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Wrapped and Read: A Reading Advent Update

Spotify just told me that Superfruit was my artist of the year. “You discovered 265 new artists this year, but you really vibed with Superfruit,” Spotify Wrapped announced*. Google Scholar has not released a comparable look back at my year; there is no sleek graphic design of my year in citations. And Google Sheets is equally lagging on a social-media-sharable data visualization of my admittedly haphazard #365papers record keeping. I guess I will have to manually reflect on my reading the old-fashioned way — through blogging.


To kick off December, I created a list of twelve 2019 papers that I had really meant to read this year, but by late November were still kicking around in my ‘To Read Pile.’ Each business day in December, I’ve carved out a little time to curl up with a mug of tea, don a cozy sweatshirt, light a little candle, and read one of these papers. The ritual is so lovely. I expected this — I knew the reading itself would be a kind of reward. The challenge lay mostly in creating the list: wading through the debris of my ‘To Read Pile’ after prepping for summer conferences and fall teaching hobbled, and then assassinated, my reading habits. But once you have a list, you just have to brew the tea and show up in sweats — the paper is chosen and waiting. It is the meal prep of staying on top of the literature: a dozen tupperwares of perfectly portioned pasta, a standing line of freezer bags with curried squash soup that were frozen lying on their sides on baking pans and now stack perfectly in the freezer, a double-batch of zucchini-corn-black bean empañadas made from scratch. I will tell you from experience that those foil-wrapped freezer empañadas are doubly amazing: they are delicious and some previous version of yourself already decided what’s for dinner. I knew that making the reading list for my advent of ecological literature would be the hardest part of the 12 Days of Reading; I did not expect that I would love the gift of having a list so much. I picked some pretty great papers — see the reviews below — but even more fundamental than the quality of the papers is the fact that they are listed and for the last seven and the next five business days I don’t need exert any mental energy on choosing what to read. I cannot recommend the act of listing enough.


If you are looking for papers to add to your list, here are some recommendations from my list:


If you want to bone up on reading that will help you practice inclusion in your classroom and research, read On reporting scientific and racial history and An alternative hypothesis for the evolution of same-sex sexual behaviour in animals.


If you want to reflect on active learning in your teaching and how to help students understand the benefits of feeling uncomfortable in active learning, read Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom.


If you want to think BIG about ecology and evolution across geologic time scales, read Why mountains matter for biodiversity.


If you want to think small about local extinctions and species traits over the past century and really dig into what we can learn from historical ecological data, read Species characteristics affect local extinctions.


If you are early career and you just feel like maybe you don’t have enough imposter syndrome in your life, read Postdocs’ lab engagement predicts trajectories of PhD students’ skill development. It is extremely hard to read this paper, in which a cohort of graduate students are judged annually on a single piece of academic writing, and not try to imagine the trajectory of your own skill development. The paper models how students transition among skill levels from year to year. Honestly, I do not self-identify as a person with a simple, positive linear growth over time. I think I was among the oddball 13.1% of students that apparently decreased in skill level and then increased. But aside from the general cloud of existential reflection, I struggled with this paper because I could not reconcile the results (“PIs’ laboratory and mentoring activities do not significantly predict students’ skill development trajectories”) with the discussion’s complete lack of accountability for PIs. If a postdoc’s attendance at lab discussions is a more powerful predictor of PhD students’ skill development than the PI’s mentoring, I don’t see this as a feel-good story about the power of postdocs. (Obviously postdocs are awesome and we work wicked hard and we deserve only good things.) Postdocs are also a reflection of the PI’s mentoring; the idea that “postdocs participating in laboratory discussions” is somehow a predictor that is independent of the PI’s mentorship or lab culture seems fundamentally flawed. I was particularly put off by the suggestion that, pursuant to these results, postdocs should receive training in effective mentoring practices. In literally the next sentence, the authors admit “postdocs are underpaid relative to the value they contribute to scholarly productivity” and yet instead of a call to better compensate postdocs, they would like to add to our responsibilities.

Finally, this recommendation may be a tad over-specific, but if you want to really understand the question your committee member was working to articulate during the closed session of your dissertation defense while you made confused faces and pointed to the literature on phenological sensitivity, read On quantifying the apparent temperature sensitivity of plant phenology. (The middle author was my committee member; I totally understand his question now and it is a really freaking good one.)


Happy Reading!


Banner image: Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

*Thanks for the introduction to this band, Dr. Becky Barak & the amazing group text of the Plant Love Stories team.

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