Thursday, August 30, 2007

Convoke Me Not

I am grateful to my colleagues who are willing to don academic regalia and march in a crowd of similarly-attired professors and administrators in the fall convocation ceremony. The sight of professors in their academic robes and caps no doubt inspires students with awe, thereby igniting intellectual fires and whatnot.

I did the convocation thing once and will likely not do it again. The one time I agreed to do it, I did not have tenure and I was made to feel that it would be a really good thing for me to participate in this ritual. I was also curious about what it felt like to be on the 'other side' of a convocation ceremony. When I was an undergraduate, I liked going to the fall all-college gathering; it was a nice way to start the academic year.

The one time I marched in a convocation as a professor, I rented academic robes etc. that had the right colors, stripes, glyphs, and cap for the institution that granted my Ph.D., put the silly things on, and went to find my place in line with the other professors. As I walked past the other professors, all similarly and absurdly attired, a number of them smiled at me. I smiled back, thinking that perhaps the wearing-of-the-robes was a sort of professorial bonding experience. But no.. One of the smiling professors said to me "We all love it when PhD's from your university march in convocation. You have by far the most hideous academic robes and it makes the rest of us look good." Strong words for a man in a velvet beanie. I just smiled back and said "I specifically went to that university so that I might one day wear this spectacular robe." So there.

I told my daughter this story last year when she was upset that friends at her elementary school had criticized her attire. I was glad that she thought the story was hilarious rather than demoralizing. I am also glad that marching in convocation is voluntary, and that I have tenure.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I keep getting requests from friends in Business to be LinkedIn or added to other e-networking lists. I always say yes to the invitations just to be polite, but I have a feeling I'm mostly opening myself up to more junkmail. Perhaps these sites are professional MySpace-type sites, so it looks good for someone to have lots of links (friends)?

The invitation to link that I accepted today informed me that I am now 3.7 times more likely to find a new job. Cool.

Last day of major travel for me..

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Professor/Shopping Fantasy

I am still on the road, though have finally found a good internet connection. For the past few days, my only option was a coin-operated kiosk with a sort of keyboard that wasn't really meant for typing words.

During our travels, my daughter and I talked about how we will have to do some very quick back-to-school shopping for her, and somehow this led to our constructing a fantasy scenario of back-to-school shopping for professors. We imagined a special clothing store, just for professors, with different departments: Science Women, Science Men, Humanities Women etc. It would have all the latest fashions. What are the stylish Chemistry Professors wearing this year? What cannot you absolutely not wear at the next big international meeting?

We later told my husband about this idea, and he mused about whether the different departments might need further subdividing. We are fairly sure that the physical sciences could probably share one department of this store, but it may well be that engineers will need their own section, and the humanities might need some very significant subdividing. Do philosophers dress the same as historians?

Another feature of this store for professors is that you get a discount on a new item of clothing if you turn in something that you have worn since graduate school, with the discount greater the longer you have been out of grad school.

Friday, August 24, 2007


NSF wants some (most? all?) of the research it funds to be "transformative". I don't know exactly when this word became central in NSF-speak, though I first became aware of it during an NSF committee meeting a few years ago. Those of us who recently completed an NSF questionnaire, the results of which are now out and being discussed in science/news forums, had to answer questions about how much of our own research is transformative, how much of the research in proposals we review is transformative etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of us think we are doing transformative research, but see it less often in proposals we review.

Now this word is creeping out of NSF and into proposals. I just reviewed a proposal that proclaimed the described research as transformative. Alas, using the word in a proposal does not make it so, though I suppose this raises the question of whether I would know it if I saw it. And this raises the question of just what "transformative" means, and whether it is a definite state that can be predicted from a proposal.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Girls Only Internet Access

For the past couple of days, I have been wandering around having adventures with my daughter while my husband does conference-things, and hence posting and comment moderation have been sporadic. For the past 2 days, my internet options seemed to be confined to smoke-filled storefronts with all computers continuously occupied by young men. I thought it might be interesting to post feminist women-in-science thoughts from one of these places, but I never got the chance at a computer.

At my current location, I read about an internet site with a 'girls only' room, and my daughter and I are very intrigued by this. From what I've seen of internet centers recently, I can see why such a room might be nice/necessary, but I haven't had a chance to check it out yet. For now, I have found another (expensive) option that is most convenient for the moment, and am scrambling to finish some reviews.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Double Interview

Earlier today, my husband encountered the chair of a department at a large private university. This chair said that he had heard that my husband and I were thinking about leaving our current university, and that he would like his university to be 'in the mix' along with the other places we are considering. OK, that's fine, the more the merrier etc.

The strange thing is that this place wants us both to visit at the same time. We would presumably meet with faculty individually, but would give consecutive talks and would attend social functions (meals) together. I'm not sure what we'd do with our daughter -- maybe they want her to give a talk too? -- but we can probably figure something out for a quick trip.

I'm not sure how I feel about this double visit. All the other departments have brought us in separately - both public and private universities - and have made it clear that we would each be valued as individuals. Perhaps a double visit is just an efficient way to take care of the situation. Or perhaps it means that this place thinks of us as a 'package' (which we are, I suppose). I will keep an open mind, see if the visit actually occurs, and if so, how it goes.

Scenes From a Meeting

Regular readers may recall my encounter earlier this summer with a man who was surprised, upon meeting me, to realize that I am a FemaleScienceProfessor rather than a MaleScienceProfessor. His astonishment stemmed from the fact that he had heard of me, read my papers, even had one of his own papers reviewed by me. Anyway, as I wrote, he finally got over his disbelief that a female could have accomplished the scientific things I have accomplished, and we spent an amicable week at a small conference and had numerous conversations about Science.

This morning I went down to breakfast at a hotel, and there he was! I smiled and said good morning, and he stared at me, at first blankly, then with a confused expression. He did not return my greeting. Oh well.. maybe he's one of those people who isn't good with names/faces, even for someone he just met a month or two ago? But no, once again, I had the opportunity to shift his universe. The reason he couldn't believe I was me yet again? This morning I was accompanied by a young child, my daughter. He was surprised that a mom-type person with a kid was greeting him at the hotel, and thought I was just a friendly person saying random good mornings to people at breakfast. After all, HE is here for a conference.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Maxed Out

Every other year I teach an "elective" class that is specifically for freshmen, on an interdisciplinary topic that combines my interests in science, history, and culture. Typically, 2-4 of these freshmen classes, which are distinct from the giant 100-level intro courses, are taught each term. I like all the classes that I teach, but this is one of my favorites.

Over the summer, I have been somewhat obsessively monitoring enrollment in my course. Because it is a freshman course, most of the enrolling occurs over the summer rather than in the spring as for other fall courses. A month ago, I was very pleased to see that my course was full. Every time I have taught the class, it has filled to the maximum number of students allowed, but every term the numbers and topics of these courses change, and there's always a chance that a more thrilling course will come along and capture enrollment.

My reasons for being curious about the enrollment are not entirely pure. My particular freshman class is always given lowest priority by the department administrative assistant in terms of time and classroom. In fact, this year (as well as 2 years ago), I wasn't even given a classroom in the department. The other 2 freshmen classes this term, both taught by senior male faculty, meet in classrooms in the department. One of these classes currently has 5 students enrolled and may not be taught, and the other has 8 students. I am not glad that the other courses have such low enrollment, but I may bring it to the attention of my chair (if he has not noticed on his own) that my course has filled yet again.

A similar situation happened 2 years ago. My course filled but a senior professor's attracted only 2 students and was canceled. The department chair at the time mused to several people, including me, about how strange he thought this was. He wanted to know what it was about my course that made students want to take it. Hmm. I don't know. Interesting topic, perhaps? He decided it was a random event with no obvious explanation, but it wasn't the first time my course filled and now it has happened again. Methinks there is too much data for the Random Hypothesis to be viable.

In any case, I have been working on my syllabus this week and getting excited about teaching this course again. I am not ready for summer to be over, but there is much to look forward to in the new term.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Laptop Grief

The hard drive of my trusty laptop just crashed, the day before the start of a major trip. Fortunately everything important was backed up. Even so, I am feeling bereft and out of sorts without my computer. Fortunately I have an ancient but still functioning laptop to take its place temporarily, but I find it irritating and aesthetically unpleasing to use an old, slow, battered laptop.

There is no good time for a hard drive to crash, but it would be far far worse to have the computer die during the trip rather than immediately before. That is my lame attempt to be positive about the situation.

Two of my students recently had hard drive crashes. Perhaps it is contagious. Both of these students completely shut down in terms of progress on papers they were writing, although they had their manuscripts backed up and could, in theory, have continued writing using one of the many other computers available to them. Although I can appreciate the emotional pain of a hard drive crash, it does seem possible for life to go on in some form, albeit with a decrease in quality of life and aesthetic computing pleasure.

Anyway, I'm off on another trip. Posting and comment moderation will continue, but may be sporadic for the next two weeks.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


This particular post is difficult for me to write because I am going to boast, and maybe even gloat, both unpleasant characteristics, I know. Even so, here goes: I am awesome at miniature golf. I don’t know why I am, but I am. I play mini-golf once a year when I visit my family at the ancestral home, and that is quite enough for me, so perhaps I shouldn’t quit my day job just yet and go on the professional mini-golf circuit.

This bizarre discussion of mini-golf is not entirely off topic for this blog. At the mini-golf course where my family and I recently played, the best scores for men and women are listed separately. I think this is strange because mini-golf isn’t like real golf, in which strength is relevant. Even so, during my recent visits to this particular course, the men’s score was typically better than the women’s score. That is, until I played an incredible round, got numerous holes-in-one, and came in well below par for the course. I was just happy to have beaten my brother, but when my name was written on the board as the woman with the best score, and my score was significantly lower (i.e. better) than the men’s, my daughter was ecstatic. She danced around, singing “You’re better than all the men!”. Mini-golf is very quantitative and unambiguous, so this statement could not be disputed within its context. So much, however, for the simple thrill of having gotten a little purple ball past a windmill, a fake stalactite, and some boulders: perhaps I also inspired female mini-golfers on that course for at least a day or two. Female Science Professor Sans Frontieres..

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Why I Am A Scientist (according to my family)

Perhaps because there are no other scientists or professors on my mother's side of the family, my mother and her sisters have constructed an explanation for why they think I became a scientist. This family legend involves some childhood experiences provided by my maternal grandparents and other relatives. Now, every summer when I visit the ancestral home, the legend is retold. Someone will say to me "Do you think you are a scientist because ...?" and then the story is retold. I always respond with some variation of "possibly".

I think they have created (and often repeat) this explanation to find a way to connect my strange life to my family more. For this reason I never dispute the story, despite its being somewhat bizarre. Also, I don't necessarily have a better explanation. I didn't have any important science mentors or other early influences of that sort. I always liked my science classes in school, but I was, if anything, more inclined towards literature, languages, and history. My family was shocked when I discovered a passion for a particular field of science in college, and it wasn't long after that they started developing the family legend for Why I Am A Scientist.

This past week, I heard variations on the story at least 4 times. I replied "possibly", "perhaps", "maybe", and "I suppose that could be it".

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Island of the Uncles

I was recently imprisoned on a remote island with lots of relatives, including the men that my mother and her sisters married. Through an open window, I heard a conversation between two of these men, both ministers in different Protestant denominations. One of them described to the other a recent training session he had to attend for ministers to be aware of and sensitive to the issue of sexual harassment and to learn to recognize and avoid it in their churches. The conversation was very crude and involved ridicule of the very concept of sexual harassment. Apparently, that’s what women are for, and they (i.e., women) just have to realize that men will never see them as anything but [expletives deleted]. Soon after, we all gathered around the dinner table to eat the food the women had prepared -- perhaps proving that women are good for more than one thing? -- and I had to sit next to this man and hold his hand while he led the family in prayer. I felt so nauseous. This man is an apparently devoted husband, father, grandfather, minister. Even if the conversation was some sort of male ritual kind of thing, I think there is something twisted about a person who would say those things, even if there was a level of insincerity in the sexist posing.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Getting Academia Wrong

[note: there may be a gap in posts, as I go off the grid - reluctantly - for a few days]

I suppose that academic scientists are just as likely as humanities professors to make generalizations about academia based on their own experience, but I was struck yesterday by a glaring example in the Sunday NY Times Magazine by Michael Ignatieff. The article ("Getting Iraq Wrong") is about Iraq, the war, and the experience of a war supporter changing his mind. It is written by an academic turned politician, and contains musings about the difference of perspective of an intellectual/academic as compared to a politician. For example:

In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with.

The author is writing about his experience as a political science professor, but it struck me that few science professors could write that sentence. Even those of us who do research that is not immediately applicable to society are aware that what we do is not completely disconnected from the world. I can appreciate that even 'false ideas' can be interesting to discuss intellectually, but obviously false ideas are quickly abandoned in science (though I may be quickly proved wrong by diligent commenters who can think of counter examples).

This essay therefore interested me, not only for its discussion of the Iraq situation, but for how it made me think about academia. I tend to think of science professors as disconnected from society because what we do can be so difficult for other people to understand. Yet, when I read about the difference between intellectuals (i.e., political scientists) and politicians, I wondered if the difference wasn't even greater for some fields of the humanities.

I don't have time to develop that thought further -- I am sitting at an airport gate during a flight delay as I type.

In closing, for now, I will add one more thought, so as not to disappoint those who like to accuse me of twisting everything through a gender filter.. here is an Ignatieff quotation that caught my eye:

An intellectual’s responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead.

[yes, I know, it is awkward to interrupt a beautiful sentence with 'his or her'..]

Thursday, August 02, 2007

It's About Me

Is it OK (ethical) to help write a letter of reference for yourself? (for example, for jobs, promotions, awards)? From what I've seen, these situations are not uncommon. Perhaps I am ethically challenged in this respect, but I think it is OK if a candidate supplies information/text for a letter, as long as the ultimate letter writer agrees with the information and supplies additional information/text.?