Thursday, April 30, 2009

You Can Go Now

Mandatory retirement for professors at age 70 was eliminated in US university systems because it discriminated against people based on their age. The consequences of this have been much debated, and I am not going to provide a comprehensive review of the topic.

I am, however, going to defend the statement I made in a post yesterday. I wrote that I think mandatory retirement might be a good thing.

I stated that opinion after also noting that I thought post-tenure review should be implemented in a way that has real consequences. These two topics go together. In fact, a real post-tenure review system would negate the need for mandatory retirement. In a post-tenure review system, active faculty, of whatever age, wouldn't have to retire if they didn't want to, but those who weren't functioning at the level expected for research and/or teaching must retire, after sufficient review and time for change in activity level. Perhaps some sort of phased retirement schedule could be arranged to give the retiring faculty time to plan their future.

It is essential that such a system be implemented in a fair and constructive way, but that it have real consequences for those who are (ab)using tenure as a way to have job security without actually doing their job. Such a system would likely have the most dramatic effects at research universities, though even in these places it should be possible for someone to negotiate a research : teaching balance that is considered acceptable.

Such a system would also have to take into account that life and research are complicated and that an unproductive year or three is not grounds for being fired. For example, some of my colleagues have changed their major field of research in the course of their career, and, as a result of such a change, needed time to get back on track in terms of funding and publications. A fair system would be flexible enough to accommodate this and other career-altering events and would therefore not simply count publications or grants.

As a first step, the very lightest of reviews with modest standards for faculty productivity could be initiated. This would detach some faculty barnacles from their rocks, and that would be a good thing.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The University As We Know It

It is always interesting -- and in some cases disturbing -- to read a rant by a professor about the current (apparently awful) condition of graduate education in the US and what (radical) things need to be done to change not just graduate programs but the university as we know it. The most recent example was in the NY Times on Monday.

I do not recognize the university environment described by the author, a professor of religion. It is of course possible that my inability to share the view that the graduate education system is flawed in the ways described could relate to my narrow view of the world but it is also possible that my views are directly related to my very different perspective as a Science Professor.

Long-time readers will know that one thing I love about being at a university is the diversity of academic pursuits. I have a liberal arts background and I teach courses that merge science and the humanities. Some of my best friends are humanities professors..

Even so, I know there is a huge gulf between the experiences and cultures of faculty and students in the sciences and the humanities, especially at a large university. I sit on university-wide committees in which I interact with my non-science colleagues, and I am always struck by these differences and how difficult it can be for each of us to understand the other no matter how much we interact professionally and socially. At a large research university, professors of science and professors of humanities exist in very different worlds.

But there are significant similarities, of course, and that is why it is disappointing when a fellow academic takes a cheap shot, like using the obscure topic of a dissertation, to argue that universities are too hyper-specialized and need to change. We are supposed to be experts at something, and that something, at the graduate student level, can be quite specific. It is not a sign of the horrific state of graduate education that dissertations and journal articles and many books are highly specialized and have titles that appear boring to the vast majority of humans, academics and non-academics alike. Some of these titles even win awards.

Being highly specialized does not preclude one from having a broad view and does not disqualify one from being involved in interdisciplinary research. There are many opportunities to do multi-inter-transdisciplinary research during, but especially after, the PhD. Most of my colleagues participate in various initiatives of this sort, and many of these are organized to benefit graduate education (e.g. IGERT). The stereotype of the ultra-specialized professor working alone to produce scholarly works that 5 people will read is not something I encounter, and I publish just as many articles with obscure titles as anyone.

In fact, many of us live and die by citation indices. One can argue about whether that is better than not caring whether anyone reads our work and whether it is a good thing that we know our h-index and the impact factors of journals, but it would be difficult to make a reasonable case that we don't care about the audience of our scholarly works and are content to send our scholarly works off into obscurity.

And what of tenure? Tenure is either seen as the major cause of stagnation in academia or the key to academic freedom and therefore the ability to be creative and take intellectual risks. That's because it is the source of both and that is why I prefer that tenure live on, but with a post-tenure review process that has sharper teeth and real consequences. It should be possible to create (and implement) a post-tenure review system that is carried out in a constructive, humane way that minimizes political and personal issues and allows for shifts in the research : teaching : service equation over the course of a career.

That said, I think mandatory retirement might be a good thing.

I am not against major, dramatic changes in our universities. For example, I was recently sitting in a large auditorium filled with hundreds of scientists and engineers, and as I looked around and realized that there were about 10 women present (mostly students), I could think of one particular major change I wouldn't mind seeing in my lifetime.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Gauging the Crowd

A year or two ago, one of my grad students became distraught while giving a talk at a meeting. He looked out at the audience and thought that an Important Scientist looked bored and may even have looked at his watch during the talk. The thought of having bored the Important Scientist haunted him when he prepared talks for later conferences, and I spent a lot of time trying to talk him down from his anxiety because it was not a healthy fixation and because (1) My student could have been wrong about his perception of audience reaction; (2) Even if the Important Scientist looked at his watch, this does not necessarily mean he was bored; there are other explanations for watch-looking; and (3) Others at the talk (including me) thought it was an excellent talk, so why worry (too much) if one person may have been less than fascinated?

Audience reaction of the audible and visual sort can also be a good thing and is not necessarily disturbing. I gave a talk last year that had some new and kind of cool results in it. At some point during the talk, when I got to a particularly important image, I was aware of a rustling sound in the audience and I saw that many people had started taking notes. This was followed a few slides later by an increase in whispering among the audience. My anxious and insecure student would probably have interpreted this reaction to mean that the audience had decided to do things other than listen to his talk and were whispering about how stupid he was, but I am more confident and/or egotistical than that and interpreted it to mean the audience was interested.

While teaching a class, we can also pick up on audience vibes and this helps us know if we are engaging the students or losing them entirely. I personally am not bothered by students who have laptops open during a lecture (I assume that they are taking notes, though I know in my heart of hearts that they may be doing something else), and people reading or sending text messages get only a piercing stare from me in a medium sized class, and no admonition at all in a large class. As long as there are some students who are paying attention and who show me by their head nodding, question asking/answering, smiles or puzzled frowns whether they are following the discussion or not, and as long as the unengaged are relatively silent about their ancillary activities, I am unconcerned. It is my job to try to interest as many students as possible in what I am saying, but I know that it is impossible, especially in a large class, to get every single student to pay close attention for an entire class.

In some ways, teaching a class and giving a talk are similar in that both require the speaker to be as clear and engaging as possible, but there are some important differences in speaking style in the two settings. For example, I pay much more close attention to my audience when I am teaching than when I am giving a research talk. When teaching, I want to know what the audience reaction is as specifically as possible, making eye contact with individual students and addressing them directly. When giving a talk, I do not do this.

As a speaker during a professional talk, I prefer to look out on the audience as a whole, without focusing on anyone in particular. I think it is important to look out at the audience and appear to be speaking directly to them (as opposed to the screen or your shoes), but it's probably not a good idea to look at anyone in particular and try to gauge their interest level and wonder whether they arelooking at their watch out of boredom, taking notes on that laptop, or updating their Facebook page.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Meeting of the Laptops

From the comments on a conference-themed post last week, it is clear that there are various opinions, some of them fierce, about the use of laptops by audience members during a talk. I wonder if one's opinion for or against syn-talk laptop use by the audience depends on the specific situation. For example:

Does it matter whether the laptop is being used to take notes about what the speaker is saying or whether it is being used for activities unrelated to the talk being given at the time?

Does it matter whether the talk is interesting or extraordinarily dull and/or poorly presented, or is it always impolite?

Is the issue the distraction of the type type type sound of a keyboard or the flashing graphics of some websites or would it be OK if someone just stared silently at a screen of unmoving text?

Does it matter where the laptopper is sitting? Even if you think that laptop use by someone sitting in a prominent place at the front of the room would pose a distraction, but would it be OK if someone sitting at the back of a large-ish room quietly read something on their laptop?

I personally prefer to take notes on paper, so I don't use my laptop for taking notes during talks, and I don't take out my laptop if I am sitting in a crowded room or near the front of a room. If I am in a long session and can't zip in and out of the room easily, however, I have been known to sit in the back, take out of my laptop during a talk of little interest to me, and do some quiet work, mostly reading and perhaps some editing, in what I hope is a non-obtrusive way.

During one conference this year, two of my grad students who were not at the conference sent me frequent emails and things to read for a looming deadline. During spare moments, I read, edited, and sent comments back to them so that I would not delay their progress despite being away. Some of these spare moments were during conference sessions.

In each case, I was sitting near the back of the room and did not have people sitting next to me. Perhaps any form of lack of attention is disrespectful to a speaker, but at a big meeting in a large room, the audience will be composed of individuals whose attention will wax and wane depending on the specific topic of each talk. It is unreasonable to expect that there won't be some people flipping through the schedule (if there is one..), closing their eyes, making brief whispered comments, and, as long as it is done reasonably quietly so as not to disturb the speaker or others in the audience, I think this is acceptable behavior. You cannot expect every member of an audience to give every talk their full attention; you can, however, expect a respectful and reasonably quiet audience in which speakers and listeners are not disturbed by ancillary activities.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lost in Time

Semi-regular readers may have noticed that I saved up a lot of conference-related issues to discuss in the last couple of weeks. During the conference, I wasn’t so much in the mood for it, but once I had time to reflect, I realized there were a number of things I wanted to talk about. I suppose this means that I would not be good at live-blogging an event, as I seem to need some distance and musing-time for certain topics (but not for others).

Today I am thinking about how some conferences now provide very little printed material in terms of schedules and abstracts. Most conference-related materials are online and also on a CD or memory stick, and only a barebones schedule is printed (if that).

That is all fine with me. I never liked carrying around a big heavy book during a conference. Several times I took notes in the margins of a program, only to throw the program in the recycle bin before extracting my notes.

When conferences provide e-materials rather than voluminous printed materials, there are many benefits, both to individuals and to the environment, and the disadvantages are few.

Even so, I recently encountered a disadvantage that I had not previously considered. Or, I should say that I encountered a colleague who had encountered a disadvantage, but once he told me his tale of woe, I realized that I had to be similarly alert to this serious hazard.

Before the conference, this colleague had looked up the program online, used the personal scheduler option to create his own list of presentations to attend, printed it out, arrived at the conference, went to the first talk on his schedule.. and the person scheduled to speak was not speaking in that room at that time. In fact, the session he found himself in was completely different from what was on his schedule.

He went to the next talk on his schedule – same problem. And then he realized:

He had printed out a schedule from 2007.

It’s great that conferences leave their programs up long after the conference is over, but perhaps they should disable the personal scheduler option, or make sure the date is listed prominently in each session name. This would be a kindness to absent-minded professors.

Or perhaps there could be special warnings that flash on the screen, much like the text on some coffee cups, warning you that your coffee might be really hot. Maybe something like this:

Warning: The conference you are about to schedule took place in 2007.

Even that might not be enough for some, but it would save a few mishaps.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Just Let Me Know If I'm Interrupting

When someone puts me on call-waiting while they take another call, I hang up. Not long ago, I did the equivalent of this in person when interrupted in face-to-face conversations at a conference: I walked away.

Of course there are situations in which a conversation is interrupted, perhaps only briefly, and the interruption is completely inoffensive. And then there are the other cases.

In a crowded situation such as a conference or some other kind of meeting, it can be difficult to deal with conversational convergences involving various people who all have things to say or ask at the same time. But there are polite ways to deal with this and there are impolite ways to deal with this.

To this day I remain impressed with the social skills of a Famous Professor with whom I was conversing at a conference more than 2 years ago. As so often happens, another person walked up to us and started a conversation with my companion, as if I didn't exist and as if a conversation were not already in progress. The person with whom I was conversing said "I am talking with FSP right now" and dismissed the hapless social moron so that we could continue our discussion. That is a rare event.

At a meeting this spring, I experienced more typical examples of this type of interaction; in fact, more than once at the same meeting. In one case, Big Professor X walked over to me during a break in a session and said "Oh good, you're here. I've been wanting to ask you something about this research you've been doing on Z." He asked me a question and I started to answer but didn't get more than half a sentence into my answer when a man I didn't know walked over and started talking to Big Professor X. Did X inform the interrupter that he was already in the midst of a conversation? Did he say "Do you know FSP? We were just talking about Z." as a gentle way of bringing the new person into a conversation that was in progress?

No, he did not. He turned to the other guy, listened to his question, and then started to answer. That's when I walked away. He put me on hold to take another call, and I found more important things to do somewhere else. I wasn't annoyed or upset; I just saw no reason to stand there and wait for my turn to speak.

Perhaps he thinks I was rude to walk away before answering his question. Or perhaps he figured it out. Perhaps I will send Big Professor X a copy of FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette: Special Conference Edition. He did not mean to be rude; he just didn't know what to do. He didn't think. Or maybe he has a short attention span. Or something.

And interrupters should try to learn to Start Seeing Other People when starting a conversation, or at least learn how to figure out when is a good time to jump in. There are some people who can't read social cues for reasons beyond their control, but the fact that being talked over and interrupted is a much more common problem for my women colleagues and me than it is for my male colleagues suggests that there are some issues of perception (or lack of perception, depending on your point of view) that could be improved with a bit of awareness (and a handy etiquette guide).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In My Facebook

The end of the academic year is sort of getting close(r), and so it is time to Review Things. Yesterday we reviewed my progress, such as it is, in my language class. Today we will review my evolving Facebook Philosophy, which has recently been updated (4 minutes ago).

When I first started getting involved in the FB universe, I consulted more savvy colleagues, including one who had spent a lot of time thinking about FB in the context of professor-student interactions. He told me that the #1 Rule is to accept all friend requests from students, but never send a friend request to a student. So that's what I did.. for a while.

Now I ignore this rule: I no longer 'friend' my students. There was no specific incident that made me change my mind; I just didn't enjoy it or find it interesting or useful, and I doubt if the students did either. As long as my students know that I don't accept any such requests and am not singling anyone out to be a friend vs. not a friend, no one seems to mind (or care).

My colleague (who is actually a friend in real life) teaches at a small liberal arts college, and perhaps that is an important difference between our FB experiences as professors. He and his students spend a lot of time together, take goofy pictures of each other in the department and post them on FB, and in general have more actual out-of-classroom experiences that make the virtual out-of-classroom interactions more meaningful.

I have other colleagues at Big Research Universities like mine who friend all students who send them a request and they end up with hundreds of student-friends, but that type of FB ecosystem is not for me. I have fun with FB and various groups of real friends from various phases of my life, past and present, but so far I remain unconvinced that I need this type of relationship with undergraduate students in the courses I teach or that my students really want me to see the pictures from the parties they went to last weekend.

I think it is a good thing if students see their professors as real people with real lives outside the classroom and with non-academic interests, but Facebook isn't how I want to convey that information to my students. Also, my status updates tend to be bizarre, and that might be counterproductive.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Professor-Student Update: Penultimate Goal

It seems like it has been a while since I wrote about my adventures taking an undergraduate language course, perhaps because, after three years with the same professor and the same core group of students, we are definitely in a routine in which not much surprising happens. A lot of learning has been happening, though. Earlier this year I traveled to a country in which this particular language is spoken, and I found to my intense happiness that I have made progress even since my trip last summer.

But at the end of this academic year, I will have reached the end of the line in terms of taking undergraduate courses in this language, and my options are limited for taking courses on literature and culture in this language. I may hire a private tutor because I don't want to lose what I've learned so far -- my abilities in this language are still quite precarious.

It will be a sad moment for me when I take my final exam and complete the class, especially with no further classes to look forward to in the fall. And I will miss our little group that has been together for 3 years.

These three years of intensive language courses (4-5 days/week) have taken a lot of time and energy. The effort, however, has definitely been worth it for me because of the immediate practical effect of learning how to communicate in a language that is useful to me for many reasons and because it exercised my brain in different and interesting way.

So there is much to feel good about, but I have not yet attained my Penultimate Goal: I want to give a complete scientific talk in this language.

In the classes I've been taking, we don't learn any science jargon, so I've had to acquire that by reading the scientific literature and asking questions of colleagues who know this language. Little by little I have been acquiring the words and skills I need to speak Science in this other language, but it's going to take a lot more work to be able to give a coherent talk. It might take a year or three, but that's my next goal.

And then I would like to become fluent in this language. Fluency -- the Ultimate Goal -- may, however, be unattainable given my advanced age, limited time, and lack of opportunities for immersion in the language. But that's OK. Any progress I can make en route to proficiency in the language will be worth it for me.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Uphill Battle

Overheard at an airport gate:

Mom to 9 year old son: You're going to be a teenager in 4 years. If you ever start doing weird things when you're a teenager, I'm going to have you locked up in a jail.

Son: What do you mean by weird, Mummy?

Mom: Like wearing lots of black clothes.

Son (voice quavering): But I like to wear black, Mummy.

Mom: No, I don't mean just wearing some black, but wearing only black. Lots of black. Maybe even black lipstick. And being pale and depressed. I will be so mad if you do that.

Son: Oh, I'm not going to do any of that. I'm going to be a paleontologist. I want to study dinosaurs and clone them from their DNA.

Mom: That's just as bad. Scientists lock themselves up in their labs and never talk to anyone and they get really depressed. You are not going to be a scientist.

This conversation depressed me, and I was only wearing a little bit of black. But I am a scientist, and hence easily depressed. Perhaps this mother is actually a fabulous person and her son is a happy and well-balanced child, but what kind of person discourages their child from being a scientist? Or anything, at age 9?

What then must we do (Tolstoy, 1886)? And whatever can be done to change this negative perception of scientists? More interaction with real scientists in K-12 education? A popular TV or book series starring a socially functional science-hero(ine)?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Photo Shooters

A trend has been detected: people taking digital photos of projected images during a talk at a conference or departmental seminar. I have some colleagues who do this, and I always wonder what they do with all those photos. In these cases, the colleagues are not trying to steal anyone's data or ideas, they just want to have a record of the talks they go to (according to them, this is better than notes in a notebook). In other cases, the motivation of the photographer may be more nefarious..

I personally would never take a photo of someone else's talk. If I see an image that I desperately want to have or look at more, I would ask the speaker later, explaining the reason for my interest and what my likely use would be of such an image. I have only done this once or twice to get a cool image for teaching.

If someone takes a photo during one of my talks, I don't really mind but I think it is kind of rude and distracting.

Have you ever taken a picture of someone else's projected image during a talk?
No, I think that is inappropriate
No, but there is nothing wrong with it free polls

Have you ever had a picture taken of your projected image during a talk?
Yes, and I didn't like it
Yes, but I didn't mind
No, and I wouldn't like it
No, but I wouldn't mind free polls

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Photo Shoot

At the same conference at which dangerous ideas were presented, I couldn't help but notice that 92.5% of the talks were given by men. During one of the rare talks by a female speaker, someone sitting behind me kept taking flash photographs. This was annoying because the flash temporarily blinded me, and whoever was taking the photos took a lot of them.

All of us sitting in the row in front of the photographer turned around in annoyance, but when we saw that the photographer was an older woman who was obviously the speaker's mother, we all kept our annoyance to ourselves. No one was going to criticize a proud mother, even if her pictures were certainly going to be awful (darkened room, speaker far away, lighted screen..).

Then the mom got up and started wandering around the room, taking photos from different angles. It was really distracting. I would have been mortified had I been the speaker, but the woman giving the talk stayed cool, completely ignored the photographing activity, and just kept talking about her research. The rest of us had trouble focusing on the talk because of the constant flashes going off.

Part of me was thinking that this mother was right to show her pride in her daughter, even if she didn't choose the best way to do so. It may well be this pride that helped support her daughter in her efforts to be a scientist in an overwhelmingly male dominated field.

But, aside from the annoying distraction issue, part of me didn't like the fact that the mom was making such a big public deal of the talk. I wondered whether people in the audience thought it made the woman speaker seem less professional. There was zero chance that any of the male speakers would have their mom running around the room taking flash pictures.

Parents who support their daughters in challenging careers are a wonderful thing, but in this situation, a happy medium would have been an unobtrusive video.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Etc. Etc.

This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1861)

It's that time of year in mid-April when many faculty have to file a Faculty Activity Report. In my department, the purposes of this report are several:

(1) Even tenured faculty have to demonstrate activity; the chair makes decisions about the balance of teaching and service depending on level of research activity.

(2) Merit raises, when they existed, were decided in part based on the activities reported in April.

(3) Advertising: this is how we can show some of our colleagues (the ones on the committee that reviews the reports) what we are doing. Faculty opinions of how and what colleagues are doing are based in part on fact and in part on perceptions. It has happened to me several times over the years that a senior colleague has reviewed my annual report and been amazed to find that I had lots of papers and grants. Why were they surprised? Because I don't look like someone who has lots of papers in grants? One wonders.. Anyway, this is one reason why I am always happy to submit my annual report, even in years when there are no raises possible.

I therefore write a fairly detailed report. I like doing this for myself as well, as it gives me a perspective on what I got done and what I didn't get done during the year and starts me thinking about what I want to accomplish over the summer and in the coming academic year.

However detailed my report is, though, when I am on a committee reviewing other people's reports, I am often surprised by what other people think to put on their reports. I saw one item recently that someone had on their CV under 'awards'. It was something that I had received on a number of occasions as well, but had never considered it an award. Perhaps I still have a lot to learn about self-promotion.

Or perhaps too much information suggests a certain lack of dignity, and it would be better to be vague. A few months ago when the so-called BBC book list was circulating and everyone was noting how many of the 100 listed books they had read, I noticed that I had read all but 4. I looked at the remaining 4 and decided that I had no interest whatsoever in 3 of them, but I would try the 4th, The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. I was very entertained by the title page, which is a copy of the one published in 1861:




Somehow I think that "etc. etc." wouldn't be as effective for me, but it certainly would be more efficient when compiling the annual report.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dangerous Ideas

Years ago at a conference, someone told a colleague and me that our ideas were "dangerous". A danger how? And to whom? He didn't say, but in fact it was obvious that our ideas posed a danger only to those who didn't like them or who had published ideas to the contrary. Our research was of the most basic, curiosity-driven, no- animals-killed-to-produce-this-product sort. For my colleague and me, the statement "Your ideas are dangerous" has become a favorite phrase, brought out at random times for a laugh.

So I almost laughed out loud at a recent conference when a cranky old scientist took issue with a grad student's talk and told him that his ideas were "dangerous". The student looked upset, so it would have been quite inappropriate for me to laugh at that moment. In fact, compared to the comments that the Angry Scientist typically makes, the student got off easy.

I went to find to the student during a break and told him that I really liked his talk and his dataset and his interpretations. He had picked up on a strand of a project that I had left dangling years ago, never having the time or funding for that particular thing to pursue the topic. I was really pleased to see these new results, which were interesting and a bit unexpected, and therefore exciting.

He cheered up considerably and we had a good discussion about his work, but at some point the student looked over at the Angry Scientist and his gloom returned. He said "But he hates my research" and I said "Yes, but that's how I know you must be right!".

I told him that there is nothing wrong with having dangerous ideas. In fact, it's a compliment. It means you are making people think, and it gives us all something to talk about. His ideas had been presented in a very professional way and were completely appropriate based on his dataset and analysis.

The statement that an idea is dangerous, in which the only possible danger is to someone's ego, is an absurd attempt at criticism. I will, however, stop short of recommending that this phrase be expunged from the Conference-goers Phrasebook for Rude Things to Say After Someone Else's Talk because, in this context, it may be better to be criticized by someone who has nothing of substance to say than to encounter an articulate, hostile person.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Please Please (Reject) Me

This may sound strange, but I was recently very relieved to get a negative review of a manuscript. Although it is quite possible that I have lost my mind, there is another explanation for my actions and emotions regarding this manuscript.

First, I should explain that the manuscript is not of the research-based sort that describes results of an investigation of a problem or hypothesis. I can't explain more, but it's relevant to the story that the document in question is not the classical sort of paper. It is more like a review, but of the type that is useful for organizing a disorganized or out-of-date aspect of a topic.

The document was assembled over the course of a year, through discussion with a small group of colleagues. The project was my idea so I took the lead, but, owing to the topic and publication venue, I did not have a choice about the other participants. I could have decided to do the project by myself, but when I initiated the project I thought it would be best to involve the other obvious people. I came to regret this decision, but once made, it could not be undone (easily).

Once the project was underway, it quickly became clear that I was an Outlier. We all agreed that this project should be done and a document written, but that was about all we agreed on. As time went on and it became clear that my vision for the project was fundamentally different from those of the others, I found myself in the minority on most issues. My choices were to compromise (a lot) or quit. Each time, after much thought and attempts to find another way, I decided it was more important that the overall project move forward than that I get my way.

Some decisions were put to a vote, and I lost every vote.

Finally we produced something that the others liked and that I didn't but that I thought was better than nothing. There was enough in it that was still sort of useful and with which I could agree, even if there were some parts that I hated.

And I admit that I just wanted to finish the thing. The rest of the group was comprised of extraordinarily aggressive men who used an impressive arsenal of obnoxious tactics to get their way, even on the most minor of issues. My husband kept asking "Why don't you just quit?". He didn't think it was worth fighting these guys all the time, but I balked at the thought of quitting. However unpleasant the process of working with this group was, it would have upset me more to quit. This project did not bring out the best in any of us.

Since the document was not a 'real' research paper, we had the option of publishing it as a sort of letter or editorial without review, but I decided that I wanted it reviewed. Even though I am an outlier (for many reasons) in this particular group of colleagues, I hoped that others in the scientific community might agree with me, even if only on some issues. And if no one did, then it might be easier for me to accept that I was simply wrong.

The document was reviewed. I do not have the official reviews yet, but one of the reviewers sent me his review in an unofficial way because he wanted to prepare me for the shock of his extremely negative comments. He was apologetic and wanted to make sure I was not too upset about what he wrote.

In fact, I was thrilled. The problems he has with the document are the same problems I have with the document. The suggestions he makes for fixing the problems would turn the document into a form very close to what I want it to be.

I thanked the reviewer profusely and said that I hoped he would submit exactly that version of his negative review. I explained the situation briefly so that he wouldn't think I was insane, and also, I admit, so that he wouldn't think that I held some of the views expressed in the document.

We are still waiting for the other reviews, so the situation is unresolved. I am imaging all sorts of reasons my colleagues might give for dismissing the negative comments, despite the fact that the reviewer is famous for being wise, thorough, and kind, but I will try not to be too prematurely cynical. And I am hoping that the other reviews are just as negative.

Have I learned anything from this experience?

Don't work with other people? (if the other people are rude and aggressive). I've written about working with jerks before. If you categorically refuse to work with jerks, you will spend most of your career alone. I'm not sure that's a realistic or good option, at least not for me.

I am ineffective in the face of an aggressive onslaught of arguments (even when I am right)? Yes, obviously I was ineffective in this case.

I am stubborn? Yes, but I knew that. I probably should have quit this project long ago, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.

One thing I did learn is that, even when faced with people continually telling me that I am wrong and stupid about something, I never lost my core belief that at least some of my opinions were good and valid. That either means that I have confidence (typically a good thing to have) or that I refuse to believe I am wrong (not such a good thing).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Out Dated

A post over at See Jane Compute about Things That Make Us Feel Old reminded me of a phenomenon I wanted to write about:

when students see a reference to a paper by someone with the same last name as their professor and assume that the paper was written by the person they know, even if the paper was published decades before the professor became a professor.

So far, this has only happened to me twice, but it may happen more often as time goes by. The reasons it has thus far been a rare occurrence include:

1 - There aren't that many other Scientists with the same last name as me, so students don't encounter non-me references much.

2 - The few Scientists with the same last name haven't published much.

3 - I have only recently started looking my age, so it used to be obvious (to most people) that I couldn't have published a paper a long long time ago.

The first time a student thought I had published a paper in the early 1970's, when I was in elementary school, I thought it was very funny. I said "Yes, although I was only 9 years old that year, I felt it was time to start publishing", and then I walked away, not sure whether to hope that they would believe me or that they would realize how absurd their assumption was.

This mistaken assumption may become less amusing with time.

I know that it is difficult for young people to gauge the age of old(er) people: anyone over 40 might as well be 50 or 60 or whatever, but it might be a good idea to do the math before verbalizing an assumption that a middle-aged person was publishing > 30 years ago. Just a suggestion.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Unbearable Meanness of Being

This little anecdote is still making me laugh, hours after my husband told it to me:

He was walking near our house and decided to cut through a park with a playground. A little girl he didn't know was rocking back and forth on a large chicken on a spring. As my husband walked by her, she said to him "You're mean."

He was very surprised and stopped in his tracks. He said to her "I hope I'm not mean. I don't think I'm mean. Why do you think I'm mean?" She said "You look mean."

And he does! When he is walking and thinking intense thoughts about Science, he is the classic spaced-out professor for whom the rest of the world doesn't exist. He is off in Science Space, thinking about a problem he is working on, a paper he is writing, a proposal he wants to write. His impressive Science Eyebrows are scrunched up as he walks and thinks. I can see why a little girl on a rocking chicken would think he looked mean.

This has happened to me too. A few years ago the lab coordinator for my department told me that one of the international graduate students was afraid to be my assistant for a lecture course because I had never smiled at him (the student) in the hallways. After being told that, I made a point of giving this student a huge smile and a hearty hello every time I saw him. I personally would find that more disturbing than passing a busy, distracted professor in the hall, but he seemed to like it. Eventually he was my lecture assistant and we got along fine. I still give him a huge smile and hello whenever I see him. I do wish he would finish his degree and leave, though, as all that smiling and hello-ing is exhausting. [<-- joke]

When I was younger, random strangers would sometimes tell me to "Smile!", and that made me feel hostile, even when I'd been feeling reasonably cheerful before. I used to respond with "My best friend just died" or "I have cancer", which was mean, I know. I don't get the Smile! command anymore, perhaps because it's not something you say to middle-aged women.

Do real people out there in the real world walk around with huge smiles all the time, either because they are always cheerful or as a preventive measure so that people won't think they are mean or grumpy? I don't know. Perhaps I am too absent-minded to notice, but I get a lot of my best thinking done while I am walking around.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Blaming Mom

Here's a weird little trendlet I have observed over the years: the tendency for a student to blame their mother for various problems associated with their own attendance and participation in a class.

Two possible hypotheses to explain this phenomenon are:

1 - The students are telling the truth. Moms -- perhaps even helicopter moms -- are organizing things from afar, e.g. scheduling medical appointments and planning travel for their offspring, not caring that their daughter or son may have academic commitments such as (1) attending class, not to mention (2) taking exams. If so, then helicopter moms vastly outnumber helicopter dads (12 : 0, by one recent, unofficial count).

2 - The students are using the mom-excuse because they think it will be more compelling than saying, for example "I forgot about the final exam and got a plane ticket to Nouakchott". This mom-centric excuse may be somewhat related to the mass extinction of grandmothers (at a higher rate than grandfathers) during exam weeks. Do mothers and grandmothers as a concept have more emotional impact?

I always ask the mom-blaming students "Didn't you tell your mother that you have an exam that week?". No, they did not, and she didn't even ask. How sad, but it is ultimately the student's responsibility to manage their own academic schedule.

Note to students: Don't read this paragraph.
One of my colleagues recently gave into a "my mom got me a plane ticket for a short vacation in England during the week of the exam" excuse and constructed a make-up exam for the student. I asked him whether he habitually gave make-up exams, even for non-emergency, recreational reasons like this, and he said no, not usually, but this wasn't the student's fault -- it was his mother's.

Maybe I am just meaner than my colleagues, but maybe my lack of sympathy for the it's-my-mom's-fault reasons for missing an exam will ultimately help my students learn how to be independent people who value academics and who need to communicate better with their mothers.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Invited Wife

There are many professional situations in which I am comfortable being the spouse of another professor in a similar field of Science. For example, if my husband gets an award, I am happy to accompany him to a ceremony and be there, not as a professor or scientist, but as a partner.

And then there are situations that are a bit more odd. For example, my husband recently got an invitation to attend a special faculty dinner in honor of a Famous Person, and the invitation notes that the person hosting the dinner (a colleague of ours) "would like to invite you and your wife to join [list of names of Scientists and wives] at dinner to celebrate this [event/Famous Person]."

I saw the invitation when my husband showed it to me, and I didn't really think anything of it at first because I assumed that I would also get my own invitation, since the dinner party will consist of scientists celebrating another scientist. My husband is being invited because he is a scientist.. I am a scientist.. ergo..

But then later my husband asked me if I'd gotten my own invitation, and we realized that because I hadn't gotten one yet, I wouldn't be getting one. Other faculty (and their spouses) in the department have been invited, but I am not one of those faculty. So, I am either being invited as a spouse, but not as a scientist, and I would not otherwise have been invited; or our colleague hosting the dinner assumes that I don't need a separate invitation because he's already invited me as the wife of someone else he invited.

When we realized that I was an Invited Wife, I just shrugged, but my husband said "Well that's really obnoxious of [our colleague]". Kind of.. but this person is not known for his social skills, so I see no point in being offended.

I was relieved to notice, however, that the special dinner is for a date when I am out of town (doing sciencey things) and so I cannot not attend and wear my special Wife Suit. I don't think I will bother to send my regrets, though -- I will let my husband do that for me.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Academic Sport

Even in economically less troubled times, there is great tension, misunderstanding, and resentment between the academic and athletic components of Academe. There do exist professors who are big fans of their school's athletic teams, who attend sporting events, and who do not mind that the football coach makes >25 times their salary. I know 2, maybe 3, such professors, and at least one of them reads this blog.

It is easy to find faculty who resent the amount of money paid to certain coaches and who have unkind thoughts about administrators who approve the building of new stadia and who approve contracts that give large sums of money even to losing coaches when they are fired (has anyone ever proposed this for faculty who are denied tenure?). Most of the negative feelings are directed at football and/or basketball programs because of the money involved and because of issues with some student-athletes who may not be prepared for (or interested in) the academic aspects of being at a university. Such is the nature of those particular sports in relation to college-level athletics and professional sports teams.

I should explain that I am a failed student-athlete. I attempted to be on the swim team of my college, and although I did make it onto the team, barely, the practices so exhausted me that I spent each day dragging myself around in a daze until the next punishing practice.

I quit the team because I wasn't physically strong enough to handle that level of swimming, but my experience left me with respect for those who do manage to be successful at both academics and athletics. Academics alone can be all-consuming, but to be good at academics and something else (athletics or another extracurricular activity) is an accomplishment that should be respected.

I think most of us can appreciate the effort that goes into being a student-athlete, even those of us who are not interested in athletics, and we professors can certainly appreciate a motivated student, even if they are on the football team. The source of faculty resentment of sports does not arise from some inherent pointy-headed intellectual hatred of (certain) Sports, and by extension (certain) Athletes. The problems arise more from anger at administrative priorities that seem to place athletics above academics, and the more specific problem of individual negative experiences that some faculty have with 'non-academically-inclined' student-athletes.

A typical response to professorial complaints that too much money is spent on Sports is that some college sports attract a lot of money and school spirit (and therefore donations) etc. How many students select a university because of the research accomplishments of its faculty? In fact, one of my cousins based her choice of what university to attend on the quality of the football stadium. At the time, I was incredulous, but she is probably not as unusual as we professors like to think.

Many of my interactions with student-athletes in my classes have been very good; some of these students are impressive as people and as scholars. A substantial number of my interactions, however, have not been good. The more positive interactions tend to be with athletes in the sports that don't get much attention and that can't therefore make the we-bring-in-big-money-for-the-university argument, although I have recently experienced some unfortunate exceptions to this generalization. These recent negative experiences with whining, lying student-athletes are what precipitated this blog post, and writing this has helped me to step back and take a look at the larger issues rather than focusing on my annoyance with a few individuals.

At various times in the past I have had football and basketball (F-and-B) students in my intro science classes, but it has lately become very rare for them to take a course in my department, perhaps because a substantial number of these student-athletes failed the intro courses.

It is a relief to me that I haven't had any F-and-B students in my classes this year because these students typically requires a fair amount of extra work because they get to take make-up exams if they miss an exam owing to a sports-related activity and because the Learning Specialists who work with them are relentless. These staff members have a difficult job. I don't know how effective they are, but they are certainly good at sending out a lot of email messages that have no specific content about course material but that repeatedly ask for information about what Student-Athlete X can do to improve his performance in the class.

I think it is important that we professors do not automatically assume that a student-athlete is going to be a poor student with a bad attitude. I am working on reminding myself of this right now. We can still grumble about the ever-expanding mega-complexes devoted to sports as we pass by en route to buy our own dry-erase markers so that we can scrawl unintelligible words and phrases on the board while we drone on about whatever comes to mind in our classes that allow the university to keep busy between major sporting events, but we should not extend our resentment to the students, even when some of them make it difficult not to.

Friday, April 03, 2009

BFF Colleague

This blog post is in honor of the birthday of the best colleague on the planet. Everyone should have a colleague such as this one. If everyone had a colleague like this, the academic world would be a happier place for all.

If you were to make a list of the absolute best qualities that you could wish for in a colleague, what would be on that list?

Some things would probably show up on many lists: smart? nice? sane or at least functionally insane? doesn't extend the length of faculty meetings with useless drivel? an excellent and prolific writer but not one who is obnoxious if you don't write as quickly or as well?

Some things might vary from person to person in terms of their idea of the most perfect colleague. For example, someone might want their perfect colleague (PC) to be someone with whom they can spend a lot of time discussing things, whereas someone else might prefer a PC who doesn't talk much but gets things done quickly and well. Someone might want a PC who shares many of the same interests and expertise, and someone else might want a PC who has very different interests and expertise. You and your PC can have similar personalities, or very different. There are many possible combinations that work well.

My PC, the real person whose birthday is today, is not like me at all in many ways. Others have commented on how strange it is, if you consider our backgrounds and personalities, that PC and I work so well together. In fact, we have been called an "unlikely duo". Yet we are similar enough in our approach to life and science that we work together easily and happily.

Sometimes it feels like PC has the other half of my brain. PC is also the only one I have ever worked with in any capacity whose writing I don't feel the urge to edit. When we are writing a paper or proposal together, the parts PC writes and the parts I write are essentially seamless. When one of us is stuck for a word, sentence, or paragraph, the other one can usually come up with just the right word(s). Some of the most fun I have had in my academic career has involved writing and brainstorming with PC: bouncing ideas back and forth, trying out different possibilities, writing, rewriting, thinking some more, and finally coming up with something good. We are very different people with different backgrounds in Science, but somehow in combination we complement each other well.

One time, many years ago, we were sitting next to each other on a plane on the way home from a conference. We hadn't seen much of each other at the conference, and had both had many separate experiences and conversations related to a certain topic that we had been discussing before the conference. We compared notes, realized that we were each more convinced than ever that we were on to something interesting with our initial idea, discovered through discussion that we each had a piece of an intellectual puzzle, and started outlining and sketching these ideas in a notebook. Then we started writing, right there on the airplane. When the plane landed, we saw that another colleague had been sitting in a seat directly in front of us. This colleague said to us "Did you two just write a paper on this flight?" and then we realized that we had in fact written a paper (which was later published in an excellent journal).

Having a PC is a lucky gift in many ways, but it can also be important for various practical reasons. I suppose a colleague doesn't have to be Perfect for this purpose, but if you have someone looking out for you, you don't mind the jerks so much. You also don't mind so much the inevitable setbacks and other difficult times that occur now and then -- problems with students, proposals, papers, administrators, whatever -- because at least there is one person in your professional life who likes and respects you and will try to cheer you up.

My PC is a cheerful, kind, charming, and fascinating person who likes to laugh, drink coffee, and do science with me and who is one year older (and wiser) today. Happy Birthday!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Teachable Module

Early in my teaching career, I contemplated the fact that there is a particular concept that is rather central to my Science but that is extremely difficult to explain. I experimented with various approaches:

- explaining a little bit about it so that students would at least have a general idea of what was involved, or

- spending a lot of time explaining in depth how the concept worked and why it was important and how it could be applied.

I wasn't happy with either one. One was too shallow and unsatisfactory and the other took up too much time in a team-taught course. Over the years, I tried various intermediate strategies, supplemented the course material with assignments, and tried to determine what worked and what didn't.

It took years, but eventually I figured out The Absolute Best Way to teach this concept (at least for me). I spent a few more years tinkering with it, and then I started talking to colleagues about it. I got invited to demonstrate it at some conferences and workshops devoted to teaching, and I gave the module some science ed people to distribute and make available to others.

It's not perfect (yet). Every year I adjust it a bit depending on the specific group of students, I replace old examples with new examples, and so on. I don't want this teaching module to be something static that I teach over and over and over for the rest of my life. But at the same time, I am pleased with it. I feel like I have solved a challenging puzzle and I like the fact that this module has been exported to other universities and can benefit other professors and students.

So this week was The Week in which I taught this particular part of the course. I always look forward to this. It's kind of like performing a favorite old song or acting a favorite role. No matter how many times I've performed The Module, though, I always 'practice' before class, at least in terms of looking over some notes and thinking about the examples I want to use.

I sometimes wonder whether I should tell the students about the history of this teaching module. Would they think it was interesting or would they think it was strange and irrelevant? I don't want to impress them (and I don't think this would), but maybe they would think it was kind of cool that this module, developed here in their department, was being used at other schools. Or maybe they would think I need to get out more, maybe get some hobbies.

When we teach, many of us present the material as if we just happen to know this stuff and are now telling some students about it. It's hard to know how much work goes into preparing a class until you've done it yourself, but, although it would be nice if students appreciated the great amount of effort involved in teaching, in a way it's also good if the students see our teaching as 'effortless'.

I think I'll keep the back-story of this teaching module in the background for now and just focus on trying it out on a new group of students. I am always curious to see how they respond to the questions I ask during class and how they do on the assignment after. If I ever make Teaching Module : The Movie on a DVD, I can put the back-story and the out-takes there.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


This year I need to work with a rather large group of people on a lengthy and complex document to which we will each contribute at various times as our schedules permit. I have done large group-write projects before, and such things typically involve some logistical issues involving who is working on what draft when and what kind of editing notations each person uses and how often the drafts are distributed and whether the drafts are distributed to everyone or a subset of the group and so on. It can get confusing and complicated and annoying.

In fact, I am typically not the one who is annoyed but am the one being annoying because, although I try not to go too crazy with producing multiple drafts, if I've been working on the document, it's easier if the next person to work on the document works from the latest draft instead of an older version.

So, to improve the experience of writing something with a large group, I decided to dive into the wonderful world of wiki webs. With a wiki, everyone in the group can access the text whenever they want, and the text is always the latest draft.

Is that the perfect solution or what?

In fact, it hasn't been the perfect solution, but overall I'd say it has been significantly better than the alternative. The lack of perfectness stems from a few issues related to wiki creation and use:

1. The technical aspects of setting up a wiki, at least using the system preferred by my university, are BIZARRE. I have never seen so much jargon in my life, and that's saying something considering how much jargon is in the document my colleagues and I are writing. And forget using the help utility -- the one I used consisted of layers and layers of non-intuitive jargon. I finally had to ask a wiki-experienced youngster (an assistant professor) to help me get started.

2. The wiki philosophy is one of openness and freedom for anyone to edit text any time, so if you try to put some access controls on a wiki, you get a lecture about it before being allowed to set the controls. OK, I get the philosophy, but even Wikipedia locks some entries and gives different levels of editing access. What if I don't want anyone in the world to be able to view my text? I don't care so much about the editing (all versions are saved and the editing can be tracked), but let me have the freedom to be mildly paranoid about research-related documents without giving me a lecture about how I am violating the essence of wikiness.

3. There are some strange glitches related to attaching and deleting and updating files, and the relationship of text and images. I have found myself uploading frequent pdfs, in case anyone wants to see what the document 'really' looks like.

Those are just strange little wiki-glitches. The most surprising thing to me is..

4. .. how reluctant so many of my colleagues have been to add/edit text using the wiki. I set the wiki up, so it's just sitting there waiting to be edited; no one else has to deal with the bizarre technical aspects of the wiki.

These colleagues have no problem writing. In fact, they send me frequent drafts and text fragments by email, but they are shy about putting their writing directly on the wiki for everyone in the group to see. I get emails saying "Can you please look this over first and tell me if you think it is ready to go on the wiki page?" or "Can we discuss this and come up with a better version before putting it on the wiki page?".

So that's what we do. It is still much better than the non-wiki way of doing things. The latest draft is always available for anyone to see, and I have found the process of group-writing to be much more efficient with the wiki, even if not everyone is on board with the wiki way of writing.

Perhaps with time people will become less shy about going directly to the wiki without involving me first, but perhaps I am facilitating their reluctance by letting them use me as an intermediate step. I will have to think about that some more, and perhaps do some experiments on selected individuals. In the meantime, it is rather sobering to see that the last 39 drafts were edited by me because I seem to be one of the only ones who is not wikiphobic.