways still paying for those dull undergraduate years in which I was just spinning my wheels, but I made it as a professor.  Me – a guy who almost flunked out!  If I could get through and go on to a rewarding and challenging career then certainly you can too.

No, the secret is not Pyewacket.

No, the secret is not Pyewacket.

1) Studying is not something to do on the day before an exam, it’s something that needs to become part of a daily routine, if even for just 5 minutes. The reason that you can recite line after line from your favorite movie or sing along note for note to your favorite song is that you’ve seen or heard those things more than once.  Think of the things you really know how to do:  dive a car, throw a Frisbee, apply mascara, play the cello, bowhunt, dominate Call of Duty, etc.  Now imagine someone mentioning these things to you and you trying them for yourself for the first time a few weeks later.  Would you be ready to display expert knowledge and ability if tested on those things after only trying them for yourself once?  That’s what it’s like to cram for an exam the day before when you haven’t been looking at your notes every day in the weeks leading up to that exam.

That kid had clearly shot a basketball a few times before he won the hot-shot competition.

That kid had clearly shot a basketball a few times before he won the hot-shot competition.

2) Reading is not studying.  In fact, for me, reading is something that puts me to sleep.  I learned that it was crucial for me to engage my mind and my hands at the same time to really cement something in my memory.  Yes, there are different ways that individuals retain information, but I have not yet met the person who would derive no benefit from the following. This is the specific thing that propelled me from Academic Warning to the Dean’s List:

First, take notes. Take notes in class, take notes from your text and other readings, TAKE NOTES.  I am stunned by the number of students in my classes who think they can just sit there and absorb information without taking notes.  Now, I always took notes even as a lousy student so merely taking the notes doesn’t really help.  What I started doing was taking notes of my notes.  Here’s how that works: I might have scribbled out 2 or 3 pages in a lecture.  Part of my regular routine became to then distill that chicken-scratch into one good, clear, organized page of those notes. Often I couldn’t make sense of something I had written in haste; this forced me to consult my text to fill in the gap of my understanding in something. By the time an exam was looming, usually based on 10–15 lectures, I had 10–15 pages of really great notes from which to study.

In the days leading up to an exam, I would take notes of my notes of my notes.  My objective was to summarize those 10–15 pages into a single, one-page outline.  In the 24 hours before an exam, I studied only from that one piece of paper.   (In graduate school I even had some success paring things down to a single index card.)  Again, the point here is that no one could give me that magic sheet of paper that held everything I needed to know for the exam.  I had to physically make it myself, and I couldn’t do that without really understanding every word I wrote on that one sheet of paper.  In other words, it took practice.  You can’t expect to do well at anything with just one day of practice; the key was forcing myself to do a little bit at a time as part of my regular routine.

3) Challenge yourself to write well. The first way to do that is to place writing on equal footing with mathematics.  We don’t accept mistakes when doing math.  When we arrive at a wrong answer, the answer is wrong.  We go out of our way to avoid those mistakes by checking our arithmetic on calculators and re-doing those calculations when we find an error.  We do our darnedest to avoid mistakes in the first place, we rely on things other than our own brains to help spot mistakes, and we re-do everything to make sure we’ve got it right before we turn it in.  Why on earth don’t we apply those same standards to our writing?

Simple things like incomplete sentences, lack of agreement between nouns and verbs, and (gasp!) misspellings – these are all objectively wrong.  They’re no different than turning in a math assignment in which you’ve indicated that 2 + 3 = 23.  So why allow such mistakes?  We know they’re wrong, we can check our work before turning it in, and we have technological tools like dictionaries that can help us spell words correctly, just like that calculator that helps us determine that 2 + 3 actually = 5.

Think of it as a calculator for words.

Think of it as a calculator for words.

Students sometimes grouse that we want their papers to be “perfect” but that is incorrect. We want their papers to be free of mistakes, and there can still be a vast gulf between that and perfection. If you give me a mistake-free paper, however, we at least have a chance to make it actually better, instead of just fixing things that are wrong.

4) Finally, we hear all the time about how important it is to really think critically about the information we receive.  We need to integrate and make connections rather than just memorize something for the next test. But how?  There are ways to get yourself thinking instead of just memorizing, and here’s one I’ve hit on recently (inspired by one of my students who I think does this quite well):  In your classes, readings, and other educational experiences, train yourself to keep asking this question: “So that means . . . ?” If you make a habit of this, you will deepen your knowledge by not just memorizing arcane facts, but by training to really integrate ideas. I promise that this will make you smarter and improve your success in the classroom and, ultimately, your career.

There you go:  Four actual things you can try to improve your academic success, from someone who’s been there, struggling just to keep from flunking out.  Now that I’m on the other side of the lecture hall, I sure wish someone had shared such things with me back then.

They pay me to look at birds and spend my days hanging around with young people.

They pay me to look at birds and spend my days hanging around with young people. #winning

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Owls don’t just hoot, they also glow

In preparing for a lecture this week on avian coloration, I had organized my notes around the three main classes of pigments in feathers and the structural colors that result from light scattered from structures on those feathers.  At the most basic level (and the only one for which I can claim any understanding), melanins produce most of the blacks, browns, and grays, while carotenoids are the source of the yellows, oranges, and reds.  Any blue or green we see on birds results from light refracted as it passes through those feathers, with blue resulting from generally gray or black feathers that reflect “blue” wavelengths, and green produced by yellowish feathers that reflect those wavelengths.  Thus, the Eastern Bluebird isn’t really a blue bird.

There is a third class of pigmentation in birds that can result in a wide range of colors, from sombre browns to brilliant blues and reds.  These pigments are the porphyrins, and they’re super-cool first because as agents of avian coloration, they occur only in the bustards, turacos, and owls.

Ross's Turaco photo by Kati Fleming.

Ross’s Turaco photo by Kati Fleming.

They’re also cool because they glow red under UV light.  Wait . . . what?!

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Okay, so I had to try this (and don my white lab coat for dramatic effect).  The result?  It worked!

Porphyrins glowing under ultraviolet light on the flanks of a Great Horned Owl.  Photo by Katie Schwartz.

Porphyrins glowing under ultraviolet light on the flanks of a Great Horned Owl. Photo by Katie Schwartz.

I thought it might be most noticeable on the more intense colors of our model (a road-killed Great Horned Owl) but the opposite was true:  It was the pale creamy-buff feathers on the flank that provided any fluorescence at all.  Anyway, this was fascinating and it was fun to show the students how I’m still learning too.

Close-up porphyrin glow on a Great Horned Owl. Colt Holley photo.

Close-up porphyrin glow on a Great Horned Owl. Colt Holley photo.

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The Partners in Flight databases on Population and Species Assessment


The Partners in Flight databases were recently updated, and they represent an outstanding resource in understanding distribution and diversity of North American birds.

Maintained by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, the databases summarize information on population estimates and the species assessments that guide the regional and global priority rankings for conservation.

For example, the Population Estimates Database provides our best information on the population size of species in the US, Canada, and globally.  The database includes the source data used to make the estimates as well as descriptions of how those data were used.  Here’s a sample for four Tyrannus flycatchers:

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Western Kingbird, photo by Tim O'Connell

Western Kingbird, photo by Tim O’Connell

Eastern Kingbird, photo by Tim O'Connell

Eastern Kingbird, photo by Tim O’Connell

Gray Kingbird, photo by Dick Daniels

Gray Kingbird, photo by Dick Daniels

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, photo by Tim O'Connell

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, photo by Tim O’Connell

Given the uncertainties of population estimation I use these estimates as rough guides only.  For example, I don’t put too much stock in the assertion that there are 3 million more Eastern than Western kingbirds in the US, but I am comfortable with concluding that those two species are similar in abundance in this country, and that there are about 20 million of them.  They also outnumber Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 2:1 and the Caribbean-distributed Gray Kingbird by at least 10:1.  Based on these population assessments, it seems obvious that Gray Kingbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher should be higher priorities for conservation than Eastern and/or Western kingbird.

This is where the Species Assessment Database comes in. Here, additional data are folded in to derive priority rankings for different categories, e.g., population trend in addition to simple population size.  Here, information is presented such as the proportion of the population within the US, Canada, and Mexico and rankings of perceived threats to the species in breeding and wintering areas.  In this case, the rankings do agree pretty well with what we might expect from the Population Estimates Database:

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Some of the specific information presented, however, can be quite helpful in determining conservation priorities. For example, check out the information for Purple Finch and Cassin’s Finch:

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Purple Finch, photo by Cephas

Purple Finch, photo by Cephas

Cassin's Finch, photo by Dave Menke

Cassin’s Finch, photo by Dave Menke

In this case, Purple Finch is about twice as abundant as Cassin’s Finch, but the real difference in priority is driven by the population trend: Cassin’s Finch is not only less abundant, it is rapidly losing population.

Every day, people pore over data on bird populations, distributions, trends, etc. in an effort to achieve the three primary goals of Partners in Flight:

1) Help species at risk.

2) Keep common birds common.

3) Promote voluntary partnerships to improve conditions for birds, habitats, and people.

Worthy goals, indeed!

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“Known Biters”

Originally posted on The Waterthrush Blog:

For a brief time when we were first married, my wife worked at a daycare center.  She mentioned one evening that some of the kids had “KB” annotated next to their names on some list they used to organize activities, with “KB” shorthand for “known biters.”  Those known biters required just a bit more vigilance to keep in line . . .

In my world, known biters are birds.  Last week, I spent a couple of days mist-netting and banding with my friend Greg, and we got to handle 9 different species. Some birds are a delight to handle when mist-netting and banding.  Some will inflict painful bites. This little photo essay illustrates some known biters doing their best work!

Woodpeckers can, of course, stab rather painfully but their beaks are generally too long to pound the hand that holds them.  Chickadees are a favorite of mine: they have a…

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How will you observe Darwin Day, 2015?

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It’s Charles Darwin’s birthday tomorrow, and people around the world will be celebrating intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, and hunger for truth.  How will you observe International Darwin Day?

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HBW Alive newsletter – Feb. 2015

It’s really hard to decide what to feature to advertise the extraordinary content in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, but I’ll try.

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Great Backyard Bird Count – December newsletter

Tim O'Connell:

It’s time – countdown to the GBBC beginning this Friday!

Originally posted on The Waterthrush Blog:

As we’re finishing up our CBCs it’s not too late to be thinking about our GBBCs!

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