Tuesday, October 31, 2006

R U Serious?

This is probably a classic old professor rant, but what are students thinking when they send text-message-like emails to prospective graduate advisors? I don't pore over student emails, editing them for grammar and spelling, but I do like to see evidence that a student can be articulate in writing.

In the past few weeks, I've gotten email messages from students applying for graduate studies with me. Most emails are fine, but some messages lack capital letters and all punctuation except periods. Some email messages contain abbreviations that might be convenient when typing on a tiny phone keyboard but that aren't cute in a semi-formal letter to a potential advisor. For example: "i want to apply to work with u."

I am sure that it is quite possible for someone to be a creative genius at research and to write annoying emails like that, and I will keep an open mind until I see the full applications and meet the students, but still.. I just wonder why they think it is appropriate to send such emails to a prospective advisor.

And then there are the email messages from current students. Some of these messages are text-message-like as well, though I don't mind that so much if the student is writing to me with a question about class material.

I guess everyone has their own pet likes and dislikes regarding email etiquette. I have colleagues who hate it when their students use their first name in email greetings, or other informal greetings like "Yo Professor!". I get those too and I don't mind them, but I do hate the ones that start "Dear Mrs. X" (or Miss or Ms.). I'd much rather they just use my first name. My husband never gets "Dear Mr. X" emails, so the students are definitely deciding that I must not be a real professor.

I always reply, though. A few months ago, I read an article on professor preferences for email etiquette, and some faculty don't even reply if they don't like the style or tone of an email, but I can't see myself doing that.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Broader Impacts (2)

Lately I have been reviewing a lot of proposals. All of them note that female students are involved in the research and associated classes and internships, and in most cases the % of female students is > 50%. Every single proposal is by a male scientist or group of male scientists, including one that involves 12 men and no women.

I review the proposals based on the science and not the gender of the people involved, but it makes me wonder whether these guys are aware of the disparity. I've reviewed proposals by some of these men for years, and for years they have been writing in the *broader impact* sections of their proposals about the large number of women students in their programs. I just wonder if they look around their all-male or almost-all-male departments and wonder why there aren't more women colleagues.

In my own department, the male faculty definitely think that we're in good shape because we have so many women undergraduates and graduate students. They have said this directly in faculty meetings: we don't have a problem with diversity, we have lots of female students. Then they scratch their beards contentedly. [I might be stereotyping just a bit there; some of them have moustaches and no beards]

Saturday, October 28, 2006

I Still Don't Like John Tierney

In today's NY Times, Tierney's views of women's attire evolve owing to his son's interest in the Civil War. His initial impression of women at Civil War battle re-enactments is puzzlement as to why they would want to dress in heavy clothes just to play a supporting role for their warrior husbands, who get to do all the cool stuff, like pretend to kill people and die. I am inferring this from his statement: "We could understand guys wanting to play soldier, but why were their wives willing to camp out with them and swelter in as many as a dozen layers of petticoats and undergarments?". I'm glad he can relate to the guys wanting to play soldier, because I can't.

Anyway, he comes to realize that these women are in fact liberated by their bulky clothes. Even fat women look pretty good when encased in many layers, and the presence of hoops makes them even more appealing (to Tierney). These body-covering clothes allow women "to rebel against the American obsession with fitness..". How clever to work in the word "rebel" in an essay that mentions the Civil War!

I really don't see why Tierney stops his essay where he does, as he doesn't quite get to the natural extension of his argument: that women would find wearing a chador or burkha very liberating as well. If only they could find a man to bring them to a swell event like a battle re-enactment.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday Musings About Inequality

I finished the AAUP report, including scanning the data tables at the end. For my university, the numbers are not so great, and even so do not reveal the extent of the problem for women professors in science - engineering - math departments (2% women full professors).

It was also interesting to see that women's salaries as a % of men's decrease from assistant to full professor. I took a pay cut to come to this university because my husband and I were so glad to have two tenure-track positions in the same place, so I
wasn't in a good negotiating position when hired (despite having competing offers from the university where I had my first tenure-track position). I don't think my salary has ever quite 'caught up' with those of the men, and I make essentially the same salary as my husband, despite 4 years of seniority over him. Good thing he does all the cooking, and even helps with the dishes.

My main reaction to the report, however, is that I wish there were a way (1) to convince women that tenure-track faculty positions, even at research universities, are not incompatible with having a family, and (2) to make this true at places where it is not. At my institution, it is mostly true, but many things could be improved.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

AAUP Report

I am still slowly working my way through the text and tables in the recent AAUP report (AAUP Faculty Gender Equality Indicators 2006), but one thing that struck me right away was the drop-off in number of women from the Associate to Full Professor levels. On p. 11, the text says "Thus, promotion to full professor constitutes a further point where inequities persist in the career progrssion of faculty women."

There are so few women in my field that my personal (anecdotal) database is small, but I think women lose out at this stage in two different ways:

1 - I know several women who have stalled at the associate professor level because they don't have sufficient papers, grants, or international repute. By the current standards of our field at a large research university, these women do not meet the standards for promotion. BUT, I can think of many many men who have been promoted to full professor with similar moderate to low levels of productivity.

2 - I know several women who were not promoted despite numerous grants, publications, etc. (and high quality teaching). These women could sue, but instead most have accepted offers at other institutions that will value them for their excellence.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

What Is On Your Computer Desktop?

Question for Women: What image is on your computer desktop?
Photo of your kids
Photo of your pet(s)
Nature scene
Some other photo that you took (including people other than your kids)
Some other photo that came with your computer
Plain color or a pattern
Free polls from Pollhost.com

Question for Men: What image is on your computer desktop?
Photo of your kids
Photo of your pet(s)
Nature scene
Some other photo that you took (including people other than your kids)
Some other photo that came with your computer
Plain color or a pattern
Free polls from Pollhost.com

Desktop Kids

Today, a small group of colleagues (male and female) and I had a discussion about what photos we have displayed as backgrounds on our computer desktops. The men had photos of their kids. The women did not. This relates to my last post about how science professor men get points for being caring family men, and science professor women are taken less seriously as scientists if they are also moms.

I must admit that I don't really want a picture of my child as a desktop photo. I have a few photos of my daughter in my office, and on my walls I have a few pictures she drew for me, so it's not as if I ignore her existence when I am in science professor mode. I just don't need or want to be surrounded by cute photos of her all day.

I wonder if these male colleagues with child/desktops are actively advertising their sensitive-family-manliness, or whether they just like having a photo of their kid(s) on their desktop. Or both.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Incredible Invisible Professor

Some recent comments reminded me of a conference I went to recently with my family. My husband and I took turns attending the meeting and playing with our daughter. When I was in mom-mode, I became invisible to colleagues passing in the street of the small town in which the conference was held. When I was alone, everyone waved or stopped to chat. The difference was really striking, especially since my husband was visible whether he was with or without our daughter. When he was with our daughter, some people commented how nice it was to see a high-powered researcher in family mode. Men get cosmic credit for being scientists AND parents. Women get taken less seriously for being scientists AND parents.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Follow The Leader

This week, I was going through security in an airport, and was too short to reach over and get a gray bin from the stack behind the counter where we were all removing our laptops, shoes, and clear ziploc bags with < 3 oz. containers of liquids and gels. A tall man behind me reached over and shoved the stack closer, where we could all reach them easily, and I thanked him. He ignored me, but smirked at his friend next to him and said "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of my way.", which I believe is a slight reinterpretation of a quotation by Thomas Paine, and perhaps more recently a self-help book title. Somehow, I don't think this inspirational leadership mantra was intended as a means for tall men to insult short women.

On the plane, I sat next to a very polite and pleasant man who, when he saw me working on some papers, asked me what I do. I told him that I am a science professor (specifying my field of science). His first guess was that I teach at a community college. Nope. His next guess was that I teach at a local small college. Nope. His next guess was that I teach at a small church-affiliated university in the region. Nope. Finally I said that I am a professor at the Big University of X. He was surprised because he has a neighbor who was a professor there, and this neighbor was a very distinguished man who wrote a famous book. And his point was.. what?

The amazing thing is that I know his distinguished neighbor (long-retired), and I teach a class that he used to teach. By any measure (# of papers, grants, books, citation indices, honors etc.), I am more successful than the distinguishd professor ever was in his long career, but I will never be distinguished. I will never look it and I will never act it.

I once went on a lecture tour as a Distinguished Lecturer for a professional society. At one airport, I waited and waited for someone to meet me, and after a long wait, I was paged. It turns out that the student sent to pick me up had been waiting in the same place I was, and had seen me, but it hadn't occurred to him that I could be the distinguished professor he was supposed to meet.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Reviewing The Jerks

A member of my university's Board of Regents once asked a group of us who were assembled to explain tenure to them, "Do you have to be liked to get tenure?" The answer is no, of course. You don't have to be a nice person to do great research. But do you have to be a good person, in the sense of not being too much of an unethical jerk (as opposed to just a regular jerk)?

Almost always, I can focus on the science when I am reviewing a paper or a proposal by a regular jerk, and if I don't feel that I can be objective (to the extent that one should try to be, anyway), I don't do the review. Right now, I'm torn about whether to review a proposal that was sent to me recently. I think that the PI's department and the students and researchers will benefit greatly from the equipment that is part of this proposal, and the PI is probably just a figurehead senior guy who was available to put his name on the cover page.

A review of the proposal should therefore not focus too much on the fact that he hasn't published in decades and hasn't had an original idea since 1973, or on the fact that he is a flaming jerk, serial molester of students, and currently involved in an affair with one of his students (formerly an undergrad in his department, now his grad student). She is 48 years younger than he is, and her research project is, unfortunately, a sham (and is described in the proposal). OK, I think I just decided that I can't be objective about this one. I hope that other reviewers will overlook the unproductive jerk PI and be positive enough that the students (other than his girlfriend/student) and others in his department will get the benefit of the grant.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


This term, I am doing something that I really don't have time for but am doing anyway: I am taking a class. As a student. With undergraduates. My university allows staff to take one course/term, and we pay only fees but no tuition, but part of the deal is that we have to take the course for a grade or pass/fail (no audits allowed).

I am taking an introductory language class to improve my ability to speak a language that I need to know for some of my research activities. In the past, I've taught myself some basic skills in this language by tapes, books, a tutor, informal conversation groups, and of course travel, but I felt that I wasn't making any real progress beyond really basic conversation.

This class meets every day. We have homework every day, and right now, I am studying for the latest quiz. It feels very strange to be studying for a quiz. I am more than twice the age of any other student in the class, and I am older than the instructor. I was very aware of this at first, as were they, but after a few weeks we settled into a comfortable routine. The class is very interactive, so we have conversations in class about our lives: our families, hobbies,what television shows we watch, what grade/class we are in. The other students give presentations on their parents and siblings and so on. I give presentations about my husband and daughter, and otherwise I am getting a lot of practice with the negative form of verbs. I do not watch television, I am not in a grade/class, etc.

Aside from the strangeness of being an 'undergraduate' again, there are other things about this class that are very different from my usual day-to-day experience here in Scienceland. Some of these differences are related to the fact that the class is part of the Liberal Arts college:

- The class is 89% women students. I have not experienced anything approaching this ratio in any class I've taken or taught since my days at a women's college, decades ago.

- The instructor is a non-tenure-track adjunct who teaches 3 times as much as I do in any one term, no doubt for significantly lower pay and respect. She is amazing. She grades our homework every night and makes useful comments, and every day she is well prepared for class with an interesting activity and exercises. I know that universities rely on such people, but such reliance should come with better treatment: more respect, better offices, more job security, more pay.

Despite the time, which I don't really have, I am glad I am taking this class. It makes me stretch my brain in a different way, and I like that. It also gets me out of my building and my lab and into a new and alien environment, but an interesting one.

Friday, October 13, 2006


I have been mulling over some recent reviews of an NSF proposal that wasn't funded. There are a lot of positive critical comments in the reviews to help with revising the proposal, and we got enough Excellents and Very Goods to definitely warrant resubmission. So, although I'm disappointed, I feel optimistic, and I have enough funding to keep me going for a while, so the rejection doesn't have dire consequences. As usual, though, I brood over the criticisms that I consider off-base/unfair, though fortunately I only brood over these for a few days.

Since the few days of brooding are not yet up: The comment that is most annoying in these reviews is one that says that I shouldn't get this new grant because I already have enough funding and am "overcommitted". I have a long record of showing that I can handle several simultaneous projects, get results, and publish them, so this criticism is baseless. Moreover, I have been on enough panels to know that there are men in my field who have more grants than I do, that this criticism is not applied to them, and that they just keep getting more grants.

I suppose I shouldn't look at absolutely everything through the Gender Lens. My husband has gotten reviews that have said he already has enough funding, but those comments have been phrased in terms of "and there's not enough money to go around", whereas in this case, the criticism is of me and my ability to manage my time and my research group.

In an effort to be not quite so relentlessly negative, I will say that most of the reviews said very nice things about my research group, and I will try to keep those comments in mind. I feel very fortunate to have the funding that I do, and to be able to support my excellent grad students and other researchers. Next time..

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

No Faculty Left Behind

There's a bizarre op-ed essay in the New York Times today. Eugene Hickok, from the Heritage Foundation (and a former Bushee), thinks that universities and colleges need to be more accountable for the performance of their students. I would hope that if he really wanted to make a strong case for this point of view, rather than writing the typical conservative rant, he would use facts instead of delusional myths. For example:

"Faculty members decide what they want to teach and when they want to teach it, if, indeed, they teach at all."
On what planet is this true? Should I inform my university, which seems to be unaware of this 'fact'?

".. undergraduate instruction, which is something of an afterthought on many campuses."
OK, I get it -- he's not just on another planet, he's in another century. This statement has not been true for a while at even the most research-oriented universities.

"Faculty members typically spend fewer than 200 hours in the classroom. That amounts to just five 40-hour weeks."
He can do math! Unfortunately, he does not seem to have spent any time in a real college or university -- that is, in the kind of place where professors spend time preparing for classes before actually walking into the classroom (not to mention grading), and where faculty do research, not to mention enriching service activities. At my university, the mandated time split between teaching-research-service is 40-40-20.

"And there needs to be a greater emphasis on teaching students what they need to know, rather than what faculty want to talk about."
Maybe he and his all-knowing colleagues can give us scripts to read so that we don't stray from the appropriate and relevant topics? That would eliminate the need to prepare for classes, and since he's not counting that time anyway, why not?

And then there's: "(the academy) is a culture seriously out of touch with much of America".
I suppose that's his unoriginal way of saying that we are liberals and most real people aren't. In any case, I don't feel particularly out of touch with my students at my large state university (other than of course the usual professorial phenomenon of getting older while our students stay the same age). There are exceptions: I do not feel 'in touch' when I have student who think God uses natural disasters to punish sinners and anyone else who happens to be around, nor am I in touch with students who don't believe in evolution but who make sure to get the latest flu shot. However, Eugene Hickok would no doubt be relieved to know that I feel very much in touch with sexism and discrimination, and that parts of the Academy are very much in tune with the rest of society with respect to how it treats women.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

There's No I in Team If You're Batting A Thousand

Subtitle: Faculty Meeting Today!
Sports Analogy/Metaphor/Cliche Count: 3!
Number of Sports References I Understood: 1!

In addition to the loathsome sports references, there were 2 additional issues, both of them perennial, at today's meeting:

At the past 2 meetings, I have made a point about Situation X, but the discussion went nowhere. At today's meeting, Professor Senior Colleague made the EXACT SAME POINT, and the Chair said "That is an EXCELLENT POINT. THANK YOU for bringing it up. What do YOU think we should do about it?" etc. I guess it's good that a real person finally made the point, instead of just me.

2. Over and over again, the senior faculty bring up the issue of the more junior faculty (including 'junior' full professors like me) being unwilling to make a commitment to spending several summer weeks in a teaching program that requires substantial travel. THEY have paid their dues, and they are perplexed that the rest of us aren't willing to take our "turn at bat" (that's the sports references I understood). I am tired of pointing out that I DO NOT HAVE A WIFE. With the other professional travel that I do in the summer, I would be away for 5-7 weeks each summer, and that is just not possible. Nor do I want to spend that much time away from my family. There are other options for instructors for this program, but these are short term options (postdocs, senior grad students, adjuncts). The senior guys keep making the point that these are inferior options because we need 'continuity'.

Well, maybe they should make the junior faculty promise not to have babies, and no one should be allowed to become ill or make any other commitments other than teaching this course every summer. The senior guys get all dramatic about how people like me are harming the undergrads by not doing our share of the summer teaching, as if our own children are abstract concepts they can't quite imagine. I have made the point that this is another example of Business As Usual in our department, but so far no one is actually listening.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Huge Girl Sale

I just saw a sign advertising a Huge Girl Sale, and couldn't resist using that for a title. The next street over is having a Monster Sale. Both sound scary, especially if the Huge Girl Sale is infested with dolls. It might be time for another poll -- which is the scariest kind of doll: Barbie, Bratz, or American Girl? I think they are all creepy each in their own special way.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Academics R Us

My favorite academic novel of all time is Straight Man by Richard Russo. I recently read Intuition by Allegra Goodman, but I don't think it qualifies since the action mostly takes place in a lab only loosely affiliated with a university. So.. what do you think?

Which is your favorite academic novel? (published in last decade)
Straight Man by Richard Russo
Moo by Jane Smiley
The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes
Small World by David Lodge
Thinks.. by David Lodge
Publish and Perish by James Hynes
Other? (leave a comment)
Free polls from Pollhost.com

Pink Butterflies

A colleague of mine just attended a welcome reception for new faculty at his university, and everyone was given an informational packet about resources and programs at the university. One colorful brochure had lots of pink on it, and pictures of butterflies, flowers, and babies. The brochure didn't have a lot of content to it, but my colleague thinks it was intended to make the point that the university cares about hiring women. He looked around the room and didn't see many women, even though the reception included the humanities as well as the sciences. He says he feared that the brochure was intended to prove that the university was aware that it had a problem, in place of real action. In our field, this university has no women faculty, and has never had any. The grad student/postdoc population, however, is 50% women, as it has been for a while.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Confessions Of An Immature Professor

Today a colleague was looking for my husband, but couldn't find him, so the colleague came to find me instead to ask me where my husband was and to see if I knew the answer to the question he was going to ask my husband. It happens with some frequency that someone will look for my husband, not find him in his office, and come to my office to ask me where my husband is. I don't mind so much if my husband is out of town and someone has been looking for him without success for a while, but other than that, it's just another interruption in my day. AND, the *strange* thing is, when people can't find me, they don't go ask my husband where I am.

Anyway, today this colleague asked me his question because he couldn't find my husband. It was a logistical/technical thing, and it wasn't something I could answer because it involved my husband's lab and the fee structure for an apparatus. My husband's lab tech could answer this question, but it's not a typical *pillow talk* topic for us. This is the same colleague who confused me with one of my female colleagues a couple of days ago, so when he asked me his question, I didn't say that I didn't know, I just made something up. It wasn't life-or-death and I doubt if the time he ends up wasting will set him back in a serious way. If he ever wants to ask me a question that is really intended for me, I will answer as graciously as I can. But not this week.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Even On Weekends

Today (Sunday) I was in the department to do a few things before the next hectic week starts. A senior colleague was showing a semi-distinguished visitor around the department, and stopped to introduce me. I have met this visitor several times before, but he never remembers me, so I just pretend that we've never met. That's fine -- he's old(er), some people are not good with names/faces etc. etc. What bothered me was that my own colleague described my research field completely incorrectly -- he confused me with another woman faculty member in our department. It's not a huge department, we all have our research niches, and the research field of the woman he confused me with is very different from my own field. I don't even look like this other woman. It was a minor but bizarre little event. I corrected him, and he was briefly embarrassed.