Monday, April 30, 2007

Dragon Lady

At a recent meeting, a workshop participant I had never met before referred to a senior FSP as a "dragon lady". I asked him why he called her that. I suppose the FSP in question can be a bit fierce at times, but mostly I know her as a very smart researcher with a nice personality and a sense of humor. This man said that she had chaired a committee he was on and that she'd really "cracked the whip" to get the committee to do what it was supposed to do. During our workshop, I found him to be a bit of a ditherer, so it was easy to imagine that he needed some herding (with or without a whip) for a task that had a strict time limit. At the recent meeting, I saw this same man hanging around with a male professor who is rather famous in our field for being very fierce and even rather cruel to students and junior colleagues. "Dragon gentleman" doesn't seem to be a term in general usage, nor does it have the same impact as "dragon lady". However, rather than inventing a new term, I think we need to get rid of one. "Dragon lady" might be clever and funny in some circumstances, but not when describing an FSP who was just doing her job.

On another topic: the Blog Of Note phenomenon still seems to be going on. To those who found this site via that route, welcome and thanks for your comments, although I haven't been able to keep up with all of them and provide answers to all who left questions. Site traffic went up from the typical 600-800/day to 5000-9000/day, though I'm sure it will start to subside soon.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Google Order of Things

On my research webpages, I have information and images about various projects my group is working on. These pages include information about collaborators on the projects because I want to provide an accurate view of the projects, give credit to the people I work with for their part of the research, and also highlight the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of the work.

Recently, one colleague asked me to change how I mention him in one of these research webpages. He was upset because he had discovered that when people Google his name, my pages appear ahead of his own, and he doesn't like that order. He even suggested that I delete his name and include only a picture without a caption. I told him that I thought it would be bizarre if he weren't mentioned by name on the webpage describing the project, as we'd worked together for 6-7 years, had written numerous papers together, and it was well known in our field that this was collaborative work involving both of us. And I wasn't going to delete the citations of our publications. He admitted that his suggestion was strange, but nevertheless he still wants to change his Google order.

In the interest of being a nice collaborator, I will try a few things. I can change how I mention his name (maybe by using his first initial instead of writing out his first name) or by putting him on a subsidiary page that fewer peole would access. I think he could also do a bit of work himself to make his own pages more accessible and interesting, but he seems to think it is something I need to fix. I guess I could put his name on my YouTube cat wrestling videos so as to bump the research page down more in his Google order, but I suppose that would make the problem worse..

Friday, April 27, 2007

Are You On Your Desktop?

Last fall I posted a survey to find out what people have on their desktops, in part to see if there was any difference between what men and women use for background images. At the time, I was at a conference and had noticed that more men than women had photos of their kids as their desktop background, and wondered if women were concerned about not seeming professional enough. I'm not sure if my hypothesis survived the data, but it was interesting to see what people checked off in the survey: family photos vs. landscapes vs. geometric patterns etc. I thought I'd provided fairly comprehensive coverage for options in the survey, but today I realized I left out an option.

Today as I was sitting in a meeting, the man next to me had his laptop open, and after a while his screen saver came on. I glanced over and noticed that his screen saver was the kind that cycles stored photos. And this man had lots and lots of photos of .. himself. When he went back to his desktop, I was somewhat relieved to see that he does not have a photo of himself as his wallpaper (it was a standard factory-issued default abstract background). I was kind of fascinated by the self-screen-saver, and I developed two hypotheses, neither of which I was able to test, alas: (1) the obvious one: he's a flaming narcissist, or (2) he was borrowing his wife's computer and she thinks he's beautiful and has filled the computer with photos of her beloved.

Despite some evidence to the contrary, I did give this meeting lots of attention, gave my talk, shared my insights such as they are, and met some interesting people. I became briefly (and I hope subtly) unhinged when, minutes before my talk, I was told that my talk was being recorded (audio AND video) for posting on the internet so that the world (or, at least, my mother) can download it. I don't even like still images of myself, and I would make a terrible screen-saver.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Wandering Attention & Wrestling Cats

In the mid-late afternoon, as my attention started to wander after a long day of talks and workshops and insufficient sleep and/or caffeine, a colleague sitting next to me leaned over and whispered: "If we were students in a boring class, we'd be watching YouTube videos right now instead of listening to this speaker." So I whispered back to ask him if he wanted to see some cat wrestling videos I posted on YouTube last year. He thought I was joking, so I hit the mute button on my laptop and showed him. (note: There are 1,120 cat wrestling videos on YouTube right now, but only a few of them are mine).

We viewed cat videos only briefly, though, because as professors who teach large classes, we well know that just because someone is sitting in the back of the room doesn't mean the professor/speaker up front can't see what is going on..

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Pay Back

As I worked late in my office, grading homework and getting ready for the next class, my office phone rang:

FSP: Hello?

Young Man (YM): Hello, Ms. FSP?

FSP: Yes.

YM: I'm calling from the University of X*, and I wanted to update you on some exciting things that are happening on campus this year. Are you interested in hearing about what's going on at your old school?
[* note: my present university, the site of my office, where I work now]

FSP: I'm not an alumnae. It's not my old school. You are calling me in my office at that very school right now.

YM: Uh oh. This is really going to throw off my spiel. Are you an employee?

FSP: Yes.

YM: What do you do?

FSP: I'm a professor.

YM: Uh oh. I was going to ask you for money. This call is part of the university's fund-raising campaign. It doesn't say here in my list that you work here.

FSP: But I do. I am grading right now.

YM: Well, can I give you my spiel anyway? I'm supposed to keep going unless you hang up on me.

FSP: Sure, go ahead, but I'm not going to give you money, so maybe you should call someone else and not waste your time talking to me.

YM: How about if I say that if you really cared about your students, you'd donate money so that they don't have to drop out of school because they can't afford it?

FSP: No, but nice try. Does the money really go to scholarships to help needy students with tuition?

YM: Well, no, actually the university prefers it if you just give money to an undesignated fund so that they can do what they want with it.

FSP: That's what I thought.

YM: So can I put you down for a $150 pledge? That's what everyone usually starts at.

FSP: No, but nice try again. Is it true that everyone starts with a $150 pledge?

YM: No.

FSP: Good night..

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


I almost never get sick -- maybe a mild cold once a year. When I was a kid, the only days of school I ever missed from kindergarten through high school were when I was unconscious during a bout with malaria (we lived abroad for a while). This is good because I don't have time to be sick.

I'm not particularly ill now, but I have lost my voice. I had to cancel one talk, fortunately a local one that I could easily reschedule for next week. I hated to cancel for today, but without my voice, my only other options were mime and interpretive dance, and those didn't seem like good ideas for today. I am hoping that I will be back to speaking by the time I have to teach tomorrow.

Today was also not a good day to be speechless because I had to remain largely silent in a department meeting, and I had things to say, especially when one colleague commented critically about an FSP at another university. He said that she had "deliberately" caused a rift in her department by "insisting" that the department hire her husband. She even went so far as to get an offer from another university and then blackmailed her department into giving her husband a tenure-track job. Apparently the department was a harmonious place until she came along.

I could not let those comments pass unremarked, so I sort of whisper-yelled all my key points in quick succession: "What other choice did she have? Do you criticize men who get other offers and make demands? Her department didn't have to hire her husband. Of course she didn't set out of cause a rift." and then a few other colleagues (male, female, single, married) added similar points until the offending colleague retreated by saying that he was just repeating what he'd heard. The Chair, who is terminally Nice, thanked him for his comments and said that it was important that he had shared them with us. [factoid: this colleague has a stay-at-home wife]

I think this colleague, who is somewhat new to the US academic culture, should be encouraged to become better informed rather than just thanked for sharing. It may be too late to change his opinions, but he should know what is relevant information for a faculty meeting and what is sexist gossip. There is room for many points of view on the complicated issue of the 2-Body Problem in academia, but criticizing a woman for doing exactly what the current academic system requires is not fair.

Later, another colleague started droning on about one of his favorite points (berating the rest of us for not being as dedicated to students as he is), and it just so happened that at that exact moment I had to cough a lot, so I thought it most polite to leave.

Monday, April 23, 2007

It's Not About Me

This week I have been contemplating an upcoming opportunity to give an invited talk, in 10 minutes or less, on what is most interesting in my subfield of the physical sciences. The audience will be a broad, national audience of researchers. In terms of speakers, I am the sole representative of My Field of Science. I'm rather fascinated by this challenge, and have been thinking about it a lot, talking to colleagues, and drafting the outlines of my brief presentation.

I've seen these brief presentations done before, and I am always naively surprised when a speaker concludes that the most interesting thing in science is .. the speaker's own research. I suppose that's in part a reflection of the fact that we are all most fascinated by our own research topic, but even so, it should be possible to give a broader view.

It should be possible, but it's difficult. It's difficult in part because our own research field is what we each know best and feel most comfortable talking about. Nevertheless, I am striving for a brief presentation that is interesting and compelling, that generates discussion, and that only includes mention of my own research field in its broadest context. OK, so that's probably impossible, but I want to see if I can achieve some of those goals, at least in part.

An additional challenge is that I've been doing so much talking and traveling in recent weeks that I've acquired whatever illness 87% of the people on my recent long flights seem to have had (based on all the coughing I heard), and I've lost my voice. I have to give 4 talks varying in length from 10-50 minutes this week and teach one more class. Typing the keywords 'sore throat miracle cure' into Google led to the information that I should gargle with cayenne pepper, but maybe I'm not that desperate yet.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Right to Complain

Dr. DeMentor (see previous post) and I have an additional point of disagreement. He thinks that my not taking the opportunity to 'change the culture' by pursuing an opportunity to become an assistant Dean means that I give up the right to complain ("at least not too bitterly") about the somewhat dismal situation for women science faculty at my university and beyond.

Even if I were capable of giving up complaining, I do not agree that I have lost this 'right'. Refusing to become an administrator now does not mean I have to be silent. To me, that's the same as saying that all my other contributions and efforts mean nothing, and I don't think that's true, even if I could be more effective (in some ways) as an administrator.

I suppose if my research led directly to a cure for a hideous disease or resulted in an invention that revolutionized how we make toast, my choosing to pursue my research would not seem so selfish as compared to driving positive change in academic culture.

I know that at some level DDM is right. I should say that he is just one of several colleagues whom I like and respect very much who think I am making a mistake in not pursuing this administrative 'opportunity'. They all give the same reasons. It is hard to go against the advice of such well-meaning friends, but in this case, at least for now, I am.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Debate With Dr. DeMentor

This week, a colleague/mentor of mine visited; this is the person who taught me how to teach and has been an important supporter of mine throughout my academic career. In the past couple of days, we have had several debates (arguments) about whether I should pursue an opportunity to become an Administrator (an assistant Dean) at my university. We disagree about whether I can do more 'good' for women-in-science as an administrator or as a scientist. He thinks the former, I think the latter. I think the latter mostly in the context of where I am now with my career, but could see changing my mind in the future. Even so, he thinks I should make this career change now.

I convinced my friend, colleague, mentor to put our debate in writing for posting here. This will occur in several stages, with the first part (posted here) involving our staking out our initial positions:

DDM (Dr. DeMentor): A person at your stage in her career has 2 basic choices: you can continue what you've been doing, which presumably has been very satisfying and serves your own agenda for personal growth and contributions that you feel are critical. And that path remains largely about you and your interests, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I just believe that at a certain stage in the life of an academic that there is the opportunity to move to a different track where it is less about building your own career and reputation (awards, accolades, opportunities) and more about giving back as you set the stage for the next generation of people in your field and in particular in your case women in your field. So one is kind of a self-interested path and one is more philanthropic. You are a good role model and you help individuals achieve their goals, but I believe you would have a greater impact of changing the culture on your campus and beyond if you were in a position of authority and could effect institutional change rather than individual change.

FSP (me): But I think that my being a senior and somewhat successful researcher and professor gives me more opportunities and more credibility as a role model for women scientists. The opportunities come through professional outlets -- giving talks at universities and conferences, participating in panels and committees, and just by being visible in my field as a senior woman who is a productive researcher. As a deanlet, I could have more of an impact on my university, but as a visible researcher, I can have a broader impact beyond this university. Also, keep in mind that my research ambitions aren't primarily about accolades or even being a role model: the reason I do this job is because I love the science, both as a researcher and a teacher. It's hard for me to imagine giving all or even some of that up right now, even if that seems selfish.

To be continued, I think, if DDM sends me his counter-point, though in the end we didn't evolve much beyond these main points.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Clueless Comment of the Week

Reported by a female colleague at another university, from a conversation she had with one of her male colleagues about a male student who constantly made derogatory comments and rude jokes about women:

Male colleague, referring to the student: "He's not a misogynist, he talks about women all the time!"

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Brief History of Threats

Some of the more disturbing threats I've received in my academic life were:

1 - undergraduate: A practical joke that a friend played on me (because I had played one on her and well deserved some sort of retaliation) backfired. The joke was to advertise widely that I was associated with a particular repugnant political group. I got death threats until the college president intervened with a college-wide announcement. There were even announcements to this effect on the local radio stations, as the death threats had included mention of snipers targeting me on and beyond campus. My friend felt worse than I did about this all, and yes, we are still friends.

2 - graduate student: A male student in a lab for which I was the teaching assistant kept asking me disturbing questions, ranging from "Do you walk home alone at night?" to "Do you worry about being raped?" and then even "Would you like to be raped?". I reported that one, but no faculty in my department thought it was serious enough to discuss with the student, and I was too clueless to talk to anyone outside my department about it. Friends walked me home for the rest of the semester until we all felt that the threat was gone.

3 - professor: An unstable postdoc told the department chair that several faculty (including me) and a grad student were trying to kill her. The postdoc then had a personal chat with God, who gave the postdoc permission to do whatever was necessary to make these faculty and their families suffer. There were some scary incidents involving broken glass, knives, astrology, theft, and the postdoc's showing up late at night in the department (and in my office) even once denied after-hours access to the building. The department chair refused to call the police, but he did fire the postdoc, which then involved a loss of visa status.

There have been others, but those are some of the more memorable. So far nothing really bad has happened to me or my colleagues, just some anxiety and stress. In another case, however, an unhappy grad student threatened some faculty (including me), got some professional help, seemed to recover, and then committed suicide a few years later. This was really tragic and shook everyone up, but one of my colleagues commented that he was just glad that the student didn't decide to take some others along when the suicidal urges became so extreme.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Too Sad

What led to the horror that happened at Virginia Tech? Was there anything more than insanity driving the young man to murder of such magnitude? I feel so deeply sorry for all the students, staff, and family. Knowing that my friends, colleagues, and former students there are OK today is a relief, but doesn't lessen the horror.

I admit that, after the initial shock of hearing the news, I wasn't surprised that an engineering building was involved, but I had to revise my hasty conclusions once I heard that the murderer was an English major and an undergraduate. News reports now describe the young man as a "loner", which was perhaps inevitable. I hope that there will not be negative reactions to male Asian students as a result of this incident.

Many of my colleagues, and myself as well, have received threats of death and injury over the years. The response of my department has been to fire the angry student or postdoc or staff member, and I don't know of any cases when the police have been alerted. In one case involving me, I wanted to call the police, but my department chair talked me out of it, saying it could be seen as 'harrassment' of a mentally unstable person. I don't know if academia is more stressful than working in a bank or factory (or post office), but the collision of stress, anger, socially inept people, and the academic power structure creates many opportunities for tragedy. Add to that the easy availability of serious weapons..

There are so many situations in which students are angry about their grades, their personal lives, their futures -- how do you know when it is 'normal' anger that won't lead to anything and when it is something that imperils people's lives?

At the start of every school year, instructors at my university get information from the university counseling service about what to do when an undergraduate student is having emotional problems, and what resources to recommend to the student. I've never made use of this information, not knowing when is the right time or situation in which to bring it up. I certainly wouldn't recommend counseling for a student I perceived to be a 'loner' if I had no other information. But then you wonder whether anything could be done to stop these horrific explosions of anger and insanity -- and if so, who could have stopped it, and how and when? I ask that in the context of knowing that nothing is going to happen anytime soon to makes guns less available in America.

Monday, April 16, 2007

They Like Me

This weekend I got word that I won a teaching award at my university. This is a 'little' teaching award, but nevertheless a nice one. The 'big' teaching awards involve being nominated by one's department and then being selected by a committee. Three of my male colleagues have won this award, but no women have even been nominated. My 'little' award is an annual award for Best Professor, voted by the students. I've won it 3 times in the past 9 years, and it is always thrilling.

A few years ago when my department chair was trying to decide whether he should put me forward for promotion to full professor, he showed my CV and ancillary materials (teaching evaluations) to two senior faculty. One of them, a Research Superstar, told me later that he was 'stunned' to discover that I am an excellent teacher, and he recommended that the chair nominate me for one of the big teaching awards. He never did, but perhaps eventually my colleagues will have to recognize that I am a good teacher.

Regarding my little teaching award that was just announced, one colleague has already asked me why I thought I won this award. Well, I don't know exactly, but if anyone is wondering whether I give all A's and never assign homework and bring home-baked cookies to class every day: nope. I just teach as best I can and I care a lot about it.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Never-ending Story

I just read a book review in the New Yorker of yet another book about whether women should work or stay home with the kids. Fitting for a book on such an oft-told topic is its re-used title, Feminine Mistake. This one is by Leslie Bennetts. I guess all the FM books have different subtitles, but even so.. This one apparently concludes that women should work.

Isn't it obvious that for some women and their families, working is the best option and for others it is staying home with the kids, either for a short or long time? I use the term 'best' in the sense of best for their happiness and overall family well-being, not because of economic requirements to make a salary. Working was and is the best option for my family and me, but I have friends who are enjoying their choice to stay at home for a few years while their kids are very young. We are all different, and there is no one answer for everyone.

Friday, April 13, 2007


An example of a 'fine line' in research relates to establishing boundaries between the research projects of different students and postdocs working in the same group.

Sometimes it is obvious where those boundaries are, but in those cases the danger can be that the person working on the 'distinct' project might feel isolated from the rest of the group; e.g., the green circle in my dorky diagram on the left.

If we imagine that each individual can be represented as a dot positioned in some way with respect to various axes (perhaps representing techniques or subfields or something like that), and the diameter of the circle (sphere) around each person represents the breadth of their research, what degree of overlap between spheres is best? The answer of course depends on the type of research and also, to some extent, the personalities of the people involved, but in general, what's the best way to figure out the optimal degree of overlap?

Just when I think I've got it figured out, at least for the short-term, a mini-crisis arises involving someone feeling territorial or worrying that another person is going to out-compete them (and therefore get the best job etc.), and I have to dive back in and sort things out. In general, I think everything works well if all the group members are working hard and dealing proactively with any obstacles that arise. But life is complicated and sometimes that isn't possible.

Even when everything is working, though, there are issues of authorship (including authorship order) and credit. Having a harmonious research group depends both on the good will of the individuals (I am fortunate in this respect with my present group) and to some extent on how I organize the overlap so that the overlap leads to synergy and not to stressful territorial behavior. It's also my job to keep the lines of communication open among group members, including me, but at the same time to not let every minor intra-group disagreement become a big deal. Some people can do this effortlessly, without all the psycho-social-analysis, but it doesn't come naturally to me. I have to work to stay aware and involved in the group dynamics, so that the fun part -- the research -- proceeds.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Breadth v. Depth

I don't want to stress out anyone who is going through faculty job interviews, but I've seen a number of interview talks lately, and wanted to make a few general comments about them. It has been very interesting discussing the architecture of these talks with my own students, especially those who are facing job searches in the very near future. They are looking at these interview talks with different eyes, seeing themselves (we all hope) standing up there giving talks like these, and that is kind of an awesome feeling.

* To anyone giving this kind of talk: The Talk is not the only chance you have to impress people. In fact, our department is considering offering a position to someone who made some classic talk errors (see below), but who impressed people otherwise, e.g., in individual conversations. *

Some of my students told me that it was obvious to them, even in talks that were far from their own expertise, when a candidate just wasn't ready for the questions, even ones that might seem obvious. They wondered if the candidates had practiced for a friendly but critical audience before the interview. Some people just get nervous and don't deal with questions well for that reason, but usually you can tell if that's the reason or whether they are unprepared for questions.

My senior grad students seemed most surprised that some of the candidates didn't bother to explain at the beginning why anyone should care about their research. They just dove into the details, perhaps to demonstrate deep knowledge of their specific research subjects. I was particularly happy about this reaction, as it is something I emphasize over and over with my students, even if they are just giving an informal talk in the department. Depth doesn't have to be at the expense of breadth -- it's all in the balance. I think this recent spate of interview talks was the first time some of them really saw how critical it is to get attempt this balance.

It is possible to get the balance wrong with over-emphasis at either end of the spectrum. I think there is a broad region of acceptable balance, but for some reason, many speakers seem magnetically attracted to one of the extremes. Getting the right balance is an art, and requires practice and a lot of advice and critical input.

I should start scheduling next semester's in-house talks right now -- I bet I'd get a lot of volunteers from the senior grad students.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Traveling Woman

In the next 5-6 months, I will be making several professional trips to Europe, and I have been working on my travel arrangements this week. I have found it very helpful in recent years to consult online reviews of hotels. I like to stay in small to medium sized hotels that seem like they might have some elements of charm or character. What is most important to me, though, is how a hotel treats its women guests. That's where the reviews are helpful.

I pay no attention to reviews from people who complain that a hotel is 'old' or that the rooms are small or that the TV was microscopic. Information about traffic or other noise and renovation/construction can be useful, but mostly I care about being safe and being treated with respect.

One hotel I was seriously considering I am now not considering because a review from a solo woman guest noted that she was ignored by the staff at breakfast, even once she told them that she wasn't waiting for anyone, and she had trouble getting the attention of people at the front desk. I can deal with a certain amount of rudeness, especially if it is equal-opportunity rudeness, but I'd rather stay at a place where women travelers are as welcome as men travelers.

After (and sometimes during) my trips, I contribute reviews of the places I stay, including positive reviews of hotels that treated me well. I think this is important data for solo women travelers, and much more interesting than whether the pillows are too thin.

Ethics Overload (again)

Today I underwent more ethics training, and I fear that it was as irrelevant as all the other ethics workshops I have attended. At some point, one of the other trainees asked "Is there a point to this workshop?" and the person leading the workshop replied "Not really. We just have to do this. Be sure to sign the list so you get credit." Is that ethical?

Some of the workshop participants seemed to confuse ethical issues with issues of good vs. bad practices in science. Some people like to tell their own strange anecdotes that illuminate nothing (perhaps they should start blogs). Some people just like to disagree with whatever else is being said. It was a long afternoon.

The only time the workshop participants (including me) showed any signs of life was during a discussion of advisor-student issues re. publications. Someone told a supposedly shocking anecdote about an advisor who thought his students should be motivated to publish by the advisor's imminent tenure review. The workshop divided up into camps over that.

One faction's philosophy was: when you're in a research group, everything is interconnected. If someone isn't being productive, it affects everyone. If you're supported on a grant, you have to produce something or it affects the group's ability to get more grants.

Another faction thought that the advisor was selfish to focus on his tenure situation and maybe the students weren't ready to publish their results yet. It's hard to say without more information about that specific situation, but in general I relate more to research-group-as-interconnected-community point of view.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Report Card

It's time for Faculty Annual Reports in my department. We each provide a list of our research, teaching, and service activities, and these are used in evaluation of (1) whether each faculty member is accomplishing the basic requirements of the job, and (2) who deserves a merit raise. Our files also include our teaching evaluations and syllabi. The files are reviewed by an elected committee of 3 faculty and the department Chair.

I am particularly interested in how things turn out this year because the elected committee consists of 3 brilliant guys who don't seem to be that aware of what goes on outside their own research spheres. All 3 of the committee members are of the faction that decided last year that I am 'too junior' for a leadership position and that I don't 'balance' research, teaching, and service as well as my male colleagues.

If the committee members have even one molecule (each) of objectivity, they will see that my annual report this year argues strongly that I do not have a balance problem and that, in fact, I am more active and productive as a researcher, teacher/adviser, and academic citizen than the 3 of them combined, no matter how you count the research, teaching, and service activities listed on our reports. I hope they can do the math.

Another element of the annual reports is a list of places where we gave invited talks. My husband and I are curious whether anyone will connect the dots when they see that we gave talks at many of the same universities (the universities interested in hiring us away).

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Committee of Women

In the past, I've written disparaging comments about people who denigrate committees comprised entirely of women, as if the findings of a Committee of Women (COW) were somehow less valid and more biased than those of a committee comprised mostly or entirely of men. Well, maybe I'm a hypocrite, but I'm thinking of turning down an opportunity to be on a COW that is charged with improving the situation for women faculty at my university.

This COW seems to exist mostly so that administrators can say they are doing something about women's 'issues'. In the collective administrative mind of my university, women's 'issues' are things like childcare; for some reason, this is not an issue for male faculty, and requires a COW to come up with the finding, which is then ignored, that faculty (and staff and students) need more quality childcare. I have talked to some women on this committee, and been to one open meeting. Although I think the committee is not taken very seriously by the powers-that-be, the women are impressive, and I think that on a personal level it would be interesting to interact with them.

One reason to be on the COW would be to work to make the committee a more visible and major player in changing the academic culture of the university. I don't think I need to be convinced as to whether that is a realistic goal or not in terms of deciding if I want to be on this committee. The theoretical mission of the committee appeals to me.

Even so, when my department Chair said he wanted to nominate me for this committee, my initial reaction was negative. My department Chair and my department as a whole do not even think I am qualified to lead a department committee or be on a college-level committee that focuses on general issues, but they think I could probably handle a committee focused on women's issues. If I had a leadership position in my department, I think I would happily do both that and the COW. As it is, I'd be spending my time on something no one in my department values or respects. I know that I should set aside my intra-departmental grievances and focus on the larger issue of how I can be most effective (and happy), and not make decisions based on whether my more primitive colleagues will respect my choice of professional service activities.

Friday, April 06, 2007

My View of Men

When I attend talks in my department, my preferred place to sit is near the front, as that's the best place to be for asking questions. In my department, faculty tend to sit at the front of the room and students tend to sit at the back (postdocs sit anywhere), but the completeness of the separation didn't really strike me until I sat at the back of the room for a talk this week. [My daughter was playing on a computer in a room nearby, and I wanted to be near the door so I could keep an eye on her and be accessible if she needed me.]

The room is tiered, so I had an unobstructed view of rows and rows of men in front of me. I was surrounded by women (students) where I was sitting, but the front of the room was devoid of them except for one lone female professor. It brought back memories of my own grad days, sitting in the back with my fellow students, with a view of dozens of male professors in the front. Back then, I thought that by the time I was at the front of the room, I'd have lots of female company there. I am of course well aware of the continuing lack of Female Science Professors, so my view from the back of the room this week wasn't a realization, just a visualization. I wondered what the students sitting in the back think about the view. From conversations I have with students, it seems that women students today don't have the (delusional) optimism that I had as a student. Perhaps the pipeline has been leaking too long for them to believe it will change. Even so, I would hate to think that they sit back there and feel completely pessimistic.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Too Close For Reviewing Comfort?

Today a colleague with whom I've collaborated at various times over the years told me he was asked to review one of my manuscripts on a topic completely separate from anything we've worked on together. He declined to review it because he felt it would be a conflict of interest given that we've collaborated on other research projects. A few months ago I wrote about a situation in which I didn't feel I could give an objective review of a proposal, and there certainly are situations in which lack of objectivity requires that one refuse to review a paper or proposal.

I must admit, though, that I have mixed feelings about this situation. I realize that one interpretation of my colleague's refusal to do the review is that he really doesn't like the work and didn't want to be involved in a negative review of a longtime colleague, but I don't believe that is the case here. I think he would give the manuscript a thorough, thoughtful, and overall positive review. And even if he had negative comments and was worried about how I'd react to them, he doesn't have to sign his review, so there would be no risk of my taking any negative comments personally.

I have seen many close and semi-close colleagues review each other's papers. In some of those cases I didn't think that was appropriate, but if we all declined to review the manuscripts and proposals of people we've worked with at one point, the reviewing system would collapse. That, or we'd only get reviews from people who disagree with us. So, where to draw the line?

The colleague who declined to review my manuscript is a very honest and sincere person, so I respect his decision. Part of me can't help feeling regret, though, that the 'old boy' network never seems to work for me.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Don't Do This Either

My language class finally got to take its midterm exam today, but we had less than the full class time to do the exam. Two students were late, so the instructor made everyone wait until they arrived. The last one to arrive was 15 minutes late, so everyone got 15 minutes less to take the exam. It just seems obvious to me that the on-time students should get the maximum time and those who are late get less time.

I can't decide whether to say anything to the instructor about this kind of thing. If I do, would I be a more experienced teacher kindly sharing my wisdom with a less experienced teacher, or would I be an obnoxious student whining about not having enough time on a test? As a teacher, I would hate it if students saved their criticisms for the evaluation at the end of the class, especially for something that is easy to fix. I much prefer getting constructive criticism during the semester, when there is time to change or explain. I sometimes do a mid-semester evaluation to get comments while they are relevant. If students comment on something I can't or won't change, I can at least explain my reasoning.

As a student in this class, though, I am getting more of an appreciation for how difficult it can be to criticize your instructor, especially because I don't feel comfortable (as a professor-student) telling my instructor how I think she should run her class. I think it might seem especially obnoxious in this case because I am a tenured professor and she is a lecturer on contract. Just because I have more status doesn't mean I am a better teacher. However, if I can think of a kind, non-obnoxious way to talk to her about teaching, I will. There are certainly many positive things I can say about her teaching as well (as long as I don't sound patronizing..).

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Back Seat Driver/Professor

Last weekend I studied a lot for the Monday midterm exam in the language class I am taking, but at the beginning of class on Monday, the other students asked the instructor if we could have the test another day instead. The instructor said OK. I would never agree to that if I were the instructor, though of course I didn't say anything. I have moved homework assignments and due dates around (with advance notice to the students), but a last-minute reschedule of a test? Never! I try not to be a 'back seat driver/professor' in this class, especially since I have no idea what it is like to teach a language class -- but sometimes it is hard.. like this week.

I am trying to decide whether to sign up for the intermediate level of the course for next year. I think I will. It has been very hard making the time to take a class that meets 5 days/week, especially since I travel a lot and the course involves a lot of homework and writing assignments, but it has been a great experience overall. I am slowly slowly making progress with this difficult language. Also, learning a new language makes me use different brain muscles than I use in my research, and I like that. I do not, however, like studying for (or taking) tests, especially when the experience becomes more protracted than expected.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Professor Hair

I hate getting my hair cut. I avoid the experience as much as possible, and hence my long non-professorial hair. It always amazes me how quickly the ritual conversation with the hair cutter reveals that I am from Planet Academia and not from the real world. Example:

Hair cutter: You know, when you turn 40, you're going to have to cut your hair short.

Me: I turned 40 a long time ago.

Hair cutter (after a little scream of shock): But you CAN'T have hair this long if you're that old.

Me: But I do.

Hair cutter: Of course you want to look young, but we SHOULD cut it to shoulder length. In fact.. (pointing to my chest).. hair that goes down to there is.. STRIPPER HAIR.

Me (wondering whether I can convince my husband to cut my hair next time): I have never heard of that.

Hair cutter: EVERYONE knows that.

Me: Even so, can I just get a trim?

I am doing everything backwards. In my youth, I had cm-long hair for a time (80's, London) when I should have had long hair, and now that I am 'old', I should have short hair.

My loathing of hair cuts is real, but I think part of my motivation for having long hair relates to my wish to change how people perceive scientists and science professors. Life certainly would be easier if I fit the science stereotype more -- or at least as much as a female-type person can -- but I also feel a stubborn wish/need to NOT look like I am supposed to and therefore to surprise people.

Obviously I am not being too extreme about this -- I am not that interested in piercing my eyebrows or getting a large visible tattoo, just as examples. I also don't walk around campus in my lab coat (unlike med school students, even though wearing such attire outside makes me wonder what they are learning about hygiene).

My somewhat delusional hope is that maybe in some small way the daily/weekly experiences that other women scientists and I have of changing people's minds about what a scientist 'looks like' will have a positive effect. Some women I know do this stereotype-busting even more effectively than I do, as I am by no means stylish or particularly socially skilled. Clearly the best way to accomplish the goal of having it be natural for women to be scientists and engineers and mathematicians and presidents is for there to be more of us in these professions, but a little stereotype twisting might help in the meantime.