Wednesday, February 28, 2007

You Don't Want To Know

In the next couple of weeks, I'll be roaming around giving some more talks on my research, mostly at universities I haven't visited recently, if ever. I am looking forward to the visits, although there is one thing that has been bothering me in a low-level back-of-the-mind kind of way. A few of the universities are in the same region/country where I did my postdoc, and I know I am going to be asked "How did you like being at University A?". Possible answers, all true:

- It was a beautiful city and I met some nice people.
- I really enjoyed starting on some interesting new research projects.
- I was so extremely harassed by male professors, technicians, and grad students that I left after a year, and it was by far the most hostile place for women I have ever encountered, which is saying a lot.

I have heard that University A has changed a lot in the past decade, including hiring several women faculty. The most evil technician was fired (for being unproductive with his work, perhaps because he was spending too much time threatening and humiliating women), the most evil professors retired, and the most loathsome grad student (who liked to tell me that it's too bad that it is becoming socially unacceptable for men to hit 'girls') got his PhD but never got a faculty position.

So, if asked, I will say something noncommittal but not particularly enthusiastic. I can certainly say some positive things about my postdoc supervisor, who is a very nice person, although terminally clueless. (example: "I don't know why you're having so much trouble with Technician Bob, none of my other postdocs -- George, Sam, Harry, and Trevor -- have had any trouble with him.").

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Optimist v. Pessimist

At a recent faculty meeting, as my attention drifted just a tiny bit at one point, I decided that the faculty evenly divides into optimists and pessimists, and that this classification scheme is nearly perfect -- far better than grouping the faculty by related research disciplines, age, gender, geographic origin etc. The only thing that keeps my classification scheme from being completely perfect is the existence of a colleague who will take a contrary stance just for the sake of being contrary (or for prolonging the enriching faculty meeting experience?).

In the specific context of faculty meetings and administrative issues, I am an optimist. The pessimists have a useful purpose, but mostly they are annoying, particularly in long meetings. I readily admit that optimists can be annoying as well, but at least we want to get things done instead of listing all the reasons why we shouldn't do anything except maybe sit in a conference room and talk for hours.

When my daughter was younger, we made up a game called optimist-pessimist. I would say something like "It's raining. There will probably be thunder and lightning and strong winds that will destroy flowers and scare the bunnies", or "It's raining. I bet there will be a rainbow, and birds will come out and splash in the puddles" and then she would say "optimist" or "pessimist". It was a stupid game, but it's amazing what entertains a 3 year old. Although we didn't delve into the wonderful world of department administration for examples, I bet she could have correctly guessed the label to statements such as "Let's not talk to people in that other department because they won't be interested in anything we are doing."

I don't always do well in debates with my pessimistic elders (the senior senior professors) because they like to frame the discussion in terms of their superior knowledge acquired over their many years in academia, whereas I, a junior senior professor, am naive. Perhaps there is a fine line between being optimistic and being naive, but mostly I think they are trying to undermine my arguments with contentless blather. I could do without that.

An entire department full of optimists might be a bit terrifying, though.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Don't Be Mean. We Don't Have To Be Mean

The title of this post is from an old-ish movie; one I saw way too many times when I was a grad student..

An editor of a journal in my general field was recently lamenting how rude and 'unconstructive' reviews were becoming, including ones with ad hominem attacks on the author(s). It doesn't surprise me that this happens - it's happened to me and all of my colleagues with whom I've discussed this topic - but what surprises me is how frequent it is in this particular journal. The editor said that most reviews were in some way 'unconstructive'. For a journal I'm involved with, this type of review is very rare (definitely <5% overall; last year, <1%). I wouldn't think there would be such a drastic difference within 2 subfields of the same general discipline. There is some overlap between the 2 subfields, quite a number of us publish papers in both, and therefore the reviewer pool has some overlap as well.

My journal has a higher impact factor than this other journal, but publishes fewer papers/year. The other editor handles more manuscripts and reviews than I do, but even so, that disparity doesn't account for the difference between 'most' and 'essentially none' in terms of rude reviews. I also don't think there is a big disparity in NSF funding rates for the two subfields, though the other field does tend to involve larger labs with more personnel and equipment.

It would be interesting to collect data on the 'tone' of reviews by journal, though of course the designation of a review as constructive vs. unconstructive is in some cases subjective. In some cases the appropriate designation is obvious. In the worst case I dealt with, it was unambiguous. I contacted the reviewer and asked if he really wanted me to transmit his review to the author, noting that he (the reviewer) had made some important points amongst his insults, but these points might be lost given the rest of what he wrote. The reviewer said he already regretted sending the review without taking out the insults, and asked for a chance to rewrite it. He did, the author took his constructive comments seriously and improved the paper greatly, and it was published. Happy ending.. that time.

I have been really annoyed, angered, and/or disgusted by manuscripts I reviewed, and sometimes my first draft of a review is really not nice at all. In those cases I always sit on the review for a few days, calm down, rewrite, and send off something polite, however negative overall. Most of my colleagues do the same, but I guess some people don't.

We definitely don't have to be mean.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Time Conflict

For the first time ever, I am faced with possibly missing part of my daughter's birthday. I have colleagues who routinely miss their offspring's birthdays owing to job-related travel, but I have always managed to avoid having to be away on a birthday.
Hence, this poll:

Would you miss all or part of your young child's birthday because of a time conflict with a job-related activity?
No, not for any reason
Yes, if I felt I had to
Free polls from

Friday, February 23, 2007

I Know I Am Boring You

This week I went to a talk by a visiting woman scientist, the first such talk by a woman so far this year in my department. She is not in my field, and I'd never met her or heard of her before, but I like to go to department seminars anyway because you never know when you're going to learn something interesting. Also, as a frequent speaker at other universities, I know that it's important to have a good audience, as this definitely affects a visitor's impression of a place.

In any case, this woman was very articulate and gave a talk that summarized many years of work. She had a large audience of interested people, including many in fields closely related to her own. She has given many talks before, including as a distinguished lecturer for a professional organization. Even so, she kept interrupting her own talk to say "I am sure I am boring you" or "I know you're probably all asleep out there" and even "You probably think this is stupid, but please bear with me." When she was asked a question during her talk, she exclaimed "Someone is awake and paying attention!". It was really sad.

Has she had lots of experiences throughout her academic career that make her anxious about being boring and stupid? That isn't hard to imagine as a scenario for a woman scientist, but it would be great if damage like that could be eventually undone. This woman has tenure and was recruited away from her first tenure-track position by another university. She gets grants, has a large group of students, and has received professional awards. There is lots of objective evidence that she is a successful scientist. In talking to her one-on-one, she seemed like a happy, confident person, so maybe those "I know I'm boring you" statements are just some habit she got into when giving talks, but it's still disturbing.

Memo to anyone giving a professional talk: DON'T EVER SAY "I KNOW I'M BORING YOU" DURING A TALK. Maybe you are, maybe you aren't, but don't put yourself down.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Mrs. Professor

This post is not a criticism, it is mostly a question (just to start off on a defensive note..).

I sent an email message to a professor in Germany requesting a letter of reference for a candidate who has applied for a position in my department. I addressed the email to Professor Y and signed the email with my name and title (Professor). I have never heard of this particular person before, and he clearly hadn't heard of me.

He sent the requested letter of reference attached to an email addressing me as "Mrs. X". He signed himself as "Professor Y".

I was curious about this. I have close colleagues and friends (all men) in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and I asked two of them about it. One of them told me that this professor may not ever have encountered a woman professor in his field before, he didn't know what was the proper form of address, and he may have decided that referring to a woman as "Mrs." was more respectful than "Professor". The other colleague said that reference letter requests are sometimes sent out by the secretary of a professor, and this professor just wasn't paying attention to how I signed my email. Does anyone believe those explanations? I suppose I do, not knowing otherwise. Despite having lived in various parts of Europe for a total of several years, I do not completely understand the academic cultures.

I don't think I am particularly hung up on being addressed as Professor. Students (undergrads and grads) in my department call all the professors by their first names, and this is fine with me. However, I don't like the disparity implied by Professor Y's identifying himself as a Professor but not me.

Even so, I think that if there were more women professors, there wouldn't be any question about whether to address a woman professor by her title or marital status, these annoying little situations would become very rare, and I wouldn't be so (over)sensitive to them anymore.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

We Have Ways To Make You Talk..

Most people who have taught a seminar-style class have probably struggled with the issue of how to get everyone to participate. I face this issue in freshman seminars and in graduate seminars. I enjoy the challenge of getting freshmen to speak in a seminar -- most freshmen have never had a discussion-type class and need some help to feel comfortable speaking in that type of environment (especially the female students). With lots of friendly encouragement, class participation is typically high by the end of the semester.

In graduate seminars, participation is hugely variable. Some first or even second year students need time to feel comfortable, but even then, some grad students never say much, if anything, in seminars unless forced to. I am very inconsistent from year to year in terms of how I deal with this. Some semesters, I don't do anything more than assigning a student to be the discussion leader each week. Other semesters, I am more controlling about the format, so that everyone has to speak whether they want to or not. In the more free-form format, it's interesting how frustrated the discussion-leaders get with their fellow students who don't participate in the discussion or who come to seminar unprepared. For some, this is a wake-up call, and they come prepared to participate in subsequent weeks. Some slip back into their quiet and/or unprepared mode once their major responsibility is over. I think this says a lot about a student's motivation, though I prefer to form my general opinion over the course of the entire semester, not based on any one week (everyone has busy weeks).

A seminar with lots of discussion is a more interesting seminar, but my desire for a lively discussion is balanced by my wish to have the students take responsibility for themselves and not be forced to contribute if they'd rather just sit in a torpor. I make it clear at the beginning of a seminar that my expectation is that everyone actively participate in discussions every week and come to class prepared (i.e., having read and thought about the papers to be discussed, and ideally with questions or comments to discuss). Some students do this and some don't.

I like assigning or asking for volunteers for discussion-leaders in advance because these students tend to do an excellent job preparing and seeking out additional background information to bring to the discussion. When this system works, it works well. I had one student recently, though, whose idea of leading a discussion was to say "So what did everyone think of these papers?" and sit back and hope that everyone else had something to say.

Some of my colleagues use various techniques for 'inspiring' participation. One colleague doesn't announce in advance who will be the discussion leader, then he chooses someone (or has a random drawing) at the beginning of each class. Students tend to prepare well so that they won't be humiliated, but my colleague admits that some students prepare the minimum anyway, and he sometimes ends up leading the discussion himself.

Grades shouldn't be the main motivator for grad students, but in a pass/fail seminar, some students seem to think that they will pass if they just show up often enough. Perhaps if they knew they would fail if they never participated in discussions, this would help motivate them, but I haven't yet wanted to go that route.

I am sympathetic to new students who need some time feel comfortable in seminars. I can remember how I felt as a new grad student in a seminar dominated by aggressive male students. It was very difficult for me to speak up. I eventually solved the problem by talking to the other students informally before the seminar about the discussion topic. I found that they were really only aggressive in the seminar, where they were vying to impress our advisor. Outside of seminar, they were very happy to talk to me, and very patient about answering my basic questions. As a result, I felt more comfortable in the seminar, and started participating more.

I don't feel that I've found the ideal solution to this perennial seminar issue, but I've decreased the problem a bit by giving students a say in seminar topics and by making each student responsible for some of the discussions. I'd be interested in hearing any new ideas to increase seminar participation without resorting to control methods that essentially force students to participate.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Am I An Expert?

Today I got email from a young professor I've met once or twice, saying:

"My colleagues X and Y keep telling me that I have to contact you because you may be an expert in Z, so I am writing to you. Are you an expert in Z? If so, tell me what you are doing on Topic A. By the way, we met a few years ago when you were in Europe when your husband was on sabbatical there."

I keep meaning to thank my husband for bringing me on his sabbatical with him, perhaps because I was on sabbatical too? This email also suggests that Dr. Young Professor, who is in the first year of his faculty position, does not know how to do a literature search.

I sent back a nice and helpful reply, though I think he could have worded his email a bit more respectfully and professionally.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Nepotism etc.

As a follow-up on the last post, I should note that there are of course university policies regarding people who are related. I am a few years ahead of my husband in seniority, but I have never been involved in any decisions or discussions involving his tenure or promotion. During both of his promotion processes, I left the conference room during discussions of his file, and never had private conversations with faculty colleagues about his promotions. I have recused myself on other occasions when decisions were made regarding my husband's research program or students. And we disagree often enough about department issues that we are not a "voting bloc".

In fact, we are so different in so many ways that the most common response is shocked surprise when students, faculty in other departments, and random other people find out that we are married. I am not sure exactly why it is so surprising that we are a couple, but whatever it is probably contributes to our not being viewed as a single entity and to our escaping some of the negative aspects that could come with being a couple in the same department.

There are some unique (=strange) situations that arise from our being in the same department. Example: last week, the department Chair had a talk with my husband about me -- the Chair expressed regret that he has been giving me stupid administrative tasks, and he wishes now that he had appointed me to a particular important position instead of the less-qualified guy he chose. Well, that's nice. I guess. He seems to have expected my husband to tell me the great news that I am respected more than I was, or at least more than I thought I was, but I would prefer to hear this directly from the Chair. But, if he didn't have this "indirect spousal communication mechanism" for conveying the information to me, perhaps I wouldn't even know it at all.

Some colleagues told me a few years ago that they weren't comfortable with my ever having a departmental leadership position because my spouse is in the same department. These same colleagues enthusiastically supported a male colleague whose wife is a faculty member in the department, somewhat undermining their ethical objections about me, but to no practical effect. No one was interested in discussing whether this meant that we as a department think that men can be more fair in nepotism situations than women.

I am not claiming that having couples in the same department is easy or even desirable, but it's an inevitable situation, and there are ways to make it work.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Academic Nepotism?

Does the concept of nepotism describe the hiring of both members of an academic couple by one university? Yes, I suppose so, even though neither member of the couple is the one making the hiring decision. It's not the same kind of nepotism as when John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Bobby as Attorney General. Nevertheless, it does involve at least one person in the couple's being hired because of their relationship to another.

In my field, there are rare examples of parent-offspring pairs in related fields of research, and I suppose that the famous name is a plus in some ways for the offspring, but I've seen it backfire for father-daughter pairs (the usual sexist rumors that he is really the brains behind all her research). Most often, the situation involves a couple, whether a married couple or long-term partners.

Another variable is whether both members of the couple are being considered simultaneously for hiring, or whether one has already been hired and the other is considered later (i.e., in the case of one member of the couple's not yet being done with his/her Ph.D. at the time the other was hired). The latter situation can be hard on the non-employed member of the couple, and these days still seems to require that a competing offer for both be obtained in order for both to get academic positions.

Nepotism is unavoidable if women are going to be hired in significant numbers at academic institutions. It's important to note that nepotism in this sense involves both the case of a woman offered a job by an institution that is primarily interested in hiring the other member of the couple (typically a husband) and the case of an institution wanting to hire a woman and also offering a position to her partner/spouse. In some cases, the university administration provides funds for the extra position, either permanently or as a 'bridge' to the next retirement in a department. Difficulties arise when departments have to fund the position, the positions are in different academic units of a university (and the higher level administration doesn't help facilitate the hires), and if both members of the couple require large amounts of start-up funding.

In most cases that I am aware of, the 'extra' person is not taking away a position from a 'more deserving' person out there in the applicant pool. It is important not to get into the mode of thinking that unqualified people (substitute name of underrepresented group) are taking jobs away from qualified people (substitute name of dominant group).

However, the Kennedy example aside, the concept of nepotism typically implies that a person being appointed is selected despite their lack of qualifications or abilities, and that's a source of yet more trouble for academic couples.

Most departments and universities hire faculty with the expectation that they will succeed -- faculty will get tenure and do well with whatever the research-teaching-service expectations are for the institution. So what to do if there is an imbalance between the qualifications of members of an academic couple? That is, what if one is qualified to be hired at a major research university and the other isn't?

I don't have The Answer. I don't think it's in anyone's interest to hire an unqualified person in a tenure-track position at a research university, but I think that the definition of 'qualified' needs very careful consideration in these cases. It needs extremely careful consideration, so as to be sure that the usual biases about what makes a successful scientist are not clouding the evaluation of a promising female scientist.

Another pitfall is hiring one member of the couple in a tenured or tenure-track position and the other in a low-level, low-respect position. That doesn't do anyone any good either -- not the couple, and not the department/university.

I stand by my statement that nepotism is required for women science/engineering faculty to be hired in significant numbers at academic institutions, particularly at universities and colleges that are rather isolated, leaving few to no other opportunities for alternative academic employment by one member of the couple. There's no reason, however, why nepotism has to be forced into the existing academic culture without the possibility of changing the culture. Why can't the culture itself change? Why does it have to be an all-or-nothing situation in which you get on the tenure track and either succeed or not in a certain amount of time? Why do non-tenure track positions have to be associated with so much less respect and so much less chance of career advancement? Is there room for other types of positions with different expectations in terms of the balance of teaching-research-service? The academic culture needs to change, and it needs to change at all levels -- administrators need to be creative, and faculty need to be open-minded.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

In prep.

As I have been perusing a stack of CV's this week, I am struck yet again by the strange way that some people present themselves in a CV. I'm not going to rant again about the lists of 'in prep.' papers and non-peer reviewed reports listed along with published/submitted papers or even about the strange choices of reference-writers; I've done that before.

Instead, what I am thinking about is how some of my own students and postdocs want my advice on constructing their CV's and research/teaching statements for job applications, and some don't. I should say that I am happy to provide comments on CV construction and on general issues of what goes in a research/teaching statement, but I do not edit the statements. The content and writing style of the statement accompanying an application have to be an accurate reflection of the candidate. I don't ask to see application materials for my own students and postdocs, though I make it clear that I'm happy to if anyone wants me to. Sometimes it's tricky navigating that path between being an advisor who wants to help and letting an advisee know that you think they are ready to go out on their own.

The ones who don't want my advice on their job applications are also the ones who get upset when I have lots of critical comments on their manuscripts and informal talks. And I imagine that for them, getting reviews of papers and proposals - and perhaps also teaching evaluations - will be a continual source of anguish as they continue in their careers. At least my comments are kindly intended and kindly worded, even if I tend to have a lot of them. I wish I could do more to provide all of my students and postdocs with the necessary medium-thick skin needed to deal with a life of reviews, not all of which will be positive or even 'constructively worded'.

A few of my students never completely realize that they will be continually subjected to criticism and evaluation in an academic career. I don't know how they don't know this after years of being in this environment, but some just don't. Example: A couple of years ago, one of my grad students was extremely upset when his co-advisor and I had many critical comments about a document he'd written (sort of a proto-manuscript), even though he had worked very hard. I said that I didn't doubt that he had worked very hard, but the result was far below what was acceptable for even a rough draft of a manuscript, both in terms of writing and content. Our critical comments were intended to help him take the draft to the next level. By that point, he was in tears, and said that I didn't understand how awful it felt to be criticized and he couldn't wait until he could be at a point in his career when he didn't have to go through this anymore. When I told him that we all are continually evaluated, he didn't believe me. I showed him some recent paper and proposal reviews, but somehow these didn't convince him either because they didn't have anything to do with him. Strange. He's still around, but he's not working with me anymore.

And then there are the negative comments you get when you have a blog -- it's sort of like asking for more 'reviews', as if we don't get enough already. Oh well.. bring it on.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Nirvana for Academic Couples

According to a gender-in-science expert at Stanford, Londa Schiebinger, who is quoted in a Nature feature:

..nirvana for married scientists in academia is two faculty (tenured or tenure-track) positions at the same institution or in the same area.

My husband and I are very aware that we are lucky -- we were hired as professors at the same university, each with a tenure-track position (now tenured), at the same time. We had a bi-coastal commuter marriage for years and we managed, but being together in one house and both having the careers we want is truly a great thing. However, I did not know that we had reached nirvana itself.

I hope I don't sound ungrateful for having my own tenured position and being able to live in the same house as my husband, but I think it would be nice if nirvana were a lot more nirvana-esque.

If the 2-body problem in academia is ever solved in a major, national/international way, will this simultaneously solve the respect problem many of us face on a day-to-day basis because it will increase the number of women science professors? Or does the respect problem need to be solved first, thereby paving the way for the rest?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

What Were They Thinking, Episode 5489

This week I was perusing a research statement by someone from another university. The statement lists important people who have 'given input' or 'expressed interest' in the research described, including a research proposal that may be submitted in the near future. This was interesting to me because I was sent this research proposal a year or so ago by the applicant's postdoc supervisor (the PI), asking if I would be a co-PI on the proposal. I said no (for various reasons, although I respect and like the PI), but offered to help with the project informally as needed. I sent back detailed comments on the proposal, including helping write part of a section that related to my expertise. The PI wrote back thanking me very much for my input.

If you are a regular reader of this blog or if you are a female scientist, you can probably tell where this post is headed, and therefore it will not surprise you to find that I am not listed as one of the people who has given input for that project. When I read the statement, I assumed the non-listing of my name was because the person writing the statement wasn't totally clued in to the PI's activities related to the proposal, and that was fine. Just as I was thinking about this, however, one of the famous people who is listed called me, and I took the opportunity to ask him what his role had been in that project and the proposed proposal. He said he had no role. He'd been asked to be a co-PI as well, but had said no and didn't even read the proposal. He had never met the person who wrote the research statement, and was surprised his name was being used to indicate that the proposal had merit.

In fact, I don't think either of our names should be listed. I would be happy to read a research statement that focused entirely on the research, and didn't include any real or manufactured endorsement of the work by famous men. I think the 'list of random famous men who in theory might be interested in my research' approach perpetuates some aspects of the culture that should be eliminated for the benefit of all.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sexist Jerks in Power, continued

It seems to me that if various organizations (professional societies, journal editorial offices, funding agencies, university/college administrations) made even minimal effort to find out if someone being considered for an important position has a history of sexist or other disturbing behavior (as in a serious, long-term problem beyond just being socially inept), they would be able to weed these guys out. And if it became known that you weren't going to be the president of that society or the program officer for that funding agency if you had a record of inappropriate attitudes and behaviors towards women or other groups of people, maybe things would change eventually. Maybe.

I asked a few people about this most recent example of someone being given a powerful position despite decades of not being able to deal appropriately with women as colleagues or students (see last post), and no one I knew (including this person's former advisor) had been asked to give a reference. His advancement was based entirely on his publication and funding record, without consideration for other aspects, although these will now become of paramount importance in his new position. I think it should be possible to filter out the people who should be disqualified owing to a long record of sexist behavior from those who have just been annoying or not particularly likable and might actually do a good job despite their personality dysfunction.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Personal Growth Experience for Sexist Jerks?

What do you do if someone you know to be a long-time sexist jerk is selected for a position of responsibility in a professional organization that directly impacts the lives of women academics, their funding, and therefore their chances of career advancement? Some advice I got recently was to give the jerk the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he will experience 'personal growth' and develop a new-found maturity in his new position, which requires such behavior. It is true that it would be difficult for someone to be too flaming with their sexism in this particular position, given the degree of oversight of the position, but even so.. I don't like it, to put it mildly. However, writing a letter saying "Hey, this guy has had numerous unprofessional and disturbing interactions with women colleagues and students over the years" would make me look insane and vindictive for unknown reasons. I have encountered this situation several times in the past, and it has just come up yet again. A few times in the past, the Powers That Be have called me about an individual with whom I've worked and asked "Do you think so-and-so would be good for such-and-such important position?" and I have been very blunt, but I didn't have to be proactive in those cases. It's too bad there are so many of these guys, so this situation occurs again and again. I suppose if they were excluded from positions of responsibility, there would be labor shortages in academic administration, journal editorial offices, professional organizations, and funding agencies.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Faculty Wives

A grad student was commenting recently that she didn't know what to say to her advisor's wife when they met at social functions. The concept of a 'faculty wife' (stay-at-home mom with professor husband) seemed very strange and remote to the student. I sort of know what she means, and I hate it when people think I am a traditional 'faculty wife' just because my husband is a professor, but I thought the student's discomfort was a bit extreme. I had dinner with a colleague and his very traditional 'faculty wife' last week, and we had a great time talking about the things you talk about with people who aren't necessarily scientists: politics, travel, books, etc. I know that the situation is not completely analogous -- it is easier for me as an 'older person' to interact socially with colleagues and their wives than it is for the student to socialize with professorial spouses -- but the point is that 'faculty wives' are not necessarily alien beings with whom one cannot converse.

Perhaps part of the student's discomfort related to the fact that her advisor is a very private person and it was therefore disconcerting to be confronted with part of his private life. Perhaps the student feared that her advisor's spouse would start talking about what she was getting her husband for Valentine's Day, or what kind of socks he likes to wear. In an effort to convince the student that she could relate to her advisor's wife, someone told her that this particular spouse is in fact a brilliant scientist who was not given a faculty position here when her husband was hired, who spent years raising her own salary from grants and contracts, and who finally gave up and now just stays at home with the kids and does volunteer work at schools and so on. This information really shocked the student, and it occurred to me that this might make the student more rather than less uncomfortable around her advisor's wife, knowing that bit of history. But it's the truth, and I think it's best that the student knows it, whether or not it helps her find things to say when standing around the cheese tray at the next department social function.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Plays Well With Others?

Yesterday as I was listening to my colleagues talk about their ideas for the future of our department and our field of science in general, the issue of collaborations within the department and university came up again and again, directly and indirectly. Some people just don't work well with others, whether by choice or not, and some people do. When collaborations don't happen owing to the personalities or interests of the faculty involved, this can have an effect on the department's perceived strengths/weaknesses as well as plans for future hires.

For example, should we hire in a particular field because existing faculty in related fields don't get along with each other, so our department isn't perceived to have a strength in that general field, although we could/should? Some people clearly think that is a good reason to hire someone. Those same people think that subdisciplines in which faculty already get along well are therefore of lower priority for future hires because, as one person put it: "They already have colleagues in the department." I think that reasoning rewards dysfunction and leads to a slippery slope of hiring someone the collaboratively-impaired faculty feel 'comfortable' with. And we know where that can lead.

However, I can relate to the wish for department colleagues with whom one can collaborate. I gave a talk recently in which I had a list of collaborators and students on my title slide, including the names of 2 other professors from my department -- 2 faculty colleagues with whom I worked closely on the research I was discussing. Later, someone who was at the talk said that he was very surprised that I had not listed the name of his old grad school classmate Professor B from my department. This Professor B happens to be the least active researcher and most patronizing colleague in my department, and we have never worked together on any research project. The very thought of it was so bizarre, I almost laughed. It made me realize anew how fortunate I was to have other department colleagues with whom I do work closely. If my only option was Professor B, I'd still have excellent colleagues elsewhere to work with, but day-to-day, academic life wouldn't be as much fun. Having close colleagues in the department creates a more interesting research environment, and is great for students.

So, I can sympathize to some extent, but I also feel that some of these intra-department non-collaborating groups could work harder to get along and be more inclusive in terms of who is involved in large research initiatives. That would benefit everyone. But, failing that, maybe we can try to hire someone with amazing social skills who gets along with everyone and collaborates well with jerks. Maybe we should take out a personal ad.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Listening Tour

Today my assigned task was to listen to 6 of my colleagues each talk for an hour about their ideas regarding possible future directions for our department. A co-interviewer and I took notes, helped move the discussion along, and we will now synthesize our findings to present to a committee of colleagues doing similar things with the rest of the faculty. The marathon day of meetings was both interesting and not interesting at the same time.

Interesting: We don't often spend that much time just listening to our colleagues' ideas. In faculty meetings, people just blather in a non-linear way and not much gets done. Today, I really got to find out in great detail what 6 of my colleagues think about the future of our general field.

Not interesting: My co-interviewer (a junior colleague) and I were assigned 6 faculty who are either not active researchers or who are isolated from the rest of the department (for various reasons). Our senior colleagues are interviewing the important people. No one is going to care about what we heard today, and in some cases for good reason. Nevertheless, we listened respectfully and will do our best to present their views to the committee. When my co-interviewer saw the list of faculty we were assigned, he asked "Are we being punished?". No, but welcome to the bottom of the food chain; that's how this place works.

It was a long day of talking to somewhat strange people, but it was not a waste of time. However, after the 6 hours, my lucidity was obliterated and I am only now approaching the state of being able to put coherent sentences together.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Lest I Forget

Lest I forget for more than a few minutes that I am a Female Science Professor, here are some reminders I got in the past 1.5 days:

1. A male colleague asked me to speak to his female grad students about "children and careers or whatever it is females need to talk about" -- Does he get points for trying to provide a temporary mentor for his women students? I said "Don't your male students have or want families too?" Yeah, but guys don't need to talk about it.

2. A male colleague was worried about his pending NSF grant and said that the funding rates are low anyway, and by the time NSF takes care of their women and minority grant quotas, there's even less funding to go around for the rest. He doesn't consider me to be one of these women because I write excellent proposals and deserve my funding. Ummm, thanks. I bet he couldn't actually name an undeserving female or minority grant recipient, but he seems to be sure that they are out there. When confronted with the statistics for male vs. female grant recipients in our field for the last 3 years for which data are available, he had to admit that his hypothesis might be flawed.

3. A male colleague at another university explained why his department had made the somewhat surprising decision to hire a rather low-profile male candidate rather than a female candidate who seemed to be very promising: the older faculty weren't comfortable with her, thought she dressed too casually in her interview, and were worried that she'd need a more expensive lab than the male candidate. This department has no tenured or tenure-track women faculty. In general, I don't advocate a university's central administration playing more of a role in department hiring decisions, but isn't anyone paying attention at any level when departments do things like this?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Helpful Pit Bull?

A recent graduate of our department has a 1-year teaching job at a school a couple hours drive from here. He has a job interview coming up for a tenure-track faculty position -- his first ever interview -- and I asked him if he wanted to come back to the department here and practice. He was very enthusiastic about this idea, and came over today. He wasn't my PhD student, but I was on his committee and was very involved in part of his thesis research. Also, his advisor is an administrator, and is rather detached from the department. Despite not interacting much with his advisor or even having much research support, he did well in his thesis research because he was so independent and motivated. He hung out with my research group, so he wasn't totally isolated. Neverthless, I was concerned that he had missed out on some of the advising that you get when your advisor is available to talk to and interact with more closely.

So I invited him to come over and he gave his practice talk today, and it wasn't so great. He is a very good speaker -- he speaks clearly and well, he intersperses clever analogies in with the science, and the images he uses in his talk are good (not too much text). But the coolness of the research did not come through at all. He breezed through first order things and spent a lot of time -- a lot of time -- on technical details of the analyses. I said some nice things about his practice talk, but then I basically ripped it apart and suggested some ways for how he could grab the audience at the beginning of the talk, keep them with him through the main data parts of the talk, then wrap it all up nicely at the end. He still has plenty of time to rethink the talk and graphics. The research is great -- it's all in the packaging at this stage. I could clearly see how it could be turned into a great talk with a bit of work. I also tried to ask him questions that I thought he would be asked about his research, and some of them he was unprepared for, but will work on between now and the big day.

I think it was good that he did this practice, but I also think he was kind of stunned by how critical I was. As I left the room, I had a sinking feeling that I'd just undermined his confidence.

Another member of the research group was there as well, and I asked her later if she felt I'd helped him or depressed him. She said "both". I am sure she is right, so I sent a follow-up email with some confidence boosting (but sincere) compliments about the research and the talk. I hope that by the time he has the actual interview, he'll have pulled it all together and the stars will align and he'll get the job.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Model Student

It happened yet again: I was the only student in my language class today to turn in the homework on time. It happens rather often. Fortunately, I am already sufficiently bizarre in being a professor in an undergraduate, 100-level class, so this model student behavior is perhaps more understandable and less odious than it might otherwise be. Perhaps.

I have a strict policy in my own classes about late homework (1/2 credit up to 24 hours late, no credit after that), so it is unusual for student homework to be late, but I am trying not to be a 'backseat driver' in the class in which I am the student.

Today my fellow students asked me about illnesses like mumps that they are all vaccinated against but that kids, including me, got back in the olden days. It is nice to feel like the old, experienced person every once in a while, before returning to my department to be the flaky blonde female in a sea of bewhiskered men.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Post-Tenure Review With Teeth?

A comment on the last post reminded me that I'd been meaning to write about post-tenure review. Our university has it (we are all reviewed every year), but does the review have teeth?

It has teeth, but they are baby teeth.

However, all departments have recently been asked to update and revise their post-tenure review policies and procedures, and so we've been talking about this issue lately: whether/how to add bigger, sharper teeth, but still have a fair system.

In theory, if a tenured faculty member is not performing to the level of 'department norms', the executive committee of the department (several elected faculty + the Chair) meet with the faculty member, discuss the problem, come up with a plan to rectify the problem within a certain time (typically a year), and then reevaluate after the year.

That sounds good, but the tricky part of course is what do you after that year is up if the problem is not solved? There are some senior faculty here who just aren't going to jump-start their careers this year and start getting NSF or other funding, although the 'department norm' and expectation is that we all have grants.

Do you re-balance their responsibilities so that they do more teaching and service and have lower research expectations? That might work for some, but do we want some of our least active faculty to teach more students and play more of a role in decision-making in the department? For the student's sake, some of these people should be teaching fewer students.

A related issue that I am particularly concerned about is that any toothy post-tenure review be fairly applied. I know of a situation in which there is an 'under-performing' female professor and an 'under-performing' male professor, but, although the woman has at least some research activity, an international reputation, and has had one NSF grant in the past decade, the under-performing man (who has none of these) is viewed as being more 'active'. He is very aggressively involved in department politics and he has one student (she has none). Possible explanations for his greater intra-departmental reputation are sexism, ignorance, or both.

Did I mention that he's a full professor and she's a terminal associate professor? I can see why this woman has never been promoted to full professor, but in a just world, this man would not have been promoted either. It's the classic case of a mediocre man making it through a promotion hoop, which is widened just enough for him to squeeze his beard and tweed coat through, but then the door slams shut behind him. In my opinion, which is fortunately shared by some like-minded colleagues, the new post-tenure-review-with-teeth system cannot go after her and not him.

In any case, in the interest of trying to be fair now, do they both get to survive post-tenure review, do they both get chewed up by it, or is there some way to optimize the talents they both have so that they are earning their academic keep (so to speak)? They are both 10-15+ years from likely retirement age, so it's not as if the problem will resolve itself in a couple of years.

If the University offered a better retirement package for faculty, more faculty would retire sooner. I know this is expensive, but I know some senior faculty who would like to retire but don't feel that they can because they are worried about not having sufficient health insurance coverage.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Tick Tick Tick

I came in for some blog-criticism last week for not telling my junior colleague that the Distinguished Scientist he'd hosted as a visitor to our department was rude and disrepectful, to put it kindly. Fair enough. Part of my motivation in keeping quiet was not to stress out a young colleague already stressed about getting tenure. I agree that whether this was a good reason or not is debatable.

In thinking about this, I realized that the kindness senior faculty in my department show to the Assistant Professors is one of the things I like about my department. There were a number of senior faculty who were very supportive and kind when I was an Assistant Professor, and I appreciated that immensely. I have a tenure-track colleague in another department at my university who has senior colleagues who will, upon encountering her in the hall, say things like "Tick tick tick! Is that your tenure clock I hear?", then they will quiz her on her productivity, and not in a kind and interested way.

In that department, tenure-track faculty are voted on every year starting in the 3rd year as to whether their appointment should continue. Our department is about to adopt this policy as well for the first time. I have mixed feelings about it. At my previous university, I had a major evaluation in the 3rd year, and that was fine with me. We don't even do that in my current department, just a yearly review that everyone goes through by a department committee.

In this other department that has the yearly votes, there are some faculty who automatically vote no for all tenure-track faculty. The ostensible reason is that they don't think anyone should take tenure for granted, and having a few no votes keeps the youngsters on their toes. My colleague says she and her fellow Assistant Professors try to keep this in mind, but it is still depressing to know that some of their colleagues think they should be booted out even before the tenure review. I think that I rather prefer our current system in which all faculty, tenured and untenured, are reviewed every year by a department committee, and each faculty meets annually with the chair to discuss any issues that need discussing. If there are problems, these are recorded and a plan is constructed to help achieve whatever goal needs achieving (e.g. improvement in teaching, submission of more grant proposals). I like that it is constructive rather than unecessarily stressful. I am in the minority on this one, though, and starting next year we will do the pre-tenure voting method of evaluation.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Publication Perplexities

A manuscript just came back from review:

Reviewer #1 says: interesting and important paper, publish with minor revisions

Reviewer #2 says: interesting and important paper, publish with moderate revisions

Reviewer #3 says: reject! "Table 1 is flawed because it is incomplete and does not follow the conventions for this type of data so I can't believe anything else in this paper."

Reviewer #3's further comments are strange and a bit patronizing. I have never met this particular European gentleman, so I don't know if he tends to write rude, flawed reviews like this or if he has some reason for loathing my manuscript in particular.

The Editor says: You should revise and resubmit and fix your deeply flawed data table, and also please rethink your interpretations because I think the most likely explanation for your data is that there are swarms of tiny purple kangaroos living on the moons of Jupiter.

OK, so I made that last part up, but what the editor really wrote makes just as much sense.

The first thing I did was stare at Table 1 to see what Reviewer #3 was talking about -- had I left something out, screwed up the column headings, or what? I couldn't see anything wrong with it. I downloaded some of Reviewer #3's papers that have similar data tabulated. Our tables are identical! I can see no difference in the table format. Another comment he made is that we didn't do enough analyses, but the numbers in our data table were based on even more analyses than his; this information is clearly provided in the table in the standard format. Bizarre. What was the reviewer thinking? It is also unfortunate that the editor couldn't evaluate this criticism himself. Under normal circumstances, I would just deal with the Reviewer #3 situation in a cover letter to the editor with my resubmission.

But here's the thing: it took a year to get this manuscript back, and the editor's comments suggest that he may be insane. If I'd gotten the ms back quickly with the same reviews, I probably wouldn't have minded so much, but if I send it back, do I wait another year before I hear the decision about it?

So I am trying to decide: resubmit to that same journal or cut my losses in terms of time and send it elsewhere and start over? I am sure the paper would be published eventually in that journal, but I am nevertheless inclined to do the latter. I just sent a revised manuscript to my co-authors to get their opinions.

I should say that I chose the journal, one in which I have not previously published, because it has a wide audience in Europe. It isn't as highly ranked as the one I will send it to now if my co-authors agree, but a lot of my European colleagues publish in that journal and some of them have asked me why North Americans seldom submit papers to this journal. I don't know the general answer to that question, but I know why I am not going to race to send anything to that journal again.

A year is much too long for a review process. I have two others papers in review since last summer, and another paper that has been in press for 3 years. This makes me very hyper, and would be excruciating if I were at an earlier stage of my career.

Editors and reviewers are volunteers, and provide their time and insight as a professional service to the community, so although I am very critical of these particular people, in general I appreciate their efforts.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Professor vs. Mom

The students in my department have organized an Event this weekend, and they are hoping that at least some faculty will attend. They organized an Event last semester, but they chose a weekend that coincided with a time when most faculty were away at a conference. The faculty member who is the student advisor in our department is not an active researcher, so it didn't occur to him that the selected weekend was a time when most of us would be away. Even so, we were all made to feel guilty about letting our students down.

The pressure is now on to attend this new Event. I would actually like to attend -- I like the students and think it's great that they are trying to find ways to get all of us together -- but their Event coincides with my daughter's school play .. and my husband it out of town. I already gave my regrets to the student organizers of the Event and explained why I can't come, and they totally understood.

The faculty have been under pressure to attend. We get daily reminders of the Event from the Chair and the student advisor, by email and in person. We get daily reminders also that no faculty attended the Event last fall.

Maybe I can get a note from my daughter to give to the Chair and the student advisor so I can be excused.