Friday, January 30, 2009

Road Scholar

Here is what I learned from my Travel Poll earlier this week:

1. Many more early career faculty voted in the poll than did more senior faculty. Only 16 so-called full Professors voted, and I know who some of them are. Might one conclude from these data that more early faculty read this blog (or blogs in general) than do more senior faculty? I find that kind of interesting; perhaps not surprising, but interesting nevertheless.

2. In every professorial rank polled, most faculty travel <> 75k/year is very very low.

4. There is no significant difference between Assistant and Associate Professors in terms of miles traveled. There is no particular trend of travel increasing or decreasing with career stage, although not enough Professors voted to make a conclusion about them. Variation in travel likely relates more to research field, institution type, funding opportunities, the number and location of essential conferences etc. than it does to career stage.

5. When making decisions about travel, most readers do not and would not take into account the amount of CO2 emissions for which they would be personally responsible, but a significant number would consider doing this, even though they have not yet done so.

I consider the opportunities for interesting travel to be one of the excellent aspects of my professor job, but faculty positions are so varied in so many ways that it seems that one can probably arrange one's professional life to include more or less travel depending on personal circumstances and preferences.

A few years ago, a frequent flyer businessman, upon learning that I had the same frequent flyer status that he had, asked me "Are you really a Road Warrior too?"

No, I am not a Road Warrior. I do not spend my life shuttling around in airplanes. I make a few international trips each year, and a fair number of domestic trips, and the miles add up. Road scholar, perhaps.. warrior, no thanks.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


A quick survey of the FSP archives reveals that I have discussed the general issue of Professorial Attire approximately 8-9 times, most directly in some posts in 2006 (here and here). It is clearly time for another.

Several days each week for the next few months, I have to remember to wear a particular type of garment that allows me to attach a microphone clip somewhere not far from my face. The wireless microphone in the auditorium in which I teach has no other attachment mechanism, and I must use a microphone so that the students who are sitting 0.25 kilometers from the front of the room can hear me.

I have considered rigging up some sort of string-like attachment that I could wear around my neck. These days, many conferences offer string attachments for badges, and this is much more convenient than the old clip-style (or worse, the treacherous safety pin). A string would be much more convenient and would free me from having to spend time in the morning figuring out whether my apparel is mike-appropriate.

Earlier this week I made the Wrong Decision one day and the microphone kept flopping around too much, and it even got tangled in my hair and made horrible scratchy sounds, distracting from my attempt to make an Essential Point. Do I also have to wear my hair in a nice Science Lady bun so that I don't have these issues whilst teaching this term?

I really do like the courses I am teaching this term, but the logistical aspects are proving to be rather severe.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Partial Illumination

It may seem like I am obsessing about student email lately, perhaps because I am. The most likely reason for this obsession is that I am teaching a rather large class and I get lots of email, much of it strange or unnecessary. I realize my perception of strangeness is in part related to my point of view as a middle-aged professor person, and this view is very different from that of a typical undergraduate student.

The term is most definitely underway, and I am still getting email from students asking me to send them the syllabus (it's on the course website and available in class), to tell them what the textbook is (it's listed on the course website; it's listed on the syllabus that is available on the course website; it's listed on the university's website that has textbook information for every class), to tell them what I have talked about in every class they have missed thus far (review information is on the course website, the topics and reading are on the syllabus that is on the course website), to tell them what lab section they are in (I don't know, but once they get to the course webpages and/or acquire a syllabus, they will see the contact information for the right person to ask that question), and so on.

And then there are all the ill students who want to share the news of their illness with me.

I have been wondering: What's with all these helpless, clueless emails? Why are there so many this term?

Is it me? Do I somehow inspire helplessness in students? (One of my colleagues delicately proposed that since I answer any and all student email messages, no matter how obnoxious, I am perhaps enabling student helplessness.)

Is it This Generation? These students are so used to using texting, twittering, status updating etc. -- perhaps they think nothing of firing off a quick email to get information rather than exerting themselves just a bit to find the information?

Is it random? Perhaps the email deluge, which has continued unabated since before the term began, means nothing in particular about the student population or me?

None of those explanations is very satisfying.

Today I got a partial answer. During a discussion with the person who administers the Intro Science program in my department, I remarked on the remarkable number of emails I have been receiving from students this term. He said "Oh yeah, I was going to tell you something about your class. You have a lot of first-term transfer students and you have an unusual number of students on academic probation, so you have a lot of students who are either completely unfamiliar with This University because they are new here or who, for whatever reason, aren't functioning well at the university."

I was actually really glad to know this. It helps me to be more patient and understanding when I get all these 'help me' email message. It helps me to know that some of these students are trying to figure out how things work at this place. It's not that they are lazy, they really don't know how to find the information they need.

The Intro Science coordinator told me that many of the transfer students don't even get the equivalent of freshman orientation, so they don't know that every course syllabus is required to be online, they don't know how to navigate to the websites that have all the course information, and they don't know how to communicate in an effective way with a professor. One could argue that an enterprising student would think to look for the relevant webpages, but I can imagine that these students are dealing with a lot of confusing things right now.

And I will have to be a little more vigilant than usual for signs of academic trouble in my class this term and try to be proactive if there are problems.

I hope these emails trickle off in the very near future, and not just because it is disconcerting to get so many I haven't been to a single class so far this term have I missed anything emails, not to mention the Tell me how to buy a copy of the textbook online emails, but also because getting fewer of these emails will mean that more students are figuring out how things work and getting on track with the course and perhaps their academic life in general.

Well, that would be one of several explanations for a decrease in these emails, but it would be my preferred explanation. After this many years as a professor, I have found that an attitude of only-slightly-cynical optimism is the best way to stay sane when teaching a large intro science class.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Carbon Feet

Some of you guessed that yesterday's post was leading up to a discussion of Professorial Carbon Footprints. And some of you may have guessed that my Professorial Carbon Footprint (PCF) is quite large owing to the number of miles I fly in airplanes each year.

In my personal life, I have quite a small carbon footprint. My family has made choices involving where we live relative to work/school, how we travel to/from work, how often we drive the one aged, small, and awesomely fuel efficient vehicle that we all share, how and how much we heat/cool our house, and so on. We are a very environment-friendly little family with a very small carbon footprint.

Not so in my professional life. In my professional life, environmental concerns might affect how I organize some of my travel -- e.g. scheduling travel to two not-so-far-apart places in a single trip rather than jetting back and forth to each place. I do not, however, make decisions about whether to travel based on airplane carbon emission issues.

For example, I can't imagine saying, when invited to visit another university or attend a conference and give a talk, "Sorry, I can't come because I don't want to increase my carbon footprint." It's not that my talks are so awesome and I can't live without giving yet another talk, but an important part of my professor job is to interact with other people, talk to and listen to students and colleagues, do the FSP role model thing (in person), establish and maintain international connections, communicate the results of my research etc. Some of my research involves international collaboration that cannot be accomplished via email or Skype, and maintaining these collaborations involves international travel to visit colleagues and attend conferences other than those in the US.

If I weren't sure if I wanted/needed to go to a conference in a far-flung location, I might make a decision about whether to go based in part on environmental impact issues, but my main decision factors are the value of the experience, whether I have time, and the impact on my family.

Last year, a colleague criticized me for traveling so much and therefore having a large carbon footprint, so I asked him what kind of car he drives. He drives an SUV and he drives it more in a month than I drive my 2-door hatchback in a year. My little car wouldn't do well in a collision with his SUV, but it does very well in a carbon footprint contest.

That may not be sufficient justification for my predilection for high PCF travel, but the only way I could reduce my PCF in any significant way would be to restrict my research activities to the US, despite the intellectual and other (broader impact..) benefits of international collaboration. Would it nevertheless be worth it so as to be carbon neutral (or better) in my professional life as well as my personal life? At the moment my answer is no, but perhaps when Antarctica melts even more, none of will be able to make such a choice.

Monday, January 26, 2009

How Many Roads?

Most of my professorial colleagues travel a lot during the academic year and during the summer, as do I. In 2007, I discussed the issue of academic year professional travel in terms of how to deal with missing a class (for example: trade teaching with a colleague? cancel class? show a movie? ask a grad student/postdoc to substitute for you?). Now I am curious about how much we travel. That is, I am feeling very quantitative.

I am feeling quantitative because I have before me the number of miles I flew last year on one particular airline: 69,287 (= 111,044 km). In a random poll of two colleagues in my department, their numbers are similar: one flew 57k miles and the other 62k (down from > 75k the previous two years). Of course, not all professional travel is by airplane, though here in the US it tends to be.

Overall, I think I travel more now than I did at earlier stages of my career, with a few prominent exceptions when I was a Distinguished Lecturer or something like that. I think the increase in travel is mostly related to professional factors and not so much to personal factors (e.g., the age of my daughter), although the duration of some of my professional trips has increased now that my daughter is older.

Below are some polls, organized by professorial rank and not controlled for the size of the country or continent that one inhabits.

If you are a professor, how much did you travel LAST YEAR (calendar year 2008), and has this number changed (up, down, not) as you have progressed through the academic ranks? For assistant professors, 'previous academic rank' refers to the graduate student and/or postdoctoral stages of one's career.

0-24,999 miles (0-40,232 km)
25,000-49,999 miles (40,234-80,466 km)
50,000-74,999 miles (80,467-120,699 km)
>75,000 miles (>120,701 km)
Free polls from

Compared to your previous academic rank, this is
more travel
less travel
the same amount of travel
Free polls from

0-24,999 miles (0-40,232 km)
25,000-49,999 miles (40,234-80,466 km)
50,000-74,999 miles (80,467-120,699 km)
>75,000 miles (>120,701 km)
Free polls from

Compared to your previous academic rank, this is
more travel
less travel
the same amount of travel
Free polls from

0-24,999 miles (0-40,232 km)
25,000-49,999 miles (40,234-80,466 km)
50,000-74,999 miles (80,467-120,699 km)
>75,000 miles (>120,701 km)
Free polls from

Compared to your previous academic rank, this is
more travel
less travel
the same amount of travel
Free polls from

Friday, January 23, 2009

Intense Editophobes

The past year has been a rather busy one for me for editing manuscripts, proposals, and other documents written by my students. It pleases me very much that my students are writing and that they are writing about such interesting things.

The general topic of scholarly writing (at any level) is of course studded with possibilities, and I have mused about different aspects of it at various times. Some of those musings could perhaps be described as rants.

Today I am musing (not ranting) about the different reactions I get from different students in response to my editing. I should say that I am a rather intense editor. I almost always have lots of comments to make, especially on early drafts. These comments range from those of a technical nature (misplaced modifiers .. lack of subject-verb agreement .. lack of verb .. paragraphs that are not paragraphs ..) to those that involve the content of the document.

I never make rude or insulting comments, and I mention the parts of a document that I think are well done (if there are any). I am in fact quite polite. For example, I do not write "Have you for some reason not figured out yet that word processing software has a spell-checking option?". Instead, I might highlight the first typo that a spell-checker would catch and write "Please fix this and other typos".

Although an individual student's response to being intensely edited can vary with time and mood, there tend to be typical responses from each student. These typical responses are no doubt related to very deep aspects of their psyches and stem from previous experiences with teachers, women (maybe even their mothers..), or anyone who has ever criticized their punctuation. Who knows from whence these reactions spring.. Whatever the source, it's kind of fascinating.

Below is a list of responses I have gotten from different students for approximately the same amount of editing (as measured by density and seriousness of edits/document). Despite holding editing density and intensity approximately constant, the rest of the variables are many and complex and relate to how the student and I have interacted over time, and how stressed the student is about the document, life, deadlines, career etc. The list must therefore be interpreted with caution, if at all.

Student responses to being intensely edited by their advisor (me):

1. Calm; pleased with the detailed comments; understood the comments and used them in a constructive way to produce a new and much improved version of the document; asked questions about any comments that were ambiguous or possibly showed a lack of understanding on my part.

2. Calm; pleased with the detailed comments; fixed all the technical problems indicated but had no idea how to approach the more cosmic issues regarding interpretations or other conceptual aspects; more drafts needed before these problems are worked out, but progress is made each time.

3. Very hurt and upset and angry at the comment density, which indicates a lack of appreciation by me for the student's efforts and shows that I am trying to impose my 'style' on the student rather than allowing him the freedom to be creative with punctuation, spelling, citation of the relevant literature, and fundamental scientific concepts. I must be a disturbed control freak. The student makes the changes anyway, eventually produces a decent paper (after more drafts/editing), but has clearly learned nothing from the experience (evidence: the next manuscript is just as bad in all respects).

4. Anxious because the document was not perfect and it should have been perfect the first time (note: this is the student's opinion, not mine). Angry at self; starts to be fearful of showing me additional drafts or documents. When the next draft/document is really good, doesn't believe me when I say so and asks me directly: Are you lying?

5. No discernible response. Not sure what the student thinks. Not sure that the student even looked at the comments. The next draft contains the same problems. Did the student send me the wrong draft by mistake? No, apparently not. Student has long explanation involving cars, dogs, weather, landlords, dentists, computer, software. Eventually fixes some problems, but never fixes them all in a single draft, and creates new ones in every subsequent draft. Do some people have phobias about spell-checkers? Do some people have separation anxiety re. written documents or a fear of completing something? Is it related to a fear of commitment? Has anyone studied this?

Regarding the ones who do not take criticism well, it is always my hope that they will become thicker-skinned with time. They must do so if they are going to survive in academia, or at least if they are going to survive happily. Professors are constantly barraged by criticism: of our teaching, of our grant proposals, of our manuscripts submitted for review, of our overall job performance (even if we have tenure), of our blogs.

Maybe because I am so used to being evaluated and having my own writing (and speaking) examined in such minute detail, I can no longer relate to being deeply upset by criticism of something I've written. Perhaps this has made me less, rather than more, sensitive with time, but if a student, however fragile, gives me an error-filled document, I'm going to make a lot of comments and suggestions. And, even if they are upset by this, I am going to do it all over again if their next draft/document is similarly problematic.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Non-Linear Life & Science

The current graduate education system that requires long hours over many uninterrupted years works well for some students (and their advisors), but it is perhaps not the best system in some? many? cases, and it is not 'family-friendly' in a systematic way for those students who are not the stereotypical unmarried monomaniacal types.

There has been discussion about how the (for some people) unappealing aspects of this system might be one reason for the lack of diversity in science. Let's assume for the following discussion that diversity is a desirable thing and that we want to find effective ways to encourage more people to become involved in, and stay in, scientific and related careers.

Efforts to date to encourage women and others to become (and stay) scientists, engineers, and mathematicians have had some success, in some fields more than others. I don't need to look at the numbers to know this. Early in my career it was not unusual for me to be the only -- or one of very few -- women at a conference session (or a faculty meeting). Now I see more women in my professional life, though most of them are students and postdocs, and it is rare for me to be the only woman in a room of scientists though it still does happen.

But progress has been slow and insufficient. The efforts to date have focused on such things as eliminating the worst, most evil and overt forms of discrimination and harassment, and on encouraging -- rather than actively discouraging -- women and members of other underrepresented groups from being scientists.

Can we conclude that this isn't going to be enough, or has there not yet been enough time? Perhaps I am impatient, but I think it isn't going to be enough.

That brings us to the issue of whether/how the academic system can change -- perhaps in dramatic ways -- to make it a truly diverse, representative environment.

So now let's assume for the sake of further discussion that one way to encourage a broader representation in the sciences is to make the system more flexible. From what I have seen in recent years, my male grad students and postdocs are just as interested in having a 'life' as my female students and postdocs, so people of all sorts may well be interested in changes to the system.

Even in the best of circumstances, a graduate student's academic program takes time and involves a lot of hard work. Most students need time to learn how to do research, many take classes, and some teach. Research is not a linear activity. And then there are the writing issues..

As a result, the typical time for a science Ph.D. is in many cases already longer than the average grant or guaranteed support from a department, so advisors and students already need to put together various sources of funding to keep the student supported (and eligible for healthcare benefits) for the duration of a Ph.D. program. Adding to the time-to-Ph.D., for however good a reason, can be difficult for all concerned.

Despite these difficulties in the current system, I have seen successful situations in which graduate students (male and female) with families have managed to balance life and academics without going (too) insane. In some cases, an agreeable situation is worked out between the student and the advisor and/or department in terms of how the student will manage their academic program. If these arrangements involve reduced work hours and prolonged time to degree, it's easiest if the student is in a well established or large research group. It can be more difficult for all concerned if the advisor is a tenure-track faculty member and/or has a small group.

I've mostly been talking about graduate students, but of course postdocs and tenure-track faculty face similar challenges. For example, I was able to work something out with my department chair re. teaching load when my pre-tenure daughter was born (I didn't take any maternity leave), and that turned out to be all I needed. Even so, I think it would be better for all concerned if faculty felt free to take parental leaves and/or stop the tenure clock, without concern that this would in fact have a negative impact on the tenure decision.

Maybe the current system does allow most people with families to manage somehow, but even if it does, word doesn't seem to be 'out' that it's possible to have a family and an academic life at any phase, from student years to faculty position. And even though it is possible, it can be very difficult and perhaps it doesn't need to be quite so difficult.

So, can Academia change to make Science more appealing to more people, and if so, how?

First, a selfish answer: In the sciences, one of the main issues is how the funding system would have to change. Without changes in the funding system, I don't think much else can or will change. That is, if I am still expected to write annual reports on my grants and be extremely productive in order to get new grants to support new students, it would help me, as a PI, if the funding agency and my department/university were prepared to help me help a student or postdoc who needed time and/or support for important non-academic life events and activities.

That's my point of view as a senior person with a kid whose age finally has two digits in it. When I was younger and had a baby/toddler, I was often tempted to write in my annual and final grant reports that I did such-and-such research and I took care of a very young child. I never did, but if there had been a separate box at the time for "Other information that may be relevant to the evaluation of your research activities", I would have included this very relevant information.

And if there had been supplementary funds that people with families could apply to for help with family situations (e.g. childcare) during the summer, when we are not paid by our universities, I would have definitely applied. The amount of summer salary I could raise from grants in rare cases approached but never exceeded the amount I spent on childcare so that I could do the research I was funded to do.

Another part of the solution has to be increased access to high-quality affordable childcare centers that employ well trained, sufficiently compensated care-givers. Such centers are expensive -- more expensive than can reasonably be supported by the fees parents pay. And if it's difficult for faculty parents to afford these places (assuming their kids even get in), it may be difficult or impossible for student parents, even with a sliding scale fee structure.

These places also need to be more flexible to accommodate different preferences and needs in terms of amount and timing of childcare. At some centers, even if your kid gets in before they start college themselves, you typically have to send them full-time, with no interruptions or you lose your spot. But some families would prefer part-time, and some would prefer summers only, and various other combinations. It's not currently feasible for the centers to be this flexible.

Would it be worth it to a university or state or country to help people get the childcare they want and need when they need it and to make other changes necessary to make the family/career balance more possible for more people?

It wouldn't be economic if you just crunch the numbers, so it would have to be worth it in terms of the benefits to the community and society to increase the ability of people -- whatever their personal situation -- to acquire degrees and manage their careers. It would have to be worth it, despite the 'upfront costs', to increase diversity and to encourage more people to pursue careers -- such as those involving science, engineering, and math -- that benefit society.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Levels of Work

One of my colleagues is currently immersed in a discussion with his graduate students about how much they should work on their research. This is of course a complex subject that dissatisfied faculty and tired students could discuss endlessly and unpleasantly.

I want to mention today just one aspect of the issue: ignoring for now all the other complexities of this topic, can/should a grad student scale their efforts depending on their career goal?

For example: One of my colleague's Ph.D. students maintains that he doesn't have to work as hard as some other students because his career goal is to get a faculty position at a small liberal arts college, not a research-intensive job at a university.

My colleague would be satisfied if this student worked a 40 hour week (i.e. much less than that of students with an intense research focus, but a reasonable amount) if the student used that time well; at present, the student works < size="3">. Note that specifying the number of hours worked is actually kind of meaningless. I've had students who were physically present in the department/lab for >> 40 hours/week and got nothing done, and other students who were extremely efficient and made excellent progress on their research during weekday daytime hours.

I mention this detail so that no one assumes that my colleagues is expecting this student to work every night and weekend (though he'd probably be fine with that). In this specific incident, the issue is that the student wants to work at a very leisurely pace because he thinks that is in line with his personal career goals, and, absent any specific agreement with the advisor that this schedule is acceptable owing to family/health/etc. considerations, I hope we can all agree that this is not OK.

My colleague is supporting the student on a grant. This doesn't mean that the student has to work 24/7 just because his salary, tuition, and benefits are being paid by his advisor's grant, but aside from the general issues about doing the work you are paid to do, there are additional questions and concerns that arise when a grant-funded student decides, one year into a project, to work at a leisurely pace (using this particular case as an example):

1. The grant would cover the academic career of a student working an efficient 40-hour workweek for several years but that will run out before a student working an inefficient and/or < 40-hour workweek completes the dissertation research. It's not as simple as saying "OK, well too bad for you" when the support runs out because presumably the research project has specific goals that should be accomplished if at all possible in the time frame of the grant. The student seems to think that the major factor controlling how much and how hard he works is his personal career goal, but he is funded to do a project that has a finite time frame. And hence point 2:

2. The leisure-track student is part of a research group. Each student and research scientist works on their own project, but as in many research groups, the projects are somewhat interconnected and the progress and success of each person and project affects the others. Unusually slow progress (by choice, not owing to an unpredicted and unavoidable obstacle) on a grant-funded project may negatively impact others.

Of course research is not so predictable that as long as you clock in your hours each week, you will get from point A to point B and write your papers and be done. It is not so simple (or boring), but in general, if you do work hard and think about what you are doing, you will get a result, even if it's not what you expected. Some people and projects need more time than others, and, within certain limits (i.e. the grant duration +/- a year or two), that's fine.

I think the particular student in question, if he ever finishes his Ph.D. and is fortunate enough to get the job he most desires, will be in for a shock when he finds out how hard professors at teaching-focused institutions work. This issue has been raised with him, but he went to a small college and thinks he knows well what his professors' jobs were like. Cushy! Summers off! Smart and adoring students!

There are differences in the experiences and lifestyles of professors at different types of educational institutions, but we all get our Ph.D.'s at research institutions and there are not separate degrees for those whose passion is for teaching and for those who want a significant research component in their job as a professor at a 4-year college or university. One can argue about whether that is a good thing or not, but I'm not going to today.

This is not to say that everyone has to work 80 hour weeks in grad school no matter what their personal situation and career goals, but when supported on a grant in the current system, you are committed to maintaining a certain level of productivity (loosely defined to include time spent thinking, pondering, wondering, and being constructively confused, not just cranking out data and papers) no matter what your post-Ph.D. career goal.

Position statement: I think that grad students can to some extent scale their efforts to their career goals if they so desire, but that being in a Ph.D. program and being paid by a grant to work a certain amount obligates one to put in a certain amount of effort and to make progress at a reasonable rate. Ideally, the definition of 'reasonable' can be mutually agreed upon by advisor and student (and this is why my colleague is currently having discussions with his student, to reach just such an agreement).

This post was of course written from the point of view of a PI on grants in the current system. In tomorrow's post: musings about the challenges of making the academic science/research culture (including aspects involving grants) more life-friendly (for lack of a better term).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Who Wants This?

In recent weeks, I have commented on (a.k.a. been obsessed with) the fact that I got a barrage of early email from students taking my class in the term that had not yet started. I have never gotten so much email of this kind before.

This is not to criticize the students, but rather to wonder how faculty feel about getting email such as the following:

Dear madam, Hi! I’m taking SCI 201 for spring semester 2009. Should I prepare anything or do any reading before coming to your first class? Can’t wait to be in your class! Thank you, I.B. Eager

That is, are we happy that our students are enthusiastic and motivated, or are we wondering why they are sending these emails?

Do we get a warm and fuzzy feeling at this youthful enthusiasm for Learning or are we cynical about the motivation of the students sending these emails?

Do we feel agnostic about it? That is, there's no way to tell what the student was thinking, so who cares? We get dozens of email each day asking us to do random things, so what's one more?

Are there courses that require reading or other preparation before the term starts but that don't tell the students about this unless the student sends an email to the instructor to get this secret information?

Am I the only one getting email like this? (none of my colleagues are, hence my question).

In other words, ...

If you got 1 or 12 emails like this before a term started, would you be
Happy happy happy!
Mostly annoyed and cynical
Unconcerned, nonchalant and somewhat indifferent free polls

Monday, January 19, 2009

An Inconvenient Time

Some of us will be teaching classes during the inauguration on Tuesday, including during Obama's speech. Perhaps some classes can watch the speech live as part of a course-related activity, but that's not realistic in a large introductory physical science class.

Those of us who will miss the speech because we are teaching can listen to it later, after class, and of course any students who are so inclined can do so as well. There are perhaps some students who will skip class to listen to the speech live, and I don't have any problem with that. Even so, these students are responsible for the course material they miss, just the same as if they missed the class for another good reason (major illness), a semi-good reason (missed the bus), a semi-bad reason (weather not sufficiently nice to venture outside), or a bad reason (too busy updating Facebook page).

Although I will go out of my way to help someone in dire need, there is a large gray area in which I cannot distinguish between the goodness or badness of the excuse for skipping class. Of course, many students don't bother with an excuse, but I tend to hear a lot of class-skipping-reasons anyway, especially once students realize that there is an exam question or two from every class. Perhaps the students think that I will hand over my non-existent lecture notes to them or tell them exactly what will be on the exams if their excuse is good enough, but what students find compelling and what I find compelling tend to be different things. Examples:

- Didn't have enough quarters for a parking meter so unable to attend class? FSP says: not compelling.

- Had to help a friend move? FSP says: nice but not compelling.

- Mother made a doctor's appointment for you and the appointment was for a time during the class? FSP says: give your mom your course schedule and/or make your own appointments; not compelling.

- Had to be in court to argue about unpaid speeding tickets? FSP says: I hope you won; not compelling.

- Went to a rally about Tibet, baby seals, war(s), state funding for the university etc? FSP says: That's great and maybe even compelling, but I can't give an automatic get-out-of-class-free-card to students who go to rallies or marches or protests or sit-ins and I'm not going to help one student more than another just because I think a particular cause is more important than another.

- Innocent bystander at a sports-related riot that resulted in the loss of a semi-major organ? FSP says: compelling, don't worry about the course, I'll help you when you recover.

Owing to the continuous stream of reasons/excuses ranging from the convincing to the bizarre and owing to the difficulty of making fine distinctions among the non-emergency reasons, I treat everyone the same; that is, I place the responsibility on the student to get class notes from another student, to read the relevant pages in the textbook, to look over the review material, and then come to me with informed questions. After a student has made some effort and worked on the review material that I provide for the class, I will answer their questions and try to dispel any lingering confusion. I will not start from zero and re-do my lecture for them just because they missed class, no matter what the non-emergency reason.

I hope some of my students do miss class to listen to the speech on Tuesday if this is important to them, and then I hope that they shoulder their responsibility as students and put in the time and effort necessary to make up for the information they missed.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Is there a name for the phenomenon in which you do just fine for a long period of time without a certain not-entirely-necessary Gizmo Thing but then you order it and in the time it takes between the ordering and the arrival of the Gizmo Thing you have 57 different experiences that make you realize how inadequate and/or difficult your life is without this thing? The wait of 1-5 days for the new gizmo thing to arrive becomes unbearably long. You are incapacitated until it arrives. How did you live without it?

A relative chronology to illustrate this phenomenon:

1 - I carry my laptop power cord with me everywhere in case I need to plug my laptop in at the office, at home, on a trip, in a cafe etc.

2 - I forget the power cord more often with time. It is in my office but I am at home, or vice versa.

3 - My spouse has the same problem. At this point, we have two power cords between us, but sometimes we are both at home and we have no power cord. We also both have extra batteries, but those aren't necessarily where we want them and/or fully charged either.

4 - We get a home power cord and leave our other power cords in our respective offices except when traveling or at a cafe and except for the time when my husband took both the home and his office power cord on a trip with him by mistake and he absolutely refused to FedEx the extra one back to me even though he was away for nearly a week.

5 - The home power cord is constantly being moved -- upstairs, downstairs, by the couch, by the kitchen counter, and not by me. I never know where it will be.

6 - We order a second home power cord. In theory, one will always be near the Work Couch, which is where the cats insist that we sit when we are using our laptops. The other power cord can move around, maybe. I am sitting on the Work Couch now but I just had to go on a house search for the first home power cord because the second one has not yet arrived. Life will be much better when we have two power cords. I hope the new one arrives soon.

Where will it all end? I don't know the name for this phenomenon, but it may involve keywords such as impatient disorganized money-wasting American consumer slave.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

His or Hers

If regular visitors to this blog are starting to get the impression that I spend a lot of time reading letters of reference and pondering their myriad intricacies, that's because I spend a lot of time reading letters of reference and being amazed at what I read.

Today I am thinking about the unfortunate situation in which an apparently talented student had only 1 of 3 reference letter writers who took time and care with their reference letter. The other 2 wrote brief and uninformative letters.

I can understand writing a brief and uninformative letter if your only interaction with the student has been in a lecture-based course. Some students ask me for letters and I tell them that I would not be the best choice because I can't say much more than what is apparent on the transcript, e.g. Bob got an A in my class last semester. But sometimes they have no choice because that has been the extent of their interaction with all or most of their professors.

I can bulk up a letter a bit by talking about how rigorous my course was and how only 2 students got A's in the class and Bob was one of those. I can say that Bob asked insightful questions in class. But that's still just a paragraph.

So I can kind of sympathize with one of the short letters, which was written by someone who probably only had the student in one class and didn't have a lot more to say than what is in that paragraph.

The other letter, however, annoyed me because I think it is a form letter. There are various form-letteresque aspects of it, but what caught my eye (and that of other faculty reading the letter) is the use of the pronoun "his" in part of the letter. The applicant is a "her".

It is possible that the letter-writer just slipped up because 94% of the letters he writes are for male students and he didn't check over his letter and he was really tired because he had to write 37 letters of reference for students who only gave him a few days notice before their urgent deadlines and he didn't know this particular student all that well and the head gasket in his car needs replacing and that is expensive and his cat may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder.

I can try to not be so annoyed with the careless and uninformative letter-writer. But I will fail. I will fail because these letters are important. This student's chances of admissions to a graduate program will likely not be harmed, but in a competitive pool, an applicant with impressive letters may prevail over an applicant with vague letters. An applicant with impressive letters may also be at an advantage for fellowships and other funding.

Fortunately in this particular case, the applicant had a successful research experience with one faculty; the one who wrote the most detailed letter. One really good and detailed letter goes a long way towards making up for the other, uninformative letters. Also, admissions committees understand that not all letter writers are conscientious and/or nice people and this is not the applicant's fault.

In general, letters are not that useful anyway, but we still need to see them just in case. Ideally, what we see will be an honest and thoughtful appraisal, not a form letter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

In Praise of B Students

Supervising undergraduates in research is of course different in many ways from supervising graduate students -- e.g., expectations, scope of project, amount and type of interaction between student and advisor -- but there are also some similarities.

For example, selecting undergraduates as research assistants or advisees based on their grades in classes does not automatically lead to a fulfilling research experience for all concerned. This is a hazard of the admissions process for graduate school, but it also afflicts the selection of students for undergraduate research experiences, even when we have taught these students in our very own classes.

This is (mostly) not a rant about supposedly smart students who can't or won't do research, or who can do research but are such incredibly high maintenance that the research experience becomes a serious burden for everyone within a 5 kilometer radius of their research project. This is instead a prose poem of praise for the hard-working B students who excel at research and with whom it can be very enjoyable to work.

Some of my undergraduate research assistants are chosen after a competitive application process. Summer interns, for example, are from a highly-selective pool comprised of the top students from the top universities in the country. In this case, "top student" is typically defined as the students with the highest GPA. Most of these students are in fact excellent interns, but some of them are mediocre and some of them are abysmal.

It is fascinating in a semi-disturbing kind of way that the same situation applies for selecting students from my own institution. These are students I have met in person before I hire them as undergraduate research assistants or sign on as their advisor for a thesis or research project. In some cases these are the students who got top grades in rigorous courses taught by me and others, yet some of them, however bright, are not so smart when it comes to research.

When choosing undergrad research students from my own university, I don't always select the A students. Don't worry -- the hard-working and talented A students are not going without research experiences. In fact, every student who wants such an experience can find an advisor. But sometimes I select a B student who seems to be motivated and smart, but who just doesn't do as well in some classes as some other students.

In my experience, the success or failure of these B students at undergraduate research projects is indistinguishable from that of A students -- I have had experiences ranging from outstanding to ghastly with both -- but there are some mutual benefits to working with B students.

For the student, a successful research experience as an undergraduate may in some cases offset a modest GPA in graduate admissions efforts.

For the advisor, the B student might be easier to work with in some ways. An unscientific hypothesis some of my colleagues and I have recently discussed is that many B students might have the advantage of being less high-maintenance than some A students because they tend not to be so anxious. I think we are perhaps not the first to propose this; for example, see the cartoon in the 9 January 2009 Chronicle Review by V Hixson. In the cartoon, one professor says to another "Actually, I like the B+ students best.. bright, but still humble."

And many B students do just as well as A students in research. Reasons for this include:

Doing well in a classes, even really difficult ones, does not mean that someone has the skills necessary to do research.

Of course we don't expect that students, however stratospheric their GPA, will automatically know how to do research -- as advisors we try to teach this -- but some students learn and thrive as a project evolves, and others do not, no matter how 'smart' they are. The same is true of graduate students.

Random example: An apparently top student with A's in difficult courses worked with me on a straightforward bit of research, but it quickly became clear that he had no ability to make connections between different observations or thoughts, could not visualize phenomena, and only understood basic concepts if they were repeated to him many times. He had a great attitude about the work and eked out some results (with lots of help), but he never really understood what he was doing and never went beyond a 'problem set' kind of approach to the research.

Doing research as a student typically means you have to be willing to interact with at least one other person (the advisor) and possibly others as well (other students, other faculty, postdocs, technicians). Some people can do this well and some people can't, even with experience, no matter how high their GPA.

Random example: One of my A-student interns needed to learn and use a not-complicated technique. Others in the group were experienced with this technique, and several of us were available to answer her questions. After a day or so, A-student came to me, clearly upset, and said "I had some questions and X (an undergrad) and Y (a grad student) helped me a lot, but it is obvious that they care more about their own research than they do about mine." I replied "Well, I should hope so", a comment that shocked her. Her voice quavered as she said "But what about me?".

Heroically resisting saying something sarcastic and/or insensitive, I gave her a gentle mini-lecture about being a part of a community of researchers driven by individual curiosity and working together but also independently etc. etc. She was not happy to learn that the major focus of all our efforts and interests was not her. Alas, this realization did not change her world view, but we somehow got through the rest of the summer and she returned in the fall to her home institution and the professors who wrote her rave letters of recommendation and later admitted to me that they didn't like working with her either.

It would save a lot of time, money, stress, and grief if we could predict in advance which students would do well in a research experience, but in the absence of a reliable method of prediction, we'll just have to continue with the classic trial-and-error approach. Most of the time this works out well, especially if the students are mostly sane.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lots To Talk About

Recently, various people have asked me -- in person or by email -- about what to include or not include in an interview talk (or talks) in the specific case in which you have many possible things to talk about.

Even if your only talk-worthy research experience to date has been your graduate work, your research may have been sufficiently complex and multi-faceted that you are faced with a major decision about what to talk about. Things get even more interesting when you have had various research experiences (e.g., grad school + postdoc(s)) and have an even bigger decision about which research projects to talk about in an interview presentation. Perhaps it is obvious that one research project is the #1 best topic for a particular job, but what if it's not obvious? How do you decide what to talk about?

Although having various projects might make for a more complicated decision, having these options can result in a very interesting talk. I worked on very different things for my postdoc and graduate research, and I found that the interview talk that worked best for me (and was most fun to give) involved bits of both projects.

I was discussing this recently with a former student who has an upcoming interview at Awesome University and who had to make a similar decision about what to include in the interview talks. She will be giving two talks as part of the interview, and was considering talking about Project A in one talk and Project B in another talk.

My advice, which may or may not have been helpful or even good, is not to divide the research so neatly. I think it would be much more interesting to do a bit of integration of the commonalities of the two projects. Perhaps I am biased because I found that this worked well for me, but I think it will also be effective in this case.

In the case of one talk and two projects, you can do a bit of integration, then focus specifically on the project that is most relevant and/or cool.

If you have two talks and at least two projects, Talk 1 can still mostly be Project A and Talk 2 can mostly be Project B -- it is important to give a coherent talk, after all -- but if you can successfully integrate some elements of different projects in a Big Picture kind of way, then you show your audience (and the hiring committee) that you are driven by first-order questions and can see broad connections among topics and methods.

If you have two talks and one project.. that's tricky, but perhaps one of your talks will be a general talk and one will be more specific, so you can talk about your one project in different levels of detail.

Being able to integrate components of different projects is a useful skill in general, and is an approach you can take throughout your career when giving invited talks about topics that may touch on various projects with which you are involved. It can be difficult to do, but that's just part of the fun.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Just Call Me F

In various posts over the years, I have mentioned that I do not like being addressed in writing or speaking as Mrs., Miss, or Ms. when I know for a fact that the person writing or speaking addresses male professors as Professor or Dr., or, in written cases, when the person writing addresses himself (it has always been a himself) as Professor or Dr. I am somewhat sensitive to these incidents because my husband is never addressed in professional situations as Mr., only Professor or Dr.

It's OK to use Mr./Ms. for professors as long as these terms are used the same for all. For example, there are certain academic ecosystems in which the titles Mr./Ms. are routinely used for faculty, including some highly regarded institutions of higher education and the Chronicle of Higher Education. In these cases, the use of Mr. and Ms. is applied equally for men and women and that's fine.

Otherwise, I don't really care how my undergraduate students address me in writing or speaking. Those who address me as Mrs. or even Miss FSP may be making a sexist assumption that I am a non-PhD instructor (and in doing so show that they haven't read the syllabus, attended the first day of class, and/or looked at the course webpage), or they may just be clueless. If they call me Mrs./Ms./Miss FSP, I say "Just call me F". In my non-academic life, kids in my daughter's generation call the parents of friends by their first names, so there is no sector of my life in which I am routinely called Mrs. or Ms. FSP by people who know me.

If a student sends me an email addressed to "Mrs. FSP", I reply as I normally would, and sign the email with my first name. My title and contact information are at the bottom of the email in a sig file, should this information be of interest.

In fact, all other things being equal, my preference is for students to call me by my first name. I don't consider this disrespectful; I find it convenient. If a student is for some reason not comfortable calling me by my first name, I don't insist, but in those cases they do have to call me Dr. or Professor FSP, as there is zero chance at my institution that they are calling their male professors "Mr.".

Friday, January 09, 2009

Answer Key

Some of my teaching colleagues, both real and virtual, only reply to student emails that concern a legitimate topic or question, with 'legitimate' of course being a malleable and personalized concept. Some only reply if the email is polite and literate (i.e., does not start "Yo Proffesor!). Some don't reply because they don't tend to reply to email from anyone. Some will reply or not depending on mood and time pressures.

I am a habitual replier to emails, and I tend to respond rapidly (within 24 hours), especially if the reply takes me a minute or less. This system relies on the assumption that not all 100-200 students in a large class will write to me every day with a non-urgent request. The helpfulness and length of my reply scales somewhat with the nature of the request and how it is written, but I do always reply.

I do not reply because it is a required part of my job (see comments from yesterday's post). Being paid to teach does not obligate you to be at the beck and call of your students no matter how unreasonable and frequent their requests, nor must you provide them with rapid responses to non-urgent questions just because they ask/demand it.

Even so, I reply to email from students. I am not exactly sure why I reply to all email, but I do, even if my reply is not as helpful as the student would wish.

I should say that I do not feel the same way about phone calls from students. I dislike getting voice-mail from students with demands that I call them back right away. I do not return such calls unless there is an indication of an emergency situation. Fortunately for me, phone calls from students are not nearly as common as they used to be.

When I was an assistant professor at University #1, back in the days before email was the primary means of outside-class communication between faculty and students, the printed university directory would print my home phone number even though I requested that it be unlisted. What was the point of having an unlisted number in the regular phone directory if the university was going to print it in the U-Directory? Anyway, there were always a few students who would call me at home in the evening or on a weekend to ask me questions about the homework or test. I hated that. Unless the situation was truly dire, I would ask them to send me an email or to call me in my office at another time. (Most people didn't have email at home in those days, so it was easier for students to call than to email when they weren't on campus.) These home-calls never happen anymore, and for that I am very grateful.

But I digress. Regarding email: If a student sends an email to a professor with a question such as What is the textbook? (information easily available online) or What is the reading for next week? (information easily available online) or even the legendary but common Did I miss anything important in class last week?, does a helpful and prompt reply from the professor (a) enable the student's annoying dependence and helplessness, characteristics that do not tend to lead to success in academics or life; or (b) teach the student to be more independent, providing the assistance and inspiration the student needs to navigate the complexities of academic systems?

Yes, students should know how to find basic course information on their own, they should show some initiative, use their brains etc. etc., but I have found that the best way for me to stay sane and happy in my teaching life is to have high but flexible expectations and to show patience and kindness (even if that's not how I sincerely feel).

It is clearly time for another poll:

How do you answer emails from students?
I answer every email within 24 hrs, no matter how trivial or obnoxious or poorly written
I answer every email eventually, I think
I only reply to questions that aren't trivial or obnoxious, but I reply a.s.a.p.
I reply to legitimate questions, but not right away
I seldom reply to non-emergency email from students free polls

Thursday, January 08, 2009

River of Email

When you teach a large class (> 100 students), it is to be expected that you will receive a lot of email from students, even before the term starts. Last fall, I wrote about how I received my first email 77 days before the first class, and in that particular case the email was of a very non-urgent sort. Although some commenters criticized me for my apparent lack of understanding of why a student might need to email a professor in advance, in fact I understand quite well the myriad reasons for such communications and was not in the least upset about getting this t - 77 email. Bemused, yes. Amazed, perhaps. Upset and critical, no.

The small stream of emails that started with that first one started to gush over the winter break. What strikes me most about these pre-class emails is that most of the messages contain questions or requests that the students could figure out themselves (Examples: What is the textbook? This information is available online at a central website for all classes, not just mine. What is the format of the class? This information is available online for this intro science class, which is taught every term, every year, day and night).

Some students have written asking me to send them reading assignments in advance so that they can get a jump on the work for the course. It's nice that these students are organized and serious about the course and want to take steps to do well. If it were me, though, I'd just start reading the textbook and wouldn't write to the professor asking for specific assignments.

Other students want the syllabus in advance so that they can see what the assignments, format, schedule etc. will be. Some of this information is online. From the available information, students can easily get an estimate of the amount of time that the course will require each week, so they can make an informed decision about whether to take the course or not. The syllabus, which I never have ready until just before the term starts even if I've taught a course 17 times, just has details such as my office hours and which specific topics will be discussed on which dates.

To all of these emails, I have sent a very brief reply with the relevant information, typically a link to a website.

More difficult to answer are the ones like this:

Hi my name is Caitlin and I'm a bit skeptical about your INTRO SCIENCE class and how well I would do. I've never been a person to do well in sciences and I was just wondering if you could give me a little more information on the class in regards to what will be covered, the work load, etc. Please respond a.s.a.p, Thank You and have a nice day.

Why this is difficult to answer:

- Caitlin and her fellow students have to take a science course to graduate from this university. Is she wondering if this science course is easier (or more difficult) than other science courses? Am I the best person to answer that question?

- I'm not sure what level of detail she wants about "what will be covered". More than what is written in the course description available online?

- My instinct is to encourage her to not be afraid of Science, but I know absolutely nothing about this student other than what she wrote in her email. I'd like to encourage her to take the course and my hope is that my course would be The Science Course that at last convinces her that science is interesting and not impossible and this experience would inspire in her a lifelong fascination of the physical world, but it's kind of hard to promise that in advance. And I can't promise her that she will pass. Every time I teach INTRO SCIENCE, some students fail the course. If she takes the course, however, I think she will be pleasantly surprised that science doesn't have to be inaccessible and scary.

I replied with a brief, friendly, semi-encouraging email, and I sent her a link to a webpage with information about the course (topics, work load, format, textbook).

Memo to students emailing professors: It's probably best to avoid writing things like "respond a.s.a.p." or similar. Even if you say please, it is kind of annoying and probably doesn't result in a more rapid response. First make sure that the information you are seeking is in fact unavailable to you, and then, if you do need to write a professor and ask for something during the vacation, before the course even starts, a simple, polite request is sufficient in most cases.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Orphaned Ideas

In the Chronicle of Higher Education essay discussed yesterday, the author (R Hampel) is also concerned about what happens to our ideas when we die before acting on these ideas. He wrote:

I was also surprised that no one had made plans for what to do with their topics for future research if they suddenly died.

I must admit that I do not share his concerns.

Unless someone has figured out how to cure cancer and just hasn't gotten around to jotting it down, our basic research ideas, however important to us personally when we are alive, probably need not survive us.

I once described how I was given the task of sorting through a deceased professor's office, deciding what should be archived and what should be tossed. At the time, another professor suggested to me that I finish some of the work left undone by the deceased professor, and he showed me where the relevant notes and materials were. I spent some time looking everything over and thinking about it, but then decided that the project wasn't worth doing, at least not by me. It might have been very interesting and fulfilling for the person whose idea it was originally, as it represented an extension of some other things he'd worked on, but it wasn't interesting to me. I do not think the world of science has suffered as a result of my decision.

I do not have an organized system for writing down my ideas for future research. I probably should have one just for my own use because I am getting increasingly forgetful, but I think that posterity will not be harmed in any way if I do not keep an accessible archive of my research ideas.

Ideas can be very personal things that give us intellectual joy as we develop them, and that can lead to interesting results, discussions, and other effects in the academic and broader community, but for most of us involved in basic research, our ideas probably don't need to outlive us.

This doesn't need to sound as negative as it does. I am not saying that our ideas shouldn't outlive us because many of us have useless or transient ideas. Consider instead an analogy with great artists. Imagine if Dostoevsky hadn't quite gotten around to writing The Brothers Karamazov and instead just left some notes about his ideas for the book. If someone found his notes, however detailed (third son of landowner.. patricide.. brothers.. moral struggle.. free will.. doubt), would they be able to create the novel? Similarly, what if Picasso scribbled a few notes about a drawing or painting he wanted to do in his last year or so (my hand.. flowers? guitar? to a woman? to a cat?), but didn't quite get around to sketching it all out. Could someone just finish it off for him based on the idea he left?

Clearly our ideas are brilliant when we have them and execute them, but for most of us whose creative activities do not cure diseases, stop wars, or keep airplanes from falling out of the sky, I guess we'll just have to take our ideas with us when we go.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Factory of Ideas

Before I got distracted by the awesome Statement of Purpose Contest, I'd started drafting a post about the generation of ideas for research, inspired by a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay by Robert Hampel ("In Search of New Frontiers: How Scholars Generate Ideas"). Zuska beat me to it with an interesting post on this topic, but I have a few things to add.

I think it is interesting and useful to discuss strategies for generating research ideas and what exactly constitutes a new idea for scholarly investigation and thought. The Chronicle article contains good advice about how you can cultivate some intriguing ideas for scholarly pursuits (e.g., have conversations with colleagues at conferences, over lunch, in a cafe, wherever).

Hampel mentions several colleagues, each of whom has a different method of generating and/or organizing ideas. The variety of approaches is apparently evidence for a lack of "coaching" in graduate school or during other educational experiences. Hampel wrote:

Surprisingly, no one I spoke with had been taught how to generate topics for future research during their years in graduate school. Several said that since research had pervaded the ethos of their university, they had merely absorbed the spirit of curiosity.

Why is it surprising, and why is it a problem not to have been taught in an organized way about idea generation? Would it be a good thing if everyone had the same method of idea generation?

How do you teach someone to have ideas, other than by example? Isn't absorbing the spirit of curiosity a major step towards generating ideas? As a student, you don't have to be told explicitly by a professor "OK, now I am going to teach you how to generate ideas". In grad school, you learn by doing, you learn by watching, you learn by absorbing, and then you figure out how you want to do things.

I definitely think it is good to have conversations with students and postdocs about some of the idea-generating concepts discussed by Hampel and Zuska (and her commenters), and I think that another important role for faculty and other advisors is to give students and postdocs the confidence to express and develop their own ideas.

In the course of our advising and teaching, we can provide information that helps our students and postdocs to develop ideas and recognize what is a good idea and what might not be such a good idea. As advisors, we also teach others how to follow through on an idea. That is, once you have an idea or a glimmer of one, what do you do about it?

Even if your grad project and/or postdoctoral research involves doing tasks related to someone else's ideas, by doing research, you are gaining skills, either specific ones or general ones, that should be useful when you are in a position to work on your own ideas. By reading papers, listening to talks, doing research, and other basic activities of the academic life, you should be able to acquire sufficient knowledge and experience to make a start on your own career of ideas.

I also think that students can take some initiative and ask questions about these things. If you really have no idea how researchers generate and frame an idea, you can initiate discussions with various people in your academic environment. Most of us advisors probably assume that our grad students are learning these things as they go along and asking questions as they occur.

When I was a young assistant professor, one of my first Ph.D. students* came to talk to me. He told me that he had some general questions about being a professor, and he wanted to discuss these so that he was well prepared for the day when he was a professor himself. I told him that I thought this was great and that I was happy to discuss these things with him. He paused, looked around my office for a moment, then asked "How do you decide what labels to put on your filing cabinets?".

There are some things you can teach.. and some things you can't.

* who subsequently failed his exams and went to another university and then dropped out of that school and I have no idea where he is now but I hope he found something that he enjoyed and was good at doing

Monday, January 05, 2009


This is not the most cheerful of topics, but I recently had a scare and it made me think about what steps we take to be safe on a daily basis and how I can/should teach my daughter about being brave but careful in a world that is not always a safe place.

The two of us were home alone one night. My daughter was in her room sleeping and I was poring over some documents related to yet another committee task, when I heard a strange sound from the back of the house. I could think of various reasonable explanations for the sound, so I ignored it for a while, but eventually, as the sound continued, I got curious and looked out an upstairs window that overlooks the back of the house.

A large man I had never seen before was hurling himself again and again at the back porch door. The door was locked, but a large part of the door is comprised of glass.

I called 911 and the operator and the police responded rapidly. The operator insisted on keeping me on the line until the police came, and she kept talking to me as the man continued to hurl himself against the door. I provided a description of him; first question: race; second question: clothing; third question: age; fourth question: height. The police came quickly, confronted and restrained the man, asked me whether I had ever seen him before (I had not), and took him away.

It turns out that my daughter had awakened and heard my urgent conversation with the 911 operator and heard the man slamming himself into the door. She stayed in her room, calmly waiting for me to come and tell her what was going on. When I went to check on her and found her awake, we talked about what had happened, and she was more curious about it than scared or anxious.

I am glad that she was not terrified or upset, but I also want her to understand the importance of taking basic steps to be safe. Ideally, these basic steps will be minimally intrusive in our lives, but nevertheless effective. Locking doors and windows is a basic step that doesn't interfere with most people's daily lives too much, but what beyond that should we do to be safe in routine situations?

In 2007, I wrote about how the campus police told me I should keep my office door closed at all times, even during the day, but I have ignored this advice. During the day, my door is open most of the time that I am in my office. If I work in my office at night, however, I close the door, even if the building is supposed to be locked.

In fact, the building doors are not always locked when they are supposed to be. There used to be a problem of students leaving the door propped open for friends, but this problem has entirely disappeared owing to the ubiquity of cell phones and ease of communication. Now if the door is unlocked when it is not supposed to be, it is a mistake by the people who are supposed to lock the doors at a particular time. There is a phone number one can supposedly call and report problems such as this, but I have never found it to be a particularly effective or rewarding experience to call this number late at night.

Working late at the office requires walking through campus at night. I could call for a security escort to walk with me, but I never do. My main reason for not taking advantage of this option is that I do not want the inconvenience of calling and waiting for someone to come to my building, but I suppose another reason involves my somewhat delusional reluctance to believe that my immediate environs are so unsafe that I can't walk alone across a well-lighted area of campus alone at night.

Perhaps I am making the wrong decisions about my personal security. Perhaps I should sit in my office with the door closed at all times until someone knocks and identifies themselves to my satisfaction. Perhaps I should install a webcam and/or retina scanner to screen visitors, including the department chair.

Or maybe it's OK to have my office door open during the day, but I shouldn't work in my office at night and/or walk alone on campus at night.

Or maybe it's (mostly) OK to walk alone on campus at night as long as I stay in well lighted areas and keep my phone on and at hand (as I do).

Or not. Random scary things can happen, even in one's own home. Even so, I don't want to live in fear, and I don't want my daughter to be fearful either. It's just a matter of finding the right amount of caution to take in our daily lives. It seems, however, that the right amount may only be right until something happens.